Digital Dj’ing – Using a Laptop or PC as part of your Mobile Disco

Many Mobile Discos have made the change from a conventional CD or Vinyl based system to a software based one, usually running on either a full sized pc or a laptop. The fundamentals of both systems are largely the same, and so you shouldn’t simply be taken in by reading other DJs horror stories about how their laptop overheated during the first dance at a Wedding or how their full sized PCs power supply exploded halfway through a gig. There are pros and cons of using both systems, but largely whether to use a full size pc or a laptop comes down to personal choice, practicality, budget and space, and you’ll often find that DJ’s criticising the opposite machine, have never actually used the system that they are criticising!. If possible visit a DJ who already uses a system to that which you intend to use yourself, nothing can sell an idea better than actually seeing it in use!, for the record, I have watched Mobile DJ’s use both PC’s and Laptops to DJ from, and neither, in my opinion, was more reliable or better than the other, so it should only be personal choice, rather than rumour or scaremongering which makes the decision on that score!.

Is running a Mobile Disco from a PC or Laptop reliable?

Anybody who has ever encountered the windows blue screen of death, or worn out the Ctrl+alt+del keys on their keyboard will possibly dread the thought of using such a system as a platform to their DJ’ing!. In essence, a decent dedicated pc or laptop with a clean install, good quality hard drive and a reasonable amount of memory will out preform most typical home pc set ups which may be running several applications at a time, be infiltrated with virus or spyware traces, and have a hard drive and registry full of corrupt enteries and partly uninstalled files.

The key to running a successful software based DJ system, is to buy a dedicated pc / laptop for the task, and to only run the operating system and DJ Software on there, and never allow it to run other applications or even connect to the internet. This way the installation runs and remains clean and largely error free, will rarely have a corrupt file, and won’t get infiltrated or bogged down with several other applications. This advice is given by DJ’s who have been using software and PC’s for many years, and have found this method of DJ’ing to be just as reliable as conventional DJ’ing from CD’s.

The advantages of using a Laptop or Pc to DJ

The advantages of converting your material to music files and using a Pc or Laptop to DJ from are many. The first is the most obvious, gone are the days where you are carrying several heavy boxes of CD’s around with you, most DJ’s CD collections can easily be converted to MP3 and will fit onto a 80gb – 200gb hard drive!. By converting to Software Dj’ing you also rid yourself of that long search through several hundred CD compilations in order to find that elusive requested track that you just know that you have got somewhere!. With most DJ Software, you can type in part or all of the artistes name or song title and find it within seconds!. It really is possible to find and cue up a request within 5 seconds – something which just can’t be done easily or quickly with a CD or vinyl collection.

Other advantages of a software based DJ system, include the possibility to create playlists from frequently used tracks, and you could create playlists from all genres, for example a playlist for background music, one for dance music, one for the 70s and one for the end of the night slowies. Of course you can also group the tracks together and catalog them according to Genre which also makes finding tracks from particular era’s easier too. Some DJ Software will also allow you to group tracks together which have a similar BPM – a boon for DJ’s who mix.

Which DJ Software should I choose?

There are many different brands and types of DJ Software about, again it comes down to personal preference which type you choose. It is always a very good idea to check out reviews and discussions on DJ Forums and if possible to find a DJ who uses a system based on the software which is of interest to you, so you can actually see it in action, in a disco environment.

Some DJ Software comes with a free trial, which enables you to download and install the software on your system and try it for for free for a time limited period (usually 10 – 30 days). Depending on the cost of the software, there can be differing features. Some Dj Software will simply allow you to cue up and play music using 2 “players”, others will have more comprehensive features, such as being able to fade between tracks, alter the pitch and tempo controls in a similar manner to conventional CD and Vinyl turntables, some of the more expensive software will even allow you to mix, or add a USB controller which looks and functions like a twin cd controller!, some Software will even mix the tracks for you!.

Remember that a feature is only worthwhile if you have a use for it!. Carefully consider what features you need, and which will be the ones that you will have any use for. It would be pointless buying a Dj Software package which allows you to mix, if you are a mobile dj who rarely has the requirement to beat mix. Most Software in its basic form, also comes with the option to add and install plug ins which give you additional updates and features, so its worth starting with the basic packages and then adding new features if and when you require them!.

My advice at this stage, if you are new to, or considering Software Dj’ing is to download the free trials of the various software which is available, try them for the time limited period, and then buy the one which suits you, and which is the most comfortable to use.

Some dj software titles which are currently popular and well reviewed by Mobile DJ’s include OTSDJ, DSSDJ and PCDJ

What type of PC do I need to run my DJ Software package

When you have decided on a software package, it is then time to consider what pc or laptop to use it on. Contrary to rumour, you don’t need the latest brand new pc or laptop to successfully run DJ Software from, and neither do you need a huge CPU processor. Most DJ Software will happily run on a pentium 3 processor with 600mhz speed or higher, many of the newer 1.2ghz+ celerons will also flawlessly run DJ software with no problems and without breaking into a sweat. Try and buy as much memory as you can afford, ideally 512mb of memory or a minimum of 256mb for most applications.

How big should I be :o)

A decent sized hard drive is the next consideration. Remember the bigger the hard drive the more individual tracks that you can fit on there. An average music file ripped at 192kbps is around 5mb in size and so a 100gb hard drive should fit around 20,000 tracks on there. However if you increase the quality of the track in MP3 format, then the file size rises also, so a 320kpbs mp3 could be as large as 11mb in size and so the same 100gb capacity would be reduced to holding only around 9000 tracks. Don’t forget to factor in space for your operating software, drivers and DJ software when working out hard drive capacity!. You can of course expand your hard drive capacity by fitting external hard drives to USB ports, and these are also reliable. If possible try and use a system which runs USB2.0 or even firewire since these run at faster data speeds than conventional USB1.1 although many Dj’s report no issues with hard drives and soundcards run from older 1.1 systems.

Give me Sound!

Using a good quality soundcard is a must!, many laptops and motherboard based sound chips on full sized pc’s rarely do justice to sound quality or are designed with full time high quality audio playback in mind. Consider installing a pci sound card in your pc, or investing in a good quality USB external soundcard if you opt to use a laptop. Most 2 channel soundcards will suffice for DJ’ing in most mobile applications, where the audio is mixed between the players on the laptop and the single output is then fed through a pair of “L” and “R” connectors on the soundcard, and then into the mixer or amplifier.

However, if more creativity is required, or the software is to be used for mixing applications or the use of a crossfader between channels on a conventional mixer is likely to be utilised, then you need to buy a 5 channel soundcard. This allows the soundcard to be set up, in a manner which allows one pair of “L” and “R” outputs to be used for “Player 1” on the soundcard and fed into an individual channel on the mixer, and the same for “Player 2” – this allows each software player to have its own fader on the mixer – just like a conventional twin cd player.

What Quality?

Some Dj Software packages come complete with the means to “Rip” a cd. “Ripping” means placing the original Cd into the PC’s CDROM and the process of converting the original music on the CD to MP3 Data, which is then stored on the hard drive as an MP3 File. In the case of OTSDJ, the option is also there to convert to a file called OTS, this is a custom files regonised only by the OTSDJ software, however it sounds just as good as MP3 and is also a slightly smaller file size, meaning that more OTS files can be stored on a hard drive when compared to conventional MP3 files.

If you use a DJ software package which does use conventional MP3 files, then you will need to select the quality at which to “rip”. This figure is measured in “Kbps” and often ranges from 32kbps and 320kbps. Lower ranges are not recommended for professional use over a PA system since they can sound dull and even distorted. Ideally for professional use, the DJ should be looking at ripping their CD’s to Mp3 files at 192kbps or greater.

192kbps is considered reasonable quality, however 320kbps is near cd quality and may be preferred by some Dj’s – however on smaller audio systems the difference may be hard to detect. As the quality is increased, so does the file size, and a 320kbps file may be several mb larger than its 192kbps counterpart, it may also take longer to rip an entire CD at 320kbps than at lower rates.

For Dj Software which doesn’t have ripping capability, Musicmatch Jukebox may prove to be an alternative for this process,

Are there any disadvantages to being a Digital DJ?

Now the disadvantages!. Obviously the initial cost of buying a PC / Laptop, a good quality soundcard, large hard drive and the Dj Software itself is likely to total far more than buying a conventional CD Player or turntables. It also takes time to “rip” your cd collection to Mp3 and store them on your hard drive. In some jurisdictions it is also illegal to convert original material to MP3 format for digital use without a licence, and this can prove to be expensive, if the Dj is to work on the right side of the law. It is the possible licence requirement that we discuss next.

Do I need a licence to play music from a laptop?

At the time of writing this article, an annual licence is required in Canada and the UK in order to use a PC or laptop to DJ from. In the UK, a further licence and possible royalty payment is also required for the conversion process. Although no fees have yet been advertised (April 2006) these controversial laws are likely to make this form of DJ’ing unattractive when compared to more conventional, and “licence free” alternatives.

Finally, my tips for Software Djing

* Always buy and use a dedicated pc / laptop purely for Dj use, do not be tempted to use the family pc or run other applications on the machine you use to DJ from, and do not allow this machine to connect to the internet. On a pre-used machine, also start from scratch with a format and fresh install of the operating system.

* Use a good quality soundcard, even if you need to upgrade or buy an external USB one

* Always rip the music direct from an original CD at 192kbps quality or higher. 320kbps is advised for higher quality pa systems and is near cd quality. 192kbps is okay for smaller systems used by the Mobile DJ.

* Don’t be too concerned about buying the latest top of the range PC to run from. Most Dj Software will happily run from basic P3 600mhz machines, but do check out the minimum requirements on the software authors website.

* Read reviews on the various software packages available. Stick to the features that you will use, since you can always upgrade extras later. Take advantage of the free trials of DJ Software which are available and use the time to find the best software to suit you

* If you choose a full sized PC make sure that it is professionally flightcased – pc’s are not designed to be carried around.

* Select a high capacity 100gb – 200gb hard drive from a reputable manufacturer. Where practical and legal always back up your data

* Fit your machine with at least 256mb of memory, and ideally 512mb.

* Check out the legal aspect of converting original music to MP3 and whether a licence is required to operate such a system.

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