Over To You: Is It Really So Bad To DJ In The Red?

| Read time: 3 mins
gain staging Levels Pro
Last updated 6 April, 2018

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Despite what man DJs do, driving your levels ‘into the red’ at any point in the signal chain usually results in a degradation in sound quality…

Digital DJ Tips reader Phil writes: “I have a question for you or anyone who is an experienced sound engineer. I’m a resident warm-up DJ and light jock for a commercial nightclub in Kent, England, with around 10 years’ experience DJing from hobby upwards. I also do the odd bit of sound tech stuff, though I’m in no way advanced when it comes to sound systems (and more advanced EQing of sound systems for example). I do, however, try to encourage the other DJs to make sure the sound quality is the best it can be.

“However, so many DJs I have met never seem to be aware that we should be trying to keep the levels around 0dB throughout the signal chain. I have discussed this with many of the residents and they do listen and adjust, but then the guest comes along and slams all the channels into the red (on the Pioneer DJM-2000nexus on the stage in the club) while the master volume is only just past the halfway mark.

“I have always tried to keep as close to zero as reasonably possible on individual channel meters when I’m DJing (just as the many many articles on this site and others have described), and intervene if another DJ ends up having the whole meter on rather than top lights at least blinking. So my question is: Is there something advantageous for guest DJs to do it this way that I’m missing? Like affecting mic feedback for the MC or something? Or is the signal on Pioneer mixers not as strong as it should be (plenty of amber lights there before ‘level toasters’ finally get to the top)?

“Otherwise it just seems that so many of these DJs who supposedly have much more experience than I do just want to turn it as loud as they can for their sets… it seems a bit strange that I should be telling them how to do their job when they are getting paid probably five times as much as I am! Any thoughts or advice on this?”

Digital DJ Tips says:

Thanks for your question, Phill, and it’s one that actually I was discussing with John, the sound engineer at Ministry of Sound, just recently (we’re doing some filming there for our new DJ course at the moment). The answer he gave me was the same as we give, and the same any decent sound engineer will give you: Keep out of the red!

What happens in decent clubs is that if you push it into the red, the sound engineer will compensate by reducing the volume past the “bit” you control, so there is no gain for you in overall volume, but a definite loss in overall sound quality.

The ambiguity comes in, for me, in venues where there is no sound engineer. What often happens here is that the people who set up the PA, or the manager, pre-suppose that the DJs are going to abuse the gear. So the PA level is set artificially low. It’s a vicious circle, because now, in order to get the volume to the required level, DJs are almost forced to push everything into the red. Throw into the mix the fact that the human ear gets “used” to any given volume level (and so naturally want to “push it” as the night goes on) and that often DJs get more and more intoxicated as the night and their sets wear on, and you can understand – if not condone – why this seems to be a universal thing… and just as much, as you’ve observed, among big-name DJs as beginners.

Even if the PA has been set so you can’t damage it by driving everything “to 11”, though, it does pay to keep an eye on all levels, starting with the limiter on your DJ software, then the channel VUs on the club mixer, and then the master output on the club mixer. And if you really, really do want to push it – turn them all up a little bit not one of them a lot! I am sure many reader have a view here, though, which is why this is an “over to you”…

Are you a sound engineer? Do you find yourself constantly telling people about this? Or do you believe that some DJ gear is designed to be pushed hard like this? What advice have you been give, do you give, or have you seen others following? Please share your thoughts in the comments…

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