Laptop Jockey - EMusician

Laptop Jockey

MIXING MUSIC AND VIDEO FROM A COMPUTER LETS 21ST-CENTURY DJS STEP UP THEIR GAME AND LEAVE NO DOUBT THAT THEY ARE MUSICAL PERFORMERS. DESIGN THE LIVE RIG THAT IS RIGHT FOR YOU WITH THIS OVERVIEW
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The author mixes both audio and visuals simultaneously using two laptops.
Photo: Jason Shanahan

From vinyl to CD to laptop, with every evolution of DJ technology, purists have claimed that technology amounted to cheating and have sparked the “real DJs use vinyl” argument. I counter that the new technology opens new realms of creativity for live, unrehearsed musical expression, and superstar DJs using laptops (Paul Van Dyk, BT, Sasha, etc.) back that argument. Vinyl and CD DJs may add samplers and instruments to enhance their live performance, and with laptops there are effects, processors, samplers and loops — both audio and visual — to be triggered in real time. Laptop technology also eliminates the limits of physical media.

THIS IS HOW I DO

Here I'll examine designing a portable laptop solution for DJing (beatmixing music) and VJing (beatmixing video) in a way that best suits your individual needs.

When I started laptop DJing in 2003, I used Native Instruments Traktor on an Apple PowerBook G4 with an external Western Digital FireWire 400 hard drive, Echo Indigo DJ soundcard and a Contour ShuttlePro controller. For the move to laptop VJing in 2007, I moved up to a MacBook Pro with Numark Cue/Virtual DJ software on Windows XP running through Bootcamp with an external FW800 Western Digital drive, M-Audio Fast Track Pro USB soundcard and the Numark Total Control controller. I've since upgraded to a LaCie 1 TB external drive and then to a smaller-size Newer Technologies 1 TB drive. I also added a Vestax VCI-100 controller, and I am currently testing the Stanton DaScratch and Numark Omni Control. Recently, I added a second MacBook Pro laptop with Arkaos Grand VJ software and a Novation ReMote 25 SL MIDI keyboard for additional effects and visuals.

GET WITH THE PROGRAM

Most software today is available for both Mac and Windows, and loyalists to either platform will want to stay with what they know. Mac enthusiasts boast the stability and power that one-manufacturer uniformity brings, while PC enthusiasts have the largest market share, which breeds more end-users, as well as more hardware configurations at differing price points.

For mixing music there are many excellent programs — Traktor Pro, Virtual DJ, PCDJ, Serato Scratch, Ableton Live and Mixmeister Fusion all immediately come to mind. The options for mixing music videos are more limited, with Virtual DJ, Serato Scratch and Fidelity Megaseg being primary options. Choosing your personal favorite is like choosing a car; each one has strong features and functions that are great for different people. Go online to the different manufacturer Websites and download the free demos to try out. Think about how you will use and configure them. Do they restrict your hardware setup? Do you prefer using timecode vinyl/CDs over a MIDI controller?

While trying the demos, look through the message boards/user groups. The more people talking means the more people using and therefore purchasing and supporting the software. More support means more updates and the likelihood of long-term support. Message boards will also give you a better idea of how strong and stable the software is. There is a lot of hype and marketing out there, but power users cut through that quickly.

For software, check with the people you know and your DJ idols. Superstar DJs may take a check to endorse a product, but if it doesn't work right, they won't rock it onstage. Those around you can also be quick and reliable sounding boards as you face setup issues and questions. Also, check with sites like Remixmag.com, DJTechTools.com and Dancemusic.about.com for reviews from people who actually use and live with the software and hardware.

CONTROLLED EXPLOSION

Choosing the right controller is just as important as software, and I have to say: You must have a controller. As a DJ, you are a performer, and typing on a keyboard does not make a great performance. People watching aren't going to be entertained and will think the computer is mixing for you. Embracing this new technology forces you to prove your skills.

There are two kinds of controllers: timecode media and MIDI-based controllers. Timecode media — vinyl and CDs — play on standard turntables/CD players and send a digital timecode signal that interprets the movements to the software. Speed the timecode record up, and the audio file speeds up. If vinyl is in your blood, this might be the best option. Many clubs even have Serato Scratch boxes installed into their permanent setups. Timecode CD setups have the option to incorporate standard audio CDs — another great option.

MIDI controllers send a MIDI signal or control code to the software. Each button, knob and slider is mapped to have a function. Controllers often come with preset templates for software packages that you can customize within the software. DJ MIDI controllers often mimic the layout of a CD player, DJ mixer or both. Several recent controllers include the Vestax VCI-100, VCM-100 and VCI-300; Numark Total Control and OmniControl; Hercules DJ Console Rmx; and Stanton DaScratch, SCS.1d and SCS.1m, to name a few. It's impossible to get the feel of a controller online, so go to your local DJ or music store and check them out. See how they look and feel to you. Do they seem solid and rugged enough for your needs?

HOLLA IF YOU HEAR ME

Your laptop needs at least two separate stereo audio outputs. With an internal mixer, or mixer inside the software, one stereo signal will be the cue and the other will be master out. With an external mixer, or hardware mixer at the club, there will be a separate stereo signal for both tracks. Some software packages allow more than two tracks to play at once. As few laptops come with a multi-channel soundcard, an external soundcard is essential. There are several USB soundcards for less than $200, such as the M-Audio Fast Track Pro and Numark DJ I/O. FireWire soundcards can offer higher sound quality at a higher price; Presonus and Echo make excellent FireWire options, and if your laptop has a PC Card slot, the Echo Indigo DJ is another great option. There are also controllers equipped with soundcards, such as the DJ Console Rmx, Omni Control, VCM-100 and M-Audio Xponent.

CAPACITY CROWD

With large laptop internal hard drives, you can store thousands of 320-bit MP3s (though many DJs use only larger-size CD-quality WAV or AIFF files). Video files take up much more space (normally 50 MB per minute for usable quality), so an external hard drive is essential. Sending video signals also takes more bandwidth than audio, so while a USB 2.0 drive is good for audio, FireWire 400 or FireWire 800 are better connections for video. Some people like eSata drives for quicker connection speeds; my tests showed little improvement over FW800 to justify the complicated setups and quirks of eSata. For video drives, pay attention to drive speed (7200 RPM is essential), chip set (Oxford allows for quick read/write and multistreams) and buffer (bigger is better — go for 16 MB or 32 MB). The 500 GB external drives have fallen to low prices now, and terabyte drives are coming down in price. My LaCie Big Disk Extreme and the ultraportable Newer Technology Ministack quadInterface 1 TB drives have performed well.

SIGHT FOR THE SOUND

Every club has a different video system, so having multiple video-output options is important. DVI can be converted to HDMI for a solid digital signal. VGA is the best of the analog video signals, looks fine on most systems and can easily be down-converted to S-Video or composite video for older setups. It's a good idea to have all conversion plugs on hand — DVI, VGA, S-Video and composite — so you're ready for whatever the club has.

If you're VJing for the first time, the important topic of content always comes up. This is a question of style, as well as availability. While some VJs use music videos, others prefer to play visualizations to accompany their track. You can find video content anywhere, and there are legal issues with usage and re-editing that I don't have the room to go into here. Finding music videos is often a challenge, especially for current releases. The best place to start is with video pool subscription services — most notably Promo Only, although ScreenPlay and RockAmerica are worth researching. Check back on those message boards for the many different ways to rip files for use on a computer system.

Regarding video content, the primary concern should be quality, not quantity. Yes, YouTube has lots of great videos, but the FLV compression looks (and sounds) horrible on club systems. A good standard for club video quality is 50 MB per minute, whether it be an MPG, a VOB or other file. Some VJs have had success with MP4, MOV, WMV and other formats, so it can be a question of preference. VJs also talk about pushing things to the HD level, as well. While that's definitely the future, I don't see many clubs jumping on the HD bandwagon right away, due not only to expense but also to lack of content and usable equipment.

Lastly, keep in mind the brightness of videos. Videos that are excessively bright or set on a white background might make the club too bright and upset the lighting technician.

CONNECTING THE DOTS

Before buying a laptop, think about the external hardware you'll use. External ports can be a deciding factor; the correct amount and type of connectivity may affect which laptop you purchase. You will need a USB 2.0 port for the controller, a USB 2.0 or an FW400 port for the soundcard, an FW400 or FW800 port for the external hard drive and possibly additional ports for powering other external devices or simply for a travel mouse. Whatever minimum memory and storage specifications are given for the software you choose, double it — especially if you plan to mix music videos.

You should use your performance laptop only for performance because once you've got it running and stabilized, there is no need to mess things up with outside programs, new untested configurations and so on. Programs don't always play nicely together, and spinning at a club isn't the best time to discover that.

IT'S ALL ABOUT ACCESSORIES

The right accessories will ensure that your laptop setup runs flawlessly. A solid surge-protector strip should be in your bag because many DJ booths don't have enough free outlets. Ground-lift adapters (outlet converters) are also necessary to have on hand in case a mysterious power hum appears — you never know how a club is wired. And carry gaffer tape to secure your cables that could be knocked out during an absentminded moment or by an overenthusiastic fan.

The right laptop stand will save space and your back from continuous hunching-over. The Stanton Uberstand ($100; www.stantondj.com) folds up to the size of a record and flips into a three-tier stand to either slide over unmovable turntables or provide three levels (controller, soundcard, laptop) to make efficient use of space. A padded laptop bag big enough to hold everything is also essential. Manufacturers are tailoring bags to hardware/software setups (see “Grab a Fat Sack,“ page 12). If you fly, double-check the size restrictions for carry-ons; you surely do not want to check your laptop. When flying, be prepared to take out the laptop, controller and hard drive for separate scanning. Large electronic devices often trigger TSA scrutiny.

TESTING…ONE…TWO

After you've ripped your content, you should spend some time testing and practicing. Time is always an issue, so first make sure to time yourself putting together and tearing down the system. Run it live at home and practice using it live. Make some mix CDs to hear how it sounds. Are there glitches and skips? Refer back to message boards for optimal settings (especially for latency).

Like the first time you used CDs, it will take time to get used to and feel comfortable spinning in this new way. Laptop DJing offers many additional options and features, so take the time to dive deep into it. Get to know your controller intimately — it's your connection to the crowd because it will allow you to perform all the tricks and techniques that make you unique.

If you are spinning music videos, you need to master mixing not only the music but also the video. Alternating between different transitions/wipes will keep your performance fresh; don't use the same one each time. Another consideration is whether or not the software automatically triggers visuals for songs that don't have videos. Will you handle that by switching to a separate visual source?

While you are testing, set up a playlist to run for several hours; if you are going to spin a six-hour set, then have the system run to ensure its stability. See what happens if a piece of gear gets unplugged. Test if or for how long the system can run without power. Get to know your entire system like a single piece of gear; there will always be some unique things that happen that you'll have to figure out on the fly. Also, other DJs, club staff and interested spectators will ask all kinds of questions about your setup.

Going live

When it's time to finally gig, arrive early for a complete soundcheck. The first time you set up, you'll run into some hitches, so allow a lot of time to work through them. Carry a list of all the gear in the bag to ensure that what comes out also goes back in.

For backup, cue up an emergency CD or iPod to go at a second's notice. Scotty B from Promo Only uses an iPod with a preprogrammed set in case of emergencies. The fear of dead air scares many DJs from going laptop, and after six years of laptop DJing I still carry a backup CD. There have been three times when the power cables came out or the power went down.

The most cutting-edge technology will not make you a great performer, but the power of computer DJing gives you more tools to put on a great show. If you just stand there pressing the Sync key between loading tracks, that's not really a show. Practice your skills, read the audience, program the best content and have fun. Remember, as the entertainer, it's your responsibility to bring the party.