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Dead DJ Controller: Surviving A Complete Gear Failure At A Gig

There’s always a chance of disaster at a DJ gig. Drinks can find their way into the DJ booth, power outages are always a possibility – but another scenario that many DJs overlook is the dead controller scenario. There are many ways a controller can short out or stop working completely. What if it happens at a gig? How does a DJ comeback from a completely dead gear? Today’s article shares precautionary measures to take to prepare for this unfortunate scenario.

Before The Gig: What To Bring

Freak accidents and dead controllers will (hopefully) be rare problems for DJs. Nevertheless, DJs should be prepare for it, with the mindset of the old adage “the best defense is a good offense.” Keep the following items in your DJ bag.

An Extra Audiocard

Audio 2: A simple backup to cue audio and sent it to the mixer

Many DJ controllers are bundles of convenience that contain built-in audiocards. This means that if it dies, you’ve lost the ability to control music, but also the ability to send sound to the mixer. Of course, one could use a 3.5mm aux cable and depend on their laptops’ internal soundcard. This doesn’t provide a way to listen and cue tracks separate from the main mix. The best solution would be to have an extra audiocard to use as a back-up. If you don’t have an old audiocard, there are inexpensive smart options.

  • Traktor Audio MK2 ($99) – This audiocard is a real lifesaver Traktor DJs. I have been keeping one of these in my DJ bags for this purpose. It is compact, light, and has a high-quality output. A DJ can even pack an iPad with Traktor DJ on installed and be rocking in no time.
  • Akai AMX ($249) –  The Akai AMX Serato DJ Controller is more expensive than the Traktor MK2, however, this audiocard’s primary function is being a compact two-channel mixer. In the event a Serato DJ’s controller dies, the Akai Mix can take over the audio and the DJ can even control the music enough to get through the rest of the gig.

Alternatively, a DJ could also mix in mono using a headphone splitter to separate the Left and Right audio channels. This allows the DJ to cue tracks however playing in Mono will have a noticable sound. But, hey, in a bind it is a great way to get things back up and running.

A USB with Backup Mixes

Ignore the instinct to fix the main issue of a dead controller. Instead, plug in a USB

If your DJ gear dies and the music stops, the first thing you want to do is get music playing again. Ignore the instinct to fix the main issue of a dead controller. Instead, plug in a USB with pre-recorded mixes to buy some time to fix the controller issue.

Shoot for having 3-4 mixes that span different genres. This makes your backup adaptable for different types of gigs, while also serving as a quick way to keep up the energy in the room. The mixes could be played directly off a laptop, but if possible try to use house equipment such as CDJs that way the laptop is free to use to fix a dead controller.

Many mobile DJs bring iPads / older MP3 players as a backup for exactly this purpose – as a dedicated “oh crap I need music now” backup box.

Make a Versatile Keyboard Mapping

When my controller broke on me a few years ago (thankfully at home and not at a gig!) I did not have the time or money to buy a replacement. My solution was to create a keyboard mapping that gave me enough controller over my decks to play, cue, and add FX. I even had my number pad setup so that each row of numbers could be used to control the crossfader with different intensities.

All controller DJs should have their own keyboard mapping in the event of an emergency. It also is a great addition to a controller setup that I still use even though I have two controllers that I am already using to DJ.

Pro-Tip: While built-in keyboard mappings do exist for many DJ softwares, they’re often completely overkill or have features that many DJs don’t care about. Instead, build your own mapping OR check out some of the mappings on Maps.DJTechTools.com (choose “Desktop Keyboard” from the controller dropdown).

Pack Accessory Controllers + Make Alternate Mappings For Them

Imagine you had to DJ with ONLY your accessory controller

Accessory controllers such as the Kontrol F1, DDJ-SP1 and Akai AFX can be useful alternatives to DJing when your primary controller takes its last breath. By themselves, accessory controllers can be limiting so before a gig, make a backup mapping.

Ensure that the mapping allows for comfortable mixing and find a workflow that is similar to a normal setup with a working controller. If you need a refresher on MIDI mapping, check out this MIDI Mapping 101 article from the archives.

During The Gig: How To Survive Gear Dying

The demise of a controller mid-gig can be a truly confusing, chaotic experience. Of course, being prepared is great – but that’s not always the case. Here are some ideas of things to do in the heat of the moment that can potentially save a gig:

Contact the Promoter/Other DJs

This can be hit or miss, but contacting the promoter  may lead to finding a backup controller. The promoter for one reason or another booked a specific DJ to play a gig so if that DJ experiences any issues, the promoter will be more inclined to help out. Ask the promoter if he can contact other DJs who are able to bring a controller. Maybe a DJ going on later can come in early and let others use his equipment. Promoters aren’t always the most obliging people, but it is worth a shot to ask.

Editor’s Note: When I used to work on a multi-op mobile DJ company, it was common to call other DJ companies with gigs in the same town if gear died. Being friendly with your competition pays off – I’ve seen expensive 500-person wedding gigs saved from having the right person’s number saved in a cell phone. – Dan

Consider Mixing on House Equipment

Most clubs and festivals will have CDJs or an equivalent in the DJ booth. Consider reading up on CDJs and get familiar with the basic functions such as cue, play, and FX. This equipment is already in place to be used over the house sound system and the stage manager will be able to help get things running immediately. Download Rekordbox, load up a USB with a few hours of tracks, and read up on how to use CDJs if you’re coming from a DJ contorller.

Have a Backup Setup in the Car

Not exactly what we meant by “have a backup setup in your car”, but this is amazing.

DJs who drive to gigs and will have their car parked outside a gig may want to keep a backup setup in the trunk. If you’ve been DJing for a few years, you might have old controllers and setups that would make for perfect backup solutions. Just remember to keep the gear out of sight! Put everything in the trunk and don’t leave any visible signs that say “I HAVE EXPENSIVE DJ EQUIPMENT IN MY CAR”. Let us not forget the lesson that Shawn Wasabi’s unfortunate experience taught us.

Hardware failure is inevitable and it is just a matter of time before all controllers go to the big DJ booth in the sky. Have you ever had a controller die during a gig? Do you have a tip we missed? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
  • (????)? ? Tucker ?

    I had a steady college nightclub gig from 2014-2016 that was plagued by technical difficulties. I started out using a controller that I’d plug into the house mixer. It was an expensive controller but nevertheless it would freeze up at least twice during my 4.5 hour gigs at that spot. Later, I switched to an expensive 2-channel soundcard-enabled mixer that would also fail randomly. This time, instead of freezing, the mixer would just stop outputting sound until I cycled the power. Both pieces of gear were sorta unpredictable and there were some gigs when they wouldn’t fail at all. In each case, the gear was super new and I probably was using early production models of each. After the first failure, I just fell into the habit of plugging my iPhone into an open channel on the house mixer with a banger cued up so, after having the music cut out, I could at least have something playing ASAP while I cycled the power on my gear. As the set would progress, I’d re-cue a song on my iPhone that would fit with whatever I was doing that hour. I figured using a controller was risky but was shocked that my new mixer was so unpredictable too. After my initial bad luck with the controller, I thought I was in good shape with my mixer setup because I had a killer keyboard map and used the mixer for pre-cuing and hardware effects. It was primarily a hip hop gig so there wasn’t any need for long beatmatched blends. I’d say, if you ever take a gig, you absolutely must have a backup plan, because it’s too easy not to. It’s not like you need to carry around two extra turntables and extra crates of records.

  • Noe Philippe

    Wow, you wrote the same comment as me word for word. Great minds think alike I guess. Mmm… ?

  • Laurens de Koningh

    I carry an A10, a D2 (just in case) and have a back up laptop that I use to run betas. Other than that I carry 2 USBs that are Rekordbox prepped, kept up to date and practiced with at least once a week on my CDJs at home. It’s good to be flexible and comfortable with change.

  • marius aubert

    I carry an A10, a D2 (just in case) and have a back up laptop that I use to run betas. Other than that I carry 2 USBs that are Rekordbox prepped, kept up to date and practiced with at least once a week on my CDJs at home. It’s good to be flexible and comfortable with change.

  • SWDEagle

    i’d recommend learning to use CDJs & DJM and preparing a backup DJ set with rekordbox. because there are ALWYAS some at a venue.

  • couic

    i’d recommend learning to use CDJs & DJM and preparing a backup DJ set with rekordbox. because there are ALWYAS some at a venue.

  • Elmex94

    I carry an A10, a D2 (just in case) and have a back up laptop that I use to run betas. Other than that I carry 2 USBs that are Rekordbox prepped, kept up to date and practiced with at least once a week on my CDJs at home. It’s good to be flexible and comfortable with change.

  • lennox neumann

    I carry an A10, a D2 (just in case) and have a back up laptop that I use to run betas. Other than that I carry 2 USBs that are Rekordbox prepped, kept up to date and practiced with at least once a week on my CDJs at home. It’s good to be flexible and comfortable with change.

    • Another exact copy, this time of Oddie ?

  • Aaron Jaraba

    For me, my doomsday option is my iPhone 6s (with headphone jack) + USB battery pack + 3.5mm jack to RCA cable. If I think I have time to fix the problem I run the Serato Pyro app which creates seamless mixes using my Spotify playlists. If I want a little bit more control then I’ll use the DJay 2 app to ad-hoc some mixing.

  • Ian Williams

    I’d recommend the Reloop Mixtour
    It’s a backup controller for your lappy (Traktor & DJay), plus if your Lappy dies too, it’s a full back up when paired with an ipad (DJay).

  • Bram Dekker

    When your controller dies at a gig even after you fix it you are still on edge for the rest of the night, the butterflies never go away, it’s a weird feeling.I disagree with custom keyboard mapping. If you leave the default mapping you can buy a keyboard overlay and just keep it in your DJ bag for emergencies. That way you don’t need to memorise something that you will hopefully never use.

    • Wow, you wrote the same comment as me word for word. Great minds think alike I guess. Mmm… ?

  • Why not just bring a decently sized tablet loaded up with your music and dj software? I always have that as a backup and it works perfectly, plus it has a “wow” factor as people are impressed you can pull out a DJ gig with only a tablet…

    • Be

      Tablets aren’t cheap.

      • Nope they aren’t but most people own them anyway… A phone will also do but I find DJing on a small screen stressfull as it is so easy to press the wrong button.

    • Aaron Jaraba

      I do this. I have DJay 2 on my iPhone and about 32gb worth of music on spotify/iTunes ready to go.

  • Lord Warden

    i had the usb port on my controller break during set up… luckily i had a midi fighter in my bag with a simple mapping for q points etc…it was still pretty funny trying to EQ with the trackpad tho….. 😛

  • Oddie O’Phyle

    I carry an A10, a D2 (just in case) and have a back up laptop that I use to run betas. Other than that I carry 2 USBs that are Rekordbox prepped, kept up to date and practiced with at least once a week on my CDJs at home. It’s good to be flexible and comfortable with change.

  • Pingback: Dead DJ Controller: Surviving A Complete Gear Failure At A Gig – dPico AUDIOS()

  • i had the usb port on my controller break during set up… luckily i had a midi fighter in my bag with a simple mapping for q points etc…it was still pretty funny trying to EQ with the trackpad tho….. 😛

  • When your controller dies at a gig even after you fix it you are still on edge for the rest of the night, the butterflies never go away, it’s a weird feeling.

    I disagree with custom keyboard mapping. If you leave the default mapping you can buy a keyboard overlay and just keep it in your DJ bag for emergencies. That way you don’t need to memorise something that you will hopefully never use.