The ultimate guide to becoming a DJ

The Ultimate Guide To Becoming A DJ

From the pioneering disco legends of the seventies to the mind-altering, technology-embracing live performers of today, they were all beginners at some point!

It’s hard to imagine the likes of Andy C, Sasha, EZ and other industry luminaries not being able to even beat-match, but they’ve only got to where they are today through years of regular practice.

Having worked with some of the world’s leading selectors, we have put together this ultimate guide to becoming a DJ, covering all of the essential bases from choosing your mixing medium to developing a unique and successful brand.

This guide is by no means exhaustive and there are plenty of specialist areas within DJing that you might want to explore, but it will give you a roadmap to make your journey to superstardom that little bit easier!

So let’s kick things off with the first big question of DJ self-discovery…

PART 1: WHAT TYPE OF DJ DO YOU WANT TO BE?

DJing isn’t just about mixing two tunes together – it’s about building a great tune selection that’s suitable for your target audience, reading and working the crowd, fitting it into your own lifestyle, brand building, equipment purchases and much, much more.

Although most people think of a DJ as someone rocking out nightclubs in the early hours of the morning, the reality is that there are a ton of DJ careers out there which also exist outside the carnage of clubland.

Have a look at some of the most stereotypical species of DJ below and see if you can find any similarities with your own industry ambitions.

The Resident DJ

The resident DJ’s most common habitat lies in pubs, bars and clubs playing regular, pre-booked dates to support specific nights or to add an audio identity to the venue.

Each venue wants to stand out from the crowd and will often go out of their way to attract reliable, talented, upcoming DJs with a recognisable style and sound that fits in with their own branding and ethics.

Aside from being able to mix, you’ll need to think about developing a brand that can not only help to add numbers to the venue, but can accelerate your professional career to the next level of being a sought after guest DJ. We’ll talk about brand building a little bit later.

The Destination DJ

When we talk about destination DJs, we don’t mean that you’ll necessarily be travelling to glamorous locations across the world, hypnotising crowds with your legendary beats – although it’s a great bonus if you make it that far!

Instead, YOU are the destination. For most budding superstar DJs, reaching a point where you are the key reason for partygoers paying their entry fee is seen as the holy grail of the profession.

These DJs take regular, paid bookings at various venues with promoters looking to take advantage of their popularity, style and branding to boost numbers at any given event.

The common misconception is that these DJs operate on a national or international scale, but the truth is that if you can build a strong presence in your community, town or city, then there’s no reason why you can’t attract rewarding bookings in a more localised vicinity.

The Special Occasion/Mobile DJ

From weddings and birthdays to corporate functions and Christmas parties, the tentacles of the mobile DJ stretch far and wide throughout life’s landmark events.

As a mobile DJ, you ARE the party and will usually be expected to provide more than just turn up and spin some tunes. You’ll need your own complete sound system including speakers, amps, decks, transport and storage as well as an adaptable personality and style that fits the occasion.

Think of yourself as an employee of the event and be prepared to liaise with your customers when it comes to creating suitable playlists that reflect their tastes rather than yours. You’ll also need to equip yourself with a microphone to gee up the crowd and make any announcements such as the first dance or new years countdown.

The Radio DJ

The radio DJ relies on two main components – a great tune selection and an engaging personality. Taking things one step further than the mobile DJ, you’ll be communicating regularly with your audience and will need to learn to think on your feet whilst giving listeners interesting, credible insight into the music or topic of your show.

Radio DJing is now more accessible than ever before thanks to the rise of podcasts and online radio stations, so there’s plenty of scope to work on your vocal presentation and style before approaching an established local radio show. Luckily enough for you, there is a podcast masterclass coming to DMA in the next month!

Step one

Whether you initially opt for the steadier income of a wedding DJ or decide to jump straight into residencies and radio shows, there’s nothing to say that you can’t transition between these styles as and when you need to.

There are plenty of occasion DJs who enjoy getting away from the formal, structured, request-laden atmosphere of weddings by running their own podcasts with the freedom to play whatever suits their fancy.

Similarly there are plenty of DJs trying to make a name for themselves on the dance music circuit who turn to special occasion bookings to facilitate their income.

PART 2: EQUIPMENT

Once you’ve locked down the type of DJ profession that you’re looking to conquer, the next step is to take a look at the equipment needed to turn your ambition into a reality.

This is one of the key reasons why it’s so important to establish the type of DJ you want to be. There’s no point in investing in a speaker system if you’re going to be guest mixing at pubs and bars, whereas turning up to a wedding with just a controller when they’re expecting a full sound system won’t win you many positive reviews!

In this part, we’ll take a look at the essential equipment every DJ needs to kick off their career along with some nice optional extras to help you stand out from the crowd.

Something To Mix On!

Gone are the days when you could just title this section ‘decks’.

The rapid technological evolution in the Djing world has opened up a wealth of different mediums when it comes to spinning tunes. Let’s take a look at the options available to the modern DJ…

Vinyl Turntables

The original and purest form of DJing comes in the form of good old fashion vinyl decks. Seen as more of an art than a medium, vinyl decks have ruled the party scene for well over 50 years and have given birth to some of the most outrageous mixing techniques in music.

Many formats have come and gone, but Technic 1210s are still very much the holy grail and industry standard in this sphere. You can expect to pay somewhere from £200 to well over £1000 depending on the type and quality of each deck, but their reputation for reliability and quality is legendary.

That isn’t to say that other world renowned brands haven’t released their own epic builds over the years, just that Technics were adopted by the dance music family and became the number one choice in almost every booth around the world.

Denon, Stanton, Numark and Vestax are just some of the other big names to look out for, although the explosion of releases in the controller and CDJ market has made these somewhat harder to come by in recent times.

CDJs

Speaking of which, that brings us nicely onto the rise of the CDJ.

As the name suggests, CDJs allow you to mix from the far cheaper and more accessible medium of CDs as well as MP3 and other sound files from USB sticks and even mobile phones. They’re a highly accessible entry point for beginner DJs as the very best will even take the stress out of beat matching by doing it, at least in part, for you by way of the ‘Sync Button’. The Sync Button is a constant topic amongst the DJ community as for many it takes the skill out of it, whereas, in reality, it is allowing DJs to be more creative than ever before.

Although considered easier than vinyl mixing, it certainly isn’t ‘easy’ and you’ll need to attack this skill with the same tenacity and practice as any other format.

It all began with Pioneer’s 1998 release of the CDJ 100s – basically a CD player with a pitch controller and a few sound effect options. Almost 20 years later and the Pioneer CDJ has evolved into one of the most coveted pieces of DJ hardware on the market. With a high res screen, the ability to loop and re-edit your tracks on the fly, and even the ability to play songs from your smartphone, it’s a far cry from the days of the vinyl junkie.

This professional grade level of equipment is far from essential when it comes to the beginner DJ and you can expect to pay somewhere between £1,200 – £1,700 per deck, however don’t let that price put you off looking at other options.

Although Pioneer lead the way in this arena, the likes of Denon and Numark produce some excellent CDJs targeted at professional and beginner alike, starting at just a couple of hundred quid – something that’s definitely worth considering if you’re testing the water.

Controllers

Since launching over the past decade, controllers have almost become the go to choice for beginner DJs due to their ease of use, minimal space requirements and cost. There are plenty of experienced heads who tend to look down on them from a pedestal of snobbery, but ignore these discerning scowls and you’ll actually find that they’re pretty fucking awesome.

Controllers are designed to combine a simulation of two decks and a mixer into one handy piece of kit whilst using software on a laptop to ‘translate’ what you’re doing with the controller itself. Tracks are stored in your digital library and the controller effectively just acts as an interface for your laptop. Think of it as being able to use a gamepad rather than trying to play your favourite action game using a mouse and keyboard.

Controllers can cost anywhere from entry level devices at £60 through to those that creep into the thousands, and for good reason. The rate of advancement in the controller technology sector is rapid to say the least, but for those starting out take a look at these features when deciding which to plump for.

Software Bundles
Each available controller will be compatible with a certain type of software although we are now beginning to edge closer towards a universally compatible age. Traktor, Serato, Virtual DJ and Rekordbox are the undoubted leaders in the software field. If there’s an opportunity to play around with the different platforms before committing to a particular controller then take it as this is the dashboard that you’re going to be spending a hell of a lot of time interacting with.

Sound Card
One of the most common oversights that newbie DJs make is picking up a super cheap controller only to find that it doesn’t have its own in built audio card. This means that they’ll be no headphone jack or master outputs such as RCA or XLR jacks, forcing you to use the one on your laptop instead. Whilst this isn’t the end of the world, it will mean that you’ll have to rely on a high end sound card in your computer to mix effectively without lag or sound distortion. If you can stretch your budget to buy a controller with its own inbuilt audio card then we highly recommend that you do it.

Laptop
OK so controllers are far cheaper than buying a pair of CDJs/vinyl decks and a separate mixer, but you’ll need a laptop to tie everything together. Macs are the most used in the field due to their ease of use, lack of viruses and reliability, but there’s no reason that cheaper brands can’t be purchased as long as they boast a decent level of RAM, storage space for your tracks and a good quality sound card.

Recommended Models:

Numark DJ2GO2 / £50-60

Pioneer DDJ-RB / £200 – £220

Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S2 MK2 / £280 – £300

Mixers

After careful consideration, you’ve locked down the medium that you’re going to be dropping your tunes on, but now you need that essential bit of kit that’s going to let you blend your beats together!

Welcome to the world of the mixer.

DJs have a very unique requirement when it comes to mixing tunes in that you’re going to need to be able to listen to the tunes you’re queueing up ‘privately’ before you drop them. It’s a major part of beat matching which we’ll take a look at a little bit later in this guide.

Gone are the days of simply being able to crossfade one tune into the next. The modern day mixer is a highly advanced piece of engineering which gives DJs more variety than ever before when it comes to laying down the perfect set.

Mixers are split into channels with each channel providing the sound output of whichever deck it’s linked to. Each channel will have the same set of controls as the next with the most commonly used being the gain and equalizers (EQs).

The gain is a way of controlling the volume input coming into each channel. There’s no point in dropping one track into your set if the one before is much quieter or louder – it won’t help the overall quality of what you’re trying to achieve!

The EQ controls specifically adjust the treble, middle and bass of the track being played. For example, if you just want the bass line of a track coming in during a monster mix then you’d kill the middle and treble, leaving you with just the bass playing.

Allen & Heath along with Pioneer lead the way in terms of mixer technology, but there are a ton of other brands, including Denon’s new Prime range and Numark, that offer both beginner and budget options. Remember, if you’ve opted to mix on a controller, then the mixer will be built in to the unit, helping you to keep the overall costs of your new setup to a minimum.

The higher up the mixer hierarchy you go, the more toys, gadgets and effects you’re going to find. Check out our complete guide to DJ equipment for a detailed look at all these extras.

Headphones

Ask someone to impersonate a DJ and they’ll make a weird scratchy motion with their hand and pretend to be holding something to their ear. At least the latter of the two is vaguely accurate and introduces us to the wildly diverse world of headphones.

“Surely headphones are just headphones?” I hear you ask. Tut tut. If you’ve learnt anything from this guide already then it should be that the technological advancements in the Djing world are vast and diverse, as are the budgets involved.

Don’t be duped into thinking that certain headphone brands are great for DJs just because a crowd of hipsters are wandering around London wearing them. Sennheiser are one of the true leaders in headphone technology and their HD 25 editions have become somewhat of an industry standard in the professional DJ scene.

However, the reality is that whilst you’re learning your trade, any standard pair will do the job and allow you to invest your early funds in tunes, although be prepared to upgrade quickly once you start playing out regularly. Check out DMA’s ‘Essential Equipment For Beginner DJs’ blog to find out more

Speakers

There are two reasons that you’re going to need speakers – mixing at home, or if you’re pursuing a career as a mobile DJ.

When you’re shopping around for speakers, you’ll notice that they come as either ‘active’ or ‘passive’. Active speakers have a built in amplifier which effectively means that you can plug them straight into your mixer, whereas passive speakers require an external amplifier in order to work.

Check out DMA’s ‘Essential Equipment For Beginner DJs’ blog to find out more

At Home

As a bedroom DJ sharpening up your skills, you certainly won’t need anything too powerful unless you desperately hate your neighbours or are fortunate enough to live in the middle of nowhere. A pair of 50 watt monitor speakers should give you plenty of clout to enjoy your tunes whilst getting used to beat matching over a fair amount of volume.

The usual suspects of Yamaha and Pioneer offer reasonably priced studio monitor speakers of this type, but check out MAudio and KRK, two brands that are not only well priced and well made but also sound incredible for the price point.

Playing Out

As a mobile DJ, you’re going to need to provide adequate sound to fill venues of differing sizes. Although you’ll be able to rent equipment based on gig requirements, this is going to mean you earn far less in the long run and investing in your own speakers is inevitable at some stage.

The size of speakers that you buy is very much going to be down to your budget, although the more powerful the speaker, the less you’re going to need to creep towards the dreaded red line and the bigger the venue you’ll be able to take on.

FINDING MUSIC!

Above all else, if there’s one thing that a DJ needs it’s tunes. There, I’ve said it. The single most obvious thing that you’re ever likely to read on DMA.

But in spite of this, there’s a fair amount to consider and plenty of advice which we’d urge you to heed if you’re going to be taken seriously as a professional DJ.

The first, and most important is this – never, ever pirate your music.

As tempting as it might be to take advantage of the countless illegal piracy websites that are available online, the fact of the matter is that producers work fucking hard to create the content that makes Djing possible in the first place. Ripping off their tunes for free just isn’t cricket and the less money that producers make, the less likely they are to create more incredible beats in the future.

You expect to be paid for Djing one day, and producers locked away in studios for days, weeks or even months on end expect to be paid for their hard labour, creativity and pasty complexions.

Secondly, there’s absolutely no guarantee on sound quality. Whilst a pirated track might sound passable at home on your monitor speakers, you’ll look like a fool dropping the same tune on a big rig system and it sounding more muffled than an eskimo’s ears.

Finally – you’re supposed to be aiming for professionalism at every turn and piracy is obviously illegal, so behave like a pro from the start and keep your music, brand and business legit.

Rant over.

As we’ve already discussed, you’ll have decided by now what medium you’re going to be mixing on and that is directly linked to the format of music that you’ll be buying.

Vinyl

Vinyl sales dipped massively following the introduction of CDJs and controllers in the 2000s but have made a vengeful resurgence over the past couple of years. On one level it’s a case of retro nostalgia, however the ‘warmth’ and beautifully flawed imperfections of the vinyl sound somehow feels more real than their perfectly polished digital counterparts.

It does have a couple of drawbacks however which can’t be ignored. The convenience of carrying around a bag of vinyl vs your entire music collection on a USB stick can be a pain, plus the production costs mean that they’re quite a bit dearer to buy than picking up an MP3 online. It really is down to your personal preference, but there’s no denying it’s a format which still carries a ton of interest.

Discogs, Dance Record Store and Global Groove are just some of the big name stockists, however any high street music store worth their salt should offer a decent array of genres.

Digital Downloads

Do you know your MP3s from your AACs? Your WAVs from your FLACs? If not, don’t panic as we could probably write a book on the plethora of different audio formats that not only currently exist, but are going to continue to be developed as audio engineering evolves.

Fundamentally, .wav files are the most widely used and are generally considered to offer the best sound quality available from the major digital formats. The truth is that 99.9% of people won’t be able to tell the difference between this and its lesser quality cousin, the MP3, however high end headphones and professional grade sound systems such as Funktion-One may well expose your choice of format for what it is.

Most professional DJs will exclusively use .wav files as they are playing on these top level systems week in week out, but as a beginner you’ll lose very little in building a solid collection of MP3s until you reach the upper echelons of DJ stardom.

There are plenty of household names from which you can source digital downloads, but in electronic music, the best sites to download tracks from are Beatport and traxsource. As well as downloading tracks, some modern DJ software will allow you to link up to your spotify account, meaning that you can have a never ending access to music – perfect for a Special Occasion/Mobile or Radio DJ!

CDs

CDs were almost single handedly responsible for the rapid decline in vinyl sales but now fall in that awkward middle ground of providing similar sound quality to .wav files but with the added nuisance of scratches and skipping.

If you’ve chosen to mix using a CD deck which doesn’t have USB capabilities then CDs are of course going to be the way forward for you and they do produce an excellent quality of sound at a far cheaper cost than vinyl.

PART 4: THE ART OF MIXING

So you’ve got your equipment, picked up a handful of tunes and have the determination to invest a great deal of time into the art of mixing, but how do you actually go about doing it?

Fundamentally, this is exactly why the Digital Music Academy has been created but there’s plenty to be gained from building up a basic understanding on the theory of beat matching and preparing a mix. Whether you opt for vinyl turntables, CD decks or a controller, the general premise of mixing two tunes (or more) together is the same.

Beat Matching

Beat matching is a skill that will take a significant amount of practice and essentially involves matching the tempos of two tracks so that they blend seamlessly together. If they aren’t matched correctly then, as you’ll quickly discover when you begin to DJ, you’ll end up with an audio train wreck.

With one tune already playing through your speakers, line up the first beat of the tune you wish to play next through your headphones. With vinyl, you’ll be able to do this by simply holding the record and moving it back and forth on the first beat. The same applies to the jog wheel on CDJs and controllers, however with the latter you’ll also have the benefit of a visual aid through your laptop screen.

When you’re ready, release the second tune so the beat matches with the tune already playing. One of three things will happen:

You’ll have perfectly matched the initial beats
You’ll have sent your next tune off too soon meaning you’ll need to slow it down by touching the side of the record or jog wheel
You’ll have sent your next tune off too late meaning that you’ll need to speed it up by nudging the record or jog wheel forwards

Pitch

Once you’ve got the hang of getting two tunes playing in sync, the next challenge is to make sure that they remain that way, and we do this by using the pitch control. Tunes are produced at different BPMs meaning that matched beats will gradually drift apart as the tracks play out.

Pitch allows you to control this by either slowing down or speeding up the next track coming in, giving you plenty of time to complete the mix before any beat drifting occurs. It may sound a tad confusing now, but once you’ve kicked off the DMA courses and are getting in plenty of regular practice, you’ll be able to pair tunes up in no time. Head to DMA’s HOW TO DJ: A BEGINNERS QUICK START to start your journey to DJ superstardom!

Specialist Skills

Blending two tunes together is the fundamental basics of Djing but there are plenty of other skills which you’ll be able to master over time given the right tuition and enough practice.

Scratch DJs such as Yoda, Craze and Kentaro create unique sounds by dragging records back and forth over different beats whereas drum & bass superstars such as Andy C and Mampi Swift are known throughout the world for double dropping tracks and mixing on several decks at once. Check out DMA’s Vinyl DJ: 101 course for everything you need to know about vinyl and turntablism.

PART 5: BRANDING & NETWORKING

In today’s highly competitive music industry, branding and networking has never been so important. Djing has become more accessible than ever before and so standing out from a congested crowd full of upcoming talent will rely on more than just your ability to tear up a dance floor. Check out DMA’s Brand & Branding course centre to learn more about building your brand from some of the leading names in branding!

Choosing A Name

Getting a suitable DJ name locked is one of the more fun and creative elements of developing your DJ brand but it isn’t as simple as it might initially seem.

There’s nothing more frustrating than building up a brand and then having to completely overhaul all of your hard work because some chap in the cold depths of Finland got there first, so make sure it’s completely unique to avoid expensive, time consuming changes further down the line.

Also, even though you may just be starting out, it’s key that you plan for the future so make sure that it’s radio friendly for when (not if!) you finally make your big breakthrough.

One of the biggest oversights that we still see major upcoming acts making these days is picking a name which is far too generic. We live in an internet age where search engines are king, and so try to narrow down a name which people are only likely to search for if they’re specifically looking for you.

For example, the house act, De$ignated, would have very little chance of showing up on a search engine without their signature dollar sign, in a similar way that those searching for ‘Dead Mouse’ would probably not have had much luck finding the legend of EDM.

Finally, if you’re planning on mixing across multiple genres then it’s well worth thinking about a separate name for each style to ensure that you don’t muddy the waters in your branding. Although Eric Prydz and Pryda and Cirez D are the same person, fans know exactly what genre to expect based on which stage name he’s playing under.

Social Media

Social media has opened up accessible avenues of networking which historically would have been completely unachievable for the average or upcoming DJ. Getting your social media on point and marketing yourself properly through Facebook, Twitter, SoundCloud, YouTube and Mixcloud can pay huge dividends.

Unless you’re a design wizard yourself, investing in an eye catching logo for use on these platforms can help to increase your audience. You can find freelancers on sites such as Fiverr, People Per Hour and Upwork who will take on the task of designing your logo for as little as £5 with surprisingly good results.

One of the most important facets of your social media branding will be engaging with your audience and encouraging others to share your mixes. Regular content updates will showcase your skills to potential promoters and the more followers you have, the more chance you have of getting that first, all important booking.

We’ll take a more in-depth look at how you can maximise the benefits from these social media channels at a later date, but at the very least you should be looking to get Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SoundCloud and mixcloud up and running as soon as possible.

Event Networking

Everyone has to start somewhere and getting your first gig can often be the hardest one of all. You’re an unknown and promoters will want to know that you can add numbers to their event by seeing that you have active engagement on your social channels, that your style fits in with their events, and that you can of course DJ!

As much as social media is a blessing for upcoming DJs, nothing beats the permanence and quality of meeting the right people face to face. The only way you’ll get these opportunities is by going along to local events, supporting other like minded individuals, and introducing yourself.

Trade numbers, arrange chats for a later date, keep things light-hearted, and remain open minded as no one wants to deal with an inexperienced prima donna!

Check out our guide to picking up your first gig by clicking here for an in depth guide to securing that elusive opening booking.

PART 7: FINAL TIPS

Learning to DJ is not something that you’re going to pick up overnight and the age old cliché of practice makes perfect has never been so true. It takes years to perfect the art of forming a set, reading a crowd, and learning the myriad of specialist skills that come with being a great DJ, but with DMA you’ll be able to quickly and easily pick up the tools you need to flourish.

The beauty of Djing lies in its freedom and creativity. No two mixes will ever be the same and you’ll be able to develop your own unmistakable style over time that people will love to listen to. Don’t ever be afraid to experiment with new ideas and keep an open mind when it comes to supporting the scene and learning off other DJs, both bona fide legends and those new to the game.

It’s a labour of love enjoyed by thousands around the world and, for the lucky few who can build a brand, hone their skills, and adapt with the times, careers are out there to be had.

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