I was watching a TV show from 15 years ago the other night. While it had stood the test of time pretty well, one thing made me smile: Someone was quickly trying to get online, and cursing because her mouse had become unplugged!
I don’t know about you but my mouse is wireless and has been for as long as I can remember. Same goes for my TV remote, earbuds and so on. Wireless tech is everywhere nowadays, and so it’s natural DJs will wonder about using it for what we do as well.
Whether it’s wirelessly connecting speakers to a DJ set-up so you don’t have to run cables across a big venue (a mobile DJ bugbear), or using headphones that don’t have a pesky cable for you to accidentally yank or trip on, or having lighting that you can place around a room and control remotely, or even getting your music “over the air” from a streaming service, all of these things have the potential to make your life easier.
Want me to show you how to do this?
Inside our Digital DJ Lab subscription training programme, we have an Action Plan where I personally show you how all of this is done. You look “over my shoulder” as I explain the what, why and how of using wireless tech for DJing.
It’s one of nearly 100 such hands-on DJ lessons inside the programme – learn more about how you could become our latest Lab member by clicking here.
So what do we need to consider before we start investing in kit that can cut out some of the wires for us?
There are three crucial things that we need to bear in mind every time we want to replace a good old-fashioned cable with something wireless. They are:
2. Battery life
3. Reliability & quality
In this article, we’ll look at many of the things we can do today with our DJ set-ups that are wireless… and consider some things we cannot (and why), bearing in mind those three things I just mentioned.
Where are we at?
You may think that wireless tech and DJing don’t really work together, but you’d be wrong. One area where wireless tech has been used for years is wireless microphones.
Nowadays, wireless microphone systems are pretty reliable, no longer analogue but digital for clearer sound, and operating using the kind of radio technology that means they are very low latency, in other words there is no perceivable gap between someone speaking and the voice making its way to the DJ mixer and then the speakers.
Read this next: A DJ’s Guide To Microphones
They have decent batteries built in so they can be relied upon to keep working for the duration of an event, and as long as they’re chosen carefully for the country or state where they’re being operated, and from a reputable brand, they’re reliable too.
So let’s look at some of the other areas wireless tech can be used in a DJ’s set-up, and talk about some of the gear that’s out there to help with this.
5 Technologies That Are Making Wireless DJing Possible
1. Phase – for turntables
Phase is a wireless solution that ingeniously solves the problem of turning traditional turntables into “DVS” turntables. DVS stands for “digital vinyl system”. Phase is a little box, not much larger than a big mobile phone, that plugs into your computer and sometimes your mixer too, which acts like a receiver, charger and docking station for two domino-sized transmitters, one for each record deck.
The transmitter units have a hole in the middle that slides over the record deck spindle, and the transmitters are basically gyroscopes, sending info back to the receiver about how quickly the turntable is turning and in which direction.
Armed with this information, the software will allow you to “control” the digital decks, by manipulating the turntables.
Why wireless? Because old-style DVS systems involved cumbersome and unreliable “control vinyl”, and needed you to use needles – this is simpler, quicker to set up and more reliable.
Why it works: The amount of information being shared is low, and the proprietary radio system is fast, meaning unnoticeable latency. The batteries last plenty long enough for the longest DJ set, and – after some initial bumps – the reliability is excellent.
2. SKAA – for speakers
SKAA is the name for a technology that is being built-in to certain DJ and audio gear, offering very low latency audio connections without the need for wires.
We first came across SKAA when the speaker manufacturer Soundboks included SKAA linking in its speakers. You see, battery-powered speaker manufacturers have traditionally included Bluetooth, both for connection audio equipment to those speakers (for instance, your phone), and for “ganging ” those speakers together. Think Bose, JBL, Anker etc.
However, this is absolutely no good for DJs. Why? Because it fails two of our tests: reliability and latency. There is an easily audible “gap” between music playing and coming out of Bluetooth speakers.
It’s not so easy to spot when just streaming music from your smartphone (although press the play/pause button repeatedly and observe the delay), but with DJ gear, it is instant – you can hear it by comparing what’s coming out of your headphones with what’s coming out of any Bluetooth-linked speakers, should you ever try to set such a thing up.
Enter SKAA. It’s built into Soundboks speakers, and it is a simple button press to link two of that company’s speakers not with Bluetooth but with SKAA, whose pro implementation has low enough latency for it to be unnoticeable. It’s also supremely reliable over quite a large distance – plenty for a pair of party speakers.
What’s more, under the company’s public-facing brand of Dillinger, this SKAA Pro tech is available in standalone battery-powered transmitter and receiver form, meaning you could easily plug a transmitter into the output of your DJ gear, and either “broadcast” directly to Soundboks speakers, or pair the transmitter with a receiver or receivers plugged into any PA system.
Why wireless? Because it sometimes isn’t practical or preferable to run long XLR audio cables, especially outdoors, and especially with battery-powered PA-style speakers like the Soundboks. This way, you can have loud music covering a large area, using batteries to power all gear and with no need for many metres of cables.
Why it works: The proprietary radio format keeps things reliable and keeps the latency low, and manufacturers building it into their gear makes it super-simple to set up (not that the standalone receiver/transmitter aren’t anyway).
3. W+ Link – for headphones
AIAIAI is a respected headphone manufacturer that makes modular headphones aimed at both consumers and at pro DJs and producers. Recently, it launched a variant of its headphones called the TMA-2 Studio Wireless+, which gives an option for using hi-fi headphones either in the studio or the DJ booth that don’t have a cable between them and the mixer.
While tech like this has periodically been available (and actually, there is also a pair of SKAA-enabled headphones out there too), this tech was launched with a bit of a fanfare by no lesser than Richie Hawtin, who endorsed it for studio use.
W+ Link works by you plugging a small black device into your headphones output of your DJ gear or studio mixer, that appears to all intents and purposes like a mobile phone battery charger (and indeed, you need to charge it first, as it is a battery as well as a transmitter). Then, you charge the headphones, pair the two, and you’re off.
In other words, it is similar to using Bluetooth headphones, except of course that while most consumer audio gear nowadays has Bluetooth transmission built in, DJ and production gear never does – which is why you need the transmitter module too.
People often ask, “Why can’t I use a Bluetooth speaker or headphones with my DJ controller?”, and the answer is two-fold: First, because as I said the gear doesn’t have Bluetooth built-in, and second (which is also the reason why the gear doesn’t have Bluetooth built-in in the first place), because the latency is too high, as we mentioned earlier.
Read this next: 5 Things To Look For In DJ Headphones
With W+ Link, as long as both the transmitter and headphones are charged, you get effectively latency-free audio, meaning it is suddenly fine for use by DJs and producers.
Why wireless? Because in a studio, it’s nice to wander around while hearing what’s going on, with advantages for vocalists, producers, musicians and indeed anyone who doesn’t want to be “tied to the console” while being creative. For DJs, no tripping over the headphones cable!
Why does it work? Because the tech is effectively latency-free, the audio quality is very good, and both units can be charged for many hours of battery life – all of which results in a practical and elegant solution.
4. The Next Beat – for Midi
Whoa, didn’t I say Bluetooth is a no-go for DJing and by extension for time-critical tasks in general? Surely Midi – the sending of musical info down a cable – is time sensitive?
Well yeah it is, but here’s the thing: It is the amount of information that needs to be sent for high quality audio that, combined with the way Bluetooth works, causes latency. If the amount of info is tiny, turns out that Bluetooth can work fine.
This crops up in a few places, but the most recent one in the DJ world is a DJ controller endorsed by Tiësto called The Next Beat. This entry-level unit has a trick up its sleeve: It works with Algoriddim’s djay Pro AI DJ software running on an iPad, with no need for a cable connecting the two. That’s because it uses Bluetooth to connect with the iPad, and to transmit movements you make on the DJ controller’s knobs, faders and jogwheels to the software.
(Actually, there is a cable between the two, but it’s strictly to carry the audio – no Midi information.)
This kind of link is also what enables Bluetooth keyboards (like the one I am typing on now), computer mice and so on.
Why wireless? In this case, because it makes connection easier and cheaper with the notoriously under-specified iPad design (when it comes to inputs and outputs, anyway). But generally, why not?
Why does it work? As I said, because the amount of info being carried is very low. That makes it easy to get right: Bluetooth is low power, low battery, reliable at close range.
5. Streaming services – for music files
Increasingly, it is possible to stream music directly into DJ gear, no local copies necessary. Pioneer’s high-end CDJ-3000s let DJs connect to their Dropbox accounts to stream their own collections. Denon DJ and Numark’s standalone DJ systems all have Ethernet and WiFi built in, for direct streaming from TIDAL, Beatport, Beatsource and Soundcloud Go+ into DJ gear. Use your mobile phone’s personal hotspot and you can pluck tunes out of the air this way even when there is no WiFi.
Read this next: The Best Music Streaming Services For DJs
With the world relying more and more on subscription streaming music services, it was inevitable that they’d start to appear in DJ software – and with the cloud increasingly becoming the way we store our data, same for our own music collections.
Why wireless? It’s not actually always wireless (wired Ethernet), but usually it is. And of course if you want to use music you don’t have, you have no choice but to grab it as you need it.
Why it works: If the internet goes down, it doesn’t. But there are two things that lessen that chance. First, most of these systems download the whole track before they let you play it (or at least, while you are playing the first few seconds of it) – once it is downloaded, if the internet goes off, it doesn’t matter. As the track is local, there’s no latency. Some even let you download whole playlists before you start playing, as a local “cache”.
The biggest thing to understand here is that any solution aimed at DJs or musicians (and we haven’t covered them all, for instance we’ve skated over wireless DMX for lighting, and the aforementioned wireless microphones) must have no noticeable latency, have good battery power if its needed, and be both reliable and high quality.
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The big no-no is Bluetooth, for the reasons I’ve outlined. As soon as you look past that tech though, there are lots of interesting examples of more specialised companies bringing really interesting and effective solutions to market. If you want to start cutting the cables out of your DJ system, there are more options than ever before, and it seems to be growing all the time.