Over To You: Why Does My Gig Preparation Always Go Out The Window?


Set planning used to involve putting 80 records into one of these...

Set planning used to involve putting 80 records into one of these...

Reader Grant Johnson writes with a problem that we hear in some shape or form pretty regularly, especially from DJs who don't gig frequently. Here's his question: "I'm a college student and up and coming DJ. I've played three gigs now and I really enjoy getting the dancefloor pumped up. However, I come to you with an interesting problem. I usually spend 20 full hours getting ready for a gig before the night of the event, which is quite a long time I think. Worse than that, however, is that most of this preparation goes out the window when it comes time to perform! Any tips?"

Digital DJ Tips says:

I guess you're "starting from scratch" each time you prepare for a gig. I'd say you should build on previous gigs each time. Start with a tight, lean tune collection (if you have more than 500 tunes in your current set, you're making work for yourself), then review what you played at the last gig, add in any new tunes you simply know you have to play, and go from there. That'll cut down your prep time. It's OK to deviate from what you've planned - indeed, you wouldn't be DJing properly if you didn't every now and then - but throwing all your preparation out of the window is a sign that you're not starting from a position based on what you usually play at your gigs.

Beginning your planning with the history of what you actually played last time should help you to solve that. Luckily, most DJ software will show you what you played at your last gig - a great thing about digital!

Over to you. How can Grant prepare more effectively for his gigs? What kind of planning should he be doing to sensure it doesn't all go out the window when he starts DJing? Please add your thoughts in the comments below.

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  1. Preparation is key, I know of several reident djs who play the same set every weekend, same order, same time of night and it is predictable and boring. | also know of Djs who play pre mix compilations - which is a complete cop out for those of us who put time and effort into researching new music, finding old classics to fit into you set and basically using your DJ skills.

    Phils advice is sound, trim down your collection, prioritise your tracks, rate them and then add new music weekly while removing others.

    • I thought it was appalling when you said you hear resident deejays playing the same exact set, in the same order, over and over again. I just can't believe anyone actually does that...

      Until I read the next part. Premixed CDs even?!?!?! What is this world coming to?

      Well, I guess planing a pre-planned, exactly the same that you've played before, isn't really much different than playing a premixed CD though is it? They both suck pretty bad (only one sucks slightly worse than the other).

  2. If you are a so called 'unknown DJ' and you are cutting your teeth then you really need to understand that people want to hear music that is/or sounds familiar. Give them a good listening experience, work from a crate/folder that you know people will dig, add other stuff on the fly.

    You are trying way too hard to impress at the stage you are at. Practise for the 40 hours... make cue points and notes .. line a few tunes up that mix well but learn to read a crowd first.

    Being a DJ and learning daily should be fun and not stressful... enjoy it.

    DJ esSDee

    • Good point - you could indeed either be looking for new music or practising in all that precious time :)

    • Will Marshall says:

      I got my first opportunities as a new DJ by playing stuff no one had ever heard before. I play an obscure niche genre called psybreaks. Audiences (even very mainstream audiences) absolutely love it*, and because I'm the only dude locally who does psybreaks sets I get invited back.

      To the OP: my process is simple. I have three different playlists in Traktor or Itch. In my case these are called Psybreaks, Psytech and Prog, but yours could easily be House, Techno and Minimal, whatever you're playing.

      I keep each of these playlists filled with exactly 100 tracks. I spend a fair bit of time weekly on blogs etc finding new material: and when I want to *add* a track I have to delete one. Forces me to think very carefully about what ends up in my crates.

      To practice, I do two things. Firstly, I regularly DJ with beatgrids+mouse in the background while I'm at work. The goal is to keep the music playing all day, and I've done this enough that it doesn't stop me from working at all anymore.

      Secondly, I have a DJ booth set up in the lounge, so whenever I'm cooking or have guests over I switch on the controller and spin quietly while I talk.

      Before an actual gig, I usually make a point of practicing properly for an hour or so, and I'll usually run a full consistency check and make sure everything is configured correctly about an hour before I leave for the venue.

      The biggest thing is, don't sweat it. Just stay on top of your DJing all the time, and when you turn up at a gig it'll be easy, you'll be relaxed and your audience will see that.

      (* They won't turn up to a gig with psybreaks on the flyer, but if they're there and it gets played they go ballistic. Go figure?)

      • StrangeMatter says:

        Spot on about putting psybreaks on the flyer! It's amazing how many peopple say they don't like trance but ten minutes later Adagio for Strings comes on and they're all screaming "ZOMG!!! TIIIIEEEEEESSSSSTOOOOOOOO!!!!!11!!!"

  3. You sound like you could be taking it too seriously and you need to enjoy preparing and gigs rather than stressing.

    Reduce your preparation time, 20 hours is far too long and sounds like you're staking your life on your gig. Try finding some new tunes and make some new mixes freestyle.

    Record a few different variations of your mixes, drop some of your new tracks in and try to picture how people react to them.

    See preparing and gigs as more of a game, and a bit of entertainment. Start from there and have some fun with it.

    And one more tip: prepare a bit every day rather than loads in the last 2 or 3 days before your set.

  4. at some point you need to know what YOU play... is it house? top 40? . Dandb? dubstep? once that is set start from there. Phill's advice is spot on about history.pull the hottest tracks from there. now build your set after that. You must know music to be a successful dj.If you dont know the greatest songs you will always be 'off' with your set. If the audience knows better music than you they will turn on you. Once you can say these things are in order then of to the 'set up' ( if they are not in order don't worry just start listening to more music. big name dj sets and podcast in your genre ) if you have a 2 hour gig. I assume each song is playe for 2.5 to 3 mins. so for that set i would put 3 hours worth of music together. and stick with that selection. so that means the hottest songs only in that set. that limits you from being all over the place and gives you something to focus on. As a new dj i suggest a suggestion sheet. if you play them or not doesn't matter what matters is going home with a list of things people wanted to hear that you didnt have.

    • that's good advice about the suggestion sheet... that instantly changed my mind on how I view suggestions, I no longer hate them... And I do realize I should've been looking at them the way you just suggested from the start, we aren't just playing music for ourselves...

  5. question: what do you do when the mc at a wedding is a complete dumbass tool and treats you like a jukebox and doesn't follow the wedding schedule and keep touching your audio equipment?

    • A conversation for another time perhaps, but try looking at the person very confidently, smile and say "Relax, I got this." (Im not kidding.)

    • dennis parrott says:

      I do primarily weddings and parties. I don't have a problem with requests but I don't guarantee that I will play them. Requests are a "negotiation" with me. Somebody asks for something good, I will slip it in. If they want Zappa in the middle of a disco set, well, not happening...sorry.

      As for "complete dumbass tools" like your MC, I fall back to prior training. I used to haul my gear around town to do PA for live gigs. My friend used to book a lot of bands. At one show, I had a very active showman keep wandering in front of the main speakers with his mic. The feedback was horrendous! I was furious and my friend said to me: "sometimes the sound man has to be a DICK!"

      So I turned his mic off. No feedback! Problem solved.

      When I started DJing, those tools kept trying to fiddle with the knobs. I decided that sometimes the DJ has to be the DICK. I just tell them that unless they want to be ponying up some fat cash for my equipment, they should take their grubby fingers off of it.

      As for them thinking you are a "jukebox", let them have their say and tell them "I'll think about it" or "I'll see what I can do". If they get insistent, ask your client to deal with him/her. If it is your client that is getting insistent, well, you need to think about your situation...


  6. The part of my planning that nearly ALWAYS goes out the window is where I carefully plan synthsizer preset sounds to incorporate live playing with my DJ set. Then I go to the gig and the freaking booth is so limited/small that there is no room for my nano controllers (essential for my synthesizer playing) so the whole thing goes out the window and Im just using my basic controller and DJ with tracks, loops, and effects.

    Next time people ask me what exactly Im doing different by using Live instead of a typical DJ software I 'll shout "Give me room and you shall listen" lol

  7. Good Point. I think it's the end of DJ booth as we know it. In the future, I think there will be nothing there except rca and xlr cables, because every DJ is using their own equipment these days. That's why most gear is coming out along with flight cases, bags and so on. We're living in the creative years. The Pioneer standard setup in clubs will not last forever. Even Allen Heath DB4 is being shipped with a bag...DJ's want more space for their equipment and DJ booths will change because of this, no doubt.

    • I almost never see any deejays using only their own equipment. Sometimes you'll see a Kontrol X1 or some sort of ancillary controller but they are almost all using the club's mixer and decks. This goes for small time DJs in the US to the biggest names in Ibiza.

      It's very rare to see someone lugging an S4 to a club and playing off of it. It happens but it is the (rare) exception, not the rule.

  8. Ive only been DJing for less than a year. My first gig was in May and I've averaged 2 per month. Some readers will remember me as the guy w/ a 3 terabyte hard drive of music which I narrowed down to a manageable 70,000. (No comments please!) My worst gig was the one I thought would be the easiest - playing Halloween night for a Latin crowd at a private party in a club. I dont know what the heck Psybreakbeat is but I do know my Salsa. Turns out the crowd was 25+ mostly Latinos that like salsa but wanted a different 'flavor' of Tropical salsa which I cant stand. Then later in the night when everyone was good and drunk they wanted House. I planned for this but none of the House I prepared was hitting the spot.

    Lucky for me I asked a seasoned DJ friend to help with the gig. He had all that Old School House music and the party was saved. I would jump in with a song, kill the dance floor, and then he'd come back with more bangers. I got seriously schooled that night.

    I spent the next week with my girlfriend going over every 80's-90's House/Freestyle song I have and picked the gems. My girl gave me great advice; when you're at a club its ok to play songs people dont know, but can dance to. When you're at a party people want to hear songs they know.

    Use the star rating system in iTunes to help prepare sets:
    5 stars - instantly recognizable song THAT YOU LIKE
    (2Pac California)
    4 stars - instantly recognizable song THE CROWD WILL LIKE
    (Its time for the Perculator)
    3 stars - good song (majority of music will be 3 stars)
    (Ludacris, Outkast, Adelle Remix, Rihanna)
    2 stars - good song the crowd will like THAT YOU CANT STAND
    All things Britney/Katy/Pink/Kesha

  9. Will Konitzer says:

    Another approach is to group your tracks into "feel" for beginning, middle and end of your set. Have a couple of tracks pre-planned to start with to calm any nerves, and then see where it goes.

  10. My approach is to have a constantly evolving framework of tunes - say up to 50 new, tried-and-tested and classic - into which you can also drop whatever takes your fancy, or something that just comes into your head, as the night progresses. I quite often has 2, 3 or 4 tunes that work well together but that doesn't mean you're going to play them all at a particular night. After all, people decide to go to the bar or the coooler at different times and that full-on pumping tune at the end of a sequence of 3 may be playing to a less than full floor.

  11. Ive said this on other topics. Its really all about time management. Some of us have to juggle 9 to 5 jobs (multiple jobs at times), school at night (UNI), DJ gigs, radio gigs and being married and/or raising kids... Set yourself a small block of time every day that you will dedicate strictly to both practicing and organizing. It really helps a lot. Nothing worse than spending 8 hours before a gig organizing and then 4 hours to gig and all your prep goes out the window.

    I am blessed to be able to gig in different genres and markets every week. For example, I am doing a Dive bar gig in SF on Friday night. Its my favorite Dive Bar in SF and I am a resident. There, I can play anything and everything before 2000. So every day, I sort out tunes I'd want to play that night. Maybe some Ace of Base, Morrissey, Steppenwolf... maybe an old school hip hop set with Run DMC, Masta Ace, Chubb Rock... Maybe some old school funk, Zapp & Roger, Earth Wind & fire or go into new wave.

    Knowing what type of gig you are playing helps out a lot. Find out ahead of time.

  12. My preparation comes in listening to the radio...a lot. Pandora has helped me find some old tracks that I'd perhaps forgotten about. Also, I find listening to entire albums helps a lot to find hidden gems that don't get airplay.

    When I'm approached to do a party, since I do mostly weddings, sweet 16s, etc, I always ask the client what the crowd is going to look like in terms of demographic (they've created the guest list so they always have a very good idea who will be there). I don't want to be stuck expecting one type of crowd, mentally preparing myself, only to find an entirely different demographic awaiting. Also, knowing my demographic ahead of time allows me to decline the gig if it's not my style. At the end of the day we are artists and every artist has his or her style; Don't let anyone tell you otherwise (many people believe any iPod can do the job of a DJ).

  13. You definitely need a base to start from and work around. If it is 40 or 400 makes no difference. I always start a new playlist once or twice a year that I build on of songs I am currently playing. then incorporate new songs or add old songs as needed. In an older article I Phil wrote about deleting a bunch of his music. I followed suit. Sort of... I had it all backed on hard drive. I never know when I am going to get a request I better have for various reasons (there is an article for that too). Point is you need a basis of music you play and build around that. My 2 cents.

  14. I think preparation always goes out the window—I think it's supposed to. How ever, what is important is to know your crowd and know your music. If there's a certain style or genre that works well with a certain crowd, I create a playlist or folder with those tunes. I do that until I have folders for pretty much all occasions and crowds, and observe and practice until I know where they overlap as well. The most I'll do for any particular gig is put a few "touchstone" songs that I want to be sure to play (new tunes or remixes I just made, etc) and then fill in the gaps between those tunes with songs from the playlists that will work with the crowd.
    Here's a post I made about crate organization as well...

  15. Dexter Ford says:

    I use a similar method to Will Marshall:

    I always have 3 sets prepared.

    My main set will be aimed at the tempo/energy level I roughly expect to play at, for the time I'm due to play, based on what I know about the night and whoever is playing before and after me.

    I'll then have a set that's a little more relaxed, and one with a bit more pace.

    I also plan a half hour more than I'm booked for for each set, so if I'm booked for an hour, each set is 1 hour 30 mins. Each set gradually builds in energy.

    This way I know I can pretty much match the vibe of whoever I take over from, lead my set to wherever it needs to go, and have room to cross over from one set to another if the room needs a little lift or a breather.

    It goes without saying that you need to know your sets inside out. That way you know exactly where to switch to.

    The other thing is that you can plan your set as much as you like, but you can't plan the crowd.

    Once you're in the booth you have to just go with the flow. Sometimes half the fun of DJing is not quite knowing what you're going to play next, flying by the seat of your pants and putting things together you never would have tried otherwise. That's where those magic moments come from.

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