How To Record And Critique Your Sets
The first real club night I DJed at (where I was actually mixing the music as opposed to the countless mobile DJ gigs I’d done up to that point) was in the basement of a hotel in the city centre of Manchester, back in the 1990s. My DJing partner Terry Pointon and I sold tickets to all of our friends, hired the venue, rented the PA, took our own DJ gear down, and set up on a table to the side of the bar. Tucked under that table was my hi-fi cassette deck, with a pile of blank cassettes, wired in to a spare output on the mixer. We had been practising for months, and wanted a recording of the whole night to keep forever.
As the place filled up we were playing music at about half volume, deliberately holding back from the main event, but when we were ready, we upped the volume, hit record, and I mixed in the first tune of my planned set. Having friends who shared a love for the new house music scene all in one place was itself amazing, and finally getting to play the music – loud – that I’d had flying around in my head for months previously was mind-blowing. But being able to show off all the mixing that I’d been practising since buying my turntables was the best bit of all. As with so many important gigs in DJs’ lives, it changed me forever.
And the best bit? We’d recorded it all.
Afterwards, via DJing at an impromptu after-party in the Bishop of Salford’s back garden (that’s a story for another time), we ended up in Terry’s living room, two cassette tapes in our hands, ready for a triumphant replaying of our glorious DJ sets from earlier. Settling back in comfy chairs, we slipped the first cassette into his tape deck and hit play.
Luckily we laughed, because otherwise we’d have cried. The cassettes were awful – not the quality of the recording or the tunes, but the DJing. The records skipped, the levels were all over the place, the mixing was at best functional, at worst embarrassing… we went from heroes to zeroes in our own minds in the space of one side of a cassette, and it didn’t improve as we played through the rest of the recordings.
How did we not know? How did we miss all the bad stuff when we were actually DJing? Why didn’t people tell us, stop dancing, leave the venue and go somewhere better? How had this happened?
That recording taught me so much. Firstly, it taught me that as long as the music is right, people will forgive pretty much anything. But more importantly – like a college essay that comes back to you from your teacher covered in red ink – it gave me a crystal clear checklist of things to work on in my DJing, a roadmap for improvement. And the most valuable lesson it taught me? You cannot judge your own DJing while you’re actually doing it. The only way to judge your DJing is to record your sets and listen back to them, preferably some time later, because only then will you be hearing them how everyone else heard them.
Hopefully, when you were reading the parts of this book that concerned mixing and transitioning, sometimes you asked, ‘But how will I know if my fades sound good, or if I’ve chosen the right tunes for this technique to work, or if I’ve lined the beats up properly, or if I’ve actually managed to get the levels right, or, or…?’
The only way you’ll ever know any of this stuff is by recording your DJ sets and listening back.
How to record your DJ sets
In order that you don’t let the idea of recording your DJ sets paralyse you, it’s important to remember that you’re doing it to give yourself the opportunity to listen back to your own DJing, not to aim for perfection. (If you were actually making a real DJ mix for release rather than just recording your set, the process would be very different to hitting record and hoping for the best.)
All DJ software has a record button on it, which will give you a digital file that you can add to iTunes, put on your phone, or play back from your computer directly. There are also apps available for smartphones that record whatever you plug in to the phone. If you would like to use one of these, buy the right lead and plug directly into your DJ controller or mixer rather than use the built in microphone, for obvious sound quality reasons.
However you do it, it’s essential to get into the habit of recording your practice sessions so it simply becomes part of how you work as a DJ. Start recording at the beginning of a practice session, stop at the end. It’s important that even if you completely mess up (put the wrong tune on, have to try whatever the technique is again, and again…), you leave the recording going and push on to the end. It’s like the cameras in a reality TV show – the idea is you forget they’re there.
Soon you’ll find yourself deferring judgement on the things you try as you learn and practise new skills until you listen to the recording later rather than making your mind up there and then as to whether what you did was any good. This is exactly what we want.
Listening back to your recordings
There are two ways to listen to your recordings. The first is to throw them on while you’re doing something else. This will give you an overall sense of so many things: the tunes themselves, the track programming, the general levels (does it keep getting quieter or softer, or have you got it about right?), and so on. The second is when you formally sit down and listen to your work, specifically checking the precision of your loops and cue juggling, how your Fx experimentations sounded, and whether that brave bit of scratching you tried sounded good or not.
In truth, you’ll find yourself flipping between these modes, especially while listening to your own recordings is still a novelty. You’ll find yourself rewinding to hear a particularly good mix again, for instance, or doing the same thing to work out why something you thought was wrong at the time actually sounds good, the latter being the kind of pivotal learning moment that only recording your sets can give you.
It’s important to leave some time between recording the mix and listening back to it. In my story above, we’d been out partying after the gig before we actually got home to have a listen. I don’t suggest you necessarily do that – maybe just sleeping on it would be a more sensible alternative – but it’s this time period that eases you out of DJ mode and into listener mode, which is the key to successful listening.
For a similar reason, generally it’s best not to listen back to mixes while at your DJ gear, as the temptation to power up and head back into DJ mode is too strong. However, one time when doing this can be valuable is at the start of a mix session, especially if you’re not feeling particularly inspired or you’ve not had time to listen to the last mix you did. You can make notes, get back in the groove, and then be ready to head into today’s practising with a headful of new ideas.
So with your skills rapidly improving and your confidence building, your thoughts will turn naturally to what it’s all about: playing in public. The whole next step will help you make the transition from bedroom to booth successfully.