Generally speaking, I would guess that most people are happy to play their computer audio and video files on one of the popular media players such as Windows Media Player, Winamp, Realplayer; all of which have been around for ages and are pretty flexible, easy and straightforward to use.
However, the above media players, although they do their job well enough, don’t offer the kind of flexibility which someone, say a DJ for example, wants. Of course the last time I went to a disco (do they still call them discos?), there was a guy up there on the stage with a double record deck he could cue up each “record” (vinyl that is), using a slider to fade one record out and the other in seamlessly over each other. Though there are some media players, Jet Audio springs to mind, which will do this for you if you want, overlapping the next file at the end of the currently playing one, they offer little additional control.
So, what would a budding DJ look for if he wanted to use his computer to playback his (in all probability, mostly audio), media files, which would give him a degree of control similar to that he would have if he used a specifically designed (and hugely expensive, no doubt), digital DJ mixing deck?
Virtual DJ of course.
Virtual DJ, the current (v. 7.0), retail versions of which cost between US$50 for the Home DJ version to a chunky US$300 for the full, Professional DJ version, also offers a free for non-commercial use version (with some limited functionality, in that some features are active for a short time, before being disabled. Restarting the program re-enables the functions, however). You can try the free version before deciding if it’s what you were looking for, or which retail version might be most suitable for your needs.
The publisher’s website allows you to compare the features available in each version and the free version download link redirects you to a download site, which for some reason was in Spanish. The file itself is only about 35mb and installation is simple, during which you create a directory (within My Documents) wherein you can quickly and easily access and install additional skins, samples and effects etc.
On the initial run, as further explained in the user’s guide, a little time is spent setting up the software for your particular system. Professionals (or enthusiasts) who wish to incorporate their existing hardware this program with can do so here. This Config panel is, also, quickly available from the main interface should you wish to change any settings on the fly.
When run, to all intents and purposes, what you would see a DJ using in a disco, pub, wedding etc., is faithfully reproduced on the monitor; including the record decks and all manner of sexy looking sliders, controllers, knobs and buttons. To the uninitiated, it might look more than a little daunting, but to someone even just a little familiar with the “real-world” DJ mixing decks, it’s just what they’d expect to see. It’s probably not entirely necessary to have actual spinning decks when working with digital media, but they look great, and serve the very same purpose as would those on the old vinyl playing decks, which I remember when I used to strut my funky stuff at the local disco.
The default settings shows two decks; however, the program also includes some additional skins, which can add additional decks, apparently up to 99 decks on all versions (up to 4 being actually displayed on screen). The decks are (depending on the skin), split right and left (in respect of 2 decks), with independent controls for each. The bottom half of the screen is a file browser, which, similar to Windows Explorer, shows folders in the left-hand pane (to which you can assign virtual folders), and files with additional properties on the right. Tabs along the top of the browser pane allows you to switch between the file browser, sample loader, effects lists and recorder, quickly and easily. The file browser format can be changed to display textual information, the columns of which can be customised, and/or album art etc.
There is also a facility within the file browser to scan a directory of tracks for beats-per-minute, which is displayed in the file pane so that you can arrange and load tracks with similar beat rates for that continuous beat to keep the crowd constantly on their feet.
Above each deck there is a visual representation waveform of the track currently loaded on the respective deck and more detailed information such as the track name, how far along the track you currently are and, in large numbers, the beats-per-minute (BPM).
Alongside the deck are controls for playback of the currently selected sample, effect and loop, which incorporate drop down menus to quickly select a preloaded effect or sample.
Along the top, above both decks, is another waveform area, different colours (each corresponding with a deck colour) representing the track or tracks currently loaded, whereby you can easily follow the beat of each song, quickly (and automatically) aligning them if desired. You have the facility to choose one of three levels of zoom for this display area for fine adjusting.
Lastly, the area between the decks is where the mixing of each deck is performed. Here you can switch between the mixer for audio tracks, video tracks which displays the (input) videos currently on each deck independently, and a main (output display), where you can mix from one to the other. There is also a “scratch” facility here where you can, if you so desire, virtually scratch tracks.
Each playback deck itself is clear and self-explanatory. There are controls for cuing the track, play and pause obviously, and sync, which aligns the track on this deck with the track currently playing, for that seamless transition from one to the other. The circular “record” deck itself displays a graphical representation of the track around its circumference, which changes (as do the wave displays above) as the track is played, or the deck it turned (by virtual hand), to a particular spot in the currently loaded track .
Playing your files is as simple as dragging the file from the file browser at the bottom onto a deck, which, if not already playing a track, will automatically load it, displaying the wave and detailed information above. Should you wish to cue the track up ready, you can manually move the deck to the desired position, or play it and use the auto cue facility to align the beat with the currently playing track. Any slight difference in BPM can be accounted for and adjustment of the track will align the track by changing the speed slightly. By using the slider between the decks you can fade out the current track and fade in the (silent), cued-up track. Once this track is playing, you can smoothly restore the original speed should you need to.
Other features include visualisation effects similar to those available on most media players, the output of which, depending on the program version you have, can be directed to an external display should you have one. The same is also true for karaoke files and videos. Other visualisation effects which are available (but don’t necessarily come with the program), are slideshows, strobes etc, and different overlays and transitions.
Obviously, there is only enough room here for a very cursory explanation of what is, really, quite a complicated looking and full-featured piece of software; however, it’s also pretty easy to get to grips with even for relative novices.
There is a support forum on the publisher’s website where you can look for guidance with particular features and, as I mentioned above, a detailed User Guide which describes in detail most of the major features. I did, initially, have a little difficulty getting to grips with visualisations, transitions and effects, which didn’t seem to be wholly explained in the guide, but a little playing around answered most of my questions. (Not the first time I’ve seen features not particularly well explained in a user guide I would add, which always seem to have been written by an expert, who already knows what he’s doing, rather than a novice as most readers would be.)
If I was forced to look for a negative, I might consider that, as it’s running on a computer, and, as we all know, computers are susceptible to sudden, inexplicable hangs at the most inconvenient times, I might be wary of relying solely on it in a professional situation, such as at a rave/disco or wedding perhaps (“Everyone stop dancing please while I reset Windows!” might not go down too well), though the cost benefits might outweigh the potential embarrassment/refunds. (It’s not really a fault with the program though.)
Apart from the minor user guide niggle, I would say that Virtual DJ is an excellent piece of software, which does exactly what even a professional would want it to (for a fraction of the cost of the actual hardware), and probably much more than an enthusiast might need and, even if you are just into listening to your music, this program lets you have fun with how you play it. There’s no reason why everyone shouldn’t have the free version at least.
Well recommended 9/10.