There is something incredibly special about creating a deep and powerful soundtrack for a group of individuals. Being a DJ and getting the opportunity to create and mix music that people not only enjoy, but literally move their entire body to is an absolutely amazing experience – i would even go as far as to say being a DJ can even be intoxicating at times.
But here’s the thing that many don’t understand.
Being a DJ is not merely putting a list of songs together, matching beats, and scratching over some tunes – it’s so much more than that.
It’s about creating a signature sound that you are both extremely passionate about, and excited to share with others.
It’s about observing your audience and gauging their feelings, their wants, their desires, and adjusting your sound accordingly.
It’s about baring your soul and self on stage, in front of a bunch of people who you don’t know from a bar of soap and loving every single second of it.
And let me tell you – it’s definitely not easy.
But it is definitely worth it.
Which is why in this article I want to outline how to become a DJ - from the beginning.
Within this, I want to demonstrate what it really takes to become an excellent DJ. This will be done by focusing on the key aspects that make a great DJ, and how you can work on them slowly and progressively to improve both your sound and your ability.
Before we get into it, I should note that although this article will help you become a quality DJ – it won’t do the work for you. Like anything that requires a certain level of skill, becoming a decent DJ will take a lot of time and effort in which you will need to hone your abilities and your sound.
And even then, you still need to build some high-quality mixes, play heaps of local gigs, and develop a solid stage presence.
And again – this happens through consistent and dedicated practice.
And it is this that genuinely leads you to a career doing what you love.
As such it is important to distinguish that this guide will not make you an overnight success - but it will outline what it takes to become a great DJ, and what steps YOU can take to become one.
Most of us have the intent to become a DJ for a single primary reason – because we love music.
And if we take the time to delve into this a little deeper, it often becomes apparent that we enjoy playing the music we love to other people. In doing so, we get the opportunity to make others feel good, have fun, and obviously get up and have a dance.
But as I have previously mentioned, becoming a DJ isn't as simple as first thought.
With this in mind, it is incredibly important that we take the time to test the waters first – getting a taste of what it is that a DJ really does before diving right in.
And fortunately for us this can actually be done with very little financial investment.
The first step is to download some free DJ software.
In its most basic form, a DJ software program provides you with the means to DJ with nothing more than your PC. These programs essentially emulate traditional DJ equipment (AKA a DJ Deck and Vinyl Records) without the need for any specialist equipment.
Typical DJ software includes virtual turntables, controls for equalizer and gain, crossfaders, transport controls, real time effects, and often a vast number of others effect options. The result of which allows you to easily replicate the tools used by the top DJs of the golden eras.
Using this type of software, you can easily start using your own music library to experiment with mixing tracks. This is a fantastic way to get a feel for what it's like to mix tracks and create a unique and individualized sound.
As an added bonus, a heap of this software is completely free to use, meaning that you don’t have to invest a cent to get test out what it feels like to DJ (even if it is from the comfort of your own home).
Mixxx is my personal pick of the free DJ software available on the market at the moment. It is one of the most feature packed products available, in which it includes two decks (each of which support scratching, looping, hot-cues, and time stretching), pitch bending, beat detection, an equalizer, and a crossfader curve – the combination of which provide all the necessary tools to practice and develop some smooth sounding transitions.
I should note that as Mixxx is completely free, its support isn't quite to the same level as most of its paid counterparts – but it does offer a fantastic option nonetheless.
Virtual DJ home is one of the most recognizable free DJ packages as it has actually been around since 2003. This software offers a heap of cool features and a vast array of effects, in which it provides any number of mixing variations.
I should note that the only reason Virtual DJ Home isn't higher on my list is because the free version comes with advertisements, which in my personal opinion, can be quite annoying.
In conjunction with this free software, you can obviously fork out a bit of extra coin for some premium options – most of which have better support, more features, and nicer interfaces. But despite this, the free options outlined above are great way to introduce yourself to the DJ world.
Something that I do believe is worth mentioning is that this software obviously utilize both the mouse and keyboard to mix songs. While this does provide us with a basic understanding of what is required to mix songs and make smooth transition, it is still noticeably different to the real thing.
Which is where controllers come in.
For those who have spent a bit more time with the software alone, and as such are starting to get a feel for what it takes to DJ, purchasing a DJ controller is a very logical next step.
DJ controllers are an external device that physically replicate the turntables of old. These devices can be plugged straight into your computer where they work in conjunction with the DJ software mentioned above – allowing you to get a hands on feel for what it is like to scratch and mix music.
This is an essential step if you have ANY interest in scratching and altering tunes to match your personal style, and subsequently acts a perfect mid-way point between using software only (combined with a keyboard and mouse) and going out and buying a full blown turntable.
If you are interested in finding out a little more about some entry level DJ controllers, then I would recommend checking this article where I have written about it extensively.
Now that we have spent a bit of time getting a feel for what is required of a DJ from a very basic standpoint, it is time to further develop our skillset and get a solid handle on some foundational DJ techniques.
Beatmatching is a skill that was arguably more important during the early days of DJ, before technological advancements made our life somewhat (read: a whole lot) easier.
Despite this, learning how to beatmatch manually should be a prerequisite for all mixing styles, as it gives us an understanding of what it really takes to be a DJ, while also providing an opportunity for us to develop our ear.
Beatmatching describes the process where we match the beat of the current tune to the beat of the upcoming song – ensuring a completely seamless and undetectable transition. If the two tracks aren’t beat matched correctly then they will fall out of sync during the blend, resulting in a horrible sounding transition.
Now I should add that most recent DJ equipment actually has an in built sync functionality, that essentially beatmatches for you automatically. But if we strictly rely on these built in functions, we miss out an opportunity to build an understanding of what a good beatmatch should sound and feel like – in which we also gain an appreciation of what it truly is to be a DJ.
As an added bonus, beatmatching is a purely technical skill that – once developed – will allow us to DJ on any piece of equipment, no matter how old.
Equalizing (also known as EQing in some circles) is an integral skill required to produce a crisp and polished sound.
You see, when mixing music, every sound combination is essentially two records being mixed together. Interestingly, when we play two perfectly synced records over the top of one another the output becomes distorted and unclear.
With this, it is not uncommon for certain sounds to become completely lost in the mix – which is obviously not conducive to creating a smooth sounding transition.
Now an equalizer is a specific control that changes the volumes of certain frequencies heard within a piece of audio. Each channel (for each song) will have its own equalizer, and therefore allow us to alter the sound frequency of each individual song.
By adjusting each of these through the process of Equalizing we can balance the levels of frequencies, ensuring that the music from both channels is heard completely undistorted.
Becoming competent at equalizing takes time, effort, and practice – but with this in mind it is an extremely important skill to learn as it can make a HUGE improvement to your transitions.
Something that I always like to reiterate to those who are just starting out when it comes to equalizing specifically is that ‘less is almost always more’.
What I mean by this is that we often get a much smoother, crisper sound when we reduce frequencies of a given song rather than increasing them. While this does make for a softer sound at times, it greatly reduces the risk of distortion – resulting in a much nicer sounding transition.
Crossfading is exactly what it sounds like!
During the transition process, there is a point where we have beatmatched both songs perfectly, and through equalization, we have a crystal clear sound.
And this is where the crossfader comes in.
Crossfading completes the smooth and seamless transition from one song to another, in which the first song is slowly faded out and the second song is gradually faded in – during which they both mix together into a single, unique, and seamless song.
A successful crossfade ensures that we don’t get any noticeable breaks between songs, and as such is essential to keep a dance floor completely full throughout the duration of the night.
One key here is to drop the bass of our first song (the one that is currently playing) via the equalizer before initiating the crossfade – this will eliminate any ‘flanging’ effects that can occur, while also reducing distortion.
I should also note that the introduction of sound effects such as reverb, grinds, loops, and pans, can make for unique addition to your set, they are by no means essential.
As such, it is truly paramount that you spend a good portion of time improving your ability to complete the basic skills outlined above, as it is these that determine your absolute ability as a DJ.
Once you feel comfortable with these skills, then add advanced effects as you see fit – just remember – that these high-end effects will not fix an average sound, but they will enhance a good one!
Once it is pretty apparent that this whole DJ thing is something that you both enjoy doing and are passionate about, it is time to spend a little bit of time in the trenches. Similar to any job you are interested in, it is great to get some hands on, real world experience prior to commencing.
This means seeing if you can get a little bit of work experience at your local night club or mobile DJ (or ideally both).
Fortunately (at least in my personal experience anyway) professional DJ’s tend to be very happy to have someone shadow them around, and are often very open and giving in regards to both information and advice.
As a bit of a bonus, they are always very happy to discuss their passion (being music) irrespective of whether they are at work or not – meaning that you can gain a lot of good information from merely having an open and clear discussion with them.
By shadowing a DJs from different working backgrounds you can gain a good understanding of what area you might want to specialize in the future, which is actually quite important (I will touch on this further in the next section).
Additionally, working with a professional DJ will also give you a look into what kind of behind the scene work is required to become successful. This includes how to network, how to market yourself, and of course what equipment to purchase, among a host of other important qualities – all essential to turning your passion into your profession.
Building on the previous point, sorting out what sort of DJ you want to become is essential – and sorting it out early on in the process is going to be important.
As a DJ, you are going to have many different areas of potential work. Some of which will offer more consistent income than others, while some will offer greater potential for fame and fortune (if you are so lucky to strike gold in the DJ world – which I must admit is no easy feat!).
No matter what your interest, it is important to identify where it is where it is you want to work, and more importantly, where you want to direct your time and effort.
With this in mind there are a heap of options that are not only suitable – but also a lot of fun!
For those of you who are interested in playing music to fun loving crowds, often working as the resident DJ at a local club or bar is a great option. Working as a resident DJ will allow you to really build and tailor your sound to a specific type of crowd – often who will come back frequently (particularly if you are any good!).
If we delve a little deeper into this, it is your role to keep the dance floor full of people completely uninterrupted. This means blending music in a difficult and unnoticeable way – something that is obviously a lot easier said than done.
Keeping with this theme, a great option for those who enjoy playing their favorite tunes to a crowd who have broad and varied taste in music is an Event DJ. As an event DJ you will get the opportunity to play tunes at a host different events, including both birthdays and weddings.
This means that no two events will ever be the same – so expect different crowds, different genres, and of course, different requests.
While being an event DJ can be challenging at times, it is a great way to get your name out there and meet some extremely nice people. Plus, in my personal experience, it is incredibly rewarding making someone’s special day that much more memorable.
And finally, for those of you who want the opportunity to do a little bit extra on top of playing music, then becoming a radio DJ may be your best option.
As a radio DJ you will be required to play music across a broad range of genres, keeping up with the latest and greatest tunes. With this, you will often also be required to make announcements and chat with your audience – something that can be a lot of fun.
Whatever your preference, it is important that you start thinking ahead and directing your efforts towards what it is you really want to do.
Just a bit of point that I think is definitely worth making: It is important to note that those who make and produce their own music are known as Producers.
Those of us who play pre-recorded tunes to a crowd are known as DJ’s.
Now is should add that most DJs often have a passion for making and producing their own music as well as playing to a crowd (myself included). And with a similar train of thought, the best producers have traditionally also worked as DJs – this is what gives them an understanding of what it takes to make great music and give a crowds what they want.
And as such it is important to distinguish that while they are slightly different by definition, they are often heavily related – and for the most part play an interchangeable role with one another.
Now this is where we start to get pretty serious. While you can get both some decent software and a fairly decent DJ controller on the cheap – some decent hardware will require a bit of an investment.
With this, it is also going to require a little bit of thought.
Our primary form of DJ equipment can actually come in variety of forms some, each of which has different pros and cons associated with its use.
As I mentioned briefly above, a controller is essentially a turntable that plugs directly into your PC, giving you all the options that come with a traditional turntable but in a digital format.
If we start delving into the pricier controllers we start to enter a market full of professional grade products – in which they not only have absolutely everything you need but also work incredibly well. As a result this makes them a fantastic option for those who find themselves traveling frequently to different gigs and venues.
With this in mind, assuming you already have a laptop, the all-in-one controller is arguably the most affordable means to get into the professional DJ market.
I should add that even despite their slightly less sturdy appearance, the higher end models can handle anything you throw at them – in which they are a very worthy investment for those looking to DJ professionally.
Similar to the all in one controllers mentioned above, the modular controller builds on the digital era of music that is now so apparent within the industry – increasing both versatility and individuality.
A modular controller allows you to piece together a unique set up from any number of smaller controllers. This makes them extremely customizable, in which they can be reconfigured to meet almost any need or requirement.
This means that with a modular system we can make adjustments to our set up dependent on what sort of gig we are likely to be playing at a given point in time. As a bonus, this also makes them extremely versatile and portable – hence the reason they are becoming a top choice for many professional DJ’s.
I should note that while these pieces of equipment are extremely versatile, they do often come at a greater cost – which is obviously further impacted upon by the number of pieces you use with it. Combined with this is fact that these systems can actually become quite complex and difficult to set up, and as such may not be suitable for the absolute novice.
Now I would be the first to admit that the digital options listed above are a lot easier to use than their more traditional vinyl based counterparts.
Records are renowned for being more challenging to mix than digital based music. Additionally, by using vinyl we always run a slight risk of damaging our records, rendering them somewhat useless.
And to further compound this, they often come at a pretty high price point.
Vinyl is where it all started.
While working with vinyl can be challenging, it is so incredibly rewarding. The music has a distinct sound that cannot be replicated through a digital interface – which people obviously love. Additionally, mixing records is so much more enjoyable.
It is fun, looks fantastic (seriously, there is nothing sexier than a guy or girl who can mix vinyl well), and makes an incredible noise. As a further bonus, vinyl is hands down the best option for those who have a deep passion for scratching and mixing.
I may be a little old school, but in my opinion Vinyl is the best option in the long run – even despite its apparent drawbacks.
So we know have literally everything we need to become a professional DJ – but there is still one primary area where we are lacking significantly.
One thing that recommended, respected, quality DJs have over us.
And there is only one way to get that experience…
The first step is to start using the skills we have been practicing and developing to make a mix, and then record it. Now it is important to reiterate that as DJ software tend to offer a very simple means of recording, this in itself isn’t too difficult – but listening back to it – well that is a different story entirely.
Because I can assure you, the first few (read: few hundred…) recordings you make will not sound quite like what you expected.
There will be parts that you like, parts that you love, and parts that sound so bad you will find yourself questioning what it was that made you want to be a DJ in the first place.
But that’s OK.
Because though this process we continue to practice, we continue to record, and slowly the parts of the mix we dislike become smaller and smaller, until they are almost entirely insignificant. And combined with this, the parts we like become larger and larger.
At the end we reach a point in time where we have practiced and practiced, becoming increasingly competent at our craft – where we are now actually happy with the sound we are producing.
During this time, I would obviously recommend getting your friends and family to listen to the mixes you make to get their personal opinion – while this can be hard, it can help in a very big way.
Now, this is obviously a fantastic point to reach. It is a sure sign that we are actually making some decent mixes, and we are comfortable working the decks.
But it is still obviously different to playing in front of people.
Which is where gigging comes in.
Once we have our skill set down and we feel comfortable mixing on the fly, it is time to book some gigs. These can be as low key as you like – hell, my first few gigs were at friend’s birthday parties (which I did free of charge…) – the primary thing is that they provide you an opportunity to play to real live crowd.
This will allow you to develop to the capacity to read a crowd and make musical adjustments as required, playing them what they want while ensuring that there is never a dull moment on the dancefloor.
Throughout this period it is important to book as many gigs as you possible can – gradually moving towards more and more paid gigs if possible.
While I should note that during this time starting to market yourself is an important step to take – but is not essential. As always, the best form of advertisement is word of mouth – and we obtain that by playing gigs and actually being a good DJ.
The more you work and the better you get, the greater your capacity for paid work becomes.
Until before you know it, you are working gigs every weekend (and even some week nights) making money and having an absolute blast – as a professional DJ.
Being a DJ is both incredibly rewarding and a heap of fun. While I do admit that it can be a lot of hard work – particularly in the initial stages – but I have never thought for a single second that it wasn’t worth it.
In this guide I hoped to share with you my experiences from spending years in the industry (in which I have seen lots of good DJs come and go), providing a thorough outline of how to become a DJ in this day and age.
I hope you enjoyed it – and I hope you take this advice and follow your passion to what I truly believe is the most enjoyable job in the world.