H VIDAL’s 10 DJ tips and Techniques

As it pertains to the true art form of DJing, here’s a list of 10 DJ tips to raise your game to the next level. Figuring out the basics of DJing is one thing, but learning how to work a room with subtle changes in programming and sound is something else. While there are no real rules to DJing, what follows is a list of tips based on my years of professional experience.

Practice and Prepare

Practice makes for much better DJ sets than a free-form approach to the craft. Having only a vague idea of what you are going to play usually makes for a halfhearted DJ set. You’ll find that accomplished turntablists and groove-riders alike have all spent countless hours perfecting their sets. We don’t necessarily recommend pre-planning the entire set, either, but you should get to know your options before you show up to perform. Spend time to find tracks that mix well and make playlists of those tunes for future use. Make different kinds of playlists for different kinds of gigs. Finding tracks that work well together takes time and it rarely happens spontaneously at the gig.

Be Flexible
As a professional DJ you don’t necessarily have to take requests, you can stand by your own style and selection. However, playing more than one specific style of music is a great way to gain more opportunities for performance. There are many different types of clubs and events, and different types of crowds — try to find selections from your music collection that will work with these different groups.

Plan in Threes
This is a method of organizing music for DJ performance that I’ve found to work extremely well in my own experience. When planning a set I like to find three records that mix well together at a time. Optimally these three records can all be played together at once or they can transition into one another. Next I find another set of three. Then another. Eventually I have a stack of records that are organized by how they mix together, and I start to organize those sets of three into a flow of slow to fast / mellow to banging. I like to have 60 tracks selected for an hour of performance. I won’t play all 60 (I usually play around 20 tracks per hour) and I won’t always play those exact mixes (spontaneity is still important in a DJ set), but I have options that go in every direction and I know that I can find my way from one type of sound to another while staying deep in the mix the whole way. Knowing this allows me to be much more experimental on-the-fly and it always works better than if I don’t plan.

Identify Your Audience
Identify your audience before you perform. This doesn’t just mean to find out what they like and play it — you need to know the size of the room you’ll be playing in, the number of people who may be there, and the general musical vibe for the evening. Know your time slot and what frame of mind people will be in when you are playing. Part of being a DJ is sonic empathy: take time to know your audience and identify what sort of sounds they might connect with.

Play Appropriately for your Time Slot
This has been a hot topic on our social media channels lately, culminating in our recent Tips for Opening DJs article where A-list DJs all delivered a very similar sentiment — don’t try to blow up the dance floor at the wrong time. There is an arc of energy that events hope to achieve and promoters usually book DJs to fill these different time slots hoping that they will bring the proper energy for that time slot. Many beginner DJs are so eager to play “their sound” and impress their audience that they end up playing inappropriately for their time slot (usually an opening slot for up and coming DJs). The best thing you can do during an early slot is lay down an even-keeled, in-the-pocket vibe that doesn’t give up too much energy too early.

Programming is probably the most important aspect of a DJ’s set. A perfect technical mix with no soul is never as good as a less-technical mix with lots of vibe. The music is what moves your audience and the flow of music from one track to another can truly create a journey if you take the time to plan that journey. Many DJs lose sight of the journey when the excitement of crowd response is happening and they slip away from the journey and into musical instant gratification. A seasoned DJ will never go the route of instant gratification, it’s a short-term fix and a crowd will burn out quickly on this vibe.

Keep Your Levels Out of the Red
To achieve the best sound quality during a DJ performance or recorded mix, make sure you are getting a good strong signal both in and out of the mixer, but always take care not to push any of your levels into the red. This is a simple rule but one that most DJs are guilty of breaking from time to time. When the mix is hot and people are jumping, most DJs want to pump up the volume. But boosting the channel gain or master volume into the red will distort your signal, making the music sound degraded and killing the vibe. In addition to this, most venues have a master limiter at the final stage of the signal before it goes to the house system, so turning up your mixer past 0db will most likely not have an effect on your overall volume anyway, it will just make your music sound squashed. So always remember: watch your master volume throughout your set, and make sure to keep the meters from going into the red by turning down your levels and/or EQ controls.

Don’t Overdo the Effects
While the use of effects is an artistic choice, and in some cases the basis of a DJ’s sound, I’d recommend that you don’t OVER do it with effects. Many DJs use effects to help transitions from one record to another and to enhance their DJ performance. Neither of these things are bad — but they become a problem if you rely on them. Audiences have become familiar with Pioneer’s echo, Allen & Heath’s filter and Traktor’s stutter effects. Use your levels and EQ to create interest before turning to the effects, and then when you do drop that echo it will be something special instead of redundant or annoying.

Bring Backup
You never know what could go wrong at the club or event where you’ll be performing. For this reason it’s always a good idea to bring backup music in different formats. If you play vinyl, bring CDs. If you play CDs, bring records or a couple flash drives of MP3s. If you use a laptop, bring CDs and/or vinyl as backup. An iPod full of your latest tunes is another option for emergency situations where one of your sources dies mid-performance.

Push and Pull
The best DJs I’ve ever heard all taught me a similar method in how to approach programming a DJ set. Some call this “the push and pull” — giving the crowd just enough energy to dance and be excited, but never giving it all up until the right moment. DJs like Jazzy Jeff, Gary O, and DJ Ran have mastered this method, with sets that build up into banging music and then down into something deep for a moment, pushing and pulling the energy of the set to make the crowd more excited. It’s amazing how well this method works, in a single DJ set and also over the course of an event. I remember attending a DJ Convention in Barbados a few years back when DJ Touch Tone and Tony Neal were rocking a set, and I was totally blown away by the pacing these guys kept over the course of their set. From 10 PM until about 2 AM there was hardly any talking on the mic; even the lighting was stark black and white. But as things warmed up around 2, they slowly started to give the crowd what they wanted, which resulted in hands-in-the-air response until 6 that morning.

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