In a previous article I explained some of the waveform basics that every DJ should know. In this article, I’m going to go a bit more in-depth with how you can integrate your knowledge of waveforms into your mixing style.
One thing that might become immediately apparent after spending some time with waveforms is that they are not all created equally. The phenomenon know as the ‘loudness wars’ has resulted in a lot of heavy compression and limiting being used in the mastering phase of track production. This process reduces the dynamic range of the song, resulting in a track that on the surface appears to have more ‘power’ and will stay at a consistent volume throughout.
In the waveform terms we previously discussed, this process results in less variation in the height of the crests and troughs. In addition, the peaks of these crests and troughs will be close to their maximum height (without distorting). You can see examples of a heavily compressed/limited track as well as an ‘average’ track below. Clearly, there are some differences…
Note that when you hear a heavily compressed/limited track it might appear to have more power simply because the ‘loud’ parts are more consistent throughout the track. In reality, this reduction of dynamics actually makes the track less powerful because there is less separation of the musical elements, resulting in a dynamic ‘blurring’ of sorts. This ‘blurring’ works well for radio, streaming, and listening on earbuds, but when played on a properly set up club system it will seem less ‘punchy’.
So how can you use this information when you’re mixing?
When you are loading a new track into one of your decks (Serato, Traktor) or getting ready to trigger a new clip (Live) you will immediately be able to visually compare it’s waveform with the waveform of the playing track. If there are obvious differences in the waveform you should be able to make some preliminary adjustments to your settings (i.e. the volume). This could apply to either a full section of a track that has been mastered differently than your playing track, but also for various elemental sections of a track. For example, if you are going to mix into a verse or chorus of a track that has been heavily compressed/limited you might want to turn down the initial volume to make a smoother transition because it will appear to be very loud. Conversely, if you want to mix into a less busy hi-hat only section you might have to turn up the initial volume for it to cut through the mix.
Normally, you would be doing this in your headphones and by looking at the VU meter on your mixer, but you can use the visual technique to help you when you need it. Also, instead of using the volume faders to mix in/out, you could use your basic EQ controls. In the example of a highly compressed track, you could kill the lows, mids, or highs to make some room for the mix. Killing the low end is usually a good way to cut through because when you have two sings playing the full spectrum, the result can often be quite muddy.
One thing that I find to be helpful is to set your track volume faders at about -6 dB. Depending on the hardware setup, the effects and plugins you are using, and the PA system, you might have several different gain stages that will affect the overall output. If you are running a heavily compressed/limited song through a mixer track set at 0 db, then have various effects on it, which then gets sent to a PA system with limiter safeguards, the resulting sound will probably sound very squashed. By running your mixer tracks at a lower volume you allow room for various gain stages to work on the song without it constantly hitting the limiter ceiling. This is especially true for Ableton Live users that create effects racks for all of their tracks.
One part of the debate between vinyl and digital is the issue of dynamic range. Songs on vinyl records often sound cleaner and more ‘punchy’ because they have not been heavily compressed/limited in the mastering phase. In the two images above, you could think of the ‘average’ track as an average waveform that a vinyl record would produce and compare it to the same track heavily mastered as a digital release.
The issue of digital file size and the audio quality also comes into play as part of this discussion. Lower quality audio files have less audio information in them, so when they are heavily compressed/limited the results sound significantly worse than a more dynamic song of the same quality. You should always use the highest quality audio files available. 320 kbps + or bust!
If you want to learn more about DJing and gear we highly recommend you check out our online DJ School here at Spin-Academy.
A lot of the current discussion around DJing focuses on EDM and producer-as-a-DJ styles. In these scenarios the DJ is quite often solo on stage and is the primary focus (other than dancing of course). While the equipment, venues, and style of DJs has changed over the years (usually falling into similar groups based on musical genre), one key premise has remained the same; keeping the party going. From the earliest iterations of the DJ, his or her primary task was to play music as a means of controlling the party. Perhaps one of the biggest differences between DJs today and their contemporaries from 40 years ago is the divergence of the hip hop DJ and the dance/disco/EDM/etc. DJ. When I say ‘hip hop DJ’ I’m not referring to a club DJ that plays mostly hip hop and rap, I’m referring to a DJ that plays with live MCs.
So you’ve been invited to DJ at a hip hop show, but you haven’t done it before, what do you do?
There are a couple different scenarios that you might encounter:
- You know the MCs and have rehearsed ahead of time with samples and full tracks
- You have heard the MCs and they have given you their tracks ahead of time to listen to
- You meet the MCs at the show and they give you complete tracks and the play order
- You meet the MCs at the show and they give you a pre-made single track mix of their set
For our purposes here, I’m not going to go into a lot of detail regarding rehearsing with DJs. At this point you are performing as a live group akin to a ‘band’ in many ways. We are going to talk about what you can and should do if you get a gig as a DJ for a live hip hop show. One of the most important things to remember as a DJ in these scenarios is that most MCs need the music to be played almost exactly as they rehearsed it. Unless you are dealing with veteran performers or highly skilled freestylers, any deviation from the original track will completely throw off the MC.
So how do you prepare for the set? Quite often you will get invited to play a show with one MC or group and will end up playing for at least one other MC on the bill. They might have a USB stick with their instrumentals that they will give you before the show. You should always transfer the files onto your hard-drive and sort them the same way you would any other track that you would play in a DJ set. If you use Serato or Traktor it is best to create a new folder for the show and each MC that you are spinning for. If you are using Ableton you should import the songs into the Live set you have built for that show. Unless you have sufficient time to warp the tracks properly and prepare for the tempo changes in their set, it is usually best to leave the tracks unwarped. If they have provided you with a single-track mix of their set you should try to put in cuepoints (in Serato/Traktor) where the songs change or create duplicates of the track and change the start position for each new song (in Ableton).
Once you have the tracks ready to go and you are on stage you will basically just hitting the play button. The MCs will often control the pace of the set and they’ll give you the cue to start playing and will often want to stop in between tracks for a little stage banter. Be prepared to stop the tracks and/or do a ‘rewind’ for the MC if they call it out on stage. Remember, unless you’ve discussed it with the MC before hand, don’t modify the tracks in any way. Beat repeats, delays, cross mixes, etc. will all throw off their flow if they’re not expecting it. If you’re feeling adventurous and think the MC will be OK with it you might be able to pull of some EQ cuts, filter sweeps, or something similar at the end of verses, but be cautious. There is one exception to the ‘don’t change the songs’ rule; scratching over top. If you have a free turntable and some source material to scratch with, most MCs like it if there is a bit of (tasteful) scratching over their tracks. However, only attempt if you are a proficient enough to pull it off!
If it is a smaller show, you might also be called on to play music between the MC sets. This is where you can take over as the performer. It’s always a good idea to figure out the style of the show before hand and prepare a small playlist or set. Just be aware that you’ll have to transition in and out from your performance to becoming background support from the MCs.
Overall, DJing for hip hop shows is a fairly easy gig from a technical standpoint, but you’ll often have to deal with disorganization and difficult personalities. If you can easily navigate the backstage chaos of one of these shows you should be fine out on stage. If you are easy to get along with and can pull of the sets without incident you will often get invited back by the MCs for more of their shows.
If you want to learn more about DJing and gear we highly recommend you check out our online DJ School here at Spin-Academy.
Introduction to DJing
This is the first on a series of posts explaining the fundamentals of DJing. These articles will be aimed toward the beginners wanting to get into DJing.
A DJ or ‘disc jockey’ is someone who plays recorded music for an audience. In a modern context this generally involves playing music for people at a bar, lounge, or club.
First and foremost, a DJ is a music lover. They have in-depth knowledge of many musical genres and have a music collection that they want to share with the world.
The DJ’s purpose is to ALWAYS keep the music playing. Silence or ‘dead air’ is the DJ’s enemy and he or she must keep the music flowing. This is achieved through a continuous process of song selection, mixing in to the current song, and mixing out into the proceeding song. Mixing techniques vary depending on the musical genre, style, and equipment being used. The one thing that is constant is that the DJ must immediately start playing another song that meshes well with the preceding song.
There are several different styles of DJs and different contexts in which a DJ might have to play. Depending on the venue your job may be to get people dancing, provide ambience and atmosphere, fill space between live performers, or provide background music to fit the theme of the night. Within each context there are many different styles that a DJ may take. For example, if you are at a seated cocktail lounge you might not want the latest club bangers full of drops and risers. You may opt for something a bit more subtle like minimal techno, ambient, or indie pop rock. The same is true for the opposite scenario; if you are playing at a large capacity dance club you will need some serious dance tunes to keep the crowd interested.
Knowing where you are, who your audience is, and selecting music appropriately is a basic requirement for any DJ. The very best DJ’s go a step further and can read their audience throughout the night and subtly shift the mood of the music to control the vibe of the entire room.
With the myriad of equipment available today there are many different styles of DJing. The ‘truest’ form (or at least the one that resembles the original style of DJing) is with two turntables and a mixer. There are three main music formats that DJs use; vinyl, CDs, and digital files. Each music medium has it’s own range of equipment and most DJ’s employ a combination of mediums and equipment. For instance, the advent of ‘virtual vinyl’ has allowed DJs to exclusively use digital formats on equipment designed for vinyl records.
With each type of music medium, equipment, and musical style there are several different ways that a DJ can achieve his or her goal. Over the next few articles we will go over more of the basics and expand your knowledge as a new DJ.
Is there anything that you would like us to talk about? Let us know in the comments section!