As a DJ, there’s great fun to be had in getting everyone dancing and screaming at the top of their lungs all night to some heavy beats. As will everything in life, however, there’s beauty in the contrast. For some DJs, playing to a room of chilled out people or spinning in Ibiza as the sun rises is an even bigger rush than playing an EDM set at a Las Vegas club. Many DJs have built successful careers on the softer side of the EDM spectrum, and if you want to learn how to DJ downtempo sets, the first step is to understand the history of the genre and the basic philosophy behind it.
What Is a Downtempo DJ?
These days, we hear about downtempo DJs playing all sorts of styles – ambient, chillwave, chillstep, trip-hop, etc… All of these styles really came out of one movement: It began in the ‘90s club scene when people were looking for a place to relax after a night of partying without leaving the club. This gave rise to the chill-out room, where much of the downtempo music we hear today originated from. Electronic music festivals in places like Ibiza started to embrace the chill-out concept as well, but instead of dedicating certain rooms as chill-out zones, they started booking downtempo DJs to play the early morning slots so they could play downtempo tracks just as the sun began to rise.
The downtempo movement has now expanded beyond sunrises and chill-out rooms, and major DJs and artists like Bonobo, Thievery Corporation, Zero 7, and Boards of Canada carry the flag of the downtempo movement.
Basic Mindset: Atmosphere Over Rhythm
While there are similarities between downtempo music and other types of electronic music like house music, learning how to DJ downtempo sets involves a major shift in mindset. That’s because downtempo is the only major electronic genre that’s not primarily based on beat mixing. Yes, downtempo music has a beat, but the beat is not always the most important part of the music, nor is there a consistency within the average BPM and the types of beats used by downtempo artists; while some ambient artists rely on simple beats to drive their music, others use complex beats, and, while the BPM of downtempo music is generally slower than most other electronic music, there are no real rules around what BPM you should use for a downtempo song.
Instead, what’s most important in learning how to DJ downtempo sets is learning to develop an ear for atmosphere. Because people don’t always dance to downtempo music, you want to give them something interesting to listen to besides the beat, and you want to use songs and sounds that create a certain type of atmosphere that people want to inhabit. Even though downtempo music isn’t limited to chill-out spaces anymore, the concept of creating a space and an atmosphere still applies. As you develop your stills as a downtempo DJ, you’ll start to learn which songs will be best for certain situations and which samples will fit in well with downtempo songs.
Want to learn more about how to DJ downtempo music? Start with our video lesson series on using effects – these lessons will teach you everything you need to know about how to manipulate tracks and create new and interesting sounds to add to your downtempo sets. This lesson series is fully accessible anytime you want when you join Spin Academy for only $19.95 per month.
One of the great things about DJing is that you can learn to DJ without ever taking a music lesson. That doesn’t mean, however, that DJs don’t need to be musical. In fact, one could easily think of a DJ rig as a musical instrument in itself – after all, it has the same capacity to produce melody, harmony, and rhythm as any other musical instrument. (You might even say that it’s the ultimate musical instrument.) If a DJ does the same job as any other musician, then shouldn’t a good DJ be musically literate in the same way that other musicians are as well? While studying advanced counterpoint may not help you very much in your career as a DJ, there is one aspect of music theory that all DJs should understand: harmony. For this post on beginner DJ tips, we’ll explore why harmony is so important to DJs and how you can apply harmonic theory to your DJ sets.
Why You Should Learn to Mix in Key
When most people learn to DJ for the first time, they start by blending two random tracks together to see what they sound like. Because humans have an intuitive sense of rhythm, we quickly discover that mixing between two songs with different tempos doesn’t sound very good. This is why beatmatching is one of the most important DJ tips that every beginner DJ should master.
The second part of the equation that’s often harder to master is mixing in key. While many of us have a natural sense of rhythm, understanding harmony can be more difficult. At the same time, while it may take more work, understanding harmony and learning to mix in key can have big payoffs; this knowledge allows you to create great sounding transitions between songs, and also opens you up to exploring other creative avenues like remixing and creating mashups.
How to Mix in Key
At its most basic, mixing in key is a simple process. All it requires is finding two tracks in the same key and mixing them together. Digital technology is a big help in this domain, as most DJ software now involves a key detection component that analyzes tracks and tells you what key they’re in. The most advanced tool in this domain is Mixed in Key, but other DJ software tools include a similar function. You can even filter songs by key when you’re searching for tracks on Beatport.
Applying Your Knowledge of Harmony
While digital technology can help you create mixes that are harmonically pleasing, the software has some shortcomings as well. First, the key detection tools aren’t always correct. Depending on what software you use, the key detection feature could be right anywhere from 41% to 86% of the time. That means that 14 – 59% of the time, the key detection will be wrong. This is where your ears and your own understanding of harmony come into play.
The other problem with relying on the technology is that there’s more involved in creating harmonic mixes than matching the key of two tracks. Harmonic mixing can also include things like pitch shifting and modulation. This, again, is where your ears and your harmonic knowledge come into play. If you understand how to move between two different A major and E major on the keyboard, for example, you can apply the same technique in your DJ mixes as well.
So while you don’t have to go to music school to become a great DJ, any effort you put into expanding your knowledge of music theory can be helpful, especially when it comes to any DJ tips involving harmony. Want to learn more about mixing in key and other DJ tips? When you join Spin Academy’s online DJ school for only $19.95 per month, you’ll get access to our advanced mixing tutorials, which include a video tutorial on how to use Mixed in Key software by DJ Roshan.
With the way music technology is going right now, DJ rigs seem to be getting smaller and smaller. While it would have been unfeasible to play a DJ set using only a laptop 15 years ago, today you could easily play a whole set using just an iPad. At the same time that some DJs are shrinking their rigs, however, others are looking for ways to expand them by adding DJ hardware equipment modeled after more traditional music making tools. If you’re looking for ways to get away from the laptop, here are a few pieces of DJ hardware to consider incorporating into your DJ rig.
A good pad controller is almost an essential piece of DJ hardware for serious DJs who want to add improvisation and live elements to their sets. Pad controllers come in all shapes and sizes, from portable controllers to huge flashing pads that could probably double as a light show. Some act as universal controllers, and others like Abelton’s Push controller are set up to work with specific pieces of software. Pad controllers are great creative tools because you can basically customize them to do whatever you want; not only do they allow you to do things like play with volume and EQ in a more organic way, they also allow you to create custom effects that you can play with on the fly to add a unique musical element to your DJ sets.
DJs have been using drum machines alongside their turntables since the early days of DJing, and today using a drum machine in your DJ rig is a lot easier since you don’t have to worry about manually syncing the tempo of an analog drum box to match your tracks. Midi drum machines like the Roland TR-8 (modeled after the classic 808) allow you to get that classic analog drum machine sound along with the ease of midi clock integration.
Digital synths offer another modern spin on an old-school piece of DJ hardware. In this domain, modern DJs have two choices: you can either find a good keyboard midi controller and build up a library of software synths, or find a hardware synth with midi capability. Both give you the option to use the midi clock to sync your tempo to your DJ software. This allows you to get creative using elements like arpeggiators and rhythmic effects without having to worry about throwing off the timing of your tracks. Of course, you could always go real old-school and bring an analog synth to all of your gigs too, as long as you don’t mind adding an extra hundred pounds or so to your DJ rig.
Outboard Effects Units
With a good piece of DJ software, you have the ability to add virtually any effects you want to your mixes, but that doesn’t mean there’s no need for outboard effects units as well. While rackmount effects may not be the most convenient option for the traveling DJ, they can be fun tools to play with if you have a home studio. A good alternative for those who prefer to remain portable is guitar effects pedals – just because these pedals are designed for guitar, that doesn’t mean you can’t run any other type of audio through them as well. For the hands-on performer, a few guitar pedals next to your DJ controller can unlock a world of creativity.
All of these tools serve a similar purpose: they allow you to take your fingers off the laptop and take a more hands-on approach to music making. Even if you’re using 100% pre-recorded songs and not adding any live elements of your own, it can make a huge difference to be able to twist a knob with your hand rather than moving it on a computer screen. Want advice on what DJ hardware and software gear to buy from experts in the industry? When you join Spin Academy for only $19.95 per month, you’ll get access to dozens of gear reviews, plus hundreds of other video lessons covering everything you need to know to make a career as a DJ.