Guide to DJ
What do I need to be DJ?
There are no rules when selecting DJ Equipment. Remember, you can DJ how you want to. We've seen DJs in the most traditional of senses with two decks and a mixer, then we've even seen a very, very famous dance music producer DJing with two instances of music production software on two different laptops...weird but wonderful nevertheless!
There are a number of options available though, so we'll talk you through the most popular choices - what they are, what they do and what to look for:
USB DJ Controllers
A USB DJ controller links to your computer via a USB cable. It works as a physical interface allowing you to 'touch' and control' DJ softwareon your computer and your digital music files
The controller will send a digital control signal to your computer via USB, in the form of MIDI. This signal will communicate with the computer, software and controller device. So, as you move a fader on the controller, the virtual fader will move on your software. Scratch with the platter on the controller and the virtual deck will scratch your digital music file.
There are numerous advantages of using USB DJ controllers. First and foremost, they access and playback digital music files from your computer. If you have a massive download collection or digital archive on your computer, this is the most obvious choice for you.
Secondly, they are very portable. Most will fit neatly in a rucksack. Few weigh more than your average laptop. Even the most sizeable options are lighter than a box full of CDs or vinyl records!
USB controllers come in many, many different forms, designs and applications. The most common style is based around a 'two deck and mixer' set-up
This style gives you controls over two virtual decks in DJ software and the ability to mix between the two with the mixer controls. More and more options offer 4-deck mixing, usually equipped with a 4-channel mixer and then two control 'layers' which allows each of the controller decks to control 2 'virtual decks' within the software. You'll most oftenly find the controller will change colour in some way to indicate which deck is in use - preventing any confusion.
Some offer the ability to work as an analogue mixer too. For instance, they will allow you to connect CD decks, turntables and/or microphones, so you can mix software and digital files with CD or analogue media. Some new 'all-in-one' solutions are also available for the DJ who doesn’t want to use a laptop. They'll work as a mixer, play from USB devices and also control software! Some controllers coming to market in 2019, such as the Denon Prime 4.
Then there's also the dedicated iPad / iPhone DJ devices. These essentially use your handset or tablet as the 'computer'.
A USB DJ controller will always need a DJ software for it to playback your digital music collection. Software invariably needs a computer; therefore a USB DJ controller will always need a computer!
They'll work with a laptop or desktop, and most will operate on PC or Mac - always check whether the specific controller you are looking at is compatible with your computer though. Variations in DJ software and differences in what the controller demands from your machine will mean system requirements differ from model to model.
There are various options around that double up as a USB controller as well as playing CDs, using memory sticks or even connecting to mobile devices or networks via Wi-Fi - these will work in their custom standalone mode, but will still need a computer to run software if used in controller mode.
As we mentioned above, USB DJ controllers will need software to playback your digital music collection.
Software comes in many forms and brands, but there are market leaders that most controllers will function with, namely Native Instruments Traktor, Denon’s Engine Prime, Serato DJ Pro / Serato DJ Lite, Virtual DJ and Pioneer’s Rekordbox DJ.
Although similar in concept, the various platforms offer different functions, different general user interfaces and various perks.
Most USB DJ controllers will include software. Sometimes this is a light version or sometimes it is a 'full version'.
Some USB DJ controllers are specific to the version of software they are supplied with, most have the ability to work with other versions of software than the one it comes supplied with.
We'll always detail on our website whether or not software is included, which one and whether the device will work with another version of software too - if it's not clear or you're unsure, please feel free to check with us.
Audio interface or soundcards?
Many USB DJ controllers have built-in audio interfaces (soundcards), some don't.
As a DJ, it's critical that you can 'cue' or 'PFL' a monitor signal - you'll want to be able to hear the next track ahead of the mix. More importantly, you'll want to be able to provide a 'master' signal to your main speaker source. This could be an amplifier, aux input on a home audio system or directly active monitor speakers. Either way, this master signal is what your crowd or audience will be listening too (and hopefully dancing too!)
So, essentially you need two independent signal outputs. If the USB DJ controller has an audio interface built-in, it will provide you with these two outputs. You'll be able to plug your headphones into it for monitoring and also connect the master output to your sound source. m
If the controller in question doesn't have an audio interface built-in, you'll need an additional device. Fear not, DJ Audio interfaces aren't expensive or confusing though.
By default, your computer will more than likely have a soundcard installed. Chances are, even on high-end devices, this soundcard will be of poor quality and be suitable for nothing more than connecting earphones for some general light listening. It almost certainly won't have the two independent outputs needed to DJ properly, unfortunately.
Our website will always detail whether these is an audio interface built-in or not, but if you're unsure, please feel free to ask us.
As detailed above, DJ software comes in various guises and on various platforms.
Two main formats:
1) You get standalone DJ software, which will allow you to mix MP3s or digital music files virtually. No hardware needed. Ideal for making home mixes and playing around. Most standalone software will provide the option for use with a USB DJ Controller - this is when it gets fun! You'll get a more hands-on control over your software and 'feel' like a DJ!
2) DVS software is a Digital Vinyl System. This came about in the form of Final Scratch and has evolved into what we know today as Traktor Scratch A6, Serato DJ Pro and Rekordbox also do DVS packages. The principal behind a DVS package is the ability to control your digital music on computer by using a traditional DJ set-up
Basically, you use your turntables or CD decks and DJ mixer connected to your computer by a special audio interface. You then use special 'time-code' CDs or vinyl records to send a signal to the software, the software decodes this signal, replicating any action you may apply to the time-code media directly to the digital music. ie. If you play the time code CD, the digital file plays in the software. If you scratch the time-code vinyl, the software does the exact same to the digital file. Therefore, you get direct, hands-on control over digital music files.
With DVS, the benefits of software (ie. auto-mixing, effects, sampling, huge music library etc) can be utilised to maximum extent by DJs who still prefer to use turntables and mixers.
CD decks remain one of the most popular methods of DJing. They give you the ability to play and mix music from the familiar CD format.
CD decks or CDJs as they are often referred to (a term coined to CD Decks taken from the Pioneer range) have come a long way since their introduction in the late 90s.
They come in two main formats - 'table-top' players (like the Pioneer CDJ range) and 19" rackmountable 'dual-deck' format. The 19" style is now mainly used for Mobile DJs and installations, due to the convenience of being mounted in a 19" rack system or flightcase.
It's rare to find a CD deck that just plays traditional audio CDs nowadays. They do exist and tend to occupy the budget end of the market in this form.
Most CD decks now have the ability to play MP3 CDs - meaning you can burn your MP3 music collection directly to CD and the player can read it.
CD decks also now tend to incorporate the ability to play back digital music files directly from a USB device. This could be a USB memory stick, a USB harddrive, a mobile phone via USB cable or even an MP3 player! Some decks also offer the same functionality with SD cards.
Many CD decks also now offer the ability to work as a USB DJ controller too. Via a USB cable, the controls of the CD deck will be able to control parameters in software. Ideal for getting a traditional DJ style control solution with DJ software.
Turntables have come a long way since the early days. No longer is it a simple case of a +/-8% pitch range. Modern decks have USB connections for 'straight-to-computer' recording. They also have features such as reverse play, key-lock and digitally adjustable torque - ironically borrowing features from turntable emulation CDJs!
The main two choices for Turntables are belt-drive or direct-drive:
Belt-drive decks are powered by use of a low-power motorised spindle that uses a belt to turn the platter (much like a bicycle chain).
The main advantage of belt-drive decks is the price. They tend to be cheaper for DJs and therefore appeal to entry level DJs making them an ideal starting point.
Direct-drive decks tend to have higher-power motors that sit directly under the platter. This means there's more torque available and a more consistent performance. Ultimately, your mix will be tighter and more accurate. Scratch DJs will insist upon direct-drive decks for these reason.
The centre-piece of your DJ set-up is likely to be that box of faders, buttons and knobs referred to as a mixer!
The mixer is where it all happens. It takes in audio signals and allows you to control the volume, EQ (usually bass, mid and treble), and fade the volumes for a DJ-style mix.
Mixers come in many, many forms.
Here's some of the most common terms used with Mixers:
Channels: the number of audio sources your can mix. A 2-channel mixer has the ability to mix two sources ie. 2 x CDJS. A 4-channel mixer will mix four sources ie. 2 x CDJs and 2 x Turntables... all at once.
EQ: the equalisation section. Mixers usually feature 2 or 3 band EQ. This gives you control over the tone of your music a bit like the EQ section on a Hi-Fi system, except DJs need direct access to certain areas of the music. ie. Bass, mids and treble (or high-end). The rotary EQ controls on a mixer mean you can cut or fade out the bass of one track, ready to blend in the next. It gives scope for seamless and creative mixing.
Faders: the volume (or level) controls for that audio source. Move a fader up and volume increase. Move the volume down and it decrease
Gain: this is the input signal level. Adjusting the gain control will adjust the level of that particular input source and channel. Because audio sources or recordings can have very different volumes, you can use the gain controls to make sure all of your music reaches the same level before you mix it. This prevents any potential drop off in volume between different tracks, keeping things even and smooth.
Crossfader: the horizontal fader that 'blends' between your music sources.
Crossfaders allow the DJ to mix from one channel to the next. Multi-channel mixers will have an 'assignable' crossfader. This means you can assign which two channels the crossfader will blend between.
Effects / FX: Sound processing or manipulation. Mixers with FX will allow you to apply different styles of sound manipulation to your music. These will vary from mixer to mixer, and from brand to brand. You'll usually have some sort of control over the level of the effect applied, as well as the parameters of the effect. Some FX can also be synchronised to the BPM of the music.
Outputs: how you get sound out of the mixer to your audio source. The mixer does all the ground work but once the music passes through the mixer, you'll need to put it to an amplifier or speaker solution of somesort - hence the outputs.
Output options include Master, Booth and Rec (or Tape).
The Master output is what you want your audience or venue to here. It's the main output signal controlled by your main volume control on the mixer.
The Booth output is normally what you'd want to hear as your monitor. If you're DJing in a big club or loud venue, the Master sound can be distracting or off-putting thanks to the nature of physics and acoustics. So, it can be beneficial to have a specific monitor signal that can be set your own level, mix and volume. The booth output facilitates this.
Rec / Record / Tape is the signal that you'd want to use if you are recording your mix. This signal is a replication of the master output (what your audience is hearing). However, unlike the master output, it is independent of the master volume control. This is advantageous, because if you turn the master volume up or down during the gig or recording session, that change isn't recorded - you get a consistent and level signal throughout the recording.
Speakers and Amps
Once you'd decided on your set-up, you'll need to consider how you're going to be heard!
A mixer or USB Controller is always going to need to be connected to a sound output device of some sort - ie. speakers.
Speakers come in many different shapes, sizes and prices but they all have one thing in common - they need an amplifier to work. Passive speakers will need connecting to an amplifier to generate sound, hence speaker & amp set-ups. Active speakers and powered monitors will have the amplifier already built-in, offering convenience for the added premium in price.
You get all sorts of speakers the two main types for DJs are:
PA speakers - ideal for mobile DJs, parties and PA systems. These can be passive (needing an amp) or active (having an amp built-in). By their very nature, they are loud, bass heavy and provide lots of high-end, perfect for filling larger venues and dancefloors.
Studio monitors - are perfect for bedroom or studio DJing. They have a detailed sound, more accurate than that of PA speakers. They aren't as loud but they're not supposed to be. That said, some active monitors can be very loud indeed!
When you're starting out, you can easily connect a DJ mixer or USB controller to a home stereo system or surround sound system etc. As long as your device has a line or Aux input, you'll be able to connect via your DJ set-ups master output and the correct signal cable. This is an easy and cost effective way of getting up and running. It's obviously not ideal for DJing in large venues or studio-style applications - hence the other types of speakers recommended above.
As a DJ, you'll need to be able to monitor your mix, ahead of your crowd hearing it. This is traditionally done with headphones.
Headphones also come in all shapes and sizes, covering all price-points. Unlike the consumer headphones out there, DJ headphones are designed with particular benefits and features to enhance the ability to hear a mix correctly.
DJ headphones are usually of the 'closed-back' variety. As it suggests, the cups are closed to keep the sound in, and external sound out - known as isolation. This isolation means when you are monitoring, the noise of your venue is shut out and the track can be heard clearly.
DJ headphones usually have large driver (or speakers..). The larger the drivers, generally speaker, the more intense the bass. We know how DJs love bass, but this is more than just indulgence. Most DJs will mix according to the kick or bass drum of a track - given that this is generally determining the beat of the track. Hearing this can be critical to the accuracy of a mix, so DJ headphones need to stand up to the test!
You'll normally also find that DJ headphones are flexible, to allow for all sorts of monitoring positions. If you're mixing, and trying to hear your venue's sound as well as the mix, chances are you'll have one cup of the headphone covering one ear, and the other ear tuned to the external environment. Therefore DJ headphones will need to be flexible and versatile, for customised positioning on your head!
Studio headphones are slightly different. Instead of emphasising bass, like DJ headphones, studio headphones are all about remaining 'flat' across the frequency spectrum. This means, when you're producing music you hear the mix exactly as it is. You can then mix the areas of your music correctly.
Cartridges & Stylus
If your DJing with turntables, vinyl or DVS, you'll need cartridges (or carts) and stylus (or needles as they are commonly known). The cartridge is the 'motor' of the device, the stylus is the bit that touches the record, sits in the groove and generates the sound.
As with everything else we've covered, carts & stylus come in many different forms. Most decks will include a budget offering as standard but quality will improve with 'after market' options.
Your choices for cartridges will be headshell mountable offerings - these will screw or fix to the headshell of your turntable. Or, you can have 'concorde' design carts. These screw directly to the tone-arm. No headshell, no wires and no hassle... but a cost premium for this benefit!
Stylus come in two different options -spherical and elliptical.
Spherical stylus are ideal for general DJ use. Like the name suggests, the diamond tip is rounded. This is good for forward and backward motion in the cueing, scratching and mixing process. Spherical stylus are traditionally quite robust and therefore favoured by DJs.
Elliptical stylus tend to offer improved sound quality. As the name suggests, unlike spherical stylus, the diamond tip is oval-like. This means it can sit deeper into the records groove and pick up extra detail. They are favoured by savvy DJs, those recording vinyl and real audio connoisseurs. The trade-off here is the delicate nature of elliptical stylus. They aren't suitable for scratching due to the shape, but they can sound fantastic!
The stylus is always included when you buy a DJ cartridge. You can buy alternative stylus for carts (providing they are compatible of course - probably best you check with us if you're unsure).
Cables & Connections
Things to remember:
Outputs are where a signal comes OUT. Inputs are where a signal goes IN. You can't connect an input to an input and expect sound, nor an output to an output!
Just remember outputs take a signal to an input. For example, the output of a CDJ connects to the input of a mixer. The output of a mixer connects to the input of an amplifier or active speaker.
Think of signal as 'having to flow', it all makes sense then.
The main connection types a DJ will experience are:
XLR - referred to as a 'cannon' or 'three pin' by the less technical folk!
Jack - sometimes referred to as TRS or 'a big jack' (not like Jack Charlton - it's the larger of two common audio jacks!). Technically it's a 6.3mm / 1/4" jack.
Mini-jack - the smaller version of the above, as found on iPods and earphones. Technically it's a 3.5mm (1/8") jack.
RCA - Also referred to as a phono or Phone Jack connection.
Speakon - Also referred to as a 'SPK' or the most common brand name 'Neutrik' connection (a bit like the hoover).
You can get cables or adapters to connect pretty much any of these output types to any input type, so with the right cable, you can connect almost anything to anything. Ask us for help connecting your gear if you are stuck!