How to DJ
If you want to learn how to DJ or you are already a DJ that wants to take your career to the next level this article is for you. If you learn these essential skills you will know how to pack the dance floor, mix flawlessly, and get the best DJ gigs. The 7 essential skills of learning how to DJ are:
1) What DJ Gear to Use
2) What DJ Software to Use
3) How to Beatmatch
4) How to Mix Smoothly
5) What Songs to Play and Where to Find Them
6) How to Structure Your DJ Set
7) How to Get DJ Gigs
8) How to Make a Living DJ’ing and Become Famous
What DJ Gear to Use
What DJ gear you use does matter despite what some people will tell you. Your DJ gear will effect everything about your DJ’ing. How good the music quality will be, how smoothly you will be able to mix, how fast you will be able to mix, what fx you will be able to use, and what places you will be able to perform in. If you want to become a professional nightclub DJ you need professional DJ gear. If you want to DJ in your bedroom beginner gear will do. If you want to play small events like weddings you will likely want something in-between. If you haven’t DJ’d much before it makes no sense to drop $10,000 on pro DJ gear. I highly recommend renting or buying beginner DJ gear.
Beginner DJ Gear
The benefits of beginner DJ gear is that’s affordable and portable. The cons of beginner DJ gear are that it often can’t be used in nightclubs; it’s not as durable; it’s sound quality is inferior, and it has less features than pro gear. Any all in one controller in the $200 – $1,800 range I would consider beginner DJ gear.
There are plenty of beginner DJ controllers that will work great to learn the basics. I’d recommend something like the DDJ-WEGO4-K or the DDJ-SR2. If you want to go a bit higher end of the beginner gear the DDJ-1000SRT is also pretty awesome. The DDJ-1000SRT would be great for weddings, small events, or even borderline some nightclubs and lounges. These are all Pioneer products which I’d recommend as they are well made and work great with Serato Pro DJ. There are other options as well put out by Denon and Traktor but often I have found these controllers to have cheaper build quality and not be as compatible with some DJ software.
If you are very serious about being a DJ, however, you should know that most beginner DJ gear you can’t use in nightclubs. Often beginner gear will lack a booth out needed for monitors or an XLR out needed for a professional sound systems. I remember I tried to use a controller once in a nightclub and the bass was so loud it moved the platters without me even touching them. This made it sound like I was scratching when I wasn’t even touching the controller! Nothing is worse than getting to a gig and realizing you have noob gear that doesn’t even work on the sound system.
Professional DJ Gear
The pro’s to professional DJ gear is that it will sound amazing, have better features, be more durable and you can use it in clubs. The cons to professional gear is that it is expensive costing easily $6,000 – $10,000 for a full setup. It’s also harder to carry around due to its size and weight. Whether it’s Skrillex, Steve Aoki, Tiesto or some other professional DJ they almost all use almost exactly the same gear. It should also be noted that virtually no professional DJ will use a controller.
Professional DJ gear can be divided into two main components the turntables (or CDJ’s) and the mixer. Almost every professionally DJ will use either a Pioneer 900 mixer, a Pioneer DJM-S9 mixer or a Rane Seventy-Two mixer. Sometimes the gear won’t be the newest model of these versions but usually one of these mixers. All of these mixers are amazing! The most used is the Pioneer 900 mixer. This is the favorite among electronic DJ’s by far because of it’s amazing FX, four channels, and other features. If you are into mixing different genres or like to scratch, however, the Pioneer DJM-S9 mixer or a Rane Seventy-Two mixer are likely to be more up your alley. There are other variations of mixers you will see being used but if it’s a professional DJ 99% of the time the mixer will be one of these.
As far as CDJ’s or turntables go there really is only two main ones that are used. The Pioneer CDJ2000s or the Technics 1200s turntable. Pioneer did release a newer version of Technics called the PLX-1000 and the PLX-500 but I have yet to see too many DJ’s using them. Most scratch DJ’s will still use old Technics 1200s even though they are no longer in production. They simply have an awesome feel to them when scratching them and sound much better when using them to scratch.
What DJ Software to Use
Once you have DJ gear you will want to get DJ software. The main DJ software’s are Serato DJ Pro, or Serato DJ Lite, rekordbox, and Traktor DJ. What software you choose really depends on your personal preference and what is compatible with your mixer, turntables or CDJ’s. Serato DJ Lite is free but the other types of software are around $100 or $10 a month.
If you are a complete beginner Serato DJ Lite will do fine to start with but you will eventually want to upgrade to one of the other kinds of software as soon as it’s features are fairly limited. For example you can’t find out what key the song is in with Serato DJ Lite or record your mixes. Both of these functions are important to have if you want to be good at DJ’ing.
Professional DJ’s will use Serato DJ Pro, Tracktor DJ, or rekordbox. They will all get the job done, however, there are a few notable differences. Rekordbox is better suited for people who don’t want to play with a laptop and just want to play with CJD’s. It allows you to organize tracks and your set to put on a USB to then bring to your gig. I have noticed a lot of producers and electronic music DJ’s like rekordbox because they like “getting into the mix more” by not using a laptop. Scratch and club DJ’s, on the other hand, seem to prefer Serato DJ Pro. I have used it for years and it’s extremely easy to use, reliable, and has all the features you need as a DJ. Traktor I have heard has good FX and arguably better sound quality however I very rarely see it used in big clubs.
If you are trying to decide on software I’d recommend you trying out the different kinds and see which one you like best. I’d also recommend thinking about where you will be playing as many places don’t have CDJ’s that rekordbox will work with, or mixers that will work with Serato DJ Pro. I have found it best to have my own mixer that works with my software that I bring to all my gigs. That way you avoid any surprises.
How to Beatmatch
To keep the energy up and the dancefloor full you have to be able seamlessly go from one song to another. That is where beatmatching comes in. Beatmatching is when you synchronize the tempos of (two recordings) to enable a smooth transition between them in a set of uninterrupted music. Visually this is what beatmatching looks like.
Beatmatching used to be an very hard skill to master but now with the ability to easily see how many beats per minutes songs are and even visually see the wave forms of music it is no longer very difficult. This is best illustrated in the video included below.
How to Mix Smoothly
Beatmatching is essential in learning how to DJ but in order to mix smoothly you must also master how to use: volume, gain, key signatures, and using the EQ. Mixing smoothly will allow you to not just keep the energy up in the club but also make your mixes sound good. By mastering the use of the EQ you will be able to make two songs playing together sound good or more importantly not sound bad.
Volume and Gain
You have to master volume and gain or there will huge drops and spikes in volume when you are DJ’ing. This will kill the energy and sounds bad. Both gain and volume effect the sound volume coming out of the speakers but they are a little different. If you don’t adjust these levels correctly one song will sound too loud or to quiet and the mix will not be smooth. The difference between volume and gain, simply put, is that gain is the amount of signal you are letting into the mixer while volume is the amount of volume you are letting out into the speakers. If your gain is really low you won’t have as much volume to work with and you may negatively impact the sound quality. If the gain is too high the sound could distort and the volume could be too loud.
The key as a DJ is to manually adjust the gain and volume for every track. While there are exceptions to the rule generally you want the gain to be as high as possible while not allowing it to go in the red. The goal is to have the volume of both tracks you are mixing to be similar and the sound quality to be good. There is a lot to doing this properly so we recommend you signing up to our online DJ School if you really want to master it. Here is a sample video from our school.
What musical key the songs are in you are trying to mix together can have big impact on how good the mix sounds. I used to get really hung up on always having the perfect mix and having every transition in key. This can be ok if you are putting together a mix to upload online for example but if you are playing a live DJ gig that is very different. If you are playing live DJ gig you need to be able to read the room and switch tracks quickly regardless of the key. Only playing songs that are in key will drastically limit your ability as a live DJ and put you at a huge disadvantage. Ideally you know how to mix in key and mix songs that aren’t in key. Luckily modern DJ software makes mixing in key fairly easy so you can still pull it off sometimes doing live DJ gigs.
The EQ of your mix is the bass, mids, and highs which you can adjust on your mixer. You have to master how to use the Eq on your mixer to blend two songs together smoothly. For example, it’s very common to bring the bass down on the song you are mixing out of the mix while bring the volume up on the song you are mixing in. This way you can smoothly transition from one bass line to another. Another good use of the Eq is to remove clashing sounds. For example, if the mids are clashing in the song you are mixing in simply lower the mids on that track until you have mixed out of the the other track. There is a lot you can do with your Eq to enhance the smoothness and quality of your mix. I recommend experimenting at home with it a lot to fully master it.
What Songs to Play and Where to Find Them
What songs you play when you are DJ’ing is perhaps the most important thing about DJ’ing. While mixing skills matter what songs you play and when you play them account for around 80% of how good you are at DJ’ing. It doesn’t matter if you are a master at scratching if you pick the wrong songs your dance floor will be empty and nobody will want to book you.
Finding the right songs for your set really boils down research, preparation and experience. Let’s say you want to play at a nightclub. You need to do your research on what kind of crowd goes there. What type of music do they currently play there. You need to actually go there multiple times before you spin. Listen to the music and take notes on the exact songs, genres, crowd, and when people come and leave the club. I’m not saying you should copy everything the other DJ’s are doing but you should have a good idea of what generally works there and what doesn’t. After that you need listen and download loads of music that you think would work and suites type of sound you are going for.
You want to go to sites like Beatport, DJ City, Juno, Soundcloud, Youtube or even Apple Music to find songs you want to play. You will spend a fair amount of time doing this especially if you are a beginner. You can easily put 10 to 20 hours into preparing a two hour set if you are a beginner. You want to find at a bare minimum approximately 20 – 30 songs per hour you are going to play. Ideally if it’s a live gig you find around double or triple that to be safe. That makes room for songs that end up not working well or end up being really hard to mix into your set. It also leaves room for you to have slightly different styles of tracks ready in case the crowd reacts better to a certain style.
Once you have more experience you will know what songs typically work well with certain crowds and which ones don’t. If you know what you are doing you will also have all your music sorted into crates by at the very least genre and bpm. Even experienced DJ’s spend hours and hours preparing DJ sets, however, the more experience you have the easier it will be for you to DJ on the fly with very little preparation and still pack the floor.
How to Structure Your DJ Set
When you play certain songs, and not others, is how your DJ set is structured. Not structuring your DJ set correctly is one of the biggest mistakes I see new DJ’s make. You want to time everything when it comes to structuring your DJ set. You want to know when the club will be dead, when it will be the busiest, and when it will start to slow down. One of the biggest mistakes I see rookie DJ’s make all the time is playing all the hottest songs before anyone is even in the nightclub! You want to save the biggest hits, and the highest energy tracks for peak hours. Generally you want to play the less known and lower energy songs at the beginning of the night. Once the room is full, or as full as it’s going to get, you want to start playing high energy hits. Then once people start to wind down and think about going home you generally want to play lower energy songs, but ideally songs that are still recognizable or still going to make them want to stay.
Most professional DJ’s will prepare a set to the minute before they even go into a nightclub and have the set list in their software. I’m not saying you need to stick to it exactly but it sure helps to have! These are the fundamentals of how to structure your DJ set. Remember the better you get at DJ’ing the more you can break the rules. There is a lot more to know about when to play what songs which we teach at our online DJ School Spin Academy.
How to Get DJ Gigs
Getting DJ gigs is hard! I played in dumpy nightclubs and did lights for over two years before getting good DJ gigs. You have to pay your dues at first but there are some tricks that can drastically speed up getting the best gigs. The first is to get your foot in the door anyway possible. If you are a beginner DJ take any job you can at the places you want to play. Even if it’s washing dishes, doing the lights, bartending or volunteering. It doesn’t matter do it. The key is you have to develop relationships with the club owners and promoters or they are never going to let you on stage. If you can’t get a job at the places you want to play make sure to go their every week and network with the people running the show. Spend money, tell them how much you like their club, and let them get to know you.
After you have some connections and they get to know you a little bit then you can start saying how much you would love to come DJ for them. Make sure everyone knows you love DJ’ing and are keen to play. You can offer to open for DJ’s or play on slow nights. If you are new to DJ’ing the chances of them offering you the best nights are extremely low. You have to work your way up and prove yourself. And don’t let your ego get the best of you. You have to always have a good attitude and be humble and hungry.
Another tip is while demo mixes can matter they don’t matter that much and chances are the club owner isn’t going to listen to yours. I remember working at busy clubs and seeing piles and piles of demo cds that the club owner just threw in the garbage. Build relationships, practice your craft religiously, and keep putting yourself out there and eventually you will get a gig.
How to Make a Living DJ'ing and Become Famous
Making a living DJ’ing is hard but you can do it! First of all I’d like to dispel any of the nonsense that you can’t make a living off of DJ’ing. Having done it for over 10 years I know it’s possible. What very few people know is you can make a great living doing it and you don’t have to be famous either. I know tons of Dj’s that you have probably never heard of that make $300 – $2,000 a night Dj’ing and play multiple times per week. And if you are a famous DJ like Tiesto you can get paid in the hundreds of thousands a night to play!
If you are just starting out as a DJ and you want to make it your full time job you have to treat it that way. You have to practice at least a couple times a week, research music at least a few hours a week, and go out and play gigs as much as possible. Studying and or being mentored by other DJ’s is also one of the best ways to get better. Once you are half decent you got to get some residency gigs and or start playing festivals. It’s usually much easier and more stable to get residency when you are starting out then to play big festivals so that’s probably where I’d start. If you can land 2-3 good residency nights you will likely be able to pay all your bills and then some from DJ’ing. From there you will want to look toward playing big festivals and producing your own music.
If making a living Dj’ing is hard becoming a famous DJ / producer is extremely hard. All of the most famous DJ’s today are famous producers first, and DJ’s second. To become a really good producer it requires probably 10x the effort it does to become a good DJ. You have to master every aspect of making a track from bass to vocals to the software you have to use. And on top of that you have to constantly be marketing yourself online, to record companies, promoters and so on… It’s a very serious time commitment. But if you love doing it and are willing to put in the work it is definitely possible. Here is a link to our online DJ School Spin Academy.