OK, so here at Digital DJ Tips, we teach all the best practices in DJing to help you get the most out of your digital DJ gear and avoid the pitfalls that await the unwary. So it’s a bit embarrassing when we end up making massive, gig-stopping errors ourselves. I committed one of the biggest I’ve ever made recently, and I wanted to share it with you.
(Spoiler: You should never ever try to switch laptops days before a gig, let alone an entire operating system. What follows is a warts-and-all recount of what can happen when you do…)
OK. So I had a big festival performance a month ago, and leading up to it the unthinkable happened: My MacBook Pro Retina display cracked, so I didn’t have a laptop to DJ with. I would’ve been game to use a pair of CDJs, except that I was performing a few songs live with a vocalist and we needed Stems playback and control, so I needed my Traktor Kontrol S8, or the Kontrol D2 at the very least. Either way, a laptop was essential to my set-up.
I decided to just pick up a cheap Windows laptop while my MacBook Pro was in the shop. I got one five days before the show to give me enough time to get familiar again with the ways of the PC and to transfer all my files. Piece of cake, no sweat right?
At the show, I was getting ready to go onstage because I was up next in 10 minutes. I checked my gear, double-checked my Traktor playlists, closed Traktor to make sure the playlists got saved, and thought I’d restart my laptop to give it a fresh start. This was because I had an issue with this Windows laptop the day before: I had the laptop on sleep by closing the lid, and when I turned it back on a few hours later for practice, Traktor froze a few minutes into my session, prompting a restart. This is the stuff nightmares of extra anxious people like myself are made of, so I didn’t want to take any chances during my performance.
When I restarted it, I got this screen – a screen that made my heart sink:
I didn’t even ask for Windows to update at all, yet there it was, enacting a whole load of system upgrades, right at the point I absolutely, definitely needed it to be, you know, running normally.
The promoter was right outside telling me that I needed to get up onstage because the DJ was almost done, and I was sweating bullets: Do I purposely shut down the computer and try to abort the update to make it in time to the DJ booth? But if I do, what if it completely messes up Windows and it never starts properly?
I went online for some help. That made me realise this was just as bad as going to online health websites for some “advice” when you’re feeling under the weather, because I got a barrage of answers that made me feel even worse: from “it’s going to take at least three hours” to “you may as well put the kids to bed and leave it on overnight, if you’re working use pen and paper first”.
I had to calm down ASAP and make a split second decision: I ran out to the artist’s tent and looked for the DJ who was supposed to come after me, and asked if we could switch slots. Thankfully, he agreed after I explained my predicament, and that gave me around an hour to get my laptop sorted.
After an excruciatingly long 45 minutes, the update was done. I had a bit of time to calm my nerves, get back into a performance mindset, and get ready to go out and kill it. But it did remind me that laptops need respect and a bit of forethought if you’re to use them for professional performance. Let’s recap best practice for DJing with laptops, then:
How to avoid laptop emergencies at gigs
- Don’t restart your laptop right before your DJ set – I should have restarted my laptop the night before the show. That would have given it enough time to install any updates it wanted to. Mac users have the option when to install these updates, but you aren’t also entirely protected from a sudden update which you may have said “yes” to prior. So to be safe, never restart it before going onstage
- Don’t use a new laptop before a big show – Why do I always put myself in these situations? The last time I wrote an article like this was when my Traktor collection failed to make the jump from my old MacBook Pro. A case of “do what I say, not what I do”…
- Bring a true backup solution – If the DJ after me hadn’t agreed to switch, I would have missed out on performing entirely. My “backup” at the time came in the form of a Traktor Kontrol S2 controller in case my Kontrol S8 messed up during the set, but it wasn’t a full backup solution. What I really should have considered was bringing a pair of USB sticks with my playlists and music on them. But what about my Stems and live vocals that just won’t work on a pair of CDJs? That brings me to my next point…
- Preparation, preparation, preparation – I should have briefed my vocalist weeks before that in case my Stems set-up didn’t work, we’d need to have a plan B (ie creating MP3s of instrumental tracks or tracks with vocals mixed really low, which I could play from any CDJ). I also should have road tested my new laptop and rig a few times before a big show like this
- Forgo a laptop altogether, but show up earlier to pack a crate – I often see DJs at festivals with a laptop backstage, and when it’s time to go they transfer their tracks and CDJ preferences to a thumb drive, slot them in the decks, and they’re good to go. Given that for festival style DJing you can only fit so many songs in a 60-minute set, you could arrive at your gig much earlier than expected, and then pack two hours’ worth of music on a crate right before it’s your turn – this gives you time to do a bit of general crowd reading based on how the audience reacts to the DJs before you, and then you can get more specific when you’re behind the decks
I was in truth always worried about DJing with a new Windows laptop because I hadn’t gigged with one before, plus I was secretly convinced that it’d be filled with incompatibilities and little bugs – but I didn’t listen to my gut and did it anyway. Big mistake.
The logical thing would have been to just rent a MacBook Pro laptop (at least I wouldn’t have to re-learn a different operating system) or transfer songs to a USB stick, but I was overconfident in my ability to master the technology that I’d be using to do my set. There are just too many small things that can go wrong when switching to a new laptop and OS that it never really is a good idea to make the jump when you’re in a hurry, and the same goes for DJ software – though all DJ apps work similarly in principle, you miss out on hot cues, loop points, and playlists too (unless you use iTunes to organise your library).
And definitely don’t reboot five minutes before you’re due onstage…
Have you had any laptop horror stories before or during your DJ set? Have you experienced auto updates at crucial points in your performance? Share your stories with us below.