7 Easy Steps To Get From First MP3 To Playing a DJ Set
It’s a common question we get asked here. Typically a new digital DJ will find the site and spend weeks researching the equipment, before finally making a purchase. They Tweet about how excited they are and how they can’t wait for their kit to arrive. And then finally, they’ve got it! After a couple of days we’ll get an email that goes something like this:
“Well, I’ve got the gear! I’ve installed the software. I have got a few MP3s from my mate and I can get two tunes running together. What should I do now? Am I missing something? I feel like there’s so much more to learn!”
In the “old days” of vinyl, we’d spend 12 weeks learning to beatmatch. Or at least, that’s what we thought we were doing. But really, learning to beatmatch was the bit that let us take the time to start to recognise everything else you needed to know too.
Meanwhile, back at the record store…
Because over that few months, we’d be doing all kinds of other things – getting to know the guys in the local record shop, thinking about booking a gig or party, spending evenings with our friends who had (or wanted to buy) decks, going out clubbing to hear our heroes, and so on. We were kind of putting ourselves through a DJ training school of our own making, and we didn’t really realise it at the time.
Trouble is, today you can be producing decent-sounding mixes within about 15 minutes from unboxing! Hence the feeling of “What am I missing here?”
So assuming you’ve got your controller, headphones, main speakers, sound card (if you need one) and software all set up and ready to go, let’s look at what to do in that first few weeks to help you graduate smoothly from rookie to proficient digital DJ:
1. Set yourself a goal
New bands do this all the time. You’re sat around the rehearsal room, aimlessly jamming, and then suddenly someone says, “Come on, let’s book a gig! That’ll force us to really start doing something!”
Nothing makes you turn up for band practice and learn your part better than knowing that if you don’t, you’ll be messing up in front of a real live audience 6 weeks from now.
So decide on a DJing goal, and make it a few weeks away. It doesn’t have to be a gig. It could just be that you have a house party, or decide you’re going to record your first mixtape. The point is to decide you’re going to do something, settle the date, and tell people. Bang – instant focus.
2. Start collecting music just for DJing with
DJing with tunes you had lying around already, or your friend’s “dance” MP3s, is a no-go. Music is the start and end of DJing, not kit. You need to start collecting your DJ set.
You’re not going to be going to a record shop every Saturday, so you’ve got to work out how to replicate the experience. So set time aside for formal tune discovery and buying. Set a music-buying regime – decide what online stores you’re going to use, what blogs you’ll keep up with, and so on. And do it – ever week. Treat it like going to a record shop, and don’t miss it. Formal tune-finding time is essential for all DJs.
Once you’ve got your DJ tunes, separate them and have them available in one place in your DJ software. And use those tunes, and only those, to DJ with. They’re your set. They’re the tunes you’re going to want to know how to mix. They’re what you want people to remember you for.
And doing this will make you think hard about that set. Have I got enough “bangers” in there? Have I gone “off on one” a bit? Will I bore people with this stuff? Is ist suitable for where I want to play? Is the sound quality of those MP3s good enough? Are the BPMs close enough? And so on.
Congratulations – now you’re starting to think about music the way real DJs do. And it all comes from formally starting your DJ record collection. Another step along the road from rookie.
3. Learn the 1,2,3 (4) of DJing
If you’re not counting, you’re not doing it right. All DJs are constantly counting in their heads when they’re DJing.
When you learn to meditate, they tell you to concentrate on your breathing – doing so brings you back to the present. Similar thing with DJing. You need to concentrate on constantly counting the beats. If you lose count, you can lose where you are in a track and sometimes this is fatal for your mix.
All music is in bars – count 4 kick drums in a house track, and that’s a bar (same principle goes for 99% of the music you’ll ever want to DJ with, in any genre). Count 8 bars, ie 8 sets of 4, and that’s your standard “chunk” of music. You’ll notice things happen at each transition of these 8-blocks – basslines come in, drums notch up or down, vocals start, breaks arrive or finish, and so on. That’s why it’s so important to count so you know when they’re coming.
A good way to do it is to count “1,2,3,4” then “2,2,3,4” then “3,2,3,4” all the way up to “8,2,3,4”, then back to the beginning. Most of the time, you’ll be starting the next record (which you’ve got cued up at a “1” moment) when you return to the beginning of this cycle.
For now, just start counting as I’ve suggested and notice how the music is constructed around these mathematical building blocks. Beatmatching is easy with modern DJ kit because you have a sync button, but timing still needs to be learned.
4. Read the manual carefully
Back in the vinyl days, learning to use 2 record decks and a mixer was hard enough. All those fiddly controls on the turntable for tracking, balance and so on! Buttons and knobs on the mixer!
Well, I’ve got news for you – nowadays you’ve got 10 controls to our every one back then. Your DJ kit can do all kinds of things. But, I bet you’re deliberately shying away from some of them right now.
It’s time to dig the manual out, get stuck into those settings and features, and switch on the “auto help” to start learning. Of course some features will mean nothing to you at this stage. But the sooner you are at least aware of what you don’t know or fully understand, the sooner you’ll start joining the dots and working out what your kit is capable of.
Hot cues, looping, effects, samplers… all can and will help your DJing as you get more proficient. Just having the name of a feature in your head means you’re subconsciously thinking about it, even as you’re studiously avoiding using it as you feel you’re not “good enough” yet. So work through that features list. You’ll be using them all the sooner for the effort.
5. Study a hero
I remember watching Derrick May playing at a club back in the 90s. I was lucky enough to be stood on a set of stairs from where you could see well into the DJ box in the small, sweaty basement he was playing in.
I was transfixed by his skills on two decks – running one backwards using his finger to keep it in time with the forwards deck was my personal favourite trick. I tried for months to replicate what I’d seen until I managed it.
You need to know where you’re going, and your heroes will help you to get there. Nowadays, thanks to Mixcrate, SoundCloud, YouTube and so on, you can get audio and even video of great DJs. Many of them actually show you their tricks.
But you don’t need to learn formal “tricks” off people – that’s good but it’s not really what you should be looking for at first. Just studying their mixes, now that you’re looking at it from a DJ’s point of view, is enough.
Have you ever bought a Lonely Planet or Rough Guide to a city or country before going on holiday there? You read it and try and picture it all in your head, and plan the best you can, but it all seems so new, and so strange.
When you come back from your (hopefully excellent!) holiday there, you may pick up the same guide a few weeks later. How different it all looks now! How much more real, how much easier it is to fill out the words and maps, put real experiences and places where once there was just your imagination!
It’s exactly the same with studying your heroes by listening to their mixes or watching them in the clubs now that you’re a DJ, it is all going to be rewarding for you in a way it isn’t for people who don’t DJ – people just like you, a few weeks ago.
6. Find a “study buddy” or two
Having someone else involved in your learning is a great help. Once you learn something, you’ve got someone to show it to immediately. You’ve got someone to tell you if it sounded good or not. Someone to high-five with when you get it right, to encourage you when you can’t.
If that person is learning too, you get a boost by having an instant teacher there if they “get” a skill before you, and vice versa. But even if you just have music-loving mates, or a girlfriend or boyfriend who’s happy to sit there with you while you’re doing it, having someone to talk it through with helps to cement learning. Somehow, it makes everything more real. Plus, DJs play in front of audiences. It’s what we do. At least this way you’re used to playing to one other person!
It’s a bit like practising a new language – people are scared to speak out loud in case they sound stupid. But you have to – and it’s the same with DJing. Get used to messing up in front of people early – it will give you the nerves to play in front of proper audiences later.
7. Practise, practise, practise!
You can buy all the gear, read all the books, tell everyone what you’re doing, but when it comes down to it, you’re not really a DJ until you actually do it – lots. And it feels weird. You have doubts.
You think: “I’m not made for this, I’ll never get it.”
You think: “If I just put it away and go and watch TV, I can get back to it tomorrow.”
There’s always an easy escape. But you’re only scared of it because you really want to do it! You simply have to practise.
Practice should be regular. Better to do it for a short period of time every day than once a week for a whole day. The reason is that you’re thinking about in in-between times. You’re working at it even when you’re not. But it has to be fresh in your memory.
Studies have shown that if you do something every day for 3 weeks, it becomes a habit. You actually feel more natural doing it than not doing it! So that’s your goal. Try and set aside a little time every day, preferably at around the same time, and just do it.
Even if you’re doing nothing special. Even if you’re just sat there thinking: “What am I meant to I be doing here?” It’s putting the time aside that’s the important thing. The rest will come – especially if you’ve taken on board these pointers.
Remember that DJing is simply about a passion for playing music you deeply love to people, trusting you’re a good enough DJ to get them to agree with you!
Keep your mind always on the music and how you’re expecting people to react to it, and on using the tools you have to help you get there, and you’ll be on a road that can give you many years of joy.
And if there’s one thing that’s true about DJing, it’s that however long you’ve been doing it for, there’s always something new to learn.