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You may have seen DJs on stage turning knobs on a mixer and wondered what they’re doing. DJs do this to adjust the volume of incoming tracks and blend high, mid and bass frequencies so that the two tracks are balanced. They’re also adding effects and triggering hot cues.
When watching a DJ, you’ll see them changing things on the mixer as they play. When you’re learning your way around a DJ mixer, you might wonder what those different knobs do.
I had to ask a friend to explain what the EQ knobs on my mixer did because my mixes sounded fine (to me) without needing to touch anything apart from the turntables.
If you’re a bedroom DJ mixing at home on low-output speakers, you’ll probably think the same about your own mixes. Why the need for gain control and all that other stuff?
Here’s everything you need to know about knobs! (And yes, I wrote that sentence because I could.)
What Are DJs Doing When Twisting Knobs?
Mixing track A into track B not only means getting the beats to match, but you also need to balance the sounds, so they’re not overloading.
If you’re a sync button DJ or your DJ software has been doing the work for you, you might be thinking, “Well, duh, mixing ain’t hard,” but mixing electronic music needs a little more skill.
When you’ve got the outro of track A in beat with the intro of track B, you’ve got two basslines, two mid-ranges, and two higher frequencies playing simultaneously.
Playing both tracks as they are without equalizing results in things being overloaded. Two low-end basslines playing at full blast will blow your home speakers!
If you’re playing in a club, it’s one way to clear the dance floor. Clubbers like loud music but don’t appreciate their eardrums being damaged.
To be a good DJ, you must learn the art of equalizing… or knob twisting.
What Do The Knobs On A Mixer Do?
The mixer or your DJ software will have knobs for trim, high, mid/treble, and bass. These three are different ranges of sound frequencies where particular sounds sit.
For example, the bass and low-end sounds range from 60 to 250 Hertz. Mids are 500Hz to 2 KiloHertz, and the highs range from 2 to 4 kHz.
When a track comes in, the bass must be cut on one of the tracks to avoid too much low-end sound occupying that frequency range and overloading the sound system. You’ll often hear the term “muddy” when too many low-frequency sounds compete for the same space.
The mids are where vocals, guitar, piano, and percussion sit. These usually make up the melody of a song. Hi-hats and other ‘tinny‘ sounds sit in the high range.
The knobs on a mixer are for adjusting the sounds coming through the output so that they’re not competing with each other.
They’re also used to create great transitions between one song and another.
What Are FX Knobs And Buttons?
Now that you know what each EQ knob does, let’s move on to the effects. These complement the EQ controls and bring color into the DJ mix.
On DJ mixers, the effect is selected with a button or a selector knob.
The intensity of the effect can be adjusted by a knob usually found on the channel. You’ll often see DJs dramatically twist their arms or even their whole body when using the FX knob.
The most commonly used FX is the:
- High pass filter, which lets the high frequencies through but cuts out the lower ends, and the
- Low pass filter, which does the opposite.
Other effects DJs use include echo, reverb, and flanger to create energy into repetitive tracks with little movement.
A word of caution to budding DJs out there! Don’t go crazy with the FX. A few tweaks here and there are all that an audience’s ears can take.
What Are DJs Doing When They Tap?
When DJs tap the main cue button, they’re doing it in time to the music, getting ready to unleash the next beast of a track.
They might also bring the volume fader up as they do it, bringing an extra beat into a section of the song already playing.
Tapping is also used to line up and release hot cues for acapellas or one-shots.
Getting the timing right when dropping a vocal is the difference between a scream of delight from the dancefloor and a scream of dismay.
DJs can’t always rely on their DJ software to do this for them. Very often, they aren’t bang on the beat. Plus, they might want to assign a hot cue to part of a vocal from halfway through a phrase.
Let’s use Shakedown’s ‘At Night,’ for example.
Instead of dropping:
“It seems I can’t deny; some days just don’t feel right.“
A DJ might want to assign a hot cue button to:
“I can’t deny,” and keep dropping it into the track currently playing.
Tapping to the beat while counting ensures the DJ lines up and hits the cue button at the right time.
Watch DJ Spen and Karizma for inspiration on using hot cues. They do it at lightning speed and create great mash-ups on the fly.
Do DJs Just Press Buttons?
Honestly? Some do.
But if you want to be a good DJ with technical skills and gain credibility, you’ll use the EQ and FX knobs on your mixer, controller, or DJ software.
Why Do DJs Pretend To Turn Knobs?
The amount of knob twiddling DJs do during a set depends on a few things:
- The style of music being played.
- How much practice has the DJ put into learning how to EQ?
- If a DJ set is pre-recorded and they are faking it.
The style of music played might mean that once the DJ has brought a new track in, they don’t need to do much with it.
If it’s an event and party DJ, they’ll mix different styles and tempos.
Often DJs will use the EQ and FX knobs to add echo or reverb to the outro of a song so that there isn’t a dramatic cut when moving to the next.
House music DJs can keep two tracks running together for almost the entire length of each track, dipping in and out of the vocals from one to another or using hot cues to drop in samples. These need subtle tweaks of the EQ as you bring things in and take them out again.
EDM DJs use the EQ and FX across the mid and high frequencies to create peaks and troughs in the mix before slamming in the bassline of an unexpected track and sending the crowd into oblivion.
If you’re a DJ, Learning what each knob does on a mixer, DJ controller, or DJ software will ensure you have the skills to take a dull track and make it more dynamic.
You’ll also be able to mix any style or tempo into something completely different.
If your style of music means that you don’t need to do much once the new track is playing, and dancing behind the decks isn’t your thing, then there’s not much for you to do.
Pretending to do a bit of knob turning here and there makes you look like you’re doing something. Be careful, though. There are plenty of DJs in your audience who know that track and know that you’re not doing anything with it!
Do I Need Lots Of EQ And Effects To Be A Good DJ?
The FX does not define the DJ!
Create energy and movement in your DJ mix by cutting the low-end bass, bringing up the highs, and switching vocals across the mids.
I recorded some of my most popular mixes (over 30,000 plays) on a 2-channel analog mixer using only the bass, mid, and high EQ knobs.
Why Do DJs Touch The Mixer Like It’s On Fire?
This is one of the great mysteries of the universe.
Just as some DJs look like they’re wringing out their swimming gear after a dip in the sea, you’ll see others make a minor tweak followed by an exaggerated arm movement.
It’s mainly down to their music style and the amount of EQing they’re doing.
There’s also a bit of showmanship thrown in for good measure.
Are The Knobs On My DJ Software The Same As A Mixer?
Leading brands like Native Instruments Traktor Scratch Pro, Serato DJ, Virtual DJ, and Pioneer DJ Rekordbox have ensured that they’ve replicated the look and feel of a hardware mixer into their software offerings.
You’ll find almost the same layout and functionality as a traditional mixer. Still, you don’t have the hands-on experience twisting those real-life knobs and creating magic in a millisecond.
Do I Need to Know Music Production to EQ My DJ Mix?
To EQ your mix, you need to know the ranges of bass, mids, and highs and which sounds belong in each to ensure there aren’t too many elements competing for space in the mix.
A music producer balances everything in the piece of music individually. That’s already been done for you by the time you play it.
Still got more questions? Check out this guide explaining why DJs wear headphones.