7 Lessons For Digital DJs From The Days Of Vinyl

| Read time: 4 mins
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Last updated 10 April, 2018

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Some people complain (even on our own forum) about how new DJs have no respect for the old school, or about how veterans bemoan the new generation, and so on. It’s a shame, because as someone who’s DJed over the years using vinyl, CDs and of course digital, I know and appreciate the pros and cons of all formats – and I also know plenty of other DJs who are open-minded enough to be the same.

One of the things I find myself gently coaching new DJs about is what they can learn from the “vinyl ways”. Stuff to build on and move forward with. Hard-won lessons. Things that may not always be obvious. So if you’re a new digital DJ who’s not yet had someone explain the home truths about how it used to be pre-digital (and even pre-CD), this list contains some of the wisdom that vinyl DJs gained over the years. I hope some of it helps you on your digital journey, too!

  1. Get to know your music well – Believe it or not, music used to be scarce. Scarce, and expensive. As you slowly built your record collection you learned each tune inside out. This process helps immeasurably in your appreciation of your music, and your ability to mix it. Take the time to listen to each new tune, and don’t gather them quite so enthusiastically. Less is more
  2. Pack a great set – The idea of taking all your music to your gigs back in the vinyl days would have been ridiculous. So we used to soul-search before a gig. What comes? What stays? What did this crowd like last time? What risky tunes should I take nonetheless? This planning and packing our “final 80” led to freer-flowing and more confident sets, just like revising for an exam makes it easier on the day. So take time to “pack” a set, even though it’s just a smart playlist or virtual crate
  3. Make it visual – In the vinyl days, when DJing, we’d quickly search for the bright red cover, or the white label near the back of the box, or the double-pack that had a thicker spine than everything else. We’d often literally do it by feel. It was fast and intuitive. That’s all lost in digital, with its cold lists and filenames. Bring some of that back. Find the artwork for your tunes, and set your software to show it. It’ll make everything more intuitive and more fun when you’re DJing. We are visual creatures. Capitalise on that
  4. Tricks don’t make the DJ – Back in the vinyl days, in clubs all over the land, trust me, DJs weren’t looping, cue juggling, using myriad FX, slicers and filters, and all the rest. This was vinyl, remember. No, the vast majority were playing one tune after anther, hopefully in a great order (“programming”) and sounding smooth together (“mixing”). Remember that this is still what’s really important: Work on your programming and mixing first and foremost, then add tricks – and consider scratching (old school) alongside all the digital tricks (new school), too. It’ll stand you out
  5. No gear is perfect – so don’t sweat it – The Technics turntable was designed as a hi-fi turntable, not for DJing. True. Analogue mixers were often crackly, noisy things to use. None of this delicate gear was typically well-maintained by clubs. Vinyl scratches, degrades and warps. Back in the day, too much bass could actually make needles jump out of grooves. Fluff could, too. We still got by. So use the gear you’ve got. Better gear won’t make you a better DJ, but learning to work with dodgy gear definitely will
  6. Build routine into your music discovery – Vinyl DJs used to have set days and times to go buying music. (The smarter ones coincided these with the arrival of the music distributors’ vans at the record shops.) The rest of the time they’d be, y’know, DJing. It forced a balance upon the art. By building structure into your music discovery, practising and so on, you too can benefit from this. So don’t spend days aimlessly wondering around Beatport and the like. Have a plan, get in, get out… and get on with the practising and performing part
  7. Never, ever, put anything in the hold of an aircraft – Stories of lost record boxes on planes are ten-a-penny. Many veteran DJs attribute their finally switching away from vinyl to exactly this. If you’re going to travel to gigs by plane, make sure everything you want to take fits into a bag that can go in the cabin with you. It’s not as bad as losing a box of records, but losing your digital DJ gear is never going to be a good thing. Don’t risk it. With digital, you finally don’t have to

Finally…

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Despite the swift technological advances in DJing, some things about the art will never change. Smart DJs know this, and try to discover and build on what came before them.

DJing is changing, and whether it’s for the better or not misses the point: It’s changing, and it’s going to change anyway. And if you’re a new DJ today, this is your year zero. This is your start. This is your chance. My advice is always to never let anyone tell you it was “great in ’88” and that you’re “doing it all wrong” or anything similar, but at the same time, listen to wisdom. It’ll help you to build on the achievements of the generation or two before you, and save you having to learn the same things the hard way. Happy digital DJing!

Are you a vinyl DJ who’s made the switch to digital? What wisdom do you find yourself calling on that you think the new breed of digital DJs might benefit from? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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