Essential DJ Equipment: The Complete Guide

A DJ brings musical knowledge, the techniques needed to mix music, and an ability to read the crowd. Without music, there would be nothing to listen to, but without equipment, the music couldn’t be played. So what equipment does a DJ need?

The equipment essential to a DJ depends on your ability level, what kind of DJing you plan to do, and where you will DJ. No matter what you decide, you need a music source, a way to mix music, and a way to broadcast your talent.

Finding DJ equipment is easy, but knowing what you actually need to buy is complicated. I’ll guide you through the process by identifying the equipment you will need and recommending a mix of products to get you started.  

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Deciding Your Basic Set-Up

Before you go out and buy some gear, you need to be aware of the different set-ups available for DJs. Knowing the different set-ups will keep you from spending money on something you do not need.

These set-ups are the ones most frequently used:

  • All Computer
  • Turntable
  • CD-DJ
  • Controller

If you choose to, you can make additional modifications. For example, you could add an interface with software to a turntable or CD-DJ arrangement. You could also start with an all computer set system and then add on other components later.

Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

All Computer

If you want to start with the most straightforward set-up, it doesn’t get any simpler than a laptop hooked into a sound system.

But just because it is the simplest does not mean this set-up is the easiest way to create music. You will have to master whatever software you purchase, and you will be limited by your laptop’s performance.

The advantage of using a laptop is that this is the ultimate option for portability. If you have a powerful laptop and are willing to take the time to master the software of your choice, this could be the best strategy.

However, if you want to get started right away, then you should go with another set-up.

Turntable

Spinning vinyl is the classic, old school system set-up that goes back not to the disco era, but to the late 1940s when a DJ named Jimmy Savile started hosting jazz parties in the UK. DJs in the 1950s would show up for parties with their turntables. Sometimes they brought a drummer along to keep the beat going as they switched records.

That changed in the 1960s when Francis Grasso started using slip-cueing and beatmatching whilst DJing in clubs in New York City. DJ Kool Herc started using two identical records and mixing between them.  

Some DJs still love the tactile feel of working with vinyl. For this set-up, you need turntables, a mixer, and speakers.

Turntables With Software

This is a modification to the traditional two turntables set-up. Along with the record players, DJs add a laptop with DJing software. Most of the time, this set-up requires an interface between the mixer and a laptop.

This system gives the DJ additional features through the software. Many professional DJs prefer using this set-up because they can add digital files to their mix.

Pro Tip: If you go with this kind of system, you might want to have control vinyl discs. An excellent option is this pair of 12” Serato Control Vinyls.

CD-DJ

Some DJs prefer to use CDs. If you want to go this route, then you need 2 CD turntables and a mixer. This set-up will let you play audio files and CDs. Some DJs add an interface to hook their system to a laptop. But the beauty of this set-up is that a computer is not needed.

Although CDs seem irrelevant when you can have the digital files on USB sticks or SD cards, DJs who use them like that know they are an inexpensive way to make a promo. They also see CDs as a reliable way to get the music to performances. Also, CDs are relatively inexpensive, so CDs are an affordable way to get started until they can afford expensive Professional DJ software.

Controller

If you want to ditch the mixer, then you can opt for a controller. A controller is an all-in-one unit—CDs and mixer that you interface with your computer. You will also need control CDs that will work with your software.  

Different Types of DJs

The set-up you choose depends on what you see yourself doing as a DJ. Although DJs still work at radio stations, I assume you have something else in mind.

Mobile DJs

If you see yourself as the person who goes to weddings, parties, dances, or nightclubs, then your first priority will be portability, and your second priority will be flexibility. You will be required to bring your equipment to almost all your gigs, and you must be willing to play requests. You might even be given a set list or suggested songs.

Along with choosing your set-up, you will have to bring other equipment along:

  • Speakers and speaker stands
  • Microphone
  • Audio cables
  • A table for your gear (do not count on one being available)
  • A case for everything

Don’t forget to get a USB drive so that you can back up your playlists, music, effects, and so on. And you want to have some marketing material (business card, sample CDs, social media links) to get more gigs. 

Scratch DJs

If you dream of being able to take your ability to scratch, mix beats, and put your beats to existing music, then you are going to join the tradition of turntablists that goes back to Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grand Wizard Theodore, the inventor of scratching.  

As a scratch DJ, your interest is less on playing music for others at a party or event and more on mastering your instrument—the turntable. You might decide to add gear, software, but a pair of turntables and a mixer are a must.  

Club DJs

Club DJs are the house band of the club scene. Most DJs have gigs at one or more clubs, usually within traveling distance. Going this route means you will be playing remixes of popular songs and adding some of your own music. Most club DJs focus on one genre to help them build a reputation with that crowd.

Since most clubs have their own equipment, you won’t need your gear to be as portable. To get good, though, you will need regular access to equipment similar to what you will find in clubs.

Equipment Suggestions

Now that you have some ideas for what kind of equipment you might be interested in, I will go into more detail for each. To help you plan your budget, our favorites are grouped by price. Maybe you want to sink more money into your mixer, and you will be happy with a lower-quality set of headphones.

During this article, to go check our suggestions out on Amazon simply click the image.

Turntables

You can find a dizzying array of turntables, everything from small portable units to direct-drive machines capable of Wi-Fi broadcasting for $2,500.

If you’re serious about professional DJing, you should stay away from the small portable units. They are not built for the complex needs of a full-length show.  

Reloop Spin Portable Turntable System

Reloop makes several turntables, and this model is an excellent entry-level option, especially for the Scratch DJ. The portability is a nice feature—you have a battery-powered player with a built-in speaker and MP3 recording ability with the USB. You can record your scratches or digitize records. The speaker has Bluetooth functionality.  

This is not an audiophile’s player, so if you are looking for something that can do double-duty and also work with a high-end stereo system, this isn’t for you. Also, the turntable does not have the capability to play from the USB, so you will need a computer.

Still, for around 250 dollars, this is an excellent portable turntable if you plan to go the scratching route.  

Audio-Technica AT-LP1240-USB Direct-Drive

This Audio-Technica is on the high end of a mid-range record player. However, the extra features in this model make up for the high price. You get a direct-drive turntable with USB features so you can plug directly into a laptop and easily digitize LPs.

As I said, the high torque motor is direct drive and multipole. The tonearm is S-shaped and well-balanced, the platter is die-cast, the slipmat is designed for DJs, and playback controls include a variable pitch control and forward and reverse.  

The headshell is universal, so almost any phone cartridge unit will fit it. Warning—phono cartridge is not included in this set, so you will have to buy that separately.  

You should expect to pay around $450 for this model. But don’t worry: it’s worth every penny.

Pioneer DJ Direct Drive DJ Turntable PLX 1000

If money is no object and you want a serious record player, then this Pioneer will fit the bill nicely. Pioneer has been making high-end turntables for half a century, so they know a thing or two about turntables.  

I will start with the starting torque of 4.5 kg/cm, which lets you go from 0 to 33 1/3 rpm in 0.3 seconds. Also, this unit lets you adjust the tempo up to 50% slower or faster. The reset button immediately reverts to 33 1/3.  

The chassis is made from die-cast zinc and is designed to reduce vibrations and resonance. Pioneer reinforces the chassis with additional resin and vibration-damping material. Additional sound dampening features are added to the tonearm and insulator.

Some might see the fact that the Pioneer does not have USB or Bluetooth capability as a drawback. However, designing a machine that does so many things means the manufacturer’s focus is on squeezing everything into one box and still making money. Not much with the PLX 1000. Expect to pay around 700 dollars for this bad boy.

Turntable Accessories

Just like software comes with plug-ins, record players require accessories.  

First, if your turntable does not have a preamp, it will have a ground wire that will need to be attached to your mixer or amp. If you don’t attach the ground, the player’s humming sound will remind you.

Second, most turntables come with a cartridge, but if not, you will have to buy one. Here are a few tips on cartridges:

  • Headshell or Direct mount. Some cartridges mount under the headshell of the tonearm while others mount directly.
  • DJing cartridges work for listening, but listening cartridges are not ideal for DJing.
  • Proper set-up is essential. Weight and alignment are essential to avoid wear and tear on your records. Your turntable will have directions for how to do that. You can also purchase something like the Shure SFG-2 Stylus Tracking Force Gauge to gauge the weight of the cartridge. The Fidelity Sound Labs Geo-Disc is an excellent alignment tool.

Turntable mat. The mat under the records is important. A felt mat is versatile for both DJing and playing. If you want to reduce vibrations, rubber mats are ideal—audiophiles like a cork mat for superior sound quality.

Mixers

Numark M2 BLACK | Professional Two-Channel Scratch Mixer

This is an excellent starter mixer. You have inputs for two channels and one mic, plus three outputs. The Numark has a crossfader, dedicated channel faders, and controls for slope. The mixer also comes with three-band equalizers for each channel.  

No bells or whistles, but a good starter mixer for around $100. If you want to add a third channel, you can do that for another 25 or so. A 4th channel will get you into the $200 range. If you upgrade to the 4-channel model, you will also be able to get laptop connectivity.

Allen & Heath XONE:23 2-Plus-2 Channel DJ Mixer

If you want a 2+2 mixer with many features you would see in a club system at a price less than half, then the Allen & Heath might be for you. You have VCA faders, three total kill Equalizer. You have inputs for either two RCA or two phono players. The mixer will let you get a total of four sources.  

And there’s more. The buttons are illuminated, and you have both 1/8-inch and ¼-inch jacks for headphones. If you want to upgrade to a high-end Inno fader, you can do that as well.

For the price, I think this mixer should have USB connectivity. You can use 1/8-inch cables to connect to a laptop. If that is something you must have, you will need to step up to the 23C.  

The XONE:23 can be found in the mid-three-hundreds. Add another hundred for the USB version 23C.

Pioneer DJ-DJM S9 Battle-Mixer

If you are ready to move up to the professional-level mixer and have the money to do so, then the Pioneer DJM S9 is what you want, especially if you will be using Serato. There are so many features on this mixer that I will highlight the ones I like.

For starters, having FX buttons is nice, but having customizable FX buttons for each side plus two in the middle gives you the ability to use Serato DJ FX. Plus, there is nothing like a magnetic crossfader for a response that is smooth and accurate. The curve and reverse settings for the crossfader are also customizable.  

Having multi-colored performance pads to provide better response and accuracy is awesome. Hot Cue, Slice, Loop features are available, or you can use Serato to customize the pads. But even better, if you plan to use a Midi controller, the Pioneer DJM-S9 can connect with external devices so you can use it as a controller.  

The price tag is steep, making this a model for the professional. Expect to pay around $1,500.

Controllers

Numark-Party-Mix-Controller

If you are thinking of going the controller route, the Numark is an excellent beginner’s model.

Since the audio interface is in the controller, setting up the Numark controller is as easy as plugging a headphone into one output and your speakers, mixer, or computer into the other output. The unit is lightweight and portable. For a system this small, you get what you need in a controller—crossfader, jog wheels, manual looping, and a four-pad system.  

More importantly, the controller is compatible with either PC or Mac because of the Serato DJ Lite that is included. This is an excellent way to get to know the basics of Serato, an essential tool as you continue to develop your chops.

If creating a light show is your thing, the Numark has three LED lights that you can sync to your music.  

For around $100, you can have an excellent starter Controller.  

Roland-Two-channel-Four-deck-Controller-DJ-202

One of the things that you might find frustrating with the Numark is how small it is. The Roland DJ-202 gives your fingers room to move around. That’s just one of many reasons to upgrade to the Roland. It’s still a 2-channel controller, but the platters are larger, and you get a built-in drum kit with eight sounds, including snare, bass, closed and open hat, rim, and clap.

You also get a sequencer on board to control the Serato DJ’s built into the controller and midi output. Although the Roland DJ-202 comes with Serato lite, you can upgrade to Serato Pro for free. This is an excellent choice if you decide you will have a controller as part of your set-up.

Expect to pay around $300 for this model, which is a reasonable price for a professional-grade controller.

Pioneer-DJ-DDJ-SR2-2-channel-controller

The top-of-the-line Pioneer DDJ-SR2 comes loaded with Serato DJ Pro and has key controls designed to work seamlessly with the software.  

Although the Pioneer is lightweight, it isn’t small. Jog wheels are large enough to give you excellent response and accuracy for your scratching needs. The performance pads are also large and multi-colored. You can see both the channel and master out levels with the dual-level meter.  

If you want to add turntables or media players, the Pioneer DDJ-SR2 has a mixer on board to let you control the audio with channel faders, trims, and Equalizer controls. And if you want to jump to a specific spot on a track, you can do so immediately with the controller’s Needle Search.

The price tag on the DDJ-SR2 is a hefty $700.

Headphones

A good pair of headphones is essential if you plan to cue and mix tunes accurately. When you are looking for headphones, you should consider three things:

  • Sound quality.  You obviously want high-quality audio as well as headphones that cancel background noise effectively.
  • Comfort. You will be wearing them for much of the time that you are DJing, especially in clubs. If your headphones are not comfortable, then the sound quality will not matter when you cannot wear them any longer.
  • Flexibility. Good headphones are flexible enough that they do not break as you use them.

Samson Technologies SR850 Semi Open-Back Studio Reference Headphones

I recommend these budget headphones. These semi-open headphones are excellent all-purpose headphones for a beginner. The sound quality is good for a set of headphones priced in the 50- to 60-dollar range. The over the ear design helps cancel background noise. The self-adjusting headband is a nice touch to give you one less to think about while mixing your music.

Sennheiser HD 25 Plus Closed-Back Monitor Headphones

The Sennheiser is a solid mid-range option. The closed-back design means superior background noise cancellation. Low contact pressure (2.5 N), 5-ounce lightweight make the Sennheiser comfortable. Considered by many to be the industry standard, I like the Plus model because of the additional cables and a second set of earpads.

If you don’t feel you need the extras, Sennheiser offers the same phones as a stand-alone product. Expect to pay around 200 dollars for a pair of these headphones.

Sony MDR-Z7 High-Resolution Stereo Closed Dynamic Headphones

If you are looking for a top of the line set of headphones, look no further. Imagine a sound system on your ears. These can give you balanced audio, have a sound range from 4 Hz to 100 Hz, and a 70-mm ALCP driver unit delivers superior sound. To reduce sound degradation, the cables have a 4-wire design and are made from silver-coated, and oxygen-free copper.

The superior design of the earcups—urethane cushions, silicone rings, 3-d sewn covers—make for the ultimate in comfort. Sticker-shock though—you won’t be able to get these for under five hundred dollars.  

Laptop Computer

Few DJs do not use a laptop as part of their set-up, but as with everything else, there are so many choices that it’s difficult to know where to start. Perhaps a good starting place would be the laptop you already own. Whether you have a PC or Mac, you want something that can handle the software you plan to use.

Before I give you recommendations for a laptop, these are the basic requirements if you want a computer that will give you optimal performance:

  • Hard drive. If it’s not an SSD (or solid-state drive), your laptop will have to work harder to process and load. The closer you can get your storage space on the drive to 1 TB, the better. You will need that much storage space if you plan on storing most of your music on the laptop.
  • Operating System. Just make sure your computer is updated to the latest one.  
  • RAM. You want at least 8 GB.
  • Screen. Get at least 15 inches, with a 1280 x 720 resolution. You do not need to be squinting in the middle of your sets.
  • Ports. Ideally, you want four so that you can add in additional gear as you expand.

If your laptop comes close to these requirements, then there is no need to get something new. However, this could be your excuse to get a new laptop. Our two favorites are the MacBook Pro and the Dell XPS 15 9560.

The MacBook is an excellent option that many professional DJs use as part of their set-ups. Software and hardware integrate seamlessly, and the MacBook is lightweight, has a 10-hour battery life, and is easy to navigate with its multi-touch Touch Bar.

If you are a Windows user, the Dell 15 has the terabyte storage, SSD drive, and 32-gig of RAM. The touchscreen option is excellent for DJing, and thinner than the MacBook, it’s a winner in the portability category.

Software

Although there are many DJ software options, I recommend Serato for a simple reason—it’s the most used software. As you saw in several of our recommendations, mixers and controllers often come loaded with Serato. You can start with a free version, and once you have mastered it, upgrade. In addition, Serato has many plug-ins and expansion packs.

Another recommendation is the Ableton Live 10. Ableton is a DAW or digital audio workstation. Although it is not designed for DJing, the flexibility of being able to produce music as well as for your DJ gigs makes it an excellent choice.

Although you can find other DJ software, you should stick with one of these. As you can see, there is already plenty to think about.  

Bottom Line

Hopefully, this overview of the essential equipment has not overwhelmed you. Remember, you first want to decide what kind of DJing you plan to pursue, and then pick the set-up that best matches. The recommendations come in a range of prices, so you can pick and choose where you want to splurge and where the budget model might be a good starting point.

Sources

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