Do Digital DJs Even Need Headphones Any More?

Last updated 4 October, 2017



(Or, the dark art of waveriding…)

Is it time to hang up the headphones for good?

Some DJs have been spotted in the wild playing sets without headphones on, causing a right uproar among the purists. There’s whispering talk that they’ve been locked in their bedrooms, practising the dark art of “waveriding”.

It’s time to come clean. Is that you? Are you a “waverider”? Have you read this far and suddenly decided you want to be one? Do you not have the faintest idea what I’m talking about?

What the hell is “waveriding”?
Waveriding is not a cool term for surfing, and is not something you do at the football when the game is boring.

Instead, it refers to the dark art of DJing by sight alone, using the waveforms as displayed by some modern DJ software to ensure the tunes you are mixing are “on beat”.

Not to be confused with auto-syncing (where the software actually locks the tunes for you and you never have to do anything to keep them rock solid on the beat), waveriding is nonetheless seen as one of the dark arts by DJ purists who think that unless you’re hunched with one ear next to the monitor speaker and your headphones cupped over the other ear, you’re simply not a real DJ.

So how does one do it? Is all waveriding the same? And can you do it too much? I think it’s time we investigated how to waveride with today’s DJ software, and got all of this out into the open.

1. The basic waveride (using Virtual DJ)
To get you started in the dark art of waveriding, let’s use as an example Virtual DJ, as this software has the first important characteristic for successful waveriding – track waveforms that run together or parallel. Let’s see what I’m talking about.

This is the top half of the Virtual DJ screen with two house tracks playing together (click on the image to enlarge it):

Digital DJing - waveriding with Virtual DJ
Two tracks slightly out of time in Virtual DJ.

Note that their BPM (beats per minute, or pitch, or speed) is pretty much set the same – 124 more or less. (Most DJ software will do this for you if you ask it nicely when you load a new track, or you may have to do it before you actually play your set.)

What we are looking at here is two tracks playing together. Virtual DJ shows them as a red waveform and a blue waveform across the top of the screen, so you can tell them apart. The vertical peaks are the “thud – thud – thud” of the kick drums, the main beat of the tracks.

The observant among you will have noticed that these two tracks don’t have their vertical peaks, or kick drums, in the same place – one is lagging slightly behind the other. This would sound like the classic DJ “galloping train” bad mix – where you hear a “thud-thud, thud-thud, thud-thud” as the drums sound, both tracks being a fraction of a second apart instead of together.

If this was a DJ mixing in a real situation, with both tracks playing through the speakers together, he would hopefully hear instantly and correct the situation, by nudging the track that is behind forward a bit, or nudging the one that is in front back a bit. Now the kick drums, or vertical peaks, would line up, and happily the sound would be a crisp, clear “thud – thud – thud” as the beats are properly aligned. The display would now look like this (again, click to enlarge):

Digital DJing - waveriding with Virtual DJ, all in sync
After a bit of waveriding, the beats are in time and the mix will sound great.

Now, in the old days of vinyl and CD mixing, this was all done by ear. But DJ software lets you do it by sight too. For instance, I could look at the display in the first picture above, and see that the “red” track (the right-hand deck) is running slightly behind the “blue” track (the left-hand deck), and so give it a little nudge forward without actually checking on the headphones. Indeed, a deaf person could do it! This is what we mean by “waveriding” – “riding” the waves on the screen instead of doing it aurally through headphones or by listening to the mix the crowd is hearing.

In reality, what tends to happen is you’ll hear the tracks slipping out of time, quickly glance at the waveform to see which way to correct, and give it a quick nudge, instinctively continuing to listen to check all sounds good after the correction.

(By the way, one of the reasons there IS still skill here is that all tracks are different, and sometimes the “right” sound might actually be with the waveforms showing not totally synchronised on the screen. You still have to listen.)

Now thinking on, imagine there’s a quiet part of the track coming up. You’ll see that too, because the main thudding drums (the vertical peaks in Virtual DJ) will not be there. You’ll be able to spot this just before it happens (remember the waveforms are moving from right to left so you can see what’s coming), and if you’re in the middle of mixing two tracks, that may indicate a good time to drop from one to the other. Again, this can undeniably be done without listening.

2. An advanced waveride (using Serato ITCH)
Many people love Serato ITCH because of its multi-coloured waveforms, and that nonetheless at the same it still retains some of the purist edge of old skool vinyl DJing. You see, with ITCH 1.5 (the current version), there’s no “lock” that lets you lock two tunes together so they never drift apart beat-wise. You can get the software to make their BPMs similar (so they’re going at pretty much the same speed), but as they inevitably drift apart over time, you have to use your headphones to monitor them, or alternatively “waveride”, them to keep them together.

Combined with the quality jogwheels on dedicated controllers like the Vestax Serato ITCH ones, this gives a nice, fluid feel when DJing that’s similar to using vinyl or CDs. However, because of those wonderful multi-coloured waveforms (and other tools provided by Serato ITCH), there’s a lot of potential waveriding goodness to enjoy too. Let’s have a look, shall we?

Digital DJing - Waveriding with Serato ITCH, out of sync
Waveriding with Serato ITCH – note the two tracks are out of time.

OK, so that’s the same two tracks as before. You’ll see that Serato ITCH displays the waveforms parallel, not overlaid. It’s even clearer to see what’s going on.

Again, you’ll notice that these two tracks are plainly out of sync, the bottom waveform being behind the top one. Let’s nudge one of the tracks to get them in time, shall we?

Digital DJing - Waveriding with Serato ITCH, out of sync.
After a bit of waveriding with Serato ITCH, they’re now perfectly in time.

That’s better! This is now as good a mix as the one we showed you above in Virtual DJ. However, Serato ITCH is actually showing us a lot more here. Look at the “shape” of the waveforms. To start with the kick drums are a different “shape”, and will sound different. Next, the top track has other stuff going on between the kick drums, whereas the bottom track is plainly just a “thud – thud – thud”. Serato ITCH, because it has these parallel waveforms, lets you “read” the tracks more visually than Virtual DJ. Knowing one track is a “thud – thud – thud” and the other is a “thud – t-t-ts – thud – t-t-ts” or something similar helps you with adjusting the bass, middle and treble on the mix to keep things sounding sweet.

And there’s more. As mentioned, the displays are multi-coloured, lower frequencies being reddish, higher ones the green-yellow in this instance. That’s what tells me (in the top track, for example) that the bits between the main (red) drums are a different, higher sound (a snare sound or cymbal “tsss”). Good DJs learn to “read” the tracks by this information, adjusting EQ etc instinctively, and don’t have to listen as intently. Like it or not, they’re falling for the dark art of waveriding. They might even not use the headphones and still manage to mix perfectly!

Those samples are from the very start of both tracks – the intros that are just drums. Let’s roll the tracks on a bit and look at some more involved music information:

Advanced Digital DJ waveriding in Serato ITCH
Advanced waveriding in Serato ITCH. Still no headphones needed?

Here, the top waveform is showing that this track is in the middle of a smooth, midrange section that’s about to kick right in with a thumping drum – it’s a second or two away from probably the peak of the whole tune. The bottom track, or the one on the right-hand deck, is different: It’s more subdued (there’s less going on in the waveform) and the drum is about to stop, leading in to a quiet break.

Happily, they’re both perfectly aligned, so there’s room for a good DJ to be messing with the EQ, filters, cutting from one to the other (this could be a good place to do just that) and generally staying on top of his mix and his game.

Here, waveriding is adding to the music information available to the DJ. He still has to use his ears, but he’s getting a confirmation of what’s about to happen on the track visually.

(In Serato ITCH there are other visual aids, which are the two smaller waveforms in the middle of these screenshots, but we’ll leave those to another time).

3. Auto-syncing, and just a bit of waveriding (using Traktor)
Traktor users tend to work slightly differently to those of the former two programs. You can work out the BPMs and “beat grid” songs (overlaying where the beats happen, like graph paper) so it always knows they’re in time and where their first beats are, and from here on in they will never drift apart. So there’s little need to sync by ear or to waveride in the same way as you would with Virtual DJ or Serato ITCH. Just as well; the waveforms aren’t parallel or overlaid. Each “deck” has its own module, separate from the other:

Traktor - It's waveriding Jim, but not as we know it
Traktor – It’s waveriding Jim, but not as we know it.

You can still see to a certain extent what’s coming in the tracks, but there are no colours to show you frequencies so no advanced waveriding at all.

But wait! Assuming your tracks haven’t been “beat gridded” and Traktor is just working out the BPMs on the fly (it can do this, but like the other programs, it won’t know for sure the tracks are lined up) there is a feature called the “phase meter” which… you can waveride with. It’s not the same, but it’s undeniably waveriding:

Waveriding in Traktor Pro
Waveriding in Traktor Pro

Look above the right-hand waveform in the screenshot. See the horizontal yellow bar and the cursor clicking on the left arrow? The bar is indicating that this track is “out of phase” (ie out of time) with the track to the left; Traktor has attempted to get the two tracks to the right BPM, but as it hasn’t been told for sure where the beats all go, and these tracks aren’t “beat gridded” together, they need to be jogged together.

You can do this by ear by clicking on those arrows until the tracks sound right together (ie they are nudged “into phase”) but if you watch that horizontal bar as you do it, it will get smaller (or bigger if you’re going the wrong way). When it’s gone, you’re on the beat. Feels very much like waveriding to me!

4. The “that’s just ridiculous” waveride
Ableton DJs set up loops, trigger points and other elements of tracks way in advance, and the software “launches” them on time, on the beat, and without any timing necessary from the “DJ” other than to casually decide what’s coming next and kind of, you know, let the hardware know, in a nonchalant style.

This is not DJing but a blend of DJing and production. It’s great, but there aren’t even any waves to ride, so it must be disqualified from this discussion. Except we’ll include it because it’s the one that REALLY gets the “it was great in ’88!” crew foaming at their mouths! 🙂

So, is it REALLY possible to DJ without headphones?
In all seriousness, I’ve yet to find any real DJ who does this. You’d look an idiot, to start with. Plus there’s a lot more musical information in tracks than just that which can be shown on a screen, even a smart multi-coloured one. But beat gridding, syncing, waveriding… it all helps you to perform better: That’s the bottom line.

While the diehards say this is not real DJing, the truth is that all of these thing are great for good DJs, but they won’t save bad ones. All it takes is a beat grid to be out; or a panicking DJ to turn the wrong song off because a galloping train starts to happen as two songs drift apart; or someone to think they can DJ without even having the headphones on, only for the the keys of the songs to clash horribly; or any one of 100 other technical or musical issues to can go wrong (not to mention the DJ just someone having no musical knowledge and taste that sucks) and that DJ has just sucked in public. At least if he’d had headphones on he wouldn’t have heard the booing.

You still have to be a good DJ to perform well with any of these programs and any of these features. It’s just that waveriding helps you to make a better, more creative job of it.

• Want to learn how to mix properly, manually or with sync, and with or without waveforms? Grab our How To Digital DJ Fast course now!

Do you waveride? Do you see DJs not even putting their headphones to their ears and find it annoying? Do you think it’s important to be able to do it well by ear even if you don’t always use your ‘phones for every mix? Let us know your feelings.