How do I become a DJ? How can I get started on being a DJ? What do I need? Where should I go? These are some frequent questions we hear from our readers. So you want to be a DJ? You want to make the crowd move to your every whim. You want to be center stage and have all eyes on you. You want to be an artist, but don’t know where to start. We won’t go too much into the details, mostly because this is a very personal journey, but we can help you get started and give you a few terms you should know and skills you’ll need to learn.
Before we begin, let’s make one thing clear. This isn’t just a new adventure you’re embarking on, it’s a lifestyle change. It doesn’t matter why you want to be a DJ. Everyone has their own reasoning. It’s a commitment to music that few people can understand, let alone match. Becoming a DJ is not for the faint of heart or introverted. It’s putting your soul out there for the world and saying “this is who I am!”, taking the slings and arrows of haters and fakers who think you’re trash or think they can do it better than you. You will have to deal with some of the worst kinds of people who don’t see you as an artist, but as a tool to make them money. If you can take all of that and still be yourself, you will find a career that is gratifying, challenging, exciting and most of all fun.
Getting started on becoming a DJ
First things first, what does a DJ actually do? Basically you’re the one who plays the music at any venue. That’s as simple as it gets, but there’s so much more. There’s the turntable master, the club DJ, the radio DJ and the mobile DJ. You can specialize in one, but a good DJ needs to be able to work a number of these disciplines. If you decide that you just want to be a club DJ, that’s fine. Just remember, this is your career. A basketball player that can shoot, but not be able to play defense, rebound, pass or dribble, is not going to make it onto any team. Becoming a DJ is no different. If you can mix different types of music, and you can change your style on the fly, you will open up as many opportunities available to you as possible. You will also need to be proficient with mixing and production software. This will be probably the most challenging part. Get intimate with the software. Learn what tools the software has to offer, and how they work — it will help you get accustomed to breaking down the music.
You don’t have to use software if you want to go “old school”. Scratching the old vinyls to their inevitable destruction is a highly respected form of the art, a lot of fun and the most difficult to master. It takes a bit of talent and a ton of skill to become a pure scratch DJ, but everyone loves a good one. Software is available to help speed up your workflow as a digital DJ, but your cool factor may not go quite as high. Being a scratch DJ is also very expensive in both time and money, driving around the city trying to find the few vinyl stores left is time-consuming, but worth it. However, spending $5 to $50 for a single record that only cost $8 on the day it originally dropped will really put a dent in the budget when you must have a hundred of them.
How to find DJ software
You can use a DJ laptop or desktop to control your equipment. Obviously, the desktop is for your home studio and the laptop will make you mobile. Mixing software is the digital side of being a DJ. It will allow you to see the songs in a visual presentation, break them down, put two songs together, and mix and match as you like. You can use a library or playlist stored on your computer to add to the mixing so you can seamlessly match beats, EQ, control the gain and Phase. Most software comes with a hefty instruction manual, be sure to read it and become familiar with the controls. You may have to experiment with some of these controls to find out what they can do and how they do it, but it will be worth it in the end.
The way the software works is basic in description, but in practice can get a bit confusing. The equalizer is really just a volume control for different sound frequencies, gain control works by adjusting the level of each channel, and the crossfader is just what it sounds like. It fades from one channel to another. Beat matching allows you to adjust two different songs to play at the same tempo and “phase” them together. All in all, we recommend just going for a particular program (read our best DJ software guide for our picks), in particular the trial version to see how it is. It will take some time to learn and definitely won’t be easy, but once you’re able to master or at least learn some ins and outs of software, you’re already ahead.
Buying the right DJ equipment
You can go high-end if you like, but the equipment costs can very quickly add up. To begin, all you really need is two turntables or CD players, software (if you want to go digital), speakers, headphones, and a two channel mixer/controller. That is the bare bones system you will need just to get started. Becoming a DJ is expensive, you will want to start off frugal when it comes to some items, that way you can hone your skills and develop your style without breaking the bank. Broken needles and mixer knobs will be a constant, and needles aren’t exactly cheap but the turntables should be bought new. Records will also make the list if you plan do go analog. If you decide to go digital, you still need turntables and a mixer, but you will also need the software and computer to go with it. The DJ turntables can be Vinyl or CD, but if you decide to go digital then consider going with a fully digital setup — this is the easiest way to go. The software can be cheap or expensive, so in the beginning, you should probably save your budget and get a trial to start.
Speakers are not going to be a big problem early on, so it’s okay to get cheap ones when you’re just learning your skills. They will be the frame the people view your art through, so eventually you will want to get a good pair. Your DJ headphones should be the over-ear style. It’s best to get used to this style early because when you work a gig, the noise of the crowd, the music and people trying to talk to you while you work will all be competing for your attention. You want to be able to block out that noise and concentrate on your mixing. After all, this will be your job. The controller is going to be your best friend and should also be bought new if possible. Our beginners DJ equipment guide may be of use here, as it goes into a lot more depth for equipment specifically for starting DJ’s.
How to learn to work your DJ equipment
The myriad of switches, buttons, sliders and dials can be a bit intimidating at first but once you get an understanding of what they give you, they will become like your paint brushes. Getting started with DJ’ing is all about refining your skills and in order to do that, you have to be comfortable with the controls. Let’s start with the controller. An all-in-one DJ controller (read that guide for some good beginner picks) is probably one of the easiest on the budget, although they can range from about $100 to above $3500. A DJ controller and a vinyl deck are pretty much the same as far as how they function, the difference being that the vinyl deck actually uses records. You don’t need a $3500 controller off the bat, or ever probably. With a few hundred dollars you can get everything you need to get started mixing and recording songs. Nowadays, newer controllers come with a LAN connection that will let you connect to multiple devices at once, which combines with software to allow you to access loops you’ve created, share music between the devices and sync them up. Slip mode lets you loop or scratch audio over another song and the jog dial (or wheel) will let you scratch and scrub the music.
Now on to the mixer, a DJ mixer is like an air traffic controller. It’s responsible for taking in all of the inputs and directing the sound through the equalizer. You also don’t need a computer to run a CDJ mixer, which will come in handy if you decide to be a booth DJ. The downside is that they are expensive though, about $1000. It controls the volume and sound frequency levels for each device and passes that sound out to the speakers. All mixers have at least two channels, but a club mixer has several. Each channel has a frequency control and fader that are all ultimately controlled by a master output that controls everything. The headphones are the way you sync and prepare the next track before you shower the crowd in greatness. Since only you can hear this output, it will give you some time to troubleshoot, find your next recording and make sure everything is ready to go.
Advice on how to be a DJ
Becoming a DJ is really all about connections, connections to other DJ’s, the promoters, the crowd and even yourself. Go out and watch other DJ’s work. Most don’t mind and some will even answer questions if they know you’re serious about the lifestyle. Watch how they use the equipment, change the pace and interact with the crowd. Watch their technique, every DJ has different controls and different ways they manipulate them. Study them and go home and practice those techniques. Don’t pull out your phone and try to film them though. It’s a business, and having someone film you at work then put that film up on their website so they can make money is a serious issue. Always ask first, and don’t be upset or challenge them if they say no (remember, it’s all about connections). Frequent the clubs that play the music you love first.
As your skills grow over time you can visit other clubs that play other music you like so you can diversify your options and make yourself more employable. Mingle with the crowd and get a feel for the atmosphere, pace of the music and songs they like. Promoters are a mixed bag. Most are professional, but beware because there are some shady ones out there too. Becoming a DJ means that you wear a lot of hats. Manager, promoter, technical advisor, social media manager, logistics manager and artist are just some of the jobs you will have. Being prepared when you meet a promoter is very important. It’s a job interview, and you want to put your best foot forward. Work on your sales pitch and have it memorized because just like any job interview, you don’t want to wing it. Be confident and prepared to over deliver. The crowd is your canvas, your oxygen. It’s the reason you are there. Know your audience before your first recording is synced up. Remember, it’s all about connections. Bring your friends with you. They are already in your corner and they will be your support. Be in the life, show your face at the club. Promoters want to know that you are into their club and you appreciate their audience. They are looking for DJ’s that support them and what they’re trying to do.
Concluding tips for starting to be a DJ
Becoming a DJ is a difficult journey. It will be filled with disappointing rejection and elating opportunities. We say opportunity because in the end, that’s really all you need. Getting lucky is also part of that. With so many DJ’s competing for just a few gigs, it’s an uphill climb. Embrace that, embrace the challenge. If it was easy, everyone would do it. Create a presence on social media and develop a following. Interact with them and let them get to know your personality and style. It’s a great place to start. Share your mixes on Facebook, Instagram, snapchat and even YouTube. Let your friends share and help create a buzz for you. If you work hard and develop your skills, you will allow your talent to really shine. Be genuine. You don’t want to have to keep up a facade for your entire career. People can usually spot a faker when they see one. Being yourself is the easiest way to live, and people gravitate towards the real.