Your goal may be to beat Calvin Harris at his own game, but you gotta start somewhere. But where? We’ve put together some advice and ideas for what to do and how to do it, from DJs who play live and the engineers who design the controllers that make great sets possible.
Listen. Before you do anything else, listen to music. A ton of it. All the time. Start with your favorite DJs and electronic or club artists, and dig deeper. Who inspired them? Who is popular (and unpopular) within the same genre? What times and places shaped the music you love? You need to know what styles, subgenres, artists, and vibes are out there, and you need to get a habit of listening to and for tracks you don’t know. Ensure that you’re an authority on certain genres. The more curious you are, the better.
Listening habits are the bedrock of DJ skills, and learning to listen for danceability is key. “When you listen to music, you need to figure out if people can and will dance to it,” says François Garet, music project manager and amateur DJ at Hercules, the France-based company specializing in well-priced equipment for aspiring DJs. “It really helps to understand how the rhythm moves through people and the power of music. Sharing music with friends is a good way to discover new things.”
Match the beat. Beatmatching is the fundamental skill of DJing, one that all DJ hopefuls should focus on first. Sure, lots of controllers aimed at beginners have a “sync” button that automatically lines up the beats for you. But aspiring DJs should learn the good old craft of beatmatching manually.
“The purpose of beatmatching is to get two tracks playing at the same Tempo, the speed at which the song is playing, and phase, the beats from both tracks playing in-time with each other,” explains Victo Bourreau, resident DJ and creative manager at Hercules. “Even if the technology today can make this skill obsolete, DJs must learn this basic technique to become proficient and creative DJs. When you master this technique, it’s a powerful feeling. You’re in control of the music you’re playing.”
Master your equipment. You don’t need a lot of special or expensive electronics to start DJing. A computer, speakers, headphones, and a controller should get you rolling. A lot of the work can happen on a regular laptop using straightforward mixing software (Many controllers include a trial version of mixing software. Hercules controllers actually include a full version of software designed to help you learn).
The controller, what you’ll be using to start, stop, and mix tracks, does require some getting used to, however. “A new DJ has to learn how to operate the controller so that everything comes together and everyone keeps dancing,” notes Victo.
There are some basic approaches that can make a set feel more polished and danceable. “One mistake you often see is changing the levels too quickly, as a less experienced DJ can get really excited,” says François. “For example, you want to try to move the pitch fader slowly, as moving it fast can interrupt the flow of the dancefloor.”
Though more advanced controllers have features that allow DJs to scratch just like they would on turntables, that’s not always a good idea. “You don’t have to scratch,” François warns. “Scratching is difficult, and very often the audience doesn’t like the scratch sound unless you’re really, really good.” In general, you want to push yourself to be very, very comfortable with a skill before you try it out at a party.
Get ready, get set. You want to prepare for a DJ session just like you would for any other performance. Practice and planning make perfect.
Always have more possible tracks in your queue and mind than you’ll need--about three to four times as many. “You need to prepare enough tracks for a party, with tracks your audience likes,” François notes. “If you’ll be mixing for one hour, you need to go in with at least three to four hours of songs.” That means if the audience is loving what you’re doing, you never have to panic about running out of tracks or what to drop next.
Practice can help you get a feel for what works and what’s exciting. “Play for yourself first, then for friends or family. You need a nice and caring audience to begin DJing,” explains François. “Trust your ears. If you think two tracks don’t sound good together, don’t try to beatmatch them.”
Perfect your show. “Part of a good set is the performance,” says Victo. You’re in front of a crowd when you DJ, and you should act like it. While a good show isn’t going to compensate for mediocre music or bad mixes, it will keep your audience engaged and take their energy to the next level. Learn the ways your controller can work with lighting or other other cool accessories (LED bracelets!) to maximize the effect and, once you’re ready, make them part of your set.
Respond to the dancefloor. Once you’ve taken your mixes out of your bedroom and onto the dancefloor, you’re not just there for yourself. You’re there to get people onto the dancefloor and keep them there. “Your audience is happy if they like the music you play, so choosing the music well is more important than how you perform and mix.”
Keeping ahead of the mix makes sure everything goes smoothly and you don’t get flustered with last-minute track decisions. “Always prepare the next track in advance, to have time for a transition, otherwise you will be stressed and tired,” advises François. “When you are late to find next track, loop the current track instead of playing a track that’s not right.”
Most importantly, don’t give up. “Learning to DJ is like learning any other instrument,” reflects Victo. “You have to keep working at it. You have to push through all the frustration and growing pains to get good and make it look and feel effortless.”
Hercules, a division of Guillemot Corporation, makes DJing accessible with quality, portable controllers at an affordable price point.