Rough Guide to DJ'ing
So you've decided you want to be the next Jeff Mills, Tiesto or DJ Yoda but you don't really know where to start? Never fear, DJ'ing is an art that is relatively easy to learn and with much practice, can result in a hobby that will last many years. Hopefully this guide will give some practical tips to those trying to start and spark another talent to the electronic music scene.
This guide assumes someone looking at it has a basic understanding of electronic music and has listened to a mixed DJ set before. For those who aren’t quite familiar with dance music and the art of mixing the basic idea is for the DJ to play a series of tracks which flow and fit together, allowing the dance floor to keep partying. This is done by matching the bpm (beats per minute) of the track to be played next with the one currently being played to the dance floor. It is the hope of this guide to give a worded recount of how one goes about achieving this by looking at the equipment involved as well as the skills to beatmatch two records.
These days there is a great deal of equipment one might use to DJ from effects and BPM counters to software and samplers. For purposes of this guide we will simply look at the fundamental equipment required to DJ.
The thing that draws most people to DJ'ing is the turntable. The turntable has been used for DJ'ing since before the first world war as records have been for the greater part of last century and are an excellent medium for manipulating tracks. Since the late 1970's turntables have been equipped with a "pitch fader" which is used to alter the speed at which the turntable plays and thus allow the track to be synched in time with the track playing on the second turntable. Technics developed their famous 1200 turntables in the 70's and have remained at the top of the market ever since due to their ability to last forever and high re-sale value as a result of this.
Turntables come in two flavours, belt driven and direct drive. Belt driven turntables rely on a belt between the motor and the platter (part of the turntable on which the record sits), where as a direct drive turntable places the motor underneath the platter and is directly connected to it. This direct connection to the platter thusly gives a higher amount of torque to the deck and is much preferred as manipulation of records (most scratching) can take place with the platter not slackening off. The best way to see this is when you hit the start button of the turntable. With a belt drive turntable a track may take two seconds to reach it’s required rotation, whereas a direct drive turntable will reach this in (normally) less than a second.
It is highly recommended you invest in a good pair of Direct Drive turntables when you start DJ'ing. Investing in a good pair will allow you to grow with them and still use them in 10 years from now and if you decide DJ'ing is not your thing, you will be able to sell them for close to what you paid for them. Many arguments occur as to which turntables should be purchased from today's market, but Technics definitely remain favourite amongst most due to their good history. Other turntables have new features such as key correct and the ability to increase the pitch to +/-100%, but these are not really required if you know what you are doing.
To help with cueing and scratching records without damaging them and to allow the vinyl to slide better under the needle we need an item called a slip mat. A slip mat is essentially a round piece of felt the size of the platter which goes on top of the platter and beneath the record. Any slip mats will do, just buy some with your favourite label on them or something. Turntablists generally buy slip mats which come with an extra layer of plastic on the bottom which allows for even more slipping, so if you are interested in scratching you may consider investing in some. Related to this, when you get your turntable, it may have a big heavy piece of rubber on the platter. Remove this before you put a single record on the deck!!! It is heavy and useless for DJ'ing.
The next piece of vital equipment is the mixer. This is the piece that sits between the turntables and allows for the audio to be manipulated further. A mixer will generally feature channel faders for each channel (an input into the mixer, needs to be greater than two to allow two turntables to be connected (obviously)) allowing for the volume of each turntable to be turned up or down and a Crossfader which switches between the two channels. Essentially if we imagine that we have a turntable connected to channel one and another turntable connected to channel two, when the crossfader is all the way to the left, only channel one will be heard and when the crossfader is all the way to the right, only the right channel will be heard. When it is in the middle however, we can hear both turntables blended together. This is used for mixing and is utilised quite a lot when scratching.
Beyond this a mixer will then generally feature a three band EQ allowing for the Hi's, Mid's and Low's of a track to be adjusted, giving you the ability to cut out or increase the amount of output of each. Sitting just above the EQ there will be a Gain knob which allows for the channels to be turned up or down further so the tracks can be at the same level when the faders are equal to one another, also another helpful feature for mixing.
This then leads us to the headphone jack and features which allow the channels to be heard through the headphones. At any time there will be one track playing but when a DJ wants to mix the second deck they can't just start playing around over the top of the track that is currently playing through the main PA. This is where the headphones come in. The headphones can be set to listen to one or more of the channels on the mixer and allows the DJ to listen to a track without everyone else in the room hearing it. This will be looked at further into the guide.
Picking the right mixer is a little confusing at first, as the features outlined above vary significantly depending on what the mixer is intended for and which company built it. Mixers made for scratching will commonly have very limited EQ'ing ability with a durable crossfader which is set to make the channels at its highest peak before it's at the centre. To clarify this we can imagine our scenario from before featuring two turntables, if the crossfader is all the way to the left and is moved slightly the right, the second turntable will be just as loud as it would be if it was right in the middle and vice versa. This allows for scratches to be cut up rapidly without having to move the fader as much. Mixers designed for scratching are usually extremely cheap and are good for learning to mix on but after a year or so an upgrade will most likely be required. Mixers in this category worth noting come from Stanton, Numark, Vestax and Technics.
On the other side of the fence we have mixers designed more specifically for mixing. These mixers usually feature higher quality channel faders, more EQ bands (although commonly no more than three) and crossfaders designed for a more smoother transition between tracks. Mixers in this category start to get a bit pricier and one could spend many thousands on a good mixer. Some companies worth looking at include Pioneer, Allen and Heath and Rane for the higher end and the companies listed earlier also feature decently priced mixers that fit into this category good for beginners and intermediate DJ's.
Headphones are another essential, more specifically good headphones. A good pair of headphones will cost a large amount but will be paramount in successful dj'ing. The headphones should be able to be placed on the head in such a way that one ear can be exposed with the other ear still being able to listen to the channel easily. At the end of the day a pair of headphones that pick up the bass drum of a song clearly in a loud environment whilst being comfortable for the many hours of practice you'll be putting in will be what you are after. Some brands of headphones worth looking at come from Pioneer, Sony, Technics and Sennheiser.
Speakers and Needles
Finally to produce noise you will need speakers and needles. For speakers you will simply need something that has an amplifier attached to it, in most cases this will be a home stereo system or some computer speakers. When practicing in your bedroom it doesn't really matter as long as it sounds good to you and you can hear everything that's going on in the tracks.
Secondly, you will be requiring needles. These come in many shapes and sizes. Most turntables come equipped with a Headshell. This allows for any cartridge on the market to be used on the turntable. Cartridges are basically a small plastic unit which has a replaceable stylus (or needle) attached. Once you have a cartridge, you simply have to replace the stylus instead of the whole unit. Some brands to look out for when it comes to needles include Ortofon, Stanton and Shure.
Note about CDJ's
DJ'ing is not limited to turntables. Today the CDJ's (units which allow for dj'ing with CD's) are reaching the status of outdoing turntables with the price of vinyl versus CD's (and legal downloads) being much better in favour of CD's and the fact a DJ's entire set can be carried in a single CD wallet versus lugging around 20 - 40 records in a crate. It is with this in mind that you may consider buying a pair of CDJ's instead of turntables especially with companies such as Pioneer, Denon and several others having technology in CDJ's today which allows for a direct emulation of a turntable (ie: being able to scratch etc.).
With this in mind, I will now note that the rest of the guide assumes you are using Turntables BUT if you end up buying CDJ's you will note that most of what is said here can still be easily performed on most CDJ's. As long as they have a pitch fader they will do the job fine, with many CDJ's having a feature which emulates the platter of a turntable being adjusted (faster or slower) with the use of the hands and the play button usually releases the track instantly replacing the need to rock the record to get it started.
Ok before we go any further, you may be sitting there going "I have all this equipment...what do I do now?" (That is, you haven't plugged in anything). Quickly I will outline what is required to set up all your equipment up and get started.
Setting up the Needle
Ok, before we connect anything else we shall look at connecting the cartridge to the tone arm. The needles you purchase should have instructions on how to attach the cartridge to the headshell. The exception to this is if you have purchased a needle that connects straight to the tone arm (such as a needle from the Ortofon Concorde series). Once you have your needle attached to the Headshell, it's a simple matter of sliding it into the tone arm with the pins lined up and then tightening it up.
Once it's attached take it off the tone arm again. At this point we need to balance the tone arm. The first step is to find the weight at the end of the tone arm and move it around until the tone arm starts "floating" over the platter ie: it does not sink down on to the platter, nor go all the way backwards. Once this is done, there should be a little dial on the weight. Turn this till 0 lines up with the groove marked on the weight. Once you have done this, place the headshell back onto the tone arm and twist the weight fowards slowly until it's on 3 - 3.5. This will ensure the needle will track nicely to the record without putting too much weight onto the vinyl. If it seems to be skipping, turn the weight forward a little bit until it seems right. Next find the instruction that comes with the cartridges you purchased. In it you should find some information on what to put the "anti-skate" setting onto for that needle. If you can't find this, simply set it to 0 for now.
Setting up the mixer
This part is quite straight forward. Firstly you must note that a turntable does not, unlike must audio equipment, have a line out. Instead it uses phono out and thusly, you must connect your turntable into the mixers phono in. The back of your mixer should be labelled with which channels are phono and which are line. If you cannot indentify any phono inputs, I would recommend you take it back and get a mixer that does have it. Put the first turntable into the first channel and put your second turntable in the second channel (or third if you have a three channel mixer as this will be at the end closest to the second turntable).
Next we want to ground the turntables. This is a step a lot of people tend to forget and leads them to start wondering why there is a low buzzing noise in the signal. This is due to the turntable not being grounded properly. To do so, your mixer should have a spot allocated for doing this. You may have noted when you got your turntables that there was an extra piece of wire dangling off them. This is used for grounding the turntable to the mixer and removes buzzing sound.
Finally we want to connect your speakers to the mixer. Most mixers will have both a master and booth output. Either one will do, just remember which one you have connected into and in turn switch the correct knob up on the mixer. The reason for the two is when in a nightclub, the main PA is usually pointed towards the audience and is in front of the DJ. This doesn't allow for much sound to reach the DJ and thus makes cueing difficult. To cure this, speakers are put into the booth so the DJ can hear what is going on down on the dance floor.
Also remember when you plug your mixer into the wall and flick the power on with the speakers are connected, have either the speakers turned off or turn down the volume on the mixer to the speakers. If you do not do this you risk damaging your speakers!
Now all you need to do is go out and buy some tunes from your local record store and you are ready to begin the fun! The next part will attempt to document three methods used by DJ's for beatmatching in order of difficulty from easiest to hardest.
A good way to get a feel for beatmatching and working behind the decks when you first begin is to simply purchase two copies of the same record. Try and make it a record that has a nice clear bass drum (and something you aren't going to get sick of quickly) as this will make things much easier. The most fundamental skill with using turntables is being able to cue a record and release it in time with the second track being played. With this in mind, put both records on the deck, set the pitch faders on both decks to 0% and place the cross fader on the mixer to the centre. We will just be doing all our work through the speakers for now so put the headphones away for this part.
Turn on one of the decks letting one of the tracks play and grab hold of the second record and start the second turntable up as well. The idea is to get the tracks beats playing in synch so find the first bass drum that appears in the track and rock it back and forward under the needle. The best way to ensure you release the record in time is to rock the record in along to the beat. What I like to do is scratch the record forward and back once for every beat I hear until I wish to release the track. This gives you a nice rhythm and will ensure the track takes off perfectly in time.
So firstly try just scratching the bass beat in time with the record, and when you feel comfortable with that, try scratching the beat in time for four beats and then releasing it. Keep doing this until you can just walk up to the deck and do it first straight away with no trouble. Using two copies of the same record will save you a lot of hassles in the long run and will allow you to hear the difference in speed of the tracks much quicker when you start using different records.
Now that you have mastered releasing the track and have a good handle on the vinyl we can begin some basic beatmatching. This first method is good for avoiding the age old "touching the deck" technique, one which is looked down upon as it can ruin a mix if used when in the middle of dropping two tracks.
Firstly pick out the two records (different ones this time) that you wish to mix with. If possible use tracks of the same genre and around the same tempo. As with before set the records up onto the decks, except move the crossfader to only allow deck one to be heard through the speakers. This track will be playing live and we will be cueing up the second deck (get those headphones out!). Get the first track playing and then search for the first kick drum in the second track with the headphones. As we practiced before, scratch the drum in time with the track that is live on turntable one and when you feel confident let go. This is where things begin to get a little trickier.
When you release the track it should stay in time with the record on turntable one for at least one bar (a bar is equal to four beats), but unless you are extremely lucky and you managed to pick up a record with the same tempo you will have to alter the pitch to keep the beats in line. Try and listen really closely and figure out whether the track on turntable two is going faster or slower than the track on turntable one. This may seem difficult and when you first try it will most likely be impossible, but keep trying and you will slowly improve your ability to hear the difference. Once you have established whether the track is playing faster or slower, stop the record and move the pitch fader on turntable two in the appropriate direction ie: if it is going faster, slow it down to around -4%, if it is going slower, speed it up to around +4%. This is normally around the middle ground of the pitch fader and thus from here you can keep refining. Once you have done this, take the track back to the first bass drum and try again. Go up or down in steady amounts. Remember, if the track was slower on 0% and then faster when moved to 4%, the pitch will be somewhere in the area of 0.1% and 3.9%. Each time you take a "guess" at the pitch, you should try to eliminate some ground on the pitch fader and hone in on the correct pitch. As you will see in the final method of mixing, this is a handy skill to develop early.
Don't expect to be perfect at it straight away, it's an extremely hard skill to pick up in an instant, but if you spend a few hours each day mucking around you will slowly improve and find you are able to work out whether the track is too slow or fast quicker than when you started.
Ok so you've started to get the hang of the basics to beatmatching, now you should consider stepping it up a bit. For most DJ's, this is as far as they take their beatmatching skills. It is pretty well tested and allows for much quicker beat matching than the "guess and check" method we went through before.
We begin once again, the same way we did with our first method of mixing by having one track playing and cueing the other record in the headphones, finding it's first bass beat. We once again launch the second track in time to the first track and listen to find out whether the track is faster or slower than the live song, but instead of stopping when we think we know, we keep the track playing and manipulate its speed using the platter of the turntable and pitch fader.
Doing this is a fine art. If you hear that the second track is going slower than the first one, quickly get it inline by either twisting the spindle in the middle of the platter (the metal part the record sits in) or by pushing on the side of the platter carefully forward. This takes much practice as it is very easy to make the needle skip when using this approach. Whilst you are physically speeding up the record, move the pitchfader up as much as you feel is required. If you find that the track is now too fast, you simply touch the side of the platter gently and slow down the rotation, whilst moving the pitchfader down in the same manner. Once again it's important to remember which pitches you have been at and found to be too fast or slow so you can zero in on the pitch.
This method of mixing is very effective and pretty easy to pick up. It will allow you to mix extremely tightly but it is not perfect. I will finally show you an Advanced Method most DJ's employee to ensure the smoothest mixes possible.
So you've got the first two stages down pat and you are now ready to become a superstar. This final method is by far the best, and once you learn it, possibly the easiest and quickest way to get tracks locked in at the BPM rapidly.
We once again find ourselves with one track playing, cueing another one in our headphones and then dropping it in time with the music. Instead of this time touching the platter, we are simply going to use the pitchfader to move in on the correct BPM. Essentially we'll be riding the pitch to our final destination.
At this point it is best to use an analogy to show how pitch riding works. Imagine you are in a driving in a car on a highway and there is a car in front of you. You for some reason have decided you'd like to be travelling at the same speed as that person. You start accelerating and eventually catch up to them but you don't take your foot off the pedal and you end up going past them slightly. At this point you then slow down, once again you catch up to them, but you drift back behind them again, except not quite as far as where you began. This process continues until you are exactly in line with them and you are travelling at the same perfect speed! Sound easy?
So how does this translate over to the turntable? If we notice that the track playing is faster than the one we are cueing, we know we need to speed it up. So we can conclude that the pitch will be between +0.1% or so and 100%, but if you have selected your tracks right it should be no more than +6%. Thus move the fader up as far as you feel is safe and hold it there until you hear the beats drifting in line with one another. Once you hear them running in time, bring the pitch down and they should lock up perfectly for a little while before they will *possibly* drift apart again. This will mean it is faster than where you are currently sitting the pitch fader, but slower than where you took too in your last ride, so move the pitch up to a point less than the percentage you were at earlier. Continue doing this and eventually you will zone in on the pitch and it will be near perfect. All without having to touch the turntable and risk messing up the mix!
Where to now?
Now that you have beatmixing down pat you are able to start to experiment and take your DJ'ing style down any path you want. With the fundamentals of beatmixing down you are able to build upon this and make your DJ sets an exciting expression of who you are. You may wish to learn how to scratch to give your sets a bit more flare. When writing this guide I consider writing about scratching, but it is one of those skills which really can't be put into words adequately. The best thing to do is get some videos such as DMC World Championships or some tutorial's DVD's by someone such as DJ Qbert who can show you step by step how each scratch is performed.
So that's the "basics". Hopefully you will keep at it and enjoy yourself. Remember no one is born perfect at it and it requires many hours of practice. If you feel you aren't getting anywhere, take a break for a few hours or even a day. This will allow you to think about what you have done and you may think of a new approach to your problem. Also try listening to some mixes by some of your favourite DJ's and see how they go about mixing certain tracks. Good luck and enjoy!
Side Note: If you have any further questions, feel free to send me a message and I'll be only to happy to try and answer!
Further Side Notes: I would like to thank my friend Travis for editing and XWiz for all his help! Thanks guys!