The Bare Bones of Becoming a DJ

Part 1: The tech side

This is the start of a two-part series we are doing. This side deals with the technical side of DJing, but next month we’ll be doing an article on the social and business sides of the DJ game, which will help you get gigs and get noticed

Spinning top 40 hits at a Granville club, mixing some hard drum and bass or dubstep at the Lotus, or just playing requests from the crowd at a wedding, the DJ is in control.

Think you could do it? Think you want to do it? Don’t know how to get there? Then read on. With a mix of my own experience and a chat I had with DJ Brad Winter, CiTR’s music director, here is some advice for those out there wondering how to be a DJ.

You might already be the one that’s always asked to run the playlist at a party. You’re already on the way. If you can read a crowd, play what you want and what they like, that’s a large part of the battle already down. You really just need a way to play the music you want to play the way that you want to play it. That means getting the tools and the practice. That is the difference between an iTunes DJ and a DJ you’ll see at a club: a set of tools and techniques that are used to keep the music flowing, to keep the crowd dancing.

A basic setup involves a way to play two tracks at the same time so that you can transition between them smoothly. There are a few options for you here. Traditionally, this would be two turntables to play vinyl and a mixer allowing you to fade smoothly between the track playing on one of the turntables and the other. Other setups might replace the turntables with CDJs. These are CD players with a turntable-like control platter that allow you to manipulate the music as if it were a vinyl on a turntable (scratching, cueing). Another common setup that’s become very popular in the past five years is based around the turntable, but instead of normal vinyls, DJs use special control vinyls to manipulate the playback of mp3s on their computer. If this all sounds expensive, you’re right, but don’t be too discouraged: there are some software-only setups (Ableton Live, Mixxx, for example) to get you started mixing sounds.

Ableton Live, by the way, isn’t just a way to get started. “This is production software, at heart,” Winter explained. “You can jam on it, play more than two sounds at once. It lets you see many ideas at a time, taking advantage of the freedom a computer brings.” While many traditional DJs are uncomfortable with new technology, Winter advocates embracing it. “Get as good as you can with it and go as far as you can with it.”
Next, go get some music.

If you’re using regular vinyl, this can be really fun and rewarding: digging around in a record store all afternoon, finding a track with a sweet breakbeat on it, or an instrumental remix you’d never heard before. If you’re using digital music, you’ll need to find yourself the equivalent of a record store [ed. yarrrr!]: an exposure to a diversity of music genres, an exposure to the newest tracks, both the popular and the little secrets that reflect your style and that will have people asking, “what was that last song?” Community or online radio stations, online music magazines and music blogs are great sources.

You’ll eventually want to organize your music collection by tempo and key. You can either start doing this right away, or realize down the road that you should have done it right away. With vinyls, you can simply tag each record sleeve, or write directly onto the vinyl’s label. With a digital collection, any decent piece of DJ software will let you store this information.

Tempo? Key? What are those? If you just asked that, a short introduction to music theory is definitely needed. You probably don’t need more than you can find online, but you really should know about how music is structured.

Once you’ve got your setup, and some music, just start practicing. You’ll want to learn how to beat match (adjusting the playback speeds of two songs so that their beats line up. You might want to learn some basic scratching techniques (not every DJ does). This is also a lot of fun, and quite challenging. Winter believes that basic scratching, while not as novel as it once was, does develop an improved control over the vinyl—and makes a better DJ. There’s a large number of videos and tutorials online, a variety of named techniques and even a scratch notation format!

Although you’ll be alone with your music and just playing for yourself, you need the time to “just figur[e] out what sounds good and develope your own style,” Winter said. “Have a lot of fun with it. This stage is kind of important.”

That is the start of your path. Choose a setup that will let you play music the way you want to play it. Practice, explore, find your style. Then get out there and have fun sharing it with others.