Most individuals who refer to themselves as DJ’s actually have very little understanding regarding the philosophy and the act of DJ’ing. Many believe that having the latest top 40 radio songs or a stale playlist of cliché contemporary hits will resonate with patrons or their peers. Some believe that good DJ’s have to perform tired basic scratches into every transition, while others could care less about transiting between tracks or themes to satisfy the listener. In order to improve the craft, one must strive to understand all the fundamentals to determine a natural balance between sonic relationships, timing, mood and technique to create something simply enjoyable out of skilled complexity. Presented ahead are some solid ideas to help the budding or experienced DJ hone their craft as to create the best musical experience for themselves and those that have gathered to listen.
Now, if you want to be a DJ or wish to improve upon your foundation and skill-set, I would strongly recommend looking at the guides below.
Principal Rules of DJ’ing
the key standards you should strive to maintain when prepping and working
1. Take proper care of your equipment and learn how to use it before performing live. Read and understand all their manuals so you can create and deliver a tight, dynamic musical experience.
If you don’t care for your gear, it won’t last long. If you don’t understand your equipment, than it’s capabilities will far exceed your knowledge base, restricting your creativity. Limit the chances of the unexpected and
2. Solid playlisting, flow and phrasing are the most important foundations of DJ’ing.
Without a playlist you have nothing, so that must be established first. Collect, analyze, and sort all of your tracks into organized, thematic lists designed for coherent mixing strategies.
Armed with a well-organized set of solid thematic playlists, utilize tracks with similar or complementary musical elements to mix between, establishing flow between tracks throughout your set.
Maintain that flow by phrasing your mixes with a varying set of intelligently crafted transitions and blends.
3. Be creative, open-minded and always strive to excel and innovate your craft.
Constantly search to uncover new techniques, refine them and incorporate those well-trained skills into your set. If your skill advancement begins to plateau, approach a technique with a different angle and add variable depth to that skill.
For example, if a standard scratch gets stale, experiment with the distance or speed of the scratch. Maybe it can accelerate or decelerate to create a curved sound. Also know that even a basic mix can be enhanced with complex elements. Oh yeah, and don’t forget to trawl the internet for tutorials on equipment & technique and live performances.
4. Be aware of and believe in your own skills and talents.
Many actively gigging DJ’s have little understanding as to what they are doing, so if your ideas and performances sound tighter and are more innovative, stay true to those practices as they will define you from the herd whilst out in the world.
5. Never mix out while in the middle of a verse unless that verse has a unique quality that allows it while maintaining flow.
Don’t do it unless you know that it absolutely works.
Establishing a Playlist
One truth about people is that even if controlled substances aren’t present, the music can make or break a party. Even if the songs aren’t mixed properly or at all, the playlist will dictate the enjoyment of everyone in earshot, so establishing a solid selection of tracks is paramount.
Aside from a few buggy updates now and again, iTunes has become the standard in digital music organization, allowing quick access to a DJ’s vast music library and playlists for preparation and use during a live set. Digital audio files are compiled in one interface and should be edited, categorized and sorted in thematic playlists based on mood and on how well the songs mix with each other. After acquiring an mp3, the standard operating procedures require the input of essential information within the ID3 tag, including song title, artist, maybe the album name if you know it, and it’s genre.
Protecting your files and playlists is of prime importance so it is prudent to adopt a few redundancies to assist in accidental song removal or deletion. The grouping field can be used to distinguish large shifts in occasion, differentiating between a relaxed set and a set that is made up of music intended for a full on dance party. The comments field can contain a loose definition of the playlist that song belongs to for better tracking.
When away from the computer, an iPod can be a great tool for assembling and trimming playlists. Utilizing the ID3 tag’s standard 1-5 star rating system, a playlister can make critical song selection, deletion and sorting decisions from anywhere by keeping the mp3 player and its playlists synced with iTunes. Any adjustments made on the iPod will be reflected on your computer and vice versa.
Good enough to keep, but not to be incorporated in a set.
A truly great track! It makes the cut and will be played to the world.
A track for easy home listening or lounge away from the party.
A tool track, used for gathering a loop, sample, acapella or instrumental.
An unworthy track to be deleted upon syncing.
The 1 and 5 star classifications are widely stratified as to prevent the accidental tagging of a track for deletion if it is in fact good, and are visually very different so no mistakes are made when purging your library of unwanted files. As for determining what is good or not, that is up to you.
Most refer to the concept of flow as “feeling the crowd”, however that paradigm is useless in the absence of an audience, so mixes must be well thought out, compiled and recorded as a versatile standalone work as well as something that can be played for others. When creating a mix, song selection is not only determined by relative beats per minute (BPM), but by how creatively songs interact with each other. When selecting and ordering your tracks for a mix, pay attention to the differences and similarities of the various sections and elements of each song including the drums, bass line, melody, vocals and even the words in the event that two songs share lyrical themes.
Phrasing (⬅wiki) requires the understanding of basic music theory and timing and should generally occur during the chorus or outro of the fleeting track and the intro or chorus of the track being introduced. Mixing out of a song during a verse should be avoided in almost all situations, however introducing an additional beat over that verse could prove interesting. In the interest of flow, proper phrasing within a mix requires the smooth and seamless transition from song to song, where a section of the first track ends while another section from our new track begins. The more unnoticed the change, the more natural and better the mix becomes. Not all songs meet the standard 8, 16 and 32 beat standards so pay attention to upbeats and lead-ins especially if they begin on eighth or sixteenth notes.
Sometimes a section of a song can favor a particular musical quality and should be utilized as a tool for the DJ regarding expert phrasing. The composer of a song may loop a beat without vocals, isolate a vocal track or bass line, or utilize a band pass filter to sweep the highs or lows into the mix as the mix terminus approaches; something you would witness abundantly in trance build ups. We can complement the prevailing tones by filling in the absent frequencies or by just saturating them for accentuation. We can also counter a band pass filter by complementing the highs while introducing lows and vice versa. These principles also apply when using the 3-band EQ. This will be covered in more detail in “The Art of DJ Mixing” below.
Some DJ’s have aspirations to incorporate other elements into their set, such as effects, sampling, and turntablist techniques like scratching or beat juggling. Like a well-composed and balanced mix for a produced song, implementing those additional DJ’ing elements should be done only if one is proficient and can deliver those extras with a similar balance. Over use of any one technique can reveal a lack of variety in skill, becoming boring or even worse, annoying for the audience. Exploring the possibilities and limits of your equipment and your imagination should be something mastered at home and exercised expertly for the mix.
Loudness vs Quality
Also in regards to maintaining balance in the mix, many DJ’s disregard some of the technical audio requirements for delivering optimum sound when spinning a set. Not all sound systems are going to be properly EQ’d or balanced and not all songs will emphasize certain frequencies from one to the next, so a DJ needs to use their basic DJ mixer EQ to compensate the best they can for any inconsistencies that may exist. Always pay attention to the levels and make sure that your tracks peak at 0 db as to deliver a clean dynamic signal over one that may be square, clipping, distorting, taxing on the amp in use and possibly damaging to a speaker. When utilizing the aforementioned DJ skills and techniques, levels and balance need to be taken into account, as scratching over a track could sound piercing at 0 db, while some filters can uncomfortably stack or sweep, being much louder in use than when listening to the unmodified track. Remember that exercising balance in the mix is in the interest of maintaining flow for the listener, and should be addressed constantly for the best audience experience.
The Art of DJ Mixing
Whether you are a seasoned pro or a beginner DJ, consulting a list of mixing variations can be a good “go-to” when your variety in mixing becomes stale. As many DJ’s are products of their peers and the pro’s they follow, some tend to not only lose track of not only how dynamic mixing can be also how psychologically engaging it can become as well. The word “mixing” has many definitions but they are all about combining various elements to make a new whole. Here, we will reestablish the core principles of DJ’ing as well as expand on some advanced original theories and overall beliefs.
Enjoy and get familiar.
1. Basic Cross-fader Mix
This is the simplest of mixing techniques and is also known as a straight mix. Set to an intermediate (X) fader curve, steadily slide the cross-fader from one channel to the next to perform a smooth, standard transition between tracks.
2. Volume Fader Mix
With the cross-fader in center position, use both of the volume up-faders to add your own custom transitional “curve” to the mix. The new track’s fader increases volume as the closing track’s fader decreases its volume according to your preferences.
3. Instant Mix/Slammed
Instantly transition from one track to the next by “slamming” the cross-fader from one extreme to the other in order to create a sharp cut.
4. EQ Mixing
Use the equalizer (EQ) on a DJ mixer to modify the mix by enhancing or removing any combination of low, mid and/or high frequencies. The way an EQ responds varies from one mixer to the next so use a reference track to test the frequency bands and listen to how each band behaves independently. Some EQ’s increase or decrease the overall levels within those frequency bands while others completely remove that band from the mix altogether. Take care in understanding the parameters of your EQ when DJ’ing and keep in mind that some of the gain ratios within those separate bands can be set differently or can differ from one mixer to the next.
Explore band isolation by choosing one band in the EQ while dropping the others. This technique can either bring out the low end, emphasizing kicks and bass, or the mids, which generally carry vocals and melody. You can isolate the high’s as well, but be selective as they can often sound tinny or piercing in fully loud environments.
Example 1 – Vocal focus
Highs at 11 o’clock
Mids at 1 to 2 o’clock
Lows between 9 o’clock and naught
Example 2 – Bass focus
Highs at 9 o’clock
Mids at 10 o’clock
Lows at 1 o’clock
Example 3 – Highs focus
Highs at 2 o’clock
Mids at 9 o’clock
Lows at naught
*Use care when focusing on the highs as they can clutter when layered.
Now that you are familiar with performing band isolation, try supporting the mix by tweaking other portions of the EQ to balance what you are isolating. This adds complexity to the mixing process, however modifying these parameters often will train your ears and allow you to achieve a more natural sound during the mix.
5. Filter Mixing
Utilize the filter knobs to mix between tracks as you did with the volume faders. Not all filters respond the same depending on what gear you are using. Some devices or settings may cut out more frequencies then you were expecting while others can resonate, leading to an unwanted increase in volume. Understand how your filter responds by employing it on various kinds of music and sounds and find its balance of use so you can add more sonic “color” to your mix.
6. Loops and Looping
Looping is a wonderfully dynamic fundamental of DJing, so one must locate, define and choose how they are going to use their loops within their set.
Any portion of a track can be cycled in a loop so a DJ must carefully decide the best time and place to employ them. For standard DJing, locating and setting loops at the intro, chorus, instrumental or vocal breaks, or the outro are the best places to start looking for loops. If your loop is an isolated song component, such as a steady kick drum or snare, soloed instrumental vocal or any other stand-alone sound, those components can be employed with more flexibility to extend or modify the mix through layering. Depending on your method of DJing, those same components can be extracted into a sampler for more mixing or even remixing versatility.
In addition, keep in mind that songs lacking an intro loop may have a loop elsewhere in the track that can become an intro loop substitute to be played just before you cue to your desired start point.
7. Complex Blending
Blending is the act of performing an extended mix, sometimes over multiple sections of a song. To perform a complex blend, do not only extend the mix, but also mix slowly while adjusting other mixer parameters in order to seamlessly alter the sound over prolonged periods. The idea is to subtly and organically transition between tracks without appearing to, by having them change without the listener realizing. This is a fundamental component to learning live remixing.
8. Track End Mix
If a song has an interesting or memorable end, cue it or let it play until it self-terminates while smoothly blending in the next track. This technique can add variety to a chain of standard intro/chorus mixes.
9. Song and Set Recovery
Recovering the flow immediately after employing a poor song choice or mix sharpens a DJ’s improvisational resolve and reflects on their skill level more than the mistake itself. Whether you became caught up in a moment of excitement, were pressed for time, or discovered that something panned out differently in the mix than expected, a DJ must remain calm and recover with a strong, well-thought-out song that doesn’t appear obvious. To identify an appropriate recovery song, acknowledge where the energy was before the mistake occurred, then replicate or subtly advance the energy so you can to slip back into the groove of the set. It may take a few well chosen tracks to reestablish the groove if the poorly placed song dramatically derailed your flow. Understand that at this point, reestablishing your groove in the mix is of primary importance, so never do a full restart and try not to introduce an overused club hit to get there. The new song must be introduced well and the patrons must be wooed, so time your transitions and meter your patience.
10. Tempo Shifting during the Mix
Since the late 1990’s, traditional DJ’ing on vinyl and CD has been modernized and supported by Digital Vinyl Systems (DVS), however other manufacturers have opted to focus on creating controller/DVS hybrids that expand DJ’ing even further. Such systems contain incredibly useful features, including one that allows the user to adjust the tempo of multiple tracks while keeping them SYNCed and in time. Like a conductor to an orchestra, one can slow or quicken the pace of multiple tracks by assigning them to a MASTER tempo. This powerful feature can be performed during a mix, allowing the seamless transition between tracks with differing beats per minute (bpm), mood, and pace, a feat that traditional methods nor DVS can replicate. A DJ can now transition from one song or genre to the next all over the bpm range without ever dropping the beat!
11. Genre Jumping 2.0
Jumping between genres in a DJ set is nothing new, however with the incorporation of automatic beat syncing, it has become dynamic and more creative. Utilizing the “Tempo Shift” technique described above allows the user to find new pathways to smoothly transition between genres by adjusting the tempo according to the desired mood they are trying to create. For example, if a DJ is playing a house track at 128 bpm, they can mix down toward a slower track from the 1980’s at 115 bpm and land on a new speed and mood without making the jump sound disjointed. This practice can also assist genre-specific DJ’s by inspiring the addition of other types of music into their semi-restricted sets, so always keep an open mind and experiment!
Sometimes a tempo shift to another genre doesn’t work immediately out of the gate, so a DJ must be clever and utilize all of the features available to them to smooth the transition. The up-faders, EQ, filter, and effects like reverb and delay are all viable tools for achieving some amazing mix-tape quality transitions, so use them accordingly.
12. Mix Style Emulation
Alter your mixing style to reflect the genre of music that you are playing. For example, if you playing hip hop music and have the skill, feel free to incorporate classic hip hop DJ elements such as scratching, cut mixing, or quick 8 bar mixes from one track to the next. However, if you are a spinning electronic music such as house or trance, you would ride long mixes, longer buildups and would put lots of work on the EQ and filter knobs. Study genre-specific DJ’s and use strict judgment when choosing whose style to emulate. If you spin multiple genre’s, learn to emulate those styles as well.
13. Mixing Chain
A “mixing chain” occurs when a series of songs are expertly mixed, where the incoming song contains a musical component that supports the momentum of the song before it. Those components can include similar or complementary instrument choices, musical arrangements, lyrical style or sound and even word choice. Every song however does not have to have identical components and can appear cleverer when diversified.
A Few Myths & Pointers
- An actively gigging “experienced” DJ isn’t always as knowledgeable as one would believe regarding their equipment, flow, mixing, etc. You would be surprised at how little some know.
- The DJ doesn’t automatically know what they are doing just because they claim they are DJ’s.
- Being a turntablist does not automatically indicate an aptitude for rocking parties.
- Playlisters are not automatically good at DJ’ing or mixing.
- Learn about signal flow, cables, levels, equipment calibration, speaker positioning, etc.
- Just because a big DJ does something a lot, doesn’t mean what they are doing is right.
- Moderate your time spent on the mic.
- The listener is more important than you, however a crowd is more important than the individual.
- Just because someone requests a song, doesn’t make it a good idea.
- Any repetition in DJ’ing gets boring, fast.
- Avoid gimmicks because they work briefly, usually once for each viewer.
- If you want to get paid, you have got to hustle!
- Be self-critical and objective of your work always as to excel
- Then one day, you will be able to trust your own instincts and judgements.
Any suggestions? Revisions? Additions? Write below.