How To Create A Unique DJ Sound


Cratedigging is an essential part of creating your own sound. It could mean finding old vinyl and learning to rip it so you are playing unique digital files, too. Pic: The Find Mag

Part of being a successful DJ is creating your unique DJ sound, an idea we touched on in Why Smart DJs Play More Than One Style Of Music. Anything is possible in the DJ world. For you to have a chance at real success, locally, nationally or internationally, you'll need to stand out from the rest and create your own unique style.

Many DJs you'll see and hear when you go out in bars and clubs play similar music to each other. There's not much really wrong with this, as long as they're making people happy and as long as people are dancing.

But if you want to be better than them and rise above the average DJ, get real, better paid club DJ gigs and keep on getting them every weekend, then you need to step up from that.

Your music selection, the order of your tracks, the style of mixing and the blend should all be in your style or DJ sound. Your style needs to be so unique to you that you could copyright it. No one else can play in the way you do. DJs may try to copy you, but they'll never do it, because only you know how to react and surprise people with your unique style. We covered some general tactics in 3 Secrets Of Mixing Different Styles, and now it's time to develop some of those ideas a little more. So, like Montell Jordan, this is how we do it!

1. Find rare gems

First up, you need to get busy searching. Whether it's seeking out quiet record shops where the crates have dust on them to find samples, finding random websites with solo artists, contacting bloggers that few others know of or digging into your own collection, you need tunes no-one else has got. The ideal way of creating your sound is to find the best combination of least known but most catchy and memorable tunes. The kind of tunes that have the music freaks on the floor staring at you and crowding around you to find out what they are.

Some gimp will fail miserably in an attempt to recognise your tunes with Shazam, because Shazam doesn't have a clue who this track is by. These are the tunes that make you stand out.

2. Create DJ remixes

Create DJ remixes iPad

you don't need a studio any more to create remixes - free apps for iPads and even iPhones let you add an extra something to well known-tunes to make them your own.

Look at any successful DJ nowadays and you'll see they have a ton of remixes and some of their own tunes to their name. DJs the like of Soulwax, Boys Noize and Laidback Luke are just a few examples. With some luck, your great remix you could end up getting you lots of attention on DJ forums and on YouTube. With this kind of viral success, getting gigs should be a breeze for you.

I've DJed with a group called Jolie Cherie. Since they got signed to Kitsune records, they get huge DJ gigs in the best clubs in London and Paris. And they're not even DJs, they're musicians. A good tune or remix can let you leapfrog masses of other DJs.

3. Be a punk

By being a punk I mean go against the grain. You're there so that people can enjoy themselves, but there's nothing wrong with being a rebel and shocking people with your DJ sound style. This doesn't mean you playing a set for yourself, dancing away in your booth while everyone else looks at you in bewildered silence and disappointment. But it does mean you play against the grain. Drop surprises. Be a bit crazy.

How do you do that? Vary your style and drop the last tune they would expect! Ask yourself a question: what is the last possible tune anyone would expect me to play right now? Then play it...

Example: I was in a bar/club playing nu-funk, disco, house and nuggets of hip-hop when I suddenly hammered out Gay Bar by Electric Six. As you may know, this is a hard rock tune. Everyone was dancing and this just kind of confused them. They didn't stop though. I didn't care about the reaction of some people who didn't like it. This takes some guts but it gets you noticed. Just make sure you pull it off right and make sure your surprise tunes reflect something in the atmosphere. Shock people, but do it in an original way.

There is an art to this and it does take some practice, so try it at smaller venues first...

4. Be eclectic

Anyone can become a genre DJ for a year or two. What happens is that genre-focused DJs get great gigs to start with, when their music is fashionable. Then when clubbers decide they like something else, these guys get dropped like hot potatoes. Music is fickle and changes rapidly, just like fashion. Playing electro, which is fashionable in some countries now, and nothing else, will get you nowhere long-term. You'll be good for a year or two, then everyone will move on to something else and some of them will even dislike your style.

Electric Six Gay Bar

Would you dare drop Electric Six's Gay Bar in a cool, funky DJ set?

Being eclectic means changing your style. This style of playing reflects a unique DJ sound and you'll be remembered far better for it. If you're playing electro, then drop some pop d'n'b just to show people you've got balls. Why not be crazy and drop in some old Dusty Springfield rework that you've done yourself? Vary within your genre, push the boundaries.

Get to know how to play various styles. As well as creating your own sound, you'll be able to get noticed and you should even get more gigs as your style can be adapted to any venue, not just single-genre venues.

Practice mixing five different styles and then try it on a night out.

5. Mix old and new tunes

Why you should mix old tunes? Isn't DJing all about the best new amazing tracks, hot off the block? No it's not. And you'd be making a mistake thinking it was. Much of the music you hear today is older music recycled. Loads of what you play right now is based on older tunes, containing samples from other tunes. Certain tracks may simply be direct copies.

When you make a shout back to old tunes people love it. When the cheesy song Lady by Modjo was well known, I'd deliberately play the song it had stolen from to make people jig. Yep, check out some old tunes by Chic and listen to them. You'll see where Modjo completely lifted their only successful track from.

Likewise, there are a couple of Daft Punk tracks which sample heavily from old soul and funk. When I drop them, people look bewildered but still love it. There's a massive Dr Dre number which directly takes the music from an old Joe Cocker classic. It goes on..

When a certain style is fashionable, give a shout to old styles that are similar too. New music trends are a rehash of old ones. When nu-rave was trendy, I would drop loads of the old classics from real rave back in the early 90s. People loved this.

Not only does it make people dance, but it shows you have depth too. You'll also have some older party animals in the crowd; there always are. They'll absolutely love you for blasting out tunes of their young days.

• Matt Challands is a DJ living in Paris, France, is one half of electro duo Sao Paulo Punks and runs a DJ blog too.

What steps are you taking to develop your own DJ style? Have you ever taken big risks in a DJ set? How did it work out for you? Let us know your thoughts in the comments...

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  1. DJ Max D. says:

    Great ideas! Brain status: working heavily to put those to use.

  2. i had the same ideia to apply to my own style a while back ago!!! and let me tell you! it's hard!!!! first of i was allmost a mo nth just finding tunes i could play! then those tracks, since they lack of bass, compared to my ''normal'' tracks, i try to loop a normal song filter out the bottom of one of those ''other'' songs and just let it play, maybe skip some parts with cue points, that in theory! but even in key i just think its very very hard to blend those tracks that good! but if i get it, it sounds killer!!!!!!

  3. Just a though.. I think remixes came about when djs wanted to fit a track better into their set. So they screwed around with it a bit added a drum n bass beat tone down the high hats cut the lyrics.. It all seems to serve the set.
    I imagine Laidback Luke thinking, "hmm this track doesn't sit right I better get to work", and then out comes his latest remix. But it was meant for one of his sets.
    I highly doubt that tracks are remixed as a stand alone remix.
    But then again I really dont know.

  4. Just a though.. I think remixes came about when djs wanted to fit a track better into their set. So they screwed around with it a bit added a drum n bass beat tone down the high hats cut the lyrics.. It all seems to serve the set.
    I imagine Laidback Luke thinking, "hmm this track doesn't sit right I better get to work", and then out comes his latest remix. But it was meant for one of his sets.
    I highly doubt that tracks are remixed as a stand alone remix.
    But then again I really dont know.

  5. I really want to stop seeing DJs use Daft Punk's Aerodynamic in their remixes or their mixtapes.

    • Do people really still play that? It's been rinsed from Paris to Patpong.

      By the way, I realise it may not be clear, I was saying that I occasionally play the original tracks that Daft Punk sampled from. I never play DP tunes these days.

      Example: Check out "Cola Bottle Baby" (Edwin Birdsong)

  6. I'd suggest to readers that with tools like Mixed in Key and Traktor's sync and keylock functions, you can mix and match styles far more easily than you could back in the day with vinyl. You can take a pumping techno tune and drop some UK Funky sounds right on top, creating your own hybrid breaky sounds, all perfectly beat-matched and in key. You can transform, filter, and EQ all day long. Back in the day I used to drop hip-hop instrumentals on 45 on top of house records to create my own hardcore sound - today's gear lets you innovate on a much more complex level. So try it out and don't be afraid to fail. My hockey coach always says, if you're not falling, you're not trying hard enough.

  7. I have a question. How can I educate dancers here in Taiwan? They are club goers who want to hear the same tracks weekend after weekend. I have an eclectic mixing style but it doesnt seem to work. The only place in Taiwan that is suitable for a more diverse DJ set is the capital, but I dont live there but in a major city. Any advice from you guys?

    • You can't educate them unless you change your style. Unless of course, you set up a dancing school next door to the club :-)

      If they aren't dancing as you'd like them to, I'd say that you should be less abrupt in your eclectic mixing style and smoothen out the set.

      How about you change genre gradually and morph into other styles, rather than cutting and chopping your way through a set?

      • Dont get me wrong Matt my sryle is eclectic but I mix eclecticly (can I say that) like 30" before closing the club. While me or the other DJs mix at peak time all dancers want to hear are the same tunes and nothing else but that. I mix what they want to hear but I find it boring and not challenging at all that is my point. I know the main point of having DJs at a club is to keep dancers on the dancefloor but, wouldnt you b tired of having to eat your fav meal every weekend?

      • I think I understand. You are fed up of playing top 40 cheese that anyone can play and you want people who dance to better, more original tunes?

        I think many people here can relate to that! I have just stopped playing any commercial music whatsoever because I just don't enjoy it at the moment.

        You need to find new gigs at places where people are receptive and have decent music taste. Somewhere that fits your image.

        If you don't find it locally then consider playing out a weekend in Taipei from time to time.

  8. I agree with all the points.

    Best rule of thumb is to rock a crown with 30 years of great music, not just 30 new promos you landed.

    • And if your still a whippersnapper, raid your parents and grandparents record collection. I've just started playing with production and the possibilities to change a song are limitless! By the way, this is definitely the best website on djing.

      Thanks for the great articles, amazing comments and the community that makes me come back every day hoping to learn something!

  9. Best production software for building Remixes?

  10. Regarding 5. If you just can't remember the name of that 1970's sample that's driving you absolutely insane, try hitting but beware - it's ridiculously easy to lose yourself in there.

  11. I totaly agree with 5. mixing new and old tunes. Jazzy Jeff did this really well on his Do'over show that he would play a short sample of the original track first then drops it with a hot hip hop track where the artist sampled it from. It certainly surprises some people who's never seen it coming.

  12. This was a great article, gave me a lot to think about.

  13. Dj Mkgatla says:

    Thank you somuch. I believe these will help me bigtym. will keep intouch.

  14. Cliff Whitney says:

    Didn't I just say most of the things you posted in this article in the comments section of a previous post? I'm pretty sure I did? Anyways..... Nice article.....
    Best remix software hands down is Ableton where you can prep your tracks into spun gold and then use your DVS mixing software to really make them stand out....
    For those of you who wanna see an eg. of what I have done over the years....
    My remixes, cover tunes and personal attempts at mixing wizardry can be found on YouTube or sound cloud.... I won't say it's always good.... But it certainly is fun....

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