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How to DJ on a Laptop

OK, you’ve found your favorite tunes, narrowed down a shortlist and you’re ready to make a mix. Getting into DJ mixing on a laptop can be daunting at first but remember this is how the majority of famous DJ’s started.

This article will demystify mixing on a laptop and give you all you need to become a DJ.

TL;DR#

  • Get a good laptop

  • Download one of many available DJ apps

  • Decide to add hardware or not

  • Download some music

  • Put your tracks in order and go!

Table of contents

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Can I DJ With Just A Laptop?#

Absolutely and I’d fully recommend it, beginning on a laptop allows you to learn all the basic skills and get a feel for mixing without spending 1000's on a pair of expensive physical decks.

Learning used to be a painful process, trying to beat match on often old and beat up, hand-me-down decks and DJ hardware.

These days with the help of a laptop, automatic sync and the various available DJ software you can jump straight into mixing.

Warning, it gets very addictive and I bear no responsibility for getting you hooked! It's an amazing feeling to create something that is greater than the sum of its two parts. Creating the perfect DJ mix can be just that.

Yes, you can DJ with a laptop

DJ Mixing On Laptop#

Get A Good Laptop#

Seems obvious but worth talking about!

You’ll want a good laptop that can run the DJ software smoothly and without crashing. While the different DJ apps aren't hugely resource demanding they need to be reliable as not to struggle mid mix, this could effect the audio output.

As a laptop DJ, the best investment you can make at this point is to ensure your laptop is up to the task.

Can I Use A Cheap Laptop?#

You can struggle by on an old one, but as you can pick up a fairly powerful laptop for a reasonable cost these days, I’d recommend not causing yourself the trouble in the first place. You’ll only want to upgrade later.

Can I DJ On A Desktop PC?#

In theory yes. At some point though you will want to travel so portability will become an issue.

Its great to be able to work on a mix wherever you are, there's no better way to pass a long train journey or maybe inspiration will hit you while in a coffee shop.

DJ Laptop Specifications#

Using 2 decks and cross fader won't put a crazy strain on a laptop, bear in mind though live streaming, adding more decks or a DVS system will be much more demanding.

Lets take the Serato 'recommended' and 'high performance' specs for example, these are for both Serato DJ Lite and Serato DJ Pro;

  • recommended - 6th Generation intel core i5 (or M1 for mac), 8GB ram and 15GB of space on your SSD.

  • High Performance - 8th Generation intel core i9 (M1/M2 for Mac), 16GB and the same storage space on SSD.

As you can see the most important factors are processor capability and memory so try not to skimp on either!

There are a few other points to consider.

Ports#

With time you'll likely want to start adding some hardware to your setup such as a midi controller, these take up precious USB ports and consider for example; If you only have 2 ports you will have to choose between an external hard drive, USB audio adapter and power cable (Macbook Air I'm looking at you).

This can be remedied with a USB hub but means you will have to carry it around with you.

Hard Drive#

The more your own music collection grows, the more space it will take up on your SSD. So either grab plenty of onboard storage or invest in an external hard drive.

What about my computer's operating system?#

There's an old debate in the DJ community about Windows vs Mac but it's slightly outdated, a Macbook used to be a lot more stable when running the different types of software.

Things are more stable on both platforms now, and if you do have a windows laptop don’t let that put you off at all.

Linux operating systems, there is only one piece of DJ software available, mixxx.

DJ Software#

Most DJ software contains the same core elements emulating a physical deck setup but on screen.

There are up to four decks to load tracks onto with tempo faders (to change the track speed) and looping abilities. From what was traditionally the DJ mixer you have Faders (track volume), EQing and filters/effects. Software mixing also gives you the extremely handy ability to automatically sync the tracks to the same tempo.

With some of the software available as a free version, and if you already have a decent laptop, you can learn to DJ with little to no startup cost. Amazing!

These are the very basic components you can expect from any DJing software. There are more nuanced points to make about each piece of software but if you're just starting out you don't have to look far beyond the above features.

A club DJ using Traktor

Free Versions, Demo Modes & Pricing#

A lot of DJ software will offer a demo mode so you can try before you buy, unfortunately there will likely be a limited feature set on the free version but often more than enough to get mixing.

If you want to pay for the full software there's usually 2 options.

Classically you pay a lump sum up front and get lifetime access. Some brands still use this like Serato, Native Instruments and Atomix Virtual DJ.

Like many software applications, subscription pricing is making its way into the world of DJ apps. DJ.Studio and Pioneer DJ rekordbox use this model which can be very advantageous as you don't have to fork out a big lump sum. Much kinder on the wallet!

How To Pick The Best DJ Software For You#

This is the big one, and more than worthy of its own article. I’ll try and split this into two sections. DJ Software designed to mix live, and DJ software designed to make a mix. There's a lot of different options for DJ software and its important to first decide what you are trying to achieve.

  • Are you are looking to perform live?

  • Are you looking to create a perfect, polished DJ mix?

DJ Software for Performing Live#

Following the classic 2/4 decks and a mixer set up all the below are fairly similar with regards to features. As they all do effectively the same task just pick one that's in budget and you like the look of!

  • Serato DJ Lite - Free, 'beginner' version of Serato. Limited features.

  • Serato DJ Pro - The Serato flagship software, revered by scratch DJs for DVS functionality.

  • Native Instruments Traktor DJ - Limited feature set free version of Traktor, only compatible with a couple of pieces of NI Hardware.

  • Native Instruments Traktor Pro - Powerful mixing software, with hundreds of effect combinations and the ability to chop tracks into 'stems', separating baselines, vocals, kick drums etc.

  • Atomix Virtual DJ - Claims to be the most downloaded DJ software ever but also used to be given away for free. Free version available with the pro version quite a jump in price. Hilariously, up to 99 available decks for some reason.

  • Pioneer rekordbox - Relative Newcomer to the laptop DJ scene, limited in features compared to the top versions but with great library management tools. Also needed if you want to play music via USB stick on a Pioneer CDJ.

Serato DJ Lite - Free DJ Software

Software To Create a Polished DJ Mix#

The next 2 are different in that they do away with the traditional decks and mixer UI and focus more on functionality. They allow you to work on the mix over time rather than having to record it all in one go. It's extremely common that DJ mixes for radio shows/broadcast are created this way.

  • Ableton Live - Although aimed more at producing music it is possible to make a mix on Ableton Live however the work flow is much more similar to a DAW (digital audio workstation, a program you create music on). It's fairly complicated and by far the most expensive.

  • DJ.Studio - Has a huge array of tools to make the perfect transitions between tracks. As well as taking care of tempos and beat matching it also has built in harmonic mixing, it's a very powerful piece of software. DJ.Studio will even suggest tracks for you if it feels one of them is out place in the mix, or you need a little inspiration.

A big point here, if you are using just a laptop and mouse pointer you can only change one parameter at a time on software like Traktor or Serato. Because you can layer effects on DJ.Studio you basically unlimited options to design the transition over time.

Perfecting the mix in DJ.Studio

After You've Chosen Your DJ Software#

Set up the screen space exactly how you want it, you can customize all the programs to remove the functions you don't need. If you need larger controls you can reduce the resolution of your screen to enlarge them.

Also learn the keyboard shortcuts for things like Play/Cue points, Sync and EQing.

I'd also recommend watching a couple of videos on Youtube if you are brand new to DJing or read more about how to make a good dj set while trying out these transitions.

DJ Controller Hardware And Audio Equipment#

Another big decision to make, would you like to DJ on just your laptop or add some DJ equipment such as a midi controllers or DJ mixer.

There are so many different pieces of DJ hardware compatible with the software mentioned above that its probably worth its own post. You can skip this part though, if you just want to make a DJ set, DJ.Studio doesn't require any hardware at all.

If you want to mix live and make quick transitions between tracks a controller can be useful but for starting out learning keyboard shortcuts will take you a long way.

DJ controllers come in many shapes and sizes.

For the bedroom DJ or mobile DJ portable controllers are usually best, no need to spend thousands on decks. Yet. You can use all the software with just a mouse pointer so be sure to have a go before splashing out on any hardware.

Some DJ controllers are optimized for certain pieces of software. For example Traktor DJ controllers will have specific buttons for use on Native Instruments software. Serato don't make any of their own hardware devices but plenty of companies make a Serato DJ pro or Lite compatible DJ controller. Virtual DJ tends to work with everything. Be careful to check before you buy though.

In the world of club DJs, the Pioneer CDJ is very much the industry standard. They are amazing pieces of kit but cost a small fortune. Originally built to play music from CD's they are now almost exclusively used with a USB stick.

A Pioneer CDJ

You need to run your music through Pioneer DJ rekordbox first to make use of the automatically sync function on the CDJs. The CDJs will then run through an analogue mixer into the club pa system. As long as you know the basics of what each button does you'll ensure a smooth transition to this setup should you ever encounter it.

USB Audio adapters#

If you are using only a laptop and want to mix live you will need to pick one of many USB audio adapters to split the headphone and master output (connected to speakers or sound system).

A quick google will lead you to 100's of available USB Audio adapters and they don't have to break the bank. 2 things to bear in mind however. You need good sound quality especially if its being amplified through a PA system. It will be hanging out the side of your laptop possibly for years to come so buy a fairly durable one.

If you are using DJ.Studio or Ableton Live try to think of it more as working in a studio, with the ability to go back and replay a transition and save it there is no need to work on 2 different outputs so you save the hassle of carrying around a USB audio adapter.

Sound Cards#

The alternative is to buy an external sound card, the same rules apply with regards to quality audio output and durability. They have more options for inputs and outputs but will require more setup but can also handle multiple audio sources.

Most DJ controllers have a built in sound card so you can just plug speakers and headphones into the hardware itself.

A very basic NI soundcard

Headphones#

Headphones are great but not essential for DJ.Studio or Ableton Live. In any live mixing software you'll need them to preview tracks and cue up tracks. They're also pretty handy when you don't want to share your mix with the entire train!

A classic beginner DJ controller and headphones

Which Music Format?#

WAV or MP3?

Simply there are pros and cons to both, effectively WAV is the higher quality format. It's what you find on CD, encoded at 1,411 kbs (kilobytes per second). Compared to a 320kbs MP3 they take up much more space on your hard drive and at 10 megabytes per minute a 256 GB SSD quickly runs out of space!

Whether they are worth the trade off in sound quality is still up for debate, many sound engineers believe that you need an acoustically perfect environment to be able to tell the difference between the 2 formats.

Next point is I would recommend you purchase music from a reputable source. The temptation to download a 1000 songs and build up an enormous library is very tempting but…

  • You can't guarantee the quality of the music, files are often ripped off Youtube and re-encoded at 320 to appear higher quality than they actually are.

  • It can be hard work making a living as a producer since the pirating of music became common, if you love the song, support the artist. 

  • Building up a library of songs you really love can be very rewarding. One day you’ll look back at your creation in awe.

If you think back to the 90’s, records were a lot more expensive to buy than today, it was once one of the great skills of the DJ to discern between what to spend your money on or not. Often you could only afford a few records a week. Choosing songs for a mix, it's much better to be selecting from a small pool of music you know intimately and are 100% sure they are great songs rather than a huge library of music you barely know.

Beatport (above) is a great place to download music from and to explore an artists back catalogue. Also check out; Juno and Traxsource.

There you have it, a brief introduction of what you need to begin DJiing with a laptop. All you really need is a laptop, some music, and the desire to learn about the craft. Now it's time to start learning the steps to make a great DJ mix yourself.
And if you have any additional questions, the questions answered below might give you the answer you are looking for.

Have fun!

Can you DJ on just a laptop?

Yes! And it's how most DJs start out. Download some tracks, download some software, I'd recommend DJ.Studio and have a go at making a mix. You might be surprised what you can come up with! Let the music do the work for you and start mixing.

What are the advantages of making a DJ mix on the laptop?
Do I need a good laptop to DJ?
Does the operating system matter when I want to DJ on my laptop?
What is the best DJ software to use on a laptop?
Can I try DJ software before I buy?
What is the best software to make a well made DJ mix?
Should I buy some DJ Hardware? Or just DJ with a laptop.
Do I need a USB audio interface?

Excited to start mixing?