Turntables are a musical instrument in themselves, and mastering the Jockey profession is much the same as mastering guitar, piano, the harp or the bassoon. It takes a huge amount of dedication and daily practice. Experts say you need 10’000 hours of practice to get good at an artform, but being a DJ arguably takes more. Not only do you need to practice your technique, you have to spend hours searching for the tightest dubplates, the best b-sides and sharpest underground tracks. On top of that, you need to promote yourself well, gain a fanbase, create a network and perform. Then there’s the tools of your trade, your equipment – what to buy, how to maintain, how to store etc.
We’ve compiled 101 valuable tips and tricks that will help you become an elite DJ. Consider this the DJ Kumup Sutra.:D If you have any extra tips that we might have forgotten, please leave them in the comments at the end. Note: Not all of these tips will blend together and some aren’t applicable to certain genres and scenes. You don’t want to turn up at your baby niece’s birthday party and begin laying down some industrial hardtek.
There are so many conflicting opinions in DJing and mixing, you just have to be yourself. If it sounds good, that’s all that matters.
101 – Conclusion
So you’ve decided to become a superstar DJ? Great. Maybe you’ve compiled all your favourite music, dug out your parents old turntables, picked up a mixer from the local charity shop and your best friend has let you borrow his headphones. You’re driven and dedicated. You’re ready to practice every day. So put everything together…
Well you’ve got to start mixing.
Or maybe you know your way around a crossfader. You’re rocking the pubs and small clubs, but you want to take it up a notch. Define yourself as a performer – with elite DJ status.
Below you’ll find some of the fundamentals to mixing and more advanced tricks to turntablism:
1 – Beatmatching
The flagship weapon in every DJs arsenal. This should be the first technique you set out to learn, as almost every other trick relies on your ability to mesh two tracks together and still sound good.
A quick step-by-step guide to beatmatching:
- Begin playing one track through your speakers. Play a second track only through your headphones.
- Line up the second track alongside the first, so the beat of the second matches the first (hence the name).
- Adjust the pitch and tempo of both tracks so that they run at the same BPM.
- Continually realign the tracks to keep them synchronised.
Once two tracks are beat matched, you should be able to switch between the two smoothly, effectively mixing from one track to another. From here, you can do a shedload of various techniques to make both songs sound more interesting.
It’s best to count beats from the beginning of a phrase (a phrase is a section of a song, usually either 4 or 8 bars (16 – 32 beats)). Aligning phrases of a song means your beat match will sound much smoother and more natural. If phrases are synced and one song drastically changes, it’s likely the other song will do the same.
2 – Avoiding the Sync Button
A fun tool when you’re first starting out, the sync button automatically converts songs to the same bpm and synchronizes the beats. Avoid using this at all costs. You need to learn to beatmatch if you want to be a DJ. The sync button has come under fire from a lot of professional DJs as “cheating”.
Also, if you learn to beatmatch by ear, then you’ll be comfortable playing on any equipment. Vinyl, CDJ, Vinyl with DVS and Midi Controllers – it won’t matter. A DJ always comes prepared.
3 – BPM (Beats Per Minute) Counters
One technological advancement that the DJ community is happy about – the rise of BPM counters. A BPM counter is a tool that comes within software and some turntables that counts the BPM of a track.
This allows you to organise your tracks by tempo, making it easier to find songs good to mix.
Whilst this tool is handy, it’s best to learn to count the beats per minute, as this will come in handy when beatmatching.
It’s worth noting that this is considered quite a drastic change in tempo, and there may be better ways to mix these two tracks.
Take a track at 120 bpm (track 1), and you want to mix it into a song at 126 bpm (track 2), the smoothest way to simply mix between these tempos is by slowly increasing the speed of track 1 to 123 bpm. Then slow down track 2 to 123 bpm, and begin the mix.
5 – The 5% Rule
This one is pretty simple. Don’t mix to a track with a tempo further than 5% from the original. Look for another track with a BPM within your 5% range. If you begin speeding up or slowing down a track beyond 5%, the change in pitch will not only become noticeable, but sound strange.
For example: Take a 120 BPM track, 5% of 120 is 6, so you can stretch to 126 BPM or 114 BPM. Again, you should meet these tracks in the middle.
As with everything, rules are made to be broken. If you experiment and find that some songs work when mixed beyond 5%, then by all means go for it.
6 – Double/Half Tempo
An interesting trick. You can cleanly mix two songs if one is approximately double the tempo of the other. The beats will still synchronize. For example: Track 1 is a Drum & Bass song with a BPM of 180, Track 2 is a reggae song with a BPM of 90. Match the beats and these will mesh together.
This is a great trick for chilling out a crowd during a high tempo set. Give the crowd a break. Maybe let them sing along to a classic anthem before bringing them back up.
7 – Key Lock
You can find the Key Lock feature in most modern DJ software these days. To put it simply, Key Lock keeps the pitch of a track consistent when the tempo is being altered. This enables you to mix between tempos of about 6% within each other without any effect to the pitch.
Whilst this does sound like the best thing since sliced bread, it does come at a cost. So much computer power is required to key lock a song, that it can cause a decrease in audio quality. The more you deviate from a song’s original tempo, the more quality you lose.
8 – Never Change Tempo During a Vocal
Vocals highlight changes in speed and pitch because we are so used to hearing human voices, literally every day of our lives. We use changes in pitch and tempo to express emotion and subtleties in language.
Though this doesn’t mean don’t manipulate vocals. Having vocals played faster or slower can be used to great effect, and some DJs manipulate vocals in their samples to create a striking sound.
Check out this song by Gramatik in which he uses distorted vocals:
9 – Getting Creative to Change Genre/Tempo –
There are 101 ways to change genre or tempo in the middle of set, you just have to be creative to make it sound good. Setting a loop and rolling it to simulate a build up, then dropping into another track can sound great. You can use high and low pass filters, silence, samples. If your song is a remix of an original track, you can blend it during the sample into another remix, or the original track and go from there.
One of the classic ways to change genre or tempo is by cutting to something unexpected on a drop. This can go one of two ways depending on your crowd: they’ll either love it or hate it. Imagine a trance song has been building for 4 minutes straight, it’s at the very pinnacle of the melody. Everyone puts their hands up. The drop is right around the corner. And then you drop it into the saxophone solo of Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street.
(By the way, everything drops into Baker Street)
10 – Matching Track Volumes
When you’re mixing, one of your principal tasks is to ensure that all tracks are the same volume (or at the volume you want them to be). This is important to remember, as not every track is recorded or produced at the same volume. You don’t want to get caught off-guard by cutting to a different track and the volume dropping by 20%.
11 – Utilise Volume to Create an Effect
Pulling some of the master volume back can enhance the impact of certain parts of a song. This is especially useful in drops or big cuts between tracks. Some DJs use filters as the song peaks, lowering the volume to near silence, and then suddenly releasing the filter when the song drops.
12 – Layering Simple Songs
Probably not such a good idea if you mix electro or trance, but for minimal and techno DJs, you can take those simple songs, and layer them on top of each other to create some really interesting mixes. Especially if the mix builds layers over time. If you have a 4 channel mixer, you might even want to get 4 turntables on the go at once. This takes a great deal of skill to perform at a high standard, but will always get a crowd going if done right.
Once you’ve mastered something like this, you’ll rock the minimal world.
13 – EQ Mixing
Why use a crossfader when you can stagger the blend from one track into another using your EQs? EQ mixing essentially means you reduce one EQ range on one track, whilst bringing in the same frequency range of another track. One by one, you replace the highs, mids and lows of a track, effectively mixing between songs.
Techbeats.co.uk has a great article on using EQ as a DJ. It covers everything you need to know quite comprehensively:
14 – Cue points
Some of you might remember using stickers to set cue points on your best vinyl tracks. Nowadays, every piece of software worth its salt has a cue point feature. Set the cue points to the most interesting and useful parts of a song. For example, use a cue point to skip the intro, allow the vocal sample to play, then jump to the next cue point for the drop and so on…
15 – Set your hot cues before a mix
For some complicated mixes, you may want to number your cue points prior to your set, and then use the hot cue feature of your setup to jump from one track to part of another and back again. Having hot cues already prepared means you can quickly create an entirely new mashup from two songs with much less effort.
A little preparation of hot cues can lead to some interesting results. Check out “Tone play”.
16 – Loops
Loops can be interesting and can carry a vibe throughout a set, or be the first red flag of a bad mix. Sparse use when highlighting a particular bar at the beginning or end of a track can add so much to a mix and gives you ample time to get the perfect mix down. You avoid an arbitrary outro and dive straight into the next track, maintaining the energy of your set.
On the other hand, a loop or especially a loop roll that lasts a little too long is distracting for the crowd and sounds sloppy. So practice your loops and use them well.
Check out this vid for 5 good ways to use the loop function:
17 – Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
To make something stick in someones head, you have to repeat it. Some top DJs loop an interesting phrase from a song at the start of the mix and use it throughout the set. This is a great technique if you have a spare deck and channel to play with. Bring the phrase in and out throughout your set so that when the crowd goes home, there’s only one thing they’ll be able to think about, that loop and your great set you just layed out.
You can even take this loop, and roll it during a build up when you’re about to drop into your big ending, Reminding people of the start of the set and just bringing it all together.
18 – Loop Rolls
The loop roll, one of the most famous looping techniques, is when you loop a bar or a beat a number of times, and then double the speed (effectively halving the length), and then again up to 1/32th the original length.
Used well and in a creative manner, the loop roll is one of the first basic techniques digital DJs learn. Don’t over due this trick as the crowd will eventually get tired of it and that is never a good thing.
19 – Sampling
The art of taking a small sample from one track, and utilising it in your mix. Many DJs and producers are famous for their use of samples across all genres. From hip-hop to hardtek, samples draw in new listeners to your genre of choice by providing them with something familiar as well as give you a chance to nod your head in the direction of your influences.
You allow your listeners to discover new music that interests you, and as your fan-base, will most likely interest them as well.
Check out this video to see what samples can do:
(it also features loop rolls and other effects, although it focuses on production rather than performance).
20 – Make Your Own Samples
Not only does this add a unique edge to any track that you’re mixing, and define you as an artist. Recording your own samples is a lot of fun. Use any music production software or even a simple sound editor like Audacity to record or manipulate your own samples.