I've been learning to DJ for several months now. It's a really interesting hobby. Learning this is a process that takes quite a lot of practice and attention to master (literally months or years), but it gets funner as you go along. So this is where I give away all of my secrets.
This page is a work in progress. It's sort of a first rev, and it appears to be in “brain dump” format. At some point mumble mumble soon, I intend to organize things a little better.
If you're a professional DJ, feel free to tell me all your secrets too, and I'll happily update this page.
- To become a club DJ worth listening to
- To be able to make mixes as good as the mixes I've loved listening to for years
- To post some nice mixes online
- An utter and complete obsession with music.
- The ability to keep working on something for months without getting frustrated.
- Some favorite genres and a large collection containing lots of tracks in those genres.
- A music player which lets you easily modify and corrrect track tags, including genre and bpm.
You'll also need some DJing hardware and/or software. There is a lot of variation here, in terms of ability, price and format. There's a spectrum from full hardware rigs to full software rigs, with hardware tending to be the more expensive side. For a basic learning rig, I suggest:
- windows box with a 5.1 sound card
- a USB midi controller, such as the Numark Total Control or Behringer BCD2000. The more expensive controllers often have their own built in audio hardware, but the lower end ones like these are really just glorified mice with lots of knobs, which is exactly what you need to control the software with.
- DJing software such as Virtual DJ or PCDJ DEX. Note that both of the above controllers come with some form of djing software, which may provide a decent starting point.
- A decent set of stereo speakers. You MUST be able to hear the bass line without distortion, and the drum kicks, snares and hi-hats must sound crisp. If they sound muffled or blurry, and you know the song isn't doing that intentionally (many do), try again.
- A decent set of headphones. The same conditions apply as for speakers, above, with the additional constraint that they must block out external noise. If your ear can't tell the new song apart from the old song, it's much harder to get them in sync. Those big nasty-looking canister headphones are great for this.
For reference, I have a Total Control and use it with DEX, with edirol MA-15D speakers and sennheiser HD 25-1-II headphones.
Plug your stereo speakers into your 5.1 card, probably into the “front” jack. Plug your headphones into the “rear” jack.
Start up your DJ application. Go into settings, set up the audio stuff so that it knows where to find your speakers and headphones.
Get the midi controller talking to the application, the details of that vary depending on hardware and software.
Get your music collection well organized. You need to be able to find any track you might think of, quickly, from within the DJing application. You also need to be able to get a list of similar songs quickly and easily, by genre or by artist or whatever. If your collection is too messy to be able to do this, or your application can't find its way around very well, take the time and fix it.
If you want to be a DJ, it helps if you look like a DJ.
Fortunately, that's easy. Just wear your headphones in a lopsided way, so one side is on your ear, and the other side is hanging uselessly off of some other part of your head. The details of this vary a lot depending on your headphones. I wear mine a lot differently from how Carl Cox wears his, but the basic idea is the same.
Also, wear a cool t-shirt. (I recommend one that says “more cowbell”.)
- Beat = the basic unit of measurement of a song. Measurements of the speed of this are called BPM (beats per minute). You won't necessarily hear percussion on every beat, maybe you'll hear the bass line or melody change from one note to another, maybe you won't hear anything at all. Maybe the bass line or melody change between beats, sometimes the percussion hits between beats, you never know. Just do the best you can.
- Measure = A chunk of music consisting of (usually) 4 or 8 beats. This is the basic unit of repetition within the song, though the amount and kind of repetition varies a lot from one genre to the next. At the very least, you can expect the percussion pattern to repeat for every measure.
- Pattern = A chunk of music consisting of (usually) 4 or 8 measures. This is the extended unit of repetition within the song. From one pattern to the next, you may hear major differences in beat pattern, bass pattern, pads, chords, vocals or melody. For dance music, the new pattern will also often be announced with a cymbal or preceded by a drum buildup.
- Deck = the player. This could be an actual record player or cdj, but for the setup I described above, it's an mp3 player. Your DJ application should have at least two of these visible on the screen, and your midi controller will have controls specifically for each of those. Each deck should have a jog wheel, pitch slider, playback volume slider, gain knob, equalizer knobs, effects knobs, and some buttons for start, stop, cue, loop in and out, things like that.
- Pitch slider = a sliding control which changes the playback rate of the song. Whereas the jog wheel changes this temporarily during playback, the pitch slider changes it permanently, or at least, until you adjust the pitch slider again. This control is how you get the two songs playing back at the same rate.
- Jog wheel = a big round thing which you can twist clockwise or counter clockwise. It's meant to look like a turntable, though it's usually smaller and doesn't spin. If the deck is currently playing, this will speed it up or slow it down. If the deck is currently stopped, this lets you skip quickly forward or backward to find the right point within the song (often so you can drop a cue marker there). Once you have the two songs playing back at exactly the same speed, you can use the jog wheel to offset the new song so the beats coincide with the old song.
- Cue marker = It's a particular spot within the song which acts as a sort of “bookmark” so you can easily (instantly) return to that point. Depending on your software and settings, it may automatically return to that point when you hit stop, or when you hit stop a second time, or when you hit a special cue button.
- Playback volume slider, gain knobs = volume controls for that deck. The gain knob is an input volume (before effects), the volume slider is an output volume (after effects). I tend to use the gain knob and leave the volume sliders alone, but I don't know if it matters.
- Equalizer knobs = a set of 3 knobs, corresponding to the bass, mid and treble for that deck. Often in addition to being able to twist the knob, you can get a “quick kill” by pressing the top of the knob downward, or pressing a nearby button.
- Waveform display = a section of the DJ application which shows a visualization of the track. Bigger waves means higher volume. Thick smooth looking usually means heavy bass or noise; sharp spikes are usually kick drums.
the big idea
The idea is that as one song is ending, the next song should be lined up and ready, so that you can fade nicely from the first song to the second.
That sounds easy. It isn't, it took me a couple months to get good at this. By “lined up”, I mean “patterns matching up so they both start at exactly the same time, and playing with perfectly synchronized beats”.
So here's the steps to do that:
Cueing up the new song
- Have one song playing on the speakers.
- Set everything up for the new transition. Press the headphones button so the new track will play in the headphones and the old track won't. Make sure the fader slider is all the way over so the new track will only play on the headphones. Make sure your equalizer knobs are all set to let the track play without change (0.0, the middle setting). Load the new track in the spare deck.
- Seek into the track quickly using the jog wheel, to find something that looks like the beginning of a beat. This depends greatly on the track, but you are often looking for a plateau of volume (which is the main part of the song). The front edge of that plateau is generally the beginning of a pattern, look for the very first kick drum and set a cue marker there.
- Play a bit of the song back in the headphones to make sure you're on the right spot.
- Stop the track and return to the cue marker.
- Listen to the song playing on the speakers, figure out where the minor pattern repeats itself. On exactly the beginning of a new measure, hit “play” on the new track.
Now you're ready for the next step…
Getting the pitch right
- Listen to both songs, one in each ear. Listen for beat drift between the two songs; the new song will probably be faster or slower than the old song. Use the new song's jog wheel to even then up again.
- After you find yourself moving the jog wheel in the same direction two or three times in a row, adjust the pitch slider a bit to either slow down or speed up the new song.
- Repeat the above steps until the two beats are perfectly aligned. It will take a few slider adjustments to get it right.
- Stop the new track, return to the cue marker.
Now you're ready to actually mix something…
Lining up and transitioning the new song
- Listen to the song playing on the speakers, figure out where the major pattern repeats itself. Remember, the major pattern usually repeats once every 32 or 64 beats. On exactly the beginning of a new pattern, hit “play” on the new track.
- Listen to both songs, one in each ear. Fine-tune the lineup of the new deck using the jog wheel. Try to focus on a kick drum or hi-hat, whatever lines up between the two tracks, and tune everything else out. Use sharp percussion if you can find it, lining it up by melody or bass track is often not as accurate.
- Fade from the old track to the new one in the least obtrusive way possible. See the “transitions” section, below.
- After you're in the new song and everything is back to normal, choose the next song. See the “selection” section, below.
The types of transitions are quite varied, and it is more of an art than a science. A minimalistic approach is best; you don't want to surprise the listener too much. If you need to make sharp and sudden changes, do them at the moment where sharp changes are expected anyway: when a new pattern starts, or just before or after.
Having vocals playing in both songs at once almost never works. Melodies sometimes complement eachother, but often do not. Bass lines sometimes compliment eachother, but often do not. Beats often compliment eachother, and you can greatly smoothen a transition by playing the hi-hats or tablas from a new track on top of the old track for a while before starting the actual transition.
Your tools to help with this are:
- The fade slider
- The equalizer
Familiarize yourself with these, you'll be using them a lot. (I don't personally use effects much, but I know a lot of people who do, e.g. flanger addicts.)
I suggest you try everything you can think of, from simple fades in silent spots to ridiculous effect frenzies and instant train wrecks. Timing is just as important as strategy, if not more so. Some things will work really well, most things won't work at all. Many things work better for some combinations of songs than others.
For a starting point, try the following:
- cut the bass and treble in the new deck's equalizer, so it's only playing mids
- right before the end of a pattern, start fading out the old deck's midrange so it's only at half strength.
- at the exact beginning of the new pattern, bring in the new track (playing only mids) and cut the old track's mids entirely. The fader should now be in the middle, so both tracks are playing.
- bring in the treble from the new deck, slowly cut the treble for the old deck
- at the beginning of the next pattern, suddenly cut the old deck's bass and un-cut the new deck's bass.
- now the old deck has no treble, bass or mid, it should be mostly silent. Move the fader the rest of the way over, and set its equalizer back to the default values. (Don't forget this last part, you don't want to leave yourself any surprises for later.)
Selection has been taking me a very long time to get used to. I've decided that selection is actually more difficult than transitioning. Every time I sit down to make a mix, I'm way too random, I need to warm up for an hour before I start being able to stick consistently to a plan.
For learning purposes, set up a playlist before you start the mix. Take as long as you like, analyze the tracks, find good compatible tracks. For starters, just ignore any tracks that are under 3 minutes in length. For learning purposes, focus on nice long tracks, 6 minutes long or more. This will give you more time to line it up and do the transition. As you get better, you can lessen this requirement, but just be aware of your limitations. Playing 6 2-minute tracks back to back is exactly the same amount of work as playing 6 8-minute tracks back to back, but all that work is compressed into 1/4 of the time.
Eventually you want to be able to choose tracks on the fly. The tracks you choose (and to a point, the skill with which you transition to them) will determine the quality of the mix. It will also determine which people will like it and which people won't, so know your audience.
Have a plan before you start. List a few genres you want to explore. Stick to the plan. Go in small steps. Don't go from psytrance to hip hop and back within an hour. It won't work, and trying it will be painful.
Don't waste too much time on a track until you're sure it's the right one to play next. Having the ability to say “no” quickly will give you a lot more time to get the rest of the mixing process done.
You very rarely want to move more than 4bpm in one step.
To be able to legally post your mixes online, it's a good idea to get permission from the artists. I have obtained permission from 8 of my favorite artists so far, which is a good start. I think.
It turns out most artists are actually really cool about this. I guess it's free promotion for them, but still, I was surprised at how nice most of these people are. Occasionally I get bounced to a record company (and they generally never get back to me), but in the cases where the artists are in control of their own copyrights, I've never gotten a “no” from one.
stumbling points (tips I learned the hard way)
- Learn to recognize songs which were recorded without the aid of a beat box or a metronome. Avoid them like the plague. They drift all over while you're trying to transition, and require constant babysitting.
- Practice. A lot. And study. A lot. A little musical theory goes a long way, here. Knowing some things about chords and dissonance will make it much easier to understand why tracks may or may not work well together.
- Warm up for an hour before hitting the record button. If you're anything like me, your selection will improve greatly.
- Record your mixes, listen to them again. This will be frustrating; do it anyway. Take notes.
- Know your genres. This takes a lot of time and a lot of exposure. In modern electronic music, any particular song typically follows 2 or 3 styles and has influences from several others. Look all of your albums up on discogs.com, look at the “Styles:” column, set your genre tags accordingly. It's a good reference.
- Listen to other people's mixes. Re-listen to your favorites from years ago. Focus on hearing what they did during the transitions. Try those things yourself. If you hear something interesting, get the same songs and try the same things yourself. Try it with other songs too.
- Some genres are more compatible with others, some are less. Some are more compatible in general than others. Some songs are more compatible. Identify and remember these, use them as your gateways when you want to move to a different genre.
- Switching genres can be … interesting. Switching BPMs is just as noticible to the listeners, and a lot more difficult to sneak past them. The best place to adjust the bpm is during a (semi-)silent breakdown section. The next best place is just before the beginning of a pattern, where there is no steady tone. Adjusting the pitch too much in one go will noticibly change the tonality of the track. If a steady tone is playing, never adjust more than 0.5bpm per measure. If a steady beat is playing, never adjust more than 2bpm per 10 seconds.
- Make playlists of similar songs. It takes a long time to get any good at selection, limiting the range of choices to songs you know are in the same category can help drastically in the short term.
- Accurate BPM measurements are everything. If you don't have that, get it. Seriously. If you don't have bpm measurements accurate to within 0.1bpm, it's good practice, but it will increase the time it takes to line up two songs tenfold.
- Playback volume should be a little on the loud side, but not excessively so. You need to be playing loudly enough to be able to hear the music's full depth (the comfortable feeling of the song surrounding you), but no louder; tracks are harder to line up when your head is throbbing and eyes are bleeding.
- The mixer levels of your speakers should be set appropriately so you can hear the highs, midranges and lows equally loudly. (On average; some songs are just bass or treble heavy, and that's okay.) In particular, too much bass tends to drown out the beat details you will need to be listening carefully to - it should be loud enough to be missed when it's gone, but not bouncing glasses off of the coffee table.
- You need to make sure your speaker and headphone volume levels are the same. Without this, you won't be able to line beats up properly, and it will take you forever to figure out why.
- Turn off your DJ application's “automatically set pitch when loading new track” setting when practicing, and turn it on when playing for others. It will automatically adjust your new deck's pitch slider setting when loading the track, to match the bpm of the other deck. This saves a lot of time, but you need to get good at doing it by hand anyway, for songs whose bpm measurements aren't quite accurate, or for songs which change bpm in the middle. Trust me, you will find both of these in your collection, and you need the ability to do it by hand, otherwise you'll have an EPIC FAIL in the middle of a gig.
- Voice samples from movies or tv shows can add a lot of great flavor to a mix. Just make sure they go well with the song(s) you play them with, that they have the right mood for the mix, and that they stand for themselves out of context. It's easy to be too silly, weird, or dramatic. It's also easy to let them draw out too long, shorter is better.
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