How To Play Your First Digital DJ Set

Phil Morse | Read time: 5 mins
dj sets how to dj Pro
Last updated 5 April, 2018


Laptop DJ
Be prepared to set your digital gear up in a busy DJ box.

Your first digital DJ set in public is going to be nerve-racking, a rollercoaster experience you’ll never forget, but that you’ll probably never want to repeat either!

Like a good theme park ride, you’ll probably hate it… till the moment it stops and you scream “again”! Luckily, your second and subsequent sets will be even better. So here are seven tips to help make sure you do a good job, and hopefully even manage to enjoy it (a bit)…

1. Know your tunes
This is the most important tip of all. So you’re playing a two-hour set – that’s probably 25-30 tunes. Whether you’re DJing the warm-up set or playing peak time, same difference. I’d say have 50-60 tunes prepared that you know inside out. You should be happy mixing all of these, and ought to have thought hard about why they’re in your virtual crate.

What tunes are “big” in the venue? What tunes are big right now? What other tunes complement them? What tunes are important to you, are part of your style? What mixes have you discovered that you love? You need a blend of new, old, known, unknown, predictable and surprising. Choosing double the tunes you’ll need means you can go underground or chart, upfront or classic, safe or risky, as the crowd takes you. But make sure you know them well – that’s the most important thing.

And DO take the time to prepare them – don’t just turn up with 60GB of tunes unsorted on a hard drive and think you’ll be OK. You won’t!

2. Know your kit
It’s important that you’re happy with your DJ equipment, especially because as a digital DJ it’s more than likely ou’ll be taking your own kit with you to play on. You need to know how to set it all up, pack it away again, get everything working quickly.

You need to know what to do if you have a crash (hint: take an iPod and be ready to plug it in with a mix prepared), and how to boot up quickly and cleanly (eg knock out wireless / Bluetooth, don’t let memory or processor-hungry apps load in your PC, disable screensavers…).

Dj and crowd
Prepare well for your first DJ set to make sure you enjoy it.

It will help if you’ve played with your gear in parties. If not, just take it to someone else’s house and set it all up there, while catching up with them. This will prepare you for being in a venue where people may be trying to talk to you, you’re unfamiliar with the surrounding, you’re in “public” mode – and even for when someone says “you’re on in 5” and you’ve not even unpacked. (But still, get there early and set up in good time.)

3. Have a plan
I had a set list written out and hidden in my record box the first time I DJed in public, I was that nervous – with every single mix planned! I wouldn’t say go that far, but a bit of planning is a good thing.

You already know what time you’re starting and finishing. How many people will be there? When does the venue tend to get busy? When do people start to dance? You can’t make people dance too early, so have a plan – a warm-up, a transitional stage, a peak-time stage.

If you’re only booked for warm-up, play warm-up; if you’re coming on after a chart DJ but you’re more upfront, have some chart crossover material to lead into your set. If you’re between two DJs who play different styles, how will you bridge them?

The point is, have a plan; think about what you’re going to play. Half an hour of this, then half an hour of that, then half an hour of something else… that’s all you need. Just the process of planning a DJ set makes you a better DJ, especially when afterwards you compare how it went with what you were thinking.

4. Keep it simple
Your first DJ set is no time for tricks and showing off. Just plan to play records simply and competently one after the other. Make your mixes functional; you’ll probably be trembling too much to “large” it on the decks anyway!

Girls dancefloor
Keep your mixing simple and make enough time to enjoy watching the dancefloor.

One of the biggest things you should take from your first few DJ sets is how the crowd behaves, but if you’re too busy trying to plan and pull off DJ tricks, you won’t be watching them enough. So keep it simple, take in the atmosphere and learn by looking around you – the tricks can come when you’ve mastered the basics. You’re far less likely to mess up this way.

On a related note, don’t have more than a drink or two to steady your nerves – caution goes out of the window when you’re half-drunk, and you don’t want to go down that road on your first (or four-hundredth) DJ set.

5. Look like you’re enjoying yourself
This is where many rookie DJs (and a few professionals) let themselves down. Nobody wants to see a DJ with his head in his laptop 90% of the time, agonising over every mix. You have to have time to join in, even if it’s just a little dance and a smile, shaking hands, chatting to those near to you.

Even if you feel rough, you’re so nervous you could be sick, nobody’s dancing, the venue owner has told you to turn it down, you keep getting inappropriate tune requests, it looks like a fight is about to kick of in the corner, and your girlfriend just had a go at you for not giving her enough attention: smile!

It’s your enthusiasm often as not that gets the dancefloor going. It’s your love of the music that encourages other people to hear the good in it. It’s your lead that starts everyone having fun. Looking happy on the outside when all manner of “performance anguish” is going on in your head and heart is difficult, but you must master this one. How can you expect others to have a good time if you’re obviously not?

Having fun
Remember, people have come for a night out, and your music is only a small part of that. Relax!

6. Relax – most people aren’t even listening!
A wise old DJ friend of mine once said: “Most people aren’t really listening.” I thought he was talking rubbish at the time, but it turns out he was quite right.

Put yourself in the shoes of the average person on a night out. You go out for an evening: You are trying to get laid, get drunk, just happy you’re not at work, catching up with friends, in the venue solely because it’s a trendy place to be seen in, worrying that your bum looks big in this skirt, upset that your best friend hasn’t come, really pleased someone you didn’t think you’d see is here, bitchin’ because someone never buys an drink for you… and all this time there may or may not be a DJ playing!

You see? Most people they simply don’t listen to the music all night long… even when dancing to it, half the time. If someone hears two records they love, they’ll go home happy. If they don’t go home happy, it probably won’t have ben your fault anyway (see the list above).

Point is, pick your tunes well, and relax! People really aren’t here for you. Even your friends will be hard-pushed to name many of your tunes after a DJ set. Music might be your life… but most of the crowd have got more important things on their minds.

7. End on a great record
So if most people aren’t listening most of the time, your aim is to make sure everyone in the club hears just two or three records they really love. The trick here is to make those “I love this one” tunes different for everyone, so there’s always someone “bigging up” your music at any given time.

Save your best tune to last and send everyone home happy.

But… here’s a big DJ secret. If you can save just one record that as many people as possible in the crowd adore, and play it right at the very end, you’ll send them all home with that tune ringing around in their ears.

And when they wake up, hungover and with hazy heads, they’ll probably only remember that one tune from the night before… and hopefully your smiling face as you jumped about behind the decks while you were playing it to them. Job done!

Now go and ask the manager for a re-booking. And good luck…

Are you about to play your first DJ set? Do you remember how you felt when you did? Do you have any advice to add to these pointers? Please join in and let us know.

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