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By Brian Grimmett

Arrival of the laptop DJ

Music and technology have long worked hand in hand. From the creation of new instruments to modern methods of music production, technological advancements have always influenced how it gets made. Nowhere has this been more apparent than with the modern DJ. One reason for this lies in the ease of becoming one.

Until recently, financial cost was a significant barrier. A DJ needed to have turntables, usually at least two decks, to mix their music together. Having a moderate record collection alone was incredibly important yet also expensive. But the advent of digital music eliminated this threat. DJ software was, and can still be, costly, although nearly all software now allows for free limited use.

While some are seeking to become professional DJs, others pursue the craft primarily as a hobby. These people have no desire to spend a fortune obtaining expensive sound equipment or professional-grade software. Fortunately, a virtual mixer is easily obtainable with today's technology. The only physical equipment required are a laptop, or tablet, and speakers. A two-speaker setup can be used; however, many prefer to add a subwoofer for the low frequencies present in electronic music.

Previewing one song on headphones while another plays through the master speakers is an essential element in DJ mixing. It is also a difficult issue to address on a simple laptop-based system. Splitter cables, controllers, and using two sound cards are the three methods most software uses to enable this. Splitter cables are generally not recommended, because the mixes must then be run in mono instead of stereo.

A controller is the best option, as this provides a physical mixing board that can be plugged into a laptop or computer. (Many also come with two disc wheels which function like traditional turntables.) Be aware that DJ controllers are expensive, and specific software must be purchased to use them.

With two sound cards, there will be two inputs available — one for headphones and one for the master source. Those looking to save the most money can find USB sound cards for under five dollars. Higher quality sound cards are easily available for those valuing fidelity over economics. These commonly require knowledge of cables, installations, and complex software interactions and thus are recommended for advanced users.

The following tips are worth keeping in mind:

  • A physical mixer may be ideal, but the majority of DJ skills can be performed strictly on a laptop. The key is getting familiar with all the hot keys to perform volume adjustments, cue the next track, apply effects, etc.
  • Get to know the limits of your software. Most require the purchase of a license to use all of the program's features, or if you have a controller to use with it. This makes it especially important to determine exactly what you are looking to get from it.

By following these tips, being the DJ at a friend's birthday party or pursuing it as a career path are available to everyone. Many of the popular software programs for computers are now available on tablets as well. However, keep in mind that all of this advice is geared toward amateurs and hobbyists. A free DJ software program and a basic laptop will not be adequate for professional work or the volume demands of a live show.

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