DJ Skills you should haveHow to be a better DJ in 2020
If there’s one thing ALL DJs can do, beginners or pros, its improve their DJing skills.
Trust me even the DJs that have been in the game for a long time are still learning every day. Improving their skills, mastering their craft and pioneering new styles too.
So “how do I improve my DJ skills?” With these actionable tips and tricks. There’s something in here for everyone whether you’re just starting out or just want to improve your already impressive DJ talents.
So here’s 31 ways to be a better DJ
Table of contents
- Don't over complicate your DJ set
- Get to know your DJ hardware inside and out
- Learn one new trick at a time
- Learn to scratch mix
- Learn to mix and entirely different musical genre
- Learn from other DJs, they are not your enemy
- Learn to beat-match, don't rely on beat-syncing software
- Make your own loops
- Create your own vocal samples
- Add a midi controller to your DJ setup
- Learn to DJ without a laptop
- Learn to DJ with ONLY a laptop
- Plan your playlist before you start
- Take your audience on a musical journey
- Read the crowd, prepare to be flexible
- Make use of the EQ filters
- Learn to match keys
- Mix acapella tracks and instrumentals
- Record your DJ sets, analyse your mixes
- Learn the best moment to mix in and out of each track
- Bring backup DJ hardware to your gigs
- Stay sober when you DJ
- Have multiple playlists ready to go at any time
- Enjoy your set, dance, be happy, show the crowd your energy
- Analyse your tracks thoroughly
- Group your tracks in groups of 2 or 3
- Master the art of vinyl DJing
- Love the music you play
- Learn to be confident with the skills you have
- Sell you brand well
- Be consistent
- BONUS! Be professional
Don't over complicate your DJ set
Modern DJ hardware and software has so many features these days, all designed to make you more “creative” and “unique” but honestly a lot of the time they are just a distraction from what you should be doing.
Seamlessly mixing your music and pleasing your crowd in the process! So use effects and tricks sparingly.
Almost all professional music is well produced and full of well mixed effects anyway so try not to destroy all their good work with too much flange, delay, reverb, filter, gate and whatever else you think might be fun to add to your mix. Keep it simple stupid!
Besides adding more complexity to your set means more chance you might mess it up! There’s no prizes for who can play 4 tracks at once with a mountain of effects on top. Let your crowd enough one awesome track at a time (ok maybe 2!)
Get to know your DJ hardware inside and out
Its all too easy to unwrap you new shiny DJ hardware and just start playing with all the buttons and dials and faders all at once! But you’ll never truly understand your mixer or decks unless you take your time to find out what each little tool can do.
So slow down, pick a track you can loop for 20 minutes. pick one or two controls and see what they do.
See how creative you can get with just those controls in play. Once you feel you’ve mastered how to use them, move on to another pair.
No piece of DJ hardware is perfect either, learn what shortfalls your system has or find out what shortfalls YOU have when trying to use it.
It’ll help you identify areas you need to improve and also find solutions to the issues in your setup.
Learn one new trick at a time
Seen a DJ do something interesting during their set? Or heard about a new mixing trick with filters and faders? Maybe a new looping technique or tips on how to seamlessly mix key matched tracks.
There’s thousands of cool DJing tricks and techniques to learn but it can feel like you want to just jump in and do it all right away. Trust me you’ll never master the art of DJing by doing that. Pick one tip or technique and practice, practice, practice. Repeat it over and over with a couple of your favourite tracks.
Do it so many times that before long it feels natural and easy to spot exactly what you need to do. This is how world class DJs learn and become at one with the music. Use the force! If you’re looking for some online DJ courses I have a list of some free and paid here.
Learn to scratch mix
This will likely take you years to master but every good DJ should be able to scratch mix! There’s no denying it, scratching is cool, it always has been and judging by the amount of digital hardware that lets you scratch MP3s and CDs, its not a dying art form either.
There’s plenty of YouTube videos on how to learn some simple techniques to get you started. Learn how to keep you scratches tight, master using your crossfader to its full potential.
Learning to scratch mix isn’t just about making cool sounds over your tunes, it helps you learn to catch and release tracks at the right moment and even get you out of a tight spot if a mix totally fails on you.
If you fall in love with scratch mixing then think about getting the right mixer for scratch mixing too. The right hardware will help you improve you scratching skills!
Learn to mix and entirely different musical genre
Learning to mix well is at the very core of DJing but sticking to one musical genre wont help you improve your mixing abilities. Jump out of your comfort zone and try mixing another style. If you’re a house DJ try Hip-Hop which is around 30 BPM slower and has a different set of mixing challenges.
Or up the tempo with Drum & Bass (Learn how to DJ Drum and bass here) which is rich in percussion and bass lines that you’ll need to master mixing together.
This not only broadens your skill set but helps you understand your hardware better too. You may find techniques and styles in those musical genres that you want to try out on your musical passion. Merging these can lead to a whole new way of DJing for you!
Learn from other DJs, they are not your enemy
For some reason people think modern DJing is all about bravado and fame. It really isn’t and the DJ community is actually a very friendly, helpful and collaborative world.
So meet other DJs, discuss your skills and more importantly ask questions, answer them too if you have the answer. Share tips, learn from others.
Everyone is always learning.
Watch this great interview with Carl Cox on “How I Play”.
Learn to beat-match, don't rely on beat-syncing software
Modern DJ hardware can sync tracks with the push of a button which goes against god and nature in the eyes of many veteran DJs. me included! There’s a lot to be said for syncing tracks, leaving you free to get super creative.
But the sync feature doesn’t always work perfectly and if you rely on it you are doomed to fail! So learning to beat-match is a key skill every DJ should have. If you can’t disable syncing and perfectly beat-match two tracks then you’re not really a DJ my friend.
So get practicing. Start one track and learn to adjust the temp, listen out for the little signals that your track is slipping out of time, don’t look at beat-matching displays either, use your ears. trust your instincts and master this very basic of DJ requirements.
Make your own loops
Professional DJ software allows you to create loops from your favourite tracks that you can manipulate during your set. You can set these before your gig too and jump straight to them, creating never-ending tracks that you can then get super creative with.
But why not go one further and create your own loops. You could create your own drum loops with drum machine software. Or a funky stab or piano melody.
Maybe download some sound effects and edit them together. Import them in to your software and make your DJ totally original. All very easy to do and it’ll make your set sound totally unique!
Create your own vocal samples
Can you sing? Know someone that can? or have access to a library of vocal samples? Add them to your DJ software and have them ready to go at the push of a button. You could even loop them and add effects to them to create something totally new.
Maybe get a voiceover artist on fiverr.com to say the name of the gig you’re at and load that in to your playlist. Your crowd will love it!
Add a midi controller to your DJ setup
When your DJ hardware doesn’t quite do what you want it to, or maybe you just want some dedicated button to push for something unique. Grab an inexpensive Midi controller and map some triggers to them.
With software like Traktor you can even set variables so buttons perform actions only when other actions have happened.
This allows you to get extra creative in a very simple and effective way. Midi controllers generally cost around $50 (35GBP), some less some more. All well worth it to do something original. I personally have the Akai LPD8 which is awesome.
Learn to DJ without a laptop
DJs survived just fine without laptops for many years and you can too! While its at the heart of most DJ hardware setups there are other methods like CDs and Vinyl. They have their own challenges that you should master and it’ll give you more skills to use in more situations.
Some clubs are actually banning laptops, forcing their DJs to return to the original DJing methods. This is no bad thing and knowing how to DJ with turntables and analog mixers is a great skill to fall back on should all the other digital hardware fail. Its why you still see vinyl turntables in most clubs.
Learn to DJ with ONLY a laptop
So you’ve got an awesome digital mixer, some expensive digital decks and a host of other wires and peripherals. But suddenly everything stops working and you have no idea why! This may be an unlikely scenario but do you know how to DJ with just a laptop? Read my article on how to do just that in case everything else fails.
There are pros and cons abut again its a great skill to have should things not go to plan, or maybe your budget just hasn’t stretched to owning all the top DJ gear you hope to have one day.
Plan your playlist before you start
You may love a bunch of tracks but that doesn’t mean they’ll mix well together! Listen to your tunes from end to end, understand what can be done with them and learn which tracks compliment each other well. Then build your play list accordingly.
There’s no point having 50 tracks to choose from if half of your mixes sound awful. Knowing which tracks go with what others is the best way to prepare for a gig.
Take your audience on a musical journey
Your crowd are one collective entity creating you gig’s “vibe” and you are the master controller. The crowd want to be taken on a journey, taken from one sound to another.
You can do this by building up the intensity of soundscapes throughout your set, from a deep and soulful start, to an uplifting hands-in-the-air anthem filled middle, to a low-down and dirty intense ending.
Crowds respond much better if your set flows well. So think about what tracks should go in what order to achieve this. Jumping from one style to another wont do this and will only turn people off.
Tease people, delight people, learn when to drop the beat at the perfect moment to send them all into a frenzy.
Its one of the biggest thrills of being a DJ! Nothing beats it.
Read the crowd, prepare to be flexible
While you may love what you’re playing and be pleased with your set, remember your crowd are there to be pleased. If you fail to please them there will be repercussions!!
Have your preferred playlist but be sure to have backups. Learn how to read your crowd, are they in to what you’re playing? If not then be prepared to drop everything and delve in to your playlists for something better.
Make use of the EQ filters
Almost every track has plenty of bass, mid range and high frequency sounds to fill the venue, so mixing one or more tracks on top of that is just adding to an already crowded sound.
Most modern mixers have filters to take out the low, mid and high frequencies. So instead of fading one track in to another try filtering one frequency out and bring another in. Replace your master track’s bass-line with that of another track.
As a general rule its wise to fade in a new track with a reduce high frequency and low frequency for a more seamless mix. Increase them slowly as the mix builds, taking out the bass from master track. Its a very easy and effective trick anyone can do.
Learn to match keys
Modern DJ software can maintain the original key of a tune whole adjusting its tempo. Not only that but they can also adjust the key of a track independently of the tempo too. You can take two tracks with different keys and match them perfectly.
This adds a whole new dimension to seamless mixing where the melodies, bass lines and stabs all work in unison. Getting this right can take some practice as you don’t want sounds to clash either.
DJ Software like Traktor Pro can analyse all of your tracks and store information in its key and beats per minute (BPM) so you can find tracks that have a similar or exact matching key and refine to get the key mix just right.
Mix acapella tracks and instrumentals
There’s plenty of instrumental tunes out there, songs with no vocals at all. So why not find some vocal only tracks to play over them and create something entirely new!
There’s plenty of places online to find acapellas of your well known tracks, especially bootleg music blogs. You can also purchase vocal samples online for something people haven’t heard before.
Record your DJ sets, analyse your mixes
All modern DJ software allows you to record your set while you’re playing. I recommend doing this for 2 reasons.
You can analyse what mixes worked well, what mixes maybe didn’t live up to your expectations, where your beat matching slipped and what tracks maybe didn’t go together so well.
As for Nostalgia! If you’re especially proud of a set and had an awesome time playing to your crowd then its great to keep that memory. Think of it as a digital photo of your night.
Learn the best moment to mix in and out of each track
Beat matching and sample looping are all wonderful creative tricks to mix your music but if you choose the wrong moment in a track it can sound awful! If two vocals clash, melodies compete for dominance, 2 bass-lines overwhelm the sound system or you suddenly stand playing beats over a break, it can really mess up your set.
Every track has a number of perfect moments for you to mix in the next track and mix out the master. Learn where those moments are, experiment and practice. Remember where they are (add markers or cue points if your software allows). Your crowd will go wild when you drop the mix in at just the right moment.
For more advanced mixing tutorials check out my article here.
Bring backup DJ hardware to your gigs
Do not trust your hardware! These highly technical pieces of equipment can fail. What will you do if your laptop fails? Or your decks or mixer?
My advice, carry at least one entire backup of your playlists and musical library on an external drive. Preferably a big USB memory stick that is USB 3 and has very fast reading capabilities.
You should also load up an iPad or iPhone with a backup of your tunes as well as DJ software. Bring charging cables and a stereo jack to phono (RCA) cable . Worse case scenario you can plug straight in to the sound system and you’re back in business!
Here’s one useful option thats lightweight and a good backup system Check out the Reloop BeatPad 2 Cross Platform DJ Controller. Small enough to be portable and doesn’t require a laptop.
Stay sober when you DJ
It always amazes me how drunk or intoxicated some DJs get. Sure its easy to get swept up in the hedonistic party atmosphere but it wont enhance your DJ skills. It’ll also make you need to pee more which isn’t a good thing when you’re 20 minutes in to your 2 hour set!
So stay sober, stay alert, stay healthy and happy. Your body will thank you and you’ll be fully aware of what you need to do. Your crowd will thank you for it too.
Have multiple playlists ready to go at any time
You may have one perfect playlist all set up and ready to go for your given time-slot or party. But things can change at a moment’s notice and you may find yourself in a situation where your playlist really isn’t’ appropriate.
That 90 minute dirty house set you planned to play at 2am may not sound so great if you suddenly get moved to the 10pm slot. Or a change of venue or event may mean people are expecting a very different set from you. Are you ready for that?
So prepare a number of sets, know them well. vary your musical journey, prepare to orchestrate a different vibe.
I recommend reading my guide to creating the best set lists for any gig.
Enjoy your set, dance, be happy, show the crowd your energy
You’re doing for the love of the music right? So enjoy yourself! Don’t let your nerves get the better of you. Go with the music and show the crowd you’re enjoying it too.
Its a strange culture but the crowd actually like to see the technician playing the music, so show them you’re in to it and they’ll likely be in to it too! Feed off their vibe, let it consume you, feed it back to them and get them excited too. Show them you care. So don’t just stand there staring at all the flashing lights and buttons. Smile, dance and get in to it as much as your crowd are.
Having said that, don’t spend all your time waving your hands in the air and pulling weird DJ poses. Nobody likes a show-off.
Analyse your tracks thoroughly
Professional DJs will be able to tell you everything about a single track. Its tempo, key, how many bars before the break, when the bass-line drops out, where’s the best place to create a loop and much much more.
Its why pro DJs sound so good and can be so creative while making it look so easy.
Take your time to listen to your tunes. Even analyse their wave-forms on your laptop. Set your cue points and loops. Remember their structure and find other tracks that compliment them well.
Group your tracks in groups of 2 or 3
Speaking of complimenting tracks. An easy way to do this is to pick a track and then find at least 1 other track that you know works very well with it. By this I mean they match well in structure, have complimenting bass-lines or melodies. Maybe even share the musical same key. Label these tracks (you could edit their name to include a marker).
Once you have small groups of 2 or 3 tracks you’ll find it easy to build up a playlist from them. It’ll also allow you to easily create a musical journey to take your audience on. You can read more on how to create the perfect DJ playlist here.
Master the art of vinyl DJing
Pushing buttons is great and all but DJing with vinyl is where it all started and where, for some, it will always be. If you can’t DJ with records on turntable then you really should learn to.
You’ll have a real appreciation for the art of DJing and how hands on you can be with your music. Its the most tactile experience you’ll have and is actually one of the least expensive DJ setups you can own.
Love the music you play
If you’re just doing it for the (potential) fame or money then give up now. If you’re playing one musical genre over another because you think you’ll get more gigs then give up now.
DJing isn’t easy, it takes dedication and hard work. You may never become a wold famous DJ, you may only play a small nightclub or bar in your home town, but you’re still doing it for the love of good music.
So love the music you play and play the music you love.
Learn to be confident with the skills you have
Confidence is vitally important in DJing. If you know your DJ setup inside and out, known your tunes from start to finish and have refined what skills you do have then there’s nothing to fear. Get out there and rock somebody’s world. You don’t need to be the world’s best DJ to win the crowd, just work within your means, master your craft slowly and methodically.
Don’t try and do more than you feel comfortable. Just because some jock on YouTube shows of playing 6 decks at once and scratch mixing their way through 20 tracks in 5 minutes doesn’t mean they are better than you.
Sell you brand well
DJing is essentially a freelance business. If you make a career from DJing you’ll be self employed which isn’t easy. You need to learn plenty of other business skills to get the gigs you want for the price you think you’re worth.
Learn to promote your brand, start social media channels to promote your gigs. Get a website for your DJ business, work tirelessly to be the best you can be. It takes a lot of dedication but you’re doing what you love so its worth it!
If you are getting DJ gigs there’s one thing everybody wants from you whether they are your adoring crowd, the promoter, your agent, even your fans on your social media channels. They want to see a consistent brand from you. So mould your DJing style and have a signature theme to your DJ sets. Pioneer so tricks and techniques that only you do. Be recognised by them and evolve them over time too.
This applies to every aspect of your DJ career too, not just your DJ sets. DJing is a very public activity and people will expect things of you.
BONUS! Be professional
Here’s an extra bonus piece of advice to be a better DJ. Always be professional! Don’t let a venue or promoter down. Always turn up on time (or early). be helpful, sober and willing to step in if there’s an emergency. Go above and beyond what is expected of you. Whether your a mobile DJ, a nightclub or bar DJ, you’re there because of business so be sure to provide your service in the best way you can.
Put these tips in to action!
All of these tips will make you a better DJ whether you’re just starting out or you’ve been in the business for years.
There are plenty more tips and tricks to share with you so take a look around the site for more useful DJ advice.
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