How to DJ: Beginner's Guide in 2021
If you want to excel in the DJing game, you will want to invest in more advanced equipment and learn some mixing fundamentals.
There’s a lot more to DJing than creating a playlist on your phone and hitting “play.” You need to have an ear for tempo, a strong intuition for the flow of your set, and an ability to adapt based on the energy in a room.
You may think that being a DJ is all about the music, but there is a human element, too. A competent DJ will be able to interpret and influence that human element.
Table of Contents
What You Need to Start Mixing
Every DJ will have a different setup, and as you get more familiar with mixing music, you’ll also develop your preferences for your DJ equipment. If you’re starting in developing your mixing skills, you will need the following equipment:
DJ Controller or Mixer
It is possible to DJ using just a computer with DJ software, but a DJ controller, as the name suggests, gives you a lot more control. A mixer doesn’t come with the software either but can serve as a hub for various audio sources, including the controller.
When you imagine a DJ, I’m sure you’re picturing a guy scratching records on his turntables. The DJ controller is a piece of hardware that has turntables. It also includes some buttons and controls for adding sound effects. If need be, you have everything you need in a DJ controller.
The controller has dials, faders, and buttons for basic mixing. When DJing on a controller, you can alternate songs on either turntable, with a smooth transition from one song to the next. You also have more options when making transitions, such as the volume of tracks and the speed of the crossfade.
A controller is all you need to start with, but a DJ mixer can up your game. A mixer is a piece of hardware that enhances your whole DJing setup. It serves as a hub for all of your inputs, and you can adjust the levels to create a balanced sound overall.
The mixer has audio channels for different music sources, and you can adjust the volume of the overall sound from the mixer. That way, you can harmoniously combine all of the elements. If you have a live drummer, you can control how their input gels with the sound from the controller.
Both a mixer and a controller can be hooked up to speakers. If you have both a mixer and a controller, you should connect the speaker to the mixer. If your setup uses just a controller, plug the speakers into the controller.
What’s the best DJ Mixer or Controller for Beginners?
For beginning DJs, the Numark Mixtrack Platinum FX is an excellent controller option. It doesn’t cost too much compared to other controllers, so you won’t have to break the bank right out of the gate.
The Numark includes 2 mixer channels, so you don’t need to buy a separate mixer to incorporate a couple more inputs into your setup. It also comes with lots of additional features and FX like remix tools and auto loop. With 4-deck mixing, you can dip your toes into more complicated mixes as you improve your DJ skills.
Dj headphones are different from regular headphones because of their more flexible design. They are built on a swivel so that you can wear DJ headphones on one or both ears. This is helpful because you may want to listen with only one ear since some DJ headphones have a “split cue” setting, enabling them to play different tracks into each ear.
A split cue setting is helpful while mixing because it gives you more control over the flow of the mix. When mixing, you want to be able to hear the current track and the cue track simultaneously. DJ headphones make it easier to mix by enabling you to match up the beats of the current and upcoming song. This allows for a smooth transition.
Some DJs prefer to listen only to the side of the headphones playing the upcoming track. This way, they can hear the music currently playing in the venue. Others prefer to zone out in headphone land. Both are acceptable options, and as you find your DJing style, you will develop your preferences.
DJ Studio Monitors
Lots of DJ monitors play a polished-up version of audio through the speakers. If you are mixing other people’s finished songs at a gig, you want to be able to adjust the bass and other audio settings. However, if you are mixing your music, you want to hear what it sounds like in its raw form.
A studio monitor is different from a regular DJ monitor because it is used primarily for music production and not at a venue. A studio monitor plays back sound at a flat frequency, without any polishing. When working on your mixes in your studio, you want to hear exactly what the track sounds like without any additional effects.
As you begin to DJ, you’ll find out what kind of tracks you like and probably create a collection of your favorite tracks and transitions. With CDs and vinyl, it’s a lot more complicated since you have to switch between physical tracks. That’s how the old school DJs did it, but we don’t have to carry physical copies in this day and age.
A digital music library is more portable than discs, and portability is a plus for a DJ. DJs work on the road, bringing their setup to different venues, so having a compact library is essential. No use lugging around a bunch of physical discs when you could have it all on a digital storage device.
The most common storage solution for DJs is a portable hard drive. When mixing, you don’t want to be slowed down digging through your library. You should be able to find your tracks easily.
Having all of your songs accessible by the click of a button isn’t just helpful when transporting your setup. It’s also useful for the overall flow of your set.
When transitioning from one track to the next, you need to match the beat of the cue track with the current track. This used to be done manually by slapping down another CD on your second turntable. Now you can have the same effect with the push of a button.
Make sure your digital music library is well organized. The time you save will allow you to do more creative things with your tracks, such as setting loops and adding effects. As far as content goes, keep up with trends and have some old favorites on standby. Be familiar with your library. That way, you can add requests on the fly if needed and keep the set running smoothly.
You’ve got hardware like your controller and your mixer. You’re bopping to the music with your DJ headphones. Now you need some software to run through the equipment. DJ software is a staple of the digital DJing age and allows you more flexibility. You no longer have to struggle with physical discs or records. Just drop songs from playlists onto one of your digital decks.
If that’s your jam, DJing with vinyl and CDs is a viable option. However, having a digital system can take your DJ setup to the next level. Downloadable DJ software is available for both Mac and PC and opens up your creative options while mixing.
You can integrate your digital music collection into DJ software, which allows you to mix live at a venue or play pre-recorded mixes.
What software do DJs use to make mixes?
There are many DJ software options, and it can be overwhelming to choose one for your setup. The software used by DJs depends on factors like the budget of the DJ, what kind of hardware they currently have, and what sort of effects and features are included with the software.
Think about what you want from your software. Since you’ll most likely be staring at your screen for hours in a darkened environment, you want a display that doesn’t blind you like the Second Coming of the Lord. Most DJ software has a dark background option with a flexible layout so that you can organize it to your specifications.
Another valuable software feature is the ability to label the songs in your music library with additional information so that you can easily find music in a particular key or genre. Having a set planned is important, but being organized will make it easier to improvise if necessary.
Familiarise Yourself With DJ Gear
Your work as a DJ begins long before you show up for a gig. Prep work and practice are half of what makes a DJ successful. Get to know your music library, group together tracks that gel, and practice using your equipment to mix and transition from one song to the next. The more familiar you are with your gear, the more time you can devote to picking up the vibe at your gig.
The DJs that make a set flow smoothly with seemingly no effort are the ones who know their equipment inside and out. They have listened to their songs repeatedly and practiced mixing so often that their transitions are second nature to them. The more prepared you are, the more time you can spend vibing with your audience and following your instincts.
DJ Mixing Fundamentals
Technology does a lot of the work for DJs nowadays, and while that’s a definite advantage, it helps to learn how to mix manually. Some DJs even prefer it. Below are some fundamental skills for you to develop as a DJ:
Step 1: Understanding BPM
BPM stands for beats per minute, a measure of how fast the music’s tempo is. The BPM affects the mood of a piece of music and can change the energy in the room. As you probably know from listening to music, a lower BPM will be more relaxed, and a higher BPM pumps more energy into the dance floor.
BPM is important because you want people at the venue to follow the vibe of your music, but if you don’t want to tire them out. The variety of BPMs is important for the ebb and flow of energy.
Step 2: Tempo Matching
Tempo is the song’s speed overall, and being able to recognize a song’s tempo will help you create a set that flows. While your current song is playing, listen for the time signature of the cue song, and adjust the tempo using the pitch fader on your controller. Adjust until the songs are playing at the same speed.
It’s easiest to practice tempo matching with songs that are in 4/4 time. This is a pretty common time signature and is easy to pick up.
Step 3: Beat Matching
Beat matching is essentially synchronizing the beat of an upcoming song with the beat of the song currently playing in your set. Beat matching occurs on the DJ controller or a set of turntables. Properly beat-matched songs can overlap because the percussive elements of both are the same.
Learn to recognize the beginning of a new phrase in a track. Ensure that the first beat of a phrase overlaps in both your current track and your cue track. This allows your set to flow from track to track without awkward pauses or discordant beats. You can also overlap tracks that you have beat-matched and create mashups.
Some music management software has an auto-sync setting that helps with beat matching, but lots of old-school DJs prefer to rely on their ears to beat match. We recommend practicing the old-fashioned way. That way, your high-tech setup is an enhancement of your skill and not a crutch.
Step 4: Learn How to Use EQs, Filters & Gain
EQ stands for equalizer and can be used to improve the quality of your mix. If you’ve ever heard a speaker distort the sound in a club, that is most likely due to an EQ problem. The EQ settings on a mixer will warn you if a certain kind of sound is too loud. For example, the bass may be too loud, making the song’s lyrics hard to hear.
A filter is used to eliminate specific frequencies and create a more balanced sound overall. The filter cuts out higher and lower frequencies that might cause distortion or feedback through the speakers.
The purpose of adjusting the gain of your audio is to prevent your sound from getting distorted. By adjusting the input gain, output gain, and amplifier gain, you can make sure that the sounds of the electronic circuits in your setup don’t overpower the actual audio.
Step 5: Learn Phrasing
Phrasing, or stage matching, is an integral part of beat matching. An understanding of proper phrasing will help you figure out how to segue from one track to another without disrupting the flow of the set.
To transition between tracks, you need to recognize the beginning of a phrase in a cue track and line it up with the beginning of a similar phrase in the track that’s currently playing. It’s easier to make transitions or add another track into the mix during an instrumental break. Overlapping vocals can sound discordant and confusing.
Step 6: Learn DJ Transitions
Transitions are a mixing technique you can use to overlap two songs and segue seamlessly from one to the other. There are a couple of different techniques for manually transitioning from one track to the other, and you should have a few of them in your DJing arsenal.
Knowing how to fade is DJ gold. A fade is universally recognized in dance clubs, bars, and reception halls as the signal that the current song is ending and something new is coming.
End the song on a familiar part that the dancers probably know and have already heard, like the chorus.
After the fade, you can phase in your next song. You will have already beat matched the songs, and you will want to start the new track on a downbeat at the beginning of a phrase.
Another more bold technique is called the cut. While your first song is playing, beat match the new song and choose a phrase when you want to execute the cut. As usual, time your transition for a downbeat at the beginning of a phrase. On that downbeat, simultaneously start your cue track and cut the current track.
A cut can be tricky, especially if you are working with vinyl or CDs. If you have a controller with multiple decks, though, you can do this with the push of a couple of buttons.
Step 7: Building a DJ Mix
The kind of mix you build depends on the venue you will be Djing in. Dance clubs, restaurants, and wedding receptions all have different environments and a different vibe that you should be aiming for.
Know how long your set should be. This will influence how many songs you pick and the flow of intensity throughout the night.
Organize songs in your music library by BPM. This will help you easily find songs that transition into each other. You can also organize your music by genre, and the genres you play for a gig will depend on your venue. For example, keep all of your techno/dance music in one place.
Be familiar with the song lengths, phrases, tempos, and potential cure points. The better you know your music, the more confident you can be if you select music on the fly. As you improve as a DJ, you will feel the crowd’s vibe and make adjustments as you go.
It may look like DJs walk into a gig and wing it the whole time. While they may seem to be caught in a reverie of inspired improv and freestyling, much preparation went into what they are doing up there. Selecting songs ahead of time will free you up to be present in the venue and adapt to the crowd’s mood.
Choose a song, then group it with a couple of tracks that gel with it. You don’t necessarily have to use all of the songs you’ve selected, but you want to have some flexibility. Choose your songs by playing around with mixing.
Learn Harmonic Mixing
When you mix tracks, another thing you’ll want to do is make sure they are compatible harmonically. This means that the key of your outgoing track gels with the key of the incoming track. You can find the key of your song by ear, using another instrument, or software that scans your music library and gives you the key of every song.
Another tool for matching up tracks with compatible keys is the Camelot wheel, created by Mark Davis. The Camelot Wheel is a handy infographic that displays different keys according to their compatibility with each other.
The Camelot Wheel is divided into wedges that are further divided into an outer circle and an inner circle. Each section represents a key and is adjacent to three other compatible keys. D-Flat Minor, for example, is on the inner circle between F-Sharp Minor and A-Flat Minor, with E-Major adjacent to it on the outer circle. These three keys are compatible with D-Flat Minor.
Step 8: Practice, Practice, Practice
Picking songs ahead of time and testing how they mix with each other is only part of preparation. Just like with any musical performance, you have to familiarize yourself with your instrument. Practice your transitions and beat matching, get to know your songs in their entirety, and run through entire sets if you need to.
If you want to try your hand at DJing, you don’t need a super-complex or expensive setup to get started. There is plenty of reasonably-priced software and equipment out there that has all the necessary features and capabilities.
Equipment is only half of the battle, though. Once you have your setup the way you like it, you will need to hone your DJ mixing skills, master a seamless transition between songs, and learn how to read a room. Your set should adapt based on the energy in the room, and if you become a skilled enough DJ, you can use your music to achieve a desired result in the audience.