Guide to the art of djing - Intermediate
I have been mixing music as a DJ for going on some 18+ years now (you can check me out here), and felt I should really share some of my knowledge with those who might be starting out or want some direction on how to improve on the fundamentals.
This tutorial (of sorts), is aimed at beginner to intermediate level Dj's - so I'll presume you already know your way around the basics: A mixer and a pair of CDJ's, Turntables, Controller and/or DJ software, how to plug it all in and Beat Matching if applicable. What you use doesn't matter as the same principles apply and there are lots of great resources and videos covering all this. So what I'll be talking about is techniques that will help elevate your mixing skills to the next level.
You hopefully already know this, but if you don't it's kind of a big deal - so stop reading this and go read/watch this DJ Tech Tools tutorial on it: phrasing. You pretty much will mostly suck without an understanding of it, even if you want to break the rules, you will still need to understand how it works. Seriously, stop reading this and go learn it.. You know what it is? Cool, read on…
Mixing on edges
There might be an official name for this, but what I call ‘mixing on edges’ is simply using phrasing to find and use natural drops and breaks to introduce or remove sounds. When you look at the wave form, you can see the edges pretty obviously, or if you listen to the track, you can hear them - every drop, break or shift in the song has an ‘edge’. Luckily, since electronic music is very formulaic, finding tracks that have edges that naturally blend well isn't too hard, and thankfully with today's technology, it's now easy to show you what I mean. Here are two house tracks set on top of each other, showing where I am going to introduce a new track, switch focus from track A to track B, and finally cut track A entirely.
Now, these two tracks match up with little to no effort - you could literally just hit play at the right time and let it play out and it would sound pretty good. This is the easiest way to support a great mix because most of the work has been done for you - and of course, how you then blend the two together will depend on your style and what kind of music you play - this where your creativity gets to shine.
The other benefit you have from this is that you introduce new sounds at a time when you can't quite remember how the track sounded before due to Track A's break - so you tuck the new sounds of Track B into the edge of the current Track A's natural reintroduction of the beat, and it sounds seamless - creating a bigger drop and it feels like a shift in gears.
One thing a lot of new DJ's will do, is bring a track in at a funny part of the outro where it's very obvious that you just faded a new track in (looking at you Hi-hats). Or out of phrase, like having claps on every beat. Or just way too late and you get a long period of time where there is kind of nothing going on. By mixing like I have shown above, you tighten the time not much is happening down to almost nothing. Even though there is a whole minute to go of Track A when you cut it, Track B is kicking off so you ride that horse for all it's worth! That way you can naturally maintain and build excitement. You also pretty much guarantee that you're in phrase (start of 32 bars) without having to count anything in. Kind of like swinging from vine to vine.
Using software like Rekordbox, Serato and Tracktor are a great way to analyze the wave forms so you can find tracks that match - if you are doing it with Vinyl, older CDJ's or some other method with no way to view the waveform - you just have to try it and see if it will work by ear before playing it out.
Pro tip: I would recommend your first mix of the night be one of these because they sound great, builds your confidence and are easy to pull off. Trying something tricky on the first mix is asking for a bad time because you will be stressed enough as it is and much more likely to fail because you haven't settled into your groove yet (aka, Flow). Also a knock at the beginning of a gig is much harder to recover from - so do yourself a favour, make your first mix a sure thing.
Sonic force and frequency ranges
This is something that embarrassingly took me ages to figure out, but is so blatantly obvious once you understand it you will manage it without thinking, if you are not already - and that is every track takes up certain frequencies (high, mid and low). And when you mix it with another track that also takes up the same frequencies, you get almost 1.8x the sonic output through the speakers. But if you find tracks that don't line up as well, you might only get 1.4x the sonic output - but a much denser sound. Which can sound pretty bad as well since music is defined by the absence of sound just as much as the instruments themselves. So how do you maintain good levels?
First, lets take a look at Sonic force.
On the left, you can see the unmixed tracks all sit roughly within the same frequency range. Whereas the mixed version on the right, is much bigger because the two sonically combine. This results in a much louder sound. Another key point to note is that the bass takes up a lot of range and is most dangerous to mix together unfiltered as you get the biggest combined sonic output, whereas mixing hi hits has a significantly lower sonic output and can still sound fine.
So how do you manage this? Here are three methods you can try:
Naturally offsetting tracks to work together: As Mr. Miyagi say, “Best way to block punch, is not be there”. The same applies here, you can look for mixes where you can mix the new track into a quiet part of the old - however this isn't always impactful and quite often can trip you up with drops in funny places, not quite long enough so you get a dribble out mix or out of time elements at the end of a track that sound bad.
Volume: For those of you who mix Vinyl - this is really important to watch as you get no help from any software that helps you. So you will have to work with not only the gain of each track (records are not recorded at the same volume), but also the sonic clash manually. Assuming you have the two tracks gain (volume) the same, the basics of how you do this is:
Track A's volume is 10, Track B's volume is 0.
When you bring in Track B, pull Track A's volume down to let there be room sonically for both - you can monitor this by using the master output EQ indicators as a primary indicator (it doesn't lie) and by using your ears as a secondary indicator. Your ears adjust so can't always be trusted - also this can sound kind of quiet when done right so use the mixer indicators, it's what they were designed to do.
Track A's volume will be around 7-8/10 and Track B's volume is similar or a little less. Complete the transition (say track A naturally breaks) and you need to bring Track B's volume to 10, cutting track A out completely.
EQ: The last thing you can do is use your EQ - this is what it's there for. So you can apply the volume technique I explained above to the EQ's, high, medium and low. You can transition slowly, softly softly.
Or you can be more aggressive by killing most of Track B's bass (eg: -4/-5) in one go when you bring Track B in. I like to wait for an edge to swap the bass over on, turn Track A's bass to -5, and Track B's bass to 0 - which allows for little to no bass clash, and can sound really punchy depending on what you are playing. Drum and Bass or Dubstep are great for this, but it will work on almost any style of music.
This is an easy way to make a mix not only sound good, but also keep you sonic output management simple.
So here are some basic ways to making things sound much better - go play with it, explore what is possible.
There are only so many frequencies we can hear (roughly 20 to 20,000 Hz), but also only so many we can fill before you just get a static wall of sound which sounds awful. So when mixing music together you need to be aware of clashing frequencies - here is an example of filling too many frequencies:
As you can see, there is no spaces and the sound looks full or solid. Luckily if you are mixing electronic music, it's so formulaic that won't run into this issue too much - but you still should understand why two tracks might sound bad together and how you can find tracks to mix them with. So, if you have a very dense track you love (Track A) - you could try mixing it into a sparse track (Track B). However this approach quite often sounds empty or looses energy when Track A finishes. So you might want to try another dense track and quickly cut the conflicting sounds over using the EQ as explained above. Or you could loop a break - which leads me to…
Loops, Jumping, Cues, Effects and other simple tricks to make songs fit together while not sounding shit
Chances are that not all of the music you want to play actually fits together perfectly so you will have to learn how to loop, jump or manually manipulate a track to make it work seamlessly with another track. You can only use these techniques in systems that support live sampling, seamless loops and more - most modern hardware and software do.
One of the most effective ways to give yourself a chance of getting a mix bang on, every time is to map it out first and drop a cue point where you want to start the next track from - eg:
As you can see, I have a cue set in Track A indicating where to start Track B - so when I'm playing out I know that I won't miss the mix I've set up and will ensure the drops land on top of each other. A good way to do this is to set both Track A & B where you want them to line up (in this case the drop), and then jump backwards by 32 bars on both until you hit the point where you want to start track B and drop the cue on Track A.
Pro tip: As you can see, I'm also going to cut Track A rather short at about 2/3's of the way through. I found the end was kind of boring, but mixed with Track B terribly exciting, so why not? Same with mixing in a new track - you don't have to start at the beginning of the track either - so you can try things like double dropping with no prior mixing. Just line them up and cut it in on the drop.
Looping is one of your foundation tools you should master as early as possible. It allows you to extend parts of tracks to make them fit better or just play more of a section you like.
The basics are to loop on the bars, 32 and 16 being the easiest to keep in phase. Whereas the shorter the loop, the harder it gets to drop back in phrase without Flux mode or cues. Flux mode allows you to run a loop but the track keeps playing the background so when you turn the loop off it jumps forwards to where it is suppose to be keeping the mix in time.
Anyway, you need to practice loops and Phrasing really get a handle on it and as you master it, you will start to notice tale tale signs when you are running out of time and need another few bars or so.
Pro tip: Another use for looping when you have visual wave forms is seeing how much time you have left on either track so you can sync them up. So you set a loop on and off on both tracks at the same time - the software then shows you the next 32 bars for example, and you can then see if a break, drop or cut over aligns perfectly or if the tracks are not going to sit in the right place - which you can then adjust the tracks to fit by looping the track that will drop or run out first until they synchronize perfectly.
Most systems where you can loop will also allow you to jump X amount of bars, either forwards or backwards. This can be a life saver for when you miss a loop or want the mix or section of a track to be shorter.
For example: You're in the middle of a mix, both tracks are playing out the speakers and you notice that Track A has a break in 64 bars and Track B has a drop in 32 bars. Now Track B has started a build up which you don't want to loop because it will sound a bit crap, but Track A has pretty much finished, so you jump Track A forward 32 bars and now they will naturally switch over and the mix sounds tight.
Effects can hide a multitude of sins and also enhance your show no end if used well, but they can also sound naff or annoying if misused or overused (no, this doesn't need more air horn, honestly). There is a whole world of effects you can apply to sound out there, but here are the basics I would recommend you start with:
- Echo: This is a foundation effect - you can help elongate a break or add double claps or mix it with other effects and it mostly sounds pretty good. It's easy to master and works well with vocals. This will also help you understand bars and how you can add interest by playing with settings like 3/16 in a 4/4 beat.
- Gate: Gate effects cut a channel on and off to a rhythm (eg: every 2 bars) - this can be useful for mixing with other things like scratching, drones or creating strange jittery vocals for example. Try playing with the speed of the gate while you are playing, eg: From fast to slow or vise-visa.
- Flange: This introduces a sweeping sound that can be fast or slow. Try it in breakdowns or for building excitement in a mix by starting the flange slow and speeding it up towards the drop.
Harmonic mixing / Mixing in key
Learn some music theory and how to mix in key - what this means is that you learn how to identify the key of a track using software or your ears, and what other keys sound good to mix into. Most software supports this method out of the box, so here is a beginners tutorial and a multi method Camelot wheel to get you started:
Just remember that while this will help you sound great no end, it's a guide - you can still do things outside of this format that will sound great, but you only find those by experimenting and/or learning more music theory. If your mixing minimal techno for instance you can quite often get away with ignoring this entirely, whereas something very melodic will need to stay in key or it'll probably sound terrible. And you have quite a few keys that work together, not just the work your way around the wheel method you are first taught.
Best length of a mix and your rule set
Getting the length of a mix just right is arguably one of the most critical skills of Djing - too long and you can run into all kinds of issues like vocals clashing or miss matched breaks that lose energy. Or too short and it's very obvious you just made a mix, which might be jarring or weak. So the answer is of course, it depends.
It will depend on the style of music you are playing, Hip-Hop mixes for example, are usually 32 bars or less because you usually have vocals to deal with and the style of music is abrupt. Whereas something like Melodic Techno or Progressive House will typically be around 1-2 minutes long, because you will have long transitions and sudden changes are very obvious and usually ‘clangy’.
It will also depend on your mixing style - do you want to seamlessly transition from one track to the next without anyone noticing? Or do you want the mix itself to be a front and center act?
So many great styles to play with! However, they all have pros and cons you will need to understand to get the length of each mix right. And the best way I think for you to get a feel for it is to try it out. Do a mix that is 32 bars long, then one that is 1 minute long. Play different styles of music to see what mixing styles work or doesn't work. Play around with softly softly mixing vs cut in and run. Try 0 bars! Just cut it over at the right time and see how it sounds. You could cut it back and forth a few times before playing both channels - and so on.
The point of this is to not only expand your mixing capabilities so that you are better equipped to handle known unknowns while you are in a mix, but also so that you will start to build up a rule set about how you like to mix and what to do in a crisis.
Here are a few from my current rules set to give you and idea of what I mean:
- If in doubt, mix short - long mixes will always catch you out
- Trust the mixing volume meters even if my ears say something is quiet
- Avoid vocals overlapping unless you are very sure it sounds good
- Don't let a track end while the other track is relying on it for energy, loop the old track and wait for a break or edge to exit on.
- And so on.
Pro tip: While you are just establishing your base rules right now, and I'd suggest not changing them too quickly so you get the most out of them. Always be willing to challenge your rule set in the future. What is working for you now probably won't be true later, nothing is static so you need to allow yourself room to change too. If you don't, you will stagnate and your evolution will grind to a halt or you will lose interest because you have “done it” and got the t-shirt. But if you're serious about the craft, you need to actively incorporate growth into your playing style.
Free form vs Preparing you set
Free form tips
If you only want to play on the fly like “Real Dj's”, that's all well and good, but even those Dj's prepare and there are things you can do to help you (and everyone pretty much does this stuff, so you're not “cheating”, no matter what anyone tells you):
- Prepare your first few tracks: No point in damaging your confidence right off the bat. Now you might prepare a few sets of starting tracks so you can chose which way you want to take it - but you want to build up your confidence as much as possible up front so you can get into the flow and preform to the best of your ability.
- Be familiar with most of your music in your library: Get to know your music by listening to it a lot, so you can reduce the risk of bad mixes by knowing what was coming up. Try out quick mixes and see what works and what doesn't beforehand and…
- Group tracks you like: While you are listening to the music, group them into little routines you can rely on and you know sound great. Ever seen a Dj mix a few clangers, but then recover and suddenly play great? This is how they typically recover.
- Add meta data: Adding helpful meta data like the track key, energy level and any other helpful notes about the track can help you when your trying to find things in 2-3 minutes.
- Harmonic mixing: Great for narrowing in on the next tune fast. See above.
- Practice, practice, practice
Studio mixes or big show mixes are usually worked on over time and prepared before playing live. This means you know the tracks and order you will play them in, and you leave as little to chance as possible so you sound the best you can sound. Here are some tips to help you make the best mix you can make:
- What are you saying?: I like to think about a mix as a story or possibly a play or movie - so what the mix about? What will it tell your audience? Perhaps you want to tell the story of Getting Shit Done or maybe, The Best Night Out You Have Ever Had. Perhaps it's about your Telling Your Friends You Love Them At 3am or The Feeling You Get Just Before Sleep - each of these has a feeling and a mood, so now it's your job to find music that tells the Story.
- Frame up your story: Now you have some tracks together, loosely order them into Beginning, Middle and End. How you tie the story together is up to you, but I would suggest trying some things out and find the method that works best. For example you could find a track to start on and one to finish on, then map a path between the two. Or you could find a mix you really like and frame the rest around that. Or just find a great track to start on and see where you end up with no agenda. And so on.
- Quick mix many options: I find that if you jump to the end of track, loop 32 bars and quick mix into potential tracks - you can get through a lot quickly and narrow in good mixes that you then try out for real. This can save you a lot of time once you get into the rhythm of it.
- Use cues to indicate where to start the next track: See above
- Rerecord studio mixes and doctor the wave afterwards: Yep, no reason you can't fix a bung mix afterwards - so while your recording, if you bugle a mix, just stop and go back and do it again. Then using wave editor like Audacity you can just cut out the bad mix and sneaky sneaky, no one will ever know… Sure this sounds easy, but it'll take you a few goes to get it - just make sure to go back far enough so you can stitch the audio together before you mix in the new track…
- Practice, practice, practice
Pros / Cons
Both have pros and cons, playing on the fly has an intensity and Flow to it that is infectious when preforming live, whereas studio mixes can sometimes sound clinical and kind of soulless or too perfect. Equally, playing on the fly can be confidence destroying and a total train wreak or it just goes nowhere, whereas a studio mix can be the very heights of what you aspire to be - so I would recommend giving them both a go and finding what excites and works best for you.
This is your show, you play it how you want to. The crowd, mostly won't know and are largely indifferent as long as they have a great night. Don't get me wrong, there is a time and place for you to pander to their tastes of course! But while you are discovering how to express yourself through Djing, it's important for you to play with the possibilities available and discover the sound you will call your own without worrying too much what anyone else thinks of you. This is the thing you will then get known for, then once you have a rough idea of it - you could be playing oldie tunes at your uncles third wedding and people will know it's probably you. Then, you can bring your needs into a balance with the crowds needs and this is where your best sets will probably come from. Because if the crowd is happy, and you're happy - then you multiply the good vibes through music, and this is what everyone finds exciting.
So what do you want to tell people? What story are you going to tell? Time to go find out! \(:D)/
Please follow me on Mixcloud or Soundcloud and feel free to share your mixes - I'm always interested to hear other peoples tales <3