Guest post by David Michael, creator of The Passionate DJ Podcast
With a thriving hardware industry, the availability of robust software, and the general availability of music… it’s easier than ever to start DJing.
In the early days, there was a much higher cost of entry. At minimum, you needed two good turntables (like the legendary Technics SL-1200), a mixer, and a few crates of records. The price of music could effortlessly soar past $20 a track, considering import shipping fees.
Nowadays, we have a lot more options. More people are finding their way into DJing, which means that it’s more important than ever to take a smart approach.
Though it’s easy to begin, it’s harder than ever to stand out.
In this article, we’ll cover some basic advice on how to get started on this exciting new journey.
What DJs Do
The first thing you’ll need to decide is: what kind of DJing appeals to me? There are a number of approaches to the art of mixing music.
For example, the Club DJ aims to keep the dance floor moving (and the drinks flowing), without interruption. They should know how to read a crowd, and to balance the energy of a dance floor.
Taking a more exhibitionist approach, the “performer” DJs (such as Turntablists, finger drummers, etc.) are the ones you go to see because they are showcasing a particular skill set, such as scratching and cutting.
Of course, there’s the classic Radio DJ, which is where DJing began in the first place. This style can be applied to traditional AM/FM radio, and in modern times, to online radio and podcasts.
Finally, there are those who DJ as a service, and become a Mobile DJ. They might perform at corporate events, weddings, opening ceremonies, or special events. This often requires them to be comfortable with speaking on a microphone, following guidelines, and taking requests.
And of course, there are loads of hobbyist DJs who are simply in it for the love of the music, creating their own mixes as a Bedroom DJ.
What Are Your Goals?
Learning to DJ is exciting! But, it is not a reliable path to overnight fame.
You must get serious about your personal goals. Once you’ve determined the type of DJing that appeals to you, consider setting some short and medium-term goals.
By looking ahead, you can start setting milestones... and tracking your progress by whether or not you reach them.
Here are a few tips for setting goals:
Make them specific and measurable.
- “I want to be a better DJ” becomes "I will make it through a 40 minute recording without messing up a transition".
Make them realistic.
- Instead of “I want to be a world famous DJ”, aim just a little bit outside of your current reach.
Attach them to a time-frame.
- “I want to start a podcast”, becomes I will have a title and five episodes of a new podcast recorded by March 15th.
Eventually you’ll end up with goals that look similar to this:
- “By March 15th, I will record five 40-minute episodes of my new ‘Sweet Transitions’ podcast, ready to publish without any major mistakes”.
Build a professional, mobile-ready DJ website that is easy to update in minutes. Try Bandzoogle free now!
Essential DJ Gear for Beginners
It’s possible to begin DJing on your laptop with only a keyboard and mouse. But eventually, you’re going to want more control over what you’re doing.
For most DJs getting started, the logical place to start is by purchasing an all-in-one DJ controller. This will allow you to more adequately control your DJ software.
Lucky for us, there are many budget options to get started!
For example, the Numark Mixtrack Platinum is a popular solution which includes Serato DJ Intro (popular mixing software), and comes in at $249. It’s powered by your USB port, is extremely portable, and contains everything that you need to mix music.
The iPad is a surprisingly robust DJ platform. The Kontrol S2 by Native Instruments covers all your basic 2-deck mixing needs, and works with both Traktor DJ for iOS, and the full version of Traktor Pro for PC/Mac.
Of course, there’s a whole world of DJ controllers out there. Their prices range from about a hundred bucks, to over three grand.
For help deciding on your first setup, check out these resources:
The Controller Compendium - compare the best DJ controllers in 2018.
Baller on a Budget - four different DJ setup ideas, on a $500 budget.
Learning Basic DJing Skills
Technology will get you a long way, but there are fundamental skills to be developed along your journey to becoming a better DJ.
It’s important to manage your volume levels, and modern digital DJ setups have several places to check:
The gain knob on each channel (input volume).
The line fader on each channel (volume sent to output).
The main output and booth output of your mixer.
The crossfader which blends between two tracks.
Any additional gain or attenuation knobs on your hardware or software.
It’s important to check the manuals of your hardware and software, to make sure that you’re properly setting your gain levels.
As a general rule of thumb, keep your meters out of the red.
There’s a reason that we (humans) don’t speak to each other in jumbled sentence fragments. We group words into phrases, which flow together... forming a conversational stream that we can understand.
Within the world of DJing, phrasing simply means to mix songs together with timing that makes sense.
Almost all hip-hop, dance, and any other kind of music that you’ll be DJing consists of 4/4 time. This means that your music will, most likely, be phrased in multiples of four.
When you can find the one (the downbeat), and learn how to count like someone who plays an instrument, your musical “conversation” will make a lot more sense.
Take a moment to watch this YouTube video on song structure and phrasing, to gain a better understanding of how to count and why it matters:
On a DJ mixer or controller, the equalizer (or EQ) is essentially a volume control which only controls certain frequencies. They are divided into “bands”... for example: Low, Mid, High. Each knob allows you to adjust the level of a certain frequency range.
What this allows you to do, is overlay multiple songs together, without them sounding too messy.
Bass frequencies, especially, take up a lot of room in the audio spectrum. Having two kick drums (and two separate basslines) playing simultaneously can sound muddy... if not send your subwoofers to the moon.
Using the EQ of your mixer, you can carve out room for an incoming track, so that everything has space to breathe.
When starting out as a beginner, I recommend following two guidelines:
Whenever possible, cut instead of boost. This means that when you’re thinking of turning a frequency up, consider turning a frequency down somewhere else instead.
Keep your EQ knobs at “zero” (straight up and down, 12 o’clock position) unless you’re transitioning, or making some other intentional change.
In the vinyl days, you had to manually match the tempo of two records in order to mix them together at the same speed.
If you mix two tracks together with rhythms playing at different speed, it’s going to give you that “sneakers in the dryer effect”.
For modern digital DJing, the process is made much easier through technology. Using hardware BPM displays or your software’s “sync” function, much of the hard work is now able to be done for you. However, there are still some good reasons to learn how to beatmatch by ear.
Create Your First Mix
This part is exciting! Once you understand the basics, it’s time to record yourself and evaluate your progress. What do you sound like as a DJ?
If you’re using a laptop with DJ software, this is quite easy. Most modern DJ software has built-in record functionality, which eliminates lots of the technical hurdles of recording externally.
Speaking of DJ software, there are many options out there. A few of the top ones are:
Many other popular software options exist, such as Virtual DJ, Mixxx, or Djay. All of these offer the ability to easily record inside the software.
If you use a compatible Pioneer DJ mixer, you can use the new DJM-REC app to record mixes via your iPad or iPhone.
For your first recorded mix, feel free to plan out a tracklist and give some thought to how you want to transition between songs. However, this is an opportunity to experiment… and one you should not pass up.
Once you record it, put the mix away for a couple of days, or a week. Come back to it and give it a listen with “fresh ears”. This tends to be very revealing on what actually went well, and what didn’t.
Test Your Skills at a Live Gig
Of course, many DJs will want to come out of the bedroom and take charge of the decks in front of a real life crowd.
Here are some suggestions on low-pressure gigs, which you can use to dip your feet into the world of live DJing:
Reach out to small business owners and startups, and offer to play their grand opening party or special event.
Throw your own house parties, and DJ for part of it.
Hunt for local “DJ nights” at nightclubs in your town, which are willing to book you. Sometimes, small local nights will book a novice! Make sure your sound matches what they are looking for, for that particular night.
Offer to DJ your buddy’s birthday party.
Hop onto Facebook Live. It’s a “virtual” crowd, but it’s still an audience!
As you start getting these initial gigs under your belt, start paying attention to what the crowd is doing. Are they reacting positively to your sound? Do they like they direction you’re taking them?
What seems to be working for your audience? How can you meet them in the middle?
Learn to pivot the direction of your set, and you’ll start to understand the art of crowd reading.
If you want to stay active in today’s competitive DJ space, you can’t be satisfied with the mediocre. You have to be really good at this, you have to really work at it, and you have to be willing to play some empty rooms.
Those who wish to truly hone their craft into something special, are the ones who will benefit the most from their decision to take this journey… and who will find the most happiness as a DJ.
Never stop learning, never stop creating, and keep on spinning!
David Michael is a DJ, producer, and creator of The Passionate DJ Podcast: a weekly talk show dedicated to the art and science of mixing music. "Together, we're becoming better DJs through passion and purpose."
Build a stunning band website and store in minutes
- Promote your music on your own unique website.
- Sell music & merch directly to your fans. Keep 100%.
- Grow your fan base with built-in marketing tools.
Free 30 day trial, no credit card needed.