These days it seems that nearly everyone with two thumbs and a computer can call themselves a DJ. I haven’t checked the stats recently, but I’m guessing there are now more DJ’s per 1,000 people in the United States than there are doctors. Chances are that many of you reading this piece consider yourself a DJ or have probably thought about giving it a spin (pun intended). But let’s be honest, we don’t need more DJs… What we do need however, is more GOOD DJs. We’ve received countless inquiries asking for our advice, tips, and tricks to becoming a master DJ, so I think it’s high time that we bring you a bit of our wisdom to take your mixing game further. Or as I like to call it ‘The Brett E. Center for Kids Who Can’t DJ Good‘. So sit yourself down, break out the notebook, we’re going to examine five habits that separate the amateur enthusiasts from the main-stage elite.
1. Confidence is Key
Confidence is the most understated component of a good performance and a critical component in broad success in life. Make no mistake, a good performance lies in a grounded sense of self-confidence. Being confident in one’s abilities is perhaps the best weapon in the DJs arsenal.
Every time I have stepped in front of a crowd I have always had the confidence that I am well prepared for my set, have developed the abilities to deliver a good performance, and most importantly will be able to deliver the set that I would want to hear if I was in the crowd. I know that despite the ever present stage nerves I have all the tools necessary to entertain. I can live mix for hours without ever feeling out of my element or running into the worst case scenario – running out of ideas.
Confidence prevents you from looking like a ‘deer in the headlights’ in front of a crowd and summarily from being run down. However confidence comes from putting in time and effort, it isn’t something that you wake up with one day. It is earned by using and mastering your tools and should be present regardless of whether you’re spinning in your bedroom or to a crowd of thousands – which brings us to our next point.
2. Practice Makes Perfect
This nearly goes without saying, but without putting in the time and work, you will not improve. The single biggest pitfall to a DJ’s improvement is an unwillingness to practice. Just because you had the money to buy an NI S4 does not mean you have the ability to use it.
In my experience it takes several hours to learn the most basic rudiments of DJing, let alone hone their use to a practical level. With help it should take no more than a few hours to a few days to learn how to mix two songs together. However, this is where I have seen the vast majority of newcomers stop. The wall of “just good enough” freezes the majority of bedroom DJs in their tracks. Once you can beat match two songs, pull an easy transition, and hit record what possibly could be left to learn or do? Ask yourself: would you learn to play a blues scale on a guitar and then send a demo to Atlantic Records?
The controller or turntable is just like any instrument, the basics are meant to be a foundation for more impressive uses. Practice sessions are controlled periods of trial and error. Take more time to mix multiple songs together, learn how to blend elements from one track over the top of another, mix drops with other builds, learn how to use samples etc. Practice means making mistakes and learning what works and what doesn’t, so that when it comes time, you won’t make or repeat mistakes.
Put aside an hour each day to get behind the decks and experiment; split your time between mixing new tracks and practicing fun transitions and bits you’ve created along the way. Don’t be afraid to pause, skip back, and try it again if it doesn’t work the first, second, or even the tenth time. I’ve spent countless hours with my partner setting cues to nail the tough transitions and trying things that sounded horrible until something fell into place. Practice is key in building confidence and without actually sitting down to mix or reexamining the way you use practice time, you are spinning your wheels.
3. A Good Craftsman Knows Their Tools
It’s been said that a good craftsmen never blames their tools, but I can guarantee you that every craftsman knows that a hammer can drive a nail into wood and also remove it. The same phrase however doesn’t apply to DJs, and often with hilarious results. Let’s be real – modern DJ equipment is complicated. Even the most modest of controllers are an orgy of buttons and knobs the majority of which, are at best, underutilized.
Modern equipment often comes loaded with an arsenal of effects, sampling, and looping tools that can take your mixing game to the next level. Some programs like Traktor offer looping options which can be used to create all sorts of unique and original pieces out of tracks all while on the fly. The hardware effects offered by Pioneer and others allow for warm and authentic manipulation of existing tracks, and even record scratches to create mind blowing walls of sound, smooth harsh transitions, and further alter familiar songs and sounds to create something fresh and exciting.
However, none of these features can be effectively utilized without learning the fundamentals of how they work. Because of this, it is absolutely critical to have a solid understanding of your entire setup. Experimenting with the various effects and features your setup allows, even if many of them seem irrelevant, is the only way that you can develop a firm understanding of the tools that will push your mixing to the next level.
4. Get Comfy With Production
DJing doesn’t imply a whole lot of original creative work these days and that’s just fine. You don’t have to bust out originals and remixes to get some use out of being somewhat literate with popular DAW’s (Ableton, Logic, FL Studio etc.). EDM works with a semi-rigid time formula in it’s construction, however times arise when you find a song you just cannot work into the 32 bar formula.
Whether the problem stems from tempo issues or weird 2.7523 bar breaks, problems do arise and you will find pieces that have to be edited to fit into your sets. No matter what anyone says, there’s no shame in making edits to your favorite tunes; the key-word here, of course, being edits. It doesn’t take as much skill as you would imagine to plop a tune into Ableton and reconfigure it to work in almost any way you can imagine. It’s not rocket science making a mashup, trust me.
A few hours or days on a DAW of your choice will open new doors for your sets that otherwise would be simply too difficult or impossible to do on the fly. It’s hard to emphasize this enough without writing a full article on the merits of having a background in audio production, but hopefully you’ve gotten the message.
5. Make Mistakes
Everyone has to start somewhere, even the biggest names in the game began at zero. Everyone from the bottom of the barrel to the top of the class makes mistakes. However, it’s how you choose to react to those mistakes that proves your worth as an artist. If your fear of failure keeps you from attempting anything more complicated than the cut and dry two track setup, then you’ve already accepted defeat.
If you are afraid of sounding bad temporarily, you’ll hamper your ability to sound great in the future. If messing up in front of a crowd keeps you from experimenting and trying to push the envelope, you will inevitably take your place in the long line of forgettable, mediocre openers that the market is sorely saturated with. What I mean to say is that mistakes are good – failure is good. I’ve failed in practice sessions and I’ve failed in front of crowds larger than I care to admit. But that failure and the sting of embarrassment is what made me push harder, work longer, and learn more. There’s really only one mistake that I can say will cause irreparable damage to your career and that is to give up and accept being a mediocre DJ.