If you’re just starting out down the road of DJ'ing and you're looking learn how to DJ…
…I am full of envy! I really am!
Learning how to DJ is one of the best things I've ever done.
And needless to say, having some DJ Skills has been the catalyst to an endless number of unbelievably great nights out.
If you’ve got the tunes and the skills, you decide when the night ends.
Learn How To DJ
This post is a simple ‘everything you always wanted to know about DJ'ing, but were too afraid to ask, beginners guide’.
It doesn’t matter what your ultimate goals are…
- Bedroom DJ
- House party DJ
- Bar DJ
- Club DJ
- Superstar DJ/Producer earning $100k a set
You’re going to need to get your basic skills and understanding sorted before achieving even level one above.
What Does a DJ Actually Do?
Don’t they just play other people’s music?
We’ll I guess that is all some DJ’s do…the crap ones. But you’re not going to be a crap DJ are you young Skywalker?
You’re going to be an awesome DJ.
You’re going to spend hundreds of hours hunting down amazing music;
…you’re going to lovingly and seamlessly mix it all together through your sets for the delight of other music lovers.
That’s what a great DJ does.
And these are the essential DJ skills they bring when doing it…
The Essential DJ Skills
All the technical skills you need to learn how to DJ have pretty much the same aim:
To enable you to create seamless, beautiful mixes between records.
Mixing one record skilfully with the next can be broken down into just five steps.
Here are what we reckon to be the essential 5 key skills to learn, for anyone looking to answer the question “how to DJ”:
- Phrasing and Phasing
- Sound Control
Let’s look at these essential DJ skills one-by-one:
Getting two records to play at the same speed, or ‘tempo’ to use proper DJ language.
When done properly you’ll have two perfectly synchronised tracks with the rhythms playing on top of each other.
Some people will tell you that this skill is no longer needed because technology can now do your beatmatching for you.
Not in my book!
If you want to learn how to DJ properly, and want to call yourself a DJ, you have to be able to pull this skill off.
If you’re offered the chance to DJ out, you shouldn’t have to check that the DJ kit available has a sync function before being able to accept the gig. That would be crazy embarrassing.
Learning to beatmatch will tune your ears into hearing exactly what's going on in a record, you'll be a much better and more confident DJ for it.
…you’ll never be able to DJ using vinyl on a set of Technics 1210’s if you don’t learn to beatmatch manually. And that would be too sad for anyone who loves music and the art of DJ’ing.
If the thought of that is not enough to bring tears to your eyes, well I don't know, you must have a cold, cold heart.
A records tempo is measured in beats-per-minute (BPM);
Most records have a consistent tempo throughout (especially dance music);
Each music genre tends to have a standard BPM rate (but you’ll rarely find two records with an exact match, even within the same genre);
DJs adjust the tempo of records using pitch controls on their decks, until the BPM’s match;
How To Learn:
Pick two records of the same genre (let’s not try mixing deep house with drum & bass just yet…or ever hopefully) and try to make sure they're records with crisp, punchy drum-beats and very little else going on;
Start playing record one out of your speakers and have your second record in your headphones (one headphone cup over one ear and the other headphone cup flipped up so you can hear your speakers);
Find the first beat on your second record and start moving it back and forth in time with the beat of record one;
Release your second record so that the first beat is in time with the beat of record one;
Now, unless both records are already perfectly beatmatched, you’ll notice them starting to drift apart, by listening to the drum-beats, try and tell which record is playing faster;
Adjust the pitch controls on your decks until the BPM of both records is synchronised and they are playing at exactly the same tempo.
Your two records are now beatmatched!
Except they’re not!..
…because the final two steps above are seriously hard to learn and you’re going to have to practice loads to get the knack.
Just keeping practising, over and over. Once you can do it, you’ll always, always be able to do it.
And it’s a damn cool thing to be able to do!
The next critical skill when learning how to DJ…
Phrasing And Phasing
Can you count to four?
Can you count to sixteen?
Can you count to thirty-two?
Great, you’re going to be just fine with this.
Phrasing is about understanding the structure of the music you are working with so that you can mix records together at places that make the most musical sense…
…and therefore maximise the chances of your mixes sounding great.
DJ'ing was our training and it still is. Learning the structure of songs, the bars, the breaks, is all through DJ'ing.Masters At Work
Think of phrasing like this:
You’re playing record one to the crowd (or maybe the four walls of your bedroom)…
…you’re cueing up record two in your headphones, about to start beat-matching…
…here’s the important bit:
Both these records should obey the same musical rules…
…your mixes should never break up a record’s phrases.
Music is produced in beats, bars and phrases.
Pretty much all dance music, hip-hop and funk is produced to a 4/4 beat.
…4 beats in a bar…
…and 4 bars in a phrase.
As a record progresses, new instruments/sounds/elements are generally introduced at the start of a new four-bar phrase.
For great sounding mixes you should line up records’ phrases, not just their beats.
How To Learn:
From now on, whenever you listen to music, start hearing it in beats, bars and phrases. Count the music you hear in four-bar phrases and pairs of four-bar phrases
Listen to how after every four bars there’s some kind of musical marker, and after every pair of four-bar phrases (that’s thirty two beats) there’s a more significant marker.
Notice how when new elements are introduced, or taken away, it will be immediately after one of these markers.
Listening to music like this will soon get you understanding the structure of music better.
And you’ll start noticing how if you were to cue up a record to mix in, you’d need to make sure that your mix drops in at the start of a new four-bar phrase of both the incoming and outgoing record
Preferably you’ll mix in at the start of a pair of four-bar phrases and really nail a great sounding mix.
Your incoming record should be cued up so its first beat is the start of a phrase.
You then start the mix at the start of a phrase on the outgoing record.
Phasing is simply the act of making sure that the beats of both records are actually playing on top of each other.
You may have dropped in your incoming record but not quite landed the beats perfectly over the top of the outgoing record.
To save having to cue your record up again, you can just give it either a little nudge forward, or a slight dab to bring it back until the beats are properly lined up and playing nicely together.
Depending on the kit that you're DJ’ing with, you can do this by either physically guiding the record, or by using a jog wheel or pitch-bend button.
A lot of aspiring DJ's give this a bit of a body swerve when they're first learning how to DJ. But that doesn't mean you should!
Music is made up of different frequencies:
Treble: 3,000 to 20,000Hz
Midrange: 250 to 3,000Hz
Bass: 20 to 250Hz
EQ’ing is pretty much about these three things:
- Getting the best sound: The first thing you should do with your EQ controls, is set them up to get the best sound from the space you are in.
- Cleaning up mixes: Sometimes you’ll want to EQ to balance incoming and outgoing records so that potential clashes are smoothed out and/or distortion is avoided.
- Adding drama: A bit of tweaking and twiddling with the EQ controls can exaggerate certain elements of a record, adding extra tension and drama: – cut the mids and bass to add some anxiousness — cut the mids and treble for dark and ominous
But take it easy out there!
Excessive EQ’ing is bad, really bad.
Try and remember that if you like a record, and it’s well produced and mastered, very little fiddling about with the EQ controls should be needed.
A bit of sound quality control and a bit of extra tension and drama now and again, that’s all you should need.
While we're on the subject of sound quality control, next up in this ‘how to dj' list…
Take care of your sound signal’s journey through your sound system…
…and it will take care of you.
If you spend a bit of time learning about and understanding the standard DJ sound system, it will pay off in the sound quality of your sets…
…and you won’t be that DJ who just keeps on relentlessly cranking everything up.
Stay out of the red!
I don’t care if it’s not sounding loud enough for your liking, the red is not the place you find quality sound…
…it’s where you find sound distortion, and that’s all.
There are a few points where you can adjust the sound signal in a standard DJ set up:
- Channel gain control
- Master control
Try turning some of these down a little so that each part of your system can properly understand the signal coming into it from the previous part.
Do this and you’ll find the quality of your sound improving pretty dramatically.
It will actually seem louder because it will be crisp, punchy and clear, rather than muddy, flappy and distorted.
Be aware that DJ software tends to have its own gain structure. Read up on the info supplied with your software so that you can make sure your levels are set correctly.
Sequencing (the order you play your records in)
Choosing the right record for the right time.
An essential skill of any great DJ.
And an art…not a science.
Every record you own has a mood, an energy level, an emotion.
Every record you own will bring about a different reaction in people.
It’s your job as a great DJ to know what mood, energy level, emotion each and everyone of your records has…
…and what reactions they each bring out in people.
Please don't ever try and pre-plan your DJ sets exactly. It will be tempting to, the first time you ever DJ out.
But resist the temptation, a pre-planned set will always sound like a pre-planned set, and it will be boring for both you and everyone else.
Make all your DJ sets to measure.
That may sound like it will be hard to do at first, but given time, you'll hear the record playing, look at your crowd, and you'll know exactly what record to pick next.
How To DJ – Rounding It Up
If you love music, and you love people, you should absolutely learn to DJ.
And if you want to develop really deep DJ'ing skills, start building them on the rock solid foundations of learning to DJ using vinyl and beat-matching by ear.
I bang on about this a lot, but this is why…
…as your DJ career blossoms, there will be times when you show up at a venue you've never played before, only to be shocked by how rubbish their DJ kit and system is.
If you've got a depth of knowledge and a well tuned ear, you'll get through it, because you'll know how to get the best sound out of the system and you'll know how to maximise your chances of pulling off great mixes…even on pretty dodgy kit.
I really hope you've enjoyed reading this ‘How To DJ' guide and I really hope you've got some value from it. If so, why not take a read of another of my DJ guides for beginners before you go?
Enjoy your learning to DJ journey, I have no doubt that you'll fall in love with it as soon as you get started.
Best of luck.
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