Updated March 24, 2020
How To Become a DJ: A Beginner’s Guide
TABLE OF CONTENTS
When you’re learning to DJ, you’re actually learning to match your own musical expressions with the desires of an audience. It isn’t just matching beats, or scratching over songs. It’s about being observant, empathic, and reactive.
Contrary to popular belief, learning to DJ is not an easy route to overnight success. This takes work, and hustle, and time. It’s not difficult to start. But it is difficult to stand out, and to be exceptional.
Looking for online DJ courses? Check out Digital DJ Tips, and specifically, The Complete DJ Course.
Step 1: Learning What DJs Do
There are many different kinds of DJs, and many different reasons for those DJs to exist. Let’s start with getting serious about YOU: What kind of DJ are you interested in becoming?
The Club DJ
Each club has a different feel, reputation, and audience… which also means that clubs vary in what they expect from their musical selection. Typically, the job of the resident DJ at a night club is to maintain a moving dance floor. Often, club DJs will perform long blends (transitions) between songs, or some other trickery to keep people’s feet moving.
This DJ must know how to ramp the energy up and down, and maintain a balance between an active dance floor, and a busy bar.
The Performer (Turntablist)
People go to see this DJ because of who they are, their reputation, and what people think they can do behind the decks. Their mixes are displays of raw skill, impressive tricks, and clever transitions.
The “exhibitionist” DJs fit here, such as turntablists (e.g. those who focus on cutting and scratching), “controllerists”, and other types of live performers.
The Mobile DJ
These are the ones who perform at your wedding, set the tone for your corporate event, or provide a memorable prom party.
Often the entrepreneurial type, mobile DJs have a lot of things to keep track of. In some cases, they are solely responsible for the setup and teardown of equipment, planning the show, managing the crowd, and making any announcements.
This kind of DJ often needs to be comfortable with taking requests (and sometimes even entire playlists), speaking into a microphone, and investing in sound equipment.
The Radio DJ
The concept of the DJ owes it’s origins to radio.
The radio DJ’s job varies greatly, from the person who announces the weather between songs, to full-on music curation.
While many corporate radio DJs have lost control over the music, the art lives on in podcast format.
What About Producers?
People often confuse DJing with music production. DJing is playing pre-recorded music to an audience; producing is the original creation or recording of music.
In other words, someone produces a techno song, and then a techno DJ plays that song at a festival. Sometimes that is the same person.
It can get confusing, since many performances are hybrids of the two.
All in all, it’s important to realize that there are many different types of performers. Some are strictly DJs, some play a “live PA” (complete with hardware synthesizers or drum machines), and many land somewhere in-between. It’s a spectrum.
What excites you about becoming a DJ? Is it the idea of directing a dance floor in a big dirty warehouse? Playing big tracks at summer festivals? Starting a wedding DJ business? Building an audience for an online radio show?
Step 2: Determining Your Goals
Do you have stars in your eyes? Want to start a business? Starting your own podcast? Are you just doing this for fun?
There are a lot of reasons that you may wish to learn how to become a DJ. The most important thing is to be completely honest about what those reasons are.
And since we’re being completely honest… don’t count on success, if your sole purpose is to get rich and famous.
That’s not to say that you cannot make money, nor does it mean that you shouldn’t shoot for the stars.
Many people become DJs, but very few become superstars. You have to hustle, you have to love it, and you have to work on it even when it sucks.
Standing out takes a lot of hard work, and a bit of luck.
Many people want to DJ because they love music and the idea of sharing it with a receptive audience. Many will attempt to use it as a tool to get laid. Some want it as a source of income.
Whatever the reason is, identify it so that you can act accordingly.
It’s not always sunshine and rainbows; there are some important considerations when deciding to actively pursue DJing as a “career”.
Step 3: Exploring DJ Software
It’s time to get your feet wet with some software, and get an idea of what DJing is like!
There are 3 main industry DJ platforms:
- Rekordbox: Pioneer’s free music management software allows you to prep your library and export to USB, or play directly from laptop using Rekordbox DJ. Requires compatible hardware.
- Serato DJ Pro: Not only is it some of the most popular DJ software ever, but Serato’s new Practice Mode allows you to DJ for free with no hardware connected.
- Traktor Pro: This Native Instruments software supports loads of great performance features for EDM and hiphop DJs. It costs $99, but a free demo is available.
Many other great options exist. Virtual DJ, for example, claims to be the most downloaded DJ software on Earth. And it’s easy to see why: it supports the latest DJ technologies, it’s backed by a huge community, and it’s entirely free for home use.
Virtual DJ is also plug-and-play compatible with most DJ controllers, comes with a boatload of effects, and even supports video mixing and karaoke.
Other great options include djay Pro, Mixxx, and Mixvibes CrossDJ.
Of course, choosing a DJ platform is a matter of preference. But with some demoing (and a little YouTube research), you should be able to find the software that works for you.
Learn more about each in these courses:
- Serato Made Easy
- Traktor Made Easy
- Rekordbox Made Easy
- Virtual DJ Made Easy
Step 4: Learning Basic DJ Skills
There are a number of basic skills to consider when learning how to become a DJ: mixing, EQing, phrasing, beatmatching, and prep. We’re going to cover them briefly.
The purpose of beatmatching is to get two tracks playing at the same tempo (the speed at which the song is playing) and phase (the beats from both tracks playing in-time with each other).
Think about it like two cars driving next to each other on the highway.
- Tempo is speed, such as 60 MPH.
- Phase is having the two cars directly next to each other.
Beatmatching is accomplished using a pitch fader to adjust tempo. You use a jog wheel, pitch-bend button, or the physical manipulation of a record to adjust phase.
Arguably, technology has made this skill obsolete. All the major DJ software and hardware packages, have built-in sync functionality. You’ll quickly find this to be a point of contention in the DJ community
So is it even necessary to learn how to beatmatch, when there is such a thing as a sync button?
Perhaps not. But it’s a great idea anyway.
Firstly, it gives you the ability to beat-mix on anything. Turntables, for example, require you to do this manually.
More importantly, it helps to develop and tune your ears so that you know what to listen for. The practice of manual beatmatching results in a much more trained ear, and a more confident DJ.
You can always come back to this later, but I think learning to beatmatch early is a great idea.
Phrasing, with an “r”, will make sense to anyone who has ever played a musical instrument.
It simply means to mix your tracks together at points in the songs which make sense.
Almost all music that you will be DJing is in 4/4 time, whether you play electronic dance music, hip-hop, funk, or top 40. Ttechnically, this means is that there are four beats in a measure (bar), and that the quarter note gets one beat.
The takeaway is that you need to learn how to count to four, as most “DJ-able” music is 4/4.
Any DJ rig contains a few different levels of “volume” adjustment.
Firstly, each channel has a gain knob which allows you to adjust the level by watching your meters. Then, each channel has a line fader.
(The line fader adjusts how much signal you’re sending to your main output, which also has its own overall volume control.)
Then, of course, there’s the crossfader which allows you to fade between one channel and another.
Some DJ software features auto-gain functionality. This helps minimize the amount of volume adjustment between tracks.
In addition, DJ software has its own gain structure. This can make things quite confusing. Read your manuals to verify your levels are being set correctly.
As a general rule: stay out of the red. If you need more volume, boost it on the amp or speaker side.
Equalizing (EQing) is the act of boosting or cutting frequencies so that multiple audio tracks blend nicely.
The majority of your audio “space” gets consumed by lower frequencies (bass), especially in dance music. Normally, you won’t want to mix two loud kick drums over one another, since they are too loud to combine.
A typical DJ mixer includes a three-band EQ (low, mid, and high…. or bass, midrange, and treble). Some mixers have four bands: low, low-mid, mid-high, and high.
When used properly, the EQ is both a useful tool, and a means of creative expression.
Equalization will not fix a bad mix, nor will it work miracles. But we can use it to “smooth together” multiple audio signals, and make our mixes come out with a bit more polish.
Step 5: Breaking Out of the Box
While it’s possible to begin DJing using only your laptop, you’re eventually going to want more control over what you’re doing. It’s time to look into some hardware!
There are several types of DJ setups to consider:
DJ Controller Setup (Recommended)
Without a doubt, this is the most cost effective way to mix with hardware. A DJ controller gives you tactile control over DJ software, allowing you to mix music on a device that’s specifically designed for the task.
A modern all-in-one DJ controller contains everything you need to mix and record music (except for a laptop), and options are available anywhere from $100 to over $3000.
You can also piece together a setup from any number of smaller modular DJ controllers. This option is preferred by DJs who have very specific needs, or generally enjoy gadgets. Modular setups are the most flexible, but they can also be the most complex.
The controller market continues to grow, and DJs may choose among the options which fit their budget, workflow, and preferred software. This is wonderful news, but it can make for a tough decision!
- The Controller Compendium (compare the best DJ controllers)
- Baller on a Budget (four DJ setup ideas on a small budget)
As the so-called industry standard, CDJs can be found in nightclubs, festivals, and arenas all across the world.
Originally designed to play music from compact discs, modern CDJs (and XDJs) play digital music stored on USB drives. The players are plugged into a hardware DJ mixer.
Pioneer CDJs (combined with their DJM mixers) provide a shared platform for DJs. Many venues already have them, and they are the expected standard for any large show. Great alternatives also exist, such as the impressive SC5000 by Denon DJ.
CDJs tend to be more expensive than their controller counterparts, but they do offer a level of separation from the laptop, which some people appreciate.
- The Pioneer CDJ Guidebook (compare and learn about CDJs)
Records are harder to mix than any of the other listed options. Vinyl is also the most expensive format to buy music on. So why would anyone want to go this route?
Three reasons: it’s rewarding, it’s sexy, and people love it.
For a lot of people, mixing records is simply fun. Many DJs love that tactile feel of moving the physical record, and many people love watching a “real” DJ playing “real” records. It’s also still the best route for the pure scratch DJ.
This isn’t the route for everyone, but for many, it’s the only way.
Timecode and HID Setups
I love the feel of mixing records. However, I love all the functionality that I gain from software… such as perfect loops, four deck mixing, and recording. And I love being able to have my entire digital music collection with me, wherever I go.
Many people feel that using a timecode (DVS) setup can give you the best of all worlds.
According to Wikipedia: Vinyl emulation software allows the user to physically manipulate the playback of digital audio files on a computer using the turntables as an interface, thus preserving the hands-on control and feel of DJing with vinyl. The technology is also referred to as DVS, for either Digital Vinyl System or Digital Vinyl Software.”
You use a special vinyl record, which contains an audio signal that your software picks up and uses to manipulate digital files (like mp3s). You can then use modular controllers to add whatever functionality you feel is missing from the traditional “decks-and-mixer” setup.
DVS setup are sometimes a compromise for traditional vinyl DJs who don’t want to change their workflow, but want to take advantage of modern features.
Many modern players (like CDJs) support HID connectivity, which allows you to accomplish the same thing, without the use of special timecode records or CDs. Basically, this allows you to use your CDJs “as controllers” in your favorite software.
Step 6: Recording a Mix
Once you gain a bit of confidence in your mixing, it’s time to record yourself and analyze it. Let’s use the knowledge you’ve gained thus far, and see what you sound like!
How To Record Your DJ Set
Laptop DJs generally have it easy, here. Most DJ software is capable of recording your set with the click of a button.
Another option is to use an external handheld recorder such as the Zoom ZH1. Then, you could connect from your mixer or controller’s Record Out ports to the recorder, using a cheap RCA adapter cable like this:
A decent portable recorder will cost between $70 and $200. However, with a compatible Pioneer mixer, you can use the DJM-REC app to easily record mixes using your iPad or iPhone.
First Mix: Recording Tips
Recording a bedroom mix is, obviously, a little bit different than playing in front of an audience. Some of the skills which are important in a live setting, such as reading a crowd, do not apply when recording a personal mix.
However, you can use this opportunity to think about telling a story with your set. This doesn’t mean it has to be an all-out concept mix. Just think about how you want to start, where you want to be when you finish, and how you want to get there.
Perhaps you can imagine that you are in front of a crowd, and play that scenario out in your head.
This is where we teach ourselves not to be mediocre. Novice DJs tend to hammer out their “banger” tracks, one after another, for an hour or two. There’s no sense of ebb and flow; no sense of direction. Most people find this boring and tiresome.
Of course, you are the DJ and you have the creative license to play however you wish! But, I suggest learning how to think of a DJ set in the context of the whole instead of its individual parts… this is what separates decent DJs from great ones.
I like to approach a recorded mix like a great artist album. It’s not entirely flat, but it’s entirely cohesive.
This is the point where you can experiment, try different things, and see what works. Try recording a mix, putting it away for a few days or a week, and then coming back to listen to it.
Believe me, it’s much easier to be objective when listening to your mix when you wait a while before listening to it!
If you’re like me, you’ll be pleasantly surprised that some of those mistakes don’t sound nearly as bad as you thought they did while recording it!
- Recording Mixes (And Why We Don’t): The Passionate DJ Podcast, Ep. 95
- Inspiration: The Passionate DJ Podcast, Ep. 125
Step 7: Building a Following
It’s time to construct your support base, build an online presence, and show your worth.
If you only want to DJ for personal enjoyment, and don’t care about growing an audience, you can skip this section. Otherwise… read on!
Publishing and Sharing Mixes
When you’ve recorded a mix or two that you feel comfortable sharing, find a place to host those mixes for public release. MixCloud is a great place to start, and it’s free.
MixCloud not only gives you a safe place to host your recordings (without the fear of automated copyright takedown… a danger on YouTube & SoundCloud), but they provide embeddable players, their player will display the track names in your mix as they play, and other MixCloud users can follow you.
Another popular option is HearThis.at
When you upload to these or any other music, make sure that you’re taking advantage of all their features. Fill everything out, put effort into your description, add relevant tags, and add some pretty album art.
Tip: You can easily make artwork for your mix (for free!) using a great graphics tool called Canva. If you’d rather have someone else do it, do so for as little as $5 by simply posting the job on Fiverr.
Try to get some honest feedback on one of your mixes from a trusted friend. Contact them directly, either in-person or with a well-considered message. Tell them that you value their thoughts, and that you’re trying to become a better DJ.
Creating an Online Presence
Like anything we want to promote these days, building a solid online presence is critical to success. We’re our own little promo companies. And after all, we need to show people what we’re doing!
However, it’s important not to overwhelm, ourselves and distract from the actual DJing. Pick one or two social networks to focus on at first… for instance, Facebook and Instagram. (This doesn’t include Mixcloud, etc.) Make sure that you fill out your profiles entirely, and link to your mixes.
I recommend eventually getting your own home page and domain… a place to promote your personal brand that is under your full control.
Promoting Yourself on Social Media
Here are some basic tips for promoting your work as a DJ online:
- Keep content flowing. If you aren’t putting any work out, nobody has a chance to notice you. And unfortunately, most of our work will go unnoticed… it’s just the way of things!
- Don’t stay silent. You also have to be consistent with posting, tweeting, and sharing (as well as interacting with followers), or that social network’s algorithm isn’t gonna treat you well.
- Mix it up. Post different kinds of content: your own work, music that you like, artwork that inspires you, stories that move you. Anything that helps tell the story of you. Also, mix up the “types” of posts you make… for example, Facebook text post vs. image post vs. Live video.
- Don’t spam your mixes. You have to share them, sure. But not 50 times a day. Not only is this annoying, but your reach will get squashed by doing this.
- Give value to others. It’s hard to get people to look at you, to notice your work, or listen to your mix. So, try providing the same courtesy to someone else… maybe they will return the favor?
Step 8: Hustle
This is probably the most crucial step in the whole process. Make yourself valuable to your scene or demographic.
If you’re trying to break in to a particular scene, you need to make yourself valuable to that scene before you expect to start playing shows.
There’s no one specific way to approach this. Suffice it to say, if nobody knows who you are, you’re not going to get many gigs.
Early in my journey as a small town DJ, I was attempting to break into a desolate scene. Absolutely nothing was going on… crickets!
My approach was to go to a struggling night club and offer to promote my own event series.
I ran a monthly Thursday night for about a year. It wasn’t a raging success. But, it got me used to club DJing, hooking up to a real PA, and small-scale promotion.
In the bar/club world, it’s largely about who you know. That’s just the way that things often work. Befriend some like-minded people in the scene, and make yourself valuable to them.
Find those people out there who think like you, for there’s power in that synergy. It’s amazing what can happen in the name of common interest.
If you do it right, you’ll end up with some great new friends. Start supporting their shows and gigs. Above all, think about how you can make yourself useful to them and your potential audience.
What are you doing that is valuable for your scene of interest? When it comes to the club scene, collaboration is almost always preferable to competition.
The DJ hustle never really ends. Staying humble and having a value-based approach, will keep you fresh and positive!
Step 9: Getting Your First DJ Gigs
Now is the time to put you in front of some actual people. That’s what it’s all about!
If house parties are your thing, that can be a great way to get some immediate experience under your belt. Book a few local DJs to play, and “warm up” for them. Set them up, just as if you were opening for a headliner.
If you’re getting into mobile DJing, try to think outside the box. One of my favorite places to play happens to be a consignment shop. Weird, right?
Many cities have regular nights for booking local DJs. These normally aren’t paying gigs… but they can be valuable experiences.
In the club scene, throwing your own night is another great way to get some gigs, gain experience, and become known.
Start shaking hands or handing out business cards to promoters, DJs, and friends at their events. Show them that you were willing to support them… people will notice.
- Recommended Listening: Gig Preparedness (The Passionate DJ Podcast, Ep. 61)
More Tips For Getting DJ Gigs
- Club DJs: make an effort to get to know the prime movers in your scene. How can you be a resource to them?
- Don’t just sell yourself as a DJ… sell yourself as a brand! (See step 7).
- You’re probably going to play your share of empty rooms. Don’t panic!
- Don’t forget to ask. Gigs don’t fall in your lap! You’ve gotta go get them.
Step 10: Honing Your Craft
So you learned some skills, curated a music library, and scored some gigs. Congratulations, you’re a DJ!
So now you can simply kick back and let the gigs flow in, right? Wrong!
If you want to be a truly great DJ, you’ll never stop putting in work, so that you can become an expert at your craft. Unfortunately, many DJs get stuck in the comfort zone once they’re “good enough”.
There’s a lot more to DJing than just transitions. You must learn to read the crowd: a skill which allows you to both predict and react to an audience, in order to find common musical ground.
Know your event. When I play a fashion show, I know to play music that is upbeat and bouncy without too many vocals. I know that when I play an underground event at a warehouse somewhere, my crowd is going to be bored to tears if I play 95bpm trip-hop. Big wobbly dubstep tracks don’t typically belong at a coffee shop at 8 PM.
You must realize that context is everything in the world of DJing. The same song will have a much, much different effect depending on your time slot, venue, demographic, crowd size, and more.
You must focus on music curation. Get better at finding music which reflects your unique tastes, yet works with your audience.
You must learn to play the right gigs. Decide whether or not a potential booking is actually a good fit for your style, and your brand.
There are a number of advanced skills, available to be explored. For example, mixing harmonically can add a new dimension to your sets. Turntablists/scratch DJs can never have enough practice. Maybe you’re interested in adding “live” elements to your set, using drum machines, samplers, remix decks, live musicians… the list is endless.
While you should learn how to choose appropriate gigs… you should also be versatile. Building a brand is one thing, but be careful not to pigeonhole yourself!
Looking for online DJ courses? Visit Digital DJ Tips Courses and gain access to a library of lessons, covering everything from equipment setup, to basic DJ techniques, to music production, and more.
Learning how to become a DJ is easy… but making a living DJing is hard. I’m not saying it can’t be done… it can! But it’s important to realize that you need to put in the work, and it doesn’t happen overnight.
Do what makes you happy.
Don’t ever move past step 10 on this list. Always be improving as a human and as a DJ. Don’t stagnate!
Learn the value of subtlety. This will help you with your crowd reading and will help you turn your sets into a journey instead of a cyclone.
It doesn’t matter that anyone can DJ these days. What matters is that you do it better.
There’s a lot to consider when deciding how to become a DJ. It can be intimidating to take all of this in. But, we’re here to help.
At the Passionate DJ Podcast, we strive to become the best DJs we can be. We hope that you will join us as a listener. Because together, we’re becoming better DJs through passion and purpose.