How To Play Your First Digital DJ Set

Laptop DJ

Be prepared to set your digital gear up in a busy DJ box.

Your first digital DJ set in public is going to be nerve-racking, a rollercoaster experience you’ll never forget, but that you’ll probably never want to repeat either!

Like a good theme park ride, you’ll probably hate it… till the moment it stops and you scream “again”! Luckily, your second and subsequent sets will be even better. So here are seven tips to help make sure you do a good job, and hopefully even manage to enjoy it (a bit)…

1. Know your tunes
This is the most important tip of all. So you’re playing a two-hour set – that’s probably 25-30 tunes. Whether you’re DJing the warm-up set or playing peak time, same difference. I’d say have 50-60 tunes prepared that you know inside out. You should be happy mixing all of these, and ought to have thought hard about why they’re in your virtual crate.

What tunes are “big” in the venue? What tunes are big right now? What other tunes complement them? What tunes are important to you, are part of your style? What mixes have you discovered that you love? You need a blend of new, old, known, unknown, predictable and surprising. Choosing double the tunes you’ll need means you can go underground or chart, upfront or classic, safe or risky, as the crowd takes you. But make sure you know them well – that’s the most important thing.

And DO take the time to prepare them – don’t just turn up with 60GB of tunes unsorted on a hard drive and think you’ll be OK. You won’t!

2. Know your kit
It’s important that you’re happy with your DJ equipment, especially because as a digital DJ it’s more than likely ou’ll be taking your own kit with you to play on. You need to know how to set it all up, pack it away again, get everything working quickly.

You need to know what to do if you have a crash (hint: take an iPod and be ready to plug it in with a mix prepared), and how to boot up quickly and cleanly (eg knock out wireless / Bluetooth, don’t let memory or processor-hungry apps load in your PC, disable screensavers…).

Dj and crowd

Prepare well for your first DJ set to make sure you enjoy it.

It will help if you’ve played with your gear in parties. If not, just take it to someone else’s house and set it all up there, while catching up with them. This will prepare you for being in a venue where people may be trying to talk to you, you’re unfamiliar with the surrounding, you’re in “public” mode – and even for when someone says “you’re on in 5″ and you’ve not even unpacked. (But still, get there early and set up in good time.)

3. Have a plan
I had a set list written out and hidden in my record box the first time I DJed in public, I was that nervous – with every single mix planned! I wouldn’t say go that far, but a bit of planning is a good thing.

You already know what time you’re starting and finishing. How many people will be there? When does the venue tend to get busy? When do people start to dance? You can’t make people dance too early, so have a plan – a warm-up, a transitional stage, a peak-time stage.

If you’re only booked for warm-up, play warm-up; if you’re coming on after a chart DJ but you’re more upfront, have some chart crossover material to lead into your set. If you’re between two DJs who play different styles, how will you bridge them?

The point is, have a plan; think about what you’re going to play. Half an hour of this, then half an hour of that, then half an hour of something else… that’s all you need. Just the process of planning a DJ set makes you a better DJ, especially when afterwards you compare how it went with what you were thinking.

4. Keep it simple
Your first DJ set is no time for tricks and showing off. Just plan to play records simply and competently one after the other. Make your mixes functional; you’ll probably be trembling too much to “large” it on the decks anyway!

Girls dancefloor

Keep your mixing simple and make enough time to enjoy watching the dancefloor.

One of the biggest things you should take from your first few DJ sets is how the crowd behaves, but if you’re too busy trying to plan and pull off DJ tricks, you won’t be watching them enough. So keep it simple, take in the atmosphere and learn by looking around you – the tricks can come when you’ve mastered the basics. You’re far less likely to mess up this way.

On a related note, don’t have more than a drink or two to steady your nerves – caution goes out of the window when you’re half-drunk, and you don’t want to go down that road on your first (or four-hundredth) DJ set.

5. Look like you’re enjoying yourself
This is where many rookie DJs (and a few professionals) let themselves down. Nobody wants to see a DJ with his head in his laptop 90% of the time, agonising over every mix. You have to have time to join in, even if it’s just a little dance and a smile, shaking hands, chatting to those near to you.

Even if you feel rough, you’re so nervous you could be sick, nobody’s dancing, the venue owner has told you to turn it down, you keep getting inappropriate tune requests, it looks like a fight is about to kick of in the corner, and your girlfriend just had a go at you for not giving her enough attention: smile!

It’s your enthusiasm often as not that gets the dancefloor going. It’s your love of the music that encourages other people to hear the good in it. It’s your lead that starts everyone having fun. Looking happy on the outside when all manner of “performance anguish” is going on in your head and heart is difficult, but you must master this one. How can you expect others to have a good time if you’re obviously not?

Having fun

Remember, people have come for a night out, and your music is only a small part of that. Relax!

6. Relax – most people aren’t even listening!
A wise old DJ friend of mine once said: “Most people aren’t really listening.” I thought he was talking rubbish at the time, but it turns out he was quite right.

Put yourself in the shoes of the average person on a night out. You go out for an evening: You are trying to get laid, get drunk, just happy you’re not at work, catching up with friends, in the venue solely because it’s a trendy place to be seen in, worrying that your bum looks big in this skirt, upset that your best friend hasn’t come, really pleased someone you didn’t think you’d see is here, bitchin’ because someone never buys an drink for you… and all this time there may or may not be a DJ playing!

You see? Most people they simply don’t listen to the music all night long… even when dancing to it, half the time. If someone hears two records they love, they’ll go home happy. If they don’t go home happy, it probably won’t have ben your fault anyway (see the list above).

Point is, pick your tunes well, and relax! People really aren’t here for you. Even your friends will be hard-pushed to name many of your tunes after a DJ set. Music might be your life… but most of the crowd have got more important things on their minds.

7. End on a great record
So if most people aren’t listening most of the time, your aim is to make sure everyone in the club hears just two or three records they really love. The trick here is to make those “I love this one” tunes different for everyone, so there’s always someone “bigging up” your music at any given time.

Crowd

Save your best tune to last and send everyone home happy.

But… here’s a big DJ secret. If you can save just one record that as many people as possible in the crowd adore, and play it right at the very end, you’ll send them all home with that tune ringing around in their ears.

And when they wake up, hungover and with hazy heads, they’ll probably only remember that one tune from the night before… and hopefully your smiling face as you jumped about behind the decks while you were playing it to them. Job done!

Now go and ask the manager for a re-booking. And good luck…

Are you about to play your first DJ set? Do you remember how you felt when you did? Do you have any advice to add to these pointers? Please join in and let us know.

Comments

  1. My first gig involved just about everyone who’s opinion I valued about my DJing haha, absolutely terrifying. I had every mix planned out, complete with bpm changes and everything. I got up there to unfamiliar decks and mixer, and a sound system so loud I could barely hear the track playing in my cans. I thought I did terribly, there were some dodgy mixes and at one point I forgot to slide the crossfader all the way over (oops), but I got down to high fives from all my friends, who didn’t notice a thing. Its true, as soon as you finish and the terror subsides, you want to get straight back up there.

  2. Brostradamus says:

    I just got booked for my first gig in a medium sized hookah lounge/club (I’m the opening DJ) with a Pre-Electric Zoo theme and I’m pretty nervous about it. I have no trouble picking and mixing the music, but if people aren’t dancing it’s just the absolute worst feeling. I completely agree with the entirety of the post though, especially that most people aren’t even listening as intently as one might think. And I will definitely play that one “OMG I LOVE THIS SONG” track at the end of the set (most likely Show Me Love :D) Do you guys have any tips for the very beginning of an opening set? I usually play pretty heavy electro-house and Dirty Dutch, but I have a feeling that’s not the way to start a set haha.

  3. Phil Morse says:

    To Brostradamus: You’re going to want to stay true to your usual sound and to yourself while not overplaying anthem after anthem.

    When you start the place will probably be empty, and the dancefloor may only begin to fill up for your last half hour.

    First, get over it: You can’t make people dance early on and it’s not a reflection on you that they’re not. It doesn’t mean they’re not listening. Put yourself in their shoes: What would YOU want to hear?

    You’d want it to be loud but not too loud, suggestive of what’s to come later but not giving the game away, so to speak, and slowly building up – as described above.

    So here’s what I’d do: Take all your usual set, and sort as described above. Look for dubs, “beats”, instrumentals, alternative less manic versions of things. Augment this by going on a bit of a warm-up shopping spree; find artist albums by your favourite artists and listen to them online, buying more laid-back tunes by those artists that you like the sound of.

    Once you’ve got these tunes, have a practice warm-up mix (or ten…) at home. Do it at the same time of night for added authenticity! Get comfortable with what you’re going to do.

    Remember when you’re playing the real warm-up that, when people start dancing (if they do), don’t throw all of your plans out of the window and start banging it out! A skilled DJ will up the pace gradually, remembering that there’s still a long night ahead.

    By all means end on an anthem or reasonably popular record, but if you don’t and the DJ after you comes on, puts on a #1 single and the floor fills, you’ve not failed – you’ve done a great job, because everyone’s itching to dance – warmed up, in fact!

    He or she will thank you for it (again, try and put yourself in their shoes) and everyone else will notice the professional job you did too. Which means you’re far more likely to get the headline slot sometime soon for yourself.

    Good luck!

  4. I’m seventeen years old and have had a Residency in a nightclub for about 2 months now, in my experience i have noticed that depending on the night of the week, your crowd will differ in reactions to what you play, for instance, Students absolutely love to dance and will probably dance to anything you play, whereas the older Generation are harder to please and keep on the floor, problem is, when playing an RnB room like i do, the 120-140 bpm tracks absolutely ram the floor, the second you run out of those tunes and play some uptempo classics, although the floor is still full, you start to lose people.

    In a warm up set, remember people either won’t turn up until the act after you, or they will be there early for the earlybird offers, but won’t have had enough to drink or haven’t relaxed into the night yet. Thats an important thing to remember, playing big tunes on a warm up will not get you anywhere, infact, you’ll probably annoy the hell outta the next DJ or the Main Act for the night because you’ll be effectively “killing their set”

    My first night i was so nervous as the position was dropped on me as a fill in for another DJ, is was 5 hours of constant mixing and dropping big tunes on a Saturday night! Luckily i went through the whole night without problems, it took me about an hour to settle into it, but after a few hours i couldn’t get enough, i dragged the last song out until the very last seconds of the song, i loved it and got called back for my Saturday night residency that i work now!

    Prepare, Relax and Have a good time!

    Best of Luck to you all!

    • I’m not meaning to patronise so I hope it doesn’t come across that way, but you’ve got a bright future ahead of you with that kind of understanding already. I was also DJing at 17 (as soon as I could hold a driving licence to get around), only with 7″ singles and belt-drives with no pitch controls. The lessons you’re learning now are going to stay with you forever… I’m kind of jealous!

  5. first off, thanks for the great advice! just came off my first set as a digital dj and the tips and tricks found on this blog were very useful. i’d like to make a request, though. i found it somewhat difficult to mix using the eq in a loud club. can anyone offer some advice as to how best to use eq when mixing tracks in a club environment? or even how to mix tracks at all and manipulate the eq for a better mix? much obliged in China…

  6. It was only about 6 months ago for a theme-camp’s Burning Man fundraiser. I was just opening but still ridiculously nervous so I planned out the entire set and loved every single tune (set was a variety of mashups, dubstep, indie rock, and hip hop; it can be found here: http://soundcloud.com/dustycouturedotcom/brcu-beach-party-massacre-2010-live-set-by-dusty-bacon ).

    One thing that *saved* me was pre-editing some short, transitional fun bits into some of my tracks. I wanted the set to be entertaining and in the theme so I inserted a bunch of themed sound-bytes and would intro into mashups with a splice of the original song. Since the original song was only playing for 30 seconds though it was too quick for me to transition into then back out of live and these pre-show edits gave me some of the breathing room I needed between tracks.

    This was the beginning for me of using audio software to edit tracks that I love but don’t feel have versatile enough intros/outros.

    -Dusty Bacon
    DustyCouture.Com Your Burning Man Fashion Blog

  7. Im playing a psytrance set at a mini outdoor party,
    I know my tracks backwards but im still so nervous,
    I have found these tips reasuring and im slightly less nervous,
    luckily Im only playing an hour set so I will see how it goes,
    im gonna try just mix each track near then end into the beginning of the new one.
    anyone have expierience with psytrance in the 140 – 145bmp range?

  8. To Keron and Phil.

    I wish I was able to DJ when I was 17 but unfortunately I didn’t realize my passion for music and getting into this whole Digitial DJ thing until now (I’m 32 lol). I haven’t done my first gig yet I’m still a little nervous and honestly quite embarrassed to say the least. Thanks for the tips.

    • I’m in a similar area to you Chris. I’ve made tracks for years, all of my best friends have been playing live during that time, but I only recently (in the last few years) decided to start spinning. I’ve played a few shows opening for my friends rock bands, to audiences largely indifferent to electronic music. They still wanted to dance. That kinda got the initial nerves out and gave me a little insight into reading what the people are feeling.

      Now my best friend has put me on the lineup for an actual show, with a real EDM crowd. I’m playing a few slots ahead of a headliner I’ve watched and been amazed by for years, on equipment I’m not entirely familiar with, so it’s like a whole new level of nervousness. I do know that if I make a basic outline of the tracks I want to play, leave a little room for correction or experimentation, and most importantly, realize that my audience isn’t taking my set as seriously as I am….HAVE FUN with it, and just listen to the music like I was on the floor myself. That calms me a bit and makes me think I’ll be alright.

    • I’m about to play my first go (And as luck would have it, co-organise it). I’m not sure if I’m going to be nervous or not but I’ve had a lot of experience playing round my friends house, who is a semi-professional DJ. We used to broadcast our mixes live online but playing in front of people is hopefully just what I need to feel the energy. Check out the event I’m doing and let me know what you think https://www.facebook.com/events/304759166281907/

  9. Mm 18 and I played at my first gig a week ago and as posted above, all my buddies where there to listen (and in my terror judge my set lol) The one who booked me told me to prepare 6 hours of chart electro pop music and around 1 hour of latin music.
    To my terror, the dancefloor kept empty and people in the bar even after throwing in some bigtracks as Titanium or We found love. I also started to receive several requests for latin music to which I had prepared for the end and had just some few tracks. It was absolutly horrible lol I repeated the couple of latin songs I had like 3 times each, almost crying inside in fear that somebody will notice.
    I also had to start lookin in old folders for unorganized and broken music files and pray for them to be in a good condition to play. Once I even forgot my loop on while searching for more tracks and repeated the same part of the song like 4 times in a way that sounded horrbile and to make it even WORSE, my controller crashed and had to d/c and connect it again leaving a horrible silence in the middle that almost made me pee in my pants.

    At the end of the gig, sweating and in pain, people came to congratulate me as if it was the best party they had ever been too!! I almost got a rebook n everything! I then realized, as an audiophile dj everything always seems to go wrong, but as the article said, more than half of the people are more worried about how their hair looks than if you cut out the bass too harshly. Too bad I learned this the hard way.

    • Great story Nicholas! I LOVE “more than half of the people are more worried about how their hair looks than if you cut out the bass too harshly. Too bad I learned this the hard way.” Well done for your gig, next one will be 10 times better

  10. My first gig — a goin away party for a friend. I started to panic as I was initially setting up my equipment. My wireless mouse wasnt working ! After 3 reboots, fresh batteries (changed em out at least 3 times !!) still, nothing. Was so nervous I finally realized the USB connector for my mouse wasnt inserted into the port on my laptop ! And then AFTER my gig, I noticed I was only playing music out of one speaker…..The volume on my right speaker was set low, I forgot my brand new Mackies had volume knobs on em…..

  11. I just got asked by my boss to play at the cinema for a special evening.
    I was nerveus at first but now I’m thinking, owke I need to learn DJing FAST!.
    I also got my Numark mixtrack pro 1,5 weeks ago.

    The date is next monday and the music that I will be playing must be in style of a movie. (mostly dance en club music)

    I don’t know if I can do this but I have a forum post where i could use some tips and tricks. (e.g. how should I take on this project?)
    here is the link: http://digitaldjtips.com/forum/threads/what-to-answer-my-boss.7755/

    But I am realy looking forward to the first time although it’s not that big of a deal because I’ll only be there more for the show than that people come for me :P

  12. Nick Valdez says:

    Articles like this make me love this website. Giving me hope for my eventual first dj set haha thanks Phil,

  13. Hey from Greece.
    Well,in a few days,I’m gonna have a dj set after a long long time and I’m absolutely terrified.
    I’m into the indie/alternative/electro style of music and I play in a traditional way(that means cds here we go! :P)
    I set a plan about the genres and the hours but still don’t know..
    Deep breath,we want to go pro
    -the advice and the stories are great,nice job!

  14. I love reading these articles, Im 40 and have never played out in a club, have played after parties many moons ago when my other dj mate’s got tired and loved it.

    Ive played a few BBQ’s but most of the people were dj’s and knew the tunes I was playing and gave me a hand.

    Now ive been asked by a mate to help him out at his thursday night he does in a bar. I really want to go but im cacking it as it’s quite intimate and goes from being dead to being rammed very quickly.

    Thing is, he plays techno but I like house so Ive already sorta planned out a rough playlist, going from 120bpm and up to about 135 with some harder tech house/older techno.

    He says not to stress at all as he doesnt but he has an X1 controller and I use a K2 so I’d be doing a set on equipment ive not used – was thinking about taking my controller down but I will probably get drunk after and no doubt lose it lol.

    Ive got a BBQ with work colleagues next month and going to test out some of the tunes, but most of them are into chart music not house and techno.

    Help???? what do you suggest, maybe doing a wee mix and emailing it to dj mates?

  15. DJ Teknetik says:

    I am about to play my first gig in 2 weekends. The club scene here is huge into the “turn-up” style of hip hop and I absolutlet hate mixing hip hop. Im bad at it and its boring to mix hip hop. I had the promotional flyer say Electronic Dance music and Trap as well as hip hop in order to hopefukly bring out an edm crowd. I have to play from 8-11 which is warm up and peak because of the 12am curfew for military here in korea. I feel like I should play a hip hop warm up set to please the ealry people who will most likely be hop hop fans. I have 3 2 hour sets of pure edm planned from putting out mixes on mixcloud and those are what I want to play. I understand first and foremost i have to feel the crowd but will it be wrong to force my edm sets which I know people love through feedback from friends, stangers, other djs, club owners, and family. Anybody got some good advice for me. Please email me!

  16. Hi i am a new DJ in the scene, based in New Zealand and i have just turned 18. Had my first gig a few weeks ago at this night club on a friday night(not a huge night for clubbing). Came in at 10pm, helped set up and i got a few free drinks :D and then the main lights turned off..hardly anyone there (10:30pm).. started off slow with some top 40 stuff, then the crowds came in at around 11-11:15pm… the nervs went away by then :D and luckily their was not much of a crowd at the start as the right speaker was not on -_- until the manager came and told me hahah my bad lol. Then I started to play tracks around 120-130bpm. By 12isham i had drunk people dancing, hooking up with girls, girls bringing me free drinks. A fight broke out outside with the bouncers hahahah luckily the club have massive guys!!! it was such an entertaining night after i got over my nervs.. started to flow! Did get annoying with all of the mainstream radio top 40 song requests -_- dam miley! Anyways the club was holding around i would say 150 people… and it was packed for the entire night! even though it was a friday!!! finished my almost 5hour set at 3am … my legs were so tired and sore hahah. got really funky tunes in at around 2am.. ended my set with a remix of that drake track, something titles home? or something like that. Still had a half packed club at 3am :) got a pat on the back from the manager, the bouncers had a few laughs about how “crap my set was”= being sarcastic. Found out that the reason why i had a packed club was because one of the main clubs down the street had this really popular DJ come to my city.. and he did not perform because the warm up DJ left all of his gear on the set and left -_- poor DJ- D-rail. Performing again this friday :) another 5hour set to do!! Any ideas on how to get a crowd comfortable with tracks that are good worldwide but has not reached my location.. as in people have not heard of the “big hits” overseas?

    • Welcome to the big wide world of club DJing! Getting a crowd into tunes they don’t know is part of the art of DJing, you should think about when you play them, what you play around them, and what percentage of new stuff you try and push on them… and watch closely. Watching is a huge part of DJing well.

  17. Hello everybody! I’m the first person to comment in 2014 and the year is almost over, I hope people are still reading this and hopefully I can also get feedback. I am 18 years old in Chicago and I got asked to dj at a house party, I have absolutely no idea what to start off playing because they’re all my age who are looking to get drunk and laid, but who also might not be into the Laidback Luke style of music which is normally what I play for opening sets. I’m hoping to give them a taste of everything from festival favorites and old school hip hop to rave and dubstep styles with trap to sort of bridge them. If anyone could help me out with getting people ready to party at someone’s house it would be greatly appreciated.

    Glad to see so many people who have the same dream as me!! Best of luck everyone

    M!LO

    • Eric N Harris says:

      Hello M!LO,

      How did your House Party gig go?
      How did your crowd react when you rocked Laidback Luke?
      I too, am from Chicago!!

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