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DJs actually do quite a lot on stage. They need to seamlessly beatmatch their music, transition with style, add effects to create their personal signature, read the crowd to adjust the vibe accordingly, and maintain some level of dance or performance at the same time.
Do DJs Actually Do Anything?
Many people think that all DJs pre-record their mixes and just press play on stage. Unless you have had the opportunity to be close to a DJ or have DJ friends, you may not have had the experience of realizing how difficult DJing really is and how much work goes into having to produce a good DJ set.
I am incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to learn a bit about what goes into DJing and realize the innate complexity of this art form.
The fact that you are reading this blog means that you are interested, on some level, in mixing music and what that entails.
I will go through each technique and the skills DJs need to put on a good set.
So What Are DJs Doing On Stage?
While on stage, DJs need to do all of the following: Beatmatching, Transition expertly from track to track, and reading the crowd to understand what is working vs. what isn’t.
In addition, DJs need to add in effects or samples and maintain some level of performance or interaction with the crowd, AKA dancing.
What Is Beatmatching And Why Is It Important?
Beatmatching is the first step and skill you need to know when DJing.
Let me be the first to tell you, beat matching is HARD! If you can do it, that’s already impressive, but on stage, DJs have to be able to beatmatch and do it quickly.
Beatmatching is the art of matching the tempos of at least two songs and then matching up the drum beats to make sure the two tracks are in sync.
While on stage, DJs need to beatmatch the tracks they mix each time perfectly. It is easier said than done and requires a lot of focus, a trained ear, and a solid pair of DJ headphones. (I recommend the Sennheiser HD25, as they are the industry standard)
These days, most of the newer DJ equipment, for example, most Pioneer DJ CDJs, feature the sync button that will enable the automatic syncing of the tracks.
This newer DJ gear can beatmatch for you. It is not generally respected in the DJ community to use the sync button because it takes away the artistry of beatmatching manually, but times are slowly changing!
DJ controller tech is evolving, so why shouldn’t DJs use them to the fullest capacity.
It is an ongoing debate for sure, but I think if a DJ wants to continue to increase their mixing skills and produce new music, it is somewhat inevitable that they will need to know how to manually beatmatch.
Performing Seamless Transitions
Once two tracks are beatmatched, DJs need to transition between the two tracks.
To move from one track to the next, DJs isolate a few sounds from each track that work well together and make the transition. The more skillful a DJ is, the more smooth and fluid the transition will be.
Transitions also need to be engaging and exciting. It is one thing to transition smoothly from one track to the next; it is another to do it while keeping the same vibe and energy level.
It is SO much more challenging than you may think.
DJs also need to keep it fresh. If you did the same transition repeatedly, the quality of the set would be pretty dull and predictable.
Each track that plays gives DJs a window of a few minutes to figure out the plan for the next song. They need to figure out where in the track they will begin the mix, beatmatch quickly, and change the EQs (equalizers) to their desired positions to enact the plan and then start the transition.
DJs Are Also Counting
DJs need to keep count of the beats to begin the mix at the beginning or end of a loop. For example, one track could change every 4, 8, 16, or 32 beats.
An expert DJ will be able to follow along and mix in the new track at the beginning or end of one of these loops.
This counting is happening the entire set. I’ll let you in on a secret: DJs dance because they are having fun with their music but mostly because they are counting. The easiest way to count the beats is to tap your foot or dance.
Think about how many times a DJ will need to do this in one set. It requires a lot of brainpower and focus.
Beat FX is becoming more popular in DJ sets as well. Old-school vinyl setups only allowed for scratching effects on a turntable, but there is usually an entire Beat FX channel on modern DJ hardware. Some FX include echo, spiral, reverb, trans, roll, and flanger.
FX is a great way to add your own flair and signature to a mix. Many DJs will use these effects to heighten the impact of a significant drop in their set or just add a new sound they may use throughout their mix.
Reading The Crowd
People don’t realize how difficult of a job it is to understand and adjust to the vibe of a crowd. DJs need to understand what music a particular crowd may respond best to and adapt their sound accordingly. Oh, and they need to be able to do this consistently while also beatmatching perfectly, transitioning, and adding effects.
The vibe of a party or event is almost this fragile and beautiful unspoken communication or frequency between a crowd and the DJs. A DJ has to create the stirrings of the vibe with the music, and the crowd may or may not respond to that vibe.
Have you ever thought about how DJs structure their mixes?
Since a mix extends songs to be almost like one large track, DJs need to structure them accordingly.
It would be exhausting for the people on the dancefloor to dance non-stop to really fast techno without any breaks. As a result, you will often see DJs playing around 3 tracks in a row before creating a drop. They will isolate one or two sounds, allow the crowd to have a quick little breather before building it back up to dance level.
On the flip side, if a DJ only plays slow music without any sort of build-up, it could be seen as boring.
It is a nerve-racking experience to control the music for a huge crowd.
Think about how difficult it is to be on the aux cord at a house party. Making sure everyone is having a good time is a huge responsibility. You never want to be the person in charge of music when people complain about it.
Now imagine that feeling in front of a crowd of thousands of people. Scary, right?
Having A Stage Presence
In addition to the technical skills DJs possess on stage, some level of performance during their set is also required. There are different ways to accomplish this performance aspect.
Some DJs naturally have a great stage presence. Superstar DJ Carl Cox is a wonderful example. He is always so into the music he is playing, whipping up a storm, and interacting with the people on the dance floor.
But this performance aspect can manifest in other ways too.
For example, I have seen DJs who never dance or even look up from their setup once during their sets. Initially, I thought that was lame, but I quickly realized that these DJs were so focused on creating the most intricate, perfectly mixed drops and transitions.
This quality of music was the performance value. The music was speaking for itself without any need for the DJ to hype up the crowd with their dancing.
I think what makes a good DJ to a professional DJ level is the ability to create engaging, complex mixes that keep everyone engaged and interact with the crowd.
Performing Songs LIVE
To me, what defines an expert DJ is one who can play well live, not just in the confines of their studio setup. Of course, that is totally subjective, and everyone has their own idols.
If a DJ can play an incredible and exciting set live, I’m ready to bow down. In my opinion, a dance music live performance is the coolest of the cool.
It is kind of wild how the music industry is changing. You see some live DJs using mixing tech and instruments in their sets.
Monolink, for example, will often use DJ software and analog instruments such as a guitar to create interesting downtempo mixes.
What kind of lifestyle does a DJ have?
It depends on how often they are playing. Professional DJs will have gigs worldwide and constantly traveling, sometimes to multiple cities in one weekend. It is not an easy lifestyle, but it’s definitely worth the chaos if it is your passion.
What do DJs do when they turn knobs?
When you see a DJ turning knobs on the DJ mixer, they are adjusting the equalizers or throwing on a filter. The equalizers represent any given track’s Hi, Mid, and Low sound frequencies. For example, the low frequency is the kick or sub-bassline, so if a DJ turns off the low, it means they get rid of the bassline or drum beats.
How do DJs know what song to play next?
Knowing what to play next is the eternal skill lesson that DJs will constantly need to practice. The intuitive understanding comes with lots of practice playing in front of people and receiving feedback. Usually, though, a good rule of thumb is to play a track that is similar in tempo to the one currently playing and either the same key or a complementary one.
How long does it take to be good at DJing?
DJing skill is directly proportional to how much time is spent practicing. Of course, some are more talented than others and have a natural musical ability. If you dedicate a lot of your time to practicing, you can become a good DJ within a couple of years. It all depends on how much time and effort you put into learning and practicing.
Can you still be a DJ today without being a producer?
Definitely! You can absolutely be a good DJ without ever producing any music. However, music production is the next natural avenue for many DJs since it is the next step of music mastery. Otherwise, you will always be playing other people’s music.
Many DJs I have spoken to comment that they got into DJing because of the ability to create and control the vibe of the music. Producing is the next step of creating and managing your vibe.
I hope this clarifies the mystery of what DJs do on stage.
They need to beatmatch as their life depends on it, transition smoothly, and add effects to create their own flavor. On top of this, a great DJ needs to read the crowd like it’s their favorite book and have a stage presence to rival the best.