So maybe saying that digital DJing saved my life is going a bit too far, but it has definitely saved a lot of nights. I’ve been playing in clubs for almost 20 years, and back when I started, it was still a vinyl-only art form. My first residency was at an infamous techno club in Belfast called Vicos when I was just 18. My records were my life back then, and I used to obsess over them. I even kept a notebook where I made notes on my best mixes of tracks, writing down the pitch each record needed to be at so that I could mix between each song as fast as humanly possible.

JonnyVintageDJing
DJing in Vicos with Pete Donaldson, circa 1998
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Handwritten set lists and mix sequences

Every weekend I would take my box of records with me to the club. It was a big heavy stickered lump that held about 50 records. When you’re buying between 5 and 10 new records a week, 50 really aren’t very many to take with you. There are some upshots to this: the finite space forces you to be ruthless in your selection; with no room for filler, every record has to be killer. But with only 50 records, improvisation is limited – sudden inspired ideas and requests from the audience often cannot be met.

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The ton-weight beast of a record box
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Daft Punk’s debut album ‘Homework’. For years, I played something from this in nearly every set.

Then CDs started to become popular as a format and I gradually made the switch. I still had to lug a box to each gig, but now I had way more music to choose from. Hurrah! Sets could be much more spontaneous, but were still limited, both by the amount of actual tracks, and knowing where those tracks were, exactly. This was still an issue to deal with.

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My old CD box, covered in band stickers.
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Lots more songs. But more difficult to find what you’re looking for.

Then digital DJing arrived. This was a game changer, a magic bullet, a holy grail. So many problems were solved with Serato.

Serato is a piece of software and hardware that works in conjunction with turntables and your laptop. It takes the digital files from your computer and maps them out across the time-coded media. Everything functions exactly like it was an analog setup, but it’s actually using digital files. This is incredible, as it means you can have a reservoir of as many songs as your hard drive can hold.

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My first Serato box. The saviour!

Weirdly, some of the advantages can be therefore disadvantages too. When you have whole collections of songs at your fingertips it can be tempting to just fall back on the tried and true tracks that are guaranteed to make the dance floor shake, and this can feel lazy.

But it also means that you have plenty of new material on hand to try new things and experiment. This has been the single biggest advantage of converting to digital DJing – the increased ability to be spontaneous and craft unique sets on the spot for a specific crowd. There have been more nights than I can count where what I had planned to do in my set has been completely changed in the course of the evening. Inspiration can come from different places – sometimes a song is requested that I would never have thought of playing and it changes the direction of the set, or sometimes a certain track goes down way better than expected and you push the set more in that direction. These are things that you just can’t do when you’re limited by the constraints of a physical record box.

JonnyGigantic
DJing at my old club night ‘Gigantic’ in Belfast. A lot of sets here were inspired by great song requests.

This exact thing happened to me at a recent gig. I had prepared a set in advance and put together a stack of tracks that I thought would work for the party. When the DJ before me dropped her last tune, it inspired me to start with something that wasn’t even close to my original selection. The song was The Joubert Singers “Stand On The Word (Larry Levan remix)” – one of my favourite songs of all time – and it was a lot slower than anything I had prepared in my set, and of a completely different style. So I changed one song, then another, and before I knew it my original set went out the window, down a completely different course than I had planned. It went on to be one of the most fun and original DJ sets I have ever played.

Jonny MainStage
DJing at Beat Connection in Lavery’s, Belfast. A special crowd that always goes a bit crazy.

Some purists complain that digital DJing makes the job too easy, or that it lowers the barrier of entry too much, but for me the freedom that it affords makes it one of the best advances in technology for the profession. Digital DJing might not have saved my life, but like so many other digital advancements, it has definitely made it better.

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All Images: Lola Mag