Returning To DJing After A Break

Phil Morse | Founder & Tutor
April 28, 2022
Photo by Alfonso Scarpa

Get your free download: Returning To DJing Resource Sheet

Returning to DJing after a break, maybe a long break? Here’s what you need to know! Covering changes to the gear, music, techniques, performing, promoting yourself and even producing music, this article is packed with ideas and information to get you back DJing again in no time.

Be sure to download the accompanying free resource sheet, which contains dozens of links to gear, software, music services, promotion companies, web apps and more for you to explore, which will help you get up to speed with the equipment and tools modern DJs use that you’ll need to know about too.

Returning To DJing After A Break – Contents

What’s in the guide

This article and the accompanying resource sheet contain:

• Up to date information on getting started in DJing in the digital age
• A summary of what has changed since the vinyl/CD era
• Reassurance about what has definitely stayed the same

It’s designed for people who have:

• DJed on vinyl or CDs in the past, but want to switch to digital/get started again with digital
• Never DJed before, but always wanted to, who need a “crash introduction” to how it’s done today

Watch the show


Prefer me to talk you through this? In this video, a recording of a live show from the Digital DJ Tips YouTube channel, I talk you through everything in this guide, and we take questions from our community too on the subject.

This guide is brought to you by Digital DJ Tips – the leading online DJ school. We count thousands of DJs in their 30s, 40s, 50s and above among our 31,000 students, and have vast experience teaching DJs of all ages. So you can be sure your situation is, to us and our tutors, very normal.

We’re here to help – so do ask questions in the comments. And good luck. The following six sections – Gear, Music, Techniques, Performing, Promoting Yourself, and Producing – cover all you need to know. Let’s start…

Photo by Sam van Bussel

1. The Gear

You can still DJ on record decks and a simple mixer – some DJs do. You can still DJ with CD players – again, some do. But most DJs have moved on from these things. Here’s what to…

Standalone DJ gear

The closest thing today to the previous generation of DJ gear (that you may have used when you last DJed) is “standalone” DJ gear.

This is equipment that you use by buying music files and preparing them on a computer (making playlists, adding extra information such as the tempo, key and more), then transferring them to a USB “pen drive” or SD card, to plug into the equipment and DJ from.

Think of that USB drive or SD card as a big CD with all your music on it. From there on, the equipment behaves much like previous-generation CD DJ systems used to.

Standalone DJ gear comes as both “all in one” gear (where you get two “decks” and a mixer, all in one box), or separates (individual players and a mixer). The latter is usual in clubs, at festivals and in any pro DJing environment.

Need gear recommendations? It’s all inside your free resource sheet – grab it here

Laptop (“controller”) DJing

The other big way of DJing in the digital age is “laptop” DJing. This is a bigger leap from the old way of doing it, but is the most popular.

This method differs in that you run DJ software on the laptop, which does everything a DJ system does – it has decks, a mixer, the music – the lot. In fact, you can DJ on JUST the laptop if you like, using the mouse and keyboard!

However, most DJs add some hardware, usually a “controller”, which mimics the controls of “real” DJ gear, and also contains an “audio interface”, which gives the separate headphones and speakers outputs necessary for DJing. Apart from that, though, it’s just a box with buttons on it – the real DJing is going on inside the computer.

DJ like a pro on ANY set-up: The Complete DJ Course

Note that it is also possible nowadays to use laptop DJ software, and plug it directly into “standalone” DJ gear. This is how laptop DJs often DJ in clubs, because it means they can use the club’s gear, but instead of using USB drives, they DJ directly from their laptop.

Some pro DJs prefer to do it this way, because of features of laptop software that aren’t usually available on standalone gear, such as a sampler, access to streaming services, easier music library access and more.

It is generally true to say that most pro DJs play using the standalone route, and most hobby/semi-pro DJs choose a software/controller path.

Photo by Bastien Plu

2. The Music

What’s changed in music

Record shops still exist, but vinyl is expensive, niche and somewhat legacy nowadays, while CDs are also well past their peak. DJing is predominantly done today with digital music files, not physical CDs or records.

Today, the music can be bought permanently from digital download stores, track by track, or from “DJ download pools”. The latter offer working DJs (the definition is very vague) limitless DJ-friendly versions of popular songs for a monthly subscription.

Alternatively, music can be “rented” temporarily from music streaming subscription services, several of which plug in to all DJ software and even some standalone equipment.

Subscribing to a music streaming service is actually a great idea nowadays, because it’s such a good way to discover new music – although we are not yet at a time where it’s a good idea to rely on these services as your primary source of music for DJing with, for lots of reasons.

Buying the actual music files, just as you’d buy records or CDs, is still the way to build a DJ music collection. Don’t over-complicate this: buy good quality music files, throw them all into one folder on your computer (your DJ software can help you sort them further), and make sure you back that folder up regularly.

Many DJs used to vinyl or CDs find adding the artwork they know, and keeping artwork up to date for new music, helps them transition from physical records and CDs to digital files.

From scarcity to abundance

One of the biggest changes in music is the flip from scarcity to abundance.

Nowadays, all DJs have access to pretty much everything. So rather than DJing being about knowing how to get the latest tracks first, it’s more than ever about things like curation, programming, and how you DJ with that music (techniques). That, and actually making your own versions of tracks to DJ with.

We’ll get on to all of that soon.

Playing vinyl and CDs alongside digital?

It can be tempting when you’re returning to DJing and you own a whole bunch of records or CDs to attempt to build a DJ system that lets you play your old records and CDs as well as DJ digitally – a kind of hybrid.

I’d advise against that. For simplicity’s sake, it’s better to go all digital. And don’t try to “rip” your old vinyl – it’s better if possible to simply buy new digital copies of the tracks you really want to play, both from a quality and a timesaving perspective. When it comes to vinyl, if you want to “rip”, only do what you absolutely have to.

Read this next: How To Rip Vinyl (And Why As A DJ You Shouldn’t)

Of course, it’s different for CDs. It is easy to rip CDs to digital, and today’s services will even attach the right artwork and track/artist names to ripped tracks. You may need to buy yourself a CD ripper though, as no computers come with CD/DVD drives built in any more!

3. Techniques

Modern DJ systems have lots of features that don’t exist with turntable systems, and that only existed in very basic forms on early CD systems. These include “sync” (to lock beats and tempos for easier beatmixing), “hot cues” (to jump around to points in tracks easily), looping (which can be easily based on multiples/fractions of beats), key lock and key shift (for easy harmonic mixing), comprehensive effects (also often locked to the beats), and extra decks.

These new features mean that what DJs can easily do on their gear is very different to the “old days”. Far from just mixing one track into the next, DJs now can mix with multiple sources easily, having them all synced together so as not to worry about manually beatmatching them.

By also adding samples, jumping around tracks in perfect time using hot cues plus “quantize” (a feature that keeps performance tricks “on beat”), and using key lock and key shift to keep everything harmonically matched, DJs can play sets that are more like live remixing than just playing records, and that cycle through many tracks much quicker than DJs typically used to.

Don’t be overawed by the possibilities

However, it’s crucially important to understand that none of this is compulsory – many DJs still play the ways DJing has been done in the past. New ways of DJing add to the previous ways, they don’t ever totally replace them, and how you play is not governed so much by the gear or the features available to you, but by the audience in front of you, and what they want or expect.

Your first step will be to choose your modern gear, assemble your music collection, and learn to play just as you used to. You should let the rest develop over time, because there’s something else you need to get back into the swing of first, which is…

Photo by Zac Bromell

4. Performing

DJing is still about playing the right music, for the people in front of you, right now.

If you’re returning to DJing after a break, it’ll be the fear that it has all changed too much for you to deal with that will be worse than anything – as soon as you’ve played for that first time in public, that will all fall away.

That said, of course things haven’t stood still over the last few decades – so what follows are a few thoughts on some of the areas that have changed that may help you ease yourself back in to things.

The culture has matured

The whole DJ culture thing has matured hugely, as yesterday’s teenagers become today’s adults. After all, arguably DJ culture has been a “thing” for 40-odd years now!

For instance, nowadays even wedding DJs are expected to be able to mix, because couples getting married partied to “real” DJs as teenagers. Likewise, yesterday’s full-time clubbers don’t see why they should hang up their dancing shoes just because they have careers, kids and responsibilities, so venues, festivals, events and livestreams have sprung up to cater for them too.

This whole culture is no longer just a young person’s game. Just like rock/pop music appeals across the generations, DJs and dance music now cater for audiences of all ages too. So it stands to reason that there is room for DJs of all ages. Ultimately, this should be where you take comfort as a DJ returning to this.

Mobile phones, FOMO and mixing styles

For me, the biggest change in recent years (both out on the dancefloor, and throughout society) has been the arrival of smartphones and mobile internet. Arguably this has changed people’s attention spans, and amplified their FOMO (“fear of missing out”), meaning DJs have to grab and keep attention more quickly than they had to in the past.

In the past, it was usual to spend hours sometimes taking audiences “on a journey”, yet today “quick mixing” styles of DJing are more popular, with shorter set lengths, and the tendency for DJs to try to provide “Instagrammable moments” in their performances.

Bear this in mind, but also remember that it’s a tendency, not a rule.

Trevor Hayes

Doing it makes you young (and right)

One issue many DJs have when returning to DJing is a realisation that they’re not as young as they used to be, and that there is a self-consciousness around that.

As you’ll discover below, and as we’ve alluded to already, there are a broader range of DJing opportunities, for people of all ages than ever before nowadays. But the truth is that as soon as it is obvious that you mean business, nobody cares about your age.

Think about it – it’s not how old you are, it’s whether you’ve still “got it” that counts. Sports people retire because they can’t do it any more, not because they’re too old. As long as you love the music, have the skills, and can stay on your feet for long enough (and cope with the late nights), age will fall away as soon as you start DJing.

A beer or two (but no more!) may help you forget initially you’re twice the age of your audience, but after that, nobody – least of all you – will care.

Livestreaming: The new clubbing

One of the biggest growth areas for modern DJing is livestreaming – using platforms like Twitch and YouTube to play your DJ sets to others over the internet.

Livestreaming your sets allows you to build a following online who love exactly the music you love, in a way that may not be possible wherever you happen to live. It allows you to reach “beyond the club” to audiences of any age.

Read this next: The Ultimate Guide To DJ Livestreaming

It is 100% worth investigating, especially if you like DJing, want to perform in front of others, but have no interest in late nights and leaving home in order to do so!

Photo by Vishal Das

5. Promoting yourself

To get the gigs, you’ve got to promote yourself – some things never change. So it stands to reason that one of the biggest “issues” faced by DJs returning to DJing is not the tech or the music or the techniques, but getting the gigs.

Despite the social media age, and the need to have at least a regularly updated presence on social media, one thing remains true. If you want to play gigs in any town, city or neighbourhood, you still need to be seen, known and liked by both the people who attend the venues and the people who run them and book the DJs. This involves going out!

For younger DJs, DJing is often a natural extension of their social lives, and so this bit is easy. But for older DJs, when all your friends are not avid clubbers, it’s harder, and so you need to be realistic.

Your type of people ARE still going out, albeit nowhere near as often. Where do they go? What restaurants, bars or venues do they frequent? This is where you need to focus your efforts. Find “your” people, and work out from there.

However you do it, decide how many times you want to perform in, say, each season, then commit to doing so. A “performance” may be just providing background music at a restaurant’s anniversary (that you suggested to them), or at private parties – but if you commit to the number of gigs as a non-negotiable, then the job for you becomes to improve those gigs season by season.

Apply some of the steely determination you’ve learned through your working life to this, the kind of determination many younger people haven’t developed yet. See it as an advantage! For some extra help, download your free resource sheet by clicking here.

Your DJ “brand”

Nowadays, DJs tend to present themselves to the world as their own little “brands”. It’s important that if you want to find an audience doing what you love, you become a “cottage industry” in this way.

As with any small business, that means finding your audience (“customers”), and making sure you appeal to them, considering everything from the photos you use of yourself online, to your DJ name and logo, to how you conduct yourself in public, to how you engage on social media.

Study how other DJs of your age and who like your kind of music do it online. It’s always been this way, but now the tools are different. The bad news is that you maybe have some catching up to do, but the good news is that the tools are, more than ever, accessible to all.

Photo by Tanner Boriack

6. Producing music

Making music has become very popular among DJs. Why? Because it is a natural extension of DJing (especially how it’s done with modern DJ features), because it can better show the world the music you love and your musical ideas… and because it can give you music that nobody else has got!

You need no more gear than the laptop you already own to start producing. The need to use a recording studio is long gone.

No need to make your own music first

It’s important to know that you don’t need to start making original music from scratch.

Many DJs drift into producing because they start making simple re-edits, mashups (where you combine two or more existing tracks to make something new) or “bootlegs” (unofficial remixes based upon publicly available versions of songs).

This kind of producing needs a DJ’s ear much more than it needs formal musicianship.

Make unique versions of your favourite tracks: Laidback Luke’s Bootlegs, Mashups & Re-edits Course

Modern shortcuts make producing easy

Even full-on original music production nowadays is made easier by “sample libraries”, which are places online where you can get sounds, drum loops, vocals etc.

At its basis, music making then becomes more a job of choosing the individual parts you like the sound of, then sequencing them into a coherent whole. Sound familiar? It really isn’t so far removed from choosing tracks for a DJ set.

Also, modern production software makes the task easier than ever, too. Much like DJ software, it can match tempos and keys of elements for you, freeing you up to work on the ideas.

This makes music production something possible for anyone with good ideas, no need to be able to play an instrument or understand music theory – at least at first.

The best way to start? Make very simple changes to tracks you already own, to make them easier to DJ with, and then go from there.

Photo by Susanne Neumair

Finally…

Of course, DJing has changed a lot in the past few decades, but much is reassuringly the same. It is still about transfer of energy from DJ to dancefloor. It is still about playing the right music for the people in front of you, right now. And it is still a skill quite separate from making music (good to know if producing music really doesn’t appeal to you).

If you’re intimidated to return to DJing today, think of it as having broadened, and democratised. More than ever, there is room for everyone.

Don’t forget your free resource sheet: Click here to download

Of course, there is still room at the top for the truly talented or driven. But for everyone else, from casual hobby DJs upwards, and for people of all ages, one thing is true: Nowadays there is more fun to be had from the simple task of playing one record after the other and making sure there are no unintended gaps, than ever before!

Last updated 4 May, 2022

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