If you’ve seen a DJ at a nightclub or festival, you might wonder what they are doing on stage. Sure, they bop their head, move their arms and have something to do with music; but what exactly are they doing?
We’ve cover this below.
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What Does a DJ Do?
A DJ’s prime job is to play music for an audience. Whether it’s a wedding or a multi-day music festival, the DJ has the same goal. They do it in a way which is appealing to their current crowd, enhancing the event or radio experience.
But, there is much more to DJing than just playing music.
From song selection to live remixing, DJs are busy while on stage. They also have plenty of off-stage skills they need to master. We’ll cover what a DJ does below.
What Equipment Do DJs Need To Master?
To start DJing, you need a DJ mixer and two sound sources: originally, DJs used a mixer and two vinyl turntables to perform their sets. Today, DJs have more options for their DJ setup.
While you can spend thousands of dollars on DJ equipment, you can start DJing for much cheaper.
Today, many DJs embrace technology and use computers, dedicated hardware controllers, midi controllers, and live samplers in their sets. If you plan on speaking during your set, then you will also need a microphone.
A good pair of headphones should be on your DJ equipment shopping list. A DJ uses headphones to listen and cue upcoming songs in the DJ mix. It can get loud on stage, so a good pair of headphones will protect your hearing well.
A computer with DJ software is the focal point of many DJ setups. Software like Pioneer Rekordbox or VirtualDJ gives DJs access to huge musical libraries. The software also lets DJs create new and unique mixes.
Most mobile DJs also own their sound systems, lighting systems, stages, and more.
A DJ’s job is to play music. No matter how good your technical skills are, song selection might be the most crucial skill for a DJ.
Playing the wrong song at the wrong time can ruin any event. You don’t want to play a slow dance song at 3 am at a rave or play happy hardcore at a 70th birthday party – this is why song selection is so important.
Building a Music Library
You can’t pick the right song if you don’t own it in your library. DJs build, collect, and maintain an extensive library of music.
DJs that play many genres need to build massive musical libraries that can satisfy people of all ages. You’ll often see mobile or wedding DJs with thousands of songs in their collection.
A DJ that specializes in one genre can hyper-focus their library to match their specific style.
While it’s expensive to build a music library, you can use online music like Beatport, Bandcamp, iTunes, and PromoOnly to quickly create a collection of music.
Reading the Crowd
Once you have your songs, you need to know when to play the right song. This skill is reading the crowd. Experienced DJs check their audience to see how they respond to every song played – this helps you plan your next few songs in the DJ set.
If the crowd loves the current style you’re playing, it’s a good idea to continue with the same style of music. Of course, if you notice the crowd slowing down or leaving the dancefloor, it’s time to try a new genre of music out.
DJ technologies have changed dramatically since the 70s. Most DJs no longer use vinyl records and turntables. Instead, most DJs use computers or controllers that use digital music formats.
This lets DJs bring as many tracks as they need for their DJ Set. It also allows DJs to become more expressive during a set. Unfortunately, to effectively use most modern DJ equipment and digital files, you must prepare the music files before the DJ set.
To prepare your songs, you simply load them into your chosen DJ software and analyze the tracks. Analyzing your music ensures your songs will play and sync with no issues.
If you are using vinyl records, you can avoid music preparation.
Once your songs are prepared, it’s time to mix. Beatmatching is one of the first technical skills every DJ should learn. The DJ takes two tracks with varying speeds and mixes them at the same speed. To master beat matching, a DJ needs to understand the BPM of each song.
What Is BPM?
Almost all pop, dance, rap, and techno songs play a 4/4 beat – this means you have four beats in a measure per song. This beat plays through the song at a specific speed called beats per minute (BPM).
For Example, Michael Jackson’s song “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” has a BPM of 118.9.
During the DJ set, the DJ will transition from one song to another. They perform this technique by beat matching the two songs together: this involves matching the BPM of the live song to a second song.
The DJ uses a pitch fader on their turntable or DJ controller to slow or speed up the incoming song to match the BPM of the live track. Once the tracks have an identical BPM, you can mix them using a DJ mixer.
Unfortunately, you can’t beat match every song together. For example, mixing a 90BPM song with a 130 BPM song will drastically change the pitch of the song causing it to sound odd. Modern DJ equipment can compensate for this, but it’s much harder to mix songs with significant BPM differences.
To further improve the sound quality of the mix, the DJ can use high, mid, and low fader knobs to dial in the sound of the two songs – this lets the songs mix together and does not cause clashing of sounds during the mix.
Once the DJ is ready, they will fade the one song out and transition to the new song.
If you learn better by watching videos, Laidback Luke has a great tutorial on beatmatching online.
Using Sync to Beat Match Songs
Novice DJs are in luck, though. Today, most DJ software and controllers offer: an advanced sync feature. Simply hit the button, and the software matches the beats of the song perfectly.
Sync DJing is often frowned upon by vinyl purists or old-school DJs. But, the feature opens up a new world of creative possibilities for DJs. Instead of concentrating on beat matching, a DJ that uses sync has time to plan effects, add samples, improve their turntablist tricks, and more.
Many beginner DJs struggle to learn beat matching, so don’t get discouraged if you are just starting. Take your time and learn to beat match by ear and you’ll have a much more enjoyable time DJing and performing.
Turntablism is an advanced DJ skill that many DJs never learn. From the earliest days of DJing, DJs used two turntables and a mixer to extend parts of the song. By fading from one song to the other and seamlessly manipulating the other record, the DJ created new songs from small parts of the record.
Since its inception, turntablism is now an art form that is incredibly hard to master. Turntablists like Qbert or Jazzy Jeff formed careers around their turntablist skills. These DJs expertly use two turntables to remix songs on the fly and create awe-inspiring sets.
While turntablism is an exciting and fun skill, it’s not necessary to learn for most DJs. Many of the biggest DJs on the planet never scratch or perform turntablism tricks.
Turntablism also has a steep learning curve, but once you master these techniques, you are in a special group of DJs.
You can check out DJ QBert at the 2014 DMC finals to experience the skills it takes to become one of the best turntablists in the world.
Live Remixing and Effects
Live remixing is another advanced DJ technique that professional DJs employ. Modern DJ mixers and controllers offer a wide range of effects that change how a song sounds.
You can use loops in songs, add echo effects, play samples over the song, and more. Other DJs take 3-4 songs, and blend them to create a new song.
Alternatively, you may see DJs use drum machines, keyboards, or other instruments to improve their DJ sets. Perfecting live remixing skills can help set you apart from basic DJs as well.
Master of Ceremony (MC)
Another optional skill, many DJs act as masters of ceremony (MC) as well. This skill is more common for wedding DJs instead for nightclub DJs. Still, learning how to use a mic is a great way to add flavor to your set. It’s also a great way to hype the crowd.
Instead of MCing an event, many DJs hire a professional MC to perform any mic work.
Here is a great video on what to say on the microphone during your DJ set.
Lighting and Special Effects
Today’s DJ shows are much more advanced than in the past. From large music festivals to weddings, lighting and special effects help improve any show.
Some shows employ professional lighting personnel. But, the DJ is often tasked with running the lights at a show as well. You’ll often see DJs frantically operating both their DJ equipment and lighting console at shows.
Many of the most successful DJs create their music – this sets the DJ apart from other DJs. It also gives them their distinct sound.
Even if you’re not musically talented, it’s easy to start making music. Software like Ableton Live and FL Studio are great options for beginners interested in creating music. These products feature drum machines, synthesizers, samplers, and everything else you need to create the next big pop song.
While many DJs never learn how to produce music, music production is one of the most effective ways to improve your DJ skills and set you apart from other DJs.
Luckily, there are countless free music production tutorials for beginners to learn how to create songs and remixes.
Setting Up and Breaking Down
Not every DJ is lucky enough to have twenty stagehands set up and dismantle their sound system and stage. Chances are, you’ll need to know how to set up a sound system and DJ setup.
As a mobile DJ or bar DJ, you’ll often spend hours transporting thousands of dollars worth of gear and setting it up – this means you need to understand the different types of wires and cables, as well as how to deal with any issues at a venue.
This might not be the most glamorous part of DJing, but it’s a necessary skill to learn.
What Does a DJ Do? Final Thoughts
As you can see, there’s much more to DJing than standing in front of a crowd and pressing play on the DJ controller. From setup to music production, a DJ needs to master many skills.
Practice makes perfect, and the longer you spend perfecting your skills, the better your DJ performances will be.