How Do You Think Digital Has Changed DJing?

Pre-Digital DJing
Last modified August 20, 2014

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Old record decks
OK, so truth is this pic this is going back a bit further than we’re about to talk about – but you get the message. Things have changed. A lot.

Just the quickest of glances at the posts around this one here on Digital DJ Tips will show you just how advanced DJ technology is nowadays. But it didn’t always used to be like that – and because of this fact, DJs 20 years ago were very different people to DJs today. As someone who’s still DJing today with all the new technology to draw on, but who has also DJed professionally for all that time, I thought it’d be fun (and useful) to rewind for a snapshot of how it was back then, so together we can maybe think about how the changes that have happened affect DJs in 2013.

Can I get a rewind?

So let’s jump in the time machine to a very different age…

When I started DJing, the choice was simple: play vinyl records or vinyl records! The CD was only just invented and wasn’t in DJ booths, there was no such thing as a Pioneer CDJ (pioneer was best known for making car stereos), hardly anyone had a computer, you could not burn a CD, mobile phones were massive things that only a few businessmen had, nobody yet had satellite or cable TV, no internet, no Xbox. On the TV here in the UK, you had a choice of, wait for it, four channels (or was it three…?).

So you wanted to be a DJ. It really was not something you could dabble in; you had to make a decision. Maybe you already had some records, but still, to be able to play out required some serious investment. The easiest way to get started was to buy a collection from a retiring DJ then continue to add to this collection to make it unique to you. I carried around a box of 400 7-inch singles, which contained all the classic and party tunes covering all bases. Plus, I carried three boxes containing 100 12-inch singles in each. If you had the right tunes, a collection of this size would work for many different types of gig.

To get new music you made your weekly trip to the record shop, and once you’d made friends with the guy in charge of looking after the DJs, you had a definite headstart. (After a while at my local record shop the guy just used to give me a pile of 20 or 30 12 inch records and let me take them home with me, the following week I would go in and pay for the ones I was keeping and take back the ones I didn’t want and the cycle would then be repeated.)

Having the big tunes was important, and if you had them it would make all the difference; you could have the busiest night in town just because you had those two or three hard-to-find new tunes that some of the other guys could not get or would have to wait a couple of weeks to get; by then, we were onto the next thing…

Old DJ console
It was perfectly normal for DJs to spend time and money building their own custom DJ equipment from separate components back in the 1980s, as this elaborate mobile DJ console, lifted from the pages of The DJ’s Handbook (1986), demonstrates.

As far as the technical side of DJing went, the equipment was virtually the same across all clubs: two Technics 1200s/1210s and a mixer that very often didn’t have individual tone controls or a crossfader.

As a result, in order to stand out you had to be good, because really the equipment was the same for everyone. In this respect I’d compare it to football / soccer; everyone uses more or less the same equipment and so it was usually obvious who the best players were. It was a world that didn’t really change massively for a long time. But as with so many areas of live, digital blew all of that out of the water…

Fast-forward to now…

Now we have CD players and all manner of DJ software, we have the internet, MP3s so anyone can get hold of any song, smart phones with loads of music on them, games consoles, 1000 channels on the TV, the list goes on and on. Obviously, personally I have had to “adapt to survive”, like anyone who’s in any game for a long time. For me, some of the changes have been very positive and some have made the job of the DJ harder.

One of the main ways I’ve found that all of this has impacted the way lots of DJs play is that nowadays people have very short attention spans. It’s a bit like with the TV; it loses your interest so you end up flicking channel after channel with the remote control and watching nothing.

Digital DJ Jukebox
Digital DJing didn’t always look the way it does now. Here’s an early incarnation of a laptop DJ set-up.

So while lots of DJs used to do long running mixes, I find the crowd lose interest in this now and need to be stimulated by a much quicker turnover of music – next tune into next big tune, without the patience to stay with a tune like they did in the past. Of course, with the new technology we have loads of cue points and loops and the sync button, and I’m not against any of these – they are just the new tools of the job. But I think they do need to be used properly – and I also think it’s important that the DJ can put together a good show without relying too much on the technology.

The purpose of this article really, though, is to ask you about all of this. If you have been a DJ for a few years, how has the game changed for you? Do you find people have a shorter attention span and how do you deal with this?

And if you’re a newer DJ, how do you think this massive change has changed the DJing world you’re now entering? Do you think it’s better now, or worse? What do you feel about pre-digital DJs and DJing? And in an age when all music is available to all DJs, how do you stand out from the crowd?

• Tony Corless is a professional club and bar DJ who you can find playing throughout the north west of England.

Please contribute by giving your thoughts and answering from your point of view some of the questions Tony has posed in this article. Use the comments below…