DJing in Nightclubs with Controllers and Laptops

Phil Morse | Founder & Tutor
Read time: 3 mins
Last updated 5 April, 2018

Mike Truman
Digital kit has never stopped Ritchie Hawtin rocking clubs worldwide…

Got a club gig coming up and scared about the practicalities of setting up in the DJ box when you get there? Worried about buying digital DJ kit because you want to play in clubs and feel you should learn CDJs instead?

Calling time on timecode
While many DJs have DVS systems so they can use a pair of Technics in a club environment, there’s only one way all that malarkey is going, especially as most clubs don’t even have Technics any more. (Mind you, at least with Technics you know what you’re getting. Trying to use timecode CDs in a club opens you up to worrying about what type of CDJs you’re going to find there too…)

And as you’ve still got to take a laptop, what are you really gaining over the laptop/controller route by using such a system?

CDs still rule, but they’re a cop-out
This is why even today many DJs still choose to organise their music on their laptops, but then either burn it to CD or – for the few lucky enough to play in clubs with compatible equipment – put their sets onto USB drives to use with installation club players like the Pioneer CDJ-2000s.

Which is a real shame, because such DJs are missing out on all the advantages of DJing with a laptop and a controller, such as familiarity with your own equipment, lightning-fast search of your complete collection, access to previous playlists, the ability to throw everything in your bag and head off to DJ at after-parties wherever you wish, and so on.

Amnesia DJ booth
That litttle glowing Apple has become as common as the Technics and Pioneer logos on DJ kit.

Things are changing all the time
When I started DJing in clubs, it was vinyl all the way. Then we started booking acts who mixed live and sequenced music with their vinyl or CD sets. (I’m thinking the likes of Hybrid with their acid groove box, or Groove Armada’s Tom Cato marching round our dancefloor with a miked-up trombone…) Later still, we started seeing DJs turning up with Ableton. I knew the game was lost and got a laptop myself. That was 2004, and things have got MUCH better for digital DJs since then.

So how did we do it? How did we squeeze all those increasingly weird and wonderful combinations of acts, gear and DJ systems into our DJ booth?

Playing it by ear
Truth is, just like the acts and DJs we booked, you’ll never know exactly how to set up in a new place until you get there (unless it’s local and you can check the DJ booth out beforehand, of course. It is? Great! Do it.)

So here’s some of the things DJs often do.

  • They put the lids onto the Technics record decks and set their equipment up on the top of those
  • They carry fold-up stands (such as these sold by the ever-excellent DJ Tech Tools boys).
  • They unplug and move CDJs (Alright, so it’s probably good manners to plug then in again if then next DJ needs them, but that’s life nowadays in DJ boxes. It’s no biggie.)

But you can think more laterally too. Why not set up away from the normal DJ box? We used to set up on a club stage in a great position way away from the DJ box. We’d Duct-taped long phono-to-phono or XLR leads connecting our digital kit to the “main ” DJ booth. After all, no amount of jumping around will make digital DJ sets skip and jump like records or CDs, so why not get out into the crowd instead?

DJ booth
Laptops, controllers, records and CDs can co-exist happily in today’s DJ booth.

Smile and be bold – it’s all been done before…
The lesson is to try things. Investigate. Be prepared. Be bold. Digital is fun, so use its flexibility. With USB controllers and long-life laptop batteries, you don’t even need a mains socket to pay for a couple of hours nowadays, as long as there’s a PA for you to plug into!

Another thing is, the venue manager has probably seen it all before. So just make sure you explain how you work, and ask beforehand (when you’re booked preferably).

But the most important thing is that you shouldn’t ever feel shy or feel inferior about using controllers or laptops to DJ from in clubs – DJing is about music, not kit. You could play off an iPod if you loved it enough and your tunes were hyper-cool. I’m being serious.

There’s a lot of rubbish spoken by blinkered people about “you have to do it this way, or that way”, and they’re mainly just scared of new (probably younger) DJs. Telling you that you “can’t play in a club with that kit” is just another barrier such people try to put up, a barrier that you’re going to have to break down if you want to make it as a modern digital DJ.

• Want to work on the skills you need so YOU can get that dream club gig? Take our How To Digital DJ Fast training now!

Have you got a story about getting your digital DJing kit set up in a nightclub? Are you going to be playing in a nightclub and feel worried that you’ll have problems with getting set up when you get there? We’d love to know your thoughts below.

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