How to be a DJ
Ready to learn how to be a DJ? It means having to spout about vinyl and beats per minute, a bit of a downside really. But you’ll feel the music you love on a whole new level and be treated like a godess EVERYWHERE you go. And possibly make some money too – although if we’re honest that’s unlikely. Things like this you end up doing not for cash but for pure love!
This is what you’ll need:
- a pair of decks
Don’t bother getting the pricy stuff until you’ve put in a good 80 – 150 hours of practice and know you enjoy what you’re doing. The skill in DJing comes in from the number of practice hours you put in. The more you do, the better you’ll get, missy! Mind you, we’re all about doing things on the cheap. It’s up to you really.
Having problems setting up the equipment? Everything comes with a manual, unless you got stimmied by a dodgy E-Bay sale. But basically everything connects to the mixer, on the whole.
It’s easier to learn from your mistakes when mixing if you record your sessions then play them back to yourself later. You’ll start hearing where you’re going wrong. To make sure you can record a full mix without any interruptions, choose a time and a place where no-one will bother you. Choose a volume that you won’t have to lower to stop yourself from disturbing anybody.
Work out in advance what records you will be most likely to play for that set or practice session. Stick to records that are very similar in tempo and key. (In fact, a lot of DJs store their records in order of tempo and key to help them find a suitable tune to mix into). To be a success with the crowd, stick to playing just one genre of music. You can start playing a bit of Kraftwerk with your Garage or samba with your techno but only once you know your collection inside out – from a DJ not a punter’s point of view!
Okay, so you’ve got your decks set up in front of you and you’re about to do some mixing. Put on a record and mess around with the channel volumes (channel faders), cross-fader (x-fader) and headphones. Make sure the channel faders or mixer gain aren’t set at maximum. Some tunes are louder than others, so you want to be able to adjust the volume accordingly. Set the pitch to 0 to begin with and set the records in place. For the record (a-ha!) we will call the record on the left record A and the record on the right record B. Move the x-fader over to record A and put on the headphones. Play the record and set the headphone volume high enough that when you’ve got the headphones on you can’t hear what’s coming out of the speakers.
The ‘headphone mix’, also known as the ‘cue volume’, is important to know about. It’s a knob that sets the ratio of record A and record B that gets through to the headphones. For example, setting it at 50/50 means that both records are heard through the headphones at their actual recorded volume. Setting the knob to one side completely means only one of the records is heard in the headphones. Why is this important? Because at some point you’re going to learn how to beat match, baby…
Now that the preparation is complete, we can move on. While record A is playing in deck A, start playing record B in deck B. The cue volume for the headphones should be set halfway at 50/50. Listen to the quietest record and increase the gain. This is so the audience will hear both records equally loud. Now play around with the pitch control and the volume control of record B so you have a feel of what they do. Remember never to change the controls of the playing record since the audience can hear the changes. That’s why it’s very important to have the x-fader completely over to the record that the audience can hear.
Yes but what the hell does an X-fader do?
Assuming that both records A and B are playing and we have the x-fader all the way to the left, all the audience hears is record A. As you move the x-fader to the center, the audience gradually hears record B getting louder. When the x-fader is at the center position, both A and B have an equal amount of signal being sent to the speakers. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are both equally loud, since you may have changed the individual volumes or the recorded volumes may be different. Then, as you move the x-fader all the way to the right, record A gradually gets quieter and then stops playing out of the speakers. (Of course, you can still hear it through the headphones).
Let’s get down to the business of mixing. We are now going to beat match. With A playing loud and B playing through headphones (x-fader to the left), listen somewhere near the beginning of B for distinctive beats you can hear. Keep moving the tonearm a bit at a time until you hear these beats. If it is hard to hear the beats because of the beats of record A, change the cue volume so it is no longer 50/50. With B heard louder in the headphones, it makes beat matching easier. When you can hear the beats properly, follow the rhythm and listen out for the first beat in the bar. You may find that something changes, such as a crash symbol, etc. (This is just the basic jist of beat-matching but if you google it on the net you can find out a lot more about it). On the last beat of the bar, press down on the record to pause it. Move it so when you let go, it will be released on the first beat of the bar. This takes time and practice so keep trying.
When you get that right, the next step is to actually release the record at the right time. This is often called the ‘send off’ or the ‘throw’. The important thing to know is that when a record is released, some decks take longer than others to get up to speed. This is due to friction, inertia and other blah. We need to help the record get up to maximum speed as quickly as possible, so when we release the record we give it a little push. Hopefully, the first beat of A will match the first beat of B. If you were slightly out, you must determine whether you let go too early or too late. If it was too early, you can spin the record with your fingers to let it catch up. You can also grip the center spindle and turn it. If you let go too late, you need to slow the record down. Some people press on it slightly or on the side of the deck plate. Whichever method is easier for you, use it.
We aren’t done yet. So now you can hear both records in the headphones. The next step is to match the pitch. Please note that what you are really doing is trying to match the speeds of the tunes, therefore the tempo. This is measured in the number of beats per minute (BPM). The term ‘pitch’ is used because as the tempo is changed, the pitch is changed. Remember that you released record B with a push so the first beat of the bar matched the first beat of record A. Well, if the pitch isn’t matched, the beats won’t be matched for much longer. You need to determine which record is playing faster. Just use the same method explained above for speeding record B up or slowing it down. If you find you have to constantly speed it up, then it is playing too slow and you must increase its pitch (use the pitch slider on the mixer). If you have to constantly slow it down, it is too fast so you must reduce the pitch. This really takes a lot of practice and is trial and error. Keep on correcting until you are happy with it.
Once you are satisfied that you have both records playing at the same speed, rewind B to where you want the mix to begin from. Perform the send off so that both records are synchronised. If you are happy with what you hear in the headphones, move the x-fader to the center to introduce the record to the audience. Whenever you want to take out record A, move the x-fader all the way to the right.
Well done miss music-queen ladypants, you have performed your first mix!
Basic DJ Mixing Tips
1. A lot of DJs suggest beginners to buy 2 copies of the same record. This way, they don’t have to worry about matching tempo since they should both be the same. If you do this, buy a record with distinctive beats that have a simple pattern. Be aware that you may get a funny sound when playing the same tune at the same time. This is called ‘phasing’ and is where the positive and negative phases of the same sound are reversed. This is normal when using the same tune so don’t be alarmed.
2. If you have cheap decks, they won’t hold the pitch correctly and will continuously change the running speed of the record. So just because you can’t match the pitch doesn’t necessarily mean you are at fault. In fact, a record itself can change the pitch if it was recorded that way or if it has been badly pressed. But if you can make something sound pretty good on crap decks you’re ready to make something sound amazing on good ones…
3. Some people have one ear in the headphone and one ear on the live mix. Others have the headphones fully on with both tunes playing through them. Decide what’s more comfortable for you and stick to it.
4. When working out whether record B is faster or slower than record A, make sure the cue volume is not set at 50/50. With both records playing at different volumes, the sound made when record B is playing faster is actually different from the sound made when record B is slower. From experience, you will learn to distinguish between the two.
5. You can store your records in order of BPM. You can either count the BPMs yourself or with a beat counter. Some DJs use beat counters while mixing, so a readout tells them the tempo of the current tune. A good DJ knows how to mix without, since some clubs won’t have this device – and then what will you do?
6. Tap your feet to the live tune when you are beat matching. This helps some people determine whether the record is too fast or too slow.
7. If your cued record (the one not heard by the audience) is going from fast to slow to fast to slow, then you are changing the pitch too much. Try changing it by little amounts instead.
8. Listen to as many DJs as you can to learn how they mix certain tunes together and how and when they add effects.
9. Think about the structure of the song when mixing.
10. Be confident!
Once you get confident in beatmatching and releasing records you will want to start looking into mixing techniques. The more variations of mixing you are comfortable with the more sassy your set will sound.
You can use this technique in the middle of a tune or at the crossover phase. Make sure both records are beat-matched and the x-fader is completely towards the playing record. Set the cued record playing so the beats are synchronised. At the last beat of the bar, move the x-fader to the cued track for a length of 1 beat, then move it back. You can also perform variations of this, such as on every 2nd beat or on every beat for a duration of 1/2 a beat. You can also put the x-fader in the middle rather than moving it all the way.
This is to play a sample of a record on top of another. It’s basically overlaying, but rather than overlaying beats, you can have an acapella (vocal) play on top of another tune. This can be helped by using kill switches to remove the beats and other low frequencies.
You can use these switches to cut high or low frequencies. Cutting the treble is useful for when hi-hats are clashing. Cutting the bass is useful for clashing drums or for tunes that are out of key. You can cut the bass of the cued record during overlay to reduce the key clashing.
Dead Stop / Power Cut
One bar before an uplifting part of a tune, stop the turntable with the start/stop button. The crowd will hear the record slowing to a halt in a second. When they think something went wrong, start it up again and watch them rave. Timing is of the essence here and you may need to help the record get moving again. An alternative to the dead stop is a complete power cut. Here, you turn off the power to the deck rather than just pressing stop. In this case, the record gradually stops, taking longer than a second.
The First Gig
Wherever you start, even it doesn’t seem that good, remember you must start somewhere. It is important to check out the place beforehand to get to know the equipment used. Ask if you can turn on all the speakers and hear the full reverb in the room. This will help you decide what sounds work best in that room. Of course, when it is full of people the sound will be different.You must be aware that a lot of clubs don’t have soundproof DJ booths. Because of this, the sound coming from the dancefloor is delayed to what is in the headphones. This is ‘Audio Delay’ or ‘Time Delay’. If you beat match your mixes with the sound that is coming from the dancefloor, you will never be on time with the mixes. You must use the speakers in the booth and trust your headphones.
On the night, get down early and see what the crowd is like. Notice what styles are being played and what the crowd are responding to most. Make sure you don’t play the same tunes again.
To finish off, following is a list of the items you should take with you to the gig. Some are obvious, but chances are you will be nervous and it’s best to look at a checklist before you leave home:
- Blank Tapes – if you want to record your set
- Headphones– make sure they work. It may be an idea to take more than one just in case
- Munchies – food is a good nerve settler, but don’t eat too much. Just something to chew on is enough.
- Paper And Pen – you may need to give your number to people who want to book you, etc
- Records – make sure all the ones you want are in the box
- Slipmats – in case the club’s mats are no good
- Wallet – for taxi home, etc
There’s a super-crazy amount of terminology used in the DJ’s world. Here are some handy basics to get you started:
This is a unit of music with an assigned number of beats. For example, trance is mostly 4/4, meaning that there are 4 beats in every bar and 4 bars in every segment.
The speed of a tune is its tempo and is measured in BPM, the number of Beats Per Minute.
To successfully count the number of beats per minute of a track, play a section of it where there are bass drums for 30 seconds. The art is to count these kicks for 30 seconds and then multiply by 2 to get the BPM. However, remember to start the stopwatch 1 beat before you start counting. So start the stopwatch on the last beat of a bar, then count the first beat of the next bars as 1. Try and count half beats as well. For example, if on 30 seconds you counted 70 beats and another half beat passed before the 30 seconds were up, then your count is 70.5 and your BPM is twice this, 141.
If you are not successful at counting beats, buy a beat counter that you can use to record BPMs of all your tracks. Some counters only go to the nearest whole number and these are no good. Remember to get a counter with decimals.