A really great skill to learn that all DJs should know is how to mix with just a laptop.
Mixing with just your laptop is great because you can do it pretty much anywhere you can open a laptop and plug your headphones in. You don’t need to plan to take DJ gear with you, or set up a controller and cables, which means that you can do it on a plane, sat on the sofa, in bed…
Producers (such as our tutor, Laidback Luke) have long known that you don’t need music gear to make music – Luke produces many of his remixes and productions on just laptop and headphones – but it’s equally as simple to DJ just on a laptop.
Equally (and especially in these times of lockdown), you may be wanting to give DJing a go but you have no controller, for you, laptop-only DJing is a great and legitimate way to start learning the skills. Unless you want to scratch, you can do pretty much everything using just the keyboard.
And finally, if your gear fails mid-gig, being able to “take over” on a laptop is a good skill to have, while you’re fixing the issue.
My secret life as a laptop-only DJ…
I actually first did this back in 2004, when the very first DJ controllers appeared. The controllers were, frankly, rubbish, but I was hooked on the possibilities of digital DJing. Virtual DJ was already established back then, as was Traktor, but it was with Virtual DJ that I went, programming its already extensive shortcut keys to work on just my laptop keyboard, so I didn’t have to use the awful controllers, that I seemed to make more mistakes on than anything else!
Combined with a special audio interface that slotted into the computer (they don’t make this type of interface any more, sadly), I had a complete solution that let me DJ from just my laptop anywhere – I even travelled to clubs with this set-up, back when everyone else was still taking record crates onto planes!
Nowadays, I still do this. I regularly use Serato Play to practise and plan mixes, that I will then later perform on my “big” DJ gear. Some of the mixes I’ve shared on my Mixcloud Page were actually just recordings of practice sessions for our livestream show, done on headphones, late at night, with just my laptop, while the family were in bed…
4 Steps To Laptop-Only DJing With Serato
Step one: Get the software
You’re going to need Serato if you don’t already have it (we recommend going for Serato DJ Pro, which you can get for free for this purpose, even if they don’t exactly shout about it), and the Serato Play Expansion Pack, which at the time of writing (May 2020) is free to all. I’ve made a short video showing you how to do that, and also written out the steps below.
- Go to the Serato website
- Register for a free account (if you don’t already have one)
- Go to the Serato DJ Pro page under “Products”
- Download & install the “free trial” (ie don’t select the “buy” option) – this “trial” will actually work forever for laptop-only DJing
- Open the software, and go to “My Serato’ top right
- Log in with your username and password
- Click on the Serato Play Expansion Pack in the My Serato window, which again is free for May 2020, to install it.
There you go! You now have Serato DJ Pro for free, and Serato Play for free too, which is the Expansion Pack you need to DJ with just your laptop. Now let’s get you set up…
Step two: Set up your software to work with Serato Play
For the rest of the two steps that follow, I’ve made a second video, that shows you everything I’m about to discuss (there’s a third performance video later on, too…).
All DJ software has shortcut keys or “hotkeys” as Serato likes to call them, and in actual fact, most DJ software also lets you DJ without a controller straight out of the box. With Serato, that’s always been a “paid” add-on, using the Expansion Pack Serato Play, which is what you just installed. There are a few set-up changes you need to make to get it all up and running:
- Check Serato Play is activated – Go to Settings (click the cog top-right), then click the “Expansion Packs” tab. Click on Serato Play in the list, then check “Enable Serato Play” is ticked. Click the Settings cog again to exit
- Make Serato Play’s controls show on your screen – Click the tiny little crossfader icon (it looks like this: “-|-“), which is at the top of the screen towards the left, to toggle the Serato Play controls on and off. If you can see a crossfader in the middle of the screen, they’re on
- Activate the Serato Play hotkeys – To the far right of the Serato Play panel, you’ll see a small Settings cog with a triangle dropdown symbol. Click on this to open the Serato Play settings. Activate “Serato Play Hotkeys” if it isn’t ticked. Click on “View Keys” to see a diagram showing you what the hotkeys are. It’s a good idea to take a photo of this on your phone so you can refer to it when learning!
- Tweak the preferences for keyboard DJing – In the settings (cog menu top right) I like to have Play From First Cue Point set, Auto Gain on, Smart Sync on, and Maintain Sync On Track Load on (as you’ll always be using it). Also top left of the main screen, I like Quantize on and set to half a beat in Settings (tightens up your “keyboard warrior” DJ timing)
Step three: Learn the basic keyboard shortcuts
While you can DJ with your mouse /trackpad, that is lame and you’ll never be able to do a good job that way – you 100% need to learn the keyboard shortcuts, which is why we just had you turn them on. You really ought never touch your mouse/trackpad when DJing. If you end up using this method for browsing your library and loading tracks, that’s OK – still, the shortcut keys are quicker once you learn them, even for this. For everything else though, the keyboard shortcuts are a non-negotiable.
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So you need to familiarise yourself with the basic controls, and to start with, really there are just five to learn:
- Play/Pause – spacebar for deck 1, enter key for deck 2
- Crossfader – left/right cursor/arrow keys
- Hotcue setting and triggering – 1-5 for deck 1, 6-10 for deck 2 (you do have to use the mouse pointer to delete hotcues though)
- Sync – T for deck 1, Y for deck 2
- Nudge – Q & W for deck 1, O & P for deck 2
You’ll can see all the controls by clicking “View Keys” in the Serato Play settings – notice that they keyboard is roughly divided into “two”, one side for each deck, which means really, you only have to learn the deck controls “once”, and then just get used to where they are for each deck.
Feel free to load tracks and play with these controls, to start getting the muscle memory developed.
Step four: Prep your tracks for keyboard mixing
There are of course limitations to this type of DJing, and one of the main ones is that it’s fiddly to manually beatmix this way. So you want to make sure you’re using sync, and that your tracks are correctly beatgridded. (Beatgridding is the process whereby your software lays a grid over each track to tell it where the beats and bars are. Learn more about beatgridding in this article.)
Also, because moving around your tracks is trickier using just a laptop than it is than with jogwheels, you should set your cue points – at the very least, have a hotcue on the first beat you would usually mix in from for each track. (Learn hotcue essential skills in this video.) this means you can jump to the start and the important parts of a track easily.
By using sync and pre-set cues, it’s possible to pull off pretty good mixes “off the cuff”, even without headphones for pre-cue checking, as long as you know your songs well enough. So your job now is to practise some mixes and get used to DJing in this way – it will take a couple of hours to start to feel natural at it, so do persevere.
(However, if you want to listen to tracks in your headphones before mixing them in and have external speakers too rather than use the laptop’s, see the boxout lower down the page for advice.)
Step five: Build on your skills
This is a whole new way of mixing. It frees you up to DJ anywhere, but it also can be initially frustrating due to its limitations, and tricky to get right. The upside is that once you can do it, you’ll find yourself wanting to work on and prepare mixes in all kinds of situations!
The key is to keep adding new shortcuts to expand your skills, and to practise often. You want to get to a place where you know these keys off by heart and don’t have to think about them.
Once you have the basics nailed, move on to getting more shortcuts down. Here are the ones I find myself using all the time. Look them up in the View Keys panel to learn them for yourself:
- Crossfader (cut) – for quick, sharp mixes (because using the normal crosssfader keys is at a set speed which may be too slow for you at times)
- Individual channel levels – I DJ with the channel levels at about 80%, and tweak them here to adjust for quieter or louder tracks
- EQs (both adjusting, and kill/reset) – EQ kill is a creative tool, and it’s useful to be able to tweak EQs while mixing or to compensate for poor mastering on tracks
- Filter – Useful as it’s like a “one knob (key!) EQ” – which makes mixing easier than trying to adjust, say, bass and mid or mid and high together in the mix using the keyboard
- Loop controls – Auto looping is incredibly useful anyway in DJing, even more so when your creative options are limited by keyboard DJing
- Tempo change – Nice for slowly moving the BPM around in your set, and with Sync locked on, changing one deck will always change the other too
Frankly, anything else (adding effects, tweaking beatgrids, and son on) you can do using the mouse/trackpad – so it’s also definitely worth learning everything you can click, drag, turn or push/pull on your screen as well as just what works on your keyboard.
“But I want to use my headphones!”
If we add a speaker, I guess it strictly stops being 100% laptop-only DJing – but that does mean that we can play to an audience, and also introduces the possibility of headphone pre-cueing, ie listening to the next track before you mix it in.
There are two ways to do this. The first is the “proper” way and involves using an audio interface to give you a headphones output and a master output. Now, though, we’re definitely not “100% laptop DJing”, as we may as well plug in a controller once we start plugging in extra boxes, plus you’d need a Serato-licensed device.
So the other way, as long as your software can accept a “mono splitter cable” (or “DJ splitter cable”) – which Serato Play can – is to use just such a cable. It cleverly sends the speaker output down one of the stereo channels, and the headphones output down the other, “splitting” them so that with the right cable, you can use the first channel for playing to your crowd, and the second for pre-monitoring.
Yes, the output to each destination is in mono, but apart from that, it works a treat. DJs have been using this “hack” for many years now.
If you’re interested in doing this, make sure you buy a “mono splitter cable” or “DJ splitter cable” – a normal headphones splitter cable won’t work. Here’s an example on Amazon. You’ll need the right leads to connect your cable to your speaker or speakers of choice. Also, learn the keyboard shortcuts for channel cueing.
You turn it on by clicking “Use Split Headphone Cable” in the Serato Play settings. You’ll see when you do that a Cue volume and two little headphones icons appear in the Serato Play panel, to decide which deck you’re hearing in your headphones, and set the headphone volume. Note that currently there don’t appear to be shortcut keys for these, which is a shame.
So what’s possible with Serato Play?
Frankly, everything except scratching and very quick, performance mixing. I made a little demo mix to show you not only what’s possible, but also to demonstrate most of what I just described in action. I’ve annotated the whole thing so you can understand the keys I’m pressing to get the mixes right. Hopefully combined with what you’ve just read/seen, and a bit of practice, you’ll soon get there too. Here it is:
DJing from just your laptop is no replacement for DJing with equipment – but nor is it meant to be. Just like many producers make music on real instruments and on laptops, so many DJs find an interest in mixing on everything available to them, from record decks to pro gear to controllers to their phones – and of course just their laptops too.
At the end of the day, laptops offer just another way of DJing in situations where otherwise you may not be able to. So whether it’s preparing or working on mixes, making mixtapes, practising certain transitions, playing with music new to your collection, or just having a sneaky DJ set while sat on the sofa while the rest of your family watch X Factor, give it a go! Let us know how you get on.
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