Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Mental Steps To Learning To DJ

note: this is a thought stream and i basically just started typing and didn't stop, i just kept writing what i was thinking.  there was very little editing and it is meant to sound conversational.

learning to dj isn't just something you learn to do one day and then bam, you got it.  its not like driving where everyone can meet a pretty acceptable level in a fairly short time.  there are a few different levels of DJs in the world and i think they can broken down into a few very clear groups.  each level contains all of the skills of the levels below it, constantly adding to the list of a thing a DJ notices.  this is something that anyone can hear with just a little training, but actually doing it is way more difficult.  doing it live and based on what the crowd is doing is far more difficult.  i admit that i can't go say im that good yet.  i cant read a crowd.  its kind of a skill you learn and do through out this entire process.  you are aware of it right up front and you will always be getting better at it.  my understanding of a lot of what im going to talk about is in an contained environment, likely just your headphones on your ears & certainly a more personal experience.  this is also one good way to "find" a good transition.  think of a group of songs and go through this process* :)

*100 songs may only yield 1 ideal transition

the youngest of the DJs have done 1 thing...they have beat matched.  this is an important skill, not to be thought of as "lowly."  if you can't beat cant DJ.  this is the most important element of a good mix.  if the beat is off, people will notice, and they wont like it, but dont worry, you can ALWAYS get better at this....unless on some god level you have found a way to let the off beat sound good; in which case: wow.

EQing is the next.  i could argue that the next point (timing) is more important considering that...well it is.  but EQing is WAY easier.  most people focus on it first because you can get to a fairly acceptable level by the time youve learned beat matching.  you wont go past "mediocre" at this until 3 steps from now, but youll get bursts of intense amounts of awesome and win that you can't seem to reliably make happen for reasons you just dont get.

once you are starting to get EQing down, youll notice that timing seems to make EQing a whole lot easier.  of course!  if i dont have the heavy bassline laying on top of some other bass line, they cant clash in the mids as easily :D  timing is making sure you dont have two lead vocals going at once cause you thought it would "sound cool."

but then you start to find these rare combinations where you can kinda mash up the vocals of one song with the kick ass synth of another.  its around this time that youll start to notice that song selection seems to make this whole process run.  cause if you pick the right songs, everything will fall in place on the timing and the EQing will be straight forward and manageable and beat matching is a breeze.  i believe that song selection has 4 thought processes that are totally unique from each other; for a total of 8 different levels of DJs.  this is as many as i know of at least.  who knows, maybe there are more.  id like that :)

from here on out, i consider non-vocal tracks to be more difficult to work with, but also hold more potential to those open to it.  if well used, they will blow you out of the fucking water.

harmonics is up first.  this is where this certain group of songs all have a core sound.  imagine if you took a picture and averaged all the RGB values for every pixel and displayed that average color as a solid block of color.  thats kind of what the key is.  not talking about a physical key here.  a key is a certain group of notes that sound good together while excluding others because this group of keys sound good to each other for reasons im not going to go into.  they are wayyy out of the scope of this article.  basically, there are 24 keys, a song has 1, and it is "compatible" with arguably up to 8 other keys if you include FX and pitch bending.  around this time you may begin to think of the transitions on  a larger scale as well.  you may begin to consider what was 2 songs ago, what do i want to do next, but where do i want to go after that?

once you get to breaking songs up into groups of keys, you start to notice that not all sound the same.  they have the same tempo and the same key but they have a fundamental different sound.  one will be kinda bassy and smooth and another will be bouncey and light.  you are thinking about the songs even more narrowly now.  you are starting to hear how different instruments can be put in an order that sounds natural and flows.  from say, acoustic guitar to electric guitar to a pluck synth to a hard synth to a soft synth to a may even hate that sequence.  it really just depends on the songs.

its worth noting here that i think it is around this time that most people begin to hear the mix as a single song and not as individual pieces of music.  i think a listener knows it when they hear it and they love it.  i know i do.  and i know that some people may not even like it.  but this is the point at which you go one way or the other.

once you start to hear a DJs mix more as a continuous mix (which will happen if, imo, they have good sound flow), you can start to hear how one song can carry you to another through what i can only call an energy flow.  how to harness its builds and its breaks.  you start to hear where to let the melodies change.  this maybe something that youve even been considering the whole time, but this is a high level skill.  it never stops developing.  the way you listen to music changes as you get better at this.  this also kind of ties in with timing.  and with good harmonics you can get some nice, longgg transitions that really flow and carry the energy in a pleasant way.  this often involves anticipation and delivery for maximum awesome.  with energy, you do kind of want to be always going up.  always building.

unless you can capture emotional flow.  this allows you to turn the concert into a roller coaster.  i believe that only the best DJs can really have this effect on people.  this is a skill for only the upper echelon.  and if you aren't careful, you will loose it QUICK.  seriously, to those open to it, this will make you feel things that nothing else can.  its better than text, its better than movies, its better than vide.....well....idk about that.  a good video game will...this is another topic.  i dont need to get on this cause im pretty much done with this article and WOW is it a lot longer than i had expected.  o well :P  thanks for reading!


  1. excellent :) a must read for all the DJ's out there. When I first started contemplating making sets my first thought was to figure out what tracks should be in it, and where.

  2. lovely reading :D