How to DJ

Woman DJingWhat makes someone a DJ? A love of music? A job in radio?

Loving music is essential, but not everyone who loves music is a DJ. Having a job at a radio station where you’re playing music (or at parties or clubs) would make you a DJ, but not all DJs have jobs like these. I think, for our purposes, we’ll define DJ as someone who plays recorded music for an audience.

So who gets to be a DJ?

Anyone! At its most basic, DJing requires nothing more than a source of music and a speaker. So, if you have a music streaming account and a Bluetooth speaker, you can DJ. But, we’re going to go a little deeper. I’ll show you the tools DJs use and how they can make your DJ sets sound a little more professional.

Now, queueing up songs on a playlist can be an excellent way to soundtrack hanging out with your friends and family. But, you may notice that it seems to take forever for one song to fade out and the next to start. And you may notice that the volume of one song is fairly quiet and then the next song is LOUD. This is why the number one must-have tool for a DJ is a mixer. The mixer gives you more control over the songs you’re playing.

You don’t necessarily need a separate mixer, like the one below. If you decide to use DJ software that runs on your computer, phone, or tablet, there will likely be a “virtual” mixer on the screen. If you decide to use an all-in-one DJ controller, it will include a mixer. But for a basic understanding of how mixers work, let’s take a look at the different parts of a two-channel mixer. Every mixer has different features, but almost all will have volume faders, a crossfader, headphone and microphone controls, equalizer knobs, audio level indicators, trim (or gain) knobs, and a master volume control.

DJ mixer

With a mixer you need two different sources that you will be playing music from. This could be any combination of computers, phones, tablets, record players, or CD players. One you will plug in to channel 1 and the other you will plug in to channel 2 (the connections are on the back of the mixer, not shown here.) In the middle of the face of the mixer, towards the bottom, you’ll see the two volume faders, one on the left for channel 1 and one on the right for channel 2. If you have the volume on channel 1 all the way up and the volume on channel 2 all the way down, you’ll only hear the song that’s playing on channel 1 (and vice versa.) You can use these volume faders to bring the volume down on one song while you bring the volume up on the other - that’s mixing! Now you don’t have to sit and wait through the quiet parts at the ending or beginning of a song - you can “fade” a song in or out whenever you like. Skilled DJs will often use this to blend songs together, matching up the beats, so that listeners may not even know one song is ending and another one beginning. This is called, naturally enough, beat-matching. It’s a great skill to learn, but it’s not necessary to keep the music going.

Below the volume faders, you’ll find the crossfader. The crossfader works in a similar way to the volume faders. If the crossfader is all the way to the left, you’ll only hear what’s playing on channel 1, if it’s all the way to the right, you’ll only hear channel 2. If the crossfader is in the middle and you have songs playing on both channels, you’ll hear both at the same time. You can use either the volume faders or the crossfaders to mix; it’s up to you! Generally, though, DJs that tend to make longer mixes (where you’ll hear both songs playing at the same time) find that they have greater control using the volume faders. DJs that tend to mix faster, such as hip-hop and scratch DJs, find that the crossfader is the quicker way to mix. Directly above the crossfader is the crossfader selector switch, which controls the “curve response” of the crossfader. You can think of this as controlling how sensitive the crossfader is.

DJ headphonesOn the left of this mixer, close to the bottom is the headphone control. You don’t need headphones to DJ, or even to mix songs. But it makes it much easier. With headphones plugged into your mixer, you can listen to a song on your headphones while another song is playing over your speakers. The headphone input on this mixer is on the front, which is not shown. One thing to know about the headphone input is that they usually require a ¼” inch plug, which is what you’ll find on most professional-grade headphones. The headphones most people have, such as the ones that come with phones, have an 1/8” plug. Does that mean you need to buy professional headphones? Absolutely not! You will need an 1/8” to ¼” stereo headphone adapter, though, which you should be able to find at an electronics store, music instrument store, or online and costs just a few dollars.

The headphone level controls the volume in your headphones. It’s best to turn it all the way down (to the left, or “infinity” position) and turn the knob up gradually. Be careful not to set the volume in your headphones too loud! Up to 85 decibels (dBs) is generally regarded as safe for extended listening, anything above can cause hearing damage. Since you probably don’t have a decibel meter, you’ll have to do some guesswork. Operating a vacuum cleaner is about 70 dBs, while a lawn mower is about 90 dBs.

The buttons above the headphone level knob are the cue buttons. Press the button for the channel you want to hear through your headphones or “master” to hear what is going to the speakers. Remember that the volume faders or crossfader control what is getting sent to the speakers. Being able to listen to a song in headphones that the audience cannot hear is crucial to DJs. This is how a DJ can “cue” up a song to the perfect moment that allows her to match beats. It also gives you a preview of how your next song will sound. Some songs will sound good when played together, while other songs won’t. There are many reasons, including tempo and key, but for now you can just trust your ears. Do you think the song you have cued up will sound good played after the song that your audience is listening to now? Go ahead and play it! If you don’t like it, you can always choose another (In fact, you’ll have to choose another, as most pop songs are only 3-5 minutes long.) If you really don’t like it, fade out the song early!

Child with microphone and vinyl recordsAbove the headphone control is the microphone control. There is a switch to turn the microphone off and on, and this mixer has a “talk over” function, which temporarily brings down the volume of the music when someone is talking into the microphone. Above that is a tone control or “EQ” knob for the microphone. Turn it all to the way left to make your voice sound low like Darth Vader or all the way right to sound like a chipmunk. The two knobs above the EQ knob control the volume of each microphone channel. This mixer has two microphone inputs, which is somewhat unusual.

Across the top of the mixer are two input switches. This effectively doubles the number of audio sources you can use. You can plug two different audio sources into each channel, for a total of four. You then use the switches to go back and forth. This can come in handy, especially if you are DJing with a friend and they want to plug in their phone or what-have-you. You don’t want to do much unplugging of cords during a live performance (it’s every DJ’s nightmare that something gets unplugged and the music stops!)

On the top right of this mixer, you’ll see the “master” volume knob. This is the final stage on the path of the audio signal - what you are sending to your speakers (or to an amplifier that your speakers are plugged into.) We haven’t yet talked about the path of the audio signal, but it’s coming! Below this you’ll find an effects panel. You can do all kinds of fun things to the sound of your music with effects, and they have cool names like “phaser” and “robot,” but it’s a little outside the scope of this beginner’s tutorial, so we’ll have to “roll” right over them.

In the middle of the mixer, you’ll see two sets of three knobs that control the “EQ.” These knobs, marked as Hi, Mid, and Low, let you adjust the sound by frequency. “Hi” controls high frequency sounds, such as the cymbals or hi-hats of a drum kit. Mid-range sounds, such as vocals and the main melody of a song are controlled by the “Mid” knob. “Low” controls bass sounds. You’ll want to set these at the 12 o’clock position to hear the song as it was recorded. But you can adjust the knobs to the right to add a little more of that frequency range, or to the left to take a little away. Many DJs will use these knobs to mix. If I am making a longer mix between two songs, I will almost always bring the upcoming song in with the bass all the way down. Then, I’ll turn up the bass on the incoming song as I’m turning down the bass on the outgoing song. I do this because having two basslines playing at the same time will often sound muddy, but it’s just my personal preference.

Audio level indicatorAnd now we come to the tricky part –the path of the audio signal and setting up the correct volume. Your music will sound best when there is a strong, loud signal at each “stage” on the path. But you don’t want it to be too loud, because then the sound will distort and possibly “clip.” This can potentially damage your speakers, is unpleasant for your audience, and, because the sound is deteriorated, can actually make your music sound quieter. Thankfully, most mixers include some kind of display or audio level indicator to help you out.

The first thing you do to start setting up the volume is to turn down all of the knobs and faders on the audio signal path. This includes the “trim” knobs (above the EQ controls), the volume faders, and the master volume. You also want to make sure that all of the EQ knobs are in the 12 o’clock position. Second, you adjust the trim (sometimes called “gain.”) You can think of the trim knob as controlling the volume of the sound that is coming into your mixer, from your audio source. Have you ever noticed, when listening to a playlist, that some songs just sound louder than others? This has to do with a process called “mastering” that happens during the production of a song. Newer songs tend to be mastered quite loudly, while older songs are often mastered more quietly. When you adjust the trim, you are compensating for differences in the audio levels of each song. You want to set the trim so that the average level of the track is 0dB (represented by the green lights of the audio level display), though it can occasionally go up to +2 or +4 dB (represented by the yellow lights on the display.) You want to make sure it does not go above that (into the red lights.) On the display above, the trim level indicators for channels 1 and 2 are on the outside. The indicator lights in the middle are for the master volume.

The next stage on the audio signal path is the volume faders. You can turn these all the way up - that one is easy.

After that, you'll adjust the master volume. Just like the trim, you want the average master volume to be at 0dB (the highest green light) and peaking at +2dB or +4dB (yellow lights), but never above (red lights.)

You’ve now set the maximum volume for your mixer. If you need to make volume adjustments, it’s best to change the volume on your speakers (or amplifier) rather than on your mixer, but that’s not always practical.  A good compromise is to bring the master volume on your mixer down a little bit, so that you have room to get louder if you feel you need to. You’ll also need to pay attention to the trim whenever you cue up a new song, making adjustments as needed to keep the levels in the green and yellow.

Man holding DJ controllerNow you know how to use the basic tool of a DJ, the mixer. Next, you’ll need to decide what you’ll use to play music. Will you use vinyl and turntables, like the old school legends, such as Grandmaster Flash or Jazzy Jeff? Or will you use CDJs or a controller like the EDM DJs throwing down at big-tent festivals?

My recommendation is to start smaller. You can DJ on a laptop, tablet, or even your phone, with free or inexpensive software. Find software that has a “virtual" mixer, so you can get used to how it works. While most DJs find that it’s much easier to use the physical knobs and faders of an actual mixer or DJ controller than to use keystrokes or mouse clicks with computer software, they can be a big investment. In future tutorials, I’ll discuss hardware and software options and building your music collection.

In the meantime, you can start building you music collection right away! While music streaming services, such as Spotify or YouTube, can be wonderful for listening to and discovering new music, they don't usually work with DJ software. In most cases you need to have songs actually downloaded to your device. Lucky for you – with your library card you can download five songs each week from Freegal. Freegal has Sony Music’s catalog of legendary artists, so you’ll be sure to find something you’ll like.

The library also has some great books and DVDs on how to DJ and DJ culture. Check them out!