Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Learn to Start DJ'ing with Virtual DJ

Thanks for visiting my blog.  This post will be part of an extensive tutorial for beginners about Virtual DJ, a software package for both windows and Macs, which is suitable for both beginning DJ’s and professional performances.  If you want to watch the videos for this series, instead of reading this blog post, the links to the six videos are near the bottom of this page.

You may wonder why I'm qualified to teach this, so I'll introduce myself.  I’m Jonathan Clark, also known online as DJ Bolivia, and I’ve been DJ’ing both as a hobby and professionally for over twenty years.  I've played shows on five different continents.  I have quite a few different video tutorials on YouTube, about everything from DJ’ing to music production to audio engineering tutorials, plus a lot of fun stuff like music videos, performances by other DJ’s, and stuff like that.  You can find an organized list of all those videos on my website at:  djbolivia.ca/videos

Let me be very up front about something right away, because a lot of “professional” DJ’s who learned to beat-mix on vinyl and CD’s can sometimes look down on DJ’ing with software on computers or mobile devices.  They might say that only amateurs would use Virtual DJ.  I understand that mindset:  I played on vinyl at clubs and at warehouse parties for about fifteen years before I even touched a pitch-controlled CD player, and even then, with some reluctance.  I felt the same reluctance before I did my first live show using Ableton Live software to perform.  But having recently started playing with Virtual DJ (just for the sake of this tutorial series), I’m seriously impressed with its capabilities.




The equipment that you use as a DJ is just a set of tools.  Ultimately, although your dance floor does appreciate the technical skills required to mix songs together seamlessly as you progress through your set, the most important part of your performance is your programming, which refers to the music that you pick.  In my experience, ninety percent of what a dance floor judges you on is your programming, and only ten percent on technical skills.  Let’s be clear here … you DO have to have good flow to your set, with no gaps between songs, no times when two songs are playing simultaneously and clashing badly, and a consistent beat as you flow from song to song.  And you need to make sure you have a consistent volume as you flow through your set.  That’s what your DJ'ing tools help you with, and it doesn’t matter if you have turntables, CD players, or DJ’ing software.  After you control those things, what’s most important is the music itself.

Don’t get me wrong - I’m not against learning the skills of beat-mixing on traditional equipment.  In fact, if you want to become a professional or even a semi-professional DJ someday, then I highly recommend that you DO eventually learn to beat-mix on CD’s player or turntables, or both.  However, I feel that most people reading this post and watching these videos are probably DJ’s who are just getting started.  If you’re in this “beginner DJ” category, you’re probably not going to be getting booked to play festivals or major clubs for a while.  You should assume that you’re going to have to devote some time at home to practicing the basics before you play your first public event.  And assume that most of the first dozen or so public performances you do might be at house parties and for friends, before you get your first booking for a public gig with an audience that paid to be at the show.  I want you to realize that if you’re going to try to become a professional DJ someday, then absolutely yes, you want to think about beat-mixing on CD players or vinyl within a year or so.  But using DJ software is a great way to get introduced to performing in front of people, and takes away some of the pressure of the technical aspects, so you can focus on learning how to read a crowd, knowing how to get through the difficult task of performing when you don’t have anyone on the dance floor yet, and dealing with people hounding you for requests in a dimly lit and noisy environment when you’re trying to cue (queue) up the next song.

Having set the scene, let me emphasize that this post and videos are for BEGINNING DJ’s.  If you already have experience as a performing DJ, and you’re comfortable with computers, be aware that you can probably figure the program out pretty quickly on your own.  The pace of this video series will be too slow for you.  I’m going to assume that the audience here is beginners, and I’m going to take my time and explain everything as clearly as I can, and try not to make any assumptions.  If you’re an experienced DJ and you want to watch these videos anyway, to make sure you’re not overlooking anything, well … I thank you for your patience.

The videos to accompany this post consist of a four-part series.  The first video is basically saying exactly what this post is explaining, so if you read through this whole post, you can probably skip the first video.  I’ll describe what I’m attempting to teach, cover an overview of what the software can do, and I’ll wrap up with a quick demonstration of installation and licensing (installation/licensing is in the video only, not in this blog post).  In video #1, I’m basically just talking to the camera.

The next three videos are more technical.  They're not transcribed into this blog post, because they rely on visuals.  In those videos, you’ll be looking at screen captures most of the time.  Here’s what I covered:

          1 – Overview, comparison with other DJ software, installation
          2 – The console, controls, and the media browser
          3 – Basic mixing, using both mouse and controllers
          4 – Going through the settings and preferences

Above and beyond that, I have links to a couple of other videos.  At the moment, there's one video where I record a full episode of my weekly radio show (Subterranean Homesick Grooves) using just a simple Numark Mixtrack controller plus the keyboard and mouse, and a second video where I get a bit more fancy and use a full-fledged professional DJ mixer, the Allen & Heath Xone 4D, with integrated soundcard and controller panels.  I may add some more Virtual DJ performance videos in the future.

If you’re just starting out with DJ’ing, I’m going to try to keep things simple, but I’m going to have to make a few assumptions in these videos and assume that you know some of the basics already.  There may be parts where you’re confused about things that I’m talking about.  If you get to any point where you’re getting confused about what I’m explaining, I want you to pause the Virtual DJ video and do some side research.  I have a bunch of other videos already online that I think will teach you just about everything you need to know.  If you’re starting totally from scratch, you may need an entire weekend to watch them all, but they’ll give you a firm foundation about what you’re getting yourself into, before you learn exactly how to use Virtual DJ.  Basically, I have five other individual videos or sets of videos that will help you learn everything else you need to know.  Here’s what they are:

First, my DJ’ing for Beginners series is a set of four videos designed for complete beginners, which covers a complete overview of the basics of the DJ industry.  This series covers dozens of topics, including all of the following:  Different types of DJ’s, different ways to perform, equipment, vinyl vs CD vs digital, basic beat-mixing & turntablism, mixers, headphones, turntables, pitch control CD players, digital performance equipment, effects machines, controllers, amplifiers, speakers, subs, monitors, compressors, equalizers, lighting, microphones, licensing, programming, set flow, DJ software, Ableton Live, working with promoters, getting booked, demo mixes, producing your own remixes and original tracks, and more.

If you’ve never used a DJ mixer before, my UnderstandingAudio Mixers & DJ Mixers video will teach you about all the different parts and capabilities of a mixer, so when you first start using a real mixer, you won’t be intimidated by the dozens of knobs and faders and other controls.  Understanding this video will give you a very good understanding of how the Virtual DJ on-screen mixer works.

I have two videos about beat-mixing.  The first video is for CD’s and the second video is for turntables.  You only need to watch the first one, since that video is the one with all the theory you’ll need to know about counting beats, understanding phrasing, and knowing how to blend two songs together smoothly.  The same principles that I explain in that video are used in mixing within Virtual DJ, although the benefit is that Virtual DJ makes it much easier to match up the beats.

If you’re starting to use Virtual DJ at home, you may be doing all of your mixing with the keyboard and mouse.  That’s cool.  However, the one drawback with a mouse is that it only has one cursor, so you can only change one thing at a time.  That’s where a controller comes in.  A controller is a separate piece of physical equipment that you attach to your computer, and the controls on your controller can change settings on the laptop.  The two best things about a controller are that it’s very hands-on, and is more physically intuitive to use than a mouse.  You can also control more than one parameter at a time, because you have two hands.  While a controller isn’t necessary to use Virtual DJ, it’ll make your life a lot easier as a DJ.  There are hundreds of different types of controllers available these days, and my Using MIDI Controllers video will help you understand your options and how your controllers work with your computer.

Finally, I have a series about Mobile DJ’ing.  That seems somewhat unrelated to learning how to use Virtual DJ, but I know that after a month or so of practicing at home, you’re going to be really eager to perform in front of other people.  Playing for friends at house parties is a good start, but you may also be able to get some paid gigs, as you start gaining confidence.  I don’t think the two videos in my Mobile DJ'ing series are critical to learning about Virtual DJ, but I think they’ll be very important for you to watch during your first month after starting to use Virtual DJ.  These videos talk about things like types of events, vehicles, licensing, insurance, costs of gear, setting prices, accounting, marketing, contracts, deposits, competition, and a more detailed run-down of gear that you may need to bring with you to shows.


Why Use Virtual DJ?

Ok, let’s start to focus on the software.  Who is Virtual DJ good for?  Well, I’ve heard a lot of people say that it’s just designed for amateur DJ’s.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I’ve seen DJ’s do excellent performances with Virtual DJ at very large shows.  I know DJ’s who are professional turntablists and excellent at beat-mixing, who use Virtual DJ as a legitimate tool.  I’ve seen Virtual DJ being used in hundreds of performances at house parties, weddings, university events, clubs, and festivals.  Unless you’re a top tier A-list DJ getting paid tens of thousands of dollars per gig, or a highly skilled turntablist, Virtual DJ is professional enough to meet your needs quite easily.  Don’t judge it as being amateur software.  It may have been so at the start, but it’s come a long, long way in the past couple years.  It’s used by professionals, but it’s still simple to use and has a very easy learning curve.

Virtual DJ competes in a space with a couple of other well-known programs, especially Serato and Traktor.  Let me see if I can give you a good comparison about the strengths of these three programs, although all three are great programs that will cover all the basics.

Virtual DJ is a great all-around program, and perhaps the easiest for a beginning DJ to use.  If I’m talking to someone who has never touched turntables or pitch controlled CD players before, and they’re interested in DJ’ing with digital DJ software for the first time, I’ll usually recommend Virtual DJ to them, at least ninety percent of the time.  Even though it’s an all-around program, it can handle more complex tasks like integrating with traditional direct-drive turntables using time-code vinyl.

Serato is a system that’s fairly similar to Virtual DJ.  The on-screen display is slightly different, but the basics are the same.  Serato was traditionally viewed as being more of a professional DJ’ing platform, but Virtual DJ has really closed that gap.  However, a couple places where Serato might still have a slight advantage would be in the quality of in-house effects, and in ease of communications with various pre-mapped industry controllers.  Also, if you’re a music producer and want to integrate elements from Ableton Live, or integrate live performance aspects, Serato is especially flexible.

Traktor is the final package of the “Big Three” digital DJ’ing platforms.  Quite a long time ago, there was a package called Final Scratch, put out by Native Instruments in a partnership with Stanton.  That was really the first time-code vinyl experiment to merge traditional turntables with digital music.  I had a Final Scratch system in the early 2000’s, and played with it a lot.  Around 2005, Native Instruments and Stanton parted ways, and eventually Native Instruments moved forward with Traktor.  Although Traktor basically has a lot of the same capabilities as Virtual DJ and Serato, its roots were in the time-code vinyl ecosphere.  Any DJ whose main talents and intended use tend towards integration of traditional turntables with your digital DJ software will probably gravitate toward using Traktor.

In the fall of 2017, I'll be producing a series of videos about Serato, and another series of videos about Traktor (plus some advanced Virtual DJ tutorials).


Purchasing Options

Virtual DJ has a huge strength that other DJ’ing software packages don’t have:  If you’re a home user, using it without external controllers, it’s free.  Completely.  Forever.  That sounds too good to be true, but as long as you’re not using the software in a professional sense (ie. paid gigs), and you’re just using a basic computer system, you qualify.

Many DJ’s will want to move past that point, sooner or later.  If you start playing at paid shows, you’re supposed to upgrade to a professional license.  Is there any way for them to prevent you from using your home version at a paid show?  No, not really, although I’m pretty convinced that even though a lot of young DJ’s are perpetually broke, you’ll soon see the value in paying for a license.

The free home version does have one restriction that will affect some DJ’s.  It won’t work with any external controller unless you pay for software licensing in one of three ways.  Do you need an external controller?  No, you can do everything with a mouse and keyboard, although a controller is more convenient.  Naturally, a lot of people will want to start using controllers eventually, so you’ll probably want to pay for a license at some point.  This becomes almost a certainty once you start playing at paid gigs.  Even though you might feel that you want to try to save money by not buying a license, I recommend that you should get a license, and also step up your game by integrating a controller, to make it easier to perform.

Let’s assume that you’ve moved past the point where you can rely on the free home-user version.  You now have three options:  (1) Buy a per-controller license;  (2) Buy a full life-time license; or (3) Buy a monthly subscription license that expires 30 days after the start of your subscription, unless you set up a credit card to do automatic monthly renewals.

If you go with a per controller license, the cost depends on what controller you want to use.  Basically, the lower the retail value of the actual controller, the cheaper it probably is to license.  The cheapest controllers are $49 to license, and the most expensive can be as much as $199 USD.  Virtual DJ recognizes and has rates for just about every known controller produced anywhere in the world today.

If you start using more than one controller, your cost may start getting pretty high.  For example, I currently have six different controllers that I want to integrate with Virtual DJ, plus a seventh that I’m considering.  Most of these are between $99 and $199 apiece.  Here’s a list:




Whoa!  That’s super expensive.  But don’t worry, Virtual DJ has a deal for you.  If the cost of the different controllers that you want to use comes to more than $299, you can buy an all-inclusive Pro license which is good for all time, and lets you use ALL controllers with the software, with no restrictions.  Therefore, $299 is the absolute maximum cost to buy a full pro license for the Virtual DJ software.  When I have the $299 full pro license, I can use all seven of the controllers that I listed above, plus any other controller available on the market.

A final option, if you don’t have enough money to pay for your controller license or a full Pro license up front, is that you can pay for a monthly pro subscription.  It runs for 30 days from the time you start it, and you can keep renewing.  This subscription costs about $19 per month in USD.  I'm in Canada, and rather than bill in USD, they bill me $27.99 per month in Canadian dollars.  You can turn it off if you don’t use the software for a few months, then turn it back on when you need to use it again.  The best thing is that Virtual DJ keeps track of how much you’ve paid in monthly subscription fees.  If you eventually reach $299, they give you a full permanent pro license.  The monthly subscription is a good way of letting you test the software for a while with no restrictions, and it’s also a good way of financing the cost of the program if you can’t afford to pay for it up front.


Content Subscriptions

The final thing that I want to talk about, before we go into a run-through of setting up and installing the software, is content licenses.  A content license is different than your software license.  The software license, which I already talked about, is related to your permission to use the software professionally or with controllers.  A content license is completely separate, and it is NOT mandatory.  It’s just convenient for DJ’s who need a lot of music for their performances.

DJ’s can sometimes need hundreds of songs every month for their shows.  It can be extremely expensive to buy all this music outright, especially since you’ll sometimes play a particular song at only one show during your entire career.  This is a really prohibitive cost for anyone considering a career as a DJ.  So certain organizations have come up with a solution, and Virtual DJ implements what’s called a “Content Unlimited Subscription Plan.”

Virtual DJ has three separate Content Unlimited Subscription Plans, as follows:


If you subscribe to one of these plans, you’re allowed to download/stream content from the Content Unlimited organization for a full month, and have access to pretty much any music in the world.  The Audio Plan has literally millions of songs available in every genre, with tons of different remixes, and everything is in appropriate quality for you to play at a gig.  Obviously, the karaoke and video plans are different types of media, but the concept is the same.

Imagine that.  Ten dollars per month and you have legal access to a global catalogue of content, with absolutely no risk of running into copyright issues for playing music at public performances!  Well, depending on what country you’re in, you may technically need an annual performer’s license for your country, just for the right to earn money at public performances.  But this Content Unlimited Subscription through Virtual DJ ensures that you’re not going to get into trouble for the specific music that you’re playing.  What a time to be alive!  I can’t emphasize what a great deal this is for DJ’s, and many DJ’s won’t appreciate the challenges that myself and other DJ's had in building our music collections twenty years ago, before the internet and digital music even existed.  I won’t go into these plans in any more detail here, but if you need a broader selection of music, you can look at the details on the Virtual DJ website.


Installing the Virtual DJ Software

I’m not going to go through the steps required to install Virtual DJ in this blog post.  You should be able to figure it out, and get things up and running on your own.  If you need help, I did demonstrate the process of downloading and installing it onto a Windows system in the Part 1 Overview video.  Basically, the steps that you need to follow are:

1.       Set up a free account when you go to the Virtual DJ website.  You’ll need this if you eventually do any software or content licensing.
2.       Download and install the software on your computer.
3.       If you’re going to play professionally or use a controller, pay for one of the three types of licenses to get you up and running (monthly subscription, permanent pro license, or per-controller license).
4.    [Optional]  Start a Content Unlimited subscription, if you want to use one.


By the way, if you DON’T have one of the three software licenses that allow you to use a controller, you can still make the controller work temporarily in a basic “demo mode.”  When you connect your controller without a license, it’ll work for ten minutes before Virtual DJ shuts it off and reminds you that you need a license.  The only way around this is to reboot the software, which obviously can’t be done in the middle of a performance.  So if you want to make sure things are working properly at a public gig, I highly recommend that you just accept the fact right now that you’re going to want to buy a license.

The information that I've talked about so far can be found in the following video, if you'd like to review it again.  But if you've read this far, you can skip this Part 1 video:



Tour of the Console/Controls, Basic Mixing, & Settings/Preferences:

All of the rest of the stuff that I want to explain can’t be done very easily in a blog post.  So at this point, if you’re set up and ready to start learning how to use the software, I’d recommend you watch the following three videos:








Ok, that pretty much summarizes things.  At this point, you should have a pretty good idea of what Virtual DJ is all about, and how to mix music with it.  The best way to get better is to practice, so if you’re trying to prepare for your first gig, I’d recommend that you try to set aside 30-60 minutes per day to play with the system at home, until you’re completely comfortable with using it.

If you want a “hot tip” on how to become a better DJ, I recommend that you record some of your practice sets, and then sit back and listen to them with a critical ear.  Were the volumes consistent from track to track?  Did you avoid any dead air between songs?  Did the mixes sound smooth when you were transitioning from one song to another?  Did the “flow” of the set (your programming of music choices) seem logical, or were you jumping rapidly back and forth between genres?  Weak programming might clear your dance floor, so pay a lot of attention to that.

If you find the time to practice for about an hour a day on average, I don’t see why a new DJ wouldn’t be ready for a small public show in less than three months.  I’ve occasionally seen someone pull off their first show in just a few weeks, in an emergency, especially if they already knew a lot about the music that people would want to hear, and can practice for several hours each day during those few weeks.

I’m going to leave you with a couple of demonstration sets that I recorded.  These were a couple different episodes of my weekly tech-house and techno radio show, Subterranean Homesick Grooves.  For the first set, SHG 351, I used just the mouse and a Numark Mixtrack controller during my performance.  For the second set, SHG 352, I used an Allen & Heath Xone 4D mixer/controller.  I also have a popular Xone 4D Tutorial Video about how to use that mixer.









And in the meantime, here are the Soundcloud links for the two mixes that I created with Virtual DJ in those two demo videos.  SHG 351 is tech/house/techno, but with an emphasis mostly on upbeat house and tech.  SHG 352 is a slightly darker and more techno-oriented mix.



You can find track listings for each of those mixes in the description on SoundCloud, and you can also see them track-by-track as you watch the two videos.


Thanks a lot for your interest in my Virtual DJ tutorial series, and best of luck with your DJ’ing!  Again, if you want to find more of my tutorial videos, visit djbolivia.ca/videos


Jonathan Clark (DJ Bolivia