DJing With A Computer Keyboard

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Digital DJing and controllerism has come a long way from simply “laptop DJing” (say it with contempt for full effect), but for most digital DJs the laptop remains the central part of their setup. While there’s usually a better workflow than hunching over your keyboard, there are instances where using your computer’s keyboard gets the job done better than anything else. In this article we explore the best uses and mapping considerations for the buttons that you always have with you on your laptop!

THE FULL SETUP

In an ideal world, you’ll be set up with a powerful controller or two. But there are plenty of DJs getting started, still searching or saving for the perfect controller. If you’ve already got that perfect controller, what happens if it gives up the ghost in the middle of a gig? The computer keyboard might not be the most stylish or the most gratifying way to manipulate your DJ software, but it’s often faster and more effective than your trackpad or mouse.

Different software deals with keyboard mapping in different ways. Of the ‘big three’ – Ableton Live, Traktor, and Scratch Live – Traktor’s is probably the most powerful, but in exactly the same way as its MIDI mapping system, it’s the most fiddly.

Ableton Live’s key mapping system works in exactly the same way as its MIDI mapping; learning is quick and easy – but it’s actually a little more flexible as shift, alt, and shift+alt can be used as modifiers.

Despite sensible layout (including logical modifier layers) Scratch Live provides no way to modify Serato’s default key mapping, so it’s the clear nag in this particular race.

Ableton’s key mapping approach is surprisingly flexible, combining its click-to-learn approach with four states per key with simple modifier commands. The modifiers keys include alt/option, command, control, and shift. The only thing that isn’t ideal is its inability to recognise held keys, meaning toggles are the only option and momentary switches are out.

Traktor comes with a pretty decent default map for a two deck setup, but it’s not the best thing for every situation. Take a look at this mapping from Eric Zone (courtesy of TraktorBible), which approaches things a little differently to the default mapping. There’s less in the way of features, but a concise workflow that allows for effects, quick access to loops, and mixer functions.

Thinking Ahead

Our number one tip for making your  own keyboard mappings: plan ahead! A little thought into a map that will work best for you – either to enhance your setup or act as a emergency backup controller – will go a long way. Consider your most often used functions!

Ableton Live’s a blank canvas, and in the same way that you need to set your DJ set up from scratch in Live, you’ll have to set your key map up. Traktor’s controller editor is notoriously labourious to use, and despite Live’s surprise strength when it comes to key mapping you’d be surprised how quickly you can become key-blind staring at a list of commands in the mapping editor, so I whipped up this keyboard template image for your brainstorming sessions. Click here to download at 300dpi!

AN EXTRA CONTROLLER

Some DJs aren’t put off by the idea of using a keyboard in the booth at all – in fact if you have a nice keyboard you might actually prefer the feel of the buttons over those found on some MIDI controllers. A computer keyboard can actually do some cool stuff; I’ve cooked up a little FX bank for Traktor as inspiration and to show how a bunch of buttons can go a long way.

Check out my basic Traktor Pro 2 keyboard based FX layout here(Warning: this .tsi contains keyboard mappings and effects settings, so be sure to have anything you choose to import backup up safely if you want to keep existing settings!)

Ergonomic Considerations

  • Your keyboard has a whole lot of keys that each do a single thing: get pressed and register a command. Fans of Midi Fighters, Monomes, and the like will already be in ‘binary mode’ when thinking about mappings, but if you’re a little more used to thinking in terms of knobs and sliders then smart use of buttons is sometimes a foreign concept.
  • Because keyboards have no knobs and sliders, think about how you actually use effects and what you need in order to get as close as possible to your normal operation with just buttons. For example, you can’t smoothly adjust EQ, but you can hit a full kill in one movement. You can’t ride the pitch fader, but you can use pitch bend buttons to nudge you back in phase.
  • If your play style revolves around juggling cues, something to experiment with is assigning two adjacent buttons to the same action to allow you to ‘twiddle’ the two buttons and at the same time reduce the risk of accidentally hitting the wrong button in the heat of the moment.
  • Be careful when putting buttons close to each other! This is a pretty universal concept whether you’re on a keyboard or a controller, but if your load track or stop button is right next to your ‘instant cool FX’ button, you’re playing with fire. The mapping above from Eric Zone almost certainly has ‘lock playing deck’ switched on when it’s being used, because of the proximity of the load button to all the rest of the controls.

LIBRARY MANAGEMENT

There’s another very valid use for your computer’s keyboard, and that’s helping out with the often gruelling task of managing your track library. Things like adding tempos, cues and beat grids can be a hassle in Traktor, but with a mapping on standby that you can switch to during downtime you can mitigate the frustration of using the mouse – or worse still, the trackpad – to get these important tasks done. Rainier over at Traktor Bible has a pretty sleek mapping designed just for this purpose over here. TraktorBible’s Beatgridding with Keypad map.

REMEMBER THE CONTROLS!


So you have a setup you like. It’s just that remembering that ‘F’ is hotcue 2 isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do. If only there was some way to customize your keyboard to make things easier to remember!

You have a few options when it comes to improving the memorability of your keyboard maps, from off-the-shelf rubberized overlays designed to fit a variety of keyboards and work with the out of the box mappings (the DJTT webstore stocks the KBcovers pictured above for both Serato and Traktor) to customizable blank keys that can either be printed to or written on (like these over at Amazon for less than $2), to stationary stop gaps like small colored dot marker stickers.

One of our commenters also found these keyboard stickers – we can’t vouch for their quality, but worth mentioning!

FINALLY

As a recap, here are the files that I’ve created or compiled to help you get the most out of your computer keyboard for DJing:

Blank Keyboard Template

Traktor 2 Alternative Keyboard Mapping

Traktor Pro 2 FX Keyboard Mapping

Rainer Haselier’s Keyboard Beatgridding

Hopefully I’ve helped you get the most out of your keyboard, but as always I’m not perfect: how do you use your keyboard for DJing tasks – have I missed anything out? Let us know below!

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  • Jordan Meyer

    I’ve searched high and low for a solution. Does ANYONE know how I can map my Mac Pro keyboard to just lay regular cue points (NOT Hot Cues) throughout the track as it plays and have them snapped and quantized to the grid? So, say if the track is playing I could just hit the TAB button and a cue point is made and perfectly aligned with the grid… Anyone?

  • Mwani

    This helped a lot thank you.

  • Anonymous

    I really appreciate free, scnucict, reliable data like this.

  • R Tabares

    Can some one please help me find a dj case for a Traktor S2 but the size that I’m looking for is around 36x18x9 since I would like to integrate additional equiptment inside? Thank you.

  • Pradeep Sweetball

    Thank You

    The given information is very effective
    i will keep updated with the same 

    industrial automation

  • There is things that can be done with the mapping. For example, fix so that the buttons also sets the effect panel properly. If I load up the .tsi I get the TTFX in unit four, but I’ve got a superknob mapped to something else there. After I use the knob, the keyboard presses does not reset the unit to TTFX.

    Is it possible to publish a fix?

  • Anonymous

    Great article! It shows a good range of options. They rule for me is covering the essentials and speeding up 1) processing new tracks and 2) sketching ideas with no external gear.

    Here’s my setup (below it is the tsi file for the keyboard only):
    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/7071504/TraktorKeys.png
    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/7071504/djsilence_keyboard_only.tsi

    I used these stickers:
    http://www.4keyboard.com/glowing-fluorescent-english-us-large-lettering-keyboard-stickers-p-449.html
    http://www.4keyboard.com/blank-colored-keyboard-stickers-p-421.html

    My main goal was to fit the physical layout to Traktor’s GUI. There are control for four decks taking up most of the keyboard. The only exceptions are:
    `~ = Quantize on/off
    ‘” = Fx1 On
    | = LFO Reset
    up/down arrows = browse tracks
    In the upper-right, the blank area (-, =, [, ]) is to load new songs into each deck and uses the shift-key
    The spacebar phase-syncs all four decks
    Also note that there is no shift-function for the loop on/off buttons

    For each deck:
    Controls = Play (1, 8, A, K), next/prev cue (green), BeatJump +/- 16 (yellow), loop on/off (E, P, C, /), 4 FX-selects (multicolor)
    Shift+Controls = Pause, key +/- 1, BeatJump +/- 4, EQ reset (red), filter reset (blue), channel fader max/min (orange/purple)

  • Thelabradio

    I love you guys!!!!!!!!

  • Guust-Fi

    I am currently working on a pretty advanced custom keyboard which allows you to dj without a controller. This is either for non-pro dj’s or for people who want to dj in their hotel room and so on 🙂 Nothing else comes even close to this considering the price.

    As you can see the design is changing a lot. I will try to post this in detail once I am relatively pleased with the results! 

  • Guust-Fi

    I am 

  • Ryan Supak

    Do you have that keyboard template in an Atari 800 version?

  • I present you with the Pandaboard 
    http://forum.djtechtools.com/showthread.php?t=17064

  • here’s my custom ableton-dj-set keyboard…. it takes a few hours but i have play/stop/que buttons for 5 channels, 2 of this channels go straight into sends a and b, on channel 3,4 and 5 i have a send selector which i can recall at a button-press. with the numbers on my keyboard i select an effect on the individual channels. 1,2,3,4 and 5 are my eq/filters, 6 and 7 selects a fx-rack with 8 effects each, 9 selects my autopan/sidechainer and with 10 i select a stuttereffect on the master. Channel 8 is set to resample audio which has less delay then the built in looper. With n and m i can record and stop the master audio which leaves a recorded clip i can directly can use in my set again. Finally, i have a buttons for; bpm-tap, global recording, global quantize, scene up, scene down, trigger scene, nudging down and up, session/arrangement-view switch, and loop on/off

    In combination with the remote sl, this is a dream…..

  • Thanks alot for sharing my mapping! I’m so fu**in’ proud right now!
    Check out my fan page too!
    https://www.facebook.com/ericzone94
    Cheers!
    Eric Zone

  • silly

  • You know… This is a great article. Well done!

  • mekon mekon

    after all your research you didnt find THIS ????

    http://www.4keyboard.com/native-instruments-traktor-pro2-keyboard-stickers-p-570.html

    there is more for other software on their site

    • Spacecamp

      Nice find, Mekon! I’ll add it to the article.

    • D Holling

      Not knock on you, but those stickers would look ultra cheesy compared to the ones that come from NI and Ableton

  • Buster

    I went to play at a club last friday, i had back up cds as always, but as i was unpacking my gear (2 Midi fighters, an audio 10, macbook pro) i dropped my usb hub onto the dancefloor! When i rushed out of the booth to see if it was ok, someone had stepped on it.. therefore i couldn’t use my midi fighters (well i could just use one) HOWEVER i decided to just play using my keyboard i remember where cue, play and tempo bend was oh and hot cues. It was actually surprisingly easy! i played a great set and everyone had a good night!

  • Albert Andesen

    I think you should make a full version of the effect mapping (: please

  • Anonymous

    Nice article Chris, and something I’ve always been a fan of. I DJed for 5 years like this right at the start of digital DJing, because in the early days I simply couldn’t find a Midi controller that I could get comfortable with. I even took my set-up to play at Privilege in Ibiza! 

    It was nothing more than Virtual DJ, a PC-card audio interface (Echo Indigo DJ) and a Sony Vaio, and a custom mapping that I had tweaked and tweaked (and rewritten from scratch several times when I’d stupidly lost it) to give me two full decks’-worth of EQs, gains, pans, kills, triggers, loops and other stuff that you simply can’t do on controllers (like total EQ reset on one key). It taught me not to hide behind gear, and that once you’re two tunes in, everyone forgets what gear you’re using.

    There’s a lot to be said for DJing this way, and nowadays, Virtual DJ Home has the full power of that software for free if you’re prepared to only use the keyboard, including the ability to remap as I describe. I showed one bar DJ friend how to do this and to this day he still does, happily mashing it up in a cool little bar where there’s simply no space for more than a laptop in his little corner from where he DJs.

    One good idea: Tweak the pause-before-repeat and repeat rate functions of your laptop, so when you hold a key assigned to increase/decrease a value, it doesn’t wait so long before beginning to repeat, then does so at a rate that suits you.

    • Mattmangrease

      This is like a guest article within a guest article. Great additions, PM! I’ve actually just started creating a T2 keyboard mapping, as I’ve outgrown my Mixtrack Pro, and can’t yet afford a Midi Fighter (Pro, Cue master) and an S2. I’ve got most if the keyboard covered in cue points and instant effects, and it does the job just fine. I can’t wait for more buttons and knobs, though!

    • Anonymous

      Hey Phil! :), finishe dmy vestax pad one mapping last month, think im gonna have to tweak the keyboard default mapping now….u never know! lol