ASK THE DJ: DJing with MP3s

Dear DJ,

I am learning to DJ for myself and friends. I purchased a package of two used Technics SL1200m3d turntables and a new Behringer vmx 300 mixer. The turntables came with about 50-60 records which I am using to learn to beat match. But I do not want to make a big investment in vinyl. I have a Mac computer with approximately 5000 songs in the mp3 (iTunes) format. I am at the point where I would like to start spinning using my computer and all the songs contained therein. Do
you have suggestions for a particular software(s) that would work for me? Also, what do you think is the perception of mp3 DJs?

DJ David

Dear David,

That’s a lot for one email, but you raise some very good questions. I am going to start at the end and work backwards.

The perception of mp3 (or laptop) DJs is evolving. With many superstar DJs (Paul Van Dyk, BT and Sasha) using laptops for their gigs, the medium is gaining acceptance. When I started DJing with CDs, I got a lot of crap from people who said real DJs use vinyl. Fast forward 10 years and just about every DJ uses CDs in some way when spinning live. In 10 years, will laptop be the standard? Things are certainly heading that way, but there are two things that must be addressed: entertainment value and sound quality.

Just like the acceptance of CD DJs, one must realize that it’s not the format of the music being played, but the music itself. If the DJ is playing a rocking set of music and packing the dance floor, does it really matter if he/she is using vinyl, CD or mp3? With that said, there is an element of showmanship that comes with vinyl — cuing up the record, backspinning, scratching — an almost sensual feel that a great DJ exudes when working vinyl. With the advent of the CD turntable, the DJ has more control of the music and can manipulate the music in a manner that is more than just playing tracks off a CD.

Fast forward to laptop and the idea of watching a guy punch buttons can be quite boring. Even though the music is the highest priority, the showmanship and entertainment value of the DJ can be quite important as well. Who wants to watch someone who looks like they are checking their email for two hours? As the controllers advance and stabilize —
FinalScratch, Sasha’s Maven Controller, the Shuttle Pro — the laptop DJs’ show will increase as well. Add to that the ability to create music live with packages like Abelton Live and Logic, laptop DJs have even more creative control.

Just as sound quality on vinyl can be an issue, sound quality with mp3s can be a major issue. Not only are there source issues, there is compression and file format. While iTunes quality mp3s might sound good on an iPod or home stereo system, on a large club sound system, the disparity in sound quality is definitely perceptible. Among DJs who use laptops, 192 is considered the minimum bit rate for mp3s, while 256 or 320 is much more acceptable. Some will only use uncompressed WAV or AIFF files. Another possible problem with mp3s is digital rights management (DRM), which controls how the music can be used. So when purchasing mp3s, be sure to double check the format quality and DRM.

Which brings us back to the original question, what software do I recommend? While there are pretty much industry standards for record and CD players — there isn’t a clear favorite for software programs. If you learned how to spin on vinyl, a program like Final Scratch, which uses time coded records, would be a good option. You should also check out Abelton Live, DSS DJ, Rane Serato Scratch, Virtual DJ, and Traktor DJ. Try out several programs and see which works best for you. The controller is also very important, as you will definitely want more that just a point and click mouse. When configuring your setup, be sure to keep in mind memory, processor size, and drive speed.

In case you are wondering, I made the move from CD to laptop almost 10 years ago. I started with a Traktor DJ on a Mac Powerbook with a very colorfully-lit Western Digital external drive.? These days, I am mixing music, video and visuals on a double laptop setup running Virtual DJ on one and Grand VJ on the other.

Keep exploring and you will find the right system for you, whether it’s turntable, CD, or laptop.

Originally posted March 2003.