The iOS DJ?

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Ever since the iPad was first released, I’ve been intrigued about using it for DJing. Light, portable, decent storage, and more than enough power for basic DJing. Plus, for your average DJ, more than enough screen space for controls to handle mixing two tracks. Of course you can also use one of the many iPad DJ controllers coming out now too, though to be honest I feel that if you’re going to carry one of those, you might as well just use a laptop and controller anyway.

So for awhile now I’ve been eyeing what’s out there, reading reviews, and now and then playing with a couple of the more popular apps dedicated to DJing. I’m not even going to attempt to try and cover all the options available for DJing on iOS devices, instead I’m going to focus on two of the more popular options, Meta.dj and djay. Both can cover basic mixing duties, but do so in ways different enough that there’s little overlap in how they work.
Before I start though, it’s worth talking about the one thing that I think still is a major limitation in the platform for DJing. Namely, all iOS devices can only output a single stereo channel, which means its impossible to cue your tracks while outputting a stereo feed for your audience. Currently the most popular workaround is to instead output a mono channel for the main out, and a mono channel for the cue out using a splitter cable. I’ve been using the popular one from Griffin, which works both with djay and Meta.dj (plus others too):

http://www.algoriddim.com/djay-ipad/accessories/dj-cable

It’s an ok workaround but probably not the most ideal solution. Still, you work with what you have, and on that front it does work pretty well as long as you like mono signals :) A couple of other DJ apps (I.E. DJ Player) let you use something like an iPhone or iPad touch to stream your cue channel from but I haven’t had a chance to play with those yet.

So, first up is probably the most popular DJ app out right now, djay from Algoriddim. The interface will be familiar to most DJs, two virtual turntables are front and center. Buttons around these let you access your iTunes library and playlists, the EQ section, a loop screen, cue points, and in some of the recent updates 6 different effect variations. There’s also the ever present crossfader, and some small channel faders along with decent channel meters too.

The decks can be configure to show you your iTunes album artwork for songs, more or less like a regular vinyl record. Very handy for those people more visually inclined. The effects are pretty well done if a little basic, stutters, gates, delays, flanger, etc. The 3-band EQ is a little harsh to my ears, they give almost full cut when down all the way, but that makes it hard to do subtle EQing too. Loops and cue points can be stored for all your tracks too, which is really handy.

In many ways djay sort of reminds me of using Traktor, most of the basic functions for DJing are there, but it tends to rely on sort of an old school paradigm of mixing. There’s the option to sync tracks automatically, but its still up to you to start them on time. Pressing the sync button again will line up the tempos again, but it also advances the song a quarter note in case you have the tracks in sync, but the phrasing is off. There’s tempo nudging buttons to help get things in sync, but I find them to be really small for how often I use them.

Honestly, this is sort of thing is my biggest complaint with djay overall. The most important functions for a digital DJ are given some of the least screen real estate, while the pretty, but largely pointless, virtual decks always take up so much room. For instance, the loops, EQ, effects, and your cues are all accessed via different views of the same tiny pop up screen. So it’s impossible to set loop points while EQing, or add and manipulate effects while navigating your cues. You can only access one of these functions at a time, while the decks which you’ll rarely touch sit there taking up most of the screen real estate.

There’s a lot of really nice functions in the app, but too much of it is dedicated to looking nice (and old school) versus taking advantage of the screen real estate and touch interface of the iPad. By far my biggest complaint with the app.

On the other end of the spectrum we have Meta.dj from Sound Trends, which aims to reinvent DJing based on the specifics of a touch interface. If djay is like Traktor, then Meta.dj is like Ableton Live. Instead of just focusing on a traditional DJ interface, you also have access to built in drum and synth patterns (with more available as in-app purchases), a loop mangler and playback device, and all of your audio is synced to a global master clock at all times. You can up to 4 of the above devices in a project, in any combination you want.

Meta.dj automatically scans your tracks when you add them to a project, finding the tempo and beat placement fairly accurately in my experience. Like djay, you can set loops and cue points for each track too, though these are project specific. Meta.dj also has some really nice performance based effects that utilize an XY touchpad interface for tweaking. However, these are added to each song on a case by case basic, and not on a mixer channel as is typically for most DJ programs. This means that if you want to create a new projects with the same songs, you’ll need to redo all of your cues, loops, effects and beat-grids all over again.

As a result, this means that prepping your tracks for DJing can take awhile (again, like Live) and it’s not possible to share these settings across multiple projects in Meta.dj. So instead of having the app remember the settings for all your tracks and make them available any time you use them in a project, you basically need to make a one project with all the songs you plan on DJing with in one single project. All your tracks are accessible by scrolling across the bottom of the screen in a project, though the names of the songs get truncated making finding what you want difficult at times.

Mixing in Meta.dj is done via nice and simple volume sliders for each of the 4 devices, or via crossfader that works for the top or bottom two devices if you want. Sadly, there’s no metering at all, so you’re on your own to guess the correct levels while performing, with clipping from too hot signals possible if you’re not listening closely.

Meta.dj is an interesting concept overall, a real solid attempt to blend DJing and live performance into a single interface that uses a touchscreen in the best way possible. I didn’t really find the drum and synth loops to be my thing though, and since I use hardware for my live sets, I didn’t really have a need to prep my own material to use in the app that way either. Still, it’s nice you can work this way if you want.

As a strictly DJ tool, I’m really torn on how effective I found it. Lack of metering and difficulty in finding the tracks I wanted to play by scrolling the bottom bar with truncated names were real downers for me. The effects are nice and the beat detection was impressive, but without meters it was really hard to do a more traditional DJ set with this app. It’s one of those tools where prep work is everything (again, like Ableton Live). With better track library management and some real meters. I could see this being a really useful app. Luckily, it seems the developers listen to their user base and do frequent updates so perhaps we’ll see some improvement in the future.

I have to admit, that one of the biggest downsides of Meta.dj is that it’s so different that often times I found myself reaching for the manual, only to find there isn’t one. A quick start guide is linked to from their forums, but other than that you’re sort of on your own to figure out how things work. There’s enough basic functions missing that at times I wonder if perhaps I just haven’t discovered what more experienced might already know. Hard to say without a manual.

Which brings us to the end. Or the beginning. I think like a lot of iOS apps, we’re seeing two extremes of how companies approach taking traditional music making activities and apply those to a touch screen device. On one hand we have djay which aims to mimic the old school DJ set up of two decks and a mixer, and on the other we have Meta.dj which looks to incorporate a new interface scheme based on tablet interactions.

I think both apps have enough positive points in their favor that those determined to DJ on the iPad will get good results if they put in the time to learn and prep their material appropriately. However, I still feel we’ve yet to really hit the sweet spot of providing the tools most DJs use, in an app that makes the most of the touch interface.

As I said at the beginning of this review I’m only focusing on two of the more popular apps right now, I know there’s others out there that fill in some gaps in what these can do. But for now I don’t see myself leaving Live or Traktor on the laptop to go with a more simpler approach on the iPad. 

For one thing, having only a single stereo out is the biggest limitation, and I guess on that front were all waiting for Apple to step up and open up this door. But more than that, I think we’re still in the early stages of trying to figure out the best way to access functions that over time have proven to be useful, on an interface no one is used to.

In the meantime, iPad DJing is something I leave to small impromptu gatherings and other informal events. And for those that are curious, djay is the one I use for now.  What about you, anyone out there using an iPad to DJ with?  If so, what apps do you like, and how have you found the experience so far?

  1. Warrior Bob05-18-2012

    What do you think of using an iPad as an elaborate single deck, and running it into a crossfading mixer as you might with a CDJ or turntable, alongside some other device? This strikes me as the most obvious way to get around the output limitations, but I’m curious if there’s a compelling reason not to do this.

  2. Tarekith05-18-2012

    I guess you could do that, though then you’d need two iPads. I think for me the whole point of DJing on the iPad is convenience and portability, when you start adding things like controllers or a DJ mixer into the picture, might as well just use a laptop IMO.

  3. Elburz05-20-2012

    Im looking forward to CrossDJ from the MixVibes folks. Looks like it gets rid of a lot of the djay annoyances you’re mentioning and adds serato-esque stackable waveforms. It was supposed to be released May 7th, but I haven’t found it in the App store yet, so I’m hoping it’s not US only. Worth a look though.

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