These days software is an undeniable and unavoidable part of DJing. The only way to not use software is to still be buying vinyl and mixing on turntables with and an old school mixer. Therefore, your software is likely the most important piece of equipment you will buy. So it’s important that you choose the best dj software suited to your style and needs. You will find the most economical way is to get the software is with a package, most controllers come with either Traktor or Serato, this is great for those just getting started and gives you everything you need.
Top 4 Comparison Table
|MP3, WAV, AIFF, |
Ogg Vorbis, non-DRM WMA**,
|WAV, AIFF, MP3, |
Ogg Vorbis, FLAC
|MP3, M4A, WAV, |
AIFF, FLAC, OGG,
AAC, Apple Lossless, WMA
The degree to which software has become so common in the DJ booth is a testament to just how much it has developed over the last ten years. It has progressed from a novelty to fully professional. However, don’t let this intimidate you. With each version, well made software becomes easier and easier to use. This isn’t to say it is all just oversimplified, click and mix. On the contrary, the current versions of the leading software offer a very deep level of control and variety of options. It is this blend of simplicity and nuance that makes DJing with software so rewarding.
Making the Choice
It’s important to choose the DJ software that is best for you because this will directly impact what type of dj equipment is best for you. To do this there are a number of factors to consider:
- Will you be using a controller or turntables?
- Are you ok with buying into a system that is closed?
- Do you prefer a system that is open and adaptable?
- Do you want to be able to expand your set up with other devices?
- What style of DJ are you, do you aspire to scratch or mix?
- Are you serious or just looking to have fun with the music?
- Do you envision yourself adapting the software to fit your style?
- How comfortable are you adjusting settings in the software?
There are two major players in the digital DJ software market– Traktor, made by Native Instruments, and Serato. There are also some lesser-known players worth considering, such as Mixvibes Cross. Finally, there is Ableton Live, which despite being designed as a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), can also be used to DJ. Each has some fundamental likenesses as well as some fundamental differences.
Traktor is the most popular and the easiest DJ software to get into as it is packaged directly with any and all pieces of Native Instruments hardware. Traktor is also a very flexible and adaptable piece of software. Users can modify the interface and preferences to emulate a traditional 2-deck system, or go to the next level and create a highly customized environment tailored to their specific needs and hardware.
Traktor is also an open system. This means that in addition to the range of hardware that Native Instruments produces, there also third party devices that are supported by Traktor. These range from top of the line mixers all the way down to basic entry-level controllers.
In addition to this adaptability, Traktor is very well known for its extremely accurate beat gridding. For those who are unfamiliar with this, beat gridding essentially assigns a point to each beat in the song and then graphically represents that on screen. This allows a DJ to visually see where the beats in the music are. While this is obviously useful for mixing tracks together it can also be exploited to manipulate a track and cut it into loops or samples.
Another feature that is widely appreciated by DJs are Traktor’s digital effects. Native Instruments has invested a lot into making Traktor’s effects unique and high quality, while also giving DJs the ability to customize how they use and manipulate them. This is making Traktor the software of choice for many digital DJs.
To buy Traktor you will have to purchase a Native Instruments product bundled with Traktor. This isn’t a catch – you’re going to need something to interface with the software anyways, so you’re actually saving money. You’re best bet is to go with a sound card. The Traktor Scratch A6 is an ideal package for DJs. When you purchase this you receive not only a top notch 24bit sound card with multiple inputs and outputs but also the full version of Traktor Scratch Pro. This set also gets you access to all future updates. This alone is a major saving. Also, you receive one set of control vinyl, and one set of control CDs. These allow you to use turntables or CDJs together with Traktor.
An alternative to the sound card route is to purchase a controller with an onboard sound card, such as the Kontrol S4 or the S2. These come with a version of Traktor custom mapped for the controller but still fully featured.
Serato is generally preferred by DJs who are using turntables, such as hip-hop DJs and scratch DJs, however the range of support for controllers is widening. This is reflected by the fact that Serato’s main focus has been on software and dedicated sound cards to interface with analog systems.
Serato’s focus on the traditional DJ market is also reflected in the user interface and features it offers. On screen, the focus is on recreating the turntable experience digitally, far more so than in Traktor. This is extended through the entire software experience offering users a very deep and often complex level of fine-tuning.
The major drawback with Serato is that it is a closed system – the software only works on select devices approved by them. This means that you’re really making a commitment to both dedicated software and hardware. Furthermore, Serato hardware can be considerably more expensive than similar hardware for Traktor.
To get this software you’ll have to first make a choice – Scratch Live or Serato DJ?
Serato Scratch Live is the original version of Serato and was designed for use with CDJs or turntables. If you’ve already got a set of decks then this might be the choice for you. Just pick up a Scratch Live audio interface, also known as a sound card, and you’ll be good to go.
Serato DJ is the sort of 21st Century version of Serato. This version is intended for use with controllers and digital devices and as such is more robust and customizable. Going this route will require purchase of a Serato approved controller. You’re best bet here is likely the Pioneer Pro DJ DDJ-SR controller. This is a very high quality controller with extremely responsive jog wheels and dynamic faders.
Another viable option is the NuMark Mixtrack Pro II. This controller comes bundled with Serato DJ Intro, which is a good option for newbies, but to be fair you will quickly outgrow the introductory version.
For other Serato approved gear, such as controllers and mixers, check out our review pages.
Ableton Live, commonly referred to as just Live, presents a very different take on digital DJing. Intended for use as a DAW, Live has been adopted by some DJs for live performance.
The attraction of using Live lies what they call in the “clip view.” This is essentially a bank of cells that store audio clips of any length. Each clip can be triggered individually or in conjunction with another. Also, each bank of clips can also hold a number of different effects. Therefore, it is possible to break tracks down into loops and then reassemble them live. For example, you might take the kick drum from one track and play it over the snares and bass from two other tracks and even add a synth from yet another track.
To do this you’re going to need two things – time and a midi controller with a number of control surfaces. We say you’ll need time because you’ll be slicing your tracks up in order to play the sections you want. Then you will need a special midi controller with a number of control surfaces to trigger all your clips, as well as navigation controls and a way to manage levels and effects. Akai makes several controllers specifically with performance in mind. Live can also be configured to work with any midi device, including an iPad, although it will require mapping on your behalf.
Mixvibes Cross offers essentially the same feature set as Traktor with a similar visual lay out. Like Traktor, you’ve got flexible mixing options including samples and effects in addition to standard beat matching and level limiting. However, the difference here is dramatic – video.
Mixvibes Cross gives a DJ the ability to control video while they are mixing. This can range from basic graphics that “respond” to your tracks or go all the way up to clips that can appear to be animated in time with your music.
There are some drawbacks with Mixvibes Cross. Despite coming with sample decks there is no support for more than 2-decks. This means you will likely have to develop a new workflow to really exploit this feature. Also, Mac users will be disappointed with the interface and library system, which is essentially a Windows port. However, if you’ve ever wanted to take your digital performance to another level visually this is an option seriously worth considering.
Where to go from here?
We’ve covered a lot here and started to go a little in depth about choosing the best dj software. As you can see, your choice should be based on what you envision yourself doing. With different feature sets and focuses for each type of software you should take some time to consider what you want to start out doing and also where you think you might head in the future.
If you’re looking to upgrade a traditional DJ set up and gain access to some newer features, Traktor is probably the best option. You’ll be able to use options such as cue points and looping, as well as a wide range of effects. Traktor is also affordable and often comes bundled with entry-level hardware.
If you’re a die-hard vinyl lover or a scratch DJ take a good look at both Serato and Traktor. Both support turntables via a soundcard. The difference between the two really comes down to personal preference.
If you’re a music producer, or your interests lie in production, then Ableton Live is probably where you are headed. You will be able to not only create your own tracks and loops but also put together live sets for performance. The learning curve is steep with Live, but in the long run you will be more satisfied with the almost staggering amount of options available.
If you’re just getting into DJing and have no existing hardware, such as CDJs or turntables, then you are most likely going to be happy with Traktor bundled together with a controller like the S2 or the Mixtrack. The support community for Traktor is amazing. Answers to questions are easy to find in forums and YouTube is loaded with tutorials from the pros.
If you’re still not sure what do then consider doing a little homework on what software your favorite DJs use and how they use it. It’s not unlikely that their platform and system are within your budget.