How easy is it to be a DJ? I went and found out…
As anyone who reads my blog will be well aware, I’m primarily into music that is DJ-based. From the very early days of my interest in electronic music I was always impressed with the skills that DJs have: being able to mix records in a noisy, busy club environment, to seamlessly thread together pieces of music, to be able to work out the right place to bring a new track in and get a good reaction from a large crowd of people and to be able to read your audience in order to keep them dancing all night – it really captured my imagination.
When I was in my teens a few of my friends had decks and DJ’d at house parties and smaller nights that they put on at the local youth centre – I remember having a go once or twice, but being completely intimidated by the whole process (I was trying to mix drum’n'bass, which is probably not the best type of music to start on).
Since then I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve watched DJs at work, transfixed by their ability to work with their audience, staying in control and relatively relaxed (outwardly at least) throughout their sets. Last year for instance, I saw a DJ named Heidi play eight hours, from 10pm-6am, without even taking a break – eight solid hours of playing music and in high heels no less. I can’t even sit at my desk at work for eight hours without having to take a break – Heidi kept around 200 people rocking for that amount of time… incredible. Meanwhile, a friend of mine across the Atlantic refers to our favourite DJ Seth Troxler as a ’shamen’ because of his ingenuity behind the decks.
There are people out there who dismiss DJing as ‘just playing one record after another’, which is easy to say if you’ve never witnessed one in action or even tried it yourself. Yes, it may appear to be easy to the untrained eye, but that’s mainly due to the fact that so many professional DJs make it look like a walk in the park because it’s become second nature to them. But imagine having to play for at least an hour to an expectant audience, an audience that has paid good money for you to show them a good time – being able to give that audience a good time using just two decks, a mixer and music that you have chosen is quite a skill.
Anyway, after years of being fascinated with the whole culture, and interviewing more than a few DJs along the way, I decided to give it another go. I enrolled on a course at the award-winning Point Blank college in Hoxton, east London. The school, owned by Rob Cowan, offers courses in both DJing (from the basic level right up to advanced) and music production. I got myself trained up on Pioneer’s widely-respected CDJ decks via a Beginner’s course, which started in January and came to an end just a week ago.
Primarily, I wanted to understand the skills needed to be a DJ – to learn how to mix tunes together, to add effects, to really understand how music works and how to use the equipment competently. On top of learning DJ skills, I also wanted to be able to critique DJs when I’m out doing club reviews. It’s not difficult to say if a club experience was good or bad, but I want to be able to at least have some understanding of what the DJ I’m watching is doing behind the decks to add extra depth to my reviews.
It was a pretty difficult task – but everything was made a lot simpler by the course tutor, Ben Bristow. Ben, who is most definitely a jack of all trades as far as DJing goes, explained everything we needed to know in a way that was understandable and pretty easy to pick up – in fact, every week I was at the college I was hit with a new revelation.
In between the seven-hour long weekly classes, Point Blank encourages its students to sign up to practice sessions (at no extra cost), so that those who don’t have the equipment at home can hone their skills in their spare time. Which is what I did, so for a month I was at the college for twice a week for a total of around 13 hours.
In a nutshell, the four-week course basically went something like this (although it was a lot more in-depth than the following brief overview):
Week 1: Getting to know the equipment, learning how to set up, which buttons do what, which leads connect where – important stuff for when you’re arriving at a club/bar and taking over from someone else. You have to be able to check everything is plugged in to the right place and that the sound will actually come out of the speakers, the last thing you want is to put your first tune on and nothing is playing. In this week I also play around with the volume controls to do a very simple fade from one track to another.
Two key lessons I learn in the first week are: 1) Do not get ahead of yourself. I kept wanting to try and ‘beat match’ my music, but of course I wasn’t even familiar with the equipment yet, so running before I could walk was a big mistake and something that stayed with me for the duration of the course.
2) The eight-bar rule. Most dance music is based on eight bar sections (or phrases), if you pay attention and count these phrases, it becomes a lot easier to mix tunes together and to do it in a way that makes sense.
Week 2: Learning about BPMs, the speed of tracks and trying to fine tune my hearing so that I can detect whether one tune is faster or slower than the other. This was the week where I had my first real attempt at beat matching, that is mixing two tracks together so that their beats are synchronised. It was difficult, but practice makes perfect as Ben drummed into the class. I also learn how to calculate BPMs using a simple tapping method, and working out the BPMs of different musical genres.
Week 3: EQing – using the equalizers to filter the bass, mid range or treble out of a track – a technique I’ve witnessed and experienced many, many DJs use to great effect. It’s funny how something as simple as dropping the bass out for a few bars and then flicking it back in can have such a devastating effect on a dancefloor. Filtering the different levels of sound is a really great way to play with a crowd and also facilitate a smooth transition from one track to another. I also learn a little cheat that makes mixing a lot easier in the third week, but I refuse to use it – although I understand that it’s a good thing to know for sure, in case of emergency. Ben also demonstrated his skills with an impromptu scratching session which was both brilliant, and intimidating.
Week 4: Final week – this week we have to record a half an hour mix, so in the preceding weeks I spent a lot of time practicing this mix and carefully selecting a good six or seven tunes that I thought would work well together. A combination of nerves and excitement punctuated my final day at Point Blank – the end result being a mix which I initially hated, but now have a soft spot for… of course, the mixing isn’t fantastic, no one becomes professional mixing expert overnight but I like the track selection and, fortunately, it got a good response from everyone I sent it to. What I’m most pleased with is the fact that I did it live, with no cheat methods, no looking at the BPM counters on the decks and that I also took some risks with the mix.
So, in answer to my question ‘How easy is it to be a DJ?’, well, not as easy as you may think. Practice, practice and more practice is the answer.
Hopefully I will be able to continue one day when I can afford my own equipment…Once I do, David Guetta I’m coming for your Top DJ title.
Have a listen to my final mix below…Ben Bristow, DJ, DJ College, Heidi Van Den Amstel, Hoxton, music, Point Blank, Rob Cowan, Seth Troxler
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