Going Digital? 5 Tips to Help You Make the Transition + Enhance Your DJ Performance

Making the switch from turntables to software for DJ performance? Here are five tips that can help you make the transition with ease.

Use Physical Control

Ditch the mouse or trackpad for laptop DJ performance. It’s a lot more fun with physical controls. You can go with something elaborate like Native Instruments’ flagship S4 controller for Traktor, or something more affordable like a Hercules, Vestax, Gemini, or Novation MIDI control surface (you can use almost any MIDI controller if you take the time to map the controls from your DJ software). Sometimes simpler is better. DJs who scratch as part of their performance will want to look at the higher-end units that offer touch control and low latency, but DJs who groove-ride may not need the extensive control.

Use a Sound Card w/ Multiple Outs or Headphone Monitoring

If you are used to mixing with turntables, CDJs and a mixer, you’re familiar with the need for cue monitoring to perform. It’s important to realize that the transition into laptop performance will require an updated sound card to get the same functions as you’d find with hardware. For instance, if you want to plug into a standard club mixer, you’ll need two stereo outputs for two decks (and more outputs for more sources). So your sound card would need to have at least four output channels (one for each half of the stereo signal). If you want to bypass the club mixer, it’s possible to monitor through a sound card, as long as the sound card supports headphone monitoring. With a standard stereo output jack you are usually limited to mixing “in the box” without the use of a headphone monitor.

Organize Your Music Library

Organizing your digital media is a necessity for enjoyable DJ practice and performance. We’ve covered this subject previously in our Tips for DJs series and DJ Endo’s thorough breakdown of iTunes smart playlists, but we want to reiterate this point if you’re making the transition from vinyl/CD to laptop DJing. Part of the fun in mixing vinyl comes from working with a limited amount of material (you can only carry so many records to a gig) and by contrast a full iTunes music library can be intimidating to work with. By creating playlists of genre, mood, tempo, or mixability, you’ll have a much more enjoyable time finding the next track to play. Another obvious difference between a box of records and a list of digital files is the visual recognition you may have with the packaging and artwork in your collection — the record with the red center label is deep, the record with the blue sleeve is a party rocker. Looking at a list of files does nothing to enhance this connection but you can do things like color-code tracks, include cover art, or leave notes to yourself in the comments tag of mp3s to get a bit of that reference back to your workflow.

Take Notes, Make Lists

In addition to tagging and organizing your music collection, a physical notebook is very handy for remembering what songs go with what, or details about a mix that you might otherwise forget. With a stack of records you could just set one aside or write a note on the label. With digital files these details sometimes get lost in the moment. A notebook and pen next to the DJ booth are valuable tools for building sets that go deeper than a playlist of this month’s favorites. The mental exercise with pen and paper will help you remember details while the physical interaction brings you closer to stacking records in order.

Create a Practice / Performance Space

Most great DJ performances happen while standing up, so it seems logical that your mixes, track selection and overall mood will be different when you sit at a desk to program a mix or set. If you come from a background DJing with vinyl or CDs, it can be especially frustrating to go from a physical booth setup to a laptop. The solution? Make a DJ booth for your laptop. By making a space where you can stand up and control the mix, you’ll feel much closer to the music. Sitting down creates an entirely different vibe — be aware of the difference.

Michael Walsh is an audio/visual artist, journalist and DJ living in Southern California. He’s recently embraced DJing with a laptop after many years of resistance. Read more of his work at soundsdefygravity.com and check out mixes on Soundcloud.