The Solution To DJs Playing Their MacBooks

The greatest invention relating to music in the 20th century was multi-track recording, for which we have Les Paul to thank. The second greatest? Non-linear editing and Pro Tools. For some bizarre reason, we have Ricky Martin to thank for that because Livin’ La Vida Loca was the first #1 single to be recorded and mixed entirely in Pro Tools.

The third greatest invention in recording since Edison is the plugin. If you’ve already got a computer sitting in front of you, you’ve got every instrument ever made. All you need is a plugin. [Jan] was working on his live setup recently, and didn’t want to look like a DJ playing the MacBook. Instead, he built a box that combines those powerful plugins into a single, easy to use box that sits right on top of his keyboard.

Inside this box is a modern Windows machine with a PCI Express audio interface. The display is not a touchscreen, because [Jan] originally thought a touchscreen wouldn’t be good for a live performance. He’s reconsidering that now. Other than that, you’re looking in effect at a microATX motherboard and a 10″ LCD in a box, but that’s where this build gets interesting.

The mechanical design of this build is of paramount importance, so [Jan] is using two mod wheels on the side, a bunch of silicone buttons on the bottom, and a few rotary encoders. These are MIDI controls, able to change whatever variables are available in the custom VSTs. That in itself is a pretty interesting build, with circuit bent MIDI controllers and off-the-shelf buttons.

The completed build attaches right to the Nord Stage master keyboard, and eight VST instrument channels are right at [Jan]’s fingertips. You can check out a video of this build in action below.

28 thoughts on “The Solution To DJs Playing Their MacBooks

    1. Ha! that’s hilarious. The poor kid next to him hanging on to his every move, like he’s trying to pick up some skills. I suppose it’s really more of a performance art sometimes. There are good DJs out there though, and there are always going to be charlatans in every field. Just because there are fakers doesn’t mean the whole concept sucks.

      This guy in the blog post isn’t a DJ pushing play on a pre-recorded set, though. He’s using the computer to run software synths that he actually plays on a keyboard.

  1. There is a reason musicians have traditionally favoured Macs for audio production and that is the low audio latency in Mac OS.
    That and the fact that you don’t want your computer to restart for an update while you are performing ;-)

    1. Linux has lowlatency kernels as well. And you can control it’s parameters on a much finer scale. My last build I was able to get 2ms latency without going broke

      1. 2ms latency is slow compared to what possible with modern OS design.

        We are developing a microkernel OS, and even on a not too strong machine most of the system calls (with task switch and stuff) are around 100-300 ns (0.1-0.3 us) . The interrupt latency (without the hardware latency) and device drivers latency are around the same time.

          1. 2ms latency is very very slow in contemporary computing systems, if the task is just audio playback. It was 10 years ago. I wrote about system calls. (on average OS, the interrupt latency on PC are in the 5-40 us range, some latency comes from the interrupt HW)
            Monolithic kernels with paging on systems with VIVT instruction cache and/or with just L1 instruction cache, context switch can be in the 100 us range (ex ARM cortex A5) !!! With other (ex microkernel, sasos) OS design it can be under 1us on the same hardware ! Purging the cache and the tlb are costly operations.

            Btw it is possible to make processing without any kind of calls or locking. Basically one task is periodically watching memory (ringbuffers) for processing requests, and the other is just writing the requests in it. Total call and lock free processing. (all sort of HW does the same like the ethernet)
            (We use this technique for debugging from interrupt service routines, where every small processing takes time, and we don’t want any wait, system call or additional long processing)

    2. That true for most consumer hardware, hence why someone who needs that low delay on windows linux or mac you will see an audio card connected via use or pci-e that can do sub ms delays.

    3. There are ways to get low latency on other operating systems and hardware; a sound card is a lot cheaper than a macbook.On-mobo audio is almost guaranteed to suck, I’ll definitely give you that.

      Most of the time the reasons for a performer or artist using a mac are not technical in nature, though. Could be image, could be familiarity or the fact that their peers already use one, or a lack of technical skills needed to build a custom setup like this one.

      Fair point on the updates. Windows has gone astray with their OS philosophy; an OS should be a minimal, invisible thing that facilitates other software–it should never itself be the main feature of a computer. MS seems to think adding completely boneheaded and intrusive features to their OS will somehow please customers, who are really just trying to bridge the gap between their hardware and software. Endless stupid updates, which contrary to popular belief and convenient explanation are not often about security at all. Windows isn’t an OS for running your software, it’s a machine for updating itself and spying on you and firmly reminding you at every opportunity that you don’t really own your computer, you rent it from capricious and incompetent people at Microsoft. My own fucking computer “as a service” can suck my ass, no thank you. Classic situation where the pirates get a better UX than the actual paying customers. The amount of hatchet-work on the registry which is required to make Windows 10 a decent OS for power users is appalling.

      LTSB or WINE on linux can be a solution, especially for a machine with such a specific function as this.

        1. Or, not on :)

          I use both (plus linux of course) because if you’re going to put together a toolbox, you need lots of different tools, not a bunch of the same flat-head screwdriver. You’ll want a Phillips and some of those Torx bits, too. Sure, the Robinson might be your favorite–but sometimes you’re going to encounter a screw out there it won’t fit, and standing by your principles won’t get any work done.

  2. Nothing’s plugged in! No surprises there. Likewise, I laugh at DJs who toss their hands up in the air after turning some knobs, as though they’ve just cast a magic spell, or they put their whole body into it as though the knob is hard to turn. It would be fun to have a mixer/controller that gives the DJ nonlethal electrical shocks so their gestures are more authentic! Or maybe lethal shocks if no-one likes the mix…

    1. I always thought that they threw their hands up to show that they weren’t doing anything?
      Or perhaps like something like “look mom… no hands…”

      But seriously, I’m a firm believer in that a true DJ doesn’t play an instrument, he/she plays the audience. Which is an art in itself not always understood.

        1. I once had the rather unpleasant job of dismissing one of the company’s bar managers over something which started in exactly that way.

          The DJ she employed was a drum and bass merchant who refused to play anything else. Wholly inappropriate for the location and it showed. Takings dropped by more than two-thirds over the space of a few weeks and when she refused to get rid of him, the company was left with no other option.

          One of the owners filled in while we looked for a new manager and takings were nearly back to normal within three weeks.

    1. Sounds about par for the course. It’s too bad the FOSS alternatives never seem to pick up steam, but I suppose a musician has a completely different, difficult-to-obtain skillset and doesn’t have a whole lot of time to spend learning how to hunt down and use the open-source stuff.

      1. Sadly it’s the usual problem. Written by programmers with little or no input from the intended target ‘audience’, musicians in this case.

        Ok for programmers, not so good for musicians…

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