Your Questions: “Learning To DJ Is Overwhelming Me”

| Read time: 4 mins
beginners
Last updated 28 November, 2017

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Sometimes it makes sense to put your headphones down and consider if you're going about things the right way. Pic from: Wired.com
Sometimes it makes sense to put your headphones down and consider if you’re going about things the right way. Pic from: Wired.com

Reader DJ Possess writes: “I started teaching myself to DJ in Feb. I ‘acquired’ 1.5 terabytes of music added to the 20k+ songs I already own. I use Ableton Live, Traktor Duo 2, Akai APC40, Akai MPD32, Audio Kontrol 1, and Traktor X1. I made a website – www.djpossess.com, Facebook fan page, Yahoo! account, business cards and Lightscribe CD mixes. I know how to beatmatch and mix with the software but I’m still learning Traktor because I just got it. I’ve only done one 15-minute minute guest spot gig but all this has been in four months. I may be impatient but also very unsure and at the “Now what?” stage.”

“I’m overwhelmed with the amount of music I have and don’t know what ‘type’ of DJ to be nor do I really want a label as strictly house, hip-hop, techno etc. Other than practise, practise, practise I don’t know what my next step should be. How can I approach a club with zero experience but a lot of potential?”·

Digital DJ Tips says:

You’re trying to run before you can walk. Your website looks great (although I don’t think anyone booking you cares about the gear), but you’re missing a big point. I don’t know if you’ll take my advice, but it’s the only way you’ll ever get past first base as a DJ, and I want to help, so here it is:

Ditch the terabytes of music
Retire the 1.5 terabytes of music to start with. It’s a ridiculous amount of music, and in DJing, it’s not the amount of music you have, but how well you know it and the experience you have playing that music in front of a crowd that matters. With that music, you don’t have either. While you’re at it, take all our own music out of your DJ collection too.

Now start allowing those tunes back into you record collection one by one, as you assess whether they will work for your DJing (more on this later). When you have a set that’s twice as long as your maximum gig is likely to be, operate a one in, one out policy. Seriously – keep that collection really trimmed while you learn. Only add tunes after a lot of thought. My collection is 15GB and I’ve been DJing for 20 years.

Strip back your gear
Now, the gear. Imagine you’re learning to drive, but you haven’t booked a lesson yet. Instead, you have gone out and collected a load of expensive sports cars, with all the accessories. You just mess around with them on your drive – you haven’t ever driven any of them in the big wide world. Madness, eh?

Sports cars
If you’d never driven in your life, would you buy three of these to learn in?

But that’s exactly what you’ve done with your gear. You have way too much kit. I’m not surprised you’re overwhelmed! Choose just what you need to string two records together and forget the rest – it’s completely unnecessary. I’m not saying you wouldn’t find a use for it later (much later), but for now, put it all on a box and forget about it. DJing is just not about the gear.

Choose whether you want to use Ableton as a DJ/producer, or Traktor (as a DJ). I strongly recommend the latter. You could learn to DJ with Traktor Duo, your X1, your sound card, and a small two-channel mixer (which you don’t have). Otherwise, sell some of that stuff and get yourself a simple all-in-one DJ controller.

Get a gig, any gig
Next, you need gigs. DJing is a performance art. No crowd, no point. DJing at home is only about preparing mixes and getting to know tunes. No amount of gear and practice is going to get your car out of the drive, so to speak – you need to get on the road and you need gigs.

To do that, you need to know what kind of DJ you are – as you rightly identify. This comes down to two things: the music you like, and the opportunities available to you where you are. Look around your town: Where are the DJs playing? What places have a crowd you think would appreciate a DJ but that don’t currently have a DJ? (Remember, with your stripped-down digital set-up you can play in places where they maybe haven’t even considered a DJ yet.) What kind of music is being played? Which places and music appeal to you out of all of this?

You need to find a sweet spot where your musical taste overlaps with the stuff you reckon people in your town will like, and start filling your DJ set with those records. Simply play to the crowd, and you’re a jukebox – you won’t last the distance because you’ll get bored. Simply play the records you like, and you won’t please your audiences or get bookings.

I agree, it’s usually wrong to prefer just one genre of music. Genres come and go – at least, current sounds within genres do. But if you play a certain “brand” of music (and that “brand” has to come from your heart) you’ll start to get recognised for what you do. It doesn’t matter how big or small your gig is – play to 10 people, five people, no people! Take a Tuesday in a local bar. But play. This is the only way to get better as a DJ. DJing is all about having well-chosen, appropriate records, and watching your crowd in order to play them in the best order possible.

Technics
For years, it was about two of these and a two-channel mixer: Don’t over-complicate things.

Forget club DJing – work your way up through your local bars. If you’re out there, the gigs will come. Give out your CDs, business cards etc as you’re playing and after a lot of gigs it will start to happen for you. You need to get good at it first, and I reiterate – that is only going to happen in public.

Finally, remember – it’s all about the music, not gear or complicated mixing and effects. So from now on, get totally passionate about the new music you’re slowly adding to your new DJ collection. As you assess each potential new record, you need to be always asking yourself: “I wonder if this record would work at my gig?” But if you haven’t got any gigs, you can’t ask this question, so you can’t build up a DJ’s collection of working tunes. That’s why getting a gig – any gig – is vital.

So in summary – forget the masses of gear, the terabytes of music, and the complex promotion – strip it right back to basics and get out in public. Come back when you’ve played 50 gigs and let us know whether you feel overwhelmed any more – I guarantee you’ll be buzzing about everything you’ve learned about DJing, and well on your way to making a success of your DJing.

Can you add to our advice for DJ Possess? Have you faced similar issues as you’ve learned your art? Please let us know your feelings and experiences in the comments.

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