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Understanding DJ Gear


Before you can have any confidence at all about making the right choices when it comes to spending the (sometimes large) sums of money needed to buy a DJ set-up, you need a good understanding of what DJ gear does. While just a few years ago, buying the gear was easy, albeit rather expensive (you bought two specialist turntables and a ‘mixer’ – the bit that sat between them and allowed you to blend the music the turntables were playing – plus some speakers and headphones, and you were done), today the choice out there is mind-boggling.

From everything-in-one-box systems to club-style DJ CD decks and mixers, to DJ software that runs on your laptop (and can work with or without various extra gadgets plugged in), to digital vinyl systems (‘DVS’), to DJ apps for your tablet (or even your phone)… spend a cursory half hour browsing ‘DJ set-up’ online and you’d be forgiven for walking away twice as confused as when you started.

But if you’re to start your new DJing hobby or career off on the right foot, and avoid a potentially expensive mistake or series of mistakes, you need to think like a pro. luckily, I’m here to show you what the pros see when they assess any DJ set-up to help you cut through the marketing speak and avoid the shiny new thing trap that can lead to expensive, frustrating errors.

Ah, that shiny new thing syndrome. You know what I mean: being seduced by the latest and the greatest, this year’s ‘must have’ this or that. We see people fall into this trap all the time at Digital DJ Tips, where we train thousands of people a year to DJ. It is always beginners, never pros, who suffer from this, and we usually diagnose it when we receive something like this in our inbox:

Hi! I’ve been DJing for a bit, but I’m struggling to get any better. Can you help? I’ve realised that my current set-up is a bit limited and I probably made a mistake when I bought it. I really should have bought something better first time around. Should I upgrade? In fact, there’s something coming out next year that actually seems to have everything I need on it, and also has some stuff I hadn’t thought of but that looks great. Truth is, I don’t know what to do! Do I trade in my gear for something else, or wait a year and then buy the amazing new gear that’s just around the corner? Either way I’ve got to do something, as my DJing is stalling right now…

Whenever I get a letter, email or forum comment like that, I patiently explain two things. Firstly, you can do more DJing on a cheap or free DJ app on your mobile phone today than the very best DJ systems could achieve just a decade or so ago, so unless you’re a very advanced DJ, there’s little to be gained from putting a hole in your wallet to chop and change your set-up. And secondly, if your DJing is stalling, the issue is never – listen to me – never your gear. It is always what you’re doing (or not doing) with that gear.

We’ll get on to the second point a little later, but the first point is important for now. Whatever you choose to DJ on (and by the end of this step you’ll know for sure what you’ll need), it’s going to be oK. As long as you follow the advice here, I guarantee that you’ll be confident in your first DJ gear purchase, and be certain that you’re equipping yourself with everything you need to learn to DJ quickly and effectively.

How pros see DJ set-ups

So to begin to understand what’s really going on in a DJ system – any DJ system – let’s pretend we’re in the shoes of a pro DJ. Not any pro DJ, but a pro DJ who has just been asked whether he can play a DJ set on a completely unfamiliar set-up in ten minutes’ time. our hero has clearly got no time to worry about the amazing must have features of this fantastic but totally alien DJ system. After all, he has got just a few minutes to get ready and then he’s expected to perform.
So what does he look for in order to say yes or no to this request? What parts does he have to identify in order to decide if this strange DJ set-up has got what it takes for him to deliver the goods? There are just four things. Here they are:

Two independent music sources

In order for a DJ to play music continuously, he needs two music sources, so when he is playing a piece of music to his audience using one of those sources, he can prepare the next piece of music using the other. This is so he can make a gapless transition between the two tracks when the time is right. A DJ’s music sources are commonly called his or her ‘decks’. our DJ is going to want to know whether the format he has his music in can be played on whatever decks are available (for instance, it’d be pointless trying to play digital music files if all he’s got for decks are a pair of old record players…).

A way of switching between the decks

There’s not much point having two ways of playing music without being able to switch between them, and preferably do a bit more than that, such as ‘fading’ the music sources together (which is why the controls used to do this are typically called ‘faders’). otherwise, our DJ would need a separate amplifier and speaker system for each source, which would be crazy. So clearly a ‘mixer’ (to give this part of any DJ set-up its proper title) is a must-have.

A way of getting the music to the audience

Once our hero has his music sources identified and a way of blending them together, he needs to get that output from the mixer to the audience. So the next step in the equation is to identify the loudspeakers and the amplification system necessary to make the music loud enough, so that whether there are ten or 10,000 people ready to enjoy the DJ set, they can all hear it well. our DJ is going to want to know that the speaker system is fit for purpose and how to control it.

A way of listening to stuff the audience isn’t hearing

Typically via a pair of headphones, our pro DJ definitely needs a way of listening to the music source or sources that the audience isn’t currently hearing. DJs need this function for several reasons: for instance, in order to preview the next track to see if it’s suitable, to ‘cue’ the track up (to get it to the right point to start it playing when the time is right), or to adjust its levels so that when it’s time to play it through the loudspeakers, it sounds just as good as the track currently playing. That’s why the ability to monitor something different from what the audience is hearing is essential.

And that’s it. At its heart, a DJ system simply needs to have these four things. once our pro has worked this through, he will know whether it’s possible to play on the gear in front of him or not. Indeed, a typical pro DJ faced with any unfamiliar set-up will work out the above in minutes, if not seconds. The internal dialogue will go something like this:

OK, let’s turn everything down first so we don’t have any loud surprises. Right, now how do I get my music playing? Ah right, here. Where do I plug my headphones in? Right, there! Let’s hit play…I can see the meters working, it’s coming through. The other deck? Yup, that’s playing too. Now, where are my headphones’ volume and selector? Great. Master volume? Are the amps on? Let’s turn it up a bit. There we go! Yup, that sounds good, I reckon this will be loud enough when we crank things up. OK, all set! Now, where’s the audience? I’ll work everything else out as I go along…”

As you work through the following chapters in this section of the book, I’ll be explaining your options in terms of these four parts, because it will help you to understand perfectly well the otherwise bewildering range of choices out there. By the end of the section, you’ll have all the information you need to make a good choice when it comes to equipping yourself with a DJ set-up of your own.

Keep your choice of gear in context

Before we get stuck in, I want to return to the second point that I make to any DJ who writes to me frustrated, blaming their gear for their lack of progress. While a good DJ will be able to play on every DJ set-up (as long as it has the four basic elements), a bad DJ will struggle to play on any DJ set-up.

The truth is that DJing isn’t about the gear, any more than photography is about the camera or writing is about the pen you hold. These things are all just tools of the trade, and while of course they have an influence on what is and isn’t possible, at the end of the day it’s what you do with them that counts. later on in this book you’ll learn about all the various things you need to be a great DJ, but past a pretty early point, the gear isn’t one of them.

Read this step well, choose wisely, then forget about your gear. We’ll have more important things to concern ourselves with from step two onwards, I promise you. Indeed, my students tell me that the beauty of the way I teach DJing is that by the end of one of our courses they feel confident that they’ll be able to pick up the skills on any DJ gear, not just the particular DJ set-up they have bought for themselves.

However, one thing is certain: even the best DJs can’t play with nothing. So let’s start at a place you may be surprised by, but which actually, as you’ll see, makes perfect sense: your computer.

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