Remember when the only way to play music for people was with vinyl records and turntables? No? Me neither. I am part of this 'millennial' generation and have rarely had only one option for anything music related. If there has been one constant in the music industry over the past decade or so, it is that manufacturers of DJ hardware and software are seldom idle. There are always new versions of DAWs, updates to plugins, and hardware that keeps getting smaller and brighter. With all of the choices available, how does a new DJ (or an experienced one looking for something new) start looking at building a gear setup and performance routine? Let's take a look at a couple different factors…
What kind of DJ do you want to be? Such a simple question, yet can sometimes be difficult to answer in the early stages of your DJ career. There are quite a few niches that you can try to carve out for yourself including being a resident at a club, being a producer/travelling DJ, or being a wedding/special events DJ. While you can use most setups for all occasions, there are advantages and disadvantages to different combinations.
There is a gear standard that most modern clubs adhere to; Technics 1200 turntables and Serato Scratch Live. If the digital two-deck setup appeals to you and you want to work weekly gigs at clubs, this might be a good choice for you. Turntables are heavy, so if they become part of your kit you probably want to play at venues where you don't have to haul them in and out. This being said, any other digital vinyl software will also work well for these types of situations. If you prefer Traktor to Serato you might just have to bring your own audio interface to hook up to the club system. You won't have to bring much to the club, but to practice at home you will need a bit of space and a a reasonable budget because a professional quality setup can be cumbersome as well as expensive.
If your goal is to become a producer/travelling DJ all bets are figuratively off. Obviously you will need to produce some music, release it, get a booking agent, etc., but that is an entirely different beast and not the topic of this article. Assuming that you have already had some success in the aforementioned areas you will need to prepare your mobile gear rig. At this point in your career your gear will largely be a matter of preference, fitting with your production and performance style. While the two-deck digital setup using Serato or Traktor is still a good choice, there are many other options available. Personally, I prefer to use Ableton Live with a combination of different MIDI controllers. Live works well as both a DAW and as performance software and can be used with almost any MIDI controller and/or hardware effects. There is such a range of MIDI controllers available that you could fit your entire rig into something as small as a laptop case or you as large as several flight cases. Depending on exactly what you get this setup can be both space and budget efficient.
Being a wedding/special events DJ is a bit of a different beast. These types of gigs usually involve more than just playing music, you have to be the DJ, MC, and the sound technician. The venues that you play might not always be setup for sound so you might have to bring loudspeakers, amplifiers, mixers, etc. One of the best ways to break into this market is to find work with an established events company because they will most likely have all of this gear. However, you will still need to know how to set everything up. Special events (and weddings in particular) can take many different forms so you will need to be prepared for anything. This can include having CD players and MP3 player connections for requests, multiple microphones, and a VAST catalogue of music. Fancy mixing techniques are not essential here, so an ideal gear setup would be focused on simplicity and versatility.
The three scenarios above are by no means a comprehensive list of venues, gigs, and equipment, but they highlight three distinct levels of gear ranging from bringing only your laptop to bringing an entire sound system. A professional DJ should be able to operate on any of the above systems and should be able to adapt to whatever setup is presented to them. If you're anything like me then you will want to accumulate as much gear as possible and try it all in different combinations, but if not don't worry. The safest bet for any DJ is to work with a two-deck setup. Whether you start learning on an all-in-one MIDI controller or have an expensive club-ready system, the performance fundamentals behind this setup will get you through most gigs. There are many resources available to learn how to DJ in this style and other styles including signing up for an online DJ School
. You should check it out!