DJ Tips and Thoughts

I DJed parties at my college for all four years that I attended. It was one of the things that I really wanted to try going into college, and the abundance of college parties gave me some really great opportunities to have fun performing for my friends. I even got hired for a couple events, which was extra fun and made the whole thing seem more legit.

I haven’t had a serious gig since graduation, and my mechanics are probably quite rusty at this point. But I thought it would be valuable for myself and perhaps others to write down some of the things I learned about party DJing over the years. These are all of the things I can’t help but think about every time I hear a DJ mix, go to a show, or attend any kind of dance party.

If you think the article below sounds interesting, and you have any questions about getting into DJing, or a house party or company party that needs a DJ, just reach out!

TL;DR

  • People aren’t there to hear you perform, they’re there to party
  • Picking the right music in the right moment is the most important thing
  • Automatic beat matching works great for house and disco, not so great for hip-hop
  • Some tips about DJ mechanics/tricks I used
Using Serato at a dorm party.

Serving the crowd

One of the things I learned very quickly is that nobody was at the party to see me. Learning to DJ in your bedroom, you imagine yourself being a famous artist like Tiesto, with crowds showing up to hear you perform. It’s not really like that — you’re just like the bartender, there to make sure that everyone has a great time. People only really notice if you screw up by picking music that ruins the energy, or accidentally press the wrong button at a crucial moment.

This means that, unless you’re Tiesto and everyone is there to see you in particular, it’s not at all your job to play music just you like. You’re there to play music that the audience will enjoy and want to dance to. Sometimes, that means playing some Justin Bieber if the situation calls for it, and you can sprinkle in gems that you personally like along the way. Playing music that other people will like is a fun challenge in itself, and it motivated me to go outside of my regular music taste and discover new things.

Adjusting in real time

There’s no such thing as “good music” or the “perfect playlist” at a party. The requirements are changing all of the time. I started out in freshman year preparing my DJ sets ahead of time, carefully picking songs that would nicely transition into each other, and then executing my practiced sequence during the party. This worked okay — it turned out that the night didn’t always play out the way I expected.

Sometimes I’d start playing music at 10, it would turn 11 and the party was still quite empty when I came up to the part of my playlist where I was going to drop some really high-energy tracks. Other times, some unexpected event would cause a lull in the party, and I’d need to play some really heavy-hitting popular songs to get people back into it.

It turned out that I needed a setup that would let me pivot my music choice in real time with low stress. This meant spending 80% of my time picking the next song, and only 20% doing any mixing. Looking back, I think that was the right breakdown, which means two things:

  1. It’s worth spending lots of time learning about different music and less on fancy mixing mechanics.
  2. You need to be able to mix two songs with almost no preparation, because you might not know which songs they will be, and it might take you a while to figure out the next track to play.

It was at this point that I dropped my Ableton setup, which was optimized for perfect mixing of a pre-set list of songs, and switched to a simple two-track Serato setup with a Numark V7.

DJ Mechanics

Now that we’ve gone over the most important part — mindset and music choice — let’s talk about some of the mechanics of the physical activity of DJing.

Mostly, what you end up doing is transitioning between songs. This is so that people who are dancing aren’t taken out of their flow by a silent gap between two songs, and you can cycle through music faster to keep people interested. Here’s the basic plan:

  1. You are currently playing Song A, and you have decided you want to play Song B next. Your fader is fully on Song A, so people can’t hear the other track at all.
  2. You need to change the tempo of Song B to match that of Song A. Don’t change the tempo of Song A unless you absolutely have to — people always notice.
  3. You use the tempo slider on your equipment to speed up or slow down Song B until it matches Song A exactly. You should use your headphones to make sure the beats are absolutely indistinguishable.
  4. You start fading over to Song B very slowly. At some point both songs are playing, and hopefully you picked two songs that sound nice together.
  5. Eventually, you fade over to just Song B, and the audience can no longer hear Song A. You’re done!

You can use some effects or tricks to make things more smooth or interesting, but that’s the basic idea. But even though this is a very basic action, there are a lot of ways to get it wrong, and a few simple tips and a lot of practice can really improve your flow.

Counting

If you have ever taken a music or dance class, you might remember doing a lot of counting. Counting beats is probably the most important thing in any musical pursuit. Put on your favorite dance song, and count:

One, two, three, four. One, two, three, four.

Basically every single dance song has a 4/4 time signature, meaning every bar has four beats in it. What this means in practice, is that the song structure operates in segments of 4 beats at a time.

When you beat match two songs, it’s not just enough to have the beats per minute be the same. You need to make sure the bars line up, so that the “one” of Song A lines up with the “one” of Song B, the whole time during the transition. But that’s not all!

Counting and song structure

All songs also have a bigger structure than 4 beats at a time. Most also have bigger transitions at 16, 32, or 64 beats. Get your favorite dance song and count the number of beats in the chorus. The number of beats in the breakdown. The number of beats in the intro. I can almost guarantee it’s some multiple of 32. This is a very convenient fact that you can use to really take your mixes to the next level. Why?

You can use song structure to hide transitions between songs. This is the thing that really makes a big difference — when the song is just about to have a big transition, that’s a great opportunity to cut over to a new track and make it seem like nothing happened. You can see people subverting this often when Song A has a big build up, and then the DJ drops Song B, surprising and delighting the audience (if it’s a good song).

Conversely, it can sound very awkward if you don’t match up the song structure of the two songs you are mixing. The beat of the other song might drop in the middle of a sentence, or start doing something odd at an unexpected moment.

There’s one other thing I always make sure to do: Never play the vocals from two songs at once. It sometimes sounds cool on Broadway when two characters sing at the same time. I can guarantee the artists of the two songs you’re mixing didn’t think of that, and it’s just going to sound bad if the words are layered over each other. If your Song B starts with vocals immediately, wait until a break in Song A to drop it in.

Musical keys

If you’ve taken a music class, you probably know about keys in music — these are collections of notes that go together.

The Circle of Fifths

Some sets of notes from a key might make up a chord. If you ever felt that two songs sounded just like each other, it might be because they are in the same key, or have the same chord progression. If you can pick this out and always transition between songs in compatible keys, it will take your mix to a whole different level. This is super hard to do manually, so there are a few tricks you can use.

  1. Use software like Mixed in Key to analyze your music ahead of time to figure out what key it’s in. Some modern DJ software like DJay Pro does this for you.
  2. Use the Circle of Fifths to find keys that go well together. Generally, you can switch from the inside circle to the outside, or to an adjacent key. So for example, transitioning from a song in A to one in D sounds great, but from A to C is much less great.

Most of your audience won’t know why this sounds good, but they will like it anyway. The musically trained will appreciate it even more.

A warning: automatic beat matching

There’s a lot of great DJ tooling available these days. Tons of very cool software and hardware that, in my opinion, is much more functional than the classic turntables and CDJs. Personally, I get pretty tired of people harping about how only people with stacks of vinyl records are “real” DJs.

My 100% digital DJ controller.

However, there is some technology which isn’t quite there yet, even after years of research, and that’s automatic beat matching and transitions. Almost all DJ software and hardware now has fiendishly appealing “SYNC” buttons, which work about 95% of the time. The other 5% always happens at the exact wrong moment. The situation also becomes much worse when you play hip-hop or some other music with a more complex beat.

There are a few main issues that come up often when you try to use automatic beat matching:

  1. The software is half a beat off, making the beats of the songs you are trying to mix combine into some sort of double beat, confusing everyone on the dance floor.
  2. The software doesn’t correctly identify the first beat of the song, causing it to start in the wrong place and misalign.
  3. The BPM is just plain wrong, and off by like 20% for some reason.

For this reason, if I really care, I manually beat match by looking at the waveforms and using my headphones, 100% of the time.

It’s fun and you should try it!

A lot of the stuff I was talking about above sounds suspiciously like work. And anything is if you want to do it right. But that doesn’t mean it’s not great fun, too. If you’ve ever wanted to get into DJing and making mixes, now is the time — it’s easier than ever before.

Grab these tips, buy some software and a controller (or maybe even an iPad app!) and get to it!

P.S. I recently discovered an awesome app called Pacemaker, which lets you make some cool mixes from the comfort of your iPhone. It’s not quite Serato, but it’s great fun.