Laptop DJs often get accused of screengazing and spending more time tapping at the computer than variously watching their crowds, getting into the music, or doing real “DJing” (whatever that means, presumably riding faders and tweaking EQs). In an attempt to break from this image, digital DJs have looked to modern DJ controllers to release them from their dependence on the laptop’s controls, with today’s DJ controllers increasingly offering the ability to do more and more of what early laptop DJs did on the keyboard or with the mouse.
This has culminated in developments such as the new Stanton SCS4 DJ controller that dispenses with the need for a separate computer altogether while still providing good waveform and library controls, or the Pioneer DDJ-S1 and DDJ-T1 that are designed so you can tuck your laptop underneath the unit, leaving only the screen usable. At the heart of this debate is a misunderstanding of what good laptop DJs are doing when they spend time in front of the screen or tapping away.
How not to use your laptop
The trouble is that once you’ve decided to be a “laptop DJ”, the laptop offers so many possibilities and temptations for DJs that it’s hard to leave it alone when playing, especially when you’re a beginner. From DJing unfamiliar music by using waveforms instead of learning the tunes and using your ears (the dark art of waveriding), to desperately searching a library of tens of thousands of badly organised tunes to try and find the perfect next record, the temptation is there to be completely glued to your screen, using technology as a substitute for skill or practise.
If you fall into this trap, it is at the expense of watching your crowd, tweaking your settings or just enjoying your music and getting into the vibe to help you to do what the DJ ought to do – control and channel that vibe to deliver a fulfilling performance for the audience. But the truth is that if you understand this issue and take steps to minimise unnecessary laptop use, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with using it when appropriate (and being seen to use it) while you DJ.
Why not use all the tools you have?
To look again at just the two examples above:
Glancing at the waveforms is a great back-up for what your ears are hearing, and indeed waveforms can help you to quickly do things “normal” DJs can’t do, like setting and tweaking cues and loops, and seeing instantly how long is left on up to four playing tunes.
Once you have a tightly organised library so you don’t need to bury your head in your laptop for every available second in a desperate attempt to find the next song out of a cast of thousands, the fact is that it is often quicker to use your keyboard rather than using the provided controls on a DJ controller to find the next tune – especially when the next tune may occasionally be something that isn’t in your carefully prepared set for a particular gig.
Here’s another one: some DJ controllers are pretty compact, so you maybe get control of only three or even one cue point when your software has four, eight, ten… Using your laptop to cue point juggle is a perfectly logical way of adding functionality and upping the excitement in your sets, not detracting from it. No, there’s nothing wrong with using your laptop for functions that logically are easier than achieving them using your controller, or simply that aren’t possible otherwise.
t’s just a case of being skilled and organised enough to ensure that you are not neglecting the other crucial facets of DJing (and crucially, reacting to and building up a rapport with your crowd) by hiding behind your screen, tapping your keyboard or clicking your mouse, too often or for too long.
No when it comes to digital DJing, the laptop and/or keyboard really aren’t going to go away any time soon. Referring back to the products mentioned earlier, the Stanton SCS4 DJ has the option to plug a USB keyboard in, and the Pioneer DDJ-S1 and DDJ-T1 units doesn’t actually require that the user hides their keyboard – it seems that even with bold designs such as these, the manufacturers have realised that the good old keyboard is still something that can be useful to digital DJs.
It helps to have your laptop on a decent, high stand so you’re not slumped over it, and to set it up to one side so that when you’re using your controller, you’re facing the crowd, and when you glance across to do something on your laptop, they can see clearly that that’s what you’re doing. Then you don’t have this big screen between you and the dancefloor. And after all, searching for a tune on a laptop is no different from searching for one in a record box or CD case (and at least unlike the former, you’re not crouched out of sight when you do it).
However, just to be completely clear: There are absolutely no excuses for checking your email while DJing!
Do you get feel uncomfortable touching your laptop in your digital DJ sets? Do you try and limit your “screen time” when DJing? Let us know your thoughts on whether it’s OK to be seen using your computer at your gigs, or whether digital DJing should ultimately break away from the laptop.