The Keyboardist's Guide to DJ Software

May 21, 2014
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So you’re ready to make the leap into performing as a DJ—or, as the artists profiled in our May 2014 issue have shown is possible, a live performer of danceable electronic music. Your choice of software will determine what you can achieve with your rig. 

With a decade’s worth of laptop-centric DJ tools on the market, it can be tough to know where to begin. There are apps that are especially synth- and loop-friendly, as well as excellent options that focus on performers who come from a traditional DJ background.

If you’re new to keyboards and got your start on turntables or CD decks, Serato’s Scratch DJ and Virtual DJ’s eponymous Virtual DJ Pro will feel most familiar. If you’re coming at this as a keyboardist, both of those apps require that you master entirely new turntablist skills—daunting, to say the least.

With all of that in mind, we’ve picked a few software packages—for both laptops and iPads—that will deliver the ability to mix full tracks and songs with more modern production amenities like loops and soft synths, giving you a huge bag of performance tricks right out of the gate.


Ableton Live
 
Above: The author’s Session view for a recent DJ set. Channels 1 and 2 serve as the “decks” for his DJ set. Channel 3 holds a reserve of alternate tracks he can pull in to extend his set, and the FX column contains heavily processed tracks meant to be superimposed on other tunes. Across the bottom are the Operator soft synth and effects chains.

PROS: Complete integration of songs, loops, soft synths, and virtual drum machines. Huge assortment of effects and MIDI processors. MIDI control over everything. Ability to create custom macro knobs for sweeping multiple effects parameters. VST and AU support. Large ecosystem of dedicated hardware controllers. 

CONS: Live’s auto-warping often requires manual editing of results for perfect sync. No key detection of imported material. Limited metadata for track organization. All this flexibility means a steeper learning curve than standard DJ tools.

Bottom Line: If you want nearly unlimited expandability in exchange for a bit more overall effort, Live is the gold standard for integrating musical performance with DJing.

Live 9 Standard: $449 | Live 9 Suite: $649 | ableton.com


It’s no secret that a huge number of producers and DJs rely on Ableton Live for their performances. For the most part, Live is the perfect tool for keyboardist-producers who want to make the leap into DJ-style live performance; but even so, there are a few caveats when compared to other options.

On the plus side, Live is built from the ground up for on-the-fly everything. It allows you to mix full tracks with time-locked loops, create killer beats in real time, and play soft synths—all at the same time. It also supports third-party plug-ins and has a huge ecosystem of hardware controllers, many designed specifically for Live. This is why Live is the go-to platform for main-room artists like Deadmau5, Steve Duda, Sasha, Gabriel and Dresden, and a slew of other household EDM names.

If you’re not already a Live user, however, there will definitely be a learning curve. For example, while Live does an admirable job of automatically syncing audio material when it’s imported (“warping” in Ableton parlance), it’s not perfect. So you’ll have to familiarize yourself with optimizing your raw materials by hand, which at first can be laborious. What’s more, despite its magical ability to convert audio to MIDI, there’s no key-detection algorithm for songs. So if you want to add this kind of metadata to your tracks, you’ll have to do it manually in the clip names.

Part of the reason for this is that Ableton has wisely focused on being a full-fledged music production platform, albeit with that on-the-fly emphasis. So being able to DJ in Live is almost an afterthought. That’s not a diss; it’s just further proof that, for integrating musicianship and production chops with a DJ set, Live arguably remains the 800-pound gorilla of the dance music world—especially as the club scene expands beyond DJing into more innovative territory than just mixing and beat-matching stereo tracks.

If you’re using a different DAW for production—especially one that’s timeline-centric—you have to take a good look at what you want to do as a performer. If you want to focus on the DJ aspect with a little live performance on a synth or drum machine thrown in for good measure, Live may not be your best bet. The other tools in this roundup are more immediate, if less flexible. Additionally, a lot of producers are still strangely put off by Live’s Session view, saying that it looks like an Excel spreadsheet.

Well, looks can be deceiving, because Session view is quite possibly the biggest innovation in production tools since, well, maybe the DAW itself. Non-linear composition and performance aren’t the future. They’re the present. So if you’re ready to move past your preconceptions, you just might find yourself migrating to Live for more than just gigging.

Next: NI Traktor Pro 2
 
 
Native Instruments Traktor Pro 2
 
 

Above: EDM artist Matt Lange’s Traktor setup. Note that his fourth deck is set up to play loops.


PROS: Completely integrated approach to mixing full tracks with loops and stems. Can display all waveform data simultaneously. Tons of built-in effects and EQ types. Parameter control is higher-res than MIDI when used with NI’s own hardware controllers. Can auto-detect and sort by musical key. Integrating external gear is painless.

CONS: No support for soft synths or plug-ins of any kind. Can only send MIDI sync, not receive it. 

Bottom Line: If you’re not already producing in Ableton, Traktor deserves a very close look thanks to its immediacy and wide array of performance and processing tools.

$99 street | native-instruments.com


While Traktor got its start as a DJ-centric product, it’s grown over the years to include a boatload of remixing and processing amenities that make it a worthy alternative to Live, depending on your approach to performing. Make no mistake, Traktor is not a production environment, so you won’t be composing studio music in it anytime soon. But if you’re looking for a system that leans more toward DJ mixing, without sacrificing the ability to radically transform your songs and sets, Traktor has a lot to offer.

The essential approach is simple: You can have up to four simultaneous “decks,” up to two of which can be used as “remix decks.” A remix deck can contain up to four simultaneous sample channels. Each channel can use one-shot samples, loops, or even the stems (instrument subgroups such as drums, bass, top loops, etc.) from popular tracks, which can be purchased directly from several outlets including Native Instruments themselves and Beatport. If you’ve amassed a sizeable loop library of your own, you’ll be in heaven, because these can be imported into the remix decks as well.

For audio processing, Traktor includes a wide array of EQs and effects that cover the entire range of standards such as reverbs, delays, flangers, lo-fi, even one-knob macro effects. In a nifty twist, you can even select your EQs (globally) from a variety of different emulations based on classic DJ mixers from Pioneer, Allen & Heath, and Numark. That said, if you have a set of preferred VST or AU plug-ins, you’re out of luck, as there’s no support for either, nor for soft synths of any kind.

One of Traktor’s greatest strengths is the ability to organize and sort all of your DJ material, including both full tracks and remix clips. The overall approach is similar to iTunes, including playlists, but with the addition of sorting via key and tempo, making it super easy to get to everything into your “crate.” In fact, when you import new tracks into Traktor, it auto-detects the musical key (much like Mixed In Key) and adds that metadata to its database. Better still, when you’re sorting by key in the middle of a performance, Traktor lets you view this info via the Circle of Fifths, which makes things extremely intuitive for performers who know a bit of theory.

Although there’s no soft synth hosting, you can turn any deck into a live input for microphones, line-level signals, or whatever your audio interface supports, letting you pipe a drum machine, synth, or iPad through Traktor. Traktor can send (but not receive) MIDI sync over USB, so you can lock a drum machine to your BPM and bring its audio back into Traktor for processing and mixing.

Though some producers will prefer Ableton Live because it’s also one of the top DAWs, quite a few producers have switched to Traktor because of its focus on controllerism and fluid mixing of audio from a wide variety of sources. You can get the software by itself, or bundled with most of NI’s Traktor Kontrol hardware controllers.

 
Next: iPad Apps
 

iPad Apps for DJing

Let’s say you just want to dip a toe into these DJ waters and experiment to see if it appeals to your performance sensibilities. If you have an iPad, you’re in luck, because there are a few capable apps that will let you started, using your iPad’s music library, for less than 20 bucks each.


iPAD DJ APPS AT A GLANCE

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Algoriddim

Djay 2

Native Instruments

Traktor DJ

SoundTrends

Meta.DJ

PROS

Includes sorting by tempo and key. Integrated beat-matching and sync tools. Drum pad interface for triggering samples. Integrated sample packs from Qbert and Snoop Dogg. MIDI control over a range of parameters.

Gorgeous, clean interface. Ability to fine-tune your track syncing via a simple four-beat grid interface. Integrated EQ and touchpad effects. Pairs flawlessly with NI’s Traktor Kontrol Z1 controller.

Fully customizable, with five different instrument devices. Integrated Kaoss-style effects. Intuitive user interface. Blurs the line between DJing and musical performance. Compatible with earlier iPads, including iOS 4.1.


CONS

Key detection requires an iPad Air or iPad Mini Retina.

Only two track decks. No sampling or loop layering at this time.

At press time, hasn’t been updated since version 1.6 in 2012.


Price

$9.99

$9.99

$19.99

Website

algoriddim.com

native-instruments.com

soundtrends.com

 


Algoriddim Djay 2

 

Algoriddim’s original Djay iPad got a big boost from Apple when it was included in their earliest iPad announcements and presentations, because of its gorgeous turntable-based interface and ability to give almost anyone the chops to rock a house party.

Last year, Algoriddim unleashed Djay 2, with a truckload of Traktor and Serato-esque amenities such as key detection, iOS inter-app audio support, EQ, Kaoss-style effects, and the ability to instantly toggle to sample-triggering with a drum pad style interface. Better still, many of these features are compatible with a range of MIDI controllers, including popular DJ products from Vestax and Pioneer.

For ten bucks, Djay 2 delivers a surprising amount of performance functionality and seems poised for further growth as a legitimate option for live performance.

 

SoundTrends Meta.DJ

 

When I reviewed Meta.DJ back in October 2012, I immediately fell in love with its approach to integrating decks, loops, arpeggiators, effects, and drum machines. Of all of the DJ apps available for the iPad ecosystem, Meta.DJ feels the most like a cousin to Ableton Live.

The basic concept for Meta.DJ is simple: The screen contains four quadrants, each of which can contain one of five musical devices: Track Decks (an iTunes-integrated track player), Drumtron (a drum machine), One Shot (sample triggering “pads” onscreen), Looptastic (a loop player with up to eight custom loops), Riser (for adding rises and whooshes on-the-fly), or Sampl3r (a sample-based synth/arpeggiator). 

If you want to create a setup with two Track Decks, a One Shot, and a Looptastic, no problem. Want to create a different setup with two Looptastics, a Sampl3r, and a One Shot? Go for it. What’s more, each of these configurations can be saved and recalled for different parts of your performance.

With that kind of flexibility, it’s a bit of shame that Sound Trends hasn’t updated Meta.DJ in a while. While that may be a cause for some concern, that doesn’t mean it’s not still 100 percent viable. In fact, I recently tested it on an iPad Air, and the extra horsepower made the experience even more fluid and enjoyable. If you’re looking for a more techy, quasi-music-production approach to your iPad sets, Meta.DJ is your best bet.


Native Instruments Traktor DJ

 

Native Instruments’ iPad version of Traktor is the most traditional DJ-centric of the iPad apps discussed here, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a great choice for getting your feet wet. While it’s limited to two track decks and doesn’t provide live tools like sample-triggering or the ability to layer additional loops (yet), it’s still got some great amenities like trackpad-based delay, flanger, and a cool-sounding filter gate. Its integrated EQ is a nice touch, as well.

What’s more, Traktor DJ for iPad is also compatible with Native Instruments’ own Traktor Kontrol Z1 mixer interface, so you can get truly hands-on as you spin tracks in it.

Although Traktor DJ is the simplest of the three apps, it’s also the newest, which means that it’s inevitable that there will be powerful upgrades in the future, and it’s reassuring to know that it’s got the full support of one of the biggest software developers in the industry.

 
 

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