In this article, I’m going to share with you what I learned from my share of frozen computers. I’ll also give you tips on getting your Mac running at its best while you DJ, as well as some small caveats for Mac users that you may not know about. Yes, Macs are known for their stability and reliability, but let’s be clear on a couple of things…
1. Macs aren’t virus free
OS X operating system has a reputation for being very well protected against viruses, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t get infected, and it sure doesn’t mean that there aren’t any viruses crawling out there on the internet targeting Macs!
If you DJ with a laptop, it is important to optimise it for DJing. Whether you have one of the spanking new M1 MacBooks, a half-decade-old Windows machine, or whatever, optimising for DJing is essential.
Yes, your computer may well run your DJ software seemingly OK without you doing anything, but when you optimise it, it will likely:
- Run more smoothly and reliably – Fewer “glitches” when you least need them
- Work at a lower latency – So everything feels snappier
- Work at a higher resolution – For instance, at full Retina resolution on a Mac
- Be able to do more – Run more effects, decks and so on
2. Why do you need to optimise for DJing?
Modern computers as we know are extremely powerful, and you may wonder why you should need to do anything at all to have your computer function correctly for DJing. After all, you don’t hear of 3D designers, graphic artists and so on optimising their computers – do you?
Well actually, yes these people do also care about these things. No matter what you do on a laptop, the thing is that out of the box it’s designed to be good at everything, but not great at one thing. It is designed, as much as possible, to approach all tasks equally.
But to borrow a phrase from George Orwell, “some tasks are more equal than others” – and DJing is one of those mission-critical tasks where you’d most certainly actively prefer your computer to prioritise, come what may.
After all, a computer taking a few seconds longer to output a video is one thing, but crashing in front of a live crowd in a DJ set is something else entirely – right?
Finally, optimising your computer for DJing is actually pretty easy. Yes, there are literally scores of things you can do if you really want to go deep. Indeed, inside our Digital DJ Lab training programme, we have full mini-courses on how to optimise every last feature on Mac and Windows computers, designed for pro DJs who really do need to squeeze every last drop of performance out of their machines.
But for day-to-day DJing, if you follow what we share in this article, then for most computers, most of the time, it’s all you’ll ever need. So let’s get started.
In a nutshell: Organise daily, backup regularly, and never download apps from dodgy sources and naughty sites, folks!
3. Computers aren’t optimised to run DJ software
While your Mac is certainly capable of running your DJ software without breaking a sweat, that doesn’t mean that it’s running it during your performance at 100% of its potential. Here are a couple of tips to get your DJ software of choice running as smoothly as possible on your Mac:
- Close other apps – Even though you may have a lot of RAM on your system, having apps running alongside your DJ software can hog processing power (eg your 10-tabbed Chrome browser window). Close them, you’re supposed to be DJing!
- Close background apps – You may not know it, but you might have some apps running in the background. To check this, open Activity Monitor in the Utilities folder of your Mac, and choose to close some background apps you don’t need (eg Spotify)
- Disable your screensaver – Turn off your Mac’s screensaver in the System Preferences. Not only can the shift from DJ app to screensaver cause a hiccup in audio playback, but it gets rather annoying when you have to enter your password every few minutes just because you haven’t touched your trackpad
- Turn off Energy Saver – In System Preferences, click on the Energy Saver icon and set “Turn display off after” to “Never”, which prevents your screen from dimming or shutting when you don’t touch your laptop. Also make sure that the “Put hard disks to sleep when possible” box isn’t ticked
- Keep your Dock clean – I search for songs from Finder once in a while, so occasionally I leave my DJ software’s screen and click around my dock. Having a long row of apps in it is a recipe for disaster, because you don’t want to accidentally click on a processor-intensive program like a DAW or your favourite video game in the middle of a mix. I’ve accidentally done it, and it’s not pretty
- Using Time Machine? Turn it off – While having a complete backup of your hard drive is a good idea, having your Mac backup during a DJ set isn’t. In System Preferences, head on over to Time Machine and switch it off before your performance. You can just turn it back on when you’re done
- Play MP3s from your internal hard drive – One thing that bothers me to no end is just how fragile USB thumb drives really are, especially if they get handled quite a bit (ie transferring songs for DJing). I’ve had thumb drives with perfect transfers of my songs crap out in the middle of a set, leading to a song cut short or simply stopping. Depending on your thumb drive, it loads a little slower too, particularly when your DJ software is analysing a song you loaded. Do yourself a favour and only play songs from your internal hard drive, or get a speedy and reliable thunderbolt/USB 3.0 external hard disk
- Don’t immediately install software updates – Before you update OS X, check to make sure that it’s compatible with the version of DJ software that you currently have installed. OS X Yosemite is the current version of the operating system and is being pushed hard by Apple, but that doesn’t mean that you should update already, particularly if your software isn’t ready for it yet (eg Serato DJ and Traktor still don’t officially support it as of this writing). Be patient and wait for your DJ software’s official support release
- Never update any software or firmware before a gig! – This is a biggie. Installing the latest version of OS X, your DJ software, or your DJ controller’s firmware without giving it a play through before a show is a recipe for disaster that leads to last minute onstage tweaks. Not the situation you’d want to be in when faced with a crowd of dance-hungry punters
|What about audio drivers?|
Your audio driver is obviously essential, as it is what facilitates smooth audio – the most important thing when DJing.
With Windows, the system audio driver is OK, and many DJ set-ups can use it, but usually performance can be improved by installing a third-party ASIO audio driver, of which one will be recommended and probably supplied by your DJ hardware manufacturer. Install it, and then forget about it – it will “survive” any OS updates, and will only need changing if you change your hardware.
With Mac, all DJ hardware uses the built-in Core Audio driver, so you need do nothing – but there’s an issue, which is that when Apple updates its OS, Core Audio changes too. This can throw DJ hardware a curve ball. That’s why you sometimes hear of DJ gear manufacturers imploring their users not to update their Macs to the latest OS just yet (something you never hear them saying about Windows users). So with Mac, if it’s a major OS update, wait until your hardware and software manufacturers say it’s OK before upgrading.
|Day-to-day best practice|
If you do all the above, you’re pretty much there. Just make sure that whenever you turn your computer on to play a DJ set, you also do the following, and you should never have any issues from your laptop when DJing.
Always reboot – A reboot before DJing is best practice, because it gives your laptop a “clean start” and can eliminate any issues before you discover them half-way through a set (requiring a reboot to fix them…)
Install any minor updates, but not directly before a DJ set – It’s good practice, if your OS or DJ software says it has updates for you, to install these at the start of the week, assuming your gigs are at the weekend. This gives you enough time to be sure they are all working OK
Don’t have any unnecessary programs running – They take memory, they take computing power, and they could cause complications. Only run your DJ software and anything else you absolutely need for your performance
Turn off unneeded utilities and processes – If you have Skype, Dropbox, anti virus, WiFi, calendar sync, Google Drive etc on your device, make sure they’re not running – unless you need them of course. For instance, Dropbox or WiFi is necessary if you’re using a cloud locker or music streaming service for your DJing. If you want to get geeky you can check your computer’s “startup items” or even monitor what activities are running in the background on your device by digging into your OS, but honestly, simply turning off anything obvious that is running in the background will do the job for most users
Plug USB devices directly into your computer, and only what you need – Unplug any USB devices you aren’t using, and try to plug them in directly, ie not via a hub. If you have to use a hub, make sure it is a powered one
As computers and DJ software become more sophisticated, we’re sometimes left with the impression that they’re bulletproof. While they’re more user friendly than past generations, remember that these still are machines that require periodic maintenance and tune-ups to ensure they’re running at their full potential. Further, a good bit of advice that a programmer mentor gave me when I was a kid is that no matter how advanced and foolproof computers become in principle, all it takes is one instance of human error to render it useless.
Since it’s highly unlikely that you have a laptop solely for DJing and another one for browsing and other casual pursuits, taking the necessary precautions to keep your Mac free of viruses and spyware is of upmost importance, particularly if you use it to make a living as a DJ. Running through the checklist above as a habit before a DJ set makes your Mac and DJ software run at their best, letting you focus on rocking that dancefloor without worry.