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Best DJ Software: Beginners Start Here

Author: Ross Palmer

Date: April 2, 2019

Reads: 1,785

Ross Palmer worked at world-famous Armada Music in Amsterdam. He also helped create one of the largest dance music blogs in the world. He has DJed at clubs and festivals around the world. Through his ultra-popular Udemy course, he has taught professional DJs who are currently releasing music on the Armada Music, Spinnin' Records, Ultra, and Revealed labels.

When it comes to DJ software, there’s no question that a TON has changed in the last decade.

A seismic shift in the industry is now almost complete, taking us from the analog days of vinyl turntables right up through the latest DJ controllers.

If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to attend an industry event like NAMM, you’ll know that there are dozens of serious competitors competing for our hard-earned dollars, and each year the products just get shinier and snazzier.

In this article on the Best DJ Software for beginners, we’ll compare and contrast:

  • Serato
  • Traktor
  • Ableton
  • FL Studio

In the end, we’ll reach some conclusions that might surprise you, but I promise that I have your best interests at heart!

What Is the Purpose of DJ Software?

Let’s start with some definitions.

There are two types of DJ software categories that are relevant:

  • Software for live DJing (such as Traktor, Serato, Ableton, etc)
  • Software for “offline” DJing (such as Ableton or FL Studio)

Those who are a little more experienced in the industry will notice that Ableton is one of the few pieces of DJ software that can be used for BOTH live and “offline” mixing, so let’s follow up with two more descriptions.

What do I mean by “live” and what do I mean by “offline” mixing?

Live Mixing:
Software that is used to DJ in front of a crowd, helping you create a DJ performance on the spot, with plenty of flexibility and the ability to curate your set as would someone playing on turntables or via CDJs, etc.

Offline Mixing:
Software that is used to create a DJ set for recording or playback. For example, pre-recorded radio shows, podcasts, Hardwell on Air, A State of Trance, etc.

As DJs, we need to be able to both perform live in front of a crowd and also upload mixes to places like SoundCloud and Mixcloud.

Of course, ANY software that you use to DJ has a strong implication worth considering: namely, that to use SOFTWARE to DJ by definition means that you need a COMPUTER to DJ. After all, you can’t run ANY software without a computer! So knowing that, you need to ask yourself first and foremost: “Do I want to use a computer to DJ in front of a crowd?”

Should you spend your time buying or using software to DJ at all?

I’m going to get a little bit philosophical here, but bear with me, it will all make sense soon. I’ve covered the topic of why I think DJs should NOT use laptops to DJ in front of a crowd in another article I’ve written for this website. And yet, I still feel there is much to be said for finding the best DJ software for beginners.

Live Mixing Software: Serato, Traktor, etc.

When I first began DJing, I was limited by the number of vinyl records I could physically carry with me to a gig. If I was by myself, I could really only bring a few hours of records to any performance. This was severely limiting in terms of what I could do. If people had requests? Forget about it!

When Serato first came out, it seemed like an amazing thing. Serato let me use my existing vinyl turntables, with a “control vinyl” to hook up my laptop. Now, I could have as many songs for a gig as could fit on my hard drive! Suddenly it was easy to play for 8 hours in a row, which I did just about every weekend in college.

For me, this was HUGE. Not only that, but Serato let me keep the feel of vinyl, enabling me to scratch and beatmatch exactly as I had before. Huge. And now, Traktor is here, and it offers almost all of the same functionality. Many professional DJs use both (and laptops) to perform today.

These programs are, in my opinion, especially useful for the hip-hop or “scratch” DJs who want to go digital.

Advantages of Live Mixing DJ Software:

  • Works with your existing turntable set up.
  • Can be used with Pioneer CDJs or vinyl turntables.
  • Allows you the tactile feel of touching vinyl.
  • Allows you to have as many records with you as your hard drive can hold!

Disadvantages of Live Mixing DJ Software:

  • You need a laptop for use on stage.
  • You need to bring special equipment for a club gig.

If you like to scratch, you want “live mixing software.

Pioneer CDJs are good for many things, but one thing they can’t quite replicate is the physical touch aspect of a vinyl turntable. There’s a reason that the DMC champions are all using vinyl or Serato to do their work. Scratching with a little platter on a CDJ will work, but it offers nowhere near the control of a large, tactile vinyl record.

So the bottom line is this:
If you are an aspiring hip-hop DJ or turntablist, you want a vinyl record set-up (Technics turntables) and Serato. Period.

Slide Do You *Really Have What it Takes? Do You *Really
Have What it Takes?
Let's See Let's See

Offline Mixing Software: Ableton, FL Studio

At the same time as I was discovering Serato, a little known program called Ableton was making waves. At first, I didn’t understand at ALL how people were using it to DJ live. But one thing became immediately clear — people who used Ableton could somehow use the computer to beatmatch EXACTLY on beat.

The precision was insane! Personally, I didn’t like that the “computer was doing the DJing for them,” but the end result was undeniable. This was how people like Skrillex really shone in that time period.

Of course, there’s also a famous video of Skrillex smashing his laptop when it crashed during a gig, which is why I never fully trust(ed) laptops when DJing live, and I still don’t (as mentioned in my other article), but… in my opinion, the greatest thing Ableton brought to the world was warping.

Offline DJ Mixing Software’s Most Powerful Feature: WARPING!

In Ableton, you can take an existing track and “warp” it so that it falls EXACTLY on the beat of Ableton’s built-in metronome. This means that if two tracks are correctly “warped”, when you play them together they will be PERFECTLY in sync and beat match with 100% precision.

This feature had/has profound consequences for not only live DJing but also for making perfect DJ mixes to share with your friends and fans.

Ableton also lets you use this warping feature in producing tracks, making it easier than any time in history to add loops, samples, and bring them all together in a sample-perfect way that falls exactly on beat. A few years ago, my colleague at Armada Music told me about Ableton for production, and my world was changed ever since! Coming from Logic Pro, I now know I can never go back.

Advantages of Offline Mixing DJ Software:

  • Warping makes beatmatching 100%, sample perfect.
  • You can warp tracks in Ableton, export them, and use them for better mixing on CDJ systems, etc.
  • It’s the best possible way to make “mash-ups,” both live and offline.
  • You can mix wildly different samples, songs, and genres seamlessly.
  • You can both perform and record FLAWLESS mixes.
  • Allows you to have as many records with you as your hard drive can hold!

Disadvantages of Live Mixing DJ Software:

  • You need a laptop for use on stage.
  • You need to bring special equipment for a club gig.
  • You can’t scratch or touch your turntables in the same way as Serato, etc.

Summary: Why I Recommend Ableton

I recommend Ableton because it’s the only program out there that can be used for live DJing, offline DJing, and production at the highest level. Of course, there’s a catch:

I actually DON’T recommend using Ableton for live DJing, even though you can. I recommend Ableton for preparing songs, for making mash-ups, and production.

But at the end of the day, there’s a reason why Skrillex went from laptop DJing to CDJs… Not only are CDJs the industry standard, found in every club and festival, but they also allow you to interact with the crowd more without staring at your laptop all day.

When you DJ live using a laptop, you run the risk of it crashing which will ruin your party. While some notable DJs still use Ableton to mix live (like Paul van Dyk, etc.), you will notice that they now bring two laptops with them when they play — in case one of them crashes! I’ve witnessed computer crashes live on stage at numerous events, and it’s not pretty.

But I still say that Ableton is the best DJ software because it offers the most variety and utility for DJs across the board.

You will get the most bang-for-your-buck out of Ableton. If you have Ableton on your computer — and no other software — and an XDJ-RX for DJing, you have EVERYTHING you need to DJ and produce at the highest level. Bar none!

*Note: I am not affiliated with Ableton in any way, or endorsed by them. I was not paid or compensated by Ableton to write this article, or any of the other brands mentioned.

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