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DJ Gear and Basic Techniques for Musicians

June 30, 2014

Tommy Lee, the ultimate musician turned DJ, performs at the HolyShip!! music festival in Januar

Hey, Musicians: Forget this “DJs are the competition” concept. That’s like guitar players saying drummers are the competition. Sure, they play different instruments, but they’re aiming for the same goal—a crowd-pleasing performance. And if you hadn’t noticed, the DJ world is getting more and more into production/performance values. We’ll let the DJs decide whether they want to be called “DJs” or “producers,” but some are indeed very much like producer/ performers as they juggle multiple audio sources, sample and re-sample, loop on the fly, apply effects, jam along with other instruments, and even sync up with guest DJs to provide a new angle on collaboration (and “duets”).

If you’re a musician who knows how to record and mix, you can capitalize on that experience to jump-start the DJ experience, and I’ll help get you started by explaining the process of organizing a music library, and going over a DJ controller’s basic controls. We’ll assume you’ll be taking the computer-based/software route; working with vinyl is a whole other world.

Go to the Source The music library is the core of any DJ’s act. Increasingly, iTunes is becoming a sort of de facto standard for music libraries, as most DJ programs can access it and bring your music into the program. You can designate particular folders where the program should look, or use “default” folders like the Music folder in the Mac, or the My Music folder in Windows’ Music Library; but there are some compelling reasons to use iTunes.

Portable USB or FireWire drives are ideal for storing your library, as a terabyte can hold a bazillion MP3 tracks. (Don’t skimp on the data compression—use at least 192kbps.) But it’s all about having the right track at the right time, so create a good inventory of crowd-pleasing “anthems,” newer hits, and just to keep things interesting, some rock and soul. Of course as a musician, you can create your own tracks. These might be complete pieces of music, or just something like a drum groove you can have “on standby” in a software deck to keep the groove going while you cue up the next track, or crossfade between two tracks.

You need to know your material, but DJ software incorporates search and sophisticated database functions that typically categorize by fields like track title, format (WAV/AIF/MP3/AAC/ WMA), artist, bpm, key, genre, rating (mark the ones that really get the crowd going!), comments, and keywords for searches. Some have additional data like import date, so you can find (for example) only the music you’ve added recently.

Fig. 1. Traktor’s Preferences tell it where to find all the crucial folders for locating music, playlists, and the like.
The bpm figure usually comes from automatic analysis. Dance music’s constant rhythm makes it relatively easy to detect tempo, but the process is computationally intensive, so analyze your music in advance of the gig. It can take a while with a packed hard drive, but once your tracks are analyzed, you don’t have to do it again. This data is also needed by the software to do automatic beat-matching.

And remember—your music library is on a hard drive. Hard drives fail—backup is good.

Getting Deeper into iTunes DJs are not immune from the Mac vs. PC debate, but I prefer dedicating a laptop to DJing; for that purpose, Windows machines have a cost advantage and are more commonly available in case of damage. Mac fans needn’t have Windows-phobia; once you get into your DJ application of choice, it doesn’t really matter which platform you’re using, as the computer simply becomes a “DJ appliance.” Although this article is based on Windows and Native Instruments’ Traktor Pro with S2 controller, the principles apply to Mac setups with other hardware/software as well.

As iTunes is a consumer-oriented product, it’s heavy on the “it just works” philosophy, and handles file organization. While this is great for most users, it’s an issue if you want to depart from its intended use for music management. For example, I do all the track development and rehearsals on my desktop computer instead of a laptop, as the desktop has a more comfortable working environment (dual monitors, more ergonomic keyboard, etc.) and is also set up for creating and processing the tracks that I create. But I use a laptop for performance, which means the whole setup has to be easily transportable from desktop to laptop. Furthermore, although I’ve never had problems with laptops live (knock on silicon!), there’s always a first time, so everything has to be easy to back up, and if necessary, installed on another machine at a moment’s notice. These considerations matter when setting up an iTunes music library for DJing.

iTunes is very specific about locating files, and maintains a database that keeps track of your music files and their paths. People often just install iTunes using the defaults, which on the Mac is the iTunes folder that lives in the Music folder. In Windows 7, installing iTunes places the iTunes folder in the path Libraries > Music > My Music. This is located in the C drive and the iTunes folder includes the iTunes Media folder, so once you start loading the media folder with audio (and maybe video as well), this content can outgrow your C drive’s capacity. All links within iTunes are referenced to the paths in this drive, so trying to move the iTunes Media folder to a different drive will break those links. Unless you enjoy re-linking everything (you don’t), this is not a good idea. (Note that there’s also an iTunes folder in the Programs folder, but this is a small folder containing resources, an iPod updater, etc.)

Planning Ahead with Your Music Library For the most flexibility, plan ahead when you first set up an iTunes music library for DJing. The following instructions assume that you’re using the latest version of iTunes—at least iTunes 9—and that you’re using the same operating system (e.g., Windows 7) on all of the computers with which you want to use iTunes. This isn’t essential, but it will make life easier.

Fig. 2. Traktor Pro 2 maps much of what you see to the hardware controls in NI’s S2 (and other NI controllers, as well as some Traktor-specific controllers made by other manufacturers such as Numark). The two virtual decks are outlined in gray, with common controls toward the middle and a browser along the bottom.

Download iTunes and install it with the default settings. Later on we’ll create a separate, “transportable” drive and move some of the folders to non-default locations. Dedicate an external drive (USB or Firewire) to the iTunes Media folder, which contains all your music and takes up the most space. A transportable iTunes Media folder makes for easier backup and mobility between computers. To hedge your bets with Mac vs. Windows, format the external drive with the FAT32 format, and import your files using the MP3 format.

It’s important to give the external drive a specific, fixed drive letter, because if one computer has C and D drives, plugging in the external drive will cause it to default to E. But if another computer has C and D drives, and you plug in a USB stick, which becomes drive E, when you add the external drive. it will default to F. So iTunes won’t find the media, because its database is telling it to look for media on drive E.

I assigned the external drive a drive letter of X so that no matter which Windows computer it plugs into, it always shows up as drive X. Here’s how to do this.

1.  Connect your external hard drive and wait until it’s recognized.
2.  Go Start > Control Panel and double-click on Administrative Tools.
3.  Double-click on Computer Management.
4.  Double-click on Storage.
5.  Double-click on Disk Management (Local). Wait for the disk information to load.
6.  In the list of disk drives, locate the removable drive.
7.  Right-click on it and choose Change Drive Letter and Paths.
8.  In the dialog box that opens, click on the Change button. Choose X as the drive letter, then click on OK.
9.  The drive will now always be identified as drive X.

Now we need to tell iTunes where to look for its content.

1.  Create a folder in drive X called iTunes Media.
2.  Open iTunes, and go Edit > Preferences.
3.  Check “Keep iTunes Media Folder organized” and “Copy files to iTunes Media folder when adding to library.” This will keep the music organized the way iTunes likes when you add tracks to your library.
4.  Click on the Change button for the iTunes Media folder location.
5.  Navigate to drive X, click on the iTunes Media folder, then click on the Select Folder button.
6.  Click on the OK button in the Advanced Preferences menu.

Importing CDs into iTunes will now direct files to the iTunes Media folder on the X drive. However, there’s another fine point about iTunes: When you add new music to your collection by importing it into the X drive, iTunes (which is installed on your C drive) adds the information to its database, which is referencing the X drive. So, in my situation, where I do my “development” and rehearsals on the desktop but perform on the laptop, it’s necessary to copy the iTunes folder from the desktop C drive to the laptop C drive. When I open up Traktor on the laptop, it finds iTunes where it expects to find it in the C drive, and the iTunes database finds the iTunes Media folder where it expects to find it, which is the X drive.

More About Transportability Traktor 2 Pro offers iTunes integration, but you have to direct it to the iTunes database so it can find all the music in the iTunes Media folder. However, like other programs, it might care about where to find things other than your iTunes library. For example, Traktor also has its own Root folder with playlists, settings, mappings, and other personalization, as well as a Samples folder that stores samples used in the Sample Decks. Moving the Root folder and Samples folder to the same drive as the iTunes media folder means that you can install Traktor on basically anything, go into Preferences, specify those file locations (Figure 1), and Traktor will have the data it needs.

Fig. 3. Part of NI’s S2 controller, which is optimized for Traktor. The controls for one deck are in the lower left, with the platter above it. Faders for the two decks, meters, and the crossfader are to the right. The deck 2, effects controls, and most common controls are not shown.

I also copy the iTunes folder located in My Music (the one that contains the database) to the X drive as backup. If I ever have a catastrophic gear failure and have to start fresh with a new computer, after installing iTunes, the folder can be copied over to the Music Library, and the database will be ready to be referenced.

Playback on Deck Although vinyl is fading, the deck lives on in two forms—physical and virtual, which work together. Physical decks are often CD-sized (or smaller) platters whose sophistication depends on the hardware controller. In most cases, the controller can vary a track’s speed to make it easier to beat-match and perform scratching and pitch-shifting. Some models are touch-sensitive, and with some models, pushing down on the platter can also perform “braking.” Different models work differently so read the specs carefully and play with the controller to see if you like its feel.

Consider each virtual deck (which exists in the controller’s companion software; see Figure 2) as a separate track, but instead of playing back linearly like a standard DAW, it’s more dynamic because you can stretch it, transpose it, set cue points that you can jump to instantly, add effects, and mark off sections for looping. The way you use these software decks—for simultaneous playback, crossfading, layering, and the like—is where part of the skill set for today’s DJ comes into play. Software with four virtual decks or additional “sample” decks is becoming commonplace, yet most controllers still have only two platters, so you may need to switch nimbly among the virtual decks that you want to control. (The S2 controller has a button that transforms the Cue buttons into sample deck trigger buttons.)

Beat-Matching and Monitoring The physical controls for each deck create the DJ experience (Figure 3). Here are some of the highlights.

Cue points. These are particularly important, as you can mark places where you want to return to instantly, or from which you want to start playback. You can generally store these cue points within the songs in your music library.

Deck sync. Designate one deck as the master, and sync the other one’s tempo to it. For example, if the master is set to 127 bpm and you drag a 123 bpm file into a synced deck, it too will play back at 127 bpm. While some traditionalists consider techniques like automatic sync/beat matching the equivalent of pitch correction for vocalists or quantization for drums, these functions give the DJ more freedom to focus on multi-deck mixing techniques, adding effects, doing more creative transitions, working with multiple decks, and the like.

Tempo slider. Even with sync, the master tempo is still variable. For example, if your master is at 128 bpm and you want to segue into a 136 bpm track, you can increase the tempo of the 128 bpm track slowly until it reaches 136 bpm. The faster deck, if synced, will follow the tempo as it increases.

Loop in/out. To loop a section, press the In button at the beginning of the section, and the Out button at the end of the loop. Most software also lets you multiply or divide the loop to lengthen or shorten it, respectively. As the music has already been analyzed, the loop will quantize to the beat, making for a seamless loop.

EQ. The standard configuration is low, mid, and high knobs for each deck. A common technique is to pull back the lows and then, on the beat, hit a cue point and have the lows come crashing back in.

Effects. You’ll typically find a wet/dry control and a few knobs for variable parameters on most controllers, but as effects become more important, we’re starting to see dedicated effects controllers. Native Instruments offers the X1 controller, Pioneer recently introduced the RMX-1000 Remix Station, Behringer’s CMD modular DJ mixers offer effects control modules, and Numark even offered the NSFX accessory effects controller so their older NS7 controller could control the effects in Serato Itch. (The newer NS7FX has this built in.)

There are plenty of other “bells and whistles,” but the above are the basics. Master them, and you’re well on your way to DJing.

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