The 7 Most Popular DJ Set-Ups Today

Phil Morse |
June 17, 2022

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Back in the “old days” it was all so simple. You had two turntables, and a “mixer”, which was a box that sat between them and made them blend together. That was it.

Boy, how it’s changed! Nowadays we are bombarded with weird, wonderful and ever-changing DJ technology, each innovation promising to wipe the floor with the last, each manufacturer refreshing, revamping and relaunching its gear every year, shouting loud about the new features as if they’re the only thing worth knowing about.

If you’re new to DJing, or returning to DJing after a break, you’re probably already thinking “I’ll just get a laptop DJ controller”. You’d be in good company – more than half of our 31,000 course students here at Digital DJ Tips use DJ controllers. But controllers aren’t the only way – far from it. So before you decide, let me help you understand what’s out there by talking through the seven main ways today’s DJs spin their music.

The 7 Most Popular DJ Set-Ups Today – Contents

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Photo by Yuvraj Singh

The 7 Most Popular DJ Set-ups Today

1. Laptop & DJ controller

So yes, this is definitely the most popular way of DJing today, at least, it is among our 31,000 students, with over half choosing laptop DJ software and a controller to play on. As such it probably needs no introduction to you. This method revolutionised the hobby of DJing, because these unassuming devices with “decks”, “mixer” and “audio interface” in one box are relatively cheap, feel like the real thing, and limited only by what the software can do.

Controllers range from under £100 to over £1000, and there are models to appeal to DJs from complete beginners, all the way to pros. As long as you already have a laptop, they offer the most cost-effective and capable way of “getting into” DJing – and when it comes to DJ gear, by far the widest choice is in the controller sector.

Learn to DJ using ANY set-up: The Complete DJ Course

2. Pro DJ separates

Two “media players” (or “CDJs”) and a “club mixer” – the kind of set-up you find in clubs the world over, designed primarily to be used playing music from a USB drive or SD card, no computer in sight. A “CDJ” is a traditional example of a media player: it’s basically a CD player designed for DJs, where once you’ve slid the CD in, a platter lets you control it as if it were a record. Indeed, some early CDJs even had “real vinyl” on them. Most, though, are “fixed platter”, which means the round bit doesn’t actually turn when the music is playing, but nonetheless can be used to control the music when touched.

Back in the day, CDJs caught on really quickly, because they offered cue points and looping for the first time, and because you suddenly could burn your own CDs to play out with. CDs are, of course, largely history now – modern units don’t even have CD slots, just like modern laptops don’t have DVD drive slots – but the players are as popular as ever.

Today’s players have most of the functions and features associated with laptop DJing – even the “sync” button so hated by some vinyl DJs. In recent years, this kind of set-up has become more and more like a type of big, expensive DJ controller, only with the computer effectively built-in. Currently the dominant brand in clubs is Pioneer DJ with its CDJ-3000 (and the previous incarnation, the CDJ-2000NXS2), though Denon DJ has issued a strong challenge by way of its SC6000 Prime and SC6000M Prime media players.

Worth pointing out that as well as working “standalone”, all of these players can also be used as “controller decks”, capable of controlling DJ software. This means you can often plug your laptop straight into them and play from software just like you can when you plug your laptop into smaller, more consumer-focused DJ controllers, giving you the best of both worlds.

Read this next: Standalone Vs Laptop DJing – Which Is Best?

3. Standalone all-in-one systems

These units do much the same as the pro separates, but all in one box. They cost a lot less, too. You still don’t need to use a laptop to DJ with them: With standalone all-in-one systems, you get a built-in dedicated “computer” and screen. The idea is that you add your music (via a USB drive or SD card, usually) and then you can do most of the things modern DJs are expected to do, nice and easily.

Pioneer DJ led the way with its XDJ-RX (now up to the XDJ-RX3, a hugely popular device), but units powered by Engine DJ are currently the tech leaders here, from the brands Denon DJ and Numark. It’s important to note that for best operation you do still need to use a laptop to prepare and output your music to USB drive to use with these systems.

Standalone all-in-ones like these are a serious alternative to using a DJ controller and laptop – although the most cutting-edge features will almost always come to laptop systems way before reaching hardware systems such as these. For instance, none of these systems has a built-in sampler, something all laptop DJ software has.

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4. Records decks and a mixer

It’s the classic DJ set-up: Two turntables (usually Technics) and a DJ mixer. I saved for years to be able to afford just such a set-up as a twenty-something DJ. There are still pockets of DJs who use such gear, and there are scenes where it’s a badge of honour to perform from real vinyl on a system like this.

Trouble is, most music isn’t even pressed on vinyl nowadays, it’s expensive, these systems are bulky, and to perform in this way is really to ignore any of the changes that have happened in DJing since. Also, on a pure vinyl system, you can perform practically none of the tricks and utilise very few of the techniques that DJs expect today (things like looping, key shifting, sync and so on), making such a set-up severely limited.

Photo by Daniel Robert Dinu

5. Digital Vinyl Systems (DVS)

A DVS system can be thought of as a way of “adapting” – typically an old turntable set-up – to turn it into a system that can control DJ software, and so play digital music. In that respect, a DVS can be seen as a “half-way house”, bridging the old, analogue way and the new digital world.

Here’s how it works. You use special “control” vinyl or CDs, that instead of containing music, contain computer code (shrill, screechy and very much not music if you accidentally listen to it). You then either attach a special box, often referred to as a “breakout box”, in-between your record decks/CD players and mixer, or just use a DVS-enabled mixer. Plug your laptop in, and your DJ software intercepts the computer signal from the control vinyl or CDs, and sends music from your hard drive to the mixer and speakers, following your every manipulation of it on your decks or CDJs. You get to use “normal” DJ gear, but you also get to use DJ software at the same time.

Advantages? Well, you can use your existing gear (or the club’s) and still have many of the benefits of using DJ software. It “looks” like “real” DJing (even though you get all the advantages of digital nonetheless). It can feel more natural to DJs coming to digital having used analogue in the past. Disadvantages? Tricky to set up (although the wireless “Phase” system makes it easier), and expensive if you have to buy the analogue gear first and then add on a DVS system to make it “digital”.

Choose the DJ set-up that’s right for you: Click here to grab your free guide

6. Laptop-only DJing

Really, what DJ controllers offer the user is a convenient, authentic-feeling way of controlling DJ software. All DJ software can also be controlled without anything else plugged into the computer at all. And some DJs choose to do it exactly this way.

Whether because they’re just starting out and can’t afford a DJ controller, or they want to travel light, or they just love the whole minimal thing, for these DJs, a controller is one box too many. I actually started out like this, because in 2004 I couldn’t find a Midi controller (“Midi” is the technical word for how digital music devices talk to each other and to computers) that was good enough for my needs, so I hacked and adapted how all the keys of my computer controlled my software… and DJed like that for several years!

If you go down this “laptop only” route you’re still going to need some kind of audio interface to give you two audio outputs (one output for your headphones and one for your speakers) – but nonetheless, this is still just about as minimal as digital DJing gets.

Learn to DJ using ANY set-up: The Complete DJ Course

7. Phone/tablet DJing

Being able to DJ on your phone or tablet is now a reality. Not only is it a reality, but it’s incredibly addictive and a lot of fun. It’s truly amazing what you can do on such devices, and with apps like Algoriddim’s djay Pro AI proving enduringly popular, tablet and smartphone DJing isn’t going away any time soon.

Really this is just a tablet/phone take on the laptop-only DJ system described previously, and it’s actually coming full circle, with a number of DJ controllers now able to work with tablets and phones, so you can use your device as a direct replacement for a laptop in such set-ups. Like with laptop-only systems, you’ll need an audio interface for those all-important audio outputs, because of course most tablets and phones don’t have headphones sockets at all nowadays.

Download the guide

Every major hardware and software is covered in detail, so DJs can find their perfect set-up and avoid expensive mistakes. It contains info on all the systems listed here, top five picks of current models, and extra tips on building the best system to fit your DJing style.

Click here to get your free copy of The Digital DJ Gear Buyer’s Guide.

Finally…

The purpose of this article is to show you that there are lots of legitimate ways to DJ nowadays, and that getting started DJing needn’t cost you a huge amount of money. In reality, many DJs use more than one of these ways (software with a controller at home, plus pro club gear at paid gigs, for instance, or keeping their turntables for nostalgia reasons, but making mixes on an iPad nowadays). As hobbyists, nobody is tying us to any particular way of DJing – I’d say really, we should be curious enough to want to try them all.

Read this next: What DJ Gear Is Worth Spending Extra Money On?

Just don’t let anyone tell you their way is the only way, and don’t feel that because you can only afford to DJ on an iPad, for instance, that you’re somehow less a DJ than someone using turntables – DJ software running on an iPad can do 100 times what turntables can, after all!

Watch the video


Want me to talk you through all of this on video? Watch this 20-minute in-depth look at all seven systems featured in this guide.

Last updated 30 June, 2022

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