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What Are the Best DJ Speakers?

Posted By — March 10, 2017

One of the best investments any serious DJ can make is in a good set of DJ speakers. Cranking up your music nice and loud is one of the main privileges that comes with being a DJ, but when you crank up your speakers, you want to make sure that what’s coming out of them sounds amazing.

Choosing the right pair of DJ speakers can be a challenge, however. There are many brands out there that claim to make the best speakers for DJs, but of course not all of these claims are true. In order to determine for yourself which speakers are best, you’ll want to take some time to educate yourself on the basics of pro audio sound systems. Here are a few things to be aware of when you’re searching for the best DJ speakers for your needs.

Studio Monitors vs. PA Speakers

When you start looking at high-end speakers, you’ll probably see a lot of studio monitor style speakers for sale. While you could certainly benefit from owning a pair of studio monitors (especially if you’re interested in the production side of EDM), these aren’t the types of speakers you’d want to bring to a DJ gig. Studio monitors are designed to give you extremely accurate playback information at low and moderate volumes, and while some will sound ok when they’re cranked up, playing music at loud volumes for long periods of time can actually be damaging to studio monitors.

The other types of speakers you’ll find in the pro audio section of your local (or online) music store will be PA speakers. As opposed to studio monitors, these speakers will excel when you use them to play loud music for big rooms of people, which makes them the perfect choice for DJs.

Passive vs. Active Speakers

PA speakers come in two categories: active and passive. The latter type tend to be less expensive, but that’s because you need to buy an amplifier in order to use them. If you already own a good amplifier, then a solid set of passive speakers can be an affordable choice. If you don’t have an amplifier and you’re looking for an affordable option, then active speakers will be the way to go. The drawback of active speakers is that in order to adjust the speaker volume, you need to turn a knob on the speakers themselves. This can sometimes be a hassle, but once you’ve adjusted the speaker volumes to suit the room you’re playing in, there should be no need to make further adjustments, assuming you’ve observed proper gain staging techniques.

What’s In a Name?

Once you start shopping for DJ speakers, you’ll notice that there are a lot of brand names to choose from. These brands can sometimes be a challenge to navigate, but if you have any experience with other pro audio and DJ equipment, you’ll start to recognize some brand names pretty quickly. There are some brands like Yamaha and Mackie that are known for producing a range of high-quality pro audio gear, while other brands like JBL specialize in speaker manufacturing. Some other quality brands to be aware of are Electro-Voice, Seismic Audio, and Behringer. These brands will all make PA speakers to suit a variety of price ranges, but as long as you’re sticking to brands that are known for quality and not looking for cheap knock-offs, you should have no problem finding a pair of quality DJ speakers.

Interested in finding out more about what DJ gear to buy? Spin Academy members get instant access to dozens of DJ gear review videos from pro DJs. For only $19.95 per month you can become a part of this online community of DJs who are passionate about improving their skills and playing great music.

An Introduction to Gain Staging for DJs

Posted By — February 24, 2017

There’s something pretty amazing about loud music. That feeling of bass pumping through your bones is a feeling like nothing else in life. But making things loud isn’t just about cranking your levels. In fact, cranking up all of your levels is the last thing you want to do if you want your music to sound good. To understand how to make music sound good at loud volumes, you need to grasp the basics of gain staging for DJs.

Gain vs. Volume vs. Trim

Modern DJ setups give you several different places to control the volume of your signal. These volume controls can go by different names, but they are essentially all ways of controlling the level of your audio signal. The difference in these names refers to whether the signal is in the input or output stage.

When an audio signal enters your DJ mixer, you have the option of controlling the input level via a gain or trim knob. Gain refers to increasing the level of an audio signal, while trim refers to decreasing the level, but on many mixers, these terms can be used interchangeably to refer to the knob that controls the input level.

After the input stage, you have your internal and output volume controls. The volume on the mixer itself is controlled by the volume faders or knobs for each track, while the output volume is controlled by your master fader.

Headroom and Clipping

Most EDM lovers like to hear music played loud, but what they don’t like to hear is clipping. This is what happens when an audio signal runs out of headroom.

Headroom refers to the amount of gain space between the maximum level of your audio signal and the maximum level of the gain stage. Push your signal higher than what the gain stage allows, and you’ve got a clipped signal. Not only will this make your audio sound distorted, but in extreme situations, it can cause damage to speakers and headphones. If at any point in this signal chain, the audio level is clipping, you’ll be able to hear this clipping at the end point, even if this signal is reduced or limited later.

Playing it Safe

Proper gain staging for DJs follows a logical path—in order to ensure you have enough headroom at every gain stage, you need to find out how loud your audio can go without clipping, and then back off from there to give yourself plenty of headroom. The best way to do this is to start with the source of the audio signal, whether that’s a vinyl LP or a digital audio file, and then work your way through the gain stages from there all the way to your final output source.

Start by playing your loudest track and making sure that the track level on your turntable or within your audio software is peaking somewhere in the orange, without lighting up any of the red lights on the volume meter. Then go through your audio chain and do the same at each gain stage. For a typical DJ setup, the order of your gain stages will look something like this: source track level—software or hardware master output—mixer input gain/trim—mixer master output—amp level—speaker level.

Knobs and Faders

When setting levels on your mixer, it’s important to set the level using the gain or trim knobs with the volume faders all the way up, rather than using the volume faders to control the level. You’ll be using the volume faders during your set to control the level of each track, but for now, you want to make sure that the maximum volume level for each track (with the volume fader at 0) is a healthy one.

The End Game

Once you reach the end of the line, you’ve now set your tracks to play as loud as possible without clipping. Since modern audio devices are designed to give you super loud playback volume with plenty of headroom, you should have no need to actually play your music this loud. The next thing to do then is to back off your master fader until you reach an appropriate playback volume for the room you’re in.

Some people like to mark the maximum level on the master fader with a piece of tape (as in “do not cross this line!”), but in most cases, you won’t come anywhere near this maximum level. You will, however, need to adjust your master volume level throughout the night as people come and go; the more people there are in the room, the more the sound of the music will be absorbed by their bodies, and the more volume you’ll need to make the music heard.

 

All of this only covers the basics of gain staging for DJs. For a full run-down on everything you need to know about gain staging for DJs, check out our video lesson series on understanding volume and gain. You can access this lesson series, as well as tons of other lessons, when you become a member of Spin Academy for only $19.95/month.

The Pros and Cons of Spinning Vinyl for DJs

Posted By — February 10, 2017

Music technology may come and go, but when something great comes along, it tends to stick around for a while. That’s been the case with vinyl in recent years—although CD and digital sales have been plummeting recently, vinyl sales rose by almost 26 percent last year, according to BuzzAngle Music. With so much interest in LPs, are there advantages to spinning vinyl for DJs? Here’s a run-down of some of the pros and cons.

Pro: The Sound

Most vinyl proponents say that they spin records for one simple reason: because they sound better. Yes, LPs might not be as technically accurate as a good WAV file, but there’s something about that vinyl warmth that just can’t be replicated.

Con: The Sound

While vinyl might sound better to some people’s ears, the truth is that there are downsides to the vinyl sound as well. When it comes to music that was invented in the digital age, pre-digital technology simply has a hard time keeping up sometimes; a high-energy EDM genre like dubstep, for example, with its extreme highs and lows, presents a major challenge for the mechanics of vinyl playback.

Pro: Scratching

For turntablists and hip-hop DJs, vinyl is essential for the art of scratching. Of course, using LPs isn’t the only way to scratch—digital vinyl systems and CDJ controllers also have scratch pads, but for turntable purists, there’s nothing like the feel of the real thing.

(Check out this free lesson from DJ Kenya on 4 essential vinyl transitions http://spin-academy.com/lesson/4-essential-transitions-cutting-fading-spinbacks-and-rewinds/)

Con: Transportation, Storage, and Organization

If you’re a DJ, you’ve probably got hundreds if not thousands of tracks in your music library. Translate all of those tracks into LPs and singles, and that’s a lot of vinyl to haul around. Then, when it comes time to find that perfect track, you can’t just type the name of the track into a search bar on your computer—you have to have a system that allows you to physically locate the thing. That’s not to mention all of the storage space you’ll need…

Pro: Focus

Digital DJ systems are full of visual elements—waveforms, meters, touchscreens, and so on. With vinyl, all you have to look at is your turntables. That means you rely less on your eyes and you’re forced to use your most valuable musical tool: your ears.

Con: Expense and Availability

Finding the tracks you want on vinyl isn’t always easy, and when you do find the tracks, you can bet they’ll cost more than a $0.99 download on iTunes.

Pro: Discovery

While records take more effort to search out, that effort can lead to new discoveries. With digital downloads, you can stay within your own comfort zone all the time, but with vinyl, you have to actually go to record stores and talk to people in order to get new music. These connections can lead to plenty of valuable new discoveries that you never would have happened upon if you relied solely on digital downloads.

Conclusion

There’s enough evidence on either side to convince anyone that vinyl for DJs is either a good idea or a terrible one. Ultimately, choosing vinyl for DJs does come with some drawbacks, but for those purists out there, all of the problems associated with vinyl simply fade away when they put on a record and hear that sound crackle to life.

If you’re interested in learning more about vinyl for DJs, check out the video courses at SpinAcademy.com. For only $19.95/month, you’ll get unlimited access to lessons like our complete scratching course taught by Mat the Alien, as well as tons of other lessons on everything to do with DJing in both digital and analog systems.

3 Essential DJ MIDI Keyboard Skills

Posted By — January 27, 2017

One of the great things about DJing is that you don’t need to be able to play a musical instrument in order to play great music (in fact, some might argue that a DJ controller is a musical instrument in itself). At the same time, there are certain advantages to understanding some basic music theory, especially when it comes to something like a DJ MIDI keyboard controller. Here are a few essential keyboarding skills that any DJ should learn.

1. Triggering

The most basic way to add a DJ MIDI keyboard into your setup is to use the keyboard in the same way you would use a DJ controller. With some basic MIDI mapping, you can set up a MIDI keyboard to control functions such as your transport controls, cue points, pitch/tempo controls, effects controls and so on.

The advantage of using a DJ MIDI keyboard rather than a DJ controller is that it can allow you to control multiple parameters at once. For example, you could control both your pitch and tempo parameters at once by pressing down multiple keys at the same time. This frees up your other hand to control a filter knob, for example, or find a new cue point.

In addition, if you’re used to playing keyboards outside of DJing, just having the feel of keys at your fingertips rather than a bunch of buttons could make the whole DJing process more tactile and enjoyable for you.

2. Chording

While all EDM genres are fundamentally based around rhythmic structures, most will involve some harmonic elements as well. This is where learning some basic piano chords can really help you. Whether you’re producing tracks or simply seeking to understand the music in your DJs sets on a deeper level, developing some basic knowledge about harmony and chord structures can go a long way. This can also help you out when it comes to other aspects of DJing like mixing in key.

3. Basslines/Melodies

On top of learning some basic chords, learning to play some basic basslines and melodies can also go a long way in helping you understand any type of EDM. These skills are also essential if you have any interest in production. Plus, learning some of these basic keyboarding skills can also help you get into other production tools like synths, arpeggiators, and all sorts of other keyboard-based instruments.

The Advantages of DJ MIDI Keyboards

Even if you’re not playing your own basslines or other musical elements using a DJ MIDI keyboard, having a MIDI keyboard in your setup can still present some advantages. For starters, most MIDI keyboards will integrate easily with any DJ software, which means that you can hop between Ableton and Traktor and still use the same MIDI triggers without too much difficulty. Re-mapping controls on a MIDI keyboard is usually a fairly simple task as well, so if you only want to invest in one piece of hardware but want to be able to use it for multiple functions, for example as a DJ controller and as a music production tool, a MIDI keyboard can be a good option.

For more on DJ MIDI keyboards, check in on the blog in the coming weeks for a run-down of the best MIDI keyboards for DJs to buy. And for more tips on how to become a great DJ, check out Spin Academy’s online DJ school, where you can learn everything from how to set up your DJ gear to how to perform DJ tricks like looping and live remixing, all for only $19.95/month.

Exploring EDM Subgenres: The European Scene

Posted By — January 13, 2017

When you think of EDM right now, some of the first people to come to mind might be European DJs like Tiësto, David Guetta, Hardwell, and Armin van Buuren. DJs from all over continental Europe have played a major role in shaping many EDM subgenres, and remain a dominant force in the world of dance music today. How did European genres become so dominant in EDM? To find out, we need to go back to Germany in the late 1960s.

The Rise of the Synthesizer

In 1967, a German musician named Edgar Froese founded the group Tangerine Dream. Their groundbreaking second album, Alpha Centauri (1970) was a merging of space rock and electronic music that relied heavily on the sounds of keyboards and synthesizers. That same year in Düsseldorf, the band Kraftwerk was founded as an experimental rock band. By 1974, their sound had changed to embrace synthesizers and drum machines.

Kraftwerk’s albums Autobahn (1974), Trans-Europe Express (1977), and The Man-Machine (1978), as well as Tangerine Dream albums like Alpha Centauri (1970) and Phaedra (1974) became important influences for a number of early American house and techno pioneers, and laid the foundations for the rise of electronic music all over the world.

Euro Disco

The rise of these European electronic music pioneers paralleled in some ways the rise of disco in the United States, but while disco would eventually take over the mainstream American dance scene, electronic music in Europe stayed decidedly experimental and avant-garde, despite the popularity of many of the pioneering bands in this genre.

Of course, that doesn’t mean disco had no impact at all in Europe. It was, after all, Italian producer Giorgio Moroder who helped Donna Summer record “I Feel Love,” the first electro-disco song to be released in the US.

By the late 1970s, as disco was on the decline in the US, the genre was experiencing a renaissance of sorts in Europe led by groups like ABBA and Boney M. Soon, American disco artists like Donna Summer and the Village People, experiencing resistance in the US, would make the move to Europe to capitalize on the popularity of the Euro disco scene.

Trance Music

The disco craze would eventually die out in Europe as well, and by the 1980s and ‘90s, dance music fans in Europe were looking for new sounds to listen to. Enter artists like Klaus Schulze and Paul van Dyk and the development of Trance music, a highly melodic EDM subgenre based around relatively quick tempos (usually between 125 and 150BPM). Trance in its early days became known for its long build-ups and explosive climaxes, as well as the hypnotizing or “trance” like feel that the music provokes in its listeners.

Early trance music led to the development of a number of EDM subgenres we know today like acid trance, progressive trance, uplifting trance, and hard trance. By the early 2000s, Dutch DJs like Tiësto and Armin van Buuren had become dominant figures in this genre and helped bring European trance into the mainstream EDM culture.

Current Developments

Today, the European EDM scene continues to be dominated by trance music, and European DJs have also been at the forefront of other recent EDM subgenres like tropical house and future house. With the world as connected as it is now, only time will tell what developments in the world of EDM will arise from Europe in the years to come.

 

Want to become a master of European EDM subgenres like trance and future house? Check out our lesson series on DJ’ing basics to develop the skills you need to master any style of EDM. All of the video lessons in this series, as well as tons of others, are included with a monthly pass to Spin Academy’s ultimate online DJ school.

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