Becoming A DJ/Producer
I’ve mentioned a couple of times that a sure-fire way to promote yourself as a DJ is to produce your own music. I’ve left a discussion of this route to stardom right to the end for two reasons. On the one hand, good DJs don’t always make good producers, and I don’t ever want you to think that because you’re not interested or talented as a producer, that it precludes your becoming a great DJ. And on the other, just because you’ve produced a great track, that doesn’t mean you are automatically going to be able to go out there and be able to DJ. The two skills are complementary, sure, but both deserve respect in their own right – and clearly, this is a book about DJing, not producing.
All that said, many new DJs aspire to be DJ/producers, and as with DJing, digital has lowered the barriers of entry into the world of music production considerably, to the point where nowadays you can make a track on your phone, never mind on a tablet or laptop. As you’ll see too, producing music needn’t be hard and doesn’t necessarily need musical training or the ability to play an instrument. So if it’s something you’re interested in, read on for lots of ideas and advice on how to get started.
Why be a DJ/producer?
The hard truth is, if you want to become famous, play outside your own town, tour the world, get added to big festival billings, and live the full-on ‘DJ lifestyle’, nowadays you have to be able to produce music. Just one single hit can utterly transform your DJing prospects, attracting press coverage, agents, managers, and those elusive far-flung DJ bookings.
But it’s not just about fame and success. DJs are creative by nature, and producing music is just an extension of playing it. After all, you have a head full of musical ideas, and producing music lets you get those out of your head and share them with others. So producing music can be an awful lot of fun in and of itself.
Finally, who knows what works and what doesn’t work on dancefloors better than DJs? You already have a good understanding of song structure and arrangement, and of course, as music is your ‘currency’, you listen to a wide range of it as part of what you do day-to-day, giving you more ideas to draw from in your own productions. For all of these reasons, it’s well worth having a go at making your own music. As you’re about to see, it really needn’t be as daunting a thing as you might think.
How to start making music
Realise that making your own music is not an ‘all or nothing’ affair. Instead, it’s a sliding scale. The first step is arguably simply live remixing – chopping up tracks as you DJ to do something more creative than just moving from one track to the next. You probably already do this to an extent in your performances.
The next is simply doing this ahead of time, through taking someone else’s track and editing it to make your own version (or ‘re-edit’) to use in your sets. Using free software such as Audacity (PC/Mac), you can extend track intros and outros, edit out breaks, add effects, and basically make versions of things that better suit you. From here it’s a small step to making ‘mashups’, where you take two or more tracks by other people and creatively blend them into something new. (Software such as Mixed In Key Mashup makes this easy for you by automatically matching the BPMs and musical keys of your source material to help it all sound good.)
From here we move into making tunes ‘proper’, but again, our sliding scale is in full operation. It is not only possible but common for producers to make tunes from commercially available ‘sample packs’, and many do, with great success. Sample packs are sets of sounds you can buy in order to assemble your own tunes, a bit like using lego bricks to build a model house. They are professionally produced, sound great, are often provided in the same musical key so you don’t have to worry about them matching when you put them together. Using modern, DJ- friendly production software like Ableton live, DJ/producers can quickly sketch out ideas and piece them together to make tracks in this way.
Once you’re comfortable doing this, the next step is to start adding your own compositions to your tracks, by playing melodies, basslines and so on. Again, there is much help available. To start with, many great sounds come packaged with production software, and you use these supplied sounds (‘presets’) to make your melodies sound great. Also, there are tools to tell you which notes will and won’t work in the musical key you’re composing in, making it easy for those who don’t understand musical theory but have lots of great ideas to make tracks that sound good. And you don’t really have to ‘play’ anything in the sense that a musician would understand, because you can take as long as you like to program your melodies in, and when you hit ‘play’ on your software, everything plays back in real time.
I’m not pretending music production is all quick and simple, because beyond this we can go as deep as you like – you can start crafting your own sounds (called ‘sound design’), you can indeed record elements played live and add them to your tracks (drums, guitar, piano, whatever), you can sing or work with vocalists… but what I’m telling you is that you absolutely don’t have to do this from the start, and many successful DJ/producers never do an awful lot of this more involved stuff at all.
The important thing is to do what sounds good to you with the skills and tools you have, set deadlines, play the results at your DJ gigs (there’s another advantage of being a DJ/producer rather than just a producer: you can test your stuff in public), share your efforts with the world on services such as SoundCloud – and keep doing it. Your hundredth effort may be the one that gets you recognised – but that just means when you do break through, your new global fan base has 100 tracks you’ve already made to enjoy. Such are ‘overnight successes’ made.
Three myths about producing music
If you’re not already convinced to have a go, here are some excuses we hear regularly at Digital DJ Tips from people who secretly know they want to produce but are still resisting. Hopefully they’ll answer some of your questions and encourage you to start.
‘You need lots of expensive hardware, and preferably a recording studio…’
This simply isn’t true nowadays. As I said in the introduction, you can make music on your laptop, tablet, even your phone… and you don’t need anything else other than your choice music production software (we recommend Ableton live). You may want to add a small piece of hardware at some point, such as a keyboard or pad controller, but these are strictly optional. And the days of heading into the studio to even be able to record tracks are long gone.
‘You need to be able to play a musical instrument.’
No. While understanding a bit about music theory (scales, chords, harmony and so on) will definitely help you, even that isn’t essential as long as you have a good ear for what works and what doesn’t on the dancefloor. You certainly don’t need to be able to playing an instrument to come up with your own tunes and include them in your tracks, as so many of today’s tools guide you through doing this. There’s no need to play stuff in ‘real time’, and you definitely don’t need to be able to read music. Work on all of these things, by all means, as they’ll make you a better producer – but don’t let the lack of any (or all) of them stop you starting.
‘You need the help of professionals, such as “real” musicians, music producers and mastering engineers, to make tracks that are any good.’
As a modern music maker, you do all the jobs that a team used to do to make a track yourself. You are the band, to start with, taking care of the drums, bass, melodies and so on in your tracks as you program your tune, and you also ‘produce’ your own track, in the sense of making your ideas sound good in your software, which replaces another traditional studio job. You can even buy a cappella vocals so you can add vocals to your tracks without enlisting a singer.
There is a conversation to be had about mastering engineers. In the old days, mastering engineers took a finished track and hung around when it was being pressed to vinyl, tweaking the controls to make sure that the vinyl sounded as crisp, loud and amazing as possible. While big hits today are still ‘mastered’ in this way (although usually not to be pressed to vinyl any more), there’s an alternative for bedroom producers to get at least some of that ‘finished sheen’ on their own tracks, in the shape of online mastering services. For a small fee, these services will let you upload your track, apply some proprietary magic to it, and download a polished version of it to release to the world. It’s not quite the same, but it’s a good start. Take a look at lANDR (www.landr.com) to see one such service.
All this said, please don’t think that producing music is a simple gateway to DJing fame. Having both skills is not easy. It’s also a competitive world out there, and just because you do it, it doesn’t mean you’ll automatically succeed at it.
Instead, do it because you decide that, just like DJing itself, it’s something you’re driven to do and that you feel will make you a more creative and fulfilled artist. And if you think you want to give production a go, don’t wait to become a great DJ before you try and become a producer. enjoy making re-edits and mashups, and having the odd go at your own tunes right from the off. Keep improving your knowledge and making more involved tracks, and keep testing your results on your dancefloors. If you do, there’s no reason why it can’t be you DJing headline slots at festivals in far-off places in the years to come.