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if you are wondering how to get started with DJing in 2017, then you have come to the right place. After years of testing and experimenting, I decided to attempt a comprehensive overview of what DJ software and what DJ hardware mix and match well together, and what I believe is the best match for a starting DJ.
As you might expect, there is not only 1 golden truth. I’m controller DJ, and although I have played on vinyl and CDJ’s, my expertise is mainly with DJ software and DJ controllers. Others might tell you that going the software/DJ controller route is stupid and that a vinyl/mixer is the only “Real Djing” way. That is their right to say, but it’s just an opinion, not the absolute truth.
My conviction is that a software/DJ controller setup is affordable and reliable, and is an ideal way to start out without breaking the bank. As you evolve, you might go one way or another, but investing in a setup that will set you back thousands of $$ without knowing if you are going to stick with it is not a good idea.
Before going further, let’s quickly look at a few key terms that are frequently used when talking about DJ software and DJ controllers.
- Digital Vinyl System (DVS): This is the name for DJ systems that allow playing digital music from a digital source (such as your laptop) using “traditional” DJ gear as the interface, such as turntables. Without going into technical details on how it works, the simple way of explaining is that it uses special records that contain time code. This allows sending an analog signal that a DAC (Digital Analogue Converter) can interpret and convert to a digital signal a computer can understand. For more details, check out a good explanation from Skratch Bastid here.
- Analysis: DJ software allows you to import and analyze your music. It will typically detect BPM, beat grid and the key a track is in.
- Beat grid: A song’s beat grid is the visual representation of its structure. It will show, on the waveform, a bar every time there is a beat in the song, making it possible to match the waves to the bars and as such properly detect the tempo of the song.
- Syncing: Is the act of automatically bringing two songs with different BPM to the exact same BPM so they can be mixed together. Syncing is done by a computer running DJ software.
- Beatmatching: Similar to syncing, but then done by a human using his/her ears and the pitch controls on a turntable/media player.
- Phrase matching: A bit hard to explain in words, but here goes: it means that you match the structure of two tracks, not only the beats. You cannot bring in a beat matched track at any random point into a mix since this will sound unnatural and jarring to the audience.
- Beats Per Minute (BPM): What it says, really. A number of beats in a track per minute.
- Effects (FX): Effects are audio deformations applied to a track such as an echo, delay or flanger that provide ways for a DJ to perform intros & outros, or to spice up a build-up before a drop.
- Waveforms: the waveform of a track is a visual representation of the sound waves, allowing a DJ to view the different beats and the differences between, for example, a hi-hat and a base drum. It’s particularly handy to identify quieter moments and prepare for them accordingly.
- MIDI (mapping): As a beginner, you shouldn’t worry too much about MIDI, but basically it’s a protocol that exists for decades to transfer digital information between musical instruments. With DJ controllers, it is used to map physical hardware elements such as jog wheels, buttons, and knobs with functions in DJ software.
- Hot Cues: Hot cues are markers in a track, set at key moments (beginning of a drop, start of the beat, start of the vocals…). They serve as access points for DJs that want to “jump” to a certain portion of a track.
Now let’s have a look at software.
Choosing your DJ Software
Choosing your DJ software is critical because in many cases, it will largely define which hardware you are going to DJ with. Many DJ hardware manufacturers have partnerships with specific software manufacturers and their DJ controllers will only work with that specific package and the other way around.
It can be a challenge to understand the different offerings, as many vendors have free versions, but these versions don’t contain the features you are actually looking for. DJ controller support for the different packages can be also quite confusing, and that is why in this article I try to match up each package
DJ controller support for the different packages can be also quite confusing, and that is why in this article I try to match up each package with a few suggested controllers I know will work and will work well with said package, so you don’t have to do all the digging. You are welcome 🙂
The Big 3
Below we list the 3 packages that are considered currently the leaders on the professional software DJ market. We choose Serato DJ as our top pick for several reasons. Read on to find out what those reasons are.
Combine with Pioneer DJ DDJ-RB
Combine with Numark Mixtrack Platinum
Combine with Traktor Kontrol S2
Right behind the above 3 packages there is a long list of DJ software that goes from top-notch to less impressive (this list is not in any particular order). To my knowledge and experience, the 3 top contenders in this category are:
- Algoriddim’s djay Pro (has also apps for Android and IOS!)
- Virtual DJ from Atomix
- Mixvibes Cross DJ (also has an IOS and Android app)
Combine with Pioneer DJ Wego4
Combine with Denon MC4000
Combine with Pioneer DJ DDJ-SB2
Free DJ Sofware
There is one free DJ software package that in my opinion is worth looking into and that is Mixxx.
Mixxx is free, open source and community created & supported. I won’t feature Mixxx more extensively in this article but there is a piece coming up on free DJ software soon, so stay tuned for more!
Choosing your first DJ Software
So should you go for one of the big three (Rekordbox DJ, Serato DJ or Traktor Pro) or rather for one of the runner-up packages? It depends on what is important for you. A few points I would take into consideration:
- DJ controller support: Established DJ software offers not only support for more DJ controllers, the integrations are usually better. Most DJ controllers on the market are specifically designed for Serato DJ, Traktor Pro or Rekordbox DJ (or a combination of the 3). although most controllers will work with most DJ software, the mappings will rarely be as tight and you might run into issues if the software changes while the mappings don’t.
- Features & functionalities: Established packages also typically have more features such as:
- DVS (Digital Vinyl System)
- Video support
- Additional FX packages
- 4 or more decks
- Import, export and sync your music library with other software packages,
- Song key detection and matching
This means that if you start off with Serato, Traktor or Rekordbox, chances are that your DJ software of choice will more likely be able to support you as you evolve as a DJ.
Let’s dive into these leading packages, starting with Traktor Pro.
- Price: USD 99
- Manufacturer: Native Instruments
- More Info: Traktor Product page
- Get it: here
- Recommended for: Beginning DJs that want a tightly integrated DJ solution and that are not afraid of complex configuration screens.
Traktor Pro is very, very good DJ software. It’s robust, professional, and even if the learning curve is a bit steep for beginners, it is not a bad way to start at all.
Traktor Pro will analyze and beat grid your tracks automatically, but you can adjust everything manually if you wish (or need to do so).
A Traktor Pro deck contains all the info on a track: BPM, track length, a large and smaller waveform, a handy phase meter and more.
The effects are of very high quality, one of the best in the industry. It also has many interesting performance features, such as Remix Decks (a way to organize collection of samples in 4×4 grids) and Stems (a track format that delivers 4 individual tracks parts in one, splitting up tracks in typically base, drums, vocals and the rest), but we won’t dive deeper into those features since they surpass the needs of a beginning DJ.
Finally, Traktor Pro and its many features rely heavily on a locked and stable beat grid. If your DJ style is going to be playing a lot of older music with varying BPM, then Traktor Pro might not be the best option as it will struggle to detect the BPM changes and set a stable beat grid. If you want to learn more on Traktor Pro, check out our full piece on it. To buy Traktor Pro, head over to the Native Instruments website.
Native Instruments make their own DJ controllers, so if you buy a Native Instruments DJ controller you will get a license for Traktor Pro in the box, making the price point of these controllers more attractive.
Recommended DJ controllers for beginners using Traktor Pro
|The Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S2 is the ideal beginner controller for Traktor Pro. It supports two channels, is well build and has excellent quality jogwheels. The pads are back lit and offer excellent feedback and response. As a bonus, this controller can be used with Traktor DJ running on an iPad.|
|Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S5 DJ Controller
|The Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S5 is a bit more advanced than the S2. It supports 4 Traktor Pro decks, and it has a high-resolution full color LCD screen per deck. Also, you can control Remix Decks and Stems directly from the controller with the performance pads.|
- Price: USD 129
- Manufacturer: Serato
- More Info: Serato DJ product page
- Get it: here
- Recommended for: Beginning DJs that plan to play a wide variety of music (including older music with variable BMP’s), evolve to a DVS system and/or video, and/or are willing to trade functionality in order to start with a free version.
Serato DJ is very popular with the scratch/hip-hop/rap crowd, mostly because of Scratch Live, one of the first DVS packages on the market. This unlocked digital DJing for all those DJs that wanted to keep using their turntables and do all their old (and new) tricks on them at the same time. Because of this, the BPM detection in Serato DJ is more flexible than Traktor Pro.
Serato DJ offers high-quality effects, made by audio technology company Izotope. The advantage here is that you can easily add more effects to your setup as Serato sell effect packs separately.
The interface can feel a bit cluttered, but the configuration screens are easy to understand compared to Traktor Pro. One of the distinct features of Serato DJ is that it shows waveforms in stacked (horizontally or vertically) form. This helps with beat matching, as you can visually inspect if the songs beat grids are aligned.
There are many performance features in Serato DJ, some come with the base software, for other you need to pay extra, such as the DVS module, the Video module, and something called Pitch ‘N Time (play around with the tempo & pitch of your track without impacting quality).
Serato DJ Intro
Finally, there is free, entry-level version of Serato DJ called Serato DJ intro. This version is free to use on any compatible controller, and since Serato DJ Intro controllers can be used with Serato DJ as well, there is a clear upgrade path available.
The interface is a stripped down version of Serato DJ, which means that when you are ready to move up, Serato DJ won’t be too much of a learning curve.
If you want to have more details on Serato DJ, check out our detailed review here.
Recommended DJ controllers for beginners using Serato DJ
Serato DJ has licensing deals with several DJ hardware manufacturers. Some DJ controllers are enabled for Serato DJ and don’t need a license (you just need to download the Serato DJ software) others are Serato DJ ready and require you to purchase the Serato DJ license. The suggested controllers below require a Serato DJ license but work without additional costs with Serato DJ intro.
|The Mixtrack Platinum is the first controller with build in LCD screens in the center of the jogwheels. It has a large pitchfader (ideal for learning how to beatmatch), easy access to effects, a touchstrip to quickly navigate tracks and a build in soundcard. USD 248 on Amazon.com.|
|Pioneer DJ DDJ-SR|
|The Pioneer DJ DDJ-SR is quickly becoming a classic DJ controller. It’s well built, features 8 pads per deck and large aluminum jog wheels. The mixer section is well laid out and spacious. Not as fancy as the newer DDJ-RR, but still one of the best Serato DJ controllers out there.|
Rekordbox And Rekordbox DJ
- Price: USD 139 (or USD 10,9/month)
- Manufacturer: Pioneer DJ
- More Info: Rekordbox DJ product page
- Get it: here
- Recommended for: Beginning DJs that want to use what the Pros use and be ready from the start to play on CDJ/DJM setups.
Rekordbox DJ is the new kid on the block here. It was launched in October 2015 and has since then built a very solid reputation. Of course, Pioneer DJ has the user base to achieve this and backed up by an extensive line of Pioneer DJ controllers build exclusively for the software, success was almost guaranteed.
Rekordbox DJ is built upon the foundations of Rekordbox, Pioneer DJ’s music management software, which is not only a true powerhouse when it comes to music preparation and management, it’s also used by professional DJs that play out on Pioneer CDJ media player and DJM mixers.
This means that if you prepare your collection in Rekordbox, it will not only be prepared for Rekordbox DJ, but also for professional DJ gear from Pioneer DJ. Which is a huge advantage if you break through and get to play in clubs and festivals, that use predominantly CDJ players and DJM mixers. Pioneer DJ gear is the industry standard, and until that changes, working in the Pioneer DJ ecosystem only offers advantages.
Since Pioneer DJ make their own DJ controllers for Rekordbox DJ, and as they don’t support third party gear, the DJ controllers really mirror the features and functionalities the software has to offer. The pad section is a 2×4 performance pad grid that has 8 different functions, from basic things such as Hot Cues and FX to Loop Roll, Slicer, and Samples.
The build in effects are great and mirror what you can find on professional Pioneer DJ DJM mixers. There are many ways to display your decks and waveforms, from stacked horizontally or vertically to 2 or 4 decks. In this, Rekordbox DJ resembles strongly Serato DJ.
If you want to have more details on Rekordbox DJ, check out our detailed review here.
For buying, trying Rekordbox and Rekordbox DJ go here.
Recommended DJ controllers for beginners using Rekordbox DJ
Rekordbox DJ only works on Pioneer DJ controllers, so choices are limited. Luckily, there is a controller for each type of DJ and the entry-level ones are truly great.
|The Pioneer DJ DDJ-RB is the entry-level controller in the Rekordbox DJ range from Pioneer DJ, but it’s complete with a full 2×4 pad grid, excellent aluminum wheels, controls for effects and looping and a 2 channel mixer. Perfect to get started in the Pioneer DJ ecosystem for a reasonable price.|
|Pioneer DJ DDJ-RR
|The Pioneer DJ DDJ-RR is the bigger brother of the RB and apart from being a 2 channel controller and having a tiny pitch fader, it could pass for a professional piece of DJ gear. There is even a hardware mixer that can handle external sources such as CDJ’s and turntables! The pads are velocity sensitive and backlit, and the jog wheels have a color LED strip in the center ring.|
Now let’s have a detailed look at the runners-up!
djay Pro by Algoriddim
- Price: USD 54,99 (Mac), 49,99 (Win), 21,99 (iPad), 9,99 (iPhone)
- Manufacturer: Algoriddim
- More Info: https://www.algoriddim.com/apps
- Get it: Mac, Win, iPad, iPhone
- Recommended for: Beginning DJ’s that want a slick interface and many platform options.
djay Pro is a great piece of software and looks extremely modern. In fact, it’s probably one of the best looking pieces of DJ software out there.
djay Pro grew from the original IOS/Mac app djay that had several iterations before evolving into the more professional offering djay Pro.
Today, djay Pro on Mac is fully integrated with iTunes, has 4 deck support, can stream from Spotify, has hot cues, loops and effects much like any other professional DJ package.
As of April 2017, djay Pro is also available on the Windows 10 platform, offering support for touchscreens and the infamous
But the coolest part is that since it runs on top of iTunes if you decide to switch to your iPad or your iPhone to DJ from there, your cue points and track analysis is preserved.
djay Pro’s look can be configured in many ways. Waveforms can be stacked vertically or horizontally, or you can go for the classic turntables look.
The software is ready to handle video as well, but there is no DVS support as for now. Some DJ media players such as the Pioneer DJ CDJ-2000nxs2 can be connected through HID.
Regarding DJ controller support, Algoriddim works closely with DJ hardware manufacturers, and the list of supported DJ controllers is quite long. Check below for our picks.
The list of supported DJ controllers for djay Pro is as said pretty long, but we do have our favorites.
Recommended DJ controllers for beginners using djay Pro
|The Pioneer DJ DDJ-Wego4 is actually a pretty interesting controller. Besides the rather particular look, it supports an ample amount of DJ software packages: djay Pro on Mac, iPhone and iPad and Virtual DJ on PC/Mac. djay Pro is also supported on Android devices. There are hardware controls for your FX, loops and samples.|
|Reloop Beatpad 2|
|The Reloop Beatpad 2 is quite similar to the Wego4, with the difference that it has bigger jogwheels and a 2×4 performance pad grid per deck, allowing for better hardware control of the sofware features of djay Pro. It supports djay Pro on all devices, from phone to Mac.|
Atomix Virtual DJ 8
- Price: USD 299, or 19,99/month
- Manufacturer: Atomix
- More Info: Virtual DJ
- Get it: here
- Recommended for: Starting DJs that want to DJ on their laptop/PC and want the best experience free software can offer, have to choose Virtual DJ 8.
Virtual DJ 8 is available for free for home use. This is a great thing because a license is quite expensive compared to any other DJ software. You can pay USD 299 for everything and be able to connect every available controller, or you can pay USD 19.99/month on a subscription basis. The last option is to buy a specific license for your controller, and the price varies depending on your controller, for example, for the DDJ-SX2 it’s USD 199.
All that being said, the software is quite amazing, and on a recent laptop, be it PC or Mac it runs smooth as silk. Actually, this software is really made to be operated on a laptop, with a laptop keyboard and mouse. Triggering hot cues and loops is very easy and responsive, so you are always “on time”.
The decks look clean and spacious, making them easy to use with a keyboard. All the features that you might ever need are there, such as an extensive range of effects (which however are not as good as Traktor Pro or Serato DJ), samples, loops, autoloop, cueroll, too much to sum up here. The space between two decks can be customized to show master output controls, video controls, mixer or scratch controls (featuring Serato like vertical waveforms).
There are a series of editors included that allow to edit your samples, track BPM and videos, and chances are your DJ controller is supported, as Virtual DJ supports over 200 DJ controllers!
Virtual DJ 8 supports literally hundreds of DJ controllers, we selected a few ones that work very well and where the license price is not higher than USD 100.
Recommended DJ controllers for beginners using Virtual DJ
|The Denon DJ MC4000 is well build and very well featured. With large aluminium jogs, large pitchfader, easy to use pads and lot’s of inputs (aux, microphone) and outputs (XLR, TSR and RCA out) it feels much more pro than the price suggests.|
|Numark Mixtrack Pro 3|
|The Numark Mixtrack Pro 3 is in many aspects the best price/features deal you can get at the moment. At USD 199 it has a build in soundcard, high-resolution pitch fader, aluminium jogwheels and much more. The 8 pads per deck give access to cues, loops and samples.|
Mixvibes Cross DJ
- Price: USD 49 (Cross DJ) or 99 (Cross)
- Manufacturer: Mixvibes
- More Info: Cross DJ (Mac and PC)
- Get it: here
- Recommended for: Starting DJs that want a very basic starting solution and that are interested in video mixing should give Cross DJ a try.
Mixvibes DJ software comes in many flavors. There are apps for IOS and Android phone and tablets, which we will not look into (for now), and there are versions for PC and Mac. For the desktop, there are 3 different options.
- First of all there is Cross DJ Free: basic functionality, but already with video mixing
- The there is Cross DJ: Adds midi controller support, snap, quantize and slip, 4 deck support, and video effects
- Finally, there is Cross: HID control for CDs, DVS capabilities, full video support
The free version is not enough to get you going beyond the absolute basics since you cannot connect DJ controllers, you only get 3 effects, there is no quantize so working with a keyboard and mouse is quite tricky. That being said, upgrading to Cross DJ will set you back no more than USD 49, giving you the possibility to connect your DJ controller.
The list of supported DJ controllers is long (80) but many are older controllers that you would struggle to find today for sale unless you go second-hand. I know that more recent controllers are also supported (ex: Pioneer DJ DDJ-SB2) but Mixvibes should keep the list up to date as it is an important fact on which buyers will base their buy/no buy decision.
The cool thing about Cross DJ Free is that it has (basic) video mixing build in, so for no extra cost you can start video mixing, and find out if it’s right for you.
Recommended DJ controllers for beginners using Cross DJ
Not many recent DJ controllers are supported (for now) so I’ll keep it at the only suggestion I’m confident about.
|The Pioneer DJ DDJ-SB2 is a very capable DJ controller offering all the basic functionalities you will need as a starting DJ. Aluminium jogs, backlit performance pads, a build in soundcard and compatibility with many DJ software packages (Rekordbox DJ, Serato DJ, Cross DJ, Virtual DJ..).|
So what is your choice for starting out? Any other suggestions on software/hardware that I missed here? Or did I get it totally wrong? Comment below!