With the rise of electronic dance music in the past few years, DJing has never been hotter. Follow MusicMelter’s guide below, and you’ll have all the knowledge you need to keep the crowd grooving.
What Does DJing Involve?
A DJ’s job is to keep the music danceable. Many songs with great beats taper off at the end, which can lead to awkward pauses where everyone stops moving—unless the songs are mixed, that is. Mixing is the process of blending one track into another. A good DJ can do this seamlessly, but it does take some practice.
Mixing Internally vs. Mixing Externally
There are many benefits to mixing internally, or mixing using only software, without the help of any external equipment. For one, the practice is beginner-friendly (e.g. it’s easier to layer multiple tracks), and also allows users to record mixes ahead of time. On the other hand, DJs who perform live often prefer to mix externally, since this allows for more flexibility and generally produces a better quality output.
What Kind of Software Do I Need?
In the past, DJs relied on turntables and CD players to mix tracks. Today, this equipment is no longer necessary, as advances in digital technology have produced sophisticated software that performs the same functions. With this in mind, the first thing every DJ needs to know is the software options available, so that you are able to choose a program that suits your DJing needs and skill level.
Below are some examples of popular, well-reviewed DJing software:
DJ ProDecks (http://www.djprodecks.com/index.html) is 100% free. It is designed for keyboard control, so while it may be good for practicing at home, this program isn’t ideal for live performance.
Virtual DJ (http://www.virtualdj.com/download/index.html) can also be downloaded for free, and includes versions for both Windows and Mac operating systems. The free version is pretty comprehensive, and supports the use of multiple decks or input channels; however, more experienced users may want to upgrade to a paid version of the program, which delivers additional features such as video output.
Mixxx can also be downloaded free of charge (http://www.mixxx.org/download/), with versions that support Windows, Mac, and Linux. The program has hundreds of features, including a high performance music library for organizing tracks, and the ability to record or broadcast your sets live over the Internet. Because of the wide range of features it offers at no cost, Mixxx is many reviewers’ number one choice for DJ software.
Elements of DJing
The software described above will give you a large amount of control over various aspects or elements of the music you’re mixing. We’ve broken these down for you below:
If your main goal is to keep the crowd dancing, maintaining a steady, energetic beat is crucial. Prior to the invention of beatmatching (the process of synchronizing the beats of two different songs) in the late 1960s, the natural response of dancers was to leave the dance floor when songs drew to a close. This of course made it hard for clubs and music venues to hold the attention of their audiences.
Beatmatching offered a solution to this problem, as DJs began to transition from one song to the next without waiting for the first track to wind down.
Sometimes referred to as “timestretching”, beatmatching involves manipulating the tempo and phase of songs so that they blend together. Tempo describes the speed of a song, while phase refers to the song’s beat. When beatmatching, the DJ adjusts the phase and tempo of two songs (using either controllers built into the software, or manually using external controllers) until they’re equal.
In the past, successful beatmatching required quick fingers and a trained ear. Fortunately, the development of high-tech (and often free!) digital software has made this far easier in recent years.
Tempo can be manipulated using a tool known as a pitch fader (included in most DJing software), which allows users to either speed up or slow down a track. You can adjust the phase by keeping an eye on the software’s phase meter, and simultaneously using DJ hardware such as a jog wheel (a moveable disk that looks like a record or disk) or your software’s pitch bend button to achieve the desired effect.
Phrasing is mixing at a point in the songs that makes sense from musical perspective. Most of the songs DJs mix are in 4/4 time, which means that there are 4 beats per bar (a “section” of music in a song). Usually major changes in a song occurs every 8 bars (e.g. shifting from the verse to the chorus), which also happens to be a great place to bring in another track.
While mixing, you will have to remain aware of the track’s time by counting, so that it sounds natural when you layer another song on top of it. This ensures you don’t add a new track (starting on the first beat) while the original song is on the second, third, or fourth beat of a bar—this will make for a choppy transition, causing the mix to play out of sync.
Most types of DJ software give the user control over several aspects or types of volume: signal volume, channel volume, and output volume. The diagram below depicts how sound is manipulated from the source to achieve the desired output, which is more or less the same process for both internal and external mixing. The knob labeled “3” is the signal volume, or the volume coming from the musical source.
Typically, you want the signal volumes of your inputs to be the same. You’re then able to adjust channel volume using something called a line fader (labeled “6”), which lets you change the volume of the channel going into the main output. Finally, you also have the option to control the output volume (labeled “11”).
When adjusting volume at any of the points described above, remember to keep an eye on the meters. Generally, you should aim to stay within the green range, avoiding the red, which distorts the output.
Equalizing, also known as EQing, is the process of adjusting the frequencies (the pitch of the song—or how high or low the song sounds when it reaches our ears) of two tracks so that they fuse together in a complementary way. Without EQing, chances are your mixes will just sound like noise.
Lower frequencies sound quieter, so generally when music is recorded, frequencies in the low end are artificially enhanced so that we can hear them. When we layer two songs with the same frequency on top of each other, the volume of that frequency rises, and the sound is distorted. This happens because there is only so much “space” within the range of sounds that our ears are able to hear (think of a pot boiling over—this is something you want to steer clear of!).
The equalizing tool available in most DJ software removes small sections of the frequencies of your mixes, allowing you to avoid this problem altogether. In addition to preventing unwanted distortion, EQing gives your mix an overall clearer sound, so that your listeners are able to pick out individual components of the tracks.
DJ Equipment (Hardware)
While a small minority stick to spinning records and CDs, most DJs nowadays rely on software and electronic hardware for mixing. Many get by using software alone, but you have increased control over mixing by bringing in some key pieces of hardware.
An all-in-one controller is the best bet for beginners, because they are easy to master and often designed to complement popular software.
The Denon DJ MC6000MK2 all-in-one controller
(image source: http://www.djbooth.net/index/dj-equipment/reviews/C204)
Experienced DJs looking to amp up their performance may want to invest in modular controllers, which are usually composed of a combination of smaller controllers with unique features. If you do choose the modular route, it’s important to ensure you have the tools you need to control all the different elements of mixes described above. One large advantage of this setup, however, is that you can add new pieces incrementally to reflect your evolving skills and tastes.
DJ using a modular controller
(image source: http://djtechtools.com/2012/08/06/what-controller-is-right-for-you-all-in-one-vs-modular-dj-set-ups/)
DJ Tutorial Videos
Intro to DJing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4J_zTpsXnM0
Mixing tracks with different tempos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JxnO-_ieifk
Effects techniques for digital DJs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KzYm6mKB11g