I just got home from checking out a venue where I will be DJing this winter here in southern Spain. It’s a bar down on the beach, and Javier, the Majorcan owner, has spent some sweet money on the place over the summer to make it more of an indoors/outdoors venue than just a terrace bar.
It’s now all sleek, lit panelling and decking, with heaters on the terrace, a “stand up” counter with an outside mojito bar, and a big, spacious interior complete with new DJ box. (Only big enough for a laptop and a controller – like your style, Javi!)
He’s also bought a new amplifier, and fitted some extra sound inside the place on top of the old system, which is now split between the terrace and indoors. And he showed me how he can have different volume inside and outside, to stop the place getting its wrists slapped for sound pollution (again).
Cut the midrange, drop the bass!
And that got me into thinking about how many DJs don’t take it on themselves to be responsible for the quality of the sound when they’re DJing – the balance and tone, how loudly or quiet they play, the distribution through the venue – often to the point where they ruin people’s enjoyment, making themselves look bad in the process.
Now, in big clubs there is always a sound engineer, but when you’re playing smaller venues, it’s often up to you to make sure that everything sounds sweet. And the fact is that sometimes the equipment you’ve got to play with is less than perfect. It could be that it’s parts of old sound systems cobbled together, there could be speakers that just don’t sound good, there could be others that are in the wrong place and maybe some that simply don’t work.
And throw into the mix staff who might not have the time or the knowledge to set up the sound right (not you, Javier…), and you’ve got the pieces in place for an awful sounding night – unless you, as the DJ, take control.
How to get the sound system singing for you
So when you play in a venue with no sound engineer, don’t be afraid to spend some time setting the sound up yourself.
Chances are the manager will thank you for it, and the people in the bar will definitely have more fun and enjoy your music better. You should be ready to:
- Check whether the sound level is OK overall. All PAs have a limit beyond which they will simply distort.
- Check the relative sound in different zones – we’re talking outside and inside, for instance, or in different rooms. Work out which amplifiers or volume controls affect which areas, paying attention to places where people sit, or gather and chat.
- Ensure you keep everything “in the green” on the mixer, and don’t let drink (or just getting carried away) tempt you to push things too high as the night goes on.
- Use your EQ boldly. It’s common to find sound systems where you need to set the bass, mid and treble a long way from centre just to get things sounding acceptable. Where the speakers are poorly positioned and there are just volume controls on the amps, this is your only way of compensating, so trust your ears and don’t be scared to make changes. (Remember it’s better to take away than to add, so EQ anti-clockwise, not clockwise.)
- Move the speakers – even rotating them a few degrees can fill dead spots and stop music deafening nearby tables.
- Use the balance controls . If somewhere on the system – in your DJ software, on your controller, on the house mixer (if you’re plugged through it) – there is a balance control, experiment to see which speakers it turns up and down. Nearly all club and bar PAs are mono anyway, so treat this like another volume control. If you can’t get access to the main volume controls, having a balance knob to get relative volume levels between speakers or groups of speakers can be a godsend.
- Walk around the venue often as the night is progressing – people “soak up” sound, especially bass, meaning you may need to make adjustments up (and down as the place empties, too)
Do it before they do it for you
The fact is that more often than not, you’ll be the only one who cares about the sound, until it’s so annoying that the irate manager or head barman comes over and turns it down for you… and then the only way to get it back up again may be to drive your mixer into the red.
At that point you’re compromising the sound quality for the sake of volume, plus you’re in a standoff with someone who, if you’d taken the time to keep things sounding sweet from the off, might otherwise have remembered you for the right reason – your music.
Being picky about sound is something I think DJs don’t do enough, and especially in smaller venues, it can really mark you out from the “everything-up-to-11” brigade.
Do you hear DJs who plainly don’t know what their music sounds like out on the floor? Or do you work in a venue where they’re always messing with the volume and it drives you nuts? Tell us in the comments.