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We all have been there. You are rocking away behind the decks, and suddenly, no sound. It takes a few seconds to sink in, but the booing crowd pulls you right into the harsh reality: your equipment failed. If you don’t have a solid backup plan, chances are you will have to cut the party short with all its consequences: money refunds, loss of reputation, angry organizers, etc…
Note: If you are a mobile DJ and work with speakers, amplifiers, and light as well, your backup needs will be far more complex that explained in this post.
There is not one good backup plan
It’s hard to say what the ideal backup plan is because it depends on what gear you use to DJ. The key element of any backup plan is that you plan for the worst and hope for the best.
A good analogy is how professional hard drive backup systems are configured. The most reliable systems are the ones where data is duplicated across many different disks, and when one drive fails, the other disks simply take over and compensate.
Think of your backup plan as a way of keeping the music going, no matter what. A good backup plan is not only making sure you can keep the music going in the case of laptop/DJ controller/media player failure. It also means making sure you have enough cables, headphone jack adapters, and even duck tape to counter any issue that might occur during your gig.
A few examples
In order to give you an idea of what a good backup plan is, let’s review a few typical DJ gear setups coupled with a few suggested emergency plans to counter disaster.
Media Player + Mixer + USB sticks
If you DJ with media players and USB sticks, there are two important SPOF’s (Single Point Of Failure) that you need to be aware of:
- Media players are basically computers and can fail at any time
- USB sticks are known to fail and become unreadable at any point in their lifecycle, no matter how expensive or fancy they are
Mixers can fail as well, but chances are quite small that the mixer will fail in such a way that no sound will come out at all. Taking a backup mixer with you to every gig seems a little bit of overkill considering the chances of failure…
To cover the two identified SPOF’s, make sure you:
- Have your music duplicated across several USB sticks.
- Pack some sort of audio source with you to cover for a failing media player. My preferred choice is an iPad with my entire collection on it running DJ software (such as djay Pro). I would even recommend having the iPad already plugged into the mixer, with a track loaded ready to go in case of disaster.
Laptop + DJ Controller
In this scenario, let’s assume you bring your DJ controller + laptop to a gig and plug the audio output of the controller into the house PA (through a mixer or directly).
The key and most important SPOF here is, obviously, the laptop. It doesn’t matter if you have a super expensive, fully loaded MacBook Pro 15 inch, it still can fail.
In 2013, Richie Hawtin’s laptop famously failed just before his Coachella set. In fairness to Richie, even his backup hard drive failed on him, but still, you should know as a professional DJ that hard drives are fundamentally unreliable and you should always, always have a backup plan.
So what to do to be on the safe side?
- In a case of DJ controller failure, a backup DJ controller can be handy. Depending on the software you use, you can pick up a basic controller. Make sure the backup controller is configured to work with your setup beforehand, so you don’t have to start loading drivers or firmware in front of your audience!
- In the case of computer failure, you could consider having a backup laptop with you, loaded with (part of) your music collection and your preferred DJ software. It might seem like overkill, but if Djing is your professional occupation, and you make good money from it, it’s your obligation to be prepared. Laptops are cheap and your backup laptop doesn’t have to be the latest multicore monster, a simple, 400 dollar laptop will do the trick. Remember, it’s just a backup!
- For simple computer crashes that can be fixed with a computer restart, I recommend strongly to have a music source connected to a mixer (if your controller doesn’t have a hardware mixer I suggest you carry a small, cheap two-channel mixer that you can put in between the house PA/mixer and your sound sources) such as the iPad with DJ software mentioned above.
- Finally, having at least part of your collection on USB sticks is an excellent idea, as you might find media players at the venue you are doing your gig at and these could be the ideal backup solution.
- If you are really motivated you can also burn some tracks to CD’s, but media players that don’t support USB are less and less common.
If your DJ controller has standalone capability (such as the Denon DJ MCX8000), USB sticks are a must as you will be able to seamlessly switch to them if your computer fails.
All this will guarantee you can keep the music going. Yes, it means some extra investments, but think about it: if your set abruptly ends because you have no way of keeping the music going, your reputation as a DJ might end as well, and it will:
- Give you a bad name as a DJ and compromise future gigs
- Hurt your self-confidence in such a way that it compromises your motivation to move on
Richie Hawtin might be able to get away with it, but you might not!
As I said in the beginning, there are an endless amount of scenarios and therefore an endless amount of possible backup plans.
If you are a DVS DJ and bring along your laptop, soundcard and control vinyl, you expect a working mixer and turntables at the other end. But turntables can fail, so be sure to bring along alternatives in case your DVS setup won’t work. This alternative could be a basic controller that works with your choice of DVS software. For example, the Numark Mixtrack Platinum is an excellent backup controller for Serato DJ and will work just as well as your DVS setup in case of emergency.
Or you could opt for a modular DJ controller which is more discrete. Sure you will look less cool than playing on turntables, but that is only important for your ego! The audience and the organizers care about the music and the party, all the rest becomes a detail in the face of disaster. Believe me, they will blame you for not being prepared even if a broken turntable is completely their fault.
Other elements of a good backup plan
As said, it’s not only about the sound sources. Other elements in a DJ gear setup can fail or can be missing at the venue as well, so be sure to:
- Bring power sockets. There will be never enough sockets for all your gear, so bring along all the sockets you need to plug in all your gear, so your need for a local socket is reduced to 1.
- Bring a backup headphone. The worst time to be without a headphone is in the middle of a gig, no?
- Bring cables. Don’t expect the local venue to have the cables your gear needs to connect, so bring as many cables as your gear supports to connect (RCA, XLR, TSR…). And make sure they are of a decent length as well.
- A small led light is also very handy in dark venues, so you always have a good view on your gear and on what you are doing.
- Finally, have a backup power adapter for your laptop ready. If your power adapter dies, your set will last as long as your battery, not a very comforting thought!
As you can see, I like to plan for the worst. As a consequence, I have never been in a situation that the music stopped for more than a few seconds during a gig. It takes preparation, double checking and a bit of money, but you will be rewarded for being this prepared as your reputation will be better, your confidence in yourself will improve and organizers and customers will see you as a reliable partner for their events.
Feel free to chime in in the comments, as I might have forgotten a few key things when it comes to backup plans, and also because your opinion and comments are valuable to complete this story!