Laptop DJ

Just over a decade ago, in my third ever post on this here blog, I declared that “generally, I can’t be bothered with laptops.” Most of the reasons why I thought this are still valid. Desktops are more powerful for the money, more easily upgraded and more reliable. And while we live in a more connected, turned-on world than we did ten years ago, smartphones and tablets have emerged to allow for computing on the go. I have both of these and between them and my desktop my computing needs have largely been met. If I need to do Serious Computing Stuff (or play most games) I go to my desktop. If I’m out and about — or just sitting in the living room — tablet and smartphone have me covered for things like checking emails or Facebook, light web browsing, or reading pdf documents.

Yet I am currently typing this on my new laptop. Why, if my computing needs have been happily met for so long without one, have I finally gone and bought a laptop now?

The answer is that I want to start DJing. By which I don’t mean that I intend to start laying down some phat beats in a club, but rather that I’d like to start providing music for people to dance to. For that, I need something portable and although some people seem to manage, my experience is that trying to use a smartphone, tablet or portable DAP doesn’t quite cut it.

And it’s this sort of thing that keeps laptops from dying out entirely: those situations where someone needs a real computer to do Proper Computing Stuff on, but they need to be able to do it in multiple locations.

So I started by buying myself a budget laptop. I was a little wary of getting a computer with Windows 8 on it but I had a backup plan to try installing Linux on it if I really couldn’t get on with W8. So the laptop arrived and I spent a few minutes playing around with Windows. Linux it was.

So I downloaded the latest Arch Linux install image, put it on a USB stick (the laptop had no optical drive) and got going. But, alas, there was a problem. Initially I thought it was a software issue and tried to fix it but eventually I concluded that there was a fault in the hardware. Without going into too much detail, whenever the video drivers were loaded, five times out of six the screen would go blank and stay that way until the machine was restarted. While I was able to find a workaround to stop this from happening, that in turn prevented me from launching a full GUI, and left me with only a console. I tried booting into images of both Mint and Ubuntu Linux and found the same fault. Since this model had at some time in some areas been sold with Ubuntu pre-installed, it seemed unlikely that it was a compatibility issue. Eventually this and a few other things led me to conclude that the device was almost certainly faulty and arranged for it to be sent back.

Just in case it had been a compatibility problem, I decided not to get the machine replaced and opted for a refund so that I could get a different computer instead. This time I spent a little more on a slightly better machine (although still fairly low-end) from Lenovo. This arrived and worked just fine. It even came with Windows 7 pre-installed rather than 8, which would have been a big plus if not for the fact that I was now very keen on the idea of running Linux on it. So although I could probably have used W7 quite happily if I had to, I once again set about installing Arch on my new laptop. Fortunately, this time the install went without any significant hitches and I am now quite happily running Cinnamon desktop.

For DJing, I am planning to use Mixxx. I have played with it a bit and it seems to do everything that I’m likely to need it to when playing for swing and blues dancing. However, it is currently limited by the lack of multiple audio outputs on the laptop, which are needed to play one track through the main output while using a second to pre-listen to the next track through headphones. Accordingly I have ordered a Behringer UCA202 USB sound card. I should then be able to use that for the main output to speakers or a PA, while keeping the laptop’s built-in audio for headphone pre-listening.

Hopefully that (plus a few cables and connectors) should be all the DJ set-up I need. So all that remains is to start assembling an organised, annotated library of music to play. I do have some swing music (and quite a bit of blues) to get started with and have sources for more. But a handful of CDs and a hard disk full of poorly labelled mp3s is not enough. I need to organise them and tag them with their tempos in BPM and notes about what they’re like to dance to. This will take a while.

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