Setting Everything Up
If you’re serious about learning to DJ, you’re going to be spending a lot of time behind the decks, whether those decks are a simple iPad app or the exact same sprawling set-up sported by your local super-club. Setting your equipment up properly in a workspace that’s conducive to creativity (and kind on your back) is therefore an essential first step. likewise, having a reliable back-up routine in place for your music and DJ program data is also something you ought to set up right at the start. ‘Set and forget’ goes the saying, so let’s cover these things right now before we move on to the second section of this book, which is all about the music.
Setting up your home DJ workspace
Not everyone has a studio space or room they can dedicate to their DJing, far away from distractions and moaning neighbours. Whichever nook and cranny of your home you decide to set up your practice area in, and whatever gear you have, a few ground rules will help you to make a success of it:
- Make sure your table is at the right height – Nothing spells ‘back pain’ quicker than DJing standing at a table you’re meant to be sitting at. Most DJs prefer to practise standing up, so make sure your gear is at about the height of a standard kitchen work surface. If all you have is a sitting-height table, try perching your DJ controller on the box it came in as a temporary measure, or use a beer crate or similar to raise it up.
- Have the speakers as close to you as possible – Speaker positioning is crucial for DJing. Speakers that are to your left and right, at head height (or angled up at your head if they’re on the same surface as your DJ gear), and no more than two or three feet from you will sound better, and make it easier when it comes to learning skills like manual beatmixing. Believe it or not, your brain starts to notice the small delay it takes the sound to reach you when speakers are only, say, ten feet or so from your head, and that makes DJing harder and so less fun. Plus, the closer the speakers are to you, the quieter you can have them for sufficient DJing volume.
- Try not to face the wall – This one isn’t always possible, but you’ll gain from facing out into a room. Not only is this going to make it easier to have impromptu house parties, but it’ll help you visualise playing to a real audience, which in turn will help you to think right from the off about body language and how you’ll perform when you do get out in public – skills you can’t start to learn too early.
- Make it somewhere you only go to DJ – Not necessarily a room on its own, but a corner that is reserved for your DJ practice sessions. It’s good for motivation to dedicate a space, however small, to your hobby. If you can leave your gear set up there, all the better, because it’ll make it easier to get going when it comes to practice time.
Getting your laptop and hardware working smoothly
As long as you did the due diligence on your laptop outlined earlier, you shouldn’t encounter problems with getting it all working OK. Follow the instructions that came with your DJ hardware with regards to software downloading and installation, and if the audio isn’t doing what you expect it to (the most common issue), look under ‘Audio Configuration’ or ‘Audio Settings’ in the manual to find the necessary tweaks.
While DJ software isn’t hugely demanding on the resources of your computer, this is a performance game, and so any glitches or hiccoughs are potentially going to be more annoying than if your computer were just being used as an office PC. So it does pay to follow a few steps to make mishaps less likely.
(I remember forgetting to silence unnecessary system sounds on a Windows PC I was DJing from in a nightclub once, and when I turned it off, the Windows closing down motif blasted over a 10K sound system to a couple of hundred startled late-night clubbers. Cue sheepish blushing from the DJ booth…)
So when you’re preparing your computer for DJing, consider making the following adjustments:
- Switch off any internet, network, and wireless connectivity.
While there is sometimes a case for having internet on (some DJ software can stream from music online as you play nowadays), having your computer connected to Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, ethernet, or any other unnecessary networks is asking for trouble
- Disable auto-updating of software. You do not want your computer announcing to you that it has downloaded some critical updates and is going to reboot in fifteen minutes. That’s an alert box to breathe fear into the heart of any performing DJ…
- Close down all programs you’re not using. Programs running in the background that you don’t want or need are usually fine when surfing or working at your PC, but not so fine when you’re DJing from it. They take system resources and can cause performance issues, which can lead to glitches in the audio or more sluggish overall performance (songs loading slowly and so on). Best to pare right down to your DJ software
- Turn off all notifications, banners, popups, and windows. Again, common sense really, but you don’t want these popping up and sounding off as you practise DJing. While you’re at it, why not go to your sound settings and turn off all unnecessary system sounds? It’d avoid embarrassing situations like my story above…
What to do if your laptop gives you problems
By far the most common issue when DJing using laptops is the DJ software momentarily finding it doesn’t have enough system resources to do its thing (this is such an important variable that many programs actually have a ‘CPU load’ or similar indicator so you can keep an eye on it). This usually shows itself through glitchy or momentarily freezing graphics and crackly sound or, again, momentary dropouts in audio.
While alarming, the graphic freezing usually rights itself, but can sometimes be fixed by looking for settings that let you alter the graphics performance of your software (look for ‘refresh rate’ settings). Audio is obviously much bigger an issue, and the culprit here is usually the ‘latency’ or ‘audio buffer’ setting being too low. This governs the length of time between you doing something (starting a tune, stopping it, and so on) and that action coming out of the audio interface to head off to the speakers. Too high, and there’s a perceptible delay. Too low, and the computer can’t cope. Find the setting, and adjust it so it is as low as possible without any glitches when you do your stuff. Many DJs then like to increase that setting by one notch to err a little on the safe side.
Getting your back-up routine into place
Stories abounded in DJ circles back in the vinyl days about Great lost Record Tragedies. We used to have to put our record cases into the hold luggage when flying to gigs, never knowing if we’d see them again. Sometimes, when girlfriends fell out with DJ boyfriends and kicked them out (here’s a DJ joke for you: what do you call a DJ without a girlfriend? Homeless), their collections would follow, sometimes from a first floor window. In all of these circumstances, DJs spoke of a vacuous feeling like nothing else.
The moral for modern DJs is really simple: back up your hard drive. Your music is the tool of your trade, and in this book you’re going to learn how to grow your music collection so it’s an extension of how you think and feel – don’t ever let there be any chance of you losing that collection. Before moving on to the next step, when we’re going to start gathering the music that’ll make you the DJ you are going to be, I’d recommend you nail this one.
It honestly doesn’t matter how you do it. Your choices are things like a network storage device in your home, a detachable hard drive you keep in the top of a wardrobe, a cloud service such as Dropbox, or just a big USB drive you copy everything over to. The golden rules are do it regularly (I suggest weekly) and put it in your calendar so you don’t ever forget, and always back up to two separate places that aren’t physically the same – so if you back up to a spare hard drive at home, keep a USB copy at work, or have a second copy in the cloud. Whatever works for you. Just do it.
By the way, if you choose not to back up your whole computer (and if you’re backing up to USB pen drive, you won’t be able to as its capacity isn’t big enough) and instead just want to back up your music, at the very minimum make sure you back up the folder or folders you keep your music files in as well as the folder your DJ software keeps its information in. Check your DJ software documentation for details of where the latter folder will be. It is where important DJ performance data is kept about your music files, and while losing it wouldn’t be as catastrophic as losing the files themselves, it could potentially make an awful lot of work for you once your collection grows a bit and you start to customise the data you hold on your songs.
OK, so with our foundations all laid and our system built, it’s time to move on to the reason you probably got into this whole thing in the first place: the music. That’s what the whole of the next step is about.