Are Laptop DJs a joke?

We dig deep to find out why laptop DJs are considered a joke!

Even if you have just entered the DJ scene, you probably already heard the phrases “laptop DJs are a joke”, or “if you mix with a DJ controller, you are not a real DJ”. But, is it true? Is it a total BS? Or is there a truth somewhere there?

The first DJ I saw live with a laptop is the world-famous Satoshi Tommie at a festival in Crete, Greece. It’s been nearly 15 years since then, and the truth is that I have changed my mind a couple of times about laptop DJs. At first, the fact that he bearly used his headphones and his constantly looking on a laptop screen seemed to be unnatural. Of course, I was just a beginner with limited knowledge about DJ equipment, software, and setups.

But a lot has changed since then. Traktor Pro, Rekordbox, Serato Pro DJ, and Virtual DJ have paly a significant role in shaping the laptop DJs of 2020. DJ controllers now offer all the premium features and specs we learned and loved from turntables, CD players, and the traditional DJ mixers. 

In 2016 we had the first case of a California club that bans DJs who use laptops. There was a huge outbreak with a few supporters of the club owner who miss the old fashion mixing and scratching techniques. On the other hand, some DJs argued that Pioneer’s CDJs and their DJ controllers use the exact same mixing algorithm, same jog-wheels, same knobs, and premium sound quality. It sounds like the club owner just didn’t want to spend extra time every evening connecting cables and adjusting audio settings.

best dj setup for beginners to perform like professionals

Let’s start with a list of professional DJs that use DJ controllers and laptops to perform live:

  • Carl Cox (Traktor Pro, Virtual DJ)
  • Richie Hawtin (Traktor Pro)
  • Nicole Moudaber (Traktor Pro)
  • Sasha (Ableton Live)
  • Danny Tenaglia (Traktor Pro)
  • Skrillex (Serato DJ, Rekorbox)
  • Martin Garrix (Serato DJ, Rekorbox)
  • Armin Van buuren (Serato DJ, Rekorbox)

And many more…

Most of the DJs above have one more thing in common – they use the same DJ headphones: Sennheiser HD 25.

So, are these professional DJs a joke? Do you believe they will not be able to perform live with different equipment?

VINYL –> CD –> USB Stick (MP3) 

vinyl , cd, mp3. evolution of dj formats infographic

Why do DJs choose to add a laptop and a controller to their setup? Is it convenient? Is it because of a lack of skills? Why laptop DJs still get all this negative attention?

1. Practical Difference:

There were days that you had to drag pounds of vinyl collections and CD cases to clubs. Now you can get the job done by caring a couple of USB sticks and a “pocket” size controller.

That is not truly the case and argument you may have heard about laptop DJs. Sometimes, it is not just a small controller with a laptop. You will see professional DJs caring up to THREE laptops at their gigs in case something goes wrong. DJ Sasha once had to use his third back-up laptop, as both previous cracked during the performance. Sometimes you will see laptop DJs caring two-three times more gear than older generations did with the conventional DJ setup. 

The only thing that is considered more practical to laptop DJs is having their whole music library into their laptop and a USB memory stick. There is no more searching for vinyl stores, expensive cases, and bags, and no more home storage space is required. You can download music from online stores, receive free promos from artists, and build a professional well-organized music library to access and update in seconds.

Example of what a backpack of a laptop DJ may include:

  • MacBook Pro
  • DJ controller(s)
  • DJ headphones
  • External audio interface
  • External hard drive
  • Laptop / controller stand
  • Extra fast-connection cables

A couple of CD cases or Vinyl bags does not sound that bad after all. 

2. The difference in performance:

The most common argument you will hear about laptop DJs is using the “Auto-Sync” function. You can go over Wikipedia to find out what is the job of a DJ, but apparently mixing and beatmatching are the fundamental skills of an excellent Disc Jockey. The “auto-sync” is practically doing all the jog for the DJ, as it instantly matches the tempo between the tracks for a smooth mix.

A DJ who respects what he/she is doing will take the opportunity of the saved time and do other things that will improve the overall performance. Add more than the standard mixer effects, play and mix more than two tracks at once, add vocals, use the sampler to fill in the empty spaces, and add new gear and ways to perform. If you are not planning to do any extra work and use the auto-sync mode to do all the job for you, please disable it or change a profession.

Take a look at the most common setups laptop DJs use to perform live. In some cases, the laptop works only as a music library. 

There are three Laptop DJ setups:

  1. Laptop with DJ software + DJ controller: This is the most common DJ setup for beginners – light, affordable, and easy to use.

  2. A Laptop with DJ software + DJ controller + DJ Mixer: This DJ setup is used by the majority of Techno and Tech-House DJs out there, including Richie Hawtin and Nicole Moudaber.

  3. Laptop with DVS + Turntables + DJ Mixer: This setup requires real mixing, beatmatching, and scratching skills. DJs are using a time-coded system, or DVS (Digital Vinyl System) such as Serato Scratch DJ software installed in a laptop and connect it to an audio interface, turntables, and a DJ mixer. Today, there are some DJ mixers such as the Numark Scratch and the Rane DJ Seventy-Two with a built-in audio interface. Instead of real vinyl records, they have just two circular pieces of plastic that make a similar job with cd players, but you only have to carry two disks and a laptop. It is widely used by Hip-Hop and RnB DJs.

Pioneer DJ DJ Controller (DDJ-XP2) DJ SETUP3

You can take an in-depth look and read in our posts and lists of DJ equipment for beginners.

Vinyl-only sets are back

We are going through a time where DJs turn back to turntables and vinyl. Vinyl-only sets are now most popular than ever. Are people excited by the sound of vinyl? Or mixing with them is proof of the skills of a DJ?

Professional DJs prefer using gear that makes their life easier and will also improve their overall performance. However, we believe musicians use vinyl because of the skillset required, as well, the nostalgia associated with old records.

“It is not about the technology and equipment. It’s all about the music and the listeners.”

Final Thoughts

When you approach the right perspective for DJ controllers, you will be able to unlock limitless possibilities to mix, beat-match, scratch, and achieve a smooth transition between your tracks. 

If I did not convince you yet, check how a veteran turntable technician embraced DJ technology and stopped hating laptop DJs.

I bet the majority of bedroom DJs and a few professionals do not know how to take full advantage and explore 100% of the capabilities of a full standard DJ setup (CDJs + DJM). There is nothing wrong with beginner DJs to start small and buy a much cheaper and entry-level controller. Experienced DJs who want to adjust to the modern days will also benefit a great deal in cost, quality, and potentials.

If you believe that using a DJ controller or a laptop will make you anyhow less of a professional, you are hardly mistaken. If you know how to properly use a mixing software and use it to improve and upgrade your current setup, you will be able to take your DJ mixes and sets to the next level. 

It is time to realize some facts and break all beams that will help you become a better DJ. There is no right or wrong about someone DJing with a laptop and someone using turntables and a mixer!

Are really Laptop DJs a joke?
Hands of DJ on digital turntable and software on a laptop with professional mixing software.

Tip: You can buy a new DJ controller for 200 dollars, and use your home computer to start DJing. This guide on how to begin DJing when you’re broke might be helpful. Use the opportunity that since you did not spend a lot of money, you will invest time in learning, practicing, and exploring new ways to mix. 

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