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In the modern age of music, there is no single “right” way to be a DJ. Your DJ setup may include vinyl turntables and mixers, CDJs, DJ software and controllers, or anything that allows you to mix two or more tracks together. These methods are not mutually exclusive; it’s easier than ever to create a setup that allows you to mix methods and formats.
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However, using one of the best DJ software apps is arguably the easiest way to DJ when it comes to convenience and affordability. Turntables, CDJs, and mixers are expensive tools, and assuming you already own a laptop, you can start basic digital DJing for free if you choose the right software.
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Add a hardware controller, and you’ve got a setup that feels great, lets you do everything possible with an old-school setup, and more.
While Pioneer DJ’s rekordbox (opens in new tab) is relatively new, at least as far as full-fledged mixing environments go, it has quickly risen to the top tier for our money. However, this should come as no surprise.
On the one hand, rekordbox’s years as a tool for analyzing and organizing tracks means it has a solid foundation, and its library and preparation tools remain among its strongest assets. Pioneer’s CDJs, on the other hand, have long been the industry standard, so porting the functionality of those players to a cross-platform app always seemed like an obvious move.
As impressive as rekordbox is, it’s far from unbeatable. Like Pioneer DJ gear in general, rekordbox is more rooted in the club DJ world, while for scratch DJs and turntable players, Serato (opens in new tab) remains the standard to beat.
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Another thing that might put some users off is that some core features require an ongoing subscription to access. If you don’t want to be lured into a subscription model, try Traktor (opens in a new tab), which—at least for now—requires a single payment for lifetime access.
Alternatively, Mixxx (opens in new tab) is completely free and open source, which is obviously cool. However, this comes at the cost of its lack of integration with streaming services like Beatport or Soundcloud, which is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.
Pricing: Subscription – Free, $/£9.99p/m (Core), $/£14.99p/m (Creative), $/£29.99p/m (Pro). Some features can also be unlocked using a compatible controller
+ Rekordbox library is compatible with Pioneer’s various controllers, CDJs and standalone players + Edit mode allows users to quickly rearrange tracks + Key features are free to use
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Pioneer DJ’s rekordbox has been around since the late 2000s, but for the most part, it existed only as a tool for organizing and preparing digital music for use by the company’s CDJ. It wasn’t until 2015 that Pioneer expanded the app into full-fledged DJ mixing software, but it quickly became one of the most important products in the industry.
In terms of mixing capabilities, most of rekordbox’s toolset is similar to that found in Serato or Traktor. However, it’s all well implemented, and the feature set grows with each new update, including features like sequencer, visual mixing, lighting controls, and lyric playback, as well as effects, sampler, and DVS controls, among others Essential tool.
Its strongest aspect, however, is the track organization tool, which was recently updated to add not only cloud library sharing, but also cloud-based analysis. This allows the rekordbox library to quickly access BPM, key phrase information from a huge central database of all tracks analyzed by the user base.
The elegant edit mode is also an impressive feature, offering basic DAW-like functionality, allowing users to make rough and quick edits to tracks.
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While the DVS controls are as good as any of the competition, rekordbox’s main appeal is with club DJs. The main selling point here is the mixing capabilities and how easily your song library can be transferred from a small home setup (centered around the DDJ-400) to a professional-grade CDJ rig or top-of-the-line final controller in the club.
The rekordbox feature set is accessible in various tiers, some of which require monthly or annual subscriptions. Basic features, track preparation and export tools are all available for free, and many mixing features can be unlocked using a Pioneer DJ controller. However, full cloud functionality will cost you around $20/£20 per month.
Price: Serato DJ Pro – Subscription $/£199 or $/£9.99p/month. Serato DJ Essentials – $/£299 or $/£11.99 per month. Serato DJ Suite – $/£399 or $/£19.99 per month. Cheaper expansion available when using compatible hardware
+ Still the best choice for impressing DJs + Expanded and flexible toolset + Compatible with a wide variety of hardware
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Serato pioneered the digital vinyl recording system in the early 2000s and has been a major player in the digital DJ scene ever since. Its various software applications have undergone several iterations and name changes over the years, but recently simplified the lineup around a single flagship application, Serato DJ Pro, and its free version, Serato DJ Quarrel.
While you’ll find Serato DJ users in all corners of the DJ scene, it’s most entrenched in scratch DJ and record listings. Part of the reason for this is the company’s heritage, but also its more diverse approach to controller compatibility. Serato doesn’t make any hardware itself which means unlike Traktor or rekordbox where all official controllers are made by the same brand, Serato works with a wide range of officially sanctioned gear from Rane, Denon, Numark, Pioneer DJ and more . This naturally leads to more diverse setup options, especially for digital vinyl users.
While the basic software offering is pretty straightforward at first glance, many advanced features (such as DVS support, audio mixing effects, and visual mixing controls) require additional subscriptions or hardware unlocks, so it’s not quite the one-size-fits-all like it first seems.
+ Smart, easy-to-use interface + One-time purchase, no subscription required + Can MIDI map to many different MIDI devices
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First launched in 2000, Traktor is one of the longest-running DJ apps on the market. Much like its longtime rival, Serato, NI’s DJ software has gone through a series of different iterations over the years, the latest being Traktor Pro 3 (which, confusingly, is completely unrelated to the previous Traktor 3, released in 2007).
While Traktor can still rival rekordbox and Serato in 2022, its parent company, Native Instruments, has undergone some notable changes in recent years, and from an outside observer’s perspective, NI doesn’t appear to be as focused on its DJ offerings as it once was. The software itself is still fully supported and regularly updated (native Apple M1 support is coming in 2022, for example), but the last piece of new Traktor hardware we saw from the company was the S4 Mk3, dating back to 2018.
That said, there’s still a lot to like about the Traktor Pro. While NI itself is slowly rolling out new official “plug and play” controllers, there’s still a huge list of “Traktor ready” devices, and flexible MIDI routing means you can use Traktor with any number of tools.
Its interface is also clean and well laid out, especially in its latest version, which offers all the depth a professional DJ needs to use while remaining uncluttered and easily accessible. It’s great value, too, at $99/£89 for the full version with DVS, and without any of the extra subscription options common to competitors.
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+ It’s a full DAW…but you can DJ with it+ Make, play and perform everything from one app+ Audio processing tools are great for mixing and editing tracks
Ableton Live is a bit of an anomaly in this list because it’s not really a DJ software application, or at least it wasn’t originally conceived as one. However, while it may have originally been thought of as a loop-centric performance and production tool, in the few years since its inception, Live has become a favorite of DJs around the world.
The key to its popularity among DJs is the Session View, a nicely implemented and cleanly designed window for launching synchronized audio samples, MIDI clips and tracks. It’s this vision, combined with the intuitive way Live handles audio retiming, that makes the DAW an excellent tool for blurring the line between DJing and live performance.
With the added benefit of a range of built-in instruments and effects, the ability to host plug-ins, and intuitive MIDI learning features, Live is an unrivaled one-stop shop for electronic musicians.