Is DJing hard to learn?

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Once an art form that had as much to do with technical prowess as musical curation, the role of the Melbourne DJ has become increasingly important over the last 20 years. There seem to be more superstar DJs than ever before, thanks in part to the rise and rise of EDM, but has their job been made easier since DJing went digital?

Products from a long list of companies – including Native Instruments, Pioneer DJ, Numark, Denon DJ, Serato and Ableton – have been instrumental in changing the way people mix tunes. Nowadays, a whole mix can be formed from songs purchased online, curated in software and then uploaded to a USB stick to be plugged into a growing number of DJ controllers, where cue points and tempo information are also included.

But maybe the craft is in the curation? Finely selecting floor-filling bangers and knowing when to drop them is another string to the DJ’s bow. Perhaps this is what distinguishes the best from the rest?

Welcome to the wonderful world of mixing music! This article contains a 10-step process to assist in your journey of learning how to DJ. It’s a resource which has helped thousands of beginner DJs to get their start, but it’s up to you to take real action!

When you’re learning to DJ, you’re actually learning to match your own musical expressions with the desires of an audience. It isn’t just matching beats, or scratching over songs. It’s about being observant, empathic, and reactive.

Contrary to popular belief, learning to DJ is not an easy route to overnight success. This takes work and hustle and time. It’s not difficult to start. But it is difficult to stand out and to be exceptional.

What are the kinds of a DJ?

The Club DJ

Each club has a different feel, reputation, and audience, which also means that clubs vary in what they expect from their musical selection. Typically, the job of the resident DJ at a nightclub is to maintain a moving dance floor. Often, club DJs will perform long blends (transitions) between songs, or some other trickery to keep people’s feet moving.

This DJ must know how to ramp the energy up and down, and maintain a balance between an active dance floor, and a busy bar.

Professional Wedding DJ

The Performer (Turntablist)

People go to see this DJ because of who they are, their reputation, and what people think they can do behind the decks. Their mixes are displays of raw skill, impressive tricks, and clever transitions.

The “exhibitionist” DJs fit here, such as turntablists (e.g. those who focus on cutting and scratching), “controllers”, and other types of live performers.

The Mobile DJ

These are the ones who perform at your wedding, set the tone for your corporate event, or provide a memorable prom party.

Often the entrepreneurial type, mobile DJs have a lot of things to keep track of. In some cases, they are solely responsible for the setup and teardown of equipment, planning the show, managing the crowd, and making any announcements.

This kind of DJ often needs to be comfortable with taking requests (and sometimes even entire playlists), speaking into a microphone, and investing in sound equipment.

The Radio DJ

The concept of the DJ owes it’s origins to the radio.

The radio DJ’s job varies greatly, from the person who announces the weather between songs to full-on music curation.

While many corporate radio DJs have lost control over the music, the art lives on in podcast format.

DJ as Producer

People often confuse DJing with music production. DJing is playing pre-recorded music to an audience; producing is the original creation or recording of music.

In other words, someone produces a techno song, and then a techno DJ plays that song at a festival. Sometimes that is the same person.

It can get confusing since many performances are hybrids of the two.

All in all, it’s important to realise that there are many different types of performers. Some are strictly DJs, some play a “live PA” (complete with hardware synthesisers or drum machines), and many lands somewhere in-between. It’s a spectrum.

What excites you about becoming a DJ? Is it the idea of directing a dance floor in a big dirty warehouse? Playing big tracks at summer festivals? Starting a wedding DJ business? Building an audience for an online radio show?

Want to be a DJ? Check out our post on What equipment do I need to DJ a wedding?

What does a DJ need to learn? 

Determining Your Goals

Do you have stars in your eyes? Want to start a business? Starting your own podcast? Are you just doing this for fun?

There are a lot of reasons that you may wish to learn how to become a DJ. The most important thing is to be completely honest about what those reasons are.

And since we’re completely honest… don’t count on success, if your sole purpose is to get rich and famous.

That’s not to say that you cannot make money, nor does it mean that you shouldn’t shoot for the stars.

Many people become DJs, but very few become superstars. You have to hustle, you have to love it, and you have to work on it even when it sucks.

Standing out takes a lot of hard work and a bit of luck.

Many people want to DJ because they love music and the idea of sharing it with a receptive audience. Many will attempt to use it as a tool to get laid. Some want it as a source of income.

Whatever the reason is, identify it so that you can act accordingly. It’s not always sunshine and rainbows; there are some important considerations when deciding to pursue DJing as a “career actively”.

Exploring DJ Software

It’s time to get your feet wet with some software, and get an idea of what DJing is like!

Rekordbox: Pioneer’s free music management software allows you to prep your library and export to USB, or play directly from the laptop using Rekordbox DJ. It requires compatible hardware.

Serato DJ Pro: Not only is it some of the most popular DJ software ever, but Serato’s new Practice Mode allows you to DJ for free with no hardware connected.

Traktor Pro: This Native Instruments software supports loads of great performance features for EDM and hip-hop DJs. It costs $99, but a free demo is available.

Many other great options exist. Virtual DJ, for example, claims to be the most downloaded DJ software on Earth. And it’s easy to see why: it supports the latest DJ technologies, a huge community backs it, and it’s entirely free for home use.

Virtual DJ is also plug-and-play compatible with most DJ controllers, comes with a boatload of effects, and even supports video mixing and karaoke.

Other great options include djay Pro, Mixxx, and Mixvibes CrossDJ.

Of course, choosing a DJ platform is a matter of preference. But with some demoing (and a little YouTube research), you should be able to find the software that works for you.

We have compiled a list of Melbourne Wedding DJs to help you celebrate your special night.

What is the difference between production and mixing software?

When you enter this space and begin to familiarise yourself with mixing, you will find that the easiest way to get started is with the help of software. You can definitely mix exclusively off vinyl, avoiding software and its perks. Still, as a beginner, a software-aided path allows you to learn as much as possible in a short amount of time with limited financial investment.

When considering software, I learned that mixing software will fall into one of two categories: production software and mixing software. Production software usually refers to a tool that you use to make new songs yourself. It includes a selection of drums, piano, bass, and optimises for short pieces. Mixing software gives you a user interface to evaluate the BPM, key, and measures of two songs and best coerce them together.

When starting out, I started using Ableton Live, which happens to be production software. I spent almost four months in barren desert-lands learning to count the BPMs of songs and manually evaluate the key of songs. This is not to say that Ableton Live cannot be used for mixing — some of the best DJs do (Andrew, Flume, Alison Wonderland), but it is devoid of helpful tools that can help you pick up DJing a lot faster.

Introduction to Beat Matching

In order to mix two songs, the first step is to match the two BPMs of the songs.

When selecting two songs to mix, it is ideal if they are ~5 BPM from each other. So, if I am mixing a song at 120 BPM, I would select a song to mix which has 115 — 125 BPM. You can go as much as +/- 10% of a song’s BPM before it starts to sound funny (but maybe that’s what you’re going for, and that’s cool) (but make sure you give it a listen first). Once you’ve selected your song, you’ll want to make the two BPMs of the song equal, one way or another. If I have a song with 120 BPM playing and a song of 118 BPM I want to play next, I will usually bring up the 118 BPM song -> 120 BPM before it starts to play. Then I will make sure that both songs have a “1” beat at the same time, before bringing the second song’s volume up (more on this later).

Side note: most songs you encounter will be in 4/4 time. This is the most common time signature, but it is not the only one. You will also encounter songs in 3/4, 6/8 time (Waltz time, Spotify playlist) as well as others. If you choose to mix two songs, they should be in the same time signature. Mixing songs of different time signatures requires advanced techniques.

What I’ve described above is essentially how the ‘sync’ button works on your controller/in your software. Surprise, surprise — it syncs the two tracks. When you do this by hand, this is usually called ‘beat matching’. While the sync button is great to get you started with mixing and playing around quickly, learning to beat match is invaluable in your education process. From source:

Beatmatching manually causes you to rely on your ear. You are forced to truly listen to what it is that you’re doing, rather than allowing technology to fill the gaps. Your ear begins to zero in on auditory cues, such as a distinct snare or hi-hat. You start to notice how the percussion has structured the syncopation and groove of the rhythm. This, in turn, helps aid you with things like switching up genres and subtle mixing.

Tech is good, but it is not perfect. It will have mistakes in beat gridding (aligning a song’s key beats to a grid, which you see on your mixing software) and can fall out of sync. The importance of this knowledge can’t be overlooked, though admittedly it is overwhelming to master right from the start. Here’s a youtube tutorial to get you started.

Note that in most software, altering the BPM will by default also alter the pitch of the song — you don’t want this to happen so that you can accurately keep track of the song’s key. Most mixing software will allow you to disable pitch-bending on BPM change. In Djay Pro, this is done by clicking on the musical note next to the tempo slider.

To be accurate, learning how to DJ either can be hard to learn or pretty much straightforward depending on the style of DJing you want to learn and the kind of equipment you want to use. There are many types of DJs you can choose to become depending on the type of music you will be playing, the type of equipment you’ll need, among other things.

In the past, it used to be much harder learning how to DJ than it is today. With the old turntables and vinyl systems, the DJ was in charge of beat matching and controlling the tempo. The DJ also had to know exactly where all the records were before pulling them out and cueing them up. Modern decks come with the sync function and computer software that makes the DJ’s work a whole lot easier.

However, even with modern decks, there is still a long way to go before you become a decent DJ. There is so much to being a DJ than knowing how the decks work. The DJ must first be good at music in general. They have to listen to all types of music and be up to date with their playlists. Here is how to start being a DJ.

DJs also need to be good at reading crowds, knowing what to play and the best time to do s. They must also learn tricks to make their work unique such as loops, special effects, cue points, fading, scratching, wordplay, harmonic mixing, among others.

Learning all this can take just a few days, months, or even years. It all comes down to you and how much you want it. Anyone with half a brain, some basic knowledge of the structure of music and the creative passion for music and performance can be a good DJ. However, to be actually good at it, you must put in a lot of time practising and sharpening your skills.

What are the reasons why you want to learn DJing?

When you’ve perfected your skills, it’s time to sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labour. The following are reasons why being a DJ is so cool:

It’s a fun job

If you think about it, DJing is a job where you are paid to play your favourite music for other people. You don’t have to waste the best years of your life sitting behind a desk from 9 to 5 waiting for retirement to come. DJing gives you the freedom to set your own schedule, make great music whenever you wish and just live life to the fullest.

Fame

Being a DJ is one of the ways you can become famous; if you are good at it. Fame boosts your ego, confidence, and generally makes you feel better about yourself as a person.

Industry Friends

When you are a DJ, you get a chance to meet a lot of successful people, including some that you may have idolised before. For instance, you get to meet a lot of famous artists, industry professionals, or other people that maybe want to work with you or book you.

 

Money

DJing can be a gratifying career if you play your cards right. There are so many ways you can make money as a DJ; playing at weddings, nightclubs, corporate events, parties, making music, among many other ways. Some of the biggest names in the DJing world make six figures for just a single night’s work. Even the regular DJs can make more than what the average 9-5 worker makes.

Free Drinks

Who doesn’t love free stuff? The answer is nobody. As a DJ, you will never have to pay for a drink when playing at a club or event. Most clubs buy you enough drinks to get you through the night and even if they don’t, a drunken fan will save you from having to pay $500 for a $50 bottle of vodka in a Manhattan club.

It gives you joy

There is no better feeling for a DJ than seeing people enjoy and dance to the music you are playing for them. It shows you are fulfilling your purpose, which is to entertain. It is the same feeling as receiving compliments from friends when playing your music for them in the car but on a much larger scale.

Make a Lot of Friends

Everyone loves the DJ! As a DJ, you will be exposed to a lot of different people. You get to meet different people from different backgrounds at every party, wedding, club, or event you play. Some of these people could end up being lifelong friends.

Get Free Music

As a DJ, you are always among the first people to listen to new music. Record labels and artists sometimes give advance copies of their music to DJs for a quick listen before a major issue. If you like an artist, you can request for their music directly including songs they are yet to release. If you know many artists, you won’t request for their music directly including songs they are however to release. If you know many artists, you won’t even need to download music as your inbox will always be full of fresh music.

Travel

A DJ gets to travel a lot. DJing can take you around the world as you perform for different people from different backgrounds. Get to experience firsthand how people from different corners of the globe live their life and how they respond to the music you play them. Unlike other people who pay to travel, you get to make money while travelling.

Create Art

Music is one of the purest forms of art. DJing gives you an opportunity to be involved in the creation of art.

It makes you more attractive

No girl will ever say no to you again if you are the DJ. Being a DJ makes you at least ten times hotter, and you will be able to get any number you want.

Fan Love

Everyone loves to be loved even if it is by a bunch of strangers. DJs get a lot of love, especially if they have great performance. Be ready for the endless hugs and love from people you have never even met. DJs also give great performances. Be prepared for the endless hugs and love from people you have never even met. DJs also get random gifts from fans all the time so be ready for that too.

People

Granted, this is a pretty broad topic, but I wanted to talk about the importance of people in this whole process.

I always enjoyed music a lot. Music is cathartic. As I grew up, I did piano, dance, choir, music theory and made movies. DJing would have seemed like a natural progression for a music fanatic, but it eluded me for the longest time. It wasn’t until I had encountered a DJ with a powerful, optimistic, sharp and witty personality did I start to think that I could be a DJ myself. 

Now, being part of the tech industry, the importance of mentors and role models is very well-discussed. However, somehow its importance in other fields was overlooked. I was empowered by Alison Wonderland – after seeing her play, and I began to consider that genuinely. 

DJing could be something for me. In music, almost more than any other industry, you would think that diversity is a prerequisite given that everyone of all genders, races, ages, listens to music. However, finding people that you resonate with can be hard in reality. Having role models that inspire you can be a strong driving force.

I’ve looked long and far for more DJs with an open, engaged, mellow online presence but I haven’t found many. Some are inactive or, worse, have a snobbish demeanour. I find it also tends to propagate their stage presence, and I’m not really interested in taking an example from that.

In terms of ‘key opinion leaders’ in the EDM/trap space, I love to follow: Mixmag, Boiler Room, Night Owl Radio. Alison Wonderland, Lido has a great online presence. I also love keeping up with Dopey (a very talented vinyl DJ based in Toronto).

To learn something along with the help of the internet, you have to know what you don’t know. But usually, you don’t know what you don’t know.

Consequently, having supportive people in person is indispensable. I owe a big thank you to Nikhil and Cristian for that day I showed up to their DJ club. I had been poking around in 

Ableton Live for 3 months with (still) no idea how to mix — they told me I should use mixing (not production) software and taught me how to use a controller. 5 months later, Nikhil came out to my first DJ set in San Francisco. It was crazy to realise that if it weren’t for that day, I probably might have abandoned mixing because I didn’t know what to do next.

I also owe a big thank you to my manager, Jeff. He, out of the blue, without having ever heard me play before, knowing that I never had DJ’d live, took a leap of faith and included me in DOLOFEST and gave me a chance to play live. He could have easily said that I’m not experienced enough, or that I needed to have more tracks on Soundcloud, but he didn’t. The day he invited me to DJ, I had the biggest smile on my face about getting my first gig.

In preparation, we went to soundcheck, where I learned how all the audio outputs worked, what it’s like to stand on stage, and most surprisingly, what it’s like to hear my own music on enormous speakers. He also spent an evening schooling me in DJing. He showed me that I could alter the BPM of a song without altering the pitch, how to move forward and backward in songs by measure, techniques of filtering out / cutting bass on transition, and how to use cue points to create perfect mixes. These had all been critical holes in my understanding of DJing. Sometimes, you have to see another person work to realise what you can do.

Lastly, sometimes you also have to ignore people. A lot of people will be supportive of you. But what’s harder to catch is the people who might not wholeheartedly support you. A powerful quote by Mark Twain comes to mind, one that is applicable whenever you are learning something new:

Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but really great people make you feel that you, too, can become great.

You’ve got this. Now get off the internet and start mixing.

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