Are you considering whether to plan your DJ set or just wing it and see where the mix takes you?
I want to share with you the DJ scenarios in which you might face and when to use planned vs un-planned DJ sets. Mostly from the practical perspective rather then myself spouting opinions.
I hope this article helps you become a better DJ to understand different ways to approach DJing and your DJ sets.
Planned DJ Sets
Great for large shows & festivals
DJs that are playing large shows and festivals tend to plan their DJ sets, especially because of DJing in front of such as large audience. There’s a level of quality and expectation from the audience and also the business owners of such large events and festivals.
If it’s your first time DJing in front or 100s or even 1000s of people live, then planning your DJ set is a great idea.
Top Tip: set cue points at the start of your DJ music your DJ Software (Rekordbox, Serato or Traktor for example). Also set mix transition cue markers at the end of music tracks to know when to count your beats bars and press play on the one. That way you’ll be ready to start cue up and transition between tracks in a planned way.
Great for DJ battle competitions
Entering a DJ mix battle or DJ competition is one of the most obvious scenario’s that a DJ would want to plan their DJ set.
Not only from a playlist point of view but from a technique approach also. For example, where to utilise FX such as Low Cut Echo, Delay, Reverb or looping function.
Top Tip: DJ Competitions are great for gaining exposure as a DJ, see DMC DJ Champs for some inspiration. It’s a fantastic way to leverage social media to promote your DJ brand. Remember though entering or winning a DJ competition on its own won’t boost your to infinite stardom and a millionaire. Consistently and regularly DJing and promoting yourself is going to put you in the best position possible in the future.
Regular DJ Sets / Residencies, use the history feauture
You may already have a regular DJ slot at a bar or club for example. There’s likely some DJ sets that have worked better than others.
A great feature of DJ software is that you can draw upon the ‘History’ section. It’s a folder that you can see the list of music that you played on previous dates.
You can use the DJ sets from previous DJ sets to play in future. Don’t worry about being a pioneer every DJ set, instead focus on what works for that audience that turns up on a regular basis.
Fantastic for recording your mixes to share online e.g. YouTube
Are you trying to promote yourself on social media and YouTube for example?
Then planning your DJ sets is certainly going to support taking the pressure off your performance, especially in front of the camera and audio recording.
Planning the music, cue points, FX to use are all great ways to support showing off your DJ skills to your audience watching online. Plus it’s a great way to show case to other DJs and potential industry people that you’re a great DJ and get you more DJ gigs.
Top Tip: When planning your DJ mixes for live recording, don’t fear the fact you might make mistakes along the way. Don’t worry! Keep recording the video and audio until the end. Record two takes, consider from two different camera angles too, and then stitch together the two recordings together in DaVinci Resolve (which is free to use btw). Boom, then you’ll have an even better DJ mix recording in the end.
Un-planned DJ Sets
Mixing to get to know your music
Getting to know your music and mixing in an un-planned way is really helpful. You’ll be able to remember the different song structures, build ups and drops of your DJ music.
After a while you’ll know your music so well that “planning” a DJ set won’t even cross your mind. You might simply think about a style or energy in which you want to play to and then just start going for it in the mix.
Top Tip: when playing your new music in the mix, remember to set starting memory cue points and hot cues to help you DJ quicker when you come back to your music tracks again in the future. Speeding up your mixing for future DJ mixes is really liberating.
Reading the crowd
You can’t plan music or DJ for a crowds reaction because you’re essentially DJing and mixing music in real time. But you can be organised for it in terms of playlists.
The one thing you can do quite well is have your music organised well into relevant folders and playlists. In doing so, you’re setting yourself up well to start DJing music that resonates well with the dancefloor you’re playing to.
Say for example you play a 90s Hip Hop track and then everyone starts vibing to it massively, then draw upon more music in a playlist that you may of populated with 90s Hip Hop bangers.
Top Tip: Try to vary the vibe and tempo when playing live to an audience. It’s important to not tire the dancefloor out too much. People love to sing a long to tracks too, not always dance like they’re on ecstacy (unless you’re actually on ecstacy of course, that’s a different club and event I suppose).
Have a concept and idea to follow in your DJ mix
Some DJs talk about the wave in DJ sets. Start off chilled, build up the vibe in the middle and then bring it back down to be chilled again at the end of the set. Classic components of a story, beginning, middle and end.
I recommend to all my students on my ‘Beginner to Advanced‘ and ‘7 Day Drum & Bass DJ‘ courses to have a vision of how the energy of a DJ set is going to pan out, and then select music based off of this idea and framework.
Once you’ve got to know your music, mixing this way will really become second nature.
Top Tip: Tune select music by relatable sounds, words in the vocals or drums e.g. percussion being similar.
A-Z by BPM and tune selection according to your desire
DJ software is really helpful and practical in organising your music from different perspectives and angles to mix music.
Try clicking on A-Z the column name ‘BPM’ in your collection of music in your DJ software. Then simply tune select tracks that start off slow in BPM and then build up in tempo.
You could start off slow then finish high tempo, and do the opposite also.
Another approach could be to start slow tempo, build up faster and faster, and then towards the end go back up the playlist to select slower tempo tracks.
Top 3 DJ Tips: Hybrid of planned & un-planned DJ sets
Plan your opening & ending
A hybrid of planning and un-planned DJ sets is planning the beginning and ending, but wing the middle by simply playing music that the crowd reacts to.
Granted, this might not be a good strategy for all types of DJ gigs but in circumstances that you’re DJing in a club as DJ “artist” you may be able to get away with more so.
Organise mini-playlists of tracks that mix well together
Another school of thought could be to create mini-playlists of music tracks that mix and blend well together. Think of it this way, each playlist is a building block for the entire DJ mix. Meeting ‘reading the crowd’ and ‘fitting the music to the setting’ are contributing factors when selecting each DJ playlist to start mixing in together.
Each mini-playlist of music you could have knowledge of in a planned routine to mix them together. Hence why I’ve put this in the hybrid section of this article.
Harmonic mixing in key
Another approach, similar to the A-Z of BPM point, is to simply tune select purely based on what the DJ software (or Mixed In Key software) is saying that is compatible to start mixing together.
The DJ software usually highlights a track a certain colour (Green in Rekordbox) of what’s in key with the current track playing out of the master channel.
Harmonic mixing is great if you’re mixing music with vocals, chords and melodies. You don’t want any clashes tunes in the mix, and harmonic mixing alleviates this.
How long does it take to prepare a DJ Set?
Having an idea of the energy and tempo of your DJ sets takes low effort and quick to decide upon. Once you know this, it’s easier to then decide which music, genre and tempo to fit in where within your DJ set.
How many songs does a DJ set in an hour?
60 minutes are within an hour, average song time while mixing is 4 minutes, for example, then you’ll need 15 music tracks per hour. Aim for around 12 to 18 tracks per hour, as you may find your mixing styles change according to time of DJ set, mood, crowd reaction and genre of music that’s being played.
How do I organise my DJ set?
Organising playlists within folders is a great way to categorise genres, styles, decades and record labels of music together.