The Basic DJing Technique
In my long career as a professional DJ, I’ve dealt with all types of people begging to be in the DJ booth with me. From old friends wanting to escape the packed dancefloor for a bit, to girls looking for somewhere to dance where they will be seen more by everyone else, to other DJs wanting to chat or – worse – look through my music, there always seemed to be someone keen on joining me.
But while I was generally pretty harsh on people who, as I saw it, wanted to invade my workspace, there was a certain type for whom I often caved in. He (for it was nearly always a he) used to approach the booth and ask quietly, ‘Do you mind if I come in and watch what you’re doing you for a bit? I won’t say anything, or get in your way…’
The physical movements, the actual process of DJing, is both a mystery and a fascination to those who don’t yet know the sequence of steps. The good news is that the steps are remarkably similar no matter what DJ gear is involved. It’s like driving: sure, driving a small city car is different to driving a luxury automatic 4×4, which is different to driving a container truck, but the similarities far outweigh the differences.
This chapter blows the lid on the basic technique. Here I’m going to talk you through what DJs are actually doing when they play a DJ set – step by step. Remember your first ever driving lesson, where clutch and hand brake and accelerator and ignition and steering wheel and indicators all blurred into one unknowable mess, only to slowly make sense as you had them all explained to you methodically and took your first spin around the block? This chapter is the DJ version of that.
Step-by-step: What a DJ actually does
- Find and load the next tune – Get the tune you want to play next on to an unused deck, making sure that deck is not live (i.e. its faders are closed). Route that tune’s audio to your headphones by pressing its ‘Pre-fader listen’, ‘Headphones’ or ‘Cue’ button.
- Prepare the tune for playing – That means setting the channel gain so the tune isn’t too quiet, or distorting; checking its eQ (to make sure there’s not too much or too little bass, and it doesn’t sound too muddy or harsh, for example); getting its tempo right; and picking the place you want to play it from, cueing it up at that point (usually a downbeat or what I call a ‘one beat’, which just means the first significant beat of a section).
- Test the transition – This is like a dress rehearsal for the transition you’ll be doing for real soon enough. Waiting until a good place in the current track, you get the tune playing. Then, with one ear listening to the speakers or booth monitors (that are playing the current tune out loud), and the other ear listening to your headphones (that are playing the new tune privately – hence the DJ look with a hand holding a single headphone cup to a single ear), you make any small adjustments to tempo, while at the same time deciding for sure if you’ve made the right choice of tune. If not, you go back to step one and try again with something else.
- Begin the transition – Returning the tune to your chosen ‘in’ or ‘cue’ point, you start it playing over the top of the current tune, effectively repeating step three, but for the final ‘real’ time.
- Make the new tune live – This means turning its levels up so your audience can finally hear it too. This could be at exactly the same time as the previous stage, or it could be a few beats, bars or a whole musical phrase or two later, with you monitoring in your headphones in the meantime.
- Perform the transition – Depending on the type of transition you’re doing, here’s where you manage the two tunes as they play together, using the levels and tone controls of one or both of them to move your audience’s attention from one tune to the next. When beatmixing, this stage can go on for several musical phrases; with many types of mixes, it is very short, and for one type of mix, it is non- existent (when you cut straight from one tune to the next).
- Stop the outgoing tune playing – When the transition is totally over, you stop the old tune playing. Its deck is now the unused deck.
- Return to step one
Just like driving a car, it’s not actually the steps themselves but how smoothly you enact them that really counts here.
Now you have a sense of the overall sequence of DJing track to track, for the rest of this step, we’ll look at all the things you need to know to do the above successfully, starting in the next chapter by looking at your mixer.