The modern DJ has access to more tools and technology than ever before.
From controllers to CDJs, vinyl to laptop mixing, we’re spoilt for choice and picking a route to take into the world of DJing can be tricky.
There are lots of decisions to make – one of the most pivotal is choosing your DJ software for mixing.
DJ software is the brain of a DJ controller set up and is required to run the vast majority of controllers except for just a handful of ‘standalone’ controllers like the Pioneer XDJ-RX2 that don’t need to be connected to a laptop.
Even with standalone DJ controllers, you’ll need to use DJ software to create your sets with playlists and hot cues before loading them to USB sticks.
For any DJ, DJ software provides a means to practice with or without a controller, or other equipment.
With DJ software, you can test transitions, set cues, learn song rhythms and melodies, experiment with FX, run loops – and more – way more than you’d every be able to with an outdated mixer and vinyl decks.
The Ins and Outs of DJ Software
In essence, DJ software is quite simple.
You can think of it as a software version of a physical hardware mixing setup. You have your decks, music library faders and controls, all in digital form.
Your music library can be accessed from your hard drive or external storage and songs loaded onto each deck where they can be controlled in similar ways to how you’d control them on a deck.
It is also possible to execute an entire mix just with DJ software.
Sounds lame? It’s a great thing to be able to do when equipment fails, at house parties or any other time you want to have a mix without equipment.
Also, for some events or parties, e.g. a wedding or restaurant set, laptop mixing can be highly convenient – don’t write it off!
Mixing Software: ‘The Big 3’
Let’s kick it off with the ‘big 3’, namely Rekordbox, Traktor and Serato.
Virtual DJ will also be discussed, as will Mixxx.
For the most part, though, it’s worth concentrating on Rekordbox, Traktor and Serato.
These big names aren’t going anywhere soon and they already have millions of users under their belt. They’re all under regular development too, with new versions being released periodically including state-of-the-art new features.
Moreover, the ‘big 3’ also have tons of compatible controllers and other hardware that works on a plug-and-play basis, meaning you simply install the software, connect your compatible controller and you’re good to go!
Without further ado, here are the big 3:
- Latest Version: Rekordbox 6
- Compatibility: Windows and Mac OSX
Rekordbox may feel like a well-oiled machine that has been refined over many years, but actually, it’s the newest of the big 3 by some margin.
Rekordbox began life as a music management software designed for creating and loading songs onto USB for use with Pioneer CDJs. Rekordbox for Pioneer’s DJ controllers was only released in 2015. It’s come a long way since and has progressed massively as Pioneer has taken the controller market by storm.
Free, Paid, Subscription?
Rekordbox cannot be bought outright. The free version works with the vast majority of their DJ controllers that are Hardware Unlock enabled which range from the DDJ-200 right through to the high-end RX models.
Hardware compatible with Hardware Unlock:
- INTERFACE 2
With any of these controllers or decks, you simply plug them in and Rekordbox will work in Performance Mode, allowing you to mix.
If you have controllers without Performance Unlock (there aren’t many), then you’ll need the Core Plan which also allows you to register two devices (e.g. laptops).
There is a third-tier; the Creative Plan, which allows you to access cloud library features, DVS, video DJing and other add-ons. The cloud library is the headline act here and will allow you to access your Rekordbox tune library from any Rekordbox-loaded device (provided you have an internet connection)
For the most part, Rekordbox is essentially a free program for most, which is awesome.
Rekordbox looks like a Pioneer product. It’s clean, industrial, uncluttered and precise. It’s probably cleaner and easier to use than Serato and Traktor, but not by much.
An excellent feature of Rekordbox’s interface is that your library will clearly display mini waveforms of each track. This is pretty handy when mixing freestyle as you’ll be able to tell quickly how long the intro/outro is, for example, and whether you’ll need to gain up the track volume a bit when you play it (in the case of quieter songs).
There are many deck display options in Rekordbox 6 that allow you to display 2 to 4 decks in multiple configurations, e.g. two large and two small.
Performance vs Export Mode
Rekordbox’s interface will change when you use it in Performance Mode. If you use it offline without a controller, you’ll be able to load and arrange your library into playlists, tag autocues on songs, rearrange beat grids and export your music to USB sticks or external storage, or sync them to the Cloud Library sync if you have the Creative Plan.
Rekordbox did have stability issues in the early days but Rekordbox 5 brought about a new engine named Korotech that boasts rock-hard stability across any compatible device.
Rekordbox is decked out with tons of features including a 64-slot sample rack and an advanced FX section that allows you to design FX chains. The sampler allows you to cut and save loops from your tracks which can then be edited and processed with FX.
Pad FX can be assigned to pads on your controller and the all-new Merge FX allows you to create dramatic, long-duration FX that can help you blend hard-to-mix songs across different BPMs, or create long, stuttering build-up.
One awesome feature of Rekordbox is its 3Band waveform, new in Rekordbox 6. This allows you to view waveforms as divided into low frequencies and bass (blue colour), mid-range frequencies (orange colour) and high frequencies (white colour). 3Band waveforms differ from the typical RGB waveforms used across DJ software as it separates the different frequencies more clearly.
With the Creative Plan, you’ll also be able to analyse waveforms for any vocals. This is useful to avoid clashing two tunes with different vocals, which can sound very messy.
Rekordbox has developed into a stable, fully-fledged DJ software with plenty of innovative and creative features. It’s also cost-effective with its relatively complete free version.
It’s worth mentioning that Rekordbox doubles up as a utility tool for those using CDJs
This confers a natural advantage over Serato and Traktor for those who wish to use CDJs as well as a controller. For example, you can use Rekordbox with a controller, and as a tool to load your playlists to USB sticks for playing out at gigs or events on club CDJs.
Also, Pioneer currently leads the way in ‘standalone’ controllers that run without a connected laptop.
2. Serato DJ Pro
- Latest Version: Serato DJ Pro 2.4
- Compatibility: Windows and Mac OS
Serato is the veteran of the DJ software game. Originally making waves in the market for its accommodation of ex-vinyl users and scratchers, Serato has evolved to take a huge chunk out of the DJ software market.
Serato is a bit different to Traktor and Rekordbox as they don’t manufacture hardware (except in partnership with Rane).
Instead, Serato works with all the controller manufacturers that aren’t Pioneer or Native
Instruments, e.g. Numark, Denon, Reloop, Roland, etc, and also some Pioneer controllers.
Serato is kind of a mercenary; the glove that fits every hand.
Free or Subscription?
Serato offers Serato DJ Pro and Serato Lite. Serato Lite is a totally free version of Serato with stripped-down 2 deck functionality and other limited features. It’s fine for bare-bones mixing but for the full experience, you’ll need Serato DJ Pro.
Serato DJ Pro, similarly to Rekordbox, has a hardware unlock system where supported controllers can be plugged into the software to access the full version. You can also purchase Serato software outright or subscribe monthly to any of the three versions; Serato DJ Pro, Serato DJ Pro Essentials or Serato DJ Pro Suite.
For all your core functions, Serato DJ Pro is comprehensive. DJ Essentials adds functions for laptop-only DJing as well as additional FX, Serato Flip, for creating remixes mid-mix and Pitch N’ Time, for manipulating the pitch and key of tracks.
The DJ Suite gives you everything including video DJ software and DVS support.
Serato’s interface has been perfected and honed over many years and it’s clear that it’s the result of much fine-tuning and customer feedback.
Contrary to previous versions, Serato now has many different deck views that can be customised heavily. Of course, you can select between vertical and horizontal waveforms and choose whether you want FX panels and samplers to be displayed alongside the decks or minimised.
Serato recently added a much-needed practice mode that allows you to test mixes without hardware. You’ll be able to load tunes and control them digitally with crossfaders, FX, etc. This is a vital feature that allows you to create playlists, practice transitions and go through your tracks setting cue points.
One of Serato’s most beloved features are its Smart Crates. These allow you to rapidly organise your music into relevant categories. When you create a crate, you’ll have to create rules for Serato’s wizard that will comb your library and add relevant tunes to the playlist automatically.
For example, you could create a crate that includes all tracks between 128 and 132 BPM.
These could also be divided by genre, e.g. garage and house. Voila! You now have two playlists; garage and house, each containing tunes that match your BPM criteria.
Serato’s features in the standard DJ Pro package are great but perhaps do lack some of the innovation of Rekordbox 6’s new features like Merge FX.
Still, you’ll find a sophisticated FX rack which allows you to build and chain FX that can then be routed to your controller’s rotary faders or pads. In the Essentials package, you’ll also be able to access additional FX designed by Izotope, which are awesome.
Serato also has an advanced pitch shifter called Pitch N’ Time (Essentials and Suite only), which allows you to alter the pitch and key of tracks.
Serato Flip is a tune edit tool that lets you select and chop loops and samples from your tracks for rearrangement. These can then be edited and mapped to performance pads for live remixing. Flips can be prepared in practice mode too.
Though only available in the Suite package, Serato Video is worth a mention because it’s quite powerful in its own right and comes with some awesome bundled footage that you can control with visual FX and transitions (also great for karaoke).
Summary: Serato DJ Pro
Serato is pretty unique in that it works with many, many more devices than Rekordbox or Traktor.
For those looking to get into DJing via a budget Numark controller, for example, Serato is the go-to.
Serato is probably the best option for newcomers, as you can buy a cheap controller for under £100, hook it up to Serato Lite you’re good to go – upgrade the software later.
Of course, Serato has all the advanced features you expect thereafter. It’s also worth mentioning that Serato’s integration with Rane products including DVS is very well respected amongst vinyl-heads and battle DJs, and it’s fair to say Serato has dominance over this part of the DJ market.
- Latest Version: Traktor Pro 3
- Compatibility: Windows and Mac OS
Native Instruments, Traktor’s creator, work in mysterious ways. They tend to release fewer controllers than most other manufacturers and keep their users waiting for longer. In the time that Pioneer banged out almost 10 controllers, NI released just three elegantly named the Kontrol S2, Kontrol S3 and Kontrol S4.
Traktor’s minimalist approach to DJing is very satisfying for many. There are no add-on packs, no subscriptions, and there aren’t hundreds of controllers to pick from either, which makes decision-making simple.
Free or Paid?
Traktor Pro 3 doesn’t have a subscription model and grabbing the software is super-simple. If you buy a Kontrol S2, S3 or S4, you get the software too.
Otherwise, you can either upgrade from the free Traktor DJ 2 (which is a superb controller software) for a cut-price or pay outright for the full version. You’ll only need to do this if you own an older controller, or don’t have an NI controller (e.g. if you’re using a custom mapping).
There are no add-on packs or extra ‘stuff’ arranged in tiers.
Traktor’s interface has always been the most easily recognisable. For starters, it has a more grey hue rather than black, but also with plenty of colour usage. It’s has a modular look with various panels that can be rearranged easily.
Switching between different deck views in Traktor is simple. You just click between the decks themselves to cycle between them, e.g. super-large waveforms, small waveforms, etc. waveforms can also be extended right to the edges of the screen, allowing you to see further ahead on each track.
Traktor’s RGB waveforms seem more intuitive and easy to read than other software’s waveforms.
Traktor’s newly developed engine is exceptional and it contains innovations such as Elastique Pro V3, which renders pitch-shifted audio very well. For example, if you want to shift a track right down by some 20% to 30%, then this new engine will provide a much cleaner, truer result than in the previous version.
Serato’s crates feature were a sitting duck waiting to be stolen – Traktor has come in and swooped the same idea because it’s just so good.
Just like Serato Smart Crates, Traktor’s Smartlists allow you to create custom playlists and folders based on filters that you input. You’ll easily be able to load in a whole library and begin sorting it out into different genres, styles, BPM, etc.
Traktor Mixing Software Features
Traktor’s features are not as rich as Serato or Rekordbox as it lacks video DJing and some other add-ons, but if we’re honest, many people just don’t need this extra stuff. Traktor keeps things minimalist and concentrated around the core mixing features.
The FX, for example, are exhaustive, high-quality and effortlessly controllable with beat syncs, chaining, etc. These can be mapped to pads and then chained by pressing pads in different sequences.
Remix Decks were always Traktor’s creative USP. Whilst other DJ software have their standard 64-slot samplers, Traktor’s Remix Decks are much more sophisticated. They’re also perfectly integrated with Traktor hardware like the Kontrol X1 and F1.
You can then add loops that sync to your mix and control these as if they’re a modular deck. There are some cool free loops included with Traktor covering many genres including DnB, jungle, house, techno and ambient.
Remix Decks were a revelation for producers who could chop up their songs, place them in remix decks and remix them effectively whilst mixing simultaneously.
Traktor’s effortless minimalism and simplicity is a big attraction.
It’s also cost-effective so long as you’re staying in the Native Instruments ecosystem, given that it’s free if you buy the latest Kontrol controllers (which are reasonably priced).
It’s also worth mentioning that Traktor’s hardware, such as their MIDI controllers including the F1 and X1 are brilliant and can add huge creative expandability to a Traktor setup.
4. Virtual DJ Software
Latest Version: Virtual DJ 2021
Compatibility: Windows and Mac OS
Virtual DJ’s position in the market has changed considerably as controllers have taken the DJ world by storm. Earlier on, Virtual DJ was the go-to for laptop DJing or mapping to some of the early controllers. Now, it remains more popular than many think and offers some cool features for DJs who run events like parties and weddings.
Free, Paid, Subscription
Virtual DJ’s pricing structure is a little confusing. There is a free version for laptop DJing only, so you won’t be able to connect controllers and devices.
Then, you have the Home Plus option for use with hardware. This is granted for one controller only on the basis that you don’t DJ professionally. There are two prices for the Home Plus licence – it depends what controller you have – confusing, right?
If you DJ professionally and make money from it, you’ll need the Pro subscription (how would they know?!). There is also an expensive Business package that gives you one-to-one support, ability to licence many controllers, etc (maybe good if you run a DJ school or tutoring service?).
Basically, though, most users will use the Home Plus option for licencing one controller.
Virtual DJ’s interface is governed by what skin you use. This is one area in which Virtual DJ differs from other software.
Instead of a simple interface with different modes and display modules for different configurations, Virtual DJ allows you to access hundreds of official and community-made skins via the Virtual DJ website.
Some of these are sleek and professional, others are weird, whacky or pure novelty. For example, Virtual DJ can support 99 decks (yes, really), which seems ridiculous, but it’s actually pretty useful for function’s DJs playing weddings, parties, etc.
It’s awesome to see a buzzing community contributing to DJ software and Virtual DJ makes it easy for their followers to contribute to the product.
Virtual DJ is stable but it’ll depend on what skins and plugins you use. Despite its sort of DIY feel, Virtual DJ is still a well-refined professionally-made DJ program that has an international reputation. Stability-wise, it’s no slack.
Virtual DJ doesn’t skimp out on features and all your usual samplers and FX are present and accounted for. It also features
There are tons of plugins and add-ons available via the community too. You can grab complex FX that aren’t available with other DJ software or even cool gadgets like auto-maximisers that boost quiet songs automatically without you needing to change the gains.
You’ll also find tons of free community-built sample packs too that can be triggered and looped from Virtual DJ’s sampler. The list of possible add-ons is near endless – DJs with a niche set up in mind could find their mojo here.
For Functions DJs
Functions DJs who play a lot of weddings, parties or corporate events tend to need a slightly different setup to DJs playing dance music to a lively crowd. Sets might be hours long, lasting an entire shift.
Summary: Virtual DJ
With its large community of dedicated contributors, Virtual DJ is a great option for those looking for enhanced customisation.
It will take a bit of work to fine-tune your tastes and workflow, but it has plenty of scope and can really work for DJs that aren’t just playing out at dance events.
5. Mixxx App
- Latest Version: Mixxx 2.2
- Compatibility: Windows, Linux and Mac OS
Mixxx is the only totally 100% free software on the list. It’s an open-source community-driven program designed for DJs that don’t want or need to be shackled to any of the big guns.
Mixxx is excellent and its community contribution is pretty massive. It’s now powerful enough to run as a laptop DJing tool with an impressive feature set, or will connect to almost any DJ controller.
100% free and open source.
Mixxx doesn’t look dated and it has plenty of interface controls that allow you to set it up for laptop-only use or use with controllers. It has 4 skins as standard with many more available through the Mixxx forum.
The library has plenty of controls and links to iTunes and your Traktor library too.
Mixxx’s core features include four-deck support, a sophisticated sampler that has its own waveform view, full RGB track waveforms and plenty of chainable FX.
Mixxx is good for function’s DJs thanks to its powerful Auto DJ feature. With Auto DJ turned on, you can let Mixxx DJ Mixing Software roll through a playlist and mix reasonably well between different tracks whilst you go off for a pint or to raid the buffet at whatever event you’re playing it.
Does open source DJ software really have any clout against the big guns? Mixxx proves that it does, and the open-source customisable nature of the software will attract enthusiasts who are searching to create their ultimate personalised setup.
The competition is hot here and needless to say, calling the winner is a nigh-impossible task.
The ‘big 3’ dominate the DJ landscape for a reason. Serato, Traktor and Rekordbox will likely always have to jostle for the top spot.
Despite being so closely matched, there are some key differences between the 3 too.
Rekordbox is the go-to for anyone who wishes to remain in the Pioneer ecosystem. If you mix between Pioneer club CDJ setups and a controller, for example, Rekordbox is the natural and sensible option.
Traktor’s minimalist take on DJ software is an instant hit with many. Buy a Traktor Kontrol controller, install the software and you’re good to go. No purchases, no add-ons (aside from sample packs) and certainly no subscriptions.
Serato is the jack of all trades. Working with a plethora of controllers spanning a wide range of manufacturers, Serato is the go-to for anyone who wishes to remain outside of the Traktor and Pioneer ecosystems. There is a certain degree of freedom with Serato and it’s probably the easiest way for DJs to access a cheap controller setup (with Serato Lite).
Virtual DJ has become sidelined in recent years due to the pure dominance of the big 3. But, for DJs that play events outside of the music and dance scenes, Virtual DJ has some great perks. Customisation is a big plus too.
Mixxx is the best totally no-nonsense free DJ software around. For laptops DJs that just want to get some tunes mixing, it’s a superb choice. From there, you’re at liberty to add controllers and get to the grips with the real thing – all for free.