So you’re on your way to become a DJ. Before you start thinking of what gear to buy, you’re going to make an important decision in terms of the genre you’re going to work in.
Of course, that won’t necessarily be a final restriction, yet that will give you clear objective on how to maintain a coherent and cohesive viewpoint in the industry.
This is our “How to become a DJ 101”.
Table of Contents
There are many dichotomies that you will have to take into account before making that decision. Let’s make a brief analysis of those, so that we can go on further. So for a DJ all music can be basically grouped in two categories:
Electronic and Non-Electronic music.
This isn’t necessarily the most accurate representation of the reality, but the craft mainly sees music as these two big clusters. Electronic music may be categorized in many ways, yet the most common perspective is the EDM and IDM distinction.
Of course the conceptual differences are arbitrary, but from a general point of view EDM (Electronic Dance Music) is the music you’d normally hear at a party, mixed by a DJ.
The simplistic structure of this music, which is defined by the 4/4 beat, is the driving force of this music. It is also quite an intriguing fact that so many genres have been crafted around the 4/4 score, starting with the Techno in Detroit, House in Chicago and many other styles that have been redefined in Europe in the early to the mid-nineties.
The most comfortable aspect of the 4/4 genres is the flow that they offer the DJ. Flow is crucial in anything you do within music, especially playing a party, as it’s what makes people continuously move and dance at a gig you’re going to play.
Thus, avoiding disruptiveness in your DJ set is very important, because the quality of your DJ-ing abilities will be assessed according to this factor.
So, to reiterate, 4/4 genres are popular with people at big parties, as it ensures a simple, almost tribal atmosphere, ofter matching the people’s heart rate, in this way making it especially inviting to dance and get all emotional about it.
Now, IDM stands for Intelligent Dance Music, and it’s basically never 4/4, because it’s intelligent, It has nothing to do with what in their eyes is boring, repetitive and simplistic rhythm patterns.
IDM sub-genres have always tried to run away from conventional sounds and structures. It is often considered that IDM is the more experimental, at times radical, electronic music.
This cluster of music has spawned styles like “clicks and cuts”, noise, schrantz and so forth, the list can go on forever, and it will definitely encompass music that is ethereal, minimalistic, or at times very aggressive.
It is important to stress, of course, that there is no contradiction between the two clusters. It’s not a a “cats and dogs”-type relationship, every side of the barricade simply explores different aspects of music, where IDM is more engaged in exploring the complexity of rhythm and EDM explores groove and flow via a rhythm-based restriction, what both sides engage in is sound design and nowadays it is a very important component of music production.
Technically speaking, you can become a DJ in a day. The craft has become incredibly accessible to the general public, in comparison to the early days.
Computers, moreover, inquire almost no skill to play a gig, and this does make a big portion of the old-schoolers very unhappy.
Back in the late-eighties to mid-nineties, DJ-ing was a matter of networking, hustle and good musical taste. DJ’s were the 1% of people, who made it and the filtering process was very rough on everybody.
There are four conventional DJ-ing mediums that we’re going to look into: turntables, CDJ’s, DJ controllers and general midi controllers.
We can try to define all four as different dimensions, as all of them are fairly different and you’re going to see why.
The first dimension are the turntables, they were the first in the DJ game and they are still the “real thing”, due to the fact that beat matching and mixing vinyl records is rather the most complicated than all of the above-mentioned.
The process is the following: you have two turntables and a mixer, you throw a record on the deck and play it.
As two thirds of the first track are out you start slowly introducing the second track. Okay, so how does that happen?
What you do first, even before you put the record on, is you think of the most suitable track that will follow the one currently playing. As soon as you got that out of the way, you beat match the second track to the first.
There are many approaches to this process, we’ll just look into the most basic and conventional one. What you do is find the very first kick also known as the bass drum, in 4/4-type music it’s the driving force of any song.
So you start your deck, and as soon as you locate the first kick you hold the record with your hand and wait for the next first beat of the next bar of the first song and release the second deck that you’ve been holding with your hand.
So you have two track playing at the same time, and there’s a 99.9% chance that they’re off sync and they most probably have different BPM’s (beats per minute).
Your intention is to sync the tracks using your ear and the /pitch fader/ and your hand physically interacting with the record by slowing it down or on the contrary giving it a light push so that the rhythms match, thus adjusting the rotation speed of the second records to the first.
As soon as that’s out of the way, you’re up for a new challenge. Now you have to mix the two so that you can maintain the “flow” that we were speaking of before.
Regarding the peculiarities of mixing the tracks one into the other, there a myriad of options you can look into. In example in 4/4 genres a typical way of transition is by first replacing the lower end frequencies of the first track with the second.
This will allow you to gradually bring the rest of the frequencies to the mix slowly and gradually. The trick, though, is that you have to add more value then you decrease.
Let’s say you have already replaced the lower end frequencies and your bassline and kick drums from your second track are playing on the first track, considering that the lower end on the first track are fully muted, you increase mid value on the second track by 50%, whereas you decrease 30-40% on the first, not the other way around.
A comfortable feature that many new-age mixers offer is very sophisticated signal filtering. Companies like Allen&Heath make amazing mixers and they also invest a lot of time and effort in making amazing, in terms of precision and clarity, effects.
Mixing by the use of filtering is a very neat way of doing the thing, because you simply replace the frequencies by removing them on one side and adding them on the other. Thus ensuring a very smooth transition from deck A to deck B or vice versa.
Yet don’t take my word for it. It is your major responsibility as a DJ to explore interesting possibilities and techniques for a smoother transition. However keep in mind that transition is not key.
Amazing artists like Delroy Edwards and Jamal Moss, both influential producers and label heads, despite DJ-ing in a very harsh manner, keep the crowd on its head for hours in a row.
Genres like Hip Hop do as well need beat matching and precision, yet the transition is normally very short. This genre especially demands creativity, as you really don’t have too much time for an effortless and clear transition.
A CDJ player is a digital version of the vinyl pick-up, it uses CD’s for playing music. All of them intend to mimic the original records players, but they do have their own algorithm, different from the analog reproduction methods.
Yet the principle is similar, you cue up up the first kick drum and play the song from there, trying to sync the tracks together. A very comfortable trait that most of the digital players have is a BPM indicator that will guide you through the mixing process.
Roughly everything else stays the same. As you’ll eventually notice, however, the deeper you go into the digital realm the easier the process gets.
We’ve split the computer based DJ methods into two, as there are several approaches to it. First — you use a software intended directly for DJ-ing directly on your computer.
There are countless options — Traktor, Serato, and so on and so forth, they’ve been so prolific and popular throughout recent years that they’ve evolved very much.
All you need to use with those is a single midi controller that’s designed as an integral combination of the decks and a mixer. You simply assign the knobs and faders to the controls on the computer, so that you can integrally manipulate the software in the way you find necessary.
The computer based software is usually more versatile, it usually hosts more effects, it gives you more opportunities and it makes beat matching and syncing as easy as cheating.
The other half of software based DJ-ing lays in the depths of software similar to Ableton, yet it’s not the only example of such creative DJ-ing potential.
What Ableton-tier software will offer you is a colossal amount of opportunities in terms of arranging your set, up to a great amount of effects.
Moreover Ableton’s Maxforlive will even expand that to mere infinity. M4L , given that you invest a certain amount of time, will allow you to code your own effects, midi instruments and even synths that you can use within your DJ set.
Although this type of software is mainly used for live sets, it has never stopped creative people from using it in DJ sets.
This is the place where most of the contemporary DJ are located and it’s a bit unfortunate. This is the point where out conversation will take a quick philosophical turn, not for long, I promise.
The common accessibility of DJ-ing software has made it a free-entrance gig with no “face control” at all. The craft used to be a very closed realm of connoisseurs, yet nowadays people simply download their Traktor software, buy a $50 controller and bug promoters out on Soundcloud and Mixcloud.
You, my friend, mustn’t follow their path. Our latest culture and the global mentality of the millennials has shifted into permanent expectation that we’re going to win a lottery sometime soon, investing time and effort into anything sounds meaningless to us.
Well, like it or not this is how our generation is and young and aspiring DJ’s are like that, most of them, not everybody of course. Yet rest assured that the craft demands studying and the investment of time.
So what do you make of all this? Although DJ-ing, as we mentioned previously, is putting tracks together, but at the same time preserving a flow — anyone can be a DJ, literally.
But what makes a good DJ has almost nothing to do with that, or to put it differently it’s the most basic of demands.
Studying the behavior of the crowd you’ll play for is crucial. An aspect that many young and aspiring DJ’s tend to overlook is that their set isn’t about themselves, it’s about the people they play for.
It’s sort of live a childish desire to become the President, they want it for the status, but they tend to forget that it’s about serving your citizens.
So now we pretty much understand how things work on the a technical viewpoint. Let’s take a peek into the gear, shall we?
Hardware and Software:
If you’re going to follow the vinyl path, you’ve got a wide array of options to look into. We’ll go through some of the bigger names in the industry and compile them in terms of price-to-value ratio, given that you’re looking forward to make a reasonable investment, and by reasonable I mean “not sell a half of everything you own, so that you can buy a pair of turntables”.
We’ll start with the most popular choice, namely the Technics SL-1200. Yes, I have to say it upfront, they’re expensive, but if you’re willing to go for it, you can buy a pair of used Technics and probably invest another $100 to make sure that any minor dysfunctionalities are eliminated and you’re pretty much good to go.
Let’s move on, the TEAC TN-300 is a great option as well. These pick-ups are known to have a very solid design and a great in-built torque motor that is mentionably better than the rest. The case is aluminum, so in case you’re looking forward to travel with them, you have a lesser chance of severely damaging them while moving. And they’re USB-compatible, which is a great thing as well. The price-range is rather “down to earth” compared to the Technics too.
Audio Technica AT-LP60 is another nice option to consider you’re looking for something affordable. Throw in some extra money, you can get the USB version, yet this is, probably, the most simplistic turntable you can get. It’s great to start off with, in case you’re not 100% sure about pursuing a career in DJ-ing.
Numark is a big name in the DJ gear game. They have a large spectrum of products to offer, so there’s a lot to choose from. You could look into the TT250USB, in example. It’s fairly inexpensive and it offers good value for its price.
It does as well have a powerful torque-control and it’s perfectly suited for DJ’s intending to scratch. It can as well convert signal to digital.
Now moving into the CDJ’s, the market has accommodated to this particular compartment very well, so there’s a lot to choose from.
Yet, given its variety, the market has its own standard — the Pioneer. It’s not “the” best player, it’s just been around for such a long time and has put out such great products.
There’s no question, that in many parts of the world, the various models of Pioneer CDJs are very much the ‘standard’ when it comes to club and bar installations. If you are a working DJ, it is guaranteed that you will be presented with a pair to use at some point in your career.
What you need to know besides the fact that they’re good is that they’re relatively expensive. You have to take that into account, and as one of the motifs of our today’s conversation is “investment”, a Pioneer CDJ is an investment as well.
Yet if you’re looking for something more lightweight to start with you should consider looking into a Denon, Numark, Reloop and so on… These won’t always be less expensive, but they usually have some more affordable options to offer. Now, let’s see how we can DJ with a laptop.
In spite of your expectations, the DJ midi controller prices can skyrocket to $1500 and above. The market has been adapting for quite a while to the “laptop DJ-ing” tendency and the majority of the big players in the DJ controller game are pretty much the same as in the CDJ category.
An example of a considerable investment is the XONE:4D, which costs around $2000 and above depending on its state. XONE is, of course, is quite the “Bentley” of the market, however, there is a wide array of Pioneers, Denons and others that maintain a price mark of $1000-$1500.
A good part, besides the build quality, is the fact that they normally come with software in the pack, which technically does save you some money, assuming that you’re looking forward to have licensed software on board.
However, obviously there is the other part of the spectrum, you can as well purchase a controller for around a hundred dollars or less, just to try things out. You can always upgrade if you’ll feed the need to.
A good example of popular budget controllers would be something like Hercules.
When choosing a controller there are so many details that you have to care of, yet if you’re about to buy an inexpensive machine, opt for something that has many knobs and faders.
Please note that this is a strictly subjective point of view, pointed towards you profiting from an extensive amount of buttons and triggers to try and approach the DJ-ing process rather creatively than technically.
You can always explore our buying guides about the best controllers and speakers that will offer a comprehensive viewpoint on what gear to choose, we’ve been through what you’re going through right now. Such exploratory sessions will, in the long run, define and shape your style.
Get Your First Gig:
You’ve probably already searched different tactics in approaching the issue of getting your first gig. The math is a bit complex, yet pretty simple.
There are a lot of young, aspiring DJ’s lurking and posting on different niche websites, like Resident Advisor, Soundcloud, Youtube, and many others, and spamming links to their pages, songs, mixes. Nevertheless they’re investing a huge amount of time and effort, this is exactly what you don’t want to be.
Take the following equation into account: if you’re talented and you really do a good job, you’ll get noticed and the industry will eventually feature you in its highlight.
It doesn’t mean that you should just sit there, but don’t invest your time in spamming on someone else’s page, mix or track, it’s silly, useless, moreover redundant. In the electronic music industry, at the very beginning, you’re your only agent, so don’t make a fool of yourself.
So, what do you have to take into account when looking for a gig to play? First off, know your venue. A venue is a complicated inter-dependance of a huge amount of things and only DJ’s, promoters and club owners know about this stuff, no all of them, of course.
Well, you won’t probably play an underground techno set at a glamorous venue, it just doesn’t add up.
Then the sound system will always be an important driving force of your club. If the system is adequate, you can always adjust and equalize the sound to your personal preference and the necessities that the genre implies.
Always arrive early, be alert and make sure you’re comfortable with absolutely everything that is about to happen, and make sure you channel all of the stress inside you into a creative realm, make sure you enjoy your very first gig, as this will be a good gateway toward a healthy and beautiful career.
Most of the aspiring DJ’s want to pursue this occupation simply because “I really love music”. Many people fail to observe the right motive for DJ-ing, or at least clarify the right aims for it.
Enjoying listening to some occasional electronic music does not necessarily make you the ideal fit for the job. As we’ve mentioned before, the craft is about the people you play for, not just playing your favorite jams at parties.
Let that sink in forever. There is a grand amount of mild narcissism in the DJ-ing game and be aware that it is not a valuable asset to your potential career.
Then you should leave out the feeling that you’ve got things sorted out. Explore music at any opportunity, always bring more to your DJ set than you’re expected.
There are numerous examples of illustrious artists that always spice their gigs up with very unexpected music that adds an amazing and fine touch to it, take Florian Kupfer as an example. Genres are not fences.
They’re not for the artist, they’re mainly created for the critic and labelling. Oh, so you’re playing a Techno set at a bar, why not drop in some World music or some Tribal influences, the choice is yours.
Of course there are decent limits to how far you can go in terms of genres or styles, but listening to a 4/4 rhythm for an entire night can be burdening even for the most avid party-goers.
Letting your set rest for 4-5 minutes of calmer less rhythmically engaged music will not only let your listeners relax, but also build up a feeling of anticipation for whatever’s going to happen next.
There’re many genres that are very restrictive sound-wise, take Trance for an example, it follows similar patterns and progressions and you’ve got to do a rather good job to be able to dilute your set with music that isn’t necessarily Trance, never back off from an experiment.
House, although not rhythmically different for Trance, in example, it is more malleable so you can find compounds that mix together, some don’t, so it’s your job to find that out for yourself.
Pushing genre boundaries is important to the music itself and it helps producers explore possibilities in combining different elements of different styles.
You might necessarily notice it it, but on a grand scale it may be something like a Butterfly Effect. The Information Era has blessed us with every instrument necessary to get all that we need, so use the right tools to reach the great music out there released daily.
Here are some websites you’ll find useful:
1. Hype Machine:
It collects tunes from different mp3 blogs and posts them on their homepage, where people can “love” tracks and create lists. You can search different styles of music or look for the latest music, premieres and popular artists. Looking at the most popular tracks is a great way to find new music, and each song links to different ways to purchase the music and various ways to share the song on social media.
2. NPR Music:
These guys have it all. Interviews, sessions, lists, reviews, well crafted articles; it’s truly a feast of music discovery. Also don’t miss on their sessions in the office, as they always bring the weirdest, most intriguing and influential artists to their office for brief live sessions. A real treat to the ear.
The radio of emotions, it’s what it pretty much is. You can set your mood and it’s going to generate a playlist for you. Not only do you get songs to match what you feel, but you get to discover new music in the process. So you can basically approach your DJ sets not necessarily from a perspective of playlist, but rather explore music that has an immediate and specific effect on your mood.
This is pretty much the Mecca of contemporary electronic music. I pretty much find it to be more Deep House and Techno directed. However you’ll find a wide array of genres available there and you can always follow the new tendencies in electronic music there.
5. Music Roamer:
Adds another dimension to music map sites, by not only providing suggestions of similar artists, but also allowing you to listen to music directly on their site.
The songs are powered by YouTube videos, but it should be said, in our experience, all of the tracks were live versions, and not always of very good quality.
They also provide links to purchase the mp3s from Amazon. While listening to a song on Music Roamer, you can also explore similar songs, not just similar musicians, which definitely puts it a step ahead of Music-Map and TuneGlue.
Is straightforward tool that is simple and practical in usage. Insert the name of the artist in the search bar and you’ll have a whole web of similar musicians to choose from. At TuneGlue, you start with 6 similar artists, and then you continue exploring and eventually expanding the list. In some cases, you can also find details about the artists such as a small bio and a link to their website.
A less simpler and a more minimalistic alternative to TuneGlue is Music-Map. When using TuneGlue you’ll only have 6 artists suggested, whereas, Music-Map instantly drops and entire database of similar musicians, the closer the musical idea, the higher in the search index.
It’s hard to discuss amazing and endless sources of music without mentioning Bandcamp. It’s initially intended as a marketplace for emerging, independent and creative musicians that release and share their work, with every single artist being able to create a customizable micro-site of their own for uploading and sharing their content.
All the material you can find on Bandcamp can be streamed online and it is usually for sale. However some producers offer some of their music for free.
Bandcamp’s Discover is an endless stream of utile and interesting information, which will facilitate the way you’ll find new music, and the results can be filtered based on genre, location, and format.
Iis an amazing source of material that that encompasses all genres you could imagine from spoken word, field recording, podcasts, to original tracks and entire albums, all uploaded by the original artists.
If you’re looking forward to discover new and interesting music, there are curated groups that are constantly updated with new content
Mainstrem V. Underground:
A very important distinction that needs to be made and is often overlooked is occupying a niche of the two: you’re either mainstream, or you’re underground.
Obviously this is not a radical and exclusively binary perspective, but there is a viewpoint that you need to acquire eventually. It is crucially important to find yourself on this spectrum, as this is the way you’ll define you’re audience.
What is the difference though?
From an aesthetic point of view, the Underground realm is always more satisfying for many reasons, but you need to have the guts to go through all of the dispensable music and find the real gems that virtually nobody has ever heard before (except for 40 other people) and bring special music to your set.
Underground producers tend to overlook the current tendencies and adopt new forms, styles and sounds into their production. There are lots and lots of artists that arose into the Mainstream from the very depths of the musical Avantgarde.
Underground music tends to invest more value into the music itself and less into the adjacent “things” that come with it. Take Rap & Hip Hop, in example.
The way MTV has shaped today’s culture in the mid and late nineties, we’re stuck with rappers bragging about cars, cribs, promiscuous women and jewelry, a very vast amount of people are masochistic enough to listen to this music, for a reason that is everything but musical.
Same goes for electronic music. The Underground normally holds more appreciation for the craft and less music that is too accessible to the masses and almost impossible to listen to.
Let’s put it the other way around: this under no circumstances should create a barricade between the appreciators of any of the sides. Yet if you play accessible cheesy electronic hits off a laptop, which isn’t quite a challenging thing at all, what is the novelty that you bring to the game? None.
Perceive Dj-ing as an extension of music production, not just an easy way into the Biz. Always keep in mind that people who’ve taken DJ-ing as a way to get rich overnight and live ‘the good life’ are fairly numerous, but very few of them have actually made it. Spinning records is not a shortcut to luxury life, at all.
Also do avoid the confusion of mistaking bedroom producers with underground producers, the two of them do overlap, but are not synonymous.
Do not mistake low quality production with underground music. You’ll need just a little bit of time to properly comprehend these details.
First off, decide the level of seriousness that you’ll be approaching DJ-ing with. That will help you define the amount of money you’ll be investing into it. If you’re not sure, you can look into buying an affordable midi controller and use it with your laptop or computer.
If you’re overpowered and overflown with confidence and enthusiasm, you’ll purchase some inexpensive vinyl players and start with that. The choice is yours. It always depends on your financial starting point.
The second investment you’re going to be looking forward to is time. Patience is everything. Work on all the skills you need to mix properly and don’t forget to be creative about the process. A good DJ is about creativity, not necessarily technique, so make sure you do what you do best. Leave a personal touch to your approach.
Think about your first gig. Don’t just throw yourself into your first opportunity, but carefully plan the first event you’re going to be performing at.
Networking is crucial, but don’t be annoying, remember that if you’re going to do a good job and post your sets on music directed social media, you’re definitely going to be noticed, don’t worry about that at all. Be gentle and laconic. You will avoid posting comments asking people to “check your channel out” at all costs.
The Internet is your greatest ally. Use it to explore new music and follow unknown and promising musicians. There are countless Internet resources to do that.
Take your time to network with young and talented musicians and producers and if they have never released any music, make sure you ask them for it to play it at your gigs. This is a nice reward to any aspiring musician.
Know where you’re heading and where you are at the moment, thus you’ll define your further actions. Make sure your music selection will be in conformity with the cluster you’re headed.
You’re not normally going to play mainstream music at an underground gig and vice versa. Respectively, given the above mention point, know your crown and try to think like they do.
Anticipate what your audience likes and most importantly what it /would/ like to hear, thus always bring something new to the table.
And last but not least, have respect for what you do. Yoga teachers and practitioners, in example, at the end of a session always thank themselves for having practiced and they thank the forefathers for having elaborated this ancient and spiritual practice. Although DJ-ing is by no means as old as yoga, the principle is the same.
There is an entire legacy to this craft, and artists that have dedicated their lives to what you’re about to pursue. There is a very long, complicated and intense story to the tale of DJ-ing, so have respect for the craft.
You have absolutely everything you need to become a great DJ, just make sure you access and use all of the resources you’re exposed to.