You love music. You love sharing new cool tracks and picking just the right song to fit the mood and take the party to the next level. Maybe you even have dreams of performing in front of massive crowds at Glastonbury, EDC, or Tomorrowland. But before you get started on becoming the world’s next up and coming DJ, you need to start from the beginning.
What is DJing all about? A DJ (an acronym for disk jockey) is someone who plays recorded music for an audience. While this could mean simply playing one song after the next, many DJs blend one track into the next using techniques like beatmatching and crossfading. Some even use advanced techniques like looping and scratching to further manipulate the music.
The skills of DJing require a lot of practice to master, so if you’re thinking about becoming a DJ you’ll want to make sure you’re focusing on the most beneficial aspects of your potential new career. These tips will make sure you start from a strong foundation.
Figure Out What Type of DJ You Want to Be
The definition of DJ is so broad, the term encompasses many different types of DJing. Each of these different types are very different jobs that require drastically different skills. There’s no need to learn to scratch to get a job on a local morning radio show for example.
Knowing what type of DJ you want to be will determine which skills you need to hone. You could choose to be a
- radio DJ,
- mobile DJ,
- club DJ, or
- performing DJ.
Even the subcategory of radio DJ is extremely broad because there are as many different types of radio DJs as there are different types of radio shows.
Some morning show DJs mostly talk about celebrity gossip, take calls, do live ad reads, and report on local and national news, community events, sports, and the traffic. They have so much station work to deal with, they usually are only playing a few songs here and there. While later in the day other DJs might present their curated playlist with little commentary, in general, they are more likely to talk and less likely to manipulate tracks.
Radio stations play official album versions (or radio edits) of songs that are usually less than 4 minutes. They rarely alter the mix, other than to talk over the intro of a song. Not only do radio DJs rarely do much more than play one song after the next, at many commercial stations the song order is set by a program director well in advance.
Mobile DJs are who you see at
- local venues,
- commercial events, and
- anywhere else a party pops up.
They bring all the sound equipment needed to turn the gymnasium into a dance club. The event isn’t about them, but they are crucial in making it fun.
Because they are the human with the mic, it often is the mobile DJ’s job to make announcements and act as the master of ceremonies (MC). Mostly, though, they play the music that makes the crowd dance. In order to do so, they employ DJ techniques like beatmatching to make one song flow seamlessly into the next to avoid grinding the party to a halt.
Mobile DJs are hired to perform at many different types of events for many different types of people. Sometimes they’ll need to play top 40 songs for a class reunion, or cool hip-hop tracks for a fashion show, or DJ a wedding of a couple that only likes country music. For this reason, it behooves them to keep a vast music library so they can accommodate the client’s needs.
If mobile DJs are the jack of all trades, journeymen of the profession, club DJs are the specialists that have the wisdom the protagonist seeks but can only be found at the top of a treacherous mountain peak.
Club DJs perfect their skills performing at the same club every weekend.
- Because their club specialises in certain types of music, they are able to dig deep into the catalogue and master transition techniques that are specific to the genre.
- Club DJs rarely have to speak into their microphones, and become masters of manipulating tracks.
A club attracts patrons with a bumping dance floor, so a club DJ needs to be able to beatmatch one track into another. That way people continue dancing. They also, however, need to provide enough variations in the rhythm of the night so dancers are encouraged to take breaks to visit the bar (but not all at the same time).
Ideally a club DJ can seamlessly transition between a series of songs that create a sonic story over the entire course of the night. This compels people to stay in the club for hours upon hours. The delicate balance between keeping the crowd pumped while also giving them chances to catch their breath (and order more drinks) is what makes club DJs so valuable to club owners.
Any DJ that has been listed on the lineup of a festival has taken DJing to the next level. No one is going to Coachella to relive the awkward dances of their high school prom. Performing DJs have become performing artists by mastering the skills of sound manipulation to the point of artistry.
Often this means they’ve become experts at advanced techniques like scratching and EQing to such an extent that what ultimately comes through their PA system is more than the sum of its parts. Typically, they’ve created a personal brand so that people can identify their unique contributions to the song’s mixes.
When potential DJs have grand fantasies of fame and fortune as a DJ, it is the image of the performance DJ that they are dreaming of. These successful DJs make it look so effortless that it’s easy to believe the derisive idea put forth by many critics that the process is as easy as pushing play on your laptop and then spending 2 hours waving your hands in the air. In order to reach this level of success, however, you must first learn the basics.
Learn the Basics
No matter what type of DJ you become, a large part of your job will be to make one song sound good following another. In some cases, you’ll want to blend the songs together so that dancers hardly notice the transition and remain on the dance floor. In other cases, you’ll want to put your own unique touch on the transition. In all cases, you don’t want the change to be disruptive.
At the very least, the second song should be the same volume as the first. I can’t imagine anything more jarring than a club banger suddenly ending and barely being able to hear the next song over the grunting of my fellow dancers, except the scenario in which one song ends to suddenly be bombarded with the excessive throbbing of the next song as if a SWAT team were trying to annoy us into abandoning our stronghold.
Your DJ equipment will have several controls that effectively balance the volume of the tracks you play. The first will be the gain knob of the input channel your music source is connected to. Because each channel has multiple possible inputs, and each input has different wattage output, it’s necessary to adjust the gain on the input.
This can typically be done visually using the channel’s level meter. The meter has mostly green lights (as well as a few yellow and red lights) that indicate the signal’s volume. If your meter is showing red lights the signal is too strong and will distort on playback, which is known as clipping. In addition to avoiding red lights, the levels should be about the same on both channels.
You can further fine tune the signal level using the channel’s upfader, and then control the balance between channels using the crossfader. You should also be aware that DJ software often has its own auto gain features, so you should consult the equipment’s manual to fully understand how that affects your equipment’s functionality.
This is essentially DJing 101. If you want to take your skill to the next level, start working on
- Key matching,
Imagine you’re stomping your foot along to the beat of a song, and the tempo suddenly changes so that your foot tapping is now out of sync. That would be very jarring. When transitioning from one song to the next, beat matching prevents this from happening so that one track can flow into the next.
In order to beatmatch, you listen to the upcoming song via the headphone (or cue) output from your DJ mixer while the first song is playing over the sound system. You adjust the tempo of the song using the pitch fader so that the songs have the same beats per minute (BPM).
Then you need to use a jog wheel, a pitch-bend button, or physically manipulate the record to adjust the phase so that the beats happen at the same time (and the emphasised first beats align).
Modern DJ software and equipment have built in sync functionality that can do this for you. The use of this kind of technology, however, is a major point of contention among DJs. Many argue that the ability is the skill that defines a DJ, so relying on software to beatmatch is sacrilegious. Even non-sticklers agree that the practice of beatmatching trains your ear for more advanced techniques.
As mentioned briefly above, beatmatching means the two songs not only have to be played at the same tempo, but the phrasing must also align. Most music is written in 4/4 time, which means that there are 4 beats per measure (or bar) and that each quarter note gets one beat.
Songs are usually further divided into segments such as:
These are typically 32 bars in length. The first beat of each measure has a special emphasis. In order to align properly, the first beats of the measures of each song must align.
Each channel of your DJ mixer will have EQ knobs. Usually there are 3, which control the high, mid, and low frequencies of the channel, though some mixers have 2 or 4 EQ knobs per channel. Adjusting the EQ balance of each channel can offer unique ways to blend songs together.
Typically, the lower frequencies (the kick drum and sub bass sounds) are the most dominant of a track, and melodies are played on higher frequencies. By playing the low end of the first song (turning down the high-end frequencies) of the first song, you can interject the new song’s melodies over the bassline of the previous song (by turning down the low end).
Then you can crossfade entirely to the new song and turn the low end up so only the second song is playing.
4. Key Matching
Even if the two songs you’re playing are beatmatched perfectly, they might still not sound very good together. If this is the case, the songs are probably in incompatible keys.
As you further study and understand music theory, you will learn what keys are compatible. Master DJs take this information into account when choosing what songs to sequence together or use DJ software to adjust the key of a song without altering the tempo.
DJing happens live in front of an audience. This means you only have a limited amount of time to make your transition from one song to the next. As discussed above, each section of the song typically only lasts 32 bars. One way to extend your window of opportunity for transition is by using looping.
Looping is the act of selecting a small section of a song (usually 2 bars) and repeating it over and over as long as needed. A perfectly looped sample could play indefinitely because it is timed to start over as it ends, in a perfect loop.
Looping is an effective method for giving yourself more time to:
- Craft a seamless transition from one song to the next
- Give you time to make announcements
- Overlay other sound sources into your mix
When you think of a DJ performing, you most likely picture someone moving a vinyl record back and forth to produce the classic “wica wica” record scratch sound. Scratching is an advanced technique that’s only used by some DJs in certain genres, but is very popular, nonetheless.
While some purists insist that the only true form of DJing involves playing vinyl records on two turntables, advances in technology have made such setups increasingly rare. Scratching remains so popular, though, that hardware has been developed to allow the “scratching” of CDs and MP3s in order to preserve this DJing functionality.
Invest in the Right Equipment
If you’re a mobile DJ, you’re going to need to bring all your own equipment to the show.
- A DJ mixer,
- Various audio inputs,
- APA sound system,
- Extensive song catalogue, and
- Lights and other paraphernalia to enhance the experience.
Even if you’re not a mobile DJ, you’ll need equipment on which to practice your skills.
There are a lot of DJ software packages available. Many even offer free versions or trials so you can practice before committing to purchasing them. Which one you choose is largely a matter of personal preference, though you also want to take industry standards into consideration.
Research what is standard within your preferred venue and genre. Many open format DJs in both the United States and Europe, for example, use a mixer and two turntables, while clubs that are more house and techno focused almost always use CDJs.
It would be a shame to master one type of hardware only to discover that the venue of your gig uses another system you’re unfamiliar with. You don’t want to be the DJ that requires all of the equipment be switched out between sets so you can perform. It wastes a lot of time, could result in improper set ups, and doesn’t look good to promoters.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Once you have the correct hard and software, you want to practice as much as possible. One popular convention states that in order to become great at something, you need to spend 10,000 hours practicing it. Many DJs say you shouldn’t try to get a public gig until you’ve practiced at home for 5 years first.
You certainly want to be comfortable and confident in your equipment and skills before trying to perform in front of an audience. A DJ mixer has so many functions that if you try to learn it all at once you will quickly become overwhelmed.
The best way to become comfortable with your equipment is to experiment with only one or two features at a time. Once you fully understand what a particular knob controls, and how you can use it to your advantage, you can then move on to the next.
Try Recording a Mix
All DJ equipment offers an easy way to record your output, either
- through your laptop or
- a separate recording device.
Recording your mixes is a great way to assess your skills. Plan a set out and give yourself half an hour to transition through the musical journey. Once recorded, sit on it a week and then listen to it.
After a week, you should be able to judge your mix fairly. You’ll likely find that any mistakes you made are less noticeable to the listener than you assumed they were in the moment. It is good, however, to hold yourself to high standards and observe what skills you can improve on.
After you’re confident in your skills, start booking gigs. Most moderately sized cities will have a tiered system of clubs that offer DJs of varying skill level a shot at performing in front of a live audience. Avoid “pay to play” shows and expect to perform for empty rooms, but never give up. Honing your skills in front of a live audience is what DJing is all about.
Is being a DJ hard?
DJing can be easy to learn the skills but can be less easy to build up a network of people you know to get gigs, promote yourself and build up a constant stream of business. Focus on the correct areas of becoming a DJ and over time being a DJ won’t be as hard.