5 Essential Tips for Playing A Great Warm-Up Set

Warm up

Warming up a room is a skilled job, and one that should be taken seriously by any DJ who truly wants to learn the craft. Pic: DJ Abs

Your first DJ gigs “out and about” are unlikely to be peak-time slots. They’re far more likely to be early-doors, when the club is cold and empty and the bar staff and doormen are your only audience – at least while the first few clubbers start to drift in. So how do you do it? I was interviewing veteran DJ and producer Dan Bewick today (who also scores Hollywood films and computer games, but that’s another story…) for my new DJ training course, and it turns out that – just like me – a big passion of his over a 20-year DJ career has been warm ups. Here are five “essential tips” that came out of our chat:

Five tips for playing a great warm-up

  1. Play familiar music, but not peak-time tracks – A warm-up shouldn’t pack the floor (it’s not possible anyway), but equally shouldn’t scare people off! Sticking to lower-energy, lower-tempo tracks that have a familiar feel (think tunes from the past as well as maybe undiscovered more modern tunes) will give you a nice mix of unthreatening music that gets people in the mood without demanding they “dance or die”…
  2. Make friends with the staff – A club with no customers still has a whole load of people in it – the staff. You should be positive, polite and friendly from the minute you arrive, and to everyone you meet – and indeed make it your job to introduce yourself to everyone in the venue before it opens and you start playing. Your “good vibes” will immediately set the tone for the evening. If everyone’s in a good mood, that will show to all the customers as they arrive, and so you should do everything in your power to make sure that’s the case
  3. Have an idea of what you want to play, but be prepared to deviate from it – You simply cannot “plan” a warm-up. Even more so than peak-time sets, you have to “go with the flow”. It’s fine to have “mini-sets” that you stick to within an overall DJ set, but that overall DJ set music be flexible so you can alter it to suit the speed the night is filling up at, and who’s coming in. Those early people are the ones you need to watch, as they’re the ones whose enthusiasm is going to spread to the whole club as it gets busy
  4. Keep your head up – So moving on from the last point, you simply have to watch who’s in the club, and watch them carefully. Just because they’re not dancing, doesn’t mean you can’t observe how they’re enjoying the tunes. Look for bobbing heads, feet tapping, little dance moves at the edge of the floor or at the bar, smiles, talking about the music when you mix something new in. And focus on those who’ve really come to party (there’s nearly always one group like this) – get a group of those people on the floor and the job’s half done
  5. Always remember you’re part of a bigger plan – You are not the whole night. If you build up your set so your last few tunes are the loudest, biggest club bangers in your box, how is the next DJ going to follow on from you? If you have a guest DJ/producer playing later on but you play his or her big hits yourself, what are they meant to play? Always think of the night as a whole – or in other words, see past your hour or two and think of the DJs who are coming on after you. They’ll thank you for it, and you’ll be more likely to be invited to play a peak-time set if you do

Finally…

It’s easy to “bottle it” and start throwing club bangers on to fill the floor when you’re warming up – it’s a classic rookie error. Smart DJs know the truth: people rarely arrive at a club and want to dance immediately. Above everything else, the job is to set the vibe and make everyone feel welcome.

And while it may not be the easiest thing in the world for a DJ to appear to be happy, energetic and “into it” – especially when the venue is slow to fill up for whatever reason – that enthusiasm for the music and the night simply has to start from you. It’s a crucial lesson for DJs to learn, and it’s one of the big reasons why if you can play a good warm-up, you can play any time of the night.

• These points came out of an extended video interview on programming warm-ups between Dan Bewick and me, which will be available as part of our forthcoming How To Digital DJ Masterclass video course.

Do you regularly pay warm-ups? Do you have any successes or horror stories you’d like to tell us, or any tips you’d like to share? Please feel free to do so in the comments.

Comments

  1. Add to that..

    Where possible, discuss with the follow up DJ what he’ll be playing, for example style and bpm, and work your way up to that. Best even if you can make a seamless transition from your to his set. Most fun if you are on playing on different gear and you get to mix the last track together. You’ll easily make friends that way!

    • Yes, excellent advice. Dan was also saying that it’s even known to go further and share playlists etc, especially if you’re warming up at a place where another DJ often warms up, just so you can keep continuity going.

  2. This probably sounds cliche, but a tune that has a nice long intro without drums helps a lot. To have the whole club going from complete silence to banging kicks is jarring; it’s the musical equivalent to dumping a bucket of ice water on your buddy who’s asleep.

    Another given would be DO NOT PLAY any tracks or remixes by the headliner! I’m shocked how often this happens. Promoters hate this, and believe me they’ll think twice before they book you again.

  3. Warm-up mastery involves a good EDM comprehension, every main genre as some calmest sub-genre ramification. If you play Jump up DnB just play Liquid or Jungle, if you play Hard Techno go for Dubtechno or Minimal.

  4. Steps 2-5 are great tips for DJs in general. Not just openers.

    • agree and if your the only DJ for the night rule 1 applies to the first 2 hours :D
      I usually play 4-5 hour gigs and first 1-2 hours are usually slow as people are there to drink. so plying familiar music or even top 40 gets them in the mood for the more peak time tracks later on

      • I agree. It’s all about the energy vibe…slowing building it over the course of the night.

        Early on it should be about atmosphere, relaxed, welcoming.

  5. A great article about what is probably one of the most important and often looked over sets of the night. It’s your job as the warm up DJ to get the night started. I’ve found these to be by far the most challenging sets, and also the most rewarding. It can take a look of skill to create that initial atmosphere in a club.

    I’ve often found that starting as you mentioned with not necessarily commercial, but familiar sounding tunes, something with a nice funky groove and a vocal works well. If you can get a few girls on the floor, then a few guys will follow (after all we are shallow creatures), all of a sudden you have a dozen people on the floor and more following…just don’t get carried away. And as JB mentioned, always do your homework with who’s to follow..

  6. Always good to remember that as the opener, you’re there as a complement to the headliner. It sounds obvious, but you should really know the headliner’s music or style and be able to queue them up for a successful dance floor.

    I also found this article particularly helpful when I was preparing for a warm-up set: http://www.residentadvisor.net/feature.aspx?1095

    The set: https://soundcloud.com/futurefocus/necto-voltage-4-3-13

  7. BE FLEXIBLE is very good advice. I’v seen clubs go from empty to full in a matter of minutes. your music needs to be able to reflect the energy that is coming back from the whole club.

    Also when the club is empty you have an opportunity to work out the relationship between the sound of the booth monitors and the sound of the system in the rest of the club. A few quick experiments hear can help in many ways.

  8. Anthony says:

    Do the same rules apply when there are no openers? Lets say you have 5 Djs playing 45 minute sets…is it protocol that the guy who is playing the peak set is the main DJ even though he may have no songs out? I see this a lot where I live and I am wondering if those rules apply – or in that situation you play as hard as you can?

    Great article as always!

    • djrizki says:

      @Anthony: im feelin you man, i felt like in the same boat as you are, i mean hey you only got like 45 mins right ? what i do is unload all of my canon, play it to the max, why ? so the crowd will noticed, i mean hey you only got 45 mins, u gotta stick out like a sore thumb compare to other 4 dj’s

      I understand, maybe hey its not fair to the other 4 dj’s, who said they cant stick out themselves also?
      Most of them they dont really care anyway, they be goin up to my booth and jump around with me anyway …

      • This attitude will not get you into the big leagues bro. It is short-sighted and unskilled to say the least.

        I don’t mean anything personal by that but it is exactly what any decent promoter who see’s you do that will think.

    • This is common sense really.

      If you are the first DJ and no one is dancing you are, by default, the warm up DJ. Same goes for the 2nd, 3rd etc until the floor is rammed. You have to build it up.

      If you do a good job of this you might get spotted by a promoter who books bigger headline DJ’s and may book you as an opener.

      If you think “screw it” and play all your bangers you will be seen as an inexperienced newbie that isn’t showing potential. Also, there is ZERO skill in this. It is easy to find bangers but the real skill is programming a set, on the fly, that works with your audience to elevate those bangers and make them stand out.

  9. Definitely made the noob move my first live set and started out with John Dahlback’s Panic with the speakers way too loud. Needless to say I was not received well. ha

    Great article a lot of DJs need to read.

  10. Peter McBride says:

    I warm up with deep house and nu disco, has a lot of familiar hooks and great for holding the suspense before the inevitable take off moment :)) timing is important if not everything.

  11. I learned these lessons this past week. This article is great reinforcement. Talk to the staff sure, but make sure you are clear what the Manager wants. The staff may think what you are playing is great, but they don’t have the big picture in mind.

    Be open and adaptable. Always be courteous, you are there because they hear something they like. You can easily do something they don’t and the next guy/gal gets your spot. Now that I know what is needed, I actualy feel I have more freedom in my selection and will be more creative. Ask questions, follow up with a sample mix, do what is asked, and in the end everyone comes out happy.

    C2

  12. Chuck "DJ Vintage" van Eekelen says:

    I never really opened for anyone but myself :-). I did do lots of duo gigs, but since you were at the venue during the entire time, you’d know exactly what the other played. Plus we had distinct tastes, so that worked out just fine.

    I did however play loads and loads of “lonely nights”, seriously with zero people in the house. And you learn to make it work even if there is just two lost couples in the house.

    Obviously you don’t go full force and I would actually go up to the guests in that case and ASK for requests. Might as well play what they like to hear and keep them drinking for a round or two more.

    Cause no matter how good we are, if you are resident, warm-up or headliner for a club, it’s about the amount of money your crowd spends in the place that is what counts.

    Greetinx,
    C.

  13. Robert Wulfman says:

    and remember, absolutely no one goes to a club to hear the warm-up DJ

    • Not true in my experience. As a warm-up DJ I had loads of fans, used to pride myself on filling the club early.

    • Lol I’d go to hear openers and peace out for the headliners often. Most headliners are pretty boring to me.

    • Craig Richards, resident/warm up DJ at Fabric is a LEGEND! He attracts a lot of people.

      A good warm up DJ can be the best set of the night.

      • Jam-Master Jake says:

        I heard him spin a few weeks ago when I was in London on vacation. I was quite impressed…he had Fabric packed HOURS before peak time. Very talented DJ…never thought I’d have a good time dancing to a warm up Jock! :)

  14. Trev Malcolmson says:

    Robert, I used to go to Cream Liverpool to listen to a DJ that was learning his trade as a warm up and resident DJ, he’d do 9pm till 10.30ish, I think Steve Lawler has gone on to do quite well. also X-Press were exceptional warm up Dj’s and even better headliners, I felt honoured to be first in the club listening to these guys. the warm up is an absolute art form and a genre in its own right.

  15. Trev Malcolmson says:

    X-press 2 I meant to say legends

  16. keanu mueller says:

    hey fellow dj mates,

    warmed up last friday for da hool / dj hooligan, with a deep house set, instinctively did all you mentioned and it worked out well ;) follow up gig, this saturday!

    best wishes and keep up the good work,
    keanu mueller

  17. Hi friends. Thanks Pjil for those tips. We will need them for sure.
    By clicking in the link behind you can listen one of my last Warm Up sets.
    I played at Eclipse, a high level club in W Hotel in Barcelona.
    The audience is that kind of people than prefer sit down with nice girls an drink Moet Chandon instead of dancing.
    Well I did my job. Finally 90% of the club were dancing and I left my set a little bit higher at next DJ. He was grateful for the way i left the set to him.
    That’s only an example. I used old remixed tracks, low bpm and slowly went up. Mostly all the songs, even remixed, sounded very similar than the original. Playing that, you can connect with audience from 20 to 50 years old.

    Keep working!!! And enjoy the magical warm up time.

  18. Ups I forget the link. I’m sorry

    http://maxcortes.dj/dj-set-eclipse-hotel-w-25-10-2012/

  19. david dunne says:

    The biggest mistake I’ve seen warm ups do time after time, is thinking they will impress the headliner or club manager by playing a peak time set at top volume. I have lost count of how many times this has happened to me over the last 20 years or so – even just six weeks ago in Germany, I arrived at a club an hour before my set and the “warm up” was playing huge club bangers at 132 bpm and with everything jacked up into the red, …for only 10 people. Those 10 people left over the course of the next 10 mins and people coming downstairs into the club were stopping half way down, grimacing and going back up the stairs.

    Some of the best DJ sets I’ve ever heard were by warm ups and it’s always the hallmark of a talented and versatile DJ when they can fill a floor from empty, having played nothing you were likely to play and have it so ramped up that it goes off when you play your first tune. THAT impresses me more than Hero warm ups. I still do warm ups now from time to time and I love doing them. ALL peak time DJs should do one from time to time, just to remind themselves how important a part of the evening it is.

  20. riddimchef says:

    Key is you are there to entertain, not to boost your ego!!!

  21. Recently I’ve had the great opportunity to open and close for a Dj that has been a mentor and someone great I have looked up to in the Dj community. Im not going into names since this article isn’t about dropping names but more on the art of opening and closing a night. When I first got the news I was going to I was nervous as shit. What songs to play, Will I accidently burn him, will I kill the vibe before he gets there. A lot was going thru my mind but what was so amazing is he reached out to me beforehand, laid out some food for thought that helped me in opening the night. After sitting and goin over things for opening djs with him I had an epiphany. I was doing things wrong and I could actually look back at my gigs and see where shit went wrong. Needless to say this article pretty much sums up what it is to open and sometimes close for a headliner. I can say it is harder to open and close for a headliner than it is to be the headliner yourself :-)

    Djs keep practicing!! Never stop making yourself better!

  22. Rokthahaus says:

    I generally follow all of these rules if I am deejaying in a club or opening for a bigger act. However, my friends and I throw parties at a local venue and we have anywhere from 3 or 4 DJ’s spinning that night. Since the venue lacks a bar due to its all ages policy and it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere, we assume people just come to rage and we usually just bomb the dance floor and do a calmer track or two in between sets. People seem to react pretty well, but I assume that it’s only due to the specific situation and circumstances.

  23. I remember my first time DJing in front of a big crowd. It was in Dallas at the Lizard Lounge. My buddy at the time said I could step in on his set for 30 minutes or so. I got up to the booth and was going to start scratching and the levels were all the way up on the mixer. Started to scratch and the scratching overpowered the base track so much that it shocked people. People started holding their ears, etc. You know the feeling right before you realize you are going to have bad diarrhea in public. Well I was so embarrassed that I just froze and dropped the levels, a few seconds had passed still frozen in fear I realized that no music was playing at all and everyone was staring at me in pure amazement that someone would have given me the chance to Dj that huge crowd. Needless to say that experience changed me and made me grow like no other in my life.. Lol pretty funny

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