3 Ways To DJ In Just Your Headphones

Phil Morse | Read time: 4 mins
DJing in headphones
Last updated 24 August, 2020

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There are lots of reasons you may want to DJ in just your headphones, with no speakers to help you. And there are actually three ways you can do this. In this article, we’ll look at what your options are.

Why DJ in just your headphones?

There are several reasons why you may want to do this.

  • You could be DJing at a time of day when you can’t have your speakers on, such as late at night when others are asleep. Or, you could live in a place where you can’t make much noise, so Djing with your speakers isn’t much fun – yet you can rock out as much as you want in your headphones
  • Alternatively, it could be that you want to practise or record a set, but you’re in public – on a plane, in a hotel reception areas, or similar. So not only can’t you make a noise, but you haven’t got any speakers with you anyway
  • Or, you could actually be playing a gig where they do indeed have lots of speakers, but the monitor speakers (in the DJ booth) are either non-existent, or poor quality. Being able to DJ in just your headphones is a great skill to have in these situations, because it means you don’t have to rely on the provided equipment

Headphones or IEMs?

One of the good things about DJing this way is that it is possible to DJ with earbuds, or “IEMs” (in-ear monitors). You know when you see singers with in-ear headphones on stage? That’s what they’re using.

When you DJ like this, instead of having a pair of headphones around your neck and taking them on and off, maybe having one ear on and one ear off, and so on, you keep your IEMs in all night.

For that reasons, some DJs prefer spinning using IEMs (our course tutor Laidback Luke is one such DJ). For others though, they prefer to engage with the music with their headphones on, and take them off to chat to people in the booth or hear the room as everyone else hears it.

Up to you – but all of these methods work with both headphones and IEMs.

3 Ways To DJ In Just Your Headphones

1. By using the Cue Mix knob

Cue Mix
The Cue Mix knob on a Numark Mixtrack Pro FX controller. Practically all DJ controllers, consoles and mixers have this.

Practically all DJ controller and mixer have a knob called “headphones mix” or “cue mix”. Its job is to decide what you hear in your headphones, and the choices are two-fold: Firstly, you can choose to hear the master output (ie what your “audience” is hearing). Secondly, you can choose to hear your “cue” or “pre-fade listen” (PFL) channels. These are any music sources where you have pressed the “cue” or “PFL” button.

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DJs, of course, use the cue or PFL function so they can hear a music source (typically, the “other deck”) that the audience cannot hear, in order to prepare that source to be put live to the audience when needed. Many DJs spin with the headphones mix knob all the way to “cue”, so that is all they can hear in their headphones. To hear what the audience can hear – well, for these DJs, that’s the job of the speakers.

But you don’t have to DJ like that. You can, by switching between the “master” and the “cue” or “PFL” sides of the mix, keep up to speed with what is going to the audience, while also being able to cue up the new source or sources. When you’re ready, you can mix a next track in, monitoring how it sounds by mixing the two to where it makes sense for you, by turning the knob.

It takes a bit of getting used to, but it is pretty easy to DJ this way once you do – no speakers required.

2. By using the Headphones Split button

Mono split
The mono split button on a Pioneer DJ pro mixer.

Not all DJ gear has this function nowadays. Practically all DJ mixers have it, and some higher-end controllers and consoles too. Here’s how it works: When you press the switch (it’s sometimes also called “mono split”), the DJ gear sends the “cue” or “PFL” signal into one of your earpieces, in mono, and the master into the other, also in mono.

Once you get used to the idea that everything you’re hearing in one ear is what your audience can hear, and everything in the other is what only you can hear, it is surprisingly easy to adapt to DJing in this way.

You never hear the tracks in stereo, and if you’re the kind of DJ who likes to “audition” a new track to decide if you want to play it or not, privately (I am…), you’ll want to switch in and out of this function, but for many DJs, this is the best way to play in clubs without worrying about the quality of the monitors provided.

3. By DJing in headphones listening only to the main output

Plannee cues
A track from a mix that I planned (in Serato). Note my use of notes in the cue points to help me memorise what happens where in a transition.

Ever seen DJs not using headphones at all? They’re not faking. They have just prepared their tracks to such an extent that they don’t need to monitor each new track or source before they mix it in. And of course, if it’s just you DJing at home or somewhere else with no audience, you can DJ like this too, by just plugging your headphones in and playing away.

This way of DJing is particularly useful if you like to prepare your sets on just a laptop or tablet. You just pop your favourite headphones into the headphone socket, and spin away, no DJ gear required.

Many radio DJs record their sets this way, for instance, using tiny controllers like the Numark DJ2GO2 (really!) or none at all, using just the keyboard controls for their software. Sure, you’re never going to perform complex transitions or scratch mixes this way, but it works great otherwise.

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As an example, when I am rehearsing my sets for my Balcony Beats livestreams, I like to plan the transitions, so I have more time to interact with the audience and run the broadcast without having to search for tracks. So when I am working out my set order, I also add cue points to my tracks, showing me mix in and out points, and also including any info I need (“16-beat loop”,”in slowly”, “filter out” etc) written in the cue comments.

By “reading” what I’ve planned, I can perform the whole mix over and over again. I do a run-through with just my headphones on, which I record, and that goes on my Mixcloud. Then, when it’s time to play it live on the stream, I still refer to that work – even though I am now DJing through speakers. (At that time, my headphones are really only there in case I want to “deviate from the plan”.)

Finally…

Nothing beats being in close proximity to a pair of decent speakers pumping out your mix, in a DJ booth, in your studio, or at home. But sometimes you can’t DJ like this, and when that’s the case, being able to DJ in just your headphones is a great skill to have.

Whichever way you choose to do it, give it a go – and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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