Three Fundamentals of DJing
Suffice to say that in any profession your harshest critics are your contemporaries. Naturally a DJ's harshest critics are other DJs. From my own experiences as a DJ and witness to many live DJ performances, some sets I have seen have been awful and some were exceptional. I began to realize that excellent DJ sets all exhibited similar things. They each demonstrated mastery of fundamental elements expected of a live DJ performance. The first thing I noticed was that the set list was perfect for the occasion. This wasn't always in a crowded nightlife environment either, it could have been at a sporting event or private function. Every song played felt right at that specific moment. The second thing I noticed was that the DJ had technical skill, learned techniques in the art and science of DJing. Finally, the performance sounded amazing. While a few shows standout due to excellent sound quality, more easily can I recall those that had awful (or painful) sound or equipment malfunctions which tainted the experience. These three things combined create a quality DJ performance. They are the three fundamentals of DJing. In this article we explore the fundamentals in depth and discuss ways to achieve proficiency in each.
1. Song Selection
"What song to play next?" is the question every new DJ constantly thinks about during a live performance. Their anxiety is real for that next song could have everyone either singing along or closing their tabs. So the pressure is on to pick the best song for the moment when dealing with a live crowd and this brings us to what I believe is the most important skill a DJ must grasp - song selection. And while there are an infinite number of combinations of songs that define a set list, an experienced DJ not only knows which specific songs to play, but when to play them. Remember that we all have access to the same music so your deliberate selection of songs for the moment is what will set you apart from other DJs. In the age of digital DJing though, almost every DJ uses software like Serato DJ, Traktor or Rekordbox to manage vast music libraries before and during performances. These applications can assist in the song selection process, but they are no substitute for good music taste and crowd reading instincts. Growing reliance on computers for song selection has led to the phenomenon known as Serato Face.
Without adequate preparation and experience selecting songs for a crowd, DJs often retreat to a place of safety behind their laptop screen. They squint in perpetual gaze, scouring crates and playlists for most of their set hoping to find the right next song. The insecurities falsely shielded by a laptop screen produce the unmistakable look every DJ can spot from a mile away, Serato Face; also synonymous with Laptop Face. For those unfamiliar with the term, Serato DJ is the name of the DJ software most often implicated when DJs are caught with eyes locked on their laptop screen. To most, it appears that the DJ is hard at work deciphering the complexities of alien information presented to him on the laptop screen. DJs though see a performer that is uncomfortable and unprepared.
How to improve Song Selection?
Work more parties and know your music. It will take at least a hundred gigs until you start to feel confident in the songs you pick next. Every crowd is different and the more experience you have learning how to read crowds the better you will be at selecting songs during a live set. It is also equally important to familiarize yourself with the music in your library and what music your crowd expects. Understand the music format your client wants from you then do your homework. For example, Billboard and Spotify charts can tell you what songs are popular in certain regions or areas. You can then organize your library with playlists and sub-playlists for easy access to genres, eras and vibes accordingly. As you work more parties and know your music, your workflow will improve tremendously. You will no longer be seen glued to your computer screen with Serato Face. Until then please at least move your laptop over to the side so it's not in-between you and the crowd. How you mix in that next song brings us to our second fundamental.
2. Technical Skill
While there are numerous technical skills that DJs can master, a professional DJ should be well versed in beatmatching, phrasing, harmonic mixing and scratching. These are the things that other DJs will notice the most - especially if not performed well.
The foremost technical skill a DJ should learn is how to beatmatch. Beatmatching is the synchronization of tempo and phase of multiple songs playing. This technique allows for seamless transitions between songs. Successful beatmatching is predicated on understanding a bit of the music theory behind song tempos and phases. Tempo is the speed at which music is played for a given song and is measured in beats per minute. Turntables and DJ controllers today have long been able to manipulate the tempo of a playing record so that it can be beatmatched. If you have a 120BPM song and a 124BPM song, the former would need to be sped up, the latter slowed down or both in order for the tempos to be matched. Matching tempo is prerequisite to the next facet of beatmatching - phase alignment. The track to be mixed in must be aligned such that the downbeat (the first beat in a bar) from the first track hits at the same time as the downbeat from the second song. When two songs are in phase, the snares and claps hit at the same time. Even if they are marginally out of phase, the result is noticeably unpleasant to hear.
Most modern music released today is comprised of the following sections: Intro, Verse, Hook (or Chorus), Bridge and Outro. These sections are then sequenced in manner that creates the song. When put together the sections are known as the overall arrangement, akin to the outline of the song. These segments are typically either eight or 16 bars long.
By understanding phrases, a DJ can deliberately mix in and out of songs in relation to segments of songs that have the most impact. There are a number of ways to harness the power of phrasing too, but the most common technique is to layer the Intro or Hook of the next song over the Outro, Hook or Bridge of the current song. Another popular mixing technique, and one that can add a lot of excitement if timed right, is drop mixing. To do this, quickly crossfade into the hook of the next song as soon as the hook from the current song finishes. When done well phrasing keeps your crowd engaged and enhances the energy of your mix.
Seamless transitions and mash-ups are possible when the key signatures of two audio tracks compliment each other. Harmonics are even more important when blending together instrumentals and acapellas. Even if the songs are perfectly beatmatched, the result will not sound pleasing to the ears if the harmonics are not complimentary. Key signatures too far apart results in harmonic tones clashing in a way that makes the listening unpleasant. MixedInKey's Camelot System is notorious in the industry for enabling even the most tone-deaf DJs to mix harmonically. Songs are first analyzed with the MixedInKey software and given a key assignment. Harmonic mixing then occurs when the DJ plays songs with the same or adjacent key assignments; e.g. a 2A song could be harmonically mixed with a 1A song, 3A song or 2B song.
Platter and fader manipulation, also known as scratching, is the most iconic technical skill a DJ can learn. There are many scratch techniques out there, each able to add flair to a live set. DJ hardware has also advanced over the years to allow for even more creative expression in the form of audio track manipulation. DJs today add sampling, wordplay, toneplay, looping and effects to their performances. These techniques collectively represent how a DJ gets his or her style. Bolstered by a revivalist turntablism movement, scratch DJs today are musicians in their own right. Take the Disco Mix Club (DMC) World DJ Championship or Red Bull Thre3style tournaments for example where DJs from around the globe showcase their technical skills in an attempt to achieve respect of the DJ community.
How to improve Technical Skill?
Practice. Mixing at home allows you to experiment with new techniques and test routines without the pressures or consequences of a live crowd. Even the most talented DJs put in hours upon hours per week working on their techniques. Try to develop mini-mixes of a few songs that sound good together. These can be power blocks consisting of a few songs that can be mixed seamlessly together. Create a custom routine that employs a few scratching techniques and lyrical wordplay, but don't overdo the scratching. With a lot of the style related techniques - less is more. You may look cool always doing a lot with your hands, but I guarantee the mix won't sound as cool after a while. Set yourself up for success by processing songs in your library. With each new song I download, my intake workflow includes: 1. auditioning the track to get a sense of the genre, era and vibe so it has a playlist to call home; 2. MixedInKey software analysis to identify the key signatures; 3. adding cue points in Serato at each phrase transition.
3. Sound Quality
Pictured below was the sound system installed at a warehouse-turned-nightclub I was the resident DJ at many years ago. It consisted of folded-horn subwoofers and three-way towers from a variety of manufacturers. Behind this great wall of speakers were two amp racks fed signal from an ancient Yamaha mixer. At least once a month we would blow a fuse, an amp would overheat or both. Not surprisingly, the sound was as loud as it was awful. The club owner naively thought more speakers and more watts meant better sound. So every week before doors opened I would wrestle with the EQ on this dusty Yamaha mixer in hopes that just maybe the sound wouldn't be terrible. Thankfully the place was always packed with a college crowd so drunk that I was usually the only one who noticed how bad things sounded. So while I did not have control over what the club owner chose to install at his venue, I did make the decision to play there and it made my job much harder. This experience taught me a lesson, one familiar in other domains too - it's not about how big, how powerful or how many speakers and amps are in your sound system, but rather the quality of the speakers, source and power.
People prefer clear and tight sound over obnoxiously loud noise that often becomes uncomfortable to endure for long periods of time. Listener fatigue is a real thing and will turn people away. Not to mention, you can cause permanent hearing damage when sound pressure levels are too high. Poor sound discounts the quality of the mix regardless of the songs selected and technical skills employed. It is distracting to listen to a mix that doesn't sound clean. This third and final fundamental quality of an exceptional live DJ performance pertains to the sound heard by listeners.
Your sound output will only be as good as your lowest quality piece of equipment in the signal chain. Each component in the signal chain is vulnerable to noise which can contaminate sound quality. The age of and abuse endured by equipment can also affect the sound quality too. Noise can be produced by an old, discount brand XLR cable used to connect your microphone to your mixer. Professional equipment is constructed with high quality materials that will better shield against interference that causes noise and stand up to rugged use on the road. Along with using professional equipment, it is also important to understand how the quality of your source music and power factor in to a live performance.
High Quality Music
Yes, the music in your library is considered as part of your equipment as a DJ. Audiophile DJs may dream of mixing with lossless audio but it's wildly impractical. Until then, the MP3 codec has become the most commonly used compression format for it's ability to preserve the essence of original recordings without taking up too much storage space. MP3s have their pros and cons though. To understand, know that the human ear of a healthy young adult can perceive sound frequencies that range from 20hz to 20khz. By design the MP3 codec compresses original recordings by removing parts of the track above 16khz which is regarded as the threshold at which sounds at higher frequencies are not as easily perceived by the human ear as we get older. When compressed at low bitrates, sound quality compromises will be apparent to the listener if the track is played on a professional sound system or played at high volume. The graphs below show that signal above 16khz is not as present in MP3s encoded at lower bitrates (D'Alessandro and Shi, 2009).
Playback music today is nothing more than an electrical waveform amplified for reproduction by woofers and tweeters. Audio equipment needs power and impurities in the sine wave of alternating current from the outlet can handicap even the world's best sound systems. Poor quality power contaminates audio signal by introducing noise; which when bad enough can be heard as a fuzzy hum sound coming out of the speakers. Noise robs amps of their full power and causes noticeable distortion when music is played loudly. An easy way to check the cleanliness of power at a venue is to plug a PA speaker directly into the wall outlet with no input signal then turn it on and turn it up. If you hear any audible hum at all then the amp is not receiving clean power. With clean power a professional PA speaker should be silent even with levels turned up. You don't put cheap gas into a Lambo.
How to improve Sound Quality?
Use your ears. Audition equipment with many types of music and at varied volumes. Your equipment is an investment in your live production experience. You would be remiss to have the best set list and technical routine to then be playing on a wack sound system. You also don't have to spend a fortune either to get excellent audio equipment. I also highly recommend picking up a decent power conditioner to address any noise if you do any mobile DJ work. If you are being booked at a venue with a sound system you will plug into, make sure your technical rider specifies the exact makes and models of DJ equipment you use and that the house sound system is suitable for your type of performance. Finally, treat your equipment well. Unless you are using your laptop to stop bullets, it is critical to maintain and transport all DJ equipment with utmost care. The conveniences afforded by digital DJing in the 21st century comes at the expense of numerous single points of failure and little in the way of built-in redundancy with modern DJ equipment.
Sure, there are a number of other things you could say go into a great DJ performance; like crowd interaction, professional conduct and brand, but the fundamentals will always matter regardless of the venue, client or crowd.