Becoming a DJ is no doubt a career many music lovers think of pursuing at one point or another. But the truth is it takes more than just a love for music to become a successful disc jockey. On top of being passionate about what you do for a living, you must also acquire a working knowledge of sound equipment and music mixing software. Moreover, you need to learn the craft and hone your skills.
Being a DJ means you have to continue networking and growing your career in order to land new gigs. And with all of these stepping-stones on the road to becoming a DJ, many beginners don’t even know where to start.
The following are 4 simple steps on how to become a DJ, which can help you get started quickly.
Step 1: Decide What Type of DJ You Want to Be
A disc jockey (DJ) is essentially anyone who plays pre-recorded music to entertain a particular audience. For instance, when given the responsibility of setting up an iPod playlist at a barbecue party, you’re actually deejaying. However, professional DJs do a lot more than that and they usually work in different settings.
Many DJs choose to specialize in specific lines of work. It’s therefore important to determine what type of DJ you want to be before joining the industry. There are generally four types of DJs and they can be categorized into the following groups:
1. Radio DJs
Disk Jockeys came into existence thanks to radio stations. Typical radio DJs introduce and play a mix of music tracks, which are then broadcasted on FM, AM, internet, or digital radio stations. Such DJs sometimes work as broadcast presenters and therefore they may start conversations, present news, or make commentary in between music tracks.
2. Club DJ
This is perhaps the most quintessential image conjured when thinking about DJs. Disk Jockeys who work at nightclubs and bars strive to keep the dance floor moving by offering long blends of transitioning music with many kinds of audio trickery in between songs.
Club DJs pick out the music selection based on the audience or club’s theme. They also tend to vary the music to match the mood of the audience. For instance, a Club DJ can ramp the energy up or down in order to balance between an active dance floor and a busy bar.
3. Mobile DJ
This is the type of DJ you’ll see at a wedding, rave, corporate party, and other social events. A mobile DJ usually travels with portable sound systems to entertain guests at gatherings. Besides playing music, most mobile DJs may also serve as the MC (master of ceremony) for an event. Therefore, a mobile DJ should be comfortable with taking requests, speaking into a microphone, and directing the attention of attendees to keep an event’s agenda on track.
A turntablist is a DJ that manipulates sounds and curates music. Turntablists use sampling, scratching, and other similar techniques to turn the record player into a musical instrument. They do this by creating rhythmic and percussive sounds that can be used as backing instruments for new tracks.
Due to the creative element involved in turntablism, DJs in this category can be categorized as performing artists. In fact, it’s common for music lovers to attend concerts just to see a reputable turntablist perform because of what he/she can do behind the decks.
In addition to the above categories, some DJs choose to specialize in a particular genre of music. For example, a hip-hop DJ may project a very different personality than one who specializes in reggae, classic rock, or trance music. All in all, it’s important to realize that there are different types of DJs.
To determine which type of DJ you would like to be, try to think about what excites you in this line of work. Do you want to be a crowd pleaser or music specialist? Interests vary from one individual to the next. It’s therefore important to give some thought into what makes you excited about being a DJ as that will help you know how to pursue your career or hobby.
Step 2: Find Out What Equipment You Will Need
You can’t be a DJ without the proper gear. There are several pieces of DJ equipment from which to choose from and the amount of gear and choices can be somewhat overwhelming for a beginner.
The following is a list of common DJ equipment followed by different set-up combinations along with their list of pros and cons:
Common DJ Equipment
1. Music Sources
DJs can store music in a variety of mediums. In the old days, music was stored on vinyl records, which meant that DJs had to use turntables. The use of turntables is still common even today but most DJs these days choose to store their music using cheaper and more modern technology. For instance, DJs can use two mixable CD players or store songs in digital format on a laptop that is equipped with music mixing software.
2. DJ Mixer
The mixer is an important piece of a DJ’s gear. Most tricks of the trade are all done on the mixer. This piece of equipment uses a crossfader, which is a sliding switch that allows the DJ to transition from one music source to another. Sound sources are plugged into the mixer and they could be anything from turntables, to CD players, to iPods. One important fact to keep in mind when shopping for DJ mixers is that some models will only work with specific music mixing software.
3. PA System/Speakers
Unless you’re a radio DJ, you’ll need speakers so that partygoers can hear the music you create and play. Some venues such as nightclubs and banquet halls might have public address speakers and built-in sound systems. For DJs who intend to specialize in private parties, it’s important to invest in personal speakers. Ideally, try to purchase a variety of high quality speakers that can be used in different sized rooms.
Amplifiers boost the sound signal, making it strong enough to reach the speakers. Some record players have built-in pre-amps, which makes external varieties obsolete. You can also decide to forego the amplifier by investing in high quality active speakers. However, you may find an amplifier and passive speakers to be a much cheaper option as opposed to buying active speakers.
Headphones are more than just a fashion accessory that DJs like to don around their necks. If you’re a beginner, you’ll find headphones to be quite helpful because they allow you to find the right beat while listening to music.
Some digital DJs rely on a technique called waveriding. Rather than listening to music using headphones, digital DJs find beats using waveforms generated by music software.
If you intend to address crowds at a party while serving as the MC and DJ, a microphone will come in handy. A microphone will also be helpful if you plan to introduce songs while spinning records or even record your own songs as a performing turntablist.
DJ Set-up Choices
Before you purchase any DJ equipment, it’s important to choose a desired setup. DJs can settle for equipment that uses old technology, newer techniques, or a combination of both.
The following are the four main choices to pick from when looking to buy an entire set of DJ equipment:
1. Vinyl Turntable and Mixer Set Up
For beginners wishing to explore the old-school way of deejaying, a vinyl turntable and mixer option is the way to go. Below are other pieces of equipment you’ll need in this set up, although some of the listed tools may be included with the turntable:
- Cleaning brush and fluid for maintaining vinyl records
- Anti-static slip mats for the turntable
- RCA cables
- Extra stylus and cartridges
A vinyl turntable can be a bit harder to mix when compared to using modern DJ equipment. However, some DJs love the tactile feel of moving a physical record. In addition, “pure scratch” DJs believe that traditional turntables offer a more rewarding experience and perhaps the most hands on control over the record.
Another aspect in which vinyl records outperform digital music files is the audio quality. Vinyl records store analog sound signals. Since digital audio essentially takes a snapshot of analog signals without reproducing the complete sound wave, some traditionalist feel that digital deejaying equipment tends to reduce the music’s definition and impact.
There are also some more subjective reasons as to why many DJs still opt for traditional turntables. For instance, some DJs are of the opinion that vinyl turntables allow for more creativity while others state that it is just plain stylish.
With all that being said, it’s still important to note that vinyl records are hard to come by and they’re not cheap either. To overcome these challenges, modern DJs use vinyl turntables in conjunction with a laptop and music mixing software. This in turn makes it possible to use the traditional turntable with both vinyl and digital music files.
Pros: Some music lovers consider it fun to watch, it will gain you respect from pure scratch DJs, spinning actual records can be more fun and rewarding.
Cons: Vinyl records are expensive, more difficult to spin, and bulky to carry around. Vinyl turntables are somewhat limited when compared to digital deejaying equipment.
2. Digital CD Turntable and DJ Mixer Setup
Many professional DJs these days prefer a CD setup to traditional turntables. This option offers more flexibility among all the setups, especially when combined with DJ software and a laptop. However, CD decks don’t come cheap. The basic equipment you will need for this set up includes two CD turntables, a mixer, headphones, and laptop with DJ software installed (optional).
Pros: This is what many clubs use so you can just show up with your music. CD turntables are also great for scratching and newer models support USB drives.
Cons: CD turntables are pricier than the traditional vinyl record player. Low end models are also somewhat limited a laptop and comprehensive DJ software.
3. All-in-One DJ Controller
An all-in-one controller setup with an audio interface (or sound card), laptop and DJ software (usually supplied by the manufacturer) is the easiest and best choice for beginners to get started.
A DJ controller offers the same physical touch aspects of a traditional turntable and allows you to manipulate digital files as you would a record. You still get the same level of control you would with a traditional turntable but at a fraction of the startup cost.
Digital DJ controllers are essentially USB-to-analog devices that control DJ-based software installed on a laptop, smartphone, PC, or tablet. A control surface comprises of jog wheels, faders, knobs, buttons, or sliders that give you hands-on control over functions and settings programmed into DJ software.
Depending on the model, your DJ controller can have many other parameters such as audio levels, displays and LEDs that indicate the status of various systems.
Pros: Offers everything DJs need. Simple to use even for beginners and you don’t have to keep a large collection of CDs or vinyl records.
Cons: Controllers can be bulky and difficult to fit into crowded booths. They’re also dependent on an interface package installed a computer or smart mobile device. Finally, most models are made to integrate only with particular software.
4. Computer Only Set-Up
If you’re just starting out, a computer only DJ setup is the cheapest option. All you need to start mixing is a computer (a laptop is preferable for greater portability), DJ software, and an audio interface.
Pros: This is the cheapest setup and method to practice DJ sound effects. Music mixing applications such as Tracktor Pro, Serato and Virtual DJ are surprisingly capable too.
Cons: Since there are no tactile controls, mixing music from a PC or laptop is a fiddly experience.
There are many factors to consider when it comes to choosing DJ equipment. For example, you have to take into account your budget. It’s also critical that you find an easy to use DJ setup. Pay attention to the interface of DJ software to ensure that the controls are intuitive and easy to navigate around. Also, make sure that the layout of mixers, turntables or and MIDI controllers is arranged in a way that makes sense to you.
If you intend to become a mobile DJ, don’t overlook the build quality of your equipment. Ideally, choose durable gear that holds up to rigors of the road. Lastly, if you have access to DJ equipment, then take advantage of that. Learn to work the equipment before buying it. After all, DJ equipment is expensive and a lot of people blow a ton of cash on gear only to find out later that deejaying is not their thing or that they should have settled for a different setup combo.
Step 3: Learn the Skills and Practice, Practice, Practice!
Once you’ve decided what type of DJ you want to be and the equipment you find preferable, it’s time to get some hands-on training. In order to be a competent DJ, you will need to learn a few basics, which I will cover briefly here.
Listen to Music Mixes
Learning how to become a DJ all begins with listening to music. The best part about this technique is that you don’t even need any equipment. What’s more, you can learn a lot by listening to the type of music you want to mix and DJs who play it.
As you’re listening, pay attention to the different parts of each track such as the intros, choruses, bridges, and outros. This will help you learn critical skills like when to blend a songs intro with the outro of another or certain points in a music track that are prime for scratching.
Get to Know Your DJ Equipment
Familiarize yourself with your mixer, turntable, MIDI controller, mixing software, or any other piece of equipment you decide to use for deejaying. Read the instruction manual and learn where to plug in every cable. In addition, test every slider, knob, button, and get to know the tolerances of your channel faders, pitch adjusters, jog wheels and cross-faders.
Master the Art of Mixing
Learning how to mix two tracks is one of the fundamental skills of being a DJ. Generally, DJs transition from one song to another during the outro of the first track and intro of the second. However, you have to first get tracks synced by adjusting the volume. This is accomplished by simply adjusting the gain knobs on your channel mixer to bring them to the same level.
Beatmatching is also another essential skill you should learn if you want music mixes to transition seamlessly. The concept here is counting the beats per minute that two songs have in order to determine whether they are in the same tempo. Your DJ software should be able to calculate BPM for various tracks (often called the “sync” function) but you can also learn how to count beats yourself.
As a general rule of thumb, beginners should start mixing two songs that are within 3BPM of each other. Once you master how to mix two tracks, start experimenting with other functions like looping, scratching, the toggle function, and adding effects.
Consider Taking Classes or a Free Course
There’s a lot more to learn in the art of deejaying. You’ll also need to practice cueing up and starting records, catching up with or slowing down music tracks, equalizing and phrasing, just to name a few essential skills.
If you know a professional DJ who’s willing to teach you how to skip the ropes, this is arguably the best way to learn. Unfortunately, most beginners don’t have access to a mentor. Attending a DJ academy can also get you access to a professional but schools are not cheap. As a result, most aspiring DJs end up learning on their own. The good news is that many professional DJs are self-taught.
If you plan on learning how to become a DJ on your own, you’re actually better off than current DJs were before the advent of the Internet. These days, there are plenty of free online courses for DJs that provide a good solid foundation on how to get into the trade. Of course, you can only get the best online resources and lessons at a fee but they tend to be cheaper than traditional classes.
Step 4: Get the First Gig and Grow Your Career
So, you’ve bought your DJ equipment and learned how to operate it. Your music mixes now sound great thanks to the countless of hours spent daily practicing on the decks every day. Unfortunately, that only marks the beginning of your DJ career.
A big part of being a DJ involves marketing yourself and networking. After all, you need to find your own gigs and you could land your first one by offering to play at private events for a low fee or take slow weeknight shifts at a local bar. You’ll probably have to keep a second job when starting out since novice DJs don’t make that much at first.
Signing up for one-time gigs is fine when starting out. However, a better way to build your credibility and play time is by seeking recurring hours via an established entertainment company that outsources DJs for weeding and various events.
You can market yourself by handing out business cards at gigs, launching a website, emailing prospects constantly, or promoting your shows on social media. Another great idea to promote your deejaying style is making playlists and sharing them with fans and followers on iTunes or Spotify. It’s important to remember that being a DJ requires you to keep expanding your network 24/7.
Lastly, it’s important to keep improving your skill set if you want to become a successful DJ. The truth is most people who have a strong love for music can learn how to become a DJ but it’s truly not easy to be exceptional. Standout DJs are those that have a unique style and perform their music instead of just playing it. Think about current popular DJs like Avicci, Tiesto, David Guetta and so on – they don’t just play tunes like a robot. They’re actively engaged in the music both physically and emotionally.
That brings this 4-step guide on how to become a DJ to a close. It’s important to note that becoming a DJ is not something that happens overnight. It takes hard work, diligence, and time. What’s more, a DJ’s hustle never ends. In order to be successful, you’ll have to evolve in order to meet the needs and wants of your audience over time.
If you’re willing to put in the hours, learn how to skip the ropes, build your skills, and expand your network/following, DJ work can be quite rewarding. It also has many interesting prospects. For instance, you could start to produce music as a turntablist and rake in some serious cash performing for audiences or selling your own stuff. Alternatively, there’s also the option of working with artists behind the scenes when you create backing instruments for music tracks.