7 Things I Learned DJing Without A Laptop This Weekend

Phil Morse | Founder & Tutor
Read time: 5 mins
Last updated 27 March, 2018


Playing my first controller gig without a laptop was liberating, a bit scary… but ultimately, possible in a way it simply wasn’t until very recently.

This weekend, I played my first show since 2005 without a laptop (more strictly, without a laptop or an iPad, as I’ve been playing with the Reloop Beatpad and Algoriddim’s djay 2 quite a bit recently too). Specifically, I was using the Pioneer XDJ-RX, the all-in-one Rekordbox unit that – for the first time for a controller – I suspected would come close to delivering all the benefits of a laptop system, just… without the laptop.

(Sorry if you thought I was going to say “I played all vinyl” or “I took a wallet of CDs”, by the way – I’m not going back to the dark ages, thanks all the same, and this is Digital DJ Tips, after all!)

So, bearing in mind we’re looking forwards, not backwards, here’s what I learned DJing an important show, with the new Pioneer XDJ-RX… and no laptop:

1. Rekordbox software is good

Preparing my music on the software that’s integral to this approach, Rekordbox, was a pleasant experience. Especially in these days of iTunes woes, I found the software intuitive and with enough DJ-led features (built-in key analysis, cue points, waveforms etc) and organisation features (smart playlists being the main one) that I didn’t miss iTunes at all.

When you’re done, you insert a USB drive into your laptop, hit “export”, and all your tunes are transferred to it, ready to use on the XDJ-RX at your gig. End result: No laptop! Tips: re-format any USB device first (mine didn’t work properly until I did), and use a decent, modern USB device: Transfer took ages on an older drive I had…

I was pleasantly surprised by Pioneer’s Rekordbox software, and found preparing my music absorbing and, dare I say, it, fun.

2. Nobody thinks you’re DJing on a toy

The XDJ-RX simply looks like the real deal. Maybe it’s the relatively large size (although I carried it easily enough to my gig in a UDG bag), maybe the Pioneer DJ logos, maybe the fact that it looks similar to a couple of CDJs and a DJM mixer pushed together, but people commented that I had “the real gear” several times. Like it or not, perception matters, especially at highly paid events Maybe not having a laptop there helped with that perception too.

XDJ-RX master
Looking as it does simply like a couple of CDJs shoved either side of a Pioneer mixer, this is one of the least “toy like” controllers as far as audience perception goes.

3. The big, bright screen makes a huge difference

Y’see, personally I’ve tried before to work with Rekordbox, with both the XDJ-Aero and the XDJ-R1 controllers, but it wasn’t for me, and the reason is simple: No decent screens. Once you’re used to seeing all your track info, artwork, waveforms, library and so on on a laptop screen, it’s a huge step backwards to DJ without it. The screen here is good enough to stop you (by and large) missing the laptop screen at all. I DJed at sunset with the sun behind me and the screen was plenty bright enough, and you can dim it later on for night-time use (the gig finished at 2am).

No complaints about using the display as the main feedback source… it is clear, bright and detailed.

4. Looping on the XDJ-RX needs some work

I love DJing with loops. It helps extend outros for better beatmixing, it lets you build tension with bits of looped vocal, and much more. And on the XDJ-RX, looping is too limited. It’s impossible (I’m pretty sure I’m right about this) to alter loop length without the loop jumping back to the start, and there is no looping above 8 beats, which is not enough – I want to be able to specify loops up to 8 bars, or 32 beats, like on all DJ software.

This needs sorting out if Pioneer really wants software DJs to feel at home on this system, as does loop-related stuff like the addition of loop shift (and, while we’re at it, beat search where the tunes stay on the beat when skipping forwards and back).

(It’s been pointed out that you can double loop length using 2X button, but even though that might just be acceptable, unless you have Quantize turned on, when you press that button the track jumps back to the start of the loop – so if you don’t DJ with Quantize but want 32-beat loops, it’s still far from ideal)

5. Surprise! Pioneer has got the library functions just right

A touchscreen would have allowed a Qwerty keyboard, but actually, as long as you sort your music out well into playlists and so on beforehand (which you should anyway), the library functions work well. You can choose your criteria (BPM, key, genre etc), and sort within those (so all house, sorted by key, for instance), and the alphabet search functions are actually fast and intuitive. Plus, the info panel that shows artwork and all other details about a track lets you sort directly from there (for key, BPM etc). The “tag” list is a bit like the “Prepare” window in DJ software, and works well. Overall, not the dealbreaker I thought it’d be… not by a long shot.

beach bar
Great place for fun, drinks, and letting go, all night long… not so friendly on delicate electrical equipment like your laptop.

6. Not having a laptop is highly convenient

This venue was awesome, a white chiringuito (beach bar), with uninterrupted views of the Mediterranean and sand dunes behind me, a big BBQ burning across the other side, and an open-roofed dancefloor and lounge/chill seating area. What it wasn’t was DJ friendly. A hastily erected (and wobbly) stage and a bar table with a flightcase on it and a black cloth draped over it to hide the messy cables was my “DJ booth”. Being able to plonk one DJ unit on to it and play, few connecting cables, no laptop strand or balanced laptop, was great. Not taking my laptop to a sandy, windy, outdoor venue with a wobbly stage just felt… wise. However, that said…

7. …but I didn’t feel confident without my laptop so I took it anyway!

Yup, I couldn’t bring myself to leave it at home. What if the USB drive failed? What if there were some bug that locked the Pioneer XDJ-RX? After all, it was my first time in public. So the laptop came, with djay Pro and a splitter cable, just in case I needed to get DJing fast due to something catastrophic happening. As it happens, the gear worked 100% fine all night long, but I guess having a backup system is never a bad idea, especially when you’re miles from anywhere with a few hundred people relying on you for their party to be a success. Next time I’ll probably just use my phone, though…

Even though I was using a reliable USB stick (the Corsair Survivor), I still felt the need to take both a back-up USB, and a complete second system, just in case…


So, having DJed with all three “big” DJ systems professionally over the years (Virtual DJ, Traktor and Serato), as well as with djay 2 on the iPad quite a lot this last year, and having also spent the bulk of my professional career DJing on record decks/CDJs before that, you may be wondering what I think this all means for laptop DJing?

I’m actually going to leave that for a follow-up article because things are changing really fast once again in digital DJing, but interestingly, it is the software, not the hardware, where all the exciting stuff is happening, in areas like content distribution and crowd-sharing of sets, etc. What’s going on in hardware is consolidation – and a few big names are starting to flex their muscles, one of which is Pioneer with Rekordbox and units like this one.

XDJ-RX performance
Like using a laptop, but happy with two decks and no sampler? You may find the XDJ-RX will let you leave the laptop at home and actually not miss it…

In all honesty, if you’re happy playing with two decks and don’t use a sampler or any producer-style live remixing features, you’re seriously not going to miss your laptop DJing with the XDJ-RX – simple as that. It’s good enough for both beatmixing DJs (I played a smooth, fun hour of current house as part of my set, mixing easily using its big waveforms and intuitive sync feature that lets you taker over manually at the touch of a button), and for mobile guys too (good search, great mic channels etc).

If you’ve been wondering about trying out this route, I definitely recommend giving the XDJ-RX a go, because leaving the laptop at home, especially for certain types of gig, is a favourable thing. If only I could being myself to actually leave it at home! As I say, maybe next time…

Are you a laptop/software DJ who’s tempted to give Rekordbox a go and use a controller like the XDJ-RX (or, indeed, the “full” Pioneer Nexus system in the clubs)? Or do you think nothing is ever going to replace the flexibility of laptop DJing? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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