HOW TO BE A DJ
Start with the basics. Being a DJ requires you to do a lot more than just play songs. Learning to structure a set, mix on the fly, and get a crowd moving all starts with your deck. Later on, you can invest in bigger speakers, a monitor, a MIDI controller, an audio interface, mics, and various plug-ins, depending on your ambitions for playing out, but a bare-bones basic DJ setup needs to include the following:
Decide to go analog or digital. Traditional DJ set-ups revolve around direct-drive turntables for playing vinyl records, but it’s increasingly common to use CD-style and straight-digital set-ups for playing DJ sets as well. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but are perfectly effective for playing gigs and becoming a DJ.
Analog set-ups will allow you to DJ in the most traditional way, learning the skills the way they were pioneered: scratching a stylus against vinyl. This will require you to collect a sizable collection of vinyl records to play, which can be somewhat expensive.
Digital set-ups allow you to be extremely mobile, and the learning curve will be much smaller when you’re working with a digital set-up. Learning to beat-match and transition, for example, will be much easier with a BPM counter and a software system.
Consider a mixing software package. Serato Scratch or Traktor are great programs that can read any format of music and select songs through a computer program interface. Pioneer and Numark also offer various products you may want to eventually look into.
These programs will enable you to access a library of MP3s on your hard drive to compliment your vinyl and CD selections. More often than not, these programs provide live looping and scratching capability, delays and reverberations, real-time control and video and karaoke options.
Ableton is a program that allows you to connect mixing controllers via USB cable and operates more like the classic DJ in your head does. It’s good for beginners and the budget-conscious.
This will be especially useful if you ever plan on producing. We’ll get to the value of that in a bit, but know that it should be an avenue of your career later on down the line.
Know what you need for gigs. If you plan to play for a venue that already has a DJ setup, you might only need a laptop with music mixing software. If you plan to play in private venues, you’ll probably need to provide your own equipment. Scope out what you need and what you don’t for your particular job.
Some music mixing software may be hard to learn. You can find great tutorials online for most types.
Build a big collection of music. You know what else you need? Music. And you don’t want crappy, third-rate mp3 download versions of those songs either. To be a legit DJ, you’ll at least eventually have to pay for the music you get. For now, work with what you have, but know that it will be an expense later on in the game. You need to be a music expert. Hit up your friends and consult the charts, YouTube channels of record companies and websites catering especially to DJs such as Beatport. Here’s a list of genres to explore:
Drum and Bass
Learn the BPM of the songs you play. The beats per minute (BPM) of a song will determine how smoothly or easily you can mix it with another song. You can calculate BPM by counting the beats yourself using a stopwatch, but that’s pretty tedious. Some mixers will have a BPM counter on the board, while most DJ software will calculate the BPM of a track for you, although this may not be completely accurate 100% of the time, so it’s good to have some sense of the BPMs yourself.
You can use a pitch warp to match the beats, though it’s best to choose two songs that are only a few BPM off. However, use it on the song that doesn’t have vocals yet. Speeding it up or slowing it down changes the key and messes with everything.
Most dance songs will have an intro in which the music is going but the vocals are not at the beginning of the song and a corresponding outro at the end. Mixing usually means blending one song’s intro with the outro of another. Knowing when an outro starts and an intro begins is critical to live beat mixing.
Cue up the second song. Have your second song ready to go as your first one is winding down. Use one hand on the turntable or CD player’s pitch to adjust speed (if your BPMs don’t match) and put the other on the crossfader, so that the first song’s volume decreases as the second song’s volume increases.
Learn how to scratch. The decks can be used to find your place in a song when they’re queued up or they can be use as pseudo-records to get your scratch on. There are baby scratches and scribble scratches and drags and scratches that work at different pitch levels. Get ’em all down before you head out there!
Certain songs and certain places in certain songs are prime for scratching, while others are terrible for it. Knowing when to scratch is like comedic timing: you’ll know it when it’s right and when it’s just wrong.
Keep it simple at first. When you’re starting out, make mixing easier by sticking to two songs that are within 3 BPMs of each other. You should also use two songs that are in the same key. Your software should be able to tell you this. When you nail that down, start experimenting with looping and then move on to your toggle function and adding effects.
Also be sure to experiment with the different methods on your mixer. For most effects, there’s more than one way to do them. You’ll find what you prefer (generally one method is a very do-it-yourself way and the other is more automated).
Transition between the songs smoothly. One of the most important parts of DJing is transitioning between songs, matching beats so that the beat remains constant, letting people continue dancing, uninterrupted. Using conventional DJ hardware, this involves listen to the second song’s intro in your headphones, moving the pitch slider until the songs play at the same speed, and cueing the song simultaneously with the preceding song. Learning to do this smoothly is one of the essential skills of DJing.
You also need to adjust the volume levels of the songs. The song you are mixing out of will be playing at full volume, so you need to adjust the second up slowly, listening closely to the tune to bring it up subtly.
Never mix vocals over vocals. It’s important to avoid creating awkward noise, which means you need to be super-familiar with the songs intros and outros.
Digitally, it’s possible to use beat-matching software to do this automatically, provided that the songs are within a few BPM of one another. It’s still good to learn how to do it analog, since this is a fundamental skill.
Certain gigs will require that you make a few compromises. A college bar may want to hear Katy Perry when you’re just trying to forget Last Friday Night. Being a specialist may give you more cred with the DJs, but it may make your gigs fewer and far between.
Crowd pleasing means playing songs that would, most likely, hit the taste of the biggest number of people in any given crowd. This style of DJing is best suited to private events, such as weddings or small parties.
A music specialist sticks to a particular genre of music, regardless of what the crowd demands. Usually, these DJs play nightclubs who have specific genre standards or they have an established following based
Observe. Find a DJ whose style you admire and observe him or her as much as possible. Pay attention to how songs are constructed and how the crowd is managed. After you’ve watched them a few times, approach the DJ after the show and ask for a few tips. Most DJs will be happy to help guide you if they know you’re serious.
Gain inspiration from the DJs that hit it big. Sometimes it can help to look up to professionals such as Headhunterz, Tiesto, Avicii, Knife Party, Sebastian Ingrosso, Deadmau5, and Skrillex.
Be a multi-genre DJ. You can still be a specialist if you have multiple genres under your belt — you’re just a specialist with logic. Most DJs are great at one genre of music — being great at more than one sets you up to be the cream of the crop.
This also offers you more opportunities for future gigs. Instead of only having one or two clubs in the area that’ll have you, you can do those, a few other clubs, and the occasional wedding or hoppin’ bar mitzvah.
For each genre you do, you’ll have to know the classics, the deep cuts (the B sides that should’ve been A sides), and the current stuff. Having a healthy mix in your repertoire will keep the party going.
Keep up with current music trends. In order to be viable in today’s fast-paced world, you’ll need to be on top of all the charts and where it seems like the trends are going. You have to be on top of today and leaning toward tomorrow.
You should be constantly writing yourself notes, finding out what that song you just heard was, and keeping a list of ideas for later when you’re sitting down and doing your thing. Always keep your phone or a pen handy because inspiration calls when it pleases. And so does your best friend when he wants you to hear this new track he’s working on.
Get recurring hours. Just like a pilot needs to build up flight time to get cred, you’ll need to build up playtime. The best way to do this in a serious fashion is to get recurring hours through an established company — not just those one-off gigs.
Find companies that supply DJs to weddings and the like. You won’t be freelancing, but you’ll be getting your foot in the door.
Sign up to work at a local college or community radio station.
Some venues need between-band DJs. Let that be you!
Know the crowd you’ll be dealing with. Having an idea of who your crowd is before the event begins is critical to successful DJing. If you’re playing a wedding, for instance, be prepared to play more slow songs than usual and try to get a grasp on the bride’s musical tastes beforehand. If you’re playing a nightclub, get familiar with what the club owner prefers and what his or her regulars like. The regulars keep the club afloat and, by extension, pay your fee; learn how to keep them happy.
Always read the crowd. Use the music to manage the event, driving it forward. Divide different styles of songs into different sections. Play slower, quieter songs at the beginning of the party. Slowly slip into a jazzier groove, and pull out the heavier songs at the end. Above all, read the crowd and notice what they’re responding to.
Don’t play mostly fast songs at a wedding. This will take away from the romantic atmosphere.
Don’t play mostly slow songs at a gathering of kids. They will get bored fast.
Be careful with requests. If you’re playing a nightclub that caters to a hip-hop crowd and you have a tourist or someone unfamiliar with the scene requesting a song that doesn’t fit with the genre, consider carefully before you play it. Remember, your aim is to keep the core of the audience happy and coming back.
If at all possible, visit the venue beforehand. Getting a feel for the regular crowd before you go can help take the pressure off a new gig.
Market yourself. You should be making press kits, handing out business cards, emailing constantly, and always, always expanding your network. This is not a 9-5 job, no; it’s a 24/7 job.
Keep a busy schedule. As you’re gaining a fan base, play as many shows as necessary to get your name out there. Book yourself on a tight schedule at first to keep your interest alive and your creativity fresh. Basically at the beginning: take whatever gigs you can.
Develop an Internet presence. If you don’t have the time or money to build your own website, start an account for your DJing career on Twitter or Facebook. Promote your shows, and make time to connect with your fans and personally respond to their messages. The more you’re a real person to these people, the better.
Find your own gigs. Depending on how you want to advance your career, you could start playing small, private events for a low fee, or take a slow, weeknight shift at a club or bar. Ask a friend who’s hosting a party if you can DJ. Be aware that if you’re inexperienced, you won’t make much money at first and you’ll probably have to keep a second job. But you’d do this for free if you had to, right?
When you first start off, people may book you on the stipulation that you bring X number of people. This is crap. You are not the promoter and you are not your friends. However…sometimes you got to take what you can get. Know that these guys are only the ones you’re working with now; avoid them in the future.
Become a producer. The next step up from being a DJ is producing your own music. You can still work with others’ tunes, but you’re mashing it all up, remixing it, re-editing it and making it better. DJ Earworm got YouTube famous doing just that.  You can rake in the cash a lot faster when you start producing your own stuff.
And once that happens, you can hit up record labels. Even if you don’t end up being a top-billing artist, you can work with other artists and behind the scenes doing what you love.
Build your charisma. As a DJ, you are responsible for entertaining a large group of people all by yourself. The music you play is important, but you also need to pay attention to how you act on stage. Don’t just stand there hunched over your decks. That’s boring. Try to be someone who attracts attention in a good way. Also, learn when to step back and let the group dynamic take over.
Be professional. Show up to your events on-time and fully prepared. Give each gig your best effort. Have fun with the crowd, but keep your interactions professional and respectful, since you never know who’s watching.
Straight up, the DJ world is full of scumbags. You want to be that good apple that isn’t a part of the bunch. If you’re not professional, there are a zillion other guys and gals out there chomping at the bit to take your spot.
Handle the BS with care. Working in clubs and the like isn’t always a pretty picture. Remember that 95% of the time the majority of the people listening to your music will either be some level of drunk, high, or both. They may give you a hard time on occasion. This has got to go in your ear and out the other.
In addition to rowdy or unappreciative crowds, you’ll be dealing with shady promoters and technical disasters. Use your savvy people skills to navigate through these issues and let them make you all the better for it.
Have fun. Imagine going to a show (or maybe you already have been witness to this) and seeing a DJ that’s busy pushing buttons like he’d rather be hauling rocks. It’s terrible. Watching a DJ that doesn’t even like his own music is practically worse than a three-piece deaf polka band. So make it clear that you’re enjoying yourself and the crowd will follow suit.
You’re totally allowed to go a bit crazy. The more you feel it, the more your inclinations will be spot on. The more spot on you are, the more the crowd wants you back.
Live the dream of working for yourself. After all that hard work of taking crap gigs and working with a crap company and modifying on less-than-stellar equipment, it’s time to up the ante. When the money is coming in at more than a trickle, upgrade your equipment. The industry standard is the Technics 1200, but you can even upgrade from there. You’re looking at a few thousand dollars in the long-run, but you’ll make it back and then some.
Start figuring out your rates. How much are you worth? You don’t want to be a DJ diva about it, but you don’t want to sell yourself short. Account for distance traveled, if you’re bringing your own equipment, and the general realities of the gig (some are quite clearly better than others). And don’t forget: are they feeding you?
- 2-channel mixer
- A Laptop or Tablet
- A mixer (for more advanced DJ playing)
- A music library or digital record pool
- Amplified speakers
- Computer programs (optional)
- DJ turntables, CD players or a DJ Controller
- Mixing software (optional)
- Things You’ll Need
- Two turntables or two CD players