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How Do I Get Started?
The idea of becoming a DJ can be an appealing one for many different reasons, and the idea is especially popular these days. In this guide, I break down the general process of going down this path into 10 steps, as well as providing some other general tips and suggestions for starting your DJing career or hobby.
The purpose of this guide is not to break down every single skill and technique in great detail. These things will come with practice and dedication. This is a fairly generalized guide which is meant to direct you down the path to being a happy and successful DJ. For learning the specific skills mentioned, use Google and YouTube to get down into the nitty gritty!
Step One: Learn What DJs Actually Do
Okay, so you probably already know what a DJ is. But, I have a mild obsession with completeness, so please humor me for a moment.
Strictly speaking (and in modern context), a DJ is anyone who plays pre-recorded music for an audience. If someone hires you to advance an iPod playlist at a cookout, you’re DJing. But, since you’ve made it to this guide, I imagine you’re interested in doing a little more than that.
So, let’s break it down into a few (somewhat) coherent categories. These are not hard and fast definitions, because many people (such as myself) often end up swapping different DJ hats.
- The club/bar DJ (resident). This is the DJ that has a (recurring, usually) gig at the local night club or bar. Each club has a different feel, reputation, and audience… which also means that clubs vary in what they expect from their musical selection. Typically, the night club DJ’s job is to keep the dance floor moving, uninterrupted… often by doing long blends (transitions) between songs, or some other trickery to keep people’s feet moving. Ideally, this DJ knows how to ramp the energy up and down to balance between an active floor and a busy bar.
- The performer/guest DJ. There is a lot of overlap here between this type of DJ and the last. The reason I put this in its own category is because the performer/guest can have a different kind of pull. People go to see this DJ because of who they are, their reputation, what people think they can do behind the decks, etc. This can include anyone who has built up a following that people will come out to see. More exhibitionist DJs also fit in here, such as turntablists (people good at cutting, scratching, and various record tricks), and other semi-live performers.
- The mobile/wedding DJ. A notably different style of DJing is often required of the mobile DJ. This is usually more of the entrepreneur type, and typically where you will have the most success in making some money. This kind of DJ often needs to be comfortable with taking requests (and sometimes even playlists), speaking on a microphone, and investing in his own sound equipment.
- The Radio DJ. I’m sure this one is pretty self-explanatory. This is where the concept of a DJ comes from in the first place (see some DJing history here). I don’t really have much experience in this area. We will mostly be focusing on the “live audience” kind of DJ.
Of course, these are broad categories and it really breaks down much further than that. I have written elsewhere about what makes a good DJ, and we’ll be getting more into that in this guide.
Step Two: Determine Why You Want to DJ
There are a lot of reasons that you may wish to become a DJ. The most important thing is to be completely honest about what those reasons are. And, being completely honest… I wouldn’t count on success if your sole purpose is to get rich and famous.
That’s not to say that you cannot make money in today’s world as a DJ, nor does it mean that you shouldn’t shoot for the stars. I’m a big fan of the idea that anything worth doing is worth doing with full conviction, passion, and effort. But, if the only reason you’re getting into DJing is because you want to be famous, you probably won’t have the drive to do the required work. You have to love it. And in today’s world (“everyone is a DJ”), standing out takes a lot of hard work and a lot of luck (and a couple of hit productions, which is a bit out of scope for this guide).
Many people want to DJ because they love music and the idea of sharing it with a receptive audience. Some think it will help them get laid. Some want it as a source of income. Whatever the reason is, identify it so that you can act accordingly. (Hint: if you just love doing it, it isn’t going to feel much like work.)
Step Three: Test The Waters
Let’s get a feel for some software to get an idea of what a DJ does, without making any big investments.
There are a number of different options here, so I’ll just briefly cover a few of the popular ones. The first two are free, and the last has a free demo.
Virtual DJ Home - Atomix Virtual DJ is an entirely free and fully functional piece of DJ software. It supports as many decks as you want, and includes pretty much all the bells and whistles that you would expect, such as key lock, sync, loops, sampling, recording, and more. If you want more advanced features, such as timecode control (we’ll get into this later) or video output, you can upgrade to one of their paid products. See a comparison chart of their product line here. Many people choose Virtual DJ because it is fully featured, well supported by the community, and it is free.
Mixxx - This is another popular option, and for good reason. It is entirely cross platform (there’s even a Linux version!), is very well-featured, is open-source, and even supports timecode control right out of the box. To my knowledge, this is the only free software to do that. The community has built-in support for many popular library formats and DJ controllers. See their feature list here.
Traktor Pro 2 - Native Instruments’ Traktor Pro 2 is my personal choice. It is not free, but they do provide a free and fully-functional demo so that you can try it out before making an investment. This is probably the “premium” software package for digital DJing. Traktor’s syncing, quantization, and effects are the best in the industry. They even offer their own hardware, such as the Kontrol S4, the Kontrol S2, and the Kontrol Z2, which are fully integrated with and designed for Traktor. Upgrade to Traktor Scratch Pro for timecode support. Additonally, a number of third-party controllers come with Traktor LE (the “lite edition”) bundled. This can be a very low cost way to start using Traktor if you plan on buying some hardware anyway. Learn more here.
There are many more options outside of this… Numark Cue, Image Line’s Deckadance, PCDJ, Serato DJ (requires approved controller), and more. This will come down to a matter of preference… however, it’s worth noting that Traktor and Serato are considered to be the industry standards.
Choose a software package and start playing around with it. There are plenty of tutorials which can be found on YouTube that can go over the basics of most DJ software.
One more thing worth mentioning: if your entire goal is to be a scratch/turntablist/exhibitionist DJ, there is very little you can do with a keyboard and mouse. You will probably need to invest in turntables, or at least a very capable all-in-one DJ controller, to head down this road.
Step Four: Learn Basic Skills
There are a number of things you will need to learn in order to be a competent DJ. We’re only going to cover them briefly here… remember, you will probably need to research some of this stuff on your own… and practice, practice, practice!
Beatmatching. You’ll quickly learn that this is a major point of contention in the DJ community. The reason is that technology has arguably made this skill somewhat obsolete. All the major DJ software packages, and even the latest CDJ from Pioneer has built-in “sync” functionality. The purpose of beatmatching is to get the two tracks you’re mixing to play at the same tempo (the speed at which the song is playing) and phase (the beats from both tracks playing in-time with each other). Think about it like two cars driving next to each other on the highway, as explained in this video by ellaskins. Tempo is the same as the speed, such as 60 MPH. Phase is having the two cars directly next to each other. Here’s a basic tutorial which gives you the idea. He’s using CDJs, but the principles apply across the board.
So, why learn beatmatching when there is such a thing as a sync button? Well, firstly it gives you the ability to beat-mix on pretty much anything out there. Turntables and most CDJs require you to do this manually. It also helps develop and tune your ears so that you know what to listen for (when tracks drift out of time, phase, etc.) Even when I’m using DJ software and allowing it to sync my tracks, I use my ears to adjust the phase appropriately… since I know how it sounds from beatmatching. I’m the kind of DJ who doesn’t like spending hours prepping and beat-gridding his tracks, but I’ve never felt the need to because I can do all of these things manually. The overall point is that learning to beatmatch will make you a better mix DJ, whether you’re digital or not. That being said, many mobile and radio DJs don’t feel the need to beatmatch at all. You can always come back to this later, but I think learning to beatmatch early is a great idea.
Beatmatching is done using a pitch fader (to adjust tempo). You use a jog wheel, pitch-bend button, or the physical manipulation of a record to adjust your phase.
Phrasing. That’s phrasing, with an “r”… not phasing. This one will make sense to anyone who has ever played a musical instrument. A song is structured based on beats and bars (measures), which make up the song’s phrases. Phrasing simply means to mix your tracks together at points in the songs which make sense.
Almost all music that you will be DJing is in 4/4 time, whether you play electronic dance music, hip-hop, funk, or top 40. What this technically means is that there are four beats in a measure (bar), and that the quarter note gets one beat. In contrast, 6/8 time means that there are 6 beats in a measure, and the eighth note gets one beat. For all intents and purposes, all you have to think about is you will be counting to four a lot, because most “DJ-able” music (and most music made these days) is 4/4. Have a look at this video which gives a pretty good explanation of how phrases work.
Volume/Gain Control. A typical DJ mixer (as well as mixing software) contains a few types of volume control. Firstly, each channel should have a gain or trim knob, which allows you to adjust the level of the signal (by watching your meters). Then, each channel has a line fader (unless it’s a rotary mixer, in which case you will have a knob). The line fader adjusts how much signal you’re sending to your main output, which also has its own overall volume control. Then, of course, there’s the crossfader which allows you to fade between one channel and another.
If you’re just learning how to mix and you don’t have any hardware yet, you can still control these things in software. Some programs, such as Traktor Pro, have an “auto-gain” feature. It gets you in the ballpark of where you want to be so that your levels match up when mixing one song into another.
Volume control is often a subject of debate. Traditionally, while watching meters… green is good, red is bad, yellow is pushing it. Unfortunately, due to DJs having a habit of slamming everything into the red all of the time, many manufacturers have adjusted the way their mixers work so that people can mix “in the red” and not hurt anything. Software also works a bit differently and has its own gain structure. This can make things quite confusing. The best thing you can do is read your manual to find out where you should be maxing out your signal. When in doubt, staying in the green is just fine. If it needs to be louder, boost it on the amp/PA/house end… don’t distort your signal before it even gets there.
EQing. EQing (or equalizing) is the act of boosting or dropping certain frequencies so that two tracks can blend together well without clashing or boosting the overall volume too much. EQing is an art in itself, but to get started, just realize that the majority of your “space” is taken up by lower frequencies, especially in dance music. So, typically you will not be mixing two loud kick drums over one another, since they are simply too loud to combine. I have written up an article specific to EQing, which you can find here.
Step Five: Break Out of the Box
If you’re starting to get an idea of how things work, and you’re enjoying messing around with your DJ software, it’s probably time to invest in some hardware to get a feel for DJing. A keyboard and mouse is good to get you started, but there is only so much you can do without investing in some hardware. There are a number of routes you can take, here.
The all-in-one controller route (recommended for beginners). This is probably the easiest and best way for a budding DJ to get started, and controllers are getting so good that many of them have reached the status of “professional grade”. Pieces like the Kontrol S4 (meant for Traktor) or Pioneer’s Pioneer DDJ-SX(meant for Serato DJ) have everything that you need to mix an entire set in-the-box, including a built-in sound card (audio interface). Most of them have CDJ-like jog wheels (though, not all of them… for instance, the Novation Twitch takes a different approach.) The all-in-one route is normally the cheapest way to get into DJing, especially if you already have a laptop. Check out my All-in-One controller guide, which will give you my top 5 picks for controllers in three different price ranges. (Pros: everything you need, simple to use, often made to integrate with particular software, great for mobile setups. Cons: bulky controllers are often hard to fit into crowded booths, often plasticky or toy-like, sometimes looked down upon by pros, requires laptop.)
The modular controller route. This is often the choice for geeky/gadgety types, or people who have very specific needs for the way they perform. A modular setup can be pieced together from any number of smaller MIDI/HID controllers. Some examples are the Kontrol X1 and Kontrol F1from Native Instruments, and the Xone:K2 from Allen & Heath. You then need to make sure you have some sort of good sound card (audio interface) to use for handling all these audio signals, cueing with headphones, etc. However, some modular controllers (such as the K2 and Reloop Contour Interface Edition) actually have a sound card built-in. You will need to pay attention if going this route, in order to make sure all of your bases are covered. Modular setups are the most flexible, but usually they are also the most complex. (Pros: flexibility, can piece together setup over time, unlimited options, satisfies “Gear Acquisition Syndrome”. Cons: setups can get complex, your setup is non-standard, often plasicky or toy-like, sometimes looked down upon by pros, need multiple USB ports or a hub, may require external mixer and sound card, requires laptop.)
The CDJs (CD turntables) + mixer route. When compared to a laptop and comprehensive software, CDJs can seem fairly limited. In order to get in the same ballpark as software when it comes to features, you have to splurge on something like the Pioneer CDJ-2000nexus, or at least something like the Denon DN-S3700. Suddenly, you’re talking about spending a lot of money. However, some people don’t need all those features. For standard mixing, the Pioneer CDJ-350or a used pair of CDJ 800s or CDJ 1000s are just perfect. Denon has a pretty nice lineup of CD turntables too, just keep in mind that Pioneer is largely considered to be the industry standard. This is the main reason that people want to go the CDJ route… any noteworthy club in the world has a set of CDJ 2000′s, or at least 1000′s (now discontinued). People want to know how to play on this kind of gear, so they can just show up with their music and go. (Pros: It’s what pro club DJs use (familiarity), most modern CDJs are great for scratching, most new ones support USB drives, most clubs have these. Cons: pricey option, especially at the higher end (“Pioneer tax”), limited when compared to software.)
The vinyl + mixer route. Vinyl records are harder to come by than they once were. Records are also harder to mix than any of the other listed options. Vinyl is also the most expensive format to buy music on. So why would anyone want to go this route? Three reasons: it’s rewarding, it’s sexy, and people love it. For a lot of people, mixing records is simply fun. Many DJs love that tactile feel of moving the physical record, and many people love watching a “real” DJ playing “real” records. It’s also still the best route for the pure scratch DJ. This isn’t the route for everyone, but for many, it’s the only way. (Pros: it’s rewarding, it’s fun, some consider it more fun and rewarding, it’s fun to watch, it will gain you respect. Cons: music is expensive, vinyl is more difficult, it’s the least portable option, and you have little technological assistance.)
Timecode/HID and hybrid setups. Many people (myself included) feel that using a hybrid setup can give you the best of all worlds. I love the feel of mixing records, and I love the convenience of showing up somewhere and not having to make room for a bulky controller. However, I love some of the functionality that I gain from software… such as perfectly quantized loops and the convenience of a meticulously organized music collection. If you look up DVS (digital vinyl system) on Wikipedia, you will see a definition like this:
“Vinyl emulation software allows the user to physically manipulate the playback of digital audio files on a computer using the turntables as an interface, thus preserving the hands-on control and feel of DJing with vinyl. This has the added advantage of using turntables to play back audio recordings not available in phonograph form. This method allows DJs to scratch, beatmatch, and perform other turntablism that would be impossible with a conventional keyboard-and-mouse computer interface or less tactile control devices. The technology is also referred to as DVS for either Digital Vinyl System or Digital Vinyl Software.”
Basically, the idea is that you use a special vinyl which contains a special kind of audio signal that your software picks up and uses to manipulate digital files. You can then add modular controllers to add whatever functionality you feel that you are missing from the traditional “decks-and-mixer” setup. Some CDJs now support MIDI and HID connectivity, which allows you to accomplish the same thing without the use of special timecode media. (Pros: best of all worlds, feel like you’re mixing records but using any files you can find/buy, fun to watch. Cons: though it has a small footprint, it can be irritating to set up in a club environment; easy to turn your turntable or CDJ into an expensive “midi controller” unnecessarily.)
If you’re not sure which route you want to go, I’d suggest getting a cheap or mid-grade all-in-one controller for now and re-evaluating later.
Step Six: Record a Mix (Tell a Story)
Once you have a basic idea of how to do basic mixing, you should record yourself to see how you sound. If you’re using software and using internal mixing, this is quite easily accomplished since the software can record everything in-the-box. If you’re mixing externally using a standalone DJ mixer, you will need to either route the sound back into a computer to record, or use some other kind of recording device. Even many standalone DJ mixers (such as the DN-X1600 or the Pioneer DJM-850) these days contain an internal sound card, so you can record from them digitally even if you’re using external sources such as turntables or CDJs.
Now, recording a “studio” (bedroom) mix is obviously a little bit different than playing in front of a crowd. Some of the skills which are important in a live setting, such as reading a crowd, do not apply when recording a personal mix. However, you can use this opportunity to think about how to “tell a story” with your set. This doesn’t mean it has to be an all-out concept mix. Just think about how you want to start, where you want to be when you finish, and how you want to get there. Perhaps you can imagine that you’re in front of a crowd, and play that scenario out in your head.
This is the point at which you teach yourself not to be mediocre. Many novice DJs tend to hammer out their “banger” tracks, one after another, for an hour or two. There’s no sense of ebb and flow; no sense of direction. Most people find this boring and tiresome. Of course, you are the DJ and you have the creative license to play however you wish. But, I suggest learning how to think of a DJ set in the context of the whole instead of its individual parts… this is what separates decent DJs with great ones. I like to approach a recorded mix like a well-constructed artist album. It’s not entirely flat, but it’s entirely cohesive.
This is the point where you can experiment, try different things, and see what works. Try recording a mix, putting it away for a few days or a week, and then coming back to listen to it. Believe me, it’s much easier to be objective when listening to your mix when you wait a while before listening to it. If you’re like me, you might be pleasantly surprised that any “mistakes” you make don’t sound nearly as bad as you thought they did during the recording session.
Step Seven: Build a Following (Brand Yourself)
Once you have a mix or two recorded that you’re proud of, you might start getting feedback from others… especially from people you don’t know. I’ve noticed that, in most cases, people who listen to your mixes because they know you will rarely give you feedback that is useful (unless you are good friends with an experienced DJ). While it doesn’t hurt to be told that your mix is “nice” or “cool” or that you did a “great job, man!”, it doesn’t help you much, either.
Upload your mix somewhere (such as Mixcloud), and try to get some feedback. Find an active online community somewhere; for dance and hip-hop music, DJTechTools Forums seem to be a great place for this. Or, if you’re a genre-specific DJ, perhaps seek out forums and communities based on those styles. One important thing, though… make sure that you’re not just leeching from these communities. Do what you can to give back! One thing that I sometimes do is seek out sets on these sites that I think might interest me, and give feedback on them. I don’t't just give them a one-liner response (such as “hey, nice set man!”). I write a paragraph or two telling them what I did or didn’t like about it (being tactful, of course). At the end, I simply provide a link to my mix and ask them to give me some feedback in return if they have time.
Eventually, you will want to build an online presence for yourself. I highly recommend having a personal homepage (preferably, with your own domain… mine is dmichael.org) and a Facebook fan page. If you’re tech-savvy enough, you can build a website yourself, or you could always hire someone at a place like eLance to take care of it for fairly cheap. Having something to link and refer people to is critical, so that you can show what you can do to potential promoters or customers.
If you’re good, you might even make some YouTube videos of short mixes/mashups/whatever you’re in to.
Building an online presence is a good route to take these days, but while it will help you develop certain skills, it will not get you gigs. That’s when you need to move on to local promotion.
Step Eight: Hustle (Put In Your Time)
This is probably the most crucial step in the whole process. If you’re trying to break in to a particular scene, you need to make yourself valuable to that scene before you expect to start playing shows. There’s no one specific way to approach this. But, suffice it to say, if nobody knows who you are, you’re not going to get many gigs.
In my earlier time as a small town DJ, the nightlife scene that I was interested in breaking in to was in quite a lull. My approach was to go to a struggling night club and offered to throw and promote my own event. I ran a monthly Thursday night for about a year. While it wasn’t what I’d call a raging success (and it wasn’t my first time playing in front of people), it did get me used to playing in a club, hooking up to a real PA, and gave me some insight into the promotional side of things.
In the bar/club world, it’s largely about who you know. That’s just the way that things often work. Befriend some like-minded people in the scene, and learn how to network like a gentleman (or lady). If you do it right, you’ll end up with some great new friends, too. Start supporting their shows and gigs. Above all, think about how you can make yourself useful. What are you doing that is valuable for your scene of interest? When it comes to the club scene, collaboration is almost always preferable to competition.
Step Nine: Pursue Your First Gigs
Playing in front of real people…. that’s what it’s all about, right?
A great way to get some experience under your belt is to play (or throw) house parties. If it’s your party, book a few local seasoned DJs to play, and warm up for them, just as if you were warming up for a headliner in a club. If you’re getting into the whole mobile DJing thing, try finding special one-off events that you can play (you might not want to start off with your first gig being someone’s wedding). This can be anything… one of my favorite places to play happens to be a consignment shop. Here’s a nice little write-up about DJing in “unlikely places”. You may have to do some shows for free (and, be careful here, as it’s easy to get stuck playing for free). In the club scene, throwing your own night is another great way to get some gigs, gain experience, and become known.
Start handing out demos and/or business cards to promoters, DJs, and friends at their events. Show them that you were willing to support them… people will notice. Personally, I made up business cards which have a link to my home page. They can then listen to my demos right from my website. I like this approach because people are more willing to keep your business card (that they can stick in their wallet) than a burnt CD which can’t be easily carried around.
A few tips in regards to scoring your first few gigs:
- Become known by the regulars in your scene or venue before approaching a manager/promoter formally.
- If you’ve done a good job with step seven, don’t just sell yourself as a DJ… sell yourself as a brand.
- You’re probably going to play your share of empty rooms. Get over it, and keep pressing on.
Another point I’d like to make: How many long-time DJs do you know that give off that jaded vibe, after they have “put in their time” for so many years?
The truth of the matter is that the DJ hustle never ends, unless you’ve somehow managed to reach legendary status. Make sure to keep your ego in check, and don’t let your experience get to your head. Staying humble and always having a “how can I provide value” approach will keep you fresh and positive. And who doesn’t like working with nice, positive people?
“The truth of the matter is that the DJ hustle never ends.”
Step Ten: Hone Your Craft
Great, so you’ve got some gigs under your belt and you’ve been bitten by the DJ bug. So now you can simply kick back and let the gigs flow in, right? Wrong!
Now is where you start putting in work so that you can become an expert at your craft. Unfortunately, many man (MANY) DJs skip this step once they’re “good enough”. There’s a lot more to DJing than transitioning from one track to the other:
- Learn to read the crowd and predict the future. You were hired to DJ, not to be an iPod!
- Get better at finding music which reflects your unique tastes, and yet works with your audience.
- Do your homework; show up early to events you’re playing… this will help you choose the direction of your set.
- Learn how to play the right gigs in the first place. Once you’ve gained a little experience and momentum, you can start being choosier about your gigs!
There are a number of other things you can do to make yourself stand out as a DJ. A lot of DJs (especially ones who play a lot of melodic content) like to mix in key. Turntablists/scratch DJs can never have enough practice and fine-tuning of their skills. Maybe you’re interested in adding more “live” elements to your set, using drum machines, samplers, remix decks, live musicians… the list is endless. Just make sure that you are actually doing something worth listening to or watching… gimmicks will only take you so far.
As mentioned in the list above, you should learn how to choose appropriate gigs… but you should also be versatile. Here’s a quote from my first blog post:
“Be versatile. This doesn’t mean that you have to arrive at every gig with every style of music, and compromise your own sense of style and musical taste in order to water it down for the masses. It simply means that you shouldn’t pigeonhole yourself if you want to provide value (notice how I keep saying “provide value”?). I know that when I play a fashion show in a night club, I need to play music that is upbeat and bouncy without being too obnoxious or vocal. I know that when I play an underground event at a warehouse somewhere, my crowd is going to be bored to tears if I play 95bpm jazzy trip-hop. This one may seem obvious, but I see this happen so often that it’s silly. Big wobbly dubstep tracks don’t typically belong at a coffee shop at 8 PM.”
Some Final Tips
Thanks so much for taking the time to read this guide, and I hope that it has been of some use to you! If you have any questions regarding becoming a DJ, feel free to send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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