The title for the best DJ software is forever changing and a personal choice amongst modern DJ’s. Your choice is going to be primarily ruled by what you are exposed to as a newbie and what you are intending to do.
Are you a mobile or karaoke DJ? Do you want to play in clubs? Do you love programming and coding as well as music? Are you techy, but not that techy, looping and mixing sounds fun? Are you wanting to win the next block party and take home the Scratch title? or mixing your tunes at home sound sweet?
All of these factors are going to play a role in your personal decision and who you think is the ruler when it comes to the best DJ software. Read on for a breakdown of the top contenders.
If you DJ on old-fashioned turntables with vinyl, you don’t need DJ software. The only form of DJing that actually doesn’t need software in the modern digital age. If you DJ using DJ CD decks playing from CDs, you don’t need DJ software (you’ll need software to burn the CDs you’ll be DJing with though) if you DJ from USB sticks, you also don’t need DJ software – you will benefit from music library software and software to help you prepare your music which will make your life much easier.
Digital DJing’s has it’s up’s and downs. More people are able to access the features and fun of DJing, a powerful upside with the downside being the learning curve is much shorter. Doing everything manually was much slower and more deliberate, without this forced pace there are a lot more DJ’s and most aren’t as skilled as they could be. The art of DJing lends itself to hardware since you ideally want to make constant adjustments over everything, ensuring that your set is as tight as can be. Anyone reading this who has DJ’ed before knows that during a set you and your music become one, and you tend to work your hardware like a musician plays any musical instrument; The tactile feeling is important. DJ software on its own isn’t going to provide this, what a good program will be is the brain of your DJ set-up and you, the DJ, bring the heart.
While software contains the backbone of your DJ sets your library (& your library management), your controller is the tactile platform for you to play your collection and you are the human element to bring it all together.
What does DJ software do? It lets you work with your music library, and contains your decks and often your mixer, and has the bells and whistles, like effects, or video and live remixing. If you want to control your lights, link up with Ableton Live for DJ/production hybrid DJing, or any myriad of other things its the software is what lets you do it.
While an individual DJ software can be complex, the concept is pretty simple. It’s a software that virtually recreates two (or more) turntables (a.k.a. decks or music players), and a mixer to mix between the decks. Another big component of DJ software is the music library, which is basically your collection of music imported into the software (usually found in the lower half of the screen). The software can quickly scan and analyze your music to automatically determine your tracks’ tempos, the keys they’re in, and other essential DJ info with a high degree of accuracy.
computer + DJ software + DJ controller = the ideal digital DJ setup! Just add a human, I mean DJ.
Until fairly recently, digital DJing was a wide-open field, you would find DJs hitting the club with a mix of gear that might include laptops, soundcards, controllers, or bulging CD wallets. During the past few years, things have changed. Pioneer’s rapid development of Rekordbox paired with hardware updates and additions to their CDJs, like USB integration, improved looping, and quantization – means that a USB stick and a pair of headphones is all most DJs need to bring in order to perform.
While Pioneer CDJs has pushed DJ’s towards using Rekordbox resulting in an industry standard of sorts, its certainly not a solution that works for everyone. Many pro DJs don’t use DJ software. They play from USB drives or some even still use CDs. Pro DJ’s also have access to equipment that is designed to let them play without a laptop in sight they play on a setup that costs AU $10,300, before speakers or cables are even thought about.
In order to find out what the best software is I’ve combed the internet for the facts, read a multitude of very opinionated forums (DJ’s tend to have a lot of opinions & they don’t mind sprouting them, it seems) and had a good old fashioned mix with the top contenders. Probably more than any other question, this is the most asked and first question that beginners ask. While there is no right answer for everyone, this article will cover the big players and give you some firm ideas. By the end of it, what is right for you should be clear or clearer at least.
***********Disclaimer; I personally DJ with CDJ’s & USB’s prepped in Rekordbox, my primary library management tool since version 3, & I have used RekordboxDJ intermittently not as a staple. Currently, my home setup is Traktor Pro 3 and Rekordbox for library management and USB prep for my gigs. DJay Pro 2 is on my iPad & laptop for Spotify fun at home. I produce with Ableton Live 10 and started this journey playing Ableton based looping sets in Ableton 7. I “had a go” on Virtual DJ at this point and I currently play back2back with my longtime collaborator in Serato DJ Pro.
- Serato is the most “traditional” DJ experience of the three. It’s focused around a standard set of 2 or 4 decks with optional sampler and effects (depending on your controller and license).
- What’s unique about it: Arguably its lack of uniqueness. Or, more positively, consistency over complexity. IMO Serato stands out as a very straightforward, very simple experience. It’s meant for traditional DJs who are tired of carrying vinyl everywhere.
- Biggest strengths: It’s simple and predictable. Every controller you buy for it comes pre-mapped so you don’t have to spend any time customizing it.
- Biggest weaknesses: If you want to go outside the lanes of traditional DJing it might be a little constraining. Customization is very limited.
- This deserves its own bullet: You need a controller specifically authorized by Serato. They’re sold as Serato compatible and usually include a Lite version you can get started with, but this also means if you picked up a controller that isn’t approved by Serato then you can’t use it without also buying an authorized one. I think this is how they prevent piracy.
- Traktor is kind of a hybrid of Serato and Ableton. You can have up to 4 decks in four different flavors: a traditional single track deck, one that allows you to play songs that have their parts split out (good for remixing or mashing up, but these aren’t super common), one that lets you layer samples in an Ableton-esque grid, and one that lets you use outside audio. You also have the ability to route the tracks through four “effects units” that offer flexible individual effects or combined effects for added complexity.
- What’s unique about it: It’s traditional DJing with some added flexibility. If you want to do more you can, but you can still just throw on tracks and mix between them.
- Biggest strength: It’s customizable, but not so customizable you’ll get lost. You can mix two tracks and layer samples, mash up multitracks, and so on in a focused environment. Unlike Serato, you can use any controller you want with it, and it has pretty advanced mapping functionality so you can customize a lot of different controllers to work with it how you need.
- Biggest weakness: I’m actually having trouble thinking of a particular downside to Traktor. I did find the interface to be really clunky until I bought the Kontrol S4 that’s specifically made and mapped for it.
- PioneerDJ has taken Rekordbox added in some of the best bits of Traktor and Serato DJ Pro called it Rekordbox DJ, a linear, traditional 4 deck DJing experience. It has waveform previews that no other software has, with switchable extra panels for things like pads, effects, sampler, recording etc, quantisation and iTunes integration and you can DJ with it with no hardware at all if you want.
- What’s unique about it: The library management blows the other contenders on the list, out of the water. All the work you do from “day one to superstardom” on your music library – beat gridding, cue points etc – will be available to you on any modern Pioneer gear, whether you’re DJing using Rekordbox DJ with your laptop and a controller, Rekordbox DJ with your laptop in the DJ booth, or via USB the “standard” Rekordbox way, computer free. Even if your DJing from just your keyboard! All your cue points, grids, loops, and info embedded into your tracks, providing the smallest gigging footprint and an easy transition into the club
- Biggest strength: The library! Rekordbox’s library features, smart playlists, great recommendation filters, that Serato should/could have implemented years ago.
- Biggest weakness: Rekordbox isn’t a polished product at this point, comparatively to Serato and Traktor its GUI is a little clunky or not as slick. It only works with pioneer controllers!
Here is a typical DJ template in Ableton.
Then there’s Ableton Live. While designed initially as a live performance tool, it was quickly adopted by those looking for an alternative way to DJ. Freed from the constraints of manual beatmatching, users are able to instead incorporate live performance tools, effects, and approaches into their sets, allowing for fluid, amorphous constructions that can often redefine the concept of DJing itself. Your own works in progress, unreleased tracks, and individual stems can sit alongside finished and released music, bringing a unique flavour to your sets that can often be harder to achieve through other means.
- Ableton is an extremely nontraditional DJ experience and debatably the most flexible of the three. I’ve used it the most so I’ll write the most about it.
- What’s unique about it: It’s music production software first, but that’s what makes it so powerful. You can do everything from a traditional “two decks and a mixer” style setup all the way up to super complex sets with dozens or hundreds of “decks” layering samples, loops, full tracks, and original instrumentation all at once. If you’ve ever thought about producing your own music it’s also a good way to get your foot in the door there. With plugins, Max 4 Live, and Ableton Link it plays nicely with other tools and is immensely flexible.
- Biggest strengths:
- You can (have to) pre-beat-match all your clips in order for them to play in time. You go through and mark beats to help keep the clips from drifting out of time. Then when you’re playing live everything will stay in sync.
- You also can have as many tracks as your computer can handle, so you can do tons of complex layering.
- Astounding flexibility. I honestly can’t really express in words how flexible it is but I’ve seen people do some awesome stuff with it.
- Biggest weaknesses:
- Pretty much incompatible with a traditional DJing experience. You could probably figure out ways to beat-match and scratch in it but I wouldn’t want to. (Most people who scratch with Ableton solve this by running Serato or Traktor separately and beatmatching/syncing with Ableton.)
- More complexity means more time to get started and figure out how it works. If you’re prone to distraction or perfectionism you might find yourself endlessly tweaking and customizing your project instead of actually producing.
- It costs substantially more than Serato or Traktor after Intro. This makes sense since it can do so much more.
- You’ll also find that the controllers that work well for it are completely different from the ones that work well for Serato and Traktor, so that’s an extra cost.
- Virtual DJ offers up 4 decks in a traditional layout, it looks clean and spacious and making the decks easy to use with a keyboard. All the features that you might ever need are there, an extensive range of effects (which however are not as good as Traktor Pro or Serato DJ), samples, loops, auto loop, cue roll, too much to sum up here. The space between two decks can be customized to show master output controls, video controls, mixer or scratch controls (featuring Serato like vertical waveforms).
- What ‘s unique about it: The software is rock solid, and on a recent laptop, be it PC or Mac it runs smooth as silk. Offering the best controller-free DJing experience, Virtual DJ was made to be operated on a laptop, with a laptop keyboard and mouse. Triggering hot cues and loops is very easy and responsive, and always on time. Virtual DJ
- Biggest strengths: Live streaming is integrated into the ecosystem, it is free for home use. And it goes with everything, supporting over 200 DJ controllers.
- Biggest weaknesses: The license is quite expensive compared to any other DJ software. You can pay USD 299 for everything and be able to connect every available controller, or you can pay USD 19.99/month on a subscription basis. The last option is to buy a specific license for your controller, and the price varies depending on your controller, for example, for the DDJ-SX2 it’s USD 199.
It might not be the slickest looking program at first glance, and in a market so concentrated on “industry standards,” it might not help you if you are using someone else’s system, but Mixxx is a winner when it comes to the most cost-effective DJ solution available today.
- The only completely free and flexible software on the list with an extremely strong and friendly community.
- What ‘s unique about it: Free timecode software and Mixxx can be mapped to any MIDI hardware controller. Highly customisable software.
- Biggest strengths: Live streaming is also integrated into the Mixxx ecosystem, it is free. Library has Traktor and iTunes Intergration.
- Biggest weaknesses: Suited to the adventurous, can take some tweaking, not as plug and play as Traktor, Serato or Virtual DJ.
As of today, I’d say that if you want to DJ with no-jog wheel controllers and are primarily aiming to push the boundaries of electronic music as a DJ/producer, you should go with Traktor or Ableton Live (they play well together, in a super fun way). If you’re a more general DJ in the broadest possible sense, anyone from a scratch DJ to a wedding jock, Serato DJ Pro is tried and true, a very established ecosystem that will not let you down, there is an intro version that is completely free. And if you play karaoke, video, mobile, and want the ultimate in flexibility (it works with anything), Virtual DJ is a good choice, free for home use. If you are looking for a customisable ecosystem then Mixxx is your answer, with its potential to be anything you require, and free.
If you think you’re more or less always going to be using Pioneer gear, and you want to keep your life simple, and indeed if you’re not sure whether or not you want to DJ from laptop (controller/DVS/HID), or USB drive, or even both – well, Rekordbox/Rekordbox DJ is an ecosystem that is built for you. The library management software is completely free, with a 30 Day trial and you can pay for a subscription rather than shelling out for the whole program.
There are more choices facing a DJ today than ever before, and while this can be liberating, it can also be crippling. But how you play is individual to you, and there’s no doubt an ideal software solution to match. Considerations such as whether you’d like to get into vinyl or have aspirations for live performance should, of course, be taken into account – but the best option is still to head to a store or a friend’s house and try them out for yourself. You’ll know which works for you.