7 Rules For Great DJ Sound Quality

VU meters

The switch from analogue to digital has introduced a whole host of potential pitfalls when it comes to keeping sound quality high. But it needn’t be that way. These seven rules will help you ensure your DJ sets sound as good as they can.

I think we can all agree that music is a powerful and wonderful thing, liberating both the mind and body. In my experience, the cleaner and purer the music, the deeper one’s consciousness can engage with it. Pure vs distorted sound are as different to the mind as 2D vs 3D images are to the eyes. We have a duty of care to our listeners to ensure that everything in the audio chain is as clean and transparent as possible. Distortion hurts and drives people away from your music, particularly in today’s clubs where sound systems are loud.

So more than ever, it’s important to understand what’s involved, in order to strive to deliver a clean signal when you’re DJing or producing music. That’s what these 7 Rules For Great DJ Sound Quality are designed to help you with.

7 rules for great DJ sound quality

1. Keep everything out of the red

“Red” is there for a reason. Don’t rely on your gear to compensate for your ignorance of this; do it yourself. That means adjusting the gain controls so the individual channel meters aren’t in the red; making sure your master output meters aren’t in the red; and making sure, if you can, that the amplifiers in your venue aren’t in the red.

If you’re lucky enough to DJ with a sound engineer, respecting this one simple rule is probably going to be enough to get him 100% onside – and when it’s time to go louder, he’ll help you do it right, not hinder you by cutting your already-distorted efforts back down to size at his end.

2. If you can, use lossless rather than lossy audio files

By lossless I mean experimenting with WAV, FLAC or other lossless formats over “lossy” formats like MP3 or AAC. When you’re ripping your tracks to hard drive, at least try these formats instead. No, it’s not always as straightforward as MP3 or AAC (metadata, compatibility), but that doesn’t stop you checking what is compatible with your library software and DJ software of choice, seeing which formats let you have the metadata you’re interested in, and doing some experimenting.

WAV file icon

There may be a day soon when nobody uses MP3s and everyone uses lossless audio.

DJ software is getting better at playing more formats, and with digital storage ever-increasing and transfer rates equally getting faster, there may be a day soon when nobody uses MP3s and everyone uses lossless audio. As someone with an investment in great DJ sound quality, wouldn’t you like to be on that train early rather than late?

Of course, there are times when you can’t or don’t have a lossless version of a tune. I’m not saying never use MP3s. More, I’m saying be aware that there is a difference, and listen out for it. At least, give it a go and make your own mind up. I demonstrate these differences as part of my job, and when given a straight comparison, most people are surprised.

3. Ensure any samples you use are as clean and high resolution as possible

If you make mashups, re-edits, or your own productions, there’s no point mastering them as pristine lossless files when you used a load of low bit-rate MP3s as your building blocks! So when you start making, as well as playing, beats, make sure you’re particular about keeping the quality of your sources as high as possible. A finished mashup, re-edit, remix or own production is only ever going to sound as good as the worst-sounding sample it contains.

If you are “borrowing” far and wide to come up with new and exciting sounds of your own, I’d say stick to CD quality as your minimum – and again, no MP3s.

4. Keep your sound chain as simple as possible

Think of your sound quality like looking at a beautiful scene through glass. With analogue sound in years gone by, you maybe looked through two or three panes of glass to “get” to the view, and they were relatively easy to keep “clean”.

Layers

Every complication you introduce to an audio chain is like introducing an extra layer of glass between you and a beautiful scene; it’s a potential cause of distortion of your ‘view’.

With digital, you’ve now got, say, 10 panes of glass (it’s certainly many, many more than simple old analogue). Now, if each of those panes is scrupulously kept clean, the view will be just fantastic. But it only takes one pane to be dirty, and the view is ruined, even if the other nine are all fine.

So what are these “panes”? They are the stages in an audio signals progress through software and hardware. For instance the extra layers of processing in your DJ or production software: things like auto limiting, auto gain, effects and so on. The key thing here is to uncheck and unplug all unnecessary features that you’re not using in your software, and if you’re producing, to keep plugins to a minimum. I’m not saying never use this stuff; just use it mindfully, and switch it off when you aren’t using it. And listen out for the differences.

5. Use a good quality audio interface

Digital files need converting into analogue signals in order to be amplified and sent to loudspeakers so we can hear them. The job falls to your audio interface, or sound card, and specifically to the “digital to analogue converter” within that device. (Some sound cards also have “analogue to digital” converters in them too, to turn sound into digital.)

If you use a DJ controller, you may or not realise that you almost certainly have one of these built-in to it. You may also have a separate one, though: No matter. You use one somewhere along the line, that’s the point. Traktor sound cards are pretty good, Serato/Rane devices have upped their game of late and also sound OK – but many of today’s audio interfaces struggle to get past acceptable and some are downright awful. So if you want to improve the sound of a cheap controller, getting a decent sound card is the way to do it.

For me, easily the best value sound card on the market for DJs is the Echo Audio AudioFire 4. In tests, this outperforms sound cards costing thousands, which is staggering for a relatively budget unit. Unfortunately it’s Firewire only, but Echo Audio has recently launched a USB card, the Echo 2. I’ve not heard it yet, so watch this space for an update.

6. If you’re producing tracks, avoid over compression on the final mix

Compression is what makes the quiet bits louder and the loud bits quieter, in order to give more overall volume in a mix, but at the expense of dynamics (because now, there’s not so much difference between the loud and quiet bits).

Compression

Compression has been around for decades, but its mindful use is crucial if you’re to save listener fatigue and let your music breathe,

Sure there’s a place for compression, especially in dance music; whole sounds have been built around the creative use of it. But again, using it mindlessly can make for downright fatiguing listening. And at its worst, it can actually make music clip and distort.

There’s a movement called The Loudness War that has noted and championed this cause for a long time, and it’s worth restating it here: Compression is the enemy of good club sound. A decent sound system in a club doesn’t need it, and a well-mastered track that isn’t over-compressed will always sound better than one that is.

7. Watch the keylock!

This one is so widespread, it deserves its own point. If you use keylock, master tempo, or whatever it happens to be called on your controller and software, know that this is extremely disruptive to audio quality. (For the uninitiated, this is where you “lock” the pitch while altering the tempo, or vice versa, of a track or sample). It’s a useful tool, and I’m not saying don’t use it – but just do it mindfully.

Best to keep it to a minimum – use it for tracks that would be pretty close anyway to each other anyway, and lose it as quickly as you can. Don’t keep pitch shifting on all the way through a track; return to pitch zero and turn it off.

Finally…

What I’ve outlined above are objectives, they’re the ideal. I make no apologies for caring about them, though: as a species, if we hadn’t striven for excellence, we’d all still be living in caves! But then again, I do realise that a life half-lived is better than none.

I’m not one of these people who says “analogue is always better” – we are where we are, and despite the debate over analogue vs digital still rolling on 20 years later, this is a digital age we’re in.

I actually think that digital sound, done properly, is better than analogue – but you need to know how to do it properly and find the software and equipment made by people who know how to do it properly. So what I’m asking you to do is be aware that these things do matter, and to investigate them.

• Tony Andrews runs Funktion One, and is a global evangelist for better sound. You can watch him expounding on some of what he’s written here today in this TEDx talk.

Have you had issues with poor digital files? What steps do you take to ensure your digital DJ sets sound as good as possible? Do you think this is a growing problem, or are things getting better? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Comments

  1. All points made are correct and wise but I particlularly like the comparison of complicated audio paths with the glasses between the eyes and a view. This is really on point, and something that lot of people seem to not comprehend – always try to have the least possible alteration of your audio signal.
    Nice article!

    • P.S. I also happen to agree that digital sounds better than analogue (i.e. more accurate) if you know how to work with it. The misunderstanding began when people started comparing badly incorporated digital sound (clipped, distorted, compressed, badly produced) with perfect analogue equivalents (noone bothered to compare a correct digital sound for example with a “bad” analogue one such as old worn out magnetic tapes(casettes) etc etc)

      • info@dfrr.biz says:

        I’m with you on that last point, and I think the point with digital right through from instruments to the last D/A converter before the speakers is that it’s easier to maintain a consistently high quality sound, even if it isn’t the purest. Therefore screwing it up or not is almost entirely in the users’ remit, unlike with analogue which is so much more prone to losses, interference and distortion all along the way due to rules of physics. As you said, nice article.

  2. Chuck "DJ Vintage" van Eekelen says:

    Good stuff once again, Phil!

    I especially agree with keeping things out of the red. Being a sound guy too, this is the number one rule to keep things sounding as they should. Especially in the digital realm running red is FAR FAR more dangerous than it was in the analogue domain. Digital red means clipping and sounds horrible and should be avoided at all cost. Best practice is running things at 0 db average with the occasional peaks going into the yellow.

    I don’t concur 100% with your comments on lossless though. Too many tests have indicated that properly ripped mp3s at 320 kbps and true stereo are undistinguishable from lossless formats to the human ear in all but the most high end audiophile settings.

    And if you want to fit a decent library on your 32GB usb-stick, storing 50MB wav files makes you run out of space real quick (640 songs max), whereas you could fit 2500-3500 mp3s on the same device.

    Greetinx,
    Chuck “DJ Vintage” van Eekelen

    • I agree. 320 MP3s are good for live performances, and I’d stick with lossless ingredients when producing anything that will later be encoded to MP3 for distribution.

  3. DJ Smasherelly says:

    Great article Tony, I will be sharing this with many DJ’s!

    gain staging is very important, here is an article from Serato about it: http://serato.com/scratchlive/support/1903/gain-structure-for-djs-101. I’ve seen many DJ’s over the years having all the lights on with little dynamics. I always try to help out when I can to get things sounding and looking nicer on the mixer.

    File quality is another, I heard a DJ play on one of your club instalations in London, and the difference between some of the tracks were shocking. Some sounded nice and clear then another track sounded terrible. I’ve aimed to have all my tracks as AIFF flies and starting to convert to FLAC. I think instead of the debate over whether a difference can be heard, I think DJ’s should try to have a standard which they are comfortable with. So for me, I prefer lossless, but if your going for mp3′s, then try and aim for all tracks to be of the same quality, maybe that would help

    on the topic of key lock, I was helping a student last week with some queationa he had on the S4 and he brought to my attention that the same track sounded much clearer, wider, etc in itunes than it did in Traktor. Switching off the key lock helped to get it sounding better but still was not as clear as the itunes sound.

    Again a great article, thank you Tony and Phil

    • Interesting that, I found Traktor sounds much better than iTunes certainly with iTunes 10, still to compare 11. iTunes sounds kinda muffled, kinda like its re-compressed from 320 to 128kbs – its not subtle its night and day difference. Both are output through my audio 8 sound card through a decent hi-fi. I’ve tried changing some of the settings in iTunes but still the same – no eq pre sets, no compression etc. Maybe Traktor is pushing it out louder.

  4. foldabledisco says:

    Good article!
    I want to add the following, invest in a pair good quality and sturdy cables to connect your soundcard or controller to the mixer or an amp. I always bring a set of cables with different connectors (XLR,jack etc.) with me, so I can make sure my part of the sound is good. It also can save you from what I call cable stress. this can happen when there aren’t (enough) suitable cables in the venue you’re playing.

  5. Great tips,

    One thing to add, when you use certain quality audio, lets say 320Kbps MP3, stick to it! Don’t mix-up worse quality audio or better quality audio cause that will cause very noticeable differences.

    • Good advice JB, but there´s one problem: although encoding does make a difference in final quality, there are other varibles at play that affect this “uniformity” and most times prevent it to be fully attainable.

      Just like it happened with vinyl (and as noted by Tony on his post), from the original production and the building blocks used on it – samples or instruments – to all post-production phases – like mastering for instance – make a huge difference in output. And these are beyond our control.

      Not to mention “fake” encoding i.e. when a 128kbps file is labeled 320 or something… If you buy your music from reputable sources that´s not a problem, but if you download from filesharing websites or from friends or rip from unknown CDs and stuff it could be.

      I´ve been using Platinum Notes to get a more uniform level and dynamics for my music files. It´s not perfect but I´m not well versed in production or mastering so I have to rely on such programs to process my music. That and my ears, of course, since a good hand at EQing and gain still make a difference.

      • Hey Alex,

        Been wondering about the true added value of using Platinum Notes. The largest difference in MP3 files , be that the encoding is ‘truthful’, is mainly the gain. Which can be adjusted by using ReplayGain which doesn’t actually alter the file. I understand the added value for specific recordings, but I find it kinda scary to run a program like Platinum Notes over my files since it actually alters the file.

      • True JB, I understand that poses a problem to many DJs and their libraries. For me it was like I had little choice, as I said I´m not very proficient so I once just tried PN at first and stuck with it. Now I just run every purchased/ripped/produced tracks thru it and MiK before adding to my iTunes. But I make sure it´s all 320kbps or at least 256 (I understand that you cannot “de-compress” a compressed file but still I chose to get 320 for my PN´d files anyway…).

  6. Good post!

    I´ve always paid great attention to the quality of my sound – “sound” here having a broader sense, from whatever media I´m playing to the actual sound coming out of the speakers. But I´ve learned that “better” is not necessarily “cleaner”. And a lot of that depends on the mastering of the original recording – something that no processing can completely alter or improve. Just like no EQing in the world can compensate for a crappy file.

    That was my premise during the early digital X analog debate when CDs started to replace vinyl and some would say that CD music was “cleaner, therefore better”. Though I never gave in to the argument that vinyl was supperior for its alleged warmth, I could not accept that only because the sound was cleaner it was necessarily better sounding. Besides, dance music has always been “coloured” by PA processing and louder, noisier than “consumer” or even audiophyle standards, thus neglecting any cleanliness advantage.

    Anyway, I dare any listener or DJ to tell the difference from 320kbps mp3 to AIFF or other lossless files put through the same soundsystem and EQing. Yeah, lossless is prefered if you have the choice but it´s a minor detail. I´m not saying so because 99% of my library is 320kbps, both ripped from vinyl and CD and purchased online, I took this from experience because I don´t always get praises for the music I´m playing (LOL, I admit) – but compliments for the quality of my sound is common in different occasions and conditions. I have a few 192 and even 128kbps files that sound great, full and warm like a hight quality one. I always prefer 320 of course but as a general rule, the actual sound of the file sets the standard of acceptance for me.

  7. MIlos Djordjevic says:

    Great post!

  8. DJ Majestic says:

    I agree with most of this article except about the files. When it comes to MP3′s, if you use the program MP3 Gain it resolves all the issues of uniformity amongst your files. For best results use 95db as your default. People always ask how do I get my files to sound so clean. To round out the clean up process I use 1st MP3 Tag Editor to ensure proper labeling. And lastly MixMeister BPM Analyzer. I don’t rely on the software (Serato), I want the BPM on the file on the hard drive in case I use someone else’s system. This solved a whole buch of problems and because I always walk with my 2 TB portable drive I have been asked to do a guest spot at times because people know my library is clean & leveled out. I never push red. Channel faders are never above 7. Master gain on mixer is never above 3. This is where the dbx Driverack 260 earns it’s money. The amps run cool and never clip. I hope this information is helpful to some. I had to learn all this on my own through trial & error. Have a great day and keep spinning.

  9. Many thanks tony , great write up ..thanks for taking the time.

  10. Great article, particularly the glass comparison!

    But even when I only spun vinyl, I noticed huge differences in sound quality between records that were professionally produced. Newer records sounded distinctly better than older ones, even just a 5 year difference. Bigger names tended to have better sound quality, too.

    However, there were enough exceptions that I had to adjust on the fly. Sometimes obscure 70s disco sounded better than a 90s house hit.

    In the digital era, there’s the added problem of bad digital formatting. Finding high quality digital versions of older songs, particularly dance 70 & 80′s dance classics is extremely tough. This issue probably affects wedding DJs, too.

    My main tools were (and are) to turn up the volume and maybe EQ. I knew it isn’t ideal, but in the heat of mixing your set, what’s a DJ to do?

  11. Bit rate on digital tracks doesn’t always tell the full story; more often I am finding very poorly mastered/produced tracks on DJ pools, and on iTunes, regardless of the high bit rate.

    Nothing annoys me more than having to turn my trim past 11 o’clock and over-adjusting the EQ to compensate for poor MP3/AAC. iTunes apparently has no quality control; I prefer to source older music on CD or Vinyl. Those formats are not immune from poor mastering either, but 99.9% of the time sound great!

  12. One thing not mentioned here is mobile dj’s. You can follow all of these advise and it still sounds crappy. Too weak amps, too small speakers, budget DSP’s etc.

    Get out on the dancefloor and listen to how it sounds! If it sounds a litte bad on the stage/booth it will sound alot worse on the floor.
    Get a good limiter/DSP to control the amount of sound you are feeding in to the amps.

  13. i don’t understand how “auto gain” (i.e. in Traktor Pro) can make it sound worse?

    question about key in traktor pro – when pith is 0. does the “key” function still affect the sound?

  14. Great article. I’m new to Djing. In regards to the good quality audio interface point, would one need to purchase an additional audio interface such as Echo if using a controller that already has an interface? Such as the Pioneer DDJ-SX Controller. Or is the DDJ-SX fine on its own in terms of sound quality.

Leave a Comment