DJs play music. Duh. No, really, that is the running theme with all DJs. Regardless of what type of music you spin, all DJs are dealing with many of the same issues, more or less. As a house DJ, I have learned some things along the way that might help any DJ — lessons about programming, making songs sound as good as they can with other records and traveling — that I'd like to pass along here.
MADE TO ORDER
Just like radio stations, DJs create ordered playlists. We pick songs and put them together in an order that we think will entertain the crowd. How I program is dependent upon whether my set is opening, playing in the middle or closing. For many years, I was an opening DJ, and that experience has influenced my programming significantly. If I'm playing early, I try to not just play the current hits, but some older records or newer yet unpopular tracks, which leaves some of the more popular records for the DJs following. If I am playing in the middle of the night, I also try not to play only popular records while still mixing up the set a bit, but not as much as I would if I were closing. When closing, I feel free to pull all of the stops and play basically whatever I want, be it new, old or unheard of.
Regardless of my time slot, I remain cognizant of the energy level and incorporate a philosophy of building. I don't necessarily start with the biggest, most popular tunes, because they leave no room to build a set; rather, I work up to those songs. Starting with songs that may be a little new and a bit less energetic (deeper and soulful), I eventually work up to the more energetic records to peak my set. I think of it like a roller-coaster ride with a slow ascent but peaking with enough momentum to carry you through the rest of the ride. The key to doing this is patience. I am constantly keeping track of the time and planning where I want to go musically and what I need to play to build to that point.
Even with the best programming in the world, mixing records is what we are there to do, and I have learned a few things that make this go smoother. Working with the volume and EQ of each record helps me sound like a better DJ by simply creating a smooth, more consistent musical mix. Most mixers now have a gain control for each channel, as well as individual channel faders and a master volume. Understanding basic gain structures from experience in the studio, I set each to achieve proper levels and a clean sound. With the headphones on, I listen to the record that I am playing and then listen to the record I am cueing while trying to adjust the EQ so that both share the same high, mid and low frequencies. This allows for a smoother transition from record to record and, consequently, a smoother overall sound.
Furthermore, during the course of the night, there are two monitoring levels to deal with: the main monitor level and the headphone level. Once the monitor levels are set, I make a mental note of where those levels are. The reason that I need to remember those is that I make a habit of turning them down occasionally for two reasons: first to give my ears a break and second to check the overall sound and volume in the room. After mixing for a while, it often seems like the monitors need to be louder for me to be able to hear them, because my ears are getting tired of the loud music and becoming less sensitive. By turning down the monitor level for a moment, my ears get somewhat of a break, thus helping to refresh the sound of the room.
If the monitors are too loud, sometimes, I will slowly bring down the level of the records themselves because of listening fatigue. If the monitors are too low, I will slowly start to bring up the level of each record more and more, which can cause distortion or make the main sound system too loud. By trying to keep the monitors set at the same level and turning them down occasionally, I have a better sense of the volume overall. Because all of the main beat matching and mixing is carried out in the headphones, I make sure to keep a mental note of that level, as well, because constant headphone-level changes can easily cause a train-wrecked mix.
DON'T FORGET TO BRING A TOWEL
The more you master these techniques, the more people will want you to play for them. Then, you'll be traveling around the world playing records for parties. I always keep in mind a few simple tips when traveling. First, I like to bring a small hotel towel with me to the gig for several reasons. The towel serves as a record cleaner and a sweat rag, and it's handy if a drink spills near your records. I also like to carry a flashlight with me because some DJ booths have very dim lighting, and the flashlight can help with that. Another good tip is to bring a little scrap of paper with your room number, as most keys these days don't have it. After several nights of staying in different hotels, the last thing you want is to roam the halls at 5 a.m. looking for your room.
Finally, I bring earplugs. You might think that these are for the actual gig — and, yes, they can come in handy while hanging out before your set in the loud club — but I use them for some good, uninterrupted sleep after the gig. A DJ's schedule is quite different from the usual patrons of a hotel, who seem to get up early and start sightseeing. All of the hallway noise of people coming and going, checking out and announcing housekeeping can make it hard to get the little sleep that you're going to get before the next trip to the airport.