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The Pros and Cons of Selecting Today’s DJ Software & Equipment

By Sam Mallery

Trying to decide on what DJ equipment to invest in can really make your head spin. One minute you hear rampant rumors that the industry standard Technics 1200 DJ turntable is being discontinued, and the next minute you hear that new vinyl record sales are at the highest they've been since Nielsen started tracking them in 1991. Even something as basic as deciding what kind of media to play your music on can be confusing. Vinyl records get replaced by CDs, which get replaced by laptops, which get replaced by memory sticks, which get replaced by vinyl records. You can walk into a club today and see a DJ creating a mix with songs stored on their telephone. The world has officially gone nuts.

It doesn't matter if you've been DJing for several decades or if you're just getting started, there are so many quality DJ products available today that it's difficult to figure out what to get. So whether you're sticking with your analog turntables or just rocking iPods, we've decided to dedicate this article to breaking down the pros and cons of each popular DJing platform. We've laid out the pluses and minuses so you can decide which option suits your needs best. Since software appears to be the king of the DJing world this week, we'll start with the most popular DJing applications.

Native Instrument's Traktor and Serato's Scratch Live and ITCH products are arguably the most popular software-based professional DJing programs available today. Both of these manufacturers make DJ products that enable you to create insanely powerful mixes of music with multiple decks, built-in effects, looping, cue points, timecode control, and much more. On the surface they may seem very similar, but a few somewhat philosophical differences make these DJ programs very different choices. First we'll take a ride on the Traktor to see what it's all about.

Traktor is appealing on many levels. It was among the first DJ programs to champion the control of 4 decks with up to 3 different effects on each channel. It features automatic beat syncing capabilities that eliminate the need to manually beat match syncopated dance music. With Traktor installed on your computer, you can simply launch the software and start creating a mix, without the need for a dongle or required hardware soundcard. This makes it a lot easier to bust out a hot DJ mix when you're stuck in the middle seat on a crowded airplane (the people in the aisle and window seats will surely appreciate the sizzling hi-hat beats bleeding from your headphones).

Native Instrument's Traktor Pro & Traktor Scratch Pro
Pros Cons
No dongles or proprietary hardware required You need to pay for new versions
Easy integration with most MIDI controllers Waveforms do not give frequency information
Built-in software mixer Necessary to patch your soundcard into club PA
MIDI clock syncs to external programs A powerful computer may be necessary

However, unlike Serato, when a new version of Traktor comes out, users need to pay to upgrade their software. If you plan on utilizing the timecode control aspect of Traktor you're going to need Traktor Scratch Pro and you're required to use the included Audio 8 DJ interface. A nice plus to choosing Traktor is that it comes in a few different flavors to suit different DJing needs. You can start off with the relatively inexpensive Traktor Duo, which limits you to two decks. From there you can upgrade to the all-powerful Traktor Pro or the aforementioned Traktor Scratch Pro. If you happen to own a MIDI controller of any kind, you can easily integrate it into your DJ set with Traktor. Another really cool feature is that Traktor's MIDI clock can be synced to other programs, such as the software that drives Native Instruments' Maschine.

Serato is a small software company based in New Zealand that's managed to establish itself as a major player in the global DJ market. Its approach to creating a digital DJing solution is very different than Native Instruments'. Serato partners with hardware manufacturers like Rane, Allen & Heath, and Vestax to produce DJ products that rely on specific hardware interfaces in order to make their DJ software fully functional. Anyone can download Serato's DJ software for free and load it onto their computer. You can organize your music and get familiar with the layout of the program, but you can't really do any mixing until you attach your computer to a compatible hardware interface. The plus side to this approach is that the majority of nightclubs in the United States already have a Serato interface installed in their DJ booth, so without having to buy anything you can just show up, plug your computer into the house USB cable and get busy.

Serato's Scratch Live & ITCH Products
Pros Cons
All software upgrades are free for life Proprietary hardware required
Waveforms show bass, mid, & treble in different colors Limited MIDI controller support
Built-in sample player (which can be used as 6 decks) Higher entry-level price ($540 USD)
Optional Video-SL plug-in & The Bridge Slower pace of development

In the Serato world there are two distinct varieties of DJ software: Scratch Live and ITCH. Scratch Live is ideal for integrating into an existing DJ system. If you already have a mixer and some decks, a Scratch Live interface will allow you to use them with your computer. ITCH products are targeted at users who want an all-in-one DJing solution. When you buy an ITCH product like the Numark NS7 or the Vestax VCI-300, you get a control surface, an audio interface, and the DJing application in one package. Scratch Live better suits veteran DJ's and newcomers who want to learn the art of beat matching. There is no automated beat syncing in Scratch Live, so if you want two songs to blend together seamlessly, it must be done by hand. However, ITCH does have automated beat matching, which may appeal more to beginners (and veteran DJ's who would rather concentrate on other aspects of a mix).

Another advantage to using a Serato product is that if you also own Ableton Live 8, you will soon be able to harness the power of The Bridge. Live 8 is a popular program for writing, producing, and performing music and sound design. It's also used for live DJing. In the past if a DJ wanted to use both Ableton Live and Serato to DJ, they would need two separate computers and two soundcards to pull it off. When The Bridge is released in the 2nd quarter of 2010, a DJ will be able to run both programs on one computer, and have the two programs interact with one another for performance and recording. All Serato software updates (including major version releases) are free, and The Bridge is no exception. So what you give up by dealing with proprietary hardware, you gain with free software when you go the Serato route.

Perhaps you stare at a computer all day at work, and then stare at a computer when you get home. You stare at a computer when you're paying the bills, and you even stare at a mini-computer-phone when you're calling loved ones. There are those of us out there that would rather not stare at a computer when DJing. If you fall into this category, you will again be faced with a plethora of varied options. You have the choice of using CD DJ decks, iPod mixers, analog vinyl turntables, and even hard drive media players. In order to narrow down the field, there are a couple of questions you should ask yourself...

  1. What kind of media do you want to play your music on? If you just want to play music from your iPod, then an iPod DJ mixer is the obvious way to go. One downside of going this route is that you're solely dependent on a specific piece of equipment to do your DJ thing. A nice plus is that you can carry a huge amount of music around on your iPod, and also plug in other peoples'- iPods to bring their requests into the mix. If you want to spin CDs, a pair of CDJ decks and a mixer is the good way to go. A downside here is that the format itself is getting less popular by the minute. But on the positive side, many clubs throughout the world are currently outfitted with CD players, so you can perform in a variety of locations. Which brings us to the next big question...
  2. Do you plan on performing in established night clubs and larger venues?

If your goal is to perform in established night clubs and performance spaces that already have DJ booths filled with equipment, it may make more sense to go with gear that can be easily integrated into the house system. Typically, it tends to be more difficult to quickly set up your personal gear if you rely heavily on specific hardware mixers, effects, and controllers to do your thing. The only way to truly prepare for the big clubs is to get familiar with mixing music on CDJ's, vinyl, and computer based systems like Scratch Live and Traktor. Along the way you're bound to encounter a Technics 1200 turntable or two, which (as of press time) we're happy to report has yet to be discontinued!

If you plan on mostly playing at parties and venues where you set up all of your own gear, then you should explore any kind of gear that you don't mind carrying around. DJ equipment becomes much heavier at 5:30 in the morning when it's time to load out. Thanks for reading this B&H Insights article! If you have any more questions about DJ software or hardware, don't hesitate to contact us online via live chat, on the phone at 1-800-814-2999, or if you're in New York City, stop by the famous B&H SuperStore at 420 9th Avenue in Manhattan. Be sure to visit the Pro Audio Department on the first floor to get some hands on time with all of the DJ gear we have on display.

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