Hey Mr DJ!
Getting into DJing
How to mix records, what gear to buy, and how to get work
Top DJs can be bigger stars than the artists themselves, and unquestionably more influential. Their unique mixing techniques and chemistry of sounds spawn thousands of imitators, as well as new directions in dance music. DJ Rob Green looks at this competitive world, and offers some practical advice on how to get established on the scene...
In the words of the song - everybody wants to be a DJ. Inspired by the likes of Sasha, Carl Cox, Norman Jay or Dave Morales, people all over the country are buying decks and mixers, and relentlessly pounding dance tracks through little stereo systems. DJ and dance music culture is no longer an underground phenomenon - in fact it seems to have achieved an unstoppable momentum.
So, there are a lot of beginner DJ's around. But are they any good, and indeed, do they have to be? Having visited many dance clubs around London, Birmingham and the north, I have seen all types. There seem to be very defined groups and levels that DJs fit into these days.
On the top shelf, you have the stars, like Sasha, Gilles Peterson, Dave Morales and so on. Then you have people like John Digweed and Justin Robertson, who are big names on the circuit, but not quite legendary status. Next in line are the residents - the people who keep the clubs going every week and warm up for the big guests. Then there are the people who play at parties, lesser-known clubs and pubs to earn a crust. And then there's the beginner, the rank outsider who isn't quite sure how to get a break.
On the DJ scene there are many pitfalls and obstacles to overcome. Many people start out DJing, plug it for a year or two, realise they're not going anywhere and give up. There are too many people who think DJing is easy and that anyone can do it. Sure, anyone can put a record on and get a sound out of it, and that's fine if you want to be the beer-bellied, loudmouthed prat with a mic, in a town nightclub. But the bottom line is - if you want to be a dance DJ, but can't be bothered to learn to mix and segue, then your records aren't worth the vinyl they were pressed on.
Dance music has created techniques which have taken DJing to a new dimension in creativity. By mixing your records together in a tight, seamless way, in a sense you're making one long song. That song will be very much different from DJ to DJ, even if they have the same records. This is where the creativity and the art comes into it, and this is why Dance DJs are becoming more like musicians. In fact, many dance DJs are now involved in writing music in some way, which as far as I'm concerned is very healthy and keeps the scene fresh.
I'll give a brief run-down of how to get started. We'll cover buying good value entry level equipment, basic DJ techniques (most of it you learn yourself), going out and getting work, and expanding and taking it further.
When setting yourself up, if you're on a tight budget, it's best to go for simple, cheap equipment. However, this does not have to mean poor quality. The key is to buy gear with the bare amount of functions that you need to get mixing. I would obviously advise that if you can, buy second-hand. You can get some excellent deals on used record decks if you look carefully. If you're really lucky, you might pick up a second-hand pair of Technics 1210s for as little as £300 to £350.
If even that is too much of an investment for you, then there's no harm in going for cheaper belt-drive models. When I started out five years ago, I went to a disco equipment dealer and managed to pick up a pair of Technics SLB2s for only £150. These were the belt-drive predecessors of the 1200s, with a roll pitch instead of a slider. I found them just as easy to use as the industry standard 1210s, although the technique is slightly different. It is often good to start off with decks that make you try harder, as if you can play well on them, you can play well on anything. It's just common sense.
As far as value mixers go, you want something sturdy, small and probably with limited facilities. Do not be taken in by 'cheap' deals on mixers with sound effects such as echo and so on. They're usually crap, and will probably only last you one season. I made this mistake myself when shopping for my first mixer. I went to a certain high street audio shop (that will remain nameless), and purchased one of their own range of DJ mixers. It was only £100, with sound effects on it and five mixing channels. I thought it was a great deal, until the cross-fader failed after less than 10 months. And the 'sound effects' were appalling!
The things that are essential are two mixing channels, a monitor channel with volume level, a peak level indicator and a crossfader. As a good quality entry-level mixer, I would recommend the Kam Made 2 Fade GM25. Reviewed in the July edition of The Mix, the Kam has the bare essentials to get you up and running. Not only that, but it's actually a damn good mixer. Kam's range runs from this £100 model right up to professional sampling desks with sophisticated EQ.
"There are probably only about twelve people in the country who could be considered to be of top professional standard"
Starting to mix can be a tough and daunting process. Once the initial flurry of excitement has worn off, you now actually have to start practising. The best way to begin is by mixing beats. Try and find two records that have intros with simple kick drum 4/4 beats (if possible). Obviously, you should also make sure that they are of similar BPM.
Try just playing one record and listening to the beat. The time where you should be mixing the other record in is usually after every 4th bar. As dance music is very structured to a rhythmic formula, this should make the beats sound good together and 'gel' into one sound.
It's all about training your ear to catch onto the beat. Once you recognise where you should be mixing, it should all (I hope) become more clear to you. Mixing is a very personal thing. The only thing you can learn is pointers. After that it's really up to you. I remember struggling when I first had my decks. I was listening to Sasha tapes and trying to get inside his head, to understand how he did it. Before I knew it, it all became clear, and soon (in the words of Pete Tong), I was mixing up a storm!
Once you've worked out where on the record you should be mixing, just try and get the beats lined up. Start one record, cue the other record on the first beat, and hold it there as the turntable is spinning under the slipmat. Wait for the right moment (the beginning of the next four bars) and release the record. You should be carefully monitoring it all the time in your headphones. Hold one can to your ear, and listen to the original record through your system. Try and quickly ascertain the speed of the original record, in relation to the speed of the mixing record. While you're doing this, you can use your hand to speed the record up, or indeed, slow it down with a simple dragging action, and then use the pitch control to get the record nearer to the correct speed.
Everyone finds their own way of doing this - it's just a rule of thumb. Like the clutch control of a car, all of this happens in a very short space of time and is a very instinctive process.
Once you are confident that the record is in time, or near enough, just cue it as you did before, holding the record on its first beat. Release it again after the fourth bar, making sure it's still in time, and move the crossfader across. Before you know it, bingo! You're mixing. It's not as simple as it sounds and takes a lot of practice, but when you can do it, you'll wonder why you ever couldn't.
Of course, this is not the end of the story. To get really good takes years of practice and experience playing in clubs. Bringing the place to life, knowing exactly what record to play when - it all takes skill and time. Not many people will ever reach the standard of top DJs. At that sort of level, you've either got it or you haven't (like so many other things). After all, there are probably only about twelve people in the country who in my view could be considered to be of top professional standard.
Not everyone seems to agree with me on that point. For instance, there are some DJs playing quite upmarket clubs on the London circuit, who are warming up for the big DJs. I was shocked to find that some of them couldn't even mix. It would be fair enough if they were playing in a rock club or a funk club, but no. They're playing in some of London's better-known dance clubs. If you can do the job better, then there's no reason why you shouldn't be in there instead of them. Unfortunately, many London promoters don't seem to see it that way and appear quite cynical about the whole business.
Once you feel fairly technically confident, then it's time to test your skills out on the general public. I would say that you should practise for the best part of a year before you take it out of the bedroom, but this differs from person to person. If you audition in a club and sound really good, tongues will wag, and more work will come your way. I believe that if you fall short of the mark, then you shouldn't be there in the first place.
"Mixing is a very personal thing. The only thing you can learn is pointers"
On this issue I spoke to the promoters of the legendary Northern nights, Renaissance. I was told, "There are so many clubs opening up nowadays, that every Tom, Dick or Harry is a DJ. Someone has got to play in all those clubs, but all of them can't be good."
Renaissance put on top quality nights in Derby, featuring the best in DJing talent. The music builds up through the night and leaves you with the impression of a very professional job. The music is fresh, well chosen and well mixed. This puts many other club nights in London, for instance, to shame. Mark of Renaissance, however, still believes that talent will eventually shine through: "If you want it badly enough, you'll go out and get it."
Basically, don't be put off by the knock-backs. If you have real talent and application, you can make it. Maybe not tomorrow, but if you keep plugging yourself, someone should pick up on your talent sooner or later.
When starting off, it's often best to go for a bar or a small club. As long as you're working and gaining experience, that is the most important thing. Keep a file of flyers with your name on, as they can be useful in gaining future gigs. Make up lots of good quality tapes, spend a bit of time presenting them well, and send them off to as many clubs as possible. It's also a good idea to go clubbing a lot. If you are out there meeting people, you have a much better chance of getting a lucky break.
Often, it's just about being in the right place at the right time. Top DJ John Digweed managed to get a job at Renaissance by sending a tape into their office. Mark at Renaissance told me that they received 20 tapes a week! They do try to listen to all of them, but often find it difficult, because to get any idea of how good a DJ is, you have to hear at least 15 minutes' worth.
Manchester DJ and music man of Lionrock, Justin Robertson, has graduated from playing private parties to being paid £400 for one Saturday night gig. It may sound a lot, but Sasha is reputed to earn about four times that figure. There's not many people who can command that sort of wage in one evening.
An increasing popular route onto the scene these days is radio. DJs on London stations like Kiss FM, as well as the proliferating community stations around the country, are getting automatic publicity on a wide scale. Their names are getting onto the grapevine and they inevitably get a lot of club work. It's all about names. If people have heard of your name, they'll go and see you play. It's not unusual to see a flyer claim a link with a prestigious club, such as Joe Bloggs (Ministry of Sound). The connection is at best tenuous, but they seem to get away with it. People assume they're good. In truth, most punters don't seem to know the difference between a good DJ and a bad DJ.
Such is life. The path of a small-time DJ is a rocky one, but don't be put off. Just practise, do your own thing, don't sell out to commercial music and most of all, enjoy. Play what you like, and if it's good, at the end of the day, no-one can ignore you. Be original, be lucky!
Feature by Rob Green
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