The One Big Mistake Nearly Every New Digital DJ Makes

Phil Morse | Read time: 3 mins
beginner dj controllers Software
Last updated 5 April, 2018


vci-100 real vinyl
You can DJ on any old controller, but the software you choose will probably stay with you for life. Pic: Peter Kirn, courtesy of Create Digital Music

There’s one mistake that nearly every new digital DJ makes. Sometimes, there’s not much harm done. Sometimes (by fluke rather than by design), the DJ gets it right without realising it. But too often, this mistake adds a big delay to the new DJ actually starting to enjoy their DJing – or worse, it costs them a lot of money. It all starts innocently enough. The number one question we get asked here at Digital DJ Tips is this: “What DJ controller should I buy?” Crazily, though, most times the hapless new DJ has, at this point, already made the mistake! So what the hell is it?

“It’s about the software, stupid!”

The mistake is starting with a question about hardware, not software. Because as a digital DJ, you’re basically a laptop (ie software) DJ. That hardware? Just a box of knobs plugged into your laptop to make the software easier to control. Forget this at your peril.Digital DJing is simply not primarily about your DJ controller. The question you should be asking is: “What software should I choose?”

Now hold on, you might say, that can’t be right! Hell, hasn’t Digital DJ Tips got a DJ controllers guide of its own? (Yes, we have – and you can get it here… ;)) But it is right – software is far more important than hardware when you’re getting your first digital DJ set-up.

DJ controllers are almost as disposable as mobile phones

Like it or not, nowadays it’s true. They’re not bought for the long-term any more (manufacturers told me over and over at Musikmesse 2012 that they have to recover their research and development in 12 months not three years as used to be the case, because in 12 months’ time any DJ controller that’s new now will be becoming old hat).

Apple iPhone 1
The first iPhone: Chances are if you had one of these, the phone in your pocket right now is still iOS…

But more than that, of the hundreds of controllers out there, they all run one of just a few pieces of software. Just as you can buy an Android, iOS, Blackberry or Windows mobile, so you can buy Traktor, Serato, Virtual DJ, djay etc DJ controllers. Loads of controller, just a few software packages.

When it comes to time to change your mobile, I’ll bet you stick to the same OS. Nowadays your settings, contacts and so on can follow you from mobile phone to mobile phone. Plus you’re used to all the ins and outs of iOS, Android or whatever. Changing would mean learning again from scratch.

Why it’s crucial to get the software right

It’s the same with DJ controllers. If you start with a Traktor controller, it’s my betting you’ll feel tied to that platform. Your hardware may get out of date, but while software is constantly updated, stuff remains compatible. I wager you won’t want to re-cue, loop and BPM your whole collection next time you get a new controller; you’ll just buy another controller that uses the software you have settled on and move your collection across.

Furthermore, all software is not the same. There are DJs who swear by all of the major packages, and DJs who won’t touch one or more of them. None of them are right. All DJ software does some things well and some things not so well, and all software is naturally more suited to some types of DJs than others.

What’s worse, some DJ controllers come with “full strength” software (ie the same as if you bought the software on its own), but others come with LE, “light edition”, or “cut down” software that you’ll eventually (probably sooner rather than later) want to upgrade. So you should also be asking “what flavour of software comes with the controller I’m interested in?”

How this makes choosing a controller easier, not harder

Difficult right? Well no, actually it can be a lot easier if you approach it like this: First, you have to choose your software (that’s the hard bit, but we try to make it as easy as we can for you; read the software articles here or ask other DJs on the Digital DJ Tips forum. That should keep you going for a weekend!).

Once you’ve got your software clear in your head you should start researching your hardware – and only then!

Once you’ve done that, your choice of DJ controller is immediately cut down, and you can then start weighing up features safe in the knowledge that the chosen model is going to work fine with the software you prefer (if it comes with an LE version, you now also know to factor in the price of the upgrade. Trust us, you’ll want it).

Now is the time to look at the reviews of hardware, to get our DJ Controllers: The Ultimate Buyer’s Guide (which also has a useful software section in it, right at the front), and to hit the websites looking for deals on your new hardware. Because while a DJ controller may only be for Christmas, your choice of software will probably be for life.

Don’t make the wrong choice and live to regret it!

Did you buy a controller only to regret your purchase due to the software that came with it? Or do you think software ins’t so important? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

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