How to DJ with a Laptop

Written by: Zach Wright

DJ equipment is expensive! If you’re just starting out, you might not be able to invest in a full rack of equipment. But with all kinds of available DJ software, you don’t need to. Instead, you can start your DJ career with a good laptop and minimal equipment. 

Saving money is probably the number one reason to DJ with just a laptop. DJ software can pretty much do anything that traditional DJ equipment can do, like scratching, mixing, matching beats, and adding effects. You may not have the tactile feel that you get with DJ hardware, but it gets the job done. 

Another benefit to just using a laptop is you won’t have as much stuff to bring along to your gigs. Since everything is digital, you won’t need to pack controllers, mixers, or piles of vinyl. Instead, you’ll just need your laptop and your sound system. 

In this article, we’ll talk about how you can DJ with a laptop. But first, let’s take a look at a few things you’ll need to get started. 

What You Will Need to DJ with a Laptop

  1. Laptop. You’re going to need a good-quality laptop to run your DJ software. If you don’t have a computer yet, choose your software first, and then make sure you can get a laptop that will accommodate the software.
  2. DJ Software. There are lots of DJ software options to choose from, including Serato, Ableton, Rekordbox, and Traktor Pro. You can find out more about DJ software here. In addition, there are free versions that can get you started with the most basic controls. 
  3. USB Audio Adapter. This is what takes the sound from your laptop and converts it to a signal that can go to your sound system. Try to find one that is good quality because lower quality adapters may have poor audio or may crash if they get overloaded with data. 
  4. Sound system. You will need some kind of sound system that suits your venue. If you are DJing smaller house parties, you might just need a blue tooth speaker, or if you are using larger venues, hopefully, they will have their own sound system that you can tap into. 
  5. Additional items. If your budget allows, you might want to add in some additional items. For example, an external mixer and controller would give you some tactile options for mixing. This makes it a little bit easier to set up and manage your tracks and effects. If you want to get really elaborate, you can also add a controller that can apply scratch effects – these work much better on a controller than they do with a laptop and mouse. 

Step-By-Step Instructions to DJ with a Laptop

  1. Set up your laptop, install your software, and plug in your USB audio interface.
  2. Organize your music library. Before you hit the stage, you’ll want to get prepped for DJing. The first step is to organize your digital music library. This can easily be done with your DJ software. Most of them offer the ability to organize music into virtual crates, so it is easy to select different styles of music. Some software versions will allow you to mix music from streaming services, as well, so make sure you know just how this works before you try it at a gig. 
  3. Set up your playlist. If you are only DJing using a laptop without extra equipment, you’ll want to set up as much as possible ahead of time, so you aren’t fumbling around with screens or hidden controls. So choose your music ahead of time and set up your playlists. Automate any functions and set up any presets, so you don’t have to hunt and peck during a gig. If you need help finding music for your playlists, check here for a few ideas
  4. Choose the effects and controls you want to use and hide any unnecessary screens and controls. Of course, your laptop will only be able to display so many items simultaneously. Still, most DJ software user interfaces are very customizable, so you can display exactly what you want. So keep it simple and choose only the ones you absolutely need. This way, it will be easier to find and won’t overload your laptop, either. 
  5. Practice using your effects. It’s going to take a little practice to get everything just right since you’ll be using a mouse or trackpad instead of physical mixers and faders. Practice dragging the faders up and down until you get it just right! You’ll also want to make sure you can quickly find the beat-matching controls, pitch control, and faders. If you use a trackpad, it may help to use one hand to drag the fader or dial and the other hand to click.
  6. You can adjust your laptop’s display resolution to make controls bigger, so they are easier to see and control or smaller, so you can fit more on the screen. The bigger the controls are, the easier it will be to use them.
  7. Try your skills out on a small audience. With any form of music, practicing in front of an audience helps to work out any bugs in your system. So find a few friends or family members you can perform for to get a feel for how things will go. 
  8. Get gigging! After you have your laptop set up with all your music and playlists and you’ve made sure everything runs smoothly, you can take your show on the go. 

Final Thoughts on How to DJ with a Laptop

Whether you are trying to DJ with a laptop to save space or save money, you can do it well with just a little bit of setup and practice. Remember just a few things, though: 

  • Make sure your laptop can handle the software requirements and that your USB audio adapter will work with the sound system you will be using. Of course, it’s always good to do a test drive first! 
  • Take the time to organize your music library and setlists beforehand 
  • Optimize your screen, so you only see the controls you need during the gig 
  • Practice alone and in front of friends and family so you can feel confident when you play your gig
Written By:
Zach has a vast experience in digital audio and sound design. Being a studio owner for 13 years, he actively helps musicians and producers with technical issues around musical instruments and studio and audio equipment.

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