What's in the mix?
While the digital DJing market is undeniably dominated by a handful of big brands - namely Native Instruments, Serato and Ableton - these companies' applications aren't necessarily the be-all and end-all of laptop DJing.
Beyond the big names there's a wealth of less well-known applications competing for attention. Many of these have a lot going for them, be it offering great value for money, flexible features or a unique way of working.
To help sort the wheat from the chaff in the world of digital DJing, we asked for your nominations and votes to help us rate the top applications. Whilst, realistically, we wouldn't want to say any one piece of software is definitively better than all the others - ultimately, it will all come down to how you like to DJ and personal preference - what follows is at least a good indicator of which pieces of software are most popular among our users.
Alongside all the standard features you’d expect from a software DJing package - mixer, effects, EQs etc - Dex 2 features integrated video mixing and karaoke support, making it an impressively flexible option.
In terms of straightforward DJ features, the software packs four virtual decks, with beat sync and key-matching capabilities. There’s also a sample player and looper tool.
Dex supports a fairly extensive range of MIDI controllers, and can be used with a digital vinyl setup, too. A trial version is available to download from the PCDJ site.
Magix Digital DJ
Digital DJ2 isn’t the most powerful or fully equipped application on the market, but it offers all the essentials you’ll need to get mixing at a relatively affordable price.
The application is essentially a cutdown version of Image-Line’s Deckadance (more on that later), offering two-deck mixing, X/Y pad effects, a looper, and support for a wide range of MIDI controllers. What features Digital DJ2 does pack are, on the whole, nicely implemented, too.
READ: Magix Digital DJ2 review
Cross, from French developer Mixvibes, has undergone numerous updates over the past few years, resulting in an impressively extensive feature set.
The application features a highly customisable interface that contains four decks, an eight-slot sampler, eight assignable cue points and 14 different effects. There’s support for a range of controllers and digital vinyl systems, and it’s possible to import your music library directly from Pioneer rekordbox (which was itself developed by Mixvibes).
There’s also a cool iOS remote control app available, which can act as a second screen for browsing tracks or a way to use the software decks remotely.
algoriddim’s djay is probably at its best on iOS, but the Mac version of the software is still one of the best value desktop DJ applications around.
These days, djay for Mac seems to be aimed at more of an entry-level, hobbyist market. Its biggest selling point - aside from the price - is it’s well-implemented iTunes integration, which allows users to browse their library and playlists directly from inside the app.
There are still plenty of flexible DJing features included, though, with a range of effects, cue points and a sampler built into the software. djay supports an impressive list of MIDI controllers, too, and can also be controlled by an associated iOS remote app.
Mixxx’s two biggest selling points lie in the fact that it’s completely open source and also free to download.
As such, the application has a thriving community of users behind it who regularly develop new, free-to-use features to upgrade the software.
As standard, Mixxx features iTunes integration, four sample decks, loops and hot cues and support for a wide range of track formats. Also, thanks to its creative community, mappings are available for an absolutely huge range of MIDI devices.
Deckadance 2 - from FL Studio developer Image-Line - features some great beat grid editing tools, a highly customisable interface and a great Smart Knob function, which allows macro-style control over multiple effect parameters at once.
The application also offers four-deck mixing, a 16-slot sample player and - possibly most impressively of all - can host external VST plugins, meaning that you can use your favourite third-party effects and instruments from within the software.
On the downside, Image-Line’s list of preconfigured DJ controllers is a little behind that of some of its rivals, although it does feature an auto-learn function to allow relatively simple user-mapping.
Atomix VirtualDJ Pro
VirtualDJ Pro isn’t cheap - at $299 for the full version, it’s the most expensive of the straight DJ applications in this list by some margin - but it does offer some hugely flexible ‘pro’ features.
Most notably, VirtualDJ Pro can run anything up to 99 virtual decks (obviously, it’s not advisable to try mixing 99 tracks at once, but it’s an impressive amount of flexibility nonetheless.) It’s also ReWire compatible, meaning it can be run in conjunction with a variety of DAWs, opening up a whole world of performance possibilities.
The software also features audio line-ins, and comes with mappings for a fairly substantial range of DJ controllers.
A more affordable version - Pro Basic - is also available for $99.
Serato has come along way since spearheading the birth of digital vinyl DJing some nine years ago. The company may have lost its grip as market leader to Native Instruments over the years, but constant development has meant that Serato’s DJ software is still up there with the best.
With the launch of Serato DJ in 2013, the company finally combined the two disparate strands of its software - the digital vinyl based Scratch Live and controller focussed Itch - into a single unified application.
Full support for a variety of controllers and vinyl emulation systems is still being gradually rolled out. But with the company now focussed on a single product, the future seems bright for Serato.
Ableton Live is something of an anomaly in this list, due to the fact that it’s not really a true DJ application - or at least it wasn’t originally imagined as such. Still, while it may have been first envisioned purely as a production tool, in the decade since its inception Live has become a favourite of DJs across the world.
Key to its popularity with DJs is the Session View - a brilliantly implemented and cleanly designed window for launching sync’d audio samples, MIDI clips and tracks. It’s this view, along with the intuitive way that Live handles retiming audio, that makes the DAW a fantastic tool for blurring the lines between DJing and live performance.
With the added bonus of a heap of built-in instruments and effects, the ability to host plugins and an intuitive MIDI learn function, Live makes an unbeatable one-stop-shop for electronic musicians.
READ: Ableton Live 9 review
Native Instruments Traktor Pro
Over a decade on from its launch, Traktor Pro is pretty much the gold standard of digital DJing. While some of its rivals may do certain things better, no application can match Traktor for all-round flexibility and reliability.
Between its excellent Sample Decks, Remix Decks and Loop Recorder, its high-quality effects and its impressive beat and key analysis algorithms, Traktor has pretty much everything a modern DJ is likely to need.
Native Instruments’ own hardware controllers - the flagship S2 and S4, and more compact X1, F1 and Z1 - are some of the best around, too, ensuring that the company has a vice-like grip on the current market.