This post is part of our Non Sequitur Fridays series, which will feature a different Wistia team member's take on a non-Wistia-related topic each week. It's like our "employee of the month" but less "of the month"-y. Alyce Currier makes and feels content at Wistia.
Before we begin, I want to make something super clear: I'm not very good at this. I've had a $20 bill passed off to me at the end of one DJ set by the person running the night because they happened to make a little money, but that is the extent of my "professionalism." But I think there's some value to the tale of a beginner; sometimes, when you're too far along, it might be a bit more difficult to convey how to get started with something.
Once I decided I wanted to be able to mix music live, I signed up for a mixing class at Somerville's Artisan's Asylum with Jeff Mission, a local DJ who also turned out to be really good at laying down the basics for a bunch of newbies. Between that and personal practice, here's what I've managed to figure out in the last few months!
DJing is a hobby that evolves out of passion: when you're consuming enough music on a day-to-day basis and constantly pursuing more, building a playlist isn't actually that much work because you've got this mental catalogue assembled anyway. And sure, maybe it's a little annoying when everyone you know is suddenly a DJ, but to me, it's (mostly) a beautiful manifestation of mass amateurization (as Clay Shirky might say).
Even if you're not a pro, it's fun to be able to interact with the music you're consuming. And if you're like me, merely consuming music will never be enough. I had a radio show in college and sometimes cross-faded the tracks in Djay (oooo, fancy). And I've also spent probably-too-much time editing and writing for a music blog.
I guess the point is that if selecting music is your biggest question, then DJing isn't for you and I don't know why you'd even want to learn. But if the selection part seems easy enough and you're eager to share your music, you're in luck, because if your selection is good then mixing will likely follow naturally with practice.
For laptop DJing, software matters, but hardware matters more
A lot of people will look over your shoulder and judge you if you're not using Traktor or Serato, and I use Traktor now because I've found it to be more reliable, but you can get totally acceptable results with free software like Mixxx.
What will really change your life (or at least your ability to feel like you're progressing in this particular hobby) is getting your hands on a controller. If you're a hobbyist, something like the Numark Mixtrack is just fine (and only $80 on Amazon). You'll also probably want to buy yourself an external soundcard, some decent headphones that block out external sound for cueing, a decent USB hub if your computer can't accomodate all your toys, and some cables if you're playing out (I've only ever needed 1/8" to RCA and RCA to RCA).
DJing as a narrative
Building a sonic narrative is, in my opinion, this is even more important than the particular transitions. It's good to have a general plan, but you need to be ready to adapt that plan to the energy for a crowd -- for example, if you start off mellow to ease people in and realize that they're ready to have more fun sooner, you should switch things up to accomodate that, or conversely, if you're playing something crazy and people aren't ready for it, you should be ready to pull back.
It's all about easing into climactic moments, making sure you give people a break as well, and adapting to whoever you're playing to, whether it's two people or 30 people or 1,000. Honestly, I probably had more fun DJing to two dancing friends at sunrise in a forest than I had playing in my favorite small club because of how easy it was to connect with them at that time, and when you're doing this for fun, that feeling of sharing and connecting over music is more important than anything.
Playing to the right mood
This should be obvious, but if you're opening a night, you don't need to be the show-stealer -- phrasing doesn't just apply to your set, but also to the entire party. You're part of a larger narrative and should communicate at the very least with the people playing before and after you about what they're planning to play. If you're opening for someone who makes their own music, you probably shouldn't play any of their songs.
Closing a night is a fun opportunity because by then people are usually loosened up enough to be ready for something a bit more weird or experimental. But again, it's important to be able to read them; maybe they're so exhausted from earlier that they want something more laid-back, or maybe they still have a lot of energy to blow off and it's your job to make sure it's depleted by the time they leave.
As a beginner, I've found it much more useful to focus on phrasing and selecting music that fits well together than the mixing part: my goal at the moment isn't to wow people with my transitions, but to make them as invisible as possible. If people don't feel jolted by your transitions, you're probably doing okay. A few ways to ensure that's the case:
- Select songs in a similar BPM range. If you're making a major BPM shift, do it gradually through several songs.
- Make transitions where the listener is expecting them. When a song is making some sort of shift anyway, it's a great opportunity for you to swoop in with a different shift.
- Highs, mids, and lows. Transitioning by swapping out the highs, mids, and lows of a song gradually is a good next step from simply crossfading. You can get fancier later, but figuring this out first is probably a good way to go.
- Think about key. I can't really describe this in a technical sense since I'm not musically trained but I hope to figure it out someday. Regardless, even if you can't describe what key a song is in, you can most likely discern what a major and minor key sound like and decide how you want to use that (you don't have to keep things similar, but if you're making a shift, make it meaningful).
If you're someone who likes music, you'll probably have a lot of fun DJing as a hobby, and technology has evolved such that you can play around without spending a ton of money. Set up a low-pressure house party with your friends and get spinning!
PS: Here's a mix I did at a party. Sometimes I mess up because someone was feeding me barbecue chicken.