How to be a Laptop DJDecember 10, 2008
A Few Things To Get You Going
You can start with pretty much right away with the right software and your laptop but to benifit from hardware mixing (most DJ’s usually would prefare this) Your laptop needs at least two separate stereo audio outputs. With an internal mixer, or mixer inside the software, one stereo signal will be the cue and the other will be master out. With an external mixer, or hardware mixer at the club, there will be a separate stereo signal for both tracks. Some software packages allow more than two tracks to play at once. As few laptops come with a multi-channel soundcard, an external soundcard is essential. There are several USB soundcards for less than $200, such as the M-Audio Fast Track Pro and Numark DJ I/O. FireWire soundcards can offer higher sound quality at a higher price; Presonus and Echo make excellent FireWire options, and if your laptop has a PC Card slot, the Echo Indigo DJ is another great option. There are also controllers equipped with soundcards, such as the DJ Console Rmx, Omni Control, VCM-100 and M-Audio Xponent.
With large laptop internal hard drives, you can store thousands of 320-bit MP3s (though many DJs use only larger-size CD-quality WAV or AIFF files). Video files take up much more space (normally 50 MB per minute for usable quality), so an external hard drive is essential. Sending video signals also takes more bandwidth than audio, so while a USB 2.0 drive is good for audio, FireWire 400 or FireWire 800 are better connections for video. Some people like eSata drives for quicker connection speeds; my tests showed little improvement over FW800 to justify the complicated setups and quirks of eSata. For video drives, pay attention to drive speed (7200 RPM is essential), chip set (Oxford allows for quick read/write and multistreams) and buffer (bigger is better — go for 16 MB or 32 MB). The 500 GB external drives have fallen to low prices now, and terabyte drives are coming down in price. My LaCie Big Disk Extreme and the ultraportable Newer Technology Ministack quadInterface 1 TB drives have performed well.
Pre Buy Tips
Before buying a laptop, think about the external hardware you’ll use. External ports can be a deciding factor; the correct amount and type of connectivity may affect which laptop you purchase. You will need a USB 2.0 port for the controller, a USB 2.0 or an FW400 port for the soundcard, an FW400 or FW800 port for the external hard drive and possibly additional ports for powering other external devices or simply for a travel mouse. Whatever minimum memory and storage specifications are given for the software you choose, double it — especially if you plan to mix music videos.
You should use your performance laptop only for performance because once you’ve got it running and stabilized, there is no need to mess things up with outside programs, new untested configurations and so on. Programs don’t always play nicely together, and spinning at a club isn’t the best time to discover that.
The Right Accessories
The right accessories will ensure that your laptop setup runs flawlessly. A solid surge-protector strip should be in your bag because many DJ booths don’t have enough free outlets. Ground-lift adapters (outlet converters) are also necessary to have on hand in case a mysterious power hum appears — you never know how a club is wired. And carry gaffer tape to secure your cables that could be knocked out during an absentminded moment or by an overenthusiastic fan.
The right laptop stand will save space and your back from continuous hunching-over. The Stanton Uberstand folds up to the size of a record and flips into a three-tier stand to either slide over unmovable turntables or provide three levels (controller, soundcard, laptop) to make efficient use of space. A padded laptop bag big enough to hold everything is also essential. Manufacturers are tailoring bags to hardware/software setups (see “Grab a Fat Sack,“ page 12). If you fly, double-check the size restrictions for carry-ons; you surely do not want to check your laptop. When flying, be prepared to take out the laptop, controller and hard drive for separate scanning. Large electronic devices often trigger TSA scrutiny.
Testing. 1. ..2.. 3…
After you’ve ripped your content, you should spend some time testing and practicing. Time is always an issue, so first make sure to time yourself putting together and tearing down the system. Run it live at home and practice using it live. Make some mix CDs to hear how it sounds. Are there glitches and skips? Refer back to message boards for optimal settings (especially for latency).
Like the first time you used CDs, it will take time to get used to and feel comfortable spinning in this new way. Laptop DJing offers many additional options and features, so take the time to dive deep into it. Get to know your controller intimately — it’s your connection to the crowd because it will allow you to perform all the tricks and techniques that make you unique.
If you are spinning music videos, you need to master mixing not only the music but also the video. Alternating between different transitions/wipes will keep your performance fresh; don’t use the same one each time. Another consideration is whether or not the software automatically triggers visuals for songs that don’t have videos. Will you handle that by switching to a separate visual source?
While you are testing, set up a playlist to run for several hours; if you are going to spin a six-hour set, then have the system run to ensure its stability. See what happens if a piece of gear gets unplugged. Test if or for how long the system can run without power. Get to know your entire system like a single piece of gear; there will always be some unique things that happen that you’ll have to figure out on the fly. Also, other DJs, club staff and interested spectators will ask all kinds of questions about your setup.
When it’s time to finally gig, arrive early for a complete soundcheck. The first time you set up, you’ll run into some hitches, so allow a lot of time to work through them. Carry a list of all the gear in the bag to ensure that what comes out also goes back in.
For backup, cue up an emergency CD or iPod to go at a second’s notice. Scotty B from Promo Only uses an iPod with a preprogrammed set in case of emergencies. The fear of dead air scares many DJs from going laptop, and after six years of laptop DJing I still carry a backup CD. There have been three times when the power cables came out or the power went down.
The most cutting-edge technology will not make you a great performer, but the power of computer DJing gives you more tools to put on a great show. If you just stand there pressing the Sync key between loading tracks, that’s not really a show. Practice your skills, read the audience, program the best content and have fun. Remember, as the entertainer, it’s your responsibility to bring the party.