As Phil quite astutely pointed out in his production mini-series over the last week, the biggest of the big-ticket events nowadays aren’t for DJs, they’re for DJ/producers.
But the unfortunate truth is that a lot of these acts are simply studio producers who have used the changing landscape of the DJ booth to masquerade their way inside it. And producers who get into DJing tend to be major proponents of the “press play” brigade. Quite simply, often, they’re not very good DJs. That’s where you come in…
The DJ’s advantage…
Now, it wasn’t always like that. Back in the 80s and 90s, DJs got into production as an extension to their craft. And today, just like then, if you’re a DJ thinking about extending your skill set and getting some of those masterpieces out of your head and into other people’s, you’re in a much better position to be a well rounded, successful DJ/producer than many of these guys.
But just as there are pitfalls for producers who want to become DJs, so there are just as many traps for unwary DJs making the leap to production from DJing. So to help you get a headstart, here are five mistakes I see DJs starting out in production make all the time – and how you can avoid making them.
1. Using your “DJ ears” to make tracks
I know, I know, we only have one set of ears – and that’s if we’re lucky! But when turning your hand to production, you’ll need to break some DJ habits or things will get messy quick. As DJs we tend to play music too loud, and often with our sound system EQ’d rich and bassy. Don’t do it. Turn it down, and smooth it out! Listening to things at high volumes makes our ears close up to protect themselves, and while when DJing this isn’t really an issue, it is a nightmare for production. What’s more, it’s a nightmare that’s only compounded by having your sub turned on to the max. Combined, these two issues are the main culprit of why the track you thought was a floorshaker in your studio sounds like a wet fart anywhere else.
A lot of people will tell you that you need good quality monitors to get into production, but that’s just not true. You don’t need a genuine Fender Stratocaster to learn guitar, right? The important thing is that you’re enjoying yourself and getting the most out of your gear, so just make sure you follow some basic rules like keeping your speakers at around ear height when you’re working and not putting them too close to the wall if you can avoid it.
Keep that volume down, too – you’ll be more accurate for longer and your neighbours will thank you. (If they thought your DJing was repetitive, wait until they get a load of the same four-bar loop repeating for a six-hour refinement session… side note, if you’re reading this and live next door to me, please invest in some headphones!)
2. Producing for the dancefloor
When producing you have the power to make every second of your track interesting. Gone are the days of dance music being created “DJ ready”, with long intros and outros, because in this exciting digital age we can loop up, cue, and all that good stuff with any track we like.
If you’re used to paying attention to that part of the tune that drives everybody crazy, you might realise you find it tough to make a coherent track – one with a beginning, middle, and end. With that in mind, anything but your best on every beat and bar of the track just comes off as lazy – and you don’t want that, right?
Here’s my top tip: if when you’re eagerly showing your friends your newly produced scorcher you feel compelled at any point to make eye contact and say “wait for this bit coming up!” then you need to add more interest to that section. If you can’t make eye contact at all, then… well, perhaps it’s time to start a new project!
3. Thinking like a DJ with effects
Effects are a major part of production, but realistically they’re a fairly new development in DJing. For effects to be useful to DJs they need to be immediate and somewhat foolproof, but this also really cripples their power. In production, expect a lot more controls for effects, thus the scope to do vastly more with them too. With great power comes great responsibility, though, and do the wrong thing and you can mess things up big time. The key to using effects in production is subtlety; whereas when you flick on a reverb in the DJ booth you want everyone to know about it, in the studio reverb is used extensively – but often you can’t even tell it’s there until it’s switched off.
Being able to think about both the technical and creative applications of effects is a key production skill. Your well-honed ability to create interesting build ups and breakdowns with DJ effects will transfer really well to your productions, but taking your foot off the gas and really learning the delicate nature of studio effects will immeasurably improve your sound.
4. Running into the red
Now, there’s no shortage of people warning of the dangers of running into the red when DJing, so presumably you’re no stranger to this piece of advice. However if you regularly use a Pioneer mixer that just about has more red lights than green ones you’ll be forgiven for seeing a bit of a red emanating from your mixer from time to time – in fact, there’s actually a lot of extra “headroom” in good quality mixers that stops things turning to mush if things are only being overdriven a little, and similarly other high quality equipment can cope with things not being absolutely perfect.
In production, things are much more strict. You have to work within a certain amount of physical power when creating music, and going over it will create irreparable and nasty sounding distortion on your track. Modern “digital audio workstations” (DAWs), are very clever and allow you to fix this “clipping” anywhere along the signal chain, but proper understanding of how to set levels in your productions will make it a million times easier for you to see and understand what’s going on in your track.
That physical amount of sound doesn’t always translate to the perceived volume of a track, especially when comparing two tracks. You might have heard of compression, which is one of the most useful tools in a producer’s arsenal… but also one of the most misunderstood. In the right hands, compression can reduce the peaks of volume on a sound to smooth things out and allow the overall volume to become louder, but in the wrong hands you’ll end up with a painful, lifeless track (this is why a lot of people claim the “loudness wars” are killing recorded music).
5. Relying too much on sample packs and presets
At its heart, DJing is the art of taking separate pieces of recorded music and shaping them into an hour or more’s entertainment. That ability to hear things that go well together is a key skill to take into your foray into production, but getting out of the mindset of just consuming and instead starting to think about creating totally from scratch is one of the most important things you can do.
A huge number of producers make the mistake of buying synth after synth and never using anything but the presets, never really understanding what all those intimidating knobs and sliders do. Still more base their entire library around sample packs, and lack the understanding of how to put their own twist on basic sounds.
Instead of buying an expensive synth, it’s much more beneficial to pick up a basic free synth and actually learn how it works; the concepts of sound design are more or less universal, and starting out with the basics is akin to learning to walk before you try to run.
Understanding how oscillators generate waveforms, are shaped by filters, how envelopes set the parameters for the synth’s controls and so on will empower you to create your own sounds and you’ll not only get much more value out of your synths (you may even find that free instruments are all you really need!) but you’ll be able to put much more of a personal stamp on your sound.
Are you a DJ who’s successfully moved into production? What mistakes did you make? What mistakes do you see other DJs making when they first try their hand at producing their own material? Please share your thoughts in the comments.