Welcome to the wonderful world of mixing music! This article contains a 9-step process to assist in your journey of learning how to DJ. Since its original form in 2013, this guide has helped thousands of beginner DJs to get their start. But it's up to you to take real action!
When you're learning to DJ, you're 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.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Step 1: Learning What DJs Do
A DJ, or disc jockey, is a person who hosts recorded music for an audience. Simple!
But there are many different kinds of DJs, and many reasons for them to exist. Before we start your journey into DJing, let's take a quick dive into what they actually do:
Every club has a different feel, reputation, and audience… which means they vary in what's expected from their musical selection. Normally, the club DJ's job is maintaining a moving dance floor. Club DJs may perform long blends (called transitions) between songs, or some other trickery to keep people's feet moving.
When a DJ performs at a venue regularly or permanently, they're called a resident DJ. They must know how to ramp the energy up and down, maintaining the balance between an active dance floor and a busy bar.
“Club DJs” who have built a following may also perform at bars, music venues, festivals, etc.
These DJs perform at your wedding, set the tone for your corporate event, or provide a memorable prom party.
Often the entrepreneurial type, mobile DJs have lots to keep track of. They may be solely responsible for the setup and teardown of equipment, planning the show, managing the crowd, and making any announcements.
This kind of DJ may need to be comfortable taking requests (and sometimes even entire playlists), speaking into a microphone, and investing in sound equipment.
The entire concept of DJing 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.
Turntablists (and other “Performance” DJs)
People go to see this DJ because of their skill, reputation, and what they can do behind the decks. Their mixes are displays of raw dexterity, impressive tricks, and clever transitions.
These are exhibitionist DJs. In addition to turntablists (who focus on cutting and scratching), there are “controllerists” and other live performers who display mastery of the craft. And listening to them, without watching, is only half of the story. This DJ might be described as playing their gear “like a musical instrument”.
What About Producers?
People often confuse DJing with music production. While DJing is hosting pre-recorded music to an audience, producing is the original creation or recording of music. Put simply: someone produces a techno song, and then a techno DJ plays that song at a festival.
It may seem confusing, because many performances are hybrids of these two concepts. When the creator and performer of a song is the same person, you might refer to them as a DJ/Producer.
The point is 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 some land in-between. It's a spectrum.
Step 2: Determining Your Goals
Do you have stars in your eyes? Want to start a business? Host your own podcast? Are you just doing this for fun?
There are loads 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. Let's talk about some of them:
DJing For Income
For some people, DJing is a career. For others, a side-income… a way to earn “play money”. If you want to DJ as your job, here are some hurdles you may encounter:
- Oversaturation (more DJs than paying gigs or venues in your area)
- Undercharging (too little pay, resulting from not knowing your worth)
- Not providing enough value to be needed
- Finding a money-making strategy that works
As with any other art form, a repeatable income may require some strategy or creative approach. Getting paid to DJ may not be as direct as, “here's $150 for 90 minutes”.
Whether you earn money by being the best wedding DJ in your area (and charging a premium), by throwing shows and selling merch, or by earning tips in a weekly live stream… the key is finding out what angle works for you.
DJing “For The Love”
Confession! In step one, I skipped a major category: the Bedroom DJ.
For some people, DJing is purely hobby. They do it solely for the enjoyment of mixing music. It's personal music therapy. Perhaps they will take the occasional $50 birthday gig, or play an open decks night somewhere. But they're really in it for the love of mixing, curating, or listening to music.
DJing as a hobby can be very uplifting, since there are no bounds or restrictions other than to have fun! But beware of Rapid Gear Acquisition Syndrome: the tendency to buy new toys simply because they exist!
DJing For Fame or Recognition
One of the most common questions I've received over the years is: “how can I become a famous DJ?”
Here's the reality-check: many people become DJs, but few become superstars. You need to be insanely talented, lucky, or both. You have to hustle, you have to love it, and you have to work on it even when it sucks. Don't count on success, if your sole purpose is to get rich and famous.
That's not to say you can't make money, or build a following. The point to discard the thought that DJing is an easy way to be famous. It's not.
Some DJs love sharing music with a receptive audience. Some use it as a source of income. Others attempt to use it as a tool to get laid. Whatever the reason is, identify it so that you can act accordingly.
Step 3: Exploring DJ Software
It's time to see what DJing feels like! First, you'll need to get some DJ software. There are 3 main platforms in the DJ industry:
Rekordbox is Pioneer's music management platform for DJs. It can be used to import music, create playlists, set cue points, and do any other prep work. Export Mode allows you to copy that library to a USB drive, and play it on hardware such as a Pioneer CDJ.
With Performance Mode, your laptop acts as the DJ players. Mixing can be done “virtually” using keyboard and mouse, or with an approved “Hardware Unlock device” (like a Pioneer DJ controller).
Everything above can be done for free. They offer a subscription model for additonal features, like enabling Performance Mode on more hardware, DVS support, and cloud sync.
As the largest manufacturer of DJ hardware, Pioneer DJ is the “industry standard” for professional clubs and venues. This makes Pioneer's platform worth considering. If you'd like to bring only a USB stick to a gig, but use your laptop in other situations (like DJing at home), Rekordbox is the obvious choice.
Choose Rekordbox if you own Pioneer hardware, you want to learn “the standard”, or you plan on playing large venues.
Serato is among the smoothest and sturdiest pieces of DJ software available today. They don't make any hardware of their own; they work with other manufacturers (like Rane, Pioneer DJ, Reloop, Roland, etc.) to ensure smooth operation and tight integration with no setup.
Serato DJ Lite is free, reliable, and intuitive DJ software for mixing in two channels. Many budget DJ controllers ship with this software. Thanks to “Practice Mode”, you don't even need any hardware to start DJing. Should you decide to upgrade later, the transition can be made easily.
With Serato DJ Pro, you get access to the full professional DJ suite. This version costs $129 (and additional packs are available for adding cool features). However, it can be used for free when you buy approved “Pro hardware”. There's also a free trial available.
The great thing about Serato is that it's fully supported by over 90 pieces of hardware. No other software can claim the variety of integrated support that Serato has, which means you have a lot of options! Serato is also extremely popular and well supported by scratch DJs, due to its roots in turntablism.
Choose Serato if you want lots of hardware options, or you want to be a turntablist using Serato DVS.
Traktor, by Native Instruments, supports great performance features for DJs. But getting the most out of this software requires you to own official Native Instruments hardware, for which there are few options. It's popular in the world of techno (and among DJ/producers) due to its Remix Decks and Stems abilities.
Traktor Pro 3 costs $99 by itself (and will work without hardware), but any official Traktor controller will include the software. A free demo is also available.
The relationship between software and hardware is very tight and reliable, being a somewhat “closed system”. And while it sometimes lags behind the other companies when it comes to certain features, major updates tend to come along with innovative features (such as the force feedback function of a Kontrol S4 MK3). Traktor also has some of the best FX in the business.
Choose Traktor if you're an electronic DJ/producer, who wants to merge these two worlds.
Other Great DJ Software
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.
See Also: Rekordbox Made Easy, Serato Made Easy, Traktor Made Easy, and Virtual DJ Made Easy by Digital DJ Tips.
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 your player's pitch fader, to adjust the tempo of the song. You use a jog wheel, push a pitch bend button, or touch one of your playing records to adjust phase.
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 (e.g. turntables).
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 just 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. Technically, 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 mixer channel has a gain knob, allowing 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. And your main output has a volume control, too!)
Then, of course, there's the crossfader which allows you to fade between one channel and another in a left/right motion.
In addition, DJ software has its own gain structure. This can make things quite confusing. When in doubt, read the manual. Some DJ software features auto-gain functionality, which helps minimize the amount of manual adjustment between tracks.
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.
For example, the majority of your audio “space” gets eaten up by bass frequencies (especially in dance music). You may not wish to mix two powerful 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) which allows you to carve out the audio space for a buttery blend.
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: Getting DJ Hardware
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)
A DJ controller gives you hands-on control over your mixing software, for much easier manipulation of the music than a mouse and keyboard. Without a doubt, this is the most sensible way to get started. 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.
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!
Need help choosing a DJ controller? Check out The Controller Compendium:
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. CDJs tend to be more expensive than their controller counterparts, but they do offer a level of separation from the laptop.
- 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. But I also 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 setup can give you the best of all worlds.
Vinyl emulation software allows the user to physically manipulate the playback of digital audio files on a computer using the turntables as an interface, preserving the hands-on control and feel of DJing with vinyl. The technology is also referred to as DVS, for Digital Vinyl System.
You use a special vinyl record, which contains an audio signal that your software picks up and uses to manipulate digital files (like mp3s). 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 mode. This allows you to use your CDJs to control your software as if they were controllers… no special records or CDs required!
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
If you're DJing with a laptop and DJ controller, you've got it easy! Most DJ software is capable of recording your set by simply clicking a button. Alternatively, you could record directly from your Record Out ports into a computer's audio input, using free software such as Garageband or Audacity.
If you have a compatible Pioneer mixer, you can use the DJM-REC app to easily record mixes using your iPad or iPhone.
Another option is to use an external handheld recorder, such as the Tascam DR-05X. A decent portable recorder will cost between $70 and $200. Then, you could connect from your mixer or controller's Record Out ports to the recorder, using a cheap RCA adapter cable.
First Mix: Recording Tips
Recording a bedroom mix is 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, don't apply when recording a personal mix.
But you can use this opportunity to think about telling a story with your set. 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, 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.
A popular option for live streaming is Twitch. Follow Passionate DJ on Twitch to check out our live events!
When you upload or stream to any service, make sure that you're taking advantage of all their features. Fill everything out, put effort into your description, add relevant tags, and perhaps hire a friend to design pretty album art.
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, 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!
But it's important not to overwhelm ourselves, and distract from the actual DJing. Pick one or two main social networks to focus on at first… for instance, Facebook and Instagram. 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. 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, sharing, and interacting with followers. Otherwise, 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: Getting Your First DJ Gigs
Finally! Now is the time to put yourself in front of some actual people. That's what it's all about! 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 a resource 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 club world, it's largely about who you know. That's just the way things often work. Befriend some like-minded people in the community, 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.
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? Small fashion shows, grand openings, and street fairs are also great options.
Many cities have regular nights for booking local DJs. These normally aren't paying gigs, but they can be valuable experiences. Throwing your own night is another great way to 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.
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!
Bonus 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.
- Recommended Listening: Gig Preparedness (The Passionate DJ Podcast, Ep. 61)
Step 9: Honing Your Craft
So you learned some skills, curated a music library, and scored some gigs. Congratulations, you're a DJ!
But 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”.
How To “Level Up”
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!
Keys To Success
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 the final step 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, turning 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.
What To Do Now
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.
On the Passionate DJ Podcast, we're striving to become better DJs through passion and purpose. You can watch episodes on our YouTube channel, or listen on the go via your favorite Podcast app.
- If you're looking for DJ courses, check out Digital DJ Tips. If you sign up after visiting that link, not only will you get the best DJ courses available, you'll also support us here at Passionate DJ (at no additional cost to you)!
- Finally, if you are trying to decide what hardware to buy, we have the best DJ Controller Guide on the Internet!