What’s the difference between a professional DJ and an amateur? It’s a question that I see many young newbies searching for pro DJ tips trying to answer, and many of them come to the conclusion that it’s about having the latest gear, nerding out over bit-rates, or waiting to get famous.
And while gear, technical know-how, and getting noticed definitely do all count, I’d like to offer a list of five more things that might help you out if you’re looking to up your game.
5 Pro DJ Tips
1. Get serious
Every professional DJ I know had a moment when they decided to “get serious”. Personally, I remember deciding that I had to do something about the crippling anxiety I would get before a big set. I’d been getting by and doing OK at small/medium club nights, but I never felt prepared, and I’d often find it difficult to enjoy the night because I was worried about what might go wrong.
So I resolved to “get serious” with some simple changes that made a big difference.
For instance, I found a corner of my home where I could permanently set up my decks, meaning I could start practising straight away, without needing to plug everything in each time I wanted to have a practice session.
I organised the 45 hours of music which I’d collected over the years, making sure everything was tagged correctly and at a sufficient bit-rate for professional gigging (that’s 320bps MP3, in my opinion). I also deleted a load of songs I didn’t like or never played, which was very liberating.
And I also decided to improve my DJing the same way I’d mastered the play guitar: I studied other DJs, I watched YouTube, I spoke to friends, and (here’s the key part) I spent hours and hours hunched over my decks, recording my sessions so I could listen back to them, and working on my craft. That’s vital.
(A great shortcut to all of this is simply to get all the training you need in one place – look at our Complete DJ Course for a one-stop shop to take your DJing to pro level.)
2. Learn to mix in key
Now that key detection has gone mainstream, you don’t really have an excuse for dodgy out-of-tune mixes. I am sure that many of our readers have at least some understanding of musical keys and how they work, but if you’re just starting out and haven’t looked into yet, it’s something you’re going to have to learn sooner or later.
Without going into too much detail here, each song is in a specific key, which means it has a root note (A, A sharp, B, C, D flat, etc.) and is built around a scale (usually major or minor). Mixing songs which have the same root note and scale will sound much better, because they’ll use the same notes and chords. Mixing songs in different keys can sound like you’re out-of-tune, although there are a few keys that work well together. Key notation systems favoured by DJs and used in DJ software let you spot tracks that are in the same key or likely to be in a compatible key.
Discover the course: How To Master Keymixing
I’ve been working as a DJ for ten years (which means, by the way, that I remember when CDJs couldn’t reliably tell you the BPM, let alone do key detection!) and I don’t always mix in key – it’s not always necessary when tracks have long introductions with just percussion – but when I make mixes for the internet and everything has to be perfect, or when I’m doing mash-ups and edits working with acapellas, it’s vital to know about key detection and how it works. Which brings me to my next point…
3. Make mash-ups and edits
The fact of the matter is that digital DJing is easy these days. The software and hardware is cheap, you can easily teach yourself, and many of the old manual techniques can be done automatically now. Even if you’re old school and still using vinyl or traditional CDJs (I personally use a pair of Denon DNS-1200s at some of the gigs I do that aren’t so laptop friendly), you’re going to have to be on the absolute top of your game if you want to go up against those youngsters with their MacBooks, sync buttons and the fashionable haircuts.
How to make edits with free software: Make Your Own DJ Edits course
Mash-ups, remixes and edits are not new ideas, but they are an absolutely great way of getting your name out there.
Taking it a step further, have you noticed that nowadays almost all DJs pas a certain level are also producers? I’ve gotten to know a huge number of artists from their releases, rather than from seeing them doing DJ sets. Learning production requires commitment. But it’s also great fun and hugely rewarding. And hey, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. (Our Dance Music Formula course has helps thousands of DJs to get started.)
4. Keep on top of trends within your genre
OK, this one should be fairly obvious. Regardless of whether you’re a wedding DJ, an Ibiza superstar, or you just have a weekly nightclub in your city, it’s vital that you keep on top of your trends in your genre.
Of course there are no hard-and-fast rules (I know vinyl-only DJs who only play music from the 1970s, for example) but I like to make sure I get at least 10 new tracks in every set. That’s not a lot of work, but it helps keep your record collection ticking over.
Beatport’s charts are a great way of diving into different genres and quickly listening to a lot of new music. I also find that Mixcloud and curated Spotify playlists (Defected do great playlists on Spotify) are a great way of casually finding new stuff. And I have to say: playing new music is exciting.
Last on the list is probably the most important thing: If the biggest room you’ve ever played also has your bed in it, you ain’t a DJ (yet). And the best way to get out there is to talk to people, work with others, make friends, offer to help out, ask others to help you, and connect with those around you.
DJing, by its very nature, is a pretty solitary thing but everything that comes with it (organising a club night, social media, getting people to come to your party, and so on) requires a great degree of social skills, even if a lot of it is done via the internet.
Anything we’re missing?
After re-reading this article, I can honestly think of about a thousand other things that have helped me move my DJing forward (building a social media presence, getting into photography/video editing, learning musical theory or an instrument, becoming a sound technician, learning about lighting, getting a relevant formal education, the list goes on…).
But I’m also interested in your ideas: the things that have helped you get ahead, and the things that you know would help you, but you just haven’t got round to doing yet. Let us know in the comments section and we’ll get working on a Part 2 of this article!
• Our Complete DJ Course contains everything you need to take your DJing to pro level, covering the five big areas of DJing: gear, music, techniques, playing out and promoting yourself. Find our more about it here.