Your Questions: Help, I Look Boring Behind the Decks!

The dreaded sync button - giving rookie digital DJs nothing to do behind the decks since 2004...

The dreaded sync button – giving rookie digital DJs nothing to do behind the decks since 2004…

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?

What People Play

How long do you spend record shopping or even more importantly, just listening to music, each week? Because if your music is boring you, it probably isn\’t long enough.

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. (Sign up for our Access all Areas DJ club to get free music discovery ideas.)

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?

Cue button

Even with vinyl, DJs often cue several records before they find the right one. How many do you cue up and check out to get the next song choice just perfect every time?

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?

Dancefloor

When did you last walk round your dancefloor? You can do this even when you\’re playing. In fact, I\’d encourage it.

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!

Finally…

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.

Comments

  1. That last bit about being hardcore made me snicker a bit.
    Good article

  2. smoovebert says:

    that’s why i always try to look like this guy:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QiCOmqvWUaw

  3. smoovebert says:

    (i enjoyed the article and agree wholeheartedly)

  4. I don’t see anything wrong with controllers. I think it all depends how you use what you have. I personally don’t use a controller but I do have effects. And sometimes beat sync is useful. I don’t use it 100% of the time but it does allow me to switch tracks much quicker, which can be really cool for a crowd. It all depends on how you use what you’ve got. Don’t hate.

  5. As I DJ online with a webcam showing a video feed.
    I chat to the viewers in the stations chat rooms.
    if they request a track, or give feedback, I can react to that.

    although you are physically further away from the listeners, you are kinda closer that you canchat at the same time.

    maybe using something that allows messages to be shown in the room?

    ie set up a shortcode number for texts or a twitter account. and relay the feeds to something.
    or even use it to give you something to talk over the mic about.

  6. When I’m deejaying, I do hip hop, so dancing isn’t always going to work. I get into the music though and probably enjoy it more than the listeners. I’m singing the songs, nodding my head to the beat, and will get excited with the music accentuating the movements if I hit a sample and when a certain bass line drops. Just have fun and they will have fun. Don’t just stand there.

  7. Short answer: dance.

  8. @Tony

    Their is a Computer program called DJPOWER. It is a PC based DJ Program that allows you to play your tracks to multiple rooms all from one Laptop, Desktop, or “lunchbox style” Desktop Computer. In addition to running your music It also runs your DMX lighting and you can play music video(s) off of it. I’ve owned my (DJPower computer system) for over five years and I love using it. I highly encourage you to check out the company’s website @ http://www.djpower.com

    -Blake

  9. Beatmatch all night (Y). You also forget to mention controllerism, you can be beatjuggling or destroying the song with effects Ean Golden’s style

  10. I also have a suggestion to add. Every house track has a middle part, usually a 2 up to 4 minutes in length that defines the sound of that tune. In order to get away from the boredom, add a cue point before the first break in the track (usually comes between 1 minute and half up to 3 minutes from the start of the track) and limit your mix to just 30 seconds which equals 64 beats (increasing or decreasing depending on the BPM of the track). In this way you have, in a track, one minute of mixing (30 seconds at the beginning and 30 seconds at the end) plus 2-3 minutes of standalone track. This increases the excitement because you really have to move quick, know very well what track to play next, and eliminates that feeling of boredom. In addition you have a more streamlined mix, defined by the core of the tracks and not by the transitions. Hope this helps.

  11. one of the best articles so far… so much info in this post… but like they always say. never trust a dj who doesn’t dance.

    forget about technique and tradition. modern tools allow you to stray from being a slave to the ‘beatmatch’. enjoy yourself. When the crowd looks up the dj needs to be having MORE fun than the dance floor… where do you think they will get their energy from? A dj is the crowd controller the party conductor they are looking at you for guidance
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ve4i1Kn_cwY look at kid capri here even as he is moving to his laptop he has a bit of swagger in his movements … that little bit goes a long way

  12. Max D. Funk says:

    If you aren’t the guy (or girl) having the most fun in the entire club, you’re not doing it right :)
    Great article, a good read for any beginner.

  13. You need to learn to over exaggerative any movement you do in the DJ booth. That way, even something as fundamental as, say, hitting a cue button, or adjusting an EQ, can look like a massive effort and show.

    Remember. It’s all about the show. More importantly, it’s all about people looking at you about putting on a show. It’s all about you.

    If all else fails, trying smoking and drinking excessively behind the decks.

  14. What a great article! I was a pro musician in a commercial cover band for 15 years before I got into DJing. As you described above every song we played was to get the crowd in the mood and fill the floor. As we started one tune the process of deciding the next one began and until I read this article I never relaised just how many of those skills I have transferred into my DJ sets.

    When I started using CD decks it used to have me completely terrified to the point I almost quit! The switch to Traktor 3 was a revolution, because it allowed me to get back to analysing the crowd and concentrating on what makes them tick.

    Like I said, great article and right on the money!

  15. celtic dj says:

    great article,,,
    would like to add some of my experience to the discussion :
    i am workig on a style of mixing where you use 3 decks and do something similar to what ‘george’ does , i try to throw in a ‘hint’ (loop or cue point with an effect added) from the next tune ,,,it works well especially if you use a loop with a melody.
    if you do you homework and know your tunes very well you can use different pre-stored cue points (with names) to remind u to throw in a certain effect…
    try looking at the screen as little as possible,,,never put the screen in front of you,,try mixing without looking at the screen,,,
    learn to feel the dance floor with your stomach.

    be with the music,,,when a good part of the tune is playing (ex- chorus and then a build up) lead the crowd till the end of the build up…u are the only one who can see the dipslay of the tune !!
    be professional not serious…

  16. Like everyone else is saying, just get into the music and enjoy the night yourself, and be confident in what you’re doing.

    The way I DJ, I rarely stray off the mixer or headphones for more than about 30 seconds. I find it’s best not to ‘play safe’, watch the dancefloor like Phil said, but don’t just mix in a tried and tested track A and B. Keep your options open, always be auditioning different tracks through the headphones to see if they work or not, check if loops and/or FX would work, or how you could bring in the next track in different ways, etc, etc.

    My point is if you’re experimenting with different stuff in the mix, you won’t get time to be standing around, it can make sets more interesting too.

  17. Phil In my opinion this is the best article I have read on your site!
    Can I just add some things from my point of view.
    I have been a pro dj over 20 years and switched to traktor about a year or so back.
    I sometimes have the same feelings as the guy who asked the question, whilst I love traktor I sometimes think it was the worst decision I ever made to start using it.
    What I lose using a laptop is the feeling of spotinyity [spelt wrong] that I used to get,sometimes it would feel so natural that it was almost as though someone else was picking the next tune for me you just got right into the vibe.
    I think part of it may be that on the laptop everything is super organised its so easy with playlists that I think sometimes it takes the thinking part away, its so easy just to pick another track from the playlist but this can lead to being repetative and yes course a dj will look more busy having to find then load a cd or record.
    As I said earlier I love traktor but there is something about using a laptop that dosnt do it for me,to the point where Im thinking of buying a couple of players that allow a hard drive or flash drive to be connected and then just scroll through folders in a back to basics style.
    I think that one thing that would be a real help with laptops dj programs would be the ability to have 2 playlists or folders open at the same time this would give more options and also result in less need to touch the laptop.
    I would agree its best not to stare at the laptop whilst mixing although its the only way to see information such as remaining time breaks and cues, on a cd player this info would be right in front of you on the display maybe on future controllers this info could also be displayed on the controller as well.
    Best article yet Phil thanks

  18. I agree with all the comments: Great article. Best one yet. Well done!
    Even as a DJ of 10+ years, there is always something to learn.
    I wish there were resources like this when I was starting out.
    Kinda pisses me off that kids don’t have to learn how to beatmatch, but oh well, that just means we all have to step it up in all the other areas.

  19. I second everyone suggesting that you move around. Don’t forget: all audiences are constantly taking behavioral cues from what their watching.
    Act the way you want your crowd to act.
    For me that means lots of dancing:

  20. I’ve always loved DJs who communicate with their audiences directly. There’s one DJ locally who does this whole “you are going to fucking LOVE this track” routine when he’s about to drop something special. It’s all in body language and his expression: but it signals to the audience that something cool is going to happen.

  21. Awesome article!

    I believe that the new technoligy gives us a higher base level of the more “simple” DJ (mixing two tracks together). I believe that anyone who works on it can beatmatch two songs, but that’s not what makes a DJ. Beeing creative with music and delivering a mood to the crowd and picking track after track that moves the mood in one direction or another.

    The technoligy entering the DJ scene now a days is expanding the envelope of what one can do. Using time to find the right tracks, filling the tracks with effects and filters, overlaying other sounds and rhytems and focusing on getting an over all more precise and quicker mixing are just a couple of the other areas one can use the extra time for.

    That’s what separate a good DJ from an “OK” one.

    Don’t blame it on new technoligy if you’re feeling like the competition is breathing you in the neck…

    DON’T COMPLAIN! UP YOUR GAME!

  22. Frankly, I spend a lot of time figuring out what I’ll play next many times…or setting up the next few tracks when I have ideas. So if it looks like I’m surfing the net, it’s really more me looking for the ideal thing to put on next…even if I only brought 30 MP3s on a drive.

    I think interaction is important. Make eye contact with people, smile, fist-pump once in a while, clap, or point into the air at the beginning or a breakdown or the pickup of the tune from the into. Don’t be annoying or ridiculous like a trance headliner, but show you’re into it all and in the beat/groove with the crowd. Standing there like a statue can bore the crowd and make it harder for them to get into your set.

    Other than that, look and learn for things you can do in a long track. Doesn’t mean you have to get all Ean Golden on the crowd, but toy with the effects, some delay, or a flange, or filter…and turn a dull track into an interesting one. Look for and keep note of accapellas and tracks that work well. Many times crowds will get into it when they suddenly hear familiar vocals on top of some track they never heard.

    Be creative and go beyond one track into the next.

  23. just watch this guy and all your troubles should be over very quickly:

  24. Just liked to point out that this is a GREAT article! I think I have seen Nhan DJ-ing around at a party somewhere. He is good with his mixes but doesn’t show any enthusiasm!!

  25. I’ll second most of the above comments re: dancing behind the decks or at least doing things in time to the music.

    You don’t want to go too crazy, but at least show people that you’re having a good time and feeling it. Nod your head while you’re searching through your crates. Hit buttons and twist knobs like they mean something, and cue the audience with your body language. (Excited about the next track? Then make sure the people closest to you on the floor know it through your knowing smile or stupid ass grin)

    Also as mentioned above, you can use your body language to give people who are watching you some clues as to what’s going to happen next, the classic example being killing the bass and tweaking the highs during a breakdown.

    On the other hand, you don’t always have to be doing something. I’ve been to too many shows (dj and laptop jockeys) where the performer is either too excited about their toys or feels like they always need to be exerting their will over the music because now they have all this time to kill thanks to synch, beat griding, etc. It’s all so ADD to me, and as a dancer on the floor, frustrating ‘cuz the groove is constantly being disrupted by quick mixes, effects, too many stutter loops or what have you.

    Taking a step back and just “sitting” on a track for a bit isn’t a bad thing. Producers structure tracks in certain ways for a reason. :) Get some liquids, catch the eye of someone on the dance floor, smile or wave, make a connection and show them that you’re enjoying being a part of the good time that everybody’s having.

    One last thing: if people have time to watch you, that means they’re probably not dancing. ;)

  26. Kerry, I disagree, It’s not all about the DJ

    I wouldn’t enjoy watching a dj over exaggerating everything in the booth.

    Having a ‘Genuine’ good time would be appreciated by the crowd much more I think.

    Just my opinion

    Thanks for the great Article

  27. And if you happen to have a knob or fader that isnt assigned to anything, use it like crazy.
    And move your etire body while diong it.
    If you have somthing like a korg nano kontrol, you can even hold the knob still and move the controller!

  28. That’s a great idea.

    I often think we need to see more midi controllers attached to giant springs – that way the DJ can incorporate more kinetic movement into their show.

  29. (It’s sarcasm)

    Personally, I would like to see what would happen if you forced DJ’s to stand behind a giant sheet and remain anonymous.

    I would be interested to know how many people would still ‘do it for the music’ if no one was going to be able to see who it was..

  30. Phil Morse says:

    Ha ha :) Sarcasm noted!

    However, many DJs overemphasise what they’re doing, pressing buttons like they’re whipping a horse or jumping round like lunatics with their fingers on a fader that’s doing nothing, or pretending to cut in and out of tracks when it’s on the track itself – many DJs who are well respected! Just watch some demos of gear & techniques by big names on YouTube.

    One argument goes that hitting something in rhythm is a skill, so why not make a show that you’re doing it? The other argument says that like diving in soccer, it’s part of the game and you’ll never stop it – but as long as it doesn’t detract from the overall performance enough to negate its worth, who really cares?

    So while too much showmanship is indeed distasteful, hiding behind a screen seems a bit extreme – after all, you wouldn’t be too impressed if you went to see a band and they were hiding behind a screen. There has to be a balance between being humble before the music and your crowd, and adding a bit to the show from yourself.

  31. And look where he is keeping his laptop – always on a side and never in a front of you.Otherweise it`s looks like as a wall you built between you and a crowd.

    And most important thing — move with a music you play.Only this way you can easily understand if a next track`s beat mathes to your previous track ( sometimes they are kind a similar , but a swing is a different.)

    And if you move with a music, you can feel a feedback from a crowd , if you feel tired – then they also do – so it`s a good time for a break tempo down.

  32. RE: Swagger…
    Check the DJ der guten Laune , who is rocking youtube in germany right now. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3zr1ommvC4Q&feature=related
    doesnt seem to be working on the people behind him though…

  33. Phil Morse says:

    Interesting analogy between a band playing other people’s music and a DJ doing it… there’s quite a lot of crossover there once you think about it.

  34. Phil Morse says:

    True, but that kind of DJing – along with DMC-style scratching etc – is a little more specialised than the general “DJing all night” basics we’re trying to help with here :)

  35. “destroying”… how true.

  36. FWIW, the DJ in question is also a closeup magician and has been known to perform magic tricks on the decks. Hilarity ensues.

  37. Please please please manufacturers take note, display the basic track info on the controller.

    What a winning combination…

  38. Phil Morse says:

    Ha ha seen this guy before, maybe he’s taking it a bit far! ;)

  39. maybe? :D he definetely is, but now he never has to worry about being booked again.

  40. Phil Morse says:

    “Taking a step back and just “sitting” on a track for a bit isn’t a bad thing. Producers structure tracks in certain ways for a reason.”

    Very wisely put. You need to work WITH the structure of your records, not against or irrespective of it.

Leave a Comment