I’ve been in this game a long time, and like many of my friends, I was a CD DJ before arriving at “laptop” DJing. Also like many of my friends, certain aspects of it I recently realised I was starting to find tedious and boring. But at the same time I had no desire to return to the old ways. So a short while ago I set out to identify exactly what it is that I’ve been finding frustrating about laptop DJing, and to find a solution to make using a laptop more fun, less tiring, and a bit more like the old days of CDs (or vinyl!). I want to share what I found with you now.
If you come from a CD or vinyl background, you probably look at the laptop as a huge record box, right? You probably want it to be to the side of your gear, something you touch as little as possible. (After all, that’s not DJing, you’re probably saying, all that mouse and keyboard stuff…) Well, before I explain to you why you may be getting this all wrong, I’d just like to show you how I arrived at my conclusion.
Insight vs analysis
You see, I recently did a creativity / production course, a small part of which talked about the different ways that the mind works, and how there are two ways of arriving at solutions, using either “insight” or “analysis”. (Some people use a lot of insight, some a lot of analysis, but everyone uses both lots, to make all kinds of decisions.)
For example, answer this question as you normally would: What’s 12 multiplied by 12? If you instantly said “144”, that’s insight; you knew the answer and effortlessly recalled it. If you “worked out” the answer, perhaps by saying to yourself “10 times 12 is 120, two times 12 is 24, therefore 120 plus 24 equals 144”, well, that’s analysis – and analysis is appreciably slower and harder than insight!
So lets look at what this all means for the DJ. In my CD days, I had a wallet or two of CDs roughly organised so I knew more or less where everything was. The thought process was quite simple: I would play a track, watch the crowd, and then (mostly using insight), would decide the next tune that I was going to play; generally this would just pop into my head without my having to think too much. It was rare that I’d find myself looking at the CD track listings or browsing the CD wallet, and at this point, I’d just go straight to the CD as I already knew roughly where to find it, load it into the player, and go. Job done.
Now I want to show you how – until recently – my workflow looked when laptop DJing. I had loads of playlists. I’d look at the crowd, would think roughly what style of track I was going to play next, then have to think which playlist it was in. Then once I’d selected the playlist I’d scroll through to see what I had that might suit. Only then would I actually pick a track! Do you see the difference? I am now using analysis a lot more; I have to concentrate. And what if I change my mind? Now I’ve got to repeat the process again! All of this is taking away from the “flow”. I’m no longer in the zone; I’m looking at big lists and making decisions, and it’s just not fun any more.
How I fixed it
Once I realised that to work at my best I needed to use insight not analysis, the rest came fast and easy. Here’s how I work now with my laptop when DJing: As with the CD days, I look at the crowd and most of the time a good idea will pop into my head. I allow this to happen; it’s insight at work. In order to turn that “good idea” into a tune on the decks, the final part of the puzzle paradoxically has me doing what laptop DJs often try to avoid at all costs: Touching the laptop. Because the “golden bullet” for getting my flow back has turned out, strangely enough, to be nothing more than the search function, with me simply typing in the name of the tune I’m looking for next!
Sure, I still organise my tunes properly and still sometimes scroll playlists, but most of the time I simply play a tune, look at the crowd, and let the next tune pop into my head. That next tune may be five years old, so to find it without search I’d have to think what playlist it was in, scroll through to find the playlist, then scroll through to find the track and so on. Do this enough times in a night and you end up bored, tired, and with eyestrain; I know, I’ve done it.
Far from being a no-no, I’ve found the ability to quickly search for what your heart is telling you to play next trumps being forced to use your head too much to find the damned tune every time as well. And if it means a few keystrokes on the laptop? So be it.
My “insight then search” method might not be for everyone (some people enjoy browsing and scrolling) – but if you find yourself feeling a loss of love for laptop DJing and think it might be caused by the inability to quickly grab tunes as they occur to you like in the old CD or vinyl days, then give my method a try: you might just find it transforms your DJing as it has mine.
• Tony Corless is a UK-based mobile DJ. You can reach him via his website here.
Do you agree? Have you battled with similar feelings about laptop DJing? How did you get past them? Or are playlists a great thing that’s transformed your DJing in a good way? Please let us know in the comments.