Reader Nhan writes: "I just recently got a Numark Mixtrack and a NI Traktor Kontrol X1. I know that you can smash hot cues, play with loops and effects. Other than that what can I do to give a better visual look to my DJing? I find that I look very boring just standing there waiting for the song to nearly end and then hitting the sync button..."
This was a sincere question (I got in touch with the sender), and it cuts right to the heart of the challenge of DJing properly with digital DJ gear for brand new DJs. Here's our answer to Nhan:
Digital DJ Tips says:
Thanks for your question, Nhan. Our series How To Earn Your DJ Stripes touches on some of these issues, but let's step back and look at the bigger picture here.
The heart of your issue is this: In the past, DJs (especially beginners) spent half their time when playing live simply trying to beatmatch the next tune. Once they'd done that, and usually in a highly scared state, they attempted to mix it in. When they pulled off a half-decent mix, they breathed a deep sigh of relief and went off to quickly find another record in enough time to beatmatch it all over again.
That was it! Just playing one record after another without the crowd jeering your mess-ups was a full-time job in itself, and a very nerve-wracking one at times - indeed, most of the time, for the inexperienced DJ. Of course, as you got better at DJing with vinyl, and I'm talking after many years, you could throw a record on and lazily find the first beat (even over the speakers if you were really good - done right, nobody used to notice) and just throw it in and beatmatch perfectly on the fly.
With your sync button, you've got that bit 100% right with no practice at all! That's great, but you're missing out on something fundamental. The trouble is, while thinking they were just perfecting beatmatching, vinyl DJs were actually learning many of the other things that really matter about DJing. As with most things worth knowing, vinyl DJs slowly realise that in reality, DJing is about so many things other than just beatmatching. (At least, the ones that were any good did.)
Nhan, as you still need that time to learn and grow, the simple answer is - play in public as often as possible. As you progress, you'll soon find things to occupy your time. (We don't mean checking email, mind!) But to help you understand some of the thinga great DJs do, and so what you should be doing to stop yourself standing there, bored, waiting to hit "sync", here's three things to work on - three of the things us more experienced DJs were really learning when we thought we were learning to beatmatch "back in the day".
1. Have a "box" of tunes that you're passionate about
If you are just standing there bored waiting to hit sync, what is wrong with your tunes selection? Why are your tunes not making you want to dance? How long have you spent finding a set of music that you are proud enough to want to play to everyone who is in the venue?
If you don't passionately want to play your music, you've not got the right tunes. Solution? Spend more time finding the tunes that make you want to scream, and jump around, and turn the volume up, and tell the whole world about.
With a virtual crate full of those, you won't be stood behind the decks waiting to press sync - you'll be dancing and singing (and probably slightly scaring) everyone else - but they'll react by following your cue and starting to have more fun themselves. Now you've got a vibe, now you've got something real going on in the room. Now you've got some atmosphere. Now you're DJing, not button pushing. It's a big part of being a DJ, enthusiasm. Notice, too, that this is nothing to do with technology.
2. Get excited about finding the perfect song order
One thing a good DJ can do that iTunes DJ, shuffle, last.fm, Pandora, a radio DJ, pulling tunes at random from a collection, a bad DJ etc etc can't do is put tunes in the right order for that exact moment in time. How do you know the right tunes? Because you've taken the time to learn to be a good DJ! Books and books have been written on this, but while we can point you in the right direction, experience, practice and passion will get you there faster than any book.
How much energy has the dancefloor got? How long have these people been dancing? Who isn't dancing? Why? What tunes do the girls like? The boys? How can you play new music they don't know without boring them? How can you weave in old music they do know without getting predictable? How can you get away with playing music they're not expecting? Why did the record that went down really well last week just bomb? Was it what you played before it?
How can you make everyone feel "this is the place to be" with your music? How can you kick a bored dancefloor up the arse and get some life back into it? How can you play after a DJ who's done well? Or a DJ who's done badly? How can you start, progress, end a night? If you spend some of your time watching and listening, gig after gig, you'll have a shortlist of two or three record in your head you know you can play after the current one. It's like chess - which move will you play? And how will that move affect future moves?
In the "old days", you'd see DJs in DJ booths with loads of their records over every available surface, changing their mind every half minute, throwing this on and that off. You can't do that with digital, it's true, but you can be thinking about it. Will all this going on, you'll be anything but bored.
Of course, you don't want to look bored either, so don't constantly browse in your files and folders if you can help it. Instead, when you're looking for the next tune, put your headphones on, listen to it, have a quick dance to it, react to it in your own little world! And know your tunes well (see Why Packing a Good Box of Tunes is More Important Than Ever for more on this).
3. Don't be just a DJ, be involved in the whole night
See the bigger picture - there's always a bigger picture. The night is not just about you. Your job is to understand and raise the vibe in your venue. It is about people coming together to have fun, of which music is a big part, sure, but not the whole story - not by a long shot. Good DJs ask questions, all the time. They're always observing, looking for ways to build excitement and pleasure for their audiences, things that are often not directly connected to the music,.
Here's some random DJ questions: What has gone on in your town today? Has the local football team won? Lost? Are people happy, angry, dejected? Are they tired from a long holiday weekend, or raring to go at the start of a long-awaited one?
Is it cold outside? Is it cold inside? How can you literally warm your crowd (ask the venue to put the heating on!)? Is the place filling up too fast, so people are uneasy? How can you soothe them, make the vibe more welcoming? Can you get soft, red, slow lighting on the dancefloor? Can you get control over any of the lights and start coordinating them with your music? What about dry ice or smoke?
Are there not enough people in yet? How can you bring those who are in the venue together "under one flag", and get that atmosphere built? Is there a drinks promotion on that's taking everyone's attention away from the floor? (So what do you do? Fight it, or play incidental tunes until they're a bit drunk, bored of it, and ready to dance?)
Are there too many boys in? Too many girls? How is that affecting the vibe? How can you react to it? Do you want to use a microphone? How? How can you use the volume in the venue to alter the mood? Do you even know how loud the music is throughout your venue? What is happening in other rooms in the venue? How can you complement that/vibe off it?
When did you last walk around the venue to talk to your crowd and find out the answers to some of these things?
Getting into the mindset of your crowd builds your enjoyment of the night immensely, and they'll respond by talking to you, catching your eye, including you in their night. If you've got hands to shake, people's eyes to catch on the dancefloor, interaction with the venue's lighting crew, door staff and bar workers, other DJs to bounce ideas off, you're not stood there waiting to hit "sync" - you're having fun!
You can do more with either of the two pieces of equipment you have than a DJ with two decks and a mixer ever could. Equipment won't make DJing interesting - music and people will. You could DJ with an iPod and done right, have an electric night. Concentrate on the art of DJing, not the science of your kit. (Or, if you're really hardcore, you could cover the BPMs on your screen, disable your sync buttons, and beatmatch the whole night manually. That'll definitely give you something to do between records! :) )
Good luck, and have fun.
Can you can empathise with Nhan? If you have felt in the same position yourself, or if you learned the hard way about DJing and are prepared to share some gems of wisdom and advice, we'd love you to add your thoughts in the comments below.