A lot of people want to know how to DJ like a pro? Well in order to do that we need to explore how to the top DJs in the world currently DJ, the techniques they use and how we can learn from their success.
How to DJ Like a Pro?
DJing like a professional requires technical skills using DJ equipment and DJ software to a high level. Also marketing and self promotion a key areas in which to become a professional level DJ as professional DJs rely on an income from DJing. Performance skills are required to DJ with confidence and entertain your audience.
In this article I’ve put together a list of DJs that are at the top of their game. For each DJ there’s a few points about what they do that really stands out to me as a professional DJ. Take away some of these points and you can really improve your DJing to next level.
Looping vocal samples throughout a mix can give you DJ mixes some extra flair. Watching James Hype DJ and mix tracks together he keeps a vocal sample throughout a few tracks. He uses a vocal sample stab (4-8 beat loop) to build tension when dropping into the next track.
Channel volume cutting
This technique is one those techniques that I’ve seen a lot in Garage music but seems to be coming back, but into Dance music more so now.
Using the channel volume for one of the tracks James Hype quickly flicks the channel fader up and down. What this achieves is sound cutting in and out rapidly. It’s a great technique to also add suspense to the build of a new track about to be dropped in with a heavy bassline.
Remixes & mashups
One of the ways that James Hype has stated that’s helped him become noticed is by creating a remix/mashup of a pop track a week after it got released.
If you’ve got a few skills in music production this can easily be done by changing the beat of a track and playing around with a few elements. People love listening to a popular track (that’s actually good) but with a new sound spun into it. It’s a way that DJs can stand out from other DJs as no body else will be DJing with the tracks you’ve remixed.
Quick drops & switching
In EDM the typical structure of songs contains a long build up to the drop, showing off the chorus melody and bassline. This can give a great opportunity to sync up a new track cue point 4 or 8 beats before the drop. Usually Martin Garrix does this by using a vocal hook that he can use the performance pad or button to activate the loop.
Play your own tracks
As Martin Garrix isn’t just famous for DJing, he’s a music producer too. Being a DJ at a massive event or festival is a really great time to test out new music that he’s created. Crowd reaction is a massive test to how a track is going to perform.
One thing that Black Coffee does that stands out to me is how smooth his mix transitions are, literally outstanding. I always know when a good DJ is playing when listening back to a DJ set on YouTube for example because I get in the zone.
If you can get your mixing skills up to the level of Black Coffee then you’re certainly going to smash it as a DJ.
Yes beat matching is the key here, but it’s picking which EQ and FX that you use to seamlessly transition between tracks to roll gently into the next.
Tailor the set to your audience, setting and time
Three different DJ sets I’ve seen of Black Coffee and all are different in style. What stood out to me though was the setting and the audience. Each time the music was tailored to fit the surroundings.
Black Coffee has a DJ set on YouTube that is captured when he’s DJing in Ibiza during a sunset. The vibe is completely on point with his track selection and very fitting for people relaxing but getting into the evening/night ready to rave it up.
Another DJ set I’ve seen Black Coffee play was in a nightclub arena setting where the DJ booth is set in the middle of the club. The audience is all around him and so it’s a bit more of an intimate and artistic mix. The vibe was way more deep in sound and minimalist. Again tailored to the audience, which is the point I’m trying to make.
Lesson note here is to always make sure you think about the audience, venue setting and time of night that you fit in amongst other DJs.
What’s a double drop? Well it’s when two tracks drop on the chorus (AKA heavy basslines) at the same time.
Andy C is renowned for smashing this type of mix out in his DJ sets and loves to chop and change between the two bassline switching the Low cut EQs on the mixer.
If you can get this technique under your belt then you’re definitely reaching a level of DJing that a lot of others cannot yet achieve, so well done.
Drum and Bass is a very fast tempo genre at around 174 Bpm. Mixing tracks together can be very fast too especially when Andy C is mixing.
One technique that Andy C has done a lot over the years is be playing a track which is in the verse section before the breakdown. He’ll bring in a bassline of an old school jungle track and gives the crowd that nostalgic buzz. Then once he’s achieved that he will cut out the bassline of the jungle track and switch back to the original track that was playing.
This is a like a temporary teaser to get the crowd going and also showing off a bit of skill. If you can do this in Dance or your house sets other than Drum and Bass that would be something to experiment with for sure. Temporarily switching in a new track and cutting it back out without a doubt shows some skill and professional DJing technique.
Tune selection is one of DJ Marky’s strong points and I love the way that he mixes very well between liquid Drum and Bass in with Jump Up / Dark Drum and Bass. He does this with ease.
The skill in this situation that you can certainly learn from is harmonic mixing, so knowing the key of the tracks that you can pick. Having a great ear for music in general and figuring out which tracks go well together massively helps.
Scratching seems to be a technique that not all DJs can do or tried and maybe not very good at. I think if you can learn how to scratch it’s certainly a technique that will help you stand out from the rest and really show people that you’re a pro DJ.
My advice on scratching is that if you’re hell bent on being a DJing that wants to scratch then make sure invest time and practice into it. Never give up. Apply for DJ and scratch competitions to have something to aim for, this will give you a sense of learning and practicing for something. You never know you might even win a competition.
Tips to DJ like the Professionals
Unique style & sound
A lot of professional DJs have a sound that’s unique to them. They pick a sub-genre or specific genre and tend to stay within a similar sound when picking music to DJ with live.
Sticking with a similar sound to DJ with can help with consistency of your mixing skills and following. People usually follow DJs based on the consistency of the music style and sound they play. If a DJ plays different music genres all of the time you may not get as much of a following.
Plan & build your DJ sets (don’t always smash it hard from the first track)
Some DJs can start their DJ sets with too much energy and hard hitting tracks. Knowing what time you are going to play and who you are going to play before or after is a really good perspective to have.
Another tip to add here is to visit a venue or at least check out a few live performances online. This will give you a flavour for the what the crowd expects at the particular night and venue you are playing to.
Once you’ve figured out the audience that you are playing to, plan a set list of tracks. Don’t simply turn up to a gig and bring your whole catalogue of musical ideas, that’s not efficient. Less is more.
To achieve this, categorise different vibes, sound and melodies into certain folders. That way if you need to switch up the sound then you know you have a few go-to folders to draw upon and start mixing.
Fall back DJ sets
An amazing feature that I’ve got used to using in Rekordbox DJ software is the history music section. This is a great categorisation of music that I played on a particular night and record all the tracks that were used. Top tip here is to use this as your set list if the venue and audience are the same or similar to the next set you’re going to play.
Another angle to this is that you may of already created a dedicated folder for a past night that you’ve played before. So simply use that again as inspiration. Change up the order of the tracks maybe and go ahead and mix it up. This saves a lot of time by not having to plan as much before playing live.
The added benefit too is that you’ll be very familiar with the tracks and the cue points in which to start mixing the tracks in.
Record all your DJ sets (live & studio)
Record every single set that you perform. Record video and audio too. There’s two main reasons that you can achieve from this, 1) continuous learning, 2) marketing & promotion.
Continuous learning should be on every DJs agenda and be core value. Recording all of your DJ sets you can spot mistakes and highlight different areas of a DJ set to change music track combinations.
Especially if you’re playing live DJ sets at festivals and large nightclubs you can really get stuck in with some detailed feedback by yourself and others you trust. This is certainly what Martin Garrix does with his team, notably on the mixing tracks and lighting. See point 5) on DJMag.com here.
Marketing and promotion can be easily boosted by recording all your DJ sets where ever you DJ. YouTube, SoundCloud, MixCloud, the promoters or nightclub websites or social media are just a few examples that you can utilise your recorded DJ sets.
The more promotion means more potential followers. The more followers you have the more likely you would of been heard by promoters (and their contacts/friends) therefore land you more DJ gigs.
Read the crowd reaction
I remember playing to a small club bar type venue years ago, it was early on in the night and there were about 20 people maximum in there. A few tracks in people were dancing and getting into the groove, but then one track I played everyone went nuts and really started getting into it.
Some DJs just ignore this but I see this as an opportunity to interpret what the vibe is of people in the club, even if it is 20 people. Carry on with a few more tracks in that sound and get the crowd going even more.
Practice on industry standard equipment
Clubs and bars generally have high standard DJ equipment. The format of industry standard equipment is in any combination and not limited to CDJs or turntables (DVS enabled). It’s not uncommon to see a four deck setup with two CDJs and two turntables to play DVS enabled record vinyls.
Pioneer are usually the most featured DJ equipment brand in the DJ scene. Technics turntables were and probably still are the most common DJ turntable for vinyls. Technology and brand standards are changing in the digital age however which will likely mean that you, as a professional DJ, will need to adapt to the times.
Even if you have got a DJ controller and you’re a beginner then I suggest getting used to DJing on a industry standard equipment. Rent out a DJ studio or booth at a local recording studio, there are some great studios out there already set up with industry standard equipment.
The benefit of doing so will allow you to get used to the quirks of the additional buttons/knobs etc and also the sensitivity of the pitch shift (which I struggled with on Technics compared to my turntables at home).
DJ on four Turntables
If you’re used to DJing on two turntables then moving to four turntables could be a mind overload. Many professional DJs I’ve seen play live have at least once played on four decks. That doesn’t mean that all four decks are going at one time, more often than not three decks are being used so that an extra track e.g. an acapella or catchy track can be added into the mix cheekily and taken back out again.
Set up four decks from your mixer and get practicing your DJ sets. Practice will be super important as DJing live without practice could be a risky strategy and make you look like an amateur.
B2B with other DJs
A lot of professional DJs play B2B with other DJs. If you’ve not tried this then give it go, you can really learn from another DJs skills and track selections.
The audience gets a really good set list as alot of DJs like to play their own styles. Som B2B sets I’ve heard can sound intesne chopping from one sub-genre to another, but some work out well. My favourite recent set is FatBoy Slim B2B Carl Cox at the Saatchi gallery.
Become known for something (Wearing a head mask or specific shirt)
Talking of FatBoy slim, I know him best for his banging music productions but from a visual point of view his funky shirts. Usually a weird pattern or Hawaiian style (sort of) 80’s look. I think it would be weird seeing him in a plain t-shirt.
Another notable DJ that stands out and maybe even started this trend is deadmau5. Very iconic and noticeable. Very first time I saw him play was at Reading festival in the UK, my friend told me about him and the mouse mask so I went to watch the DJ set. So you can see how influential this sort of unique thing can attract attention and build your professional DJ brand and career.
Looping & FX for suspense & variety in DJ sets
There’s always a club banger that’s popular at one point in time throughout a year. If the club is really feeling it one night when you are DJing try looping a particular loop, sample or breakbeat out of the track and play around with the sound live.
Become a performer and let the crowd enjoy a bit of spontaneity. This is a great example of showing that mixing tracks really fast is not always the only way to build suspense and change things up in a DJ set.
Communicate with the crowd (microphone or jump on stage)
Sometimes there are no MC’s on the stage – some people cheer at this statement – so I’ve seen in the past few years DJs that never spoke on the microphone before are not hyping up the crowd. Martin Garrix, TC and FatBoy Slim are DJs that I’ve seen do this. Other DJs too jump on the stage or the DJ table to really interact with the crowd even more.
The most funny DJ that comes to mind is Steve Aoki with the cake smash thing he does to the crowd. Someone would get smack in the face if they did that to me. You get the idea though, something different started to build word of mouth and now Steve Aoki is more memerable because of it and a talking point. Check out the cake face compilation here.
This point was made earlier in the article, but it has to be said that when a DJ set flows so well together you simply get lost in the mix as a listener/dancer.
Tune selection and conducting energy of music in order of consistency and flow is so important. DJ skills are foundational, but track selection can be epic and take you to the next level.
Collaborate with other artists & DJs
Top DJs that appear regularly as the headliners for major festivals and club events have collaborated at some point in their career. Whether this be B2B DJ sets or music production of a few tracks or album there’s a benefit to this. You’ll likely piggy back off each others success in terms of promotion. Especially true if you create a single together and it takes off.
For example I became aware of David Guetta because he collaborated with Sia on a track called Titanium. I knew of Sia’s music before David Guetta and so David Guetta has done well to get his name out there off the awareness and talent of Sia.
After that David Guetta released a track called “Bad” with music producers / DJs “Showtek”, I’d never heard of those guys but you can see how it all connects and works together. Showtek likely have got a lot more awareness and DJ sets off the back of their track with David Guetta.
Be Professional & Respectable
Professional DJs that I’ve met and come across are friendly, respectable and focused people. Because of how influential it can be to DJ in front of a massive crowd there’s not much sense in getting drunk before and during a DJ set. The quality of your DJing will simply go down, you might not get booked again, game over!
Be kind enough to people that are influential to the club, promoters or staff that work there. Leave you ego at the door and at least try to be pleasant and make friends with people. Networking is key to future success in the realm of DJing. No one want to hire a DJ that no one likes. Carl Cox is known to be one of the most friendliest DJs out there… so be like Carl Cox and you will smash it as a professional DJ like him.
How can I improve my DJ skills?
To improve skills within DJing it is essential to learn how to beat match the tempo of two tracks together. Practice mixing tracks together is required until it is possible to achieve mixing by ear. Prepare a list of music so that selecting music to mix is easier and focus on DJing music.
Where do DJs get their music?
DJs get there music from from buying downloadable music, signing up to music streaming services and signing up to DJ record pools to download music too. Streaming services can link to DJ software making it easily accessible for DJs to get music.
What skills do you need to be a DJ?
Skills to be a DJ require music theory, rhythm, beat matching, organisation and attention to detail. These skills allow you to practically DJ and mix music together. Being organised helps to prepare your music and reduce stress of issues happening and being resolved quickly when DJing live.