Tablets: The Next Stage of the Digital DJ Revolution?

Once upon a time, vinyl DJs scoffed at the idea of CD players in the booth.  They claimed it wasn’t “real DJing”, and that you couldn’t do as much with them as you could with a pair of turntables (which, to be fair, was probably true in the beginning).

Eventually, CDJs became the industry standard (as both the technology and the social acceptance of the devices improved).  It was hard to deny the benefits… vinyl was getting harder to come by, and you could burn whatever digital tracks you wanted to CDs at any given time.

Then, early adopters started putting laptops in the booth.  Here we go again.  Early digital DJs got completely lambasted for “cheating” and “faking it” (and often still do… sometimes with good reason).  Now, it’s fairly uncommon for there NOT to be a laptop somewhere close by.  Once again, the benefits are undeniable.  Software and supporting hardware for the laptop DJ has opened up a whole new world in the performance realm.

Now, the iPad is the new “proving grounds” for digital DJing.  And it would seem to finally be making a dent.

From “Toy” to “Tool”

I’ve been keeping an eye on tablets in the DJ realm (specifically, the iPad) and observing the slow transition.  It didn’t take long for apps to start showing up that were nifty toys and “games” that let you play DJ.  Eventually, these apps started looking a lot more like a proof of concept than a toy.

Now we’re seeing the beginnings of tablet apps that can be taken more seriously, and are useful for both new and established DJs.  The most obvious example that comes to mind is Native Instruments’ Traktor DJ for iOS.  In my opinion, this is the app that truly proves the concept: tablets can eventually replace laptops in the DJ booth.  Though it’s not quite there yet, Traktor DJ proves that you can at least perform your basic DJ set without the aid of anything else.  It’s still not a game-changing contender, but it’s a notable next step.  It’s already a great choice for the impromptu set at your buddy’s house or in a hotel somewhere, especially when paired with hardware like the Traktor Kontrol Z1.  Considering the fact that it has a built-in 24-bit sound card and pro-quality knobs/faders, the ultra-portable Z1 marked another step in the tablet direction.

There’s really nothing stopping anyone from even rocking the local club with one of these rigs.  Though the iOS app is not quite as capable as something like a Kontrol S4/Traktor Pro or DDJ-SX/Serato DJ setup… if you just want to do your basic 2-track digital mixing with little hassle, you can’t deny it as a viable option without admitting a bit of elitist bias.  And even if you don’t like using it as your performance tool, the iPad app is a great tool for digital DJs to use for track prep.  Some would say, even better than using the full Traktor Pro application.

Native Instruments is not the only notable “big boy” company in the industry that has acknowledged the tablet market as having a future in DJ booths across the world.  For example, Serato Remote is the DVS giant’s latest step into the touch-screen market.  While not a “complete” (that is, standalone) DJ solution like Traktor, Remote allows you to connect to connect seamlessly to your Serato laptop software, either wirelessly or via USB.  You can then control functions such as looping, cue points, samples, and FX without touching your laptop.  It’s also designed to work with all supported Scratch Live and Serato DJ hardware.

And then there’s the still-industry-standard Pioneer, who knows better than to ignore the tablet market.  For instance, the very versatile and capable XDJ-R1 allows you to do things the “Pioneer way”: a laptop-less approach, a standard layout, an ability to use CDs or USB sticks, Rekordbox capability…. and the ability to play music wirelessly off of your iOS device.  This lets you get a taste of having an iPad in the DJ booth without committing to it specifically.  Though, if you’re interested in going “all in” on iPad DJing, you could look at something like the Numark iDJ Pro.  If you don’t mind Algoriddim’s Djay app, this provides you with everything you need… a screen, award-winning (if not industry standard) software, and a functional tactile surface to DJ similarly to the “traditional” way.

Numark iDJ Pro
Numark’s iDJ Pro provides a complete digital DJing solution… just add iPad.

Gaining Acceptance

As these tablet DJing solutions continue to advance, you can expect to see a repeat of controversies past.  Many people will admit (myself included) that there’s still something more “sexy” about spinning vinyl.  That’s why I’ll never get rid of my Technics.  And by the way, we’re already seeing the beginnings of working DVS systems for tablets.

However, change is inevitable, and I have learned to embrace technological advance in the music world instead of rejecting it.  Just as happened with CDJs, laptops, DVS systems, and just about any new DJing technology… tablets are finding their place in the market.

Whether or not it will become the go-to method on a professional level remains to be seen, but the benefits are easy to see.  For one, even a top-tier iPad is much cheaper than something like a Macbook Pro (priced more like a budget laptop).  Coming from someone who had his $2500 laptop stolen at a gig, I can’t help but think that it would’ve been a little less painful had it been my iPad.

Many of the arguments against tablet DJing are being answered by the market.  Using the touch screen is no longer a requirement due to hardware solutions such as the Kontrol Z1 or the iDJ Pro mentioned above, which provides more precise tactile control that current digital DJs are already used to.  Software is slowly catching up to the “pro grade” software which already exists.  It’s soon getting to the point where the only argument is any perceived stigma against its use.  No problem for thick-skinned digital DJs.

Into The Future

Whether you embrace technological advance, or you cling to the classic way of things, there’s no denying that tablets are only going to become more common.  Personally, I welcome these sorts of technological advances.  And I don’t think that just because someone has an iPad and an app, that they are going to replace me and what I do.  Which, if we’re being honest, is what a lot of old-schoolers worry about.  Personally, I think that if they are that concerned, perhaps they don’t have the right approach to their DJing in the first place.  I feel like all things are secondary to the output and the performance… and that includes the technology used.

“I don’t think that just because someone has an iPad and an app, that they are going to replace me and what I do.  Which, if we’re being honest, is what a lot of old-schoolers worry about.”

Of course, like all things which make DJing more accessible, it’s going to open more doors for amateur self-proclaimed rockstars.  But, I prefer not to view this as a negative thing.

Old-school DJs often lament the appearance of things that make DJing easier (such as sync, or $20 iPad apps), but I like to view it as a challenge.  Everyone has access to the same tools, so it becomes harder to make a noticeable difference.  It forces you to focus on what’s important… the actual DJing, not the format or the tools used.  What are you doing to make yourself stand out, and to make yourself valuable as a DJ?

Once you start focusing on these things, you realize that it isn’t what you use, it’s what you do.  And you still have a choice on what you use.  Who can deny that it’s good to have options?

I realize that opinion won’t be popular with everyone, and I’m okay with that.  Personally, I admit that I will have a preconceived notion about a young new DJ who shows up at a club and plugs nothing but his iPad in to the house mixer.  That’s just me being honest.  But that’s not to say that I deny the fact that tablets have a future in the booth in one form or another.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that behind each piece of gear, whether it’s an iPad, a pair of turntables, CDJs, or a drum machine and sequencer, there is a real human presenting that music.  And it’s that human element that will always be the biggest factor.  The passionate DJ is always the one who will make a connection to his crowd through music, and the standard flyby DJ who half-asses it will always be just that.

It’s because of these passionate DJs that we can stop worrying about where this is all going from a technological standpoint.  Instead, we should continue forward with making and playing music using the methods which make the best sense to us.  Because it’s always the human element that will be the best takeaway from the show.