Anybody who is just now learning how to DJ should know that this is the best time to get into the industry. With the invention of electronic controllers, DJ software, and various new technologies, learning how to become a DJ is easier now than ever before.
For this guide, we will only be able to barely scratch the surface of the basics behind learning how to become a professional DJ. However, if you want to learn the basics of the industry, you will definitely want to read on.
Choose What Type of DJ You Want to Be
There are many different outlets of being a professional DJ. Here are some of the many different types of DJ that you will either have to be to work your way up, or might choose to be.
The Mobile DJ
Mobile DJs will typically run their own business to perform and/or sub-contract gigs (hint: weddings are money-makers) through various one-time clients. They might work with separate companies before learning that they can make the most money on their own or through partnerships.
Word of mouth advertising is the best way to generate plenty of gigs as a mobile DJ. Mobile DJs are well-versed in any sort of event that involves loud music, and probably alcohol. Mobile DJs typically own all of their equipment since renting isn’t very cost-effective. This includes PA speakers (either passive or active), subwoofers, dance floor lighting, and so on.
The Radio DJ
Radio DJs are not, in many circumstances, free to mix songs together and simply add in sound bites at the end of each song on the radio. They are also very good on the microphone and have that “DJ voice” that is a heavy commodity in the industry.
If you work as a radio DJ you will have the perk of having a stable salary, and won’t need to purchase your own equipment. However, you will have to establish credibility to get this sort of position. Many radio DJs will start as mobile DJs, and many of the other types of DJing before getting this position.
The Venue DJ
These DJs might hold a residency with a venue to help hype up a crowd before a big act goes on stage. They also might even stay on stage to run the sound for the act if an act didn’t bring their own DJ with them.
Venue DJs are great at complementing live acts with cuts, scratches, sound FX, and might even work with a local or nationally-recognized act. If you want to be a venue DJ, you likely won’t make that much money. However, you will develop a lot of street cred by battling, scratching, and overall having a unique set of skills in this industry.
The Producer DJ
Think David Guetta, Calvin Harris, Afrojack, Tiesto, and so on. The producer DJ may not have the best skills on the turntables, but their studio skills are unmatched. The producer DJ is entirely a different class of DJ.
You will likely need to have all of the DJ equipment solely for performing live acts to be a producer DJ. Additionally, you will need to studio equipment to produce your music. Many DJs might balance as a producer DJ and club DJ, for example, to produce transition-friendly tracks. In our How to Mashup Songs article, we described this process in more detail.
The Club DJ
This is normally what many people learning how to DJ aspire to be the most. The club DJ runs the sound at your local bar or night club every Friday and Saturday night and keeps the crowd dancing all night long. Although this job may appear easy, being a club DJ is an art. This is why you will have to practice as a mobile DJ for years before getting your first club or bar residency.
Club DJs will likely be able to control both sound and video, complementing their mixes with music videos. They might talk on the microphone at a minimal level to pump up the crowd or announce the last call for alcohol, but typically spend most of their time mixing.
Choose Your Decks and Mixing Platform
This is one of the most important parts of learning how to DJ. To become a DJ and make money professionally you need to be good at using your equipment. However, there are many different types of setups to use.
The two main types of setups are either digitally-based with a laptop, or classic setups without a laptop. The perk to using a laptop setup is that it will come with DJ software that has plenty of features (assuming you purchase a good one). However, as you probably already know, computers can crash and have many different types of failures, which is why some DJs cut them out of their setup altogether.
The Vinyl Setup (No Laptop)
A typical vinyl setup includes two classic turntables and a 2-channel mixer. This is a pretty affordable setup but requires that you purchase vinyl records for all of your music. Since music is becoming more digital by the second, this setup is rare to find. Unless you want to specialize in old-school clubs, you will have a difficult time keeping up with the latest music on vinyl.
The vinyl setup sounds best with scratching, and also produces the best sound for this art. Although this is the biggest perk of this setup, many years of frustration and practice will be necessary to learn how to beat-match and transition songs smoothly without things like digital BPM detection and visual audio wavelengths.
The CDJ Setup (No Laptop)
Many people simply do not trust laptops, but also understand that MP3s can easily be put onto CDs instead. The CDJ setup is still pretty relevant since it eliminates the need for computers and the countless variables for destruction that go with them.
All you will need for a CDJ setup is a couple CDJs and a 2 – 4 channel mixer. Since you can download songs and put them onto CDs or simply put them on a USB thumb drive, CDJs are easy to use for DJs who like to plan their sets in advance.
The Timecode Setup
Timecode Setups are great for people who like the look/feel of a CDJ or vinyl setup. The main difference here is that they incorporate into computer software. One thing that sucks about a timecode setup is that you might lose some of the features of the CDJ, vinyl, and/or mixer in return for using computer software.
The Controller Setup
This setup is almost like cheating. If you want to learn how to become a DJ and use the closest thing to performance-enhancing drugs that there is, this should be your top option. Controller setups are very affordable and capable of all of the same functions as the prior setups.
However, be warned. Controller setups in many cases sound terrible with scratching, may be very small, and rely on the functionality of your laptop. These are the buggiest setups that there are. This is why many DJs will learn on a cheap MIDI controller before graduating to one of the above setups. Although, some DJs will stick with controllers forever.
Learn the Basic of the Hustle
If you are reading this, you are probably intelligent enough to teach yourself about the basics of audio equipment. But you also perhaps need some assistance learning how to DJ so that you can be the best DJ you can be.
If you want to learn how to become a DJ, make money, and be professional at the same time, there are some things you need to learn. Let’s go ahead and now break down some of the basic components of the hustle.
Depending on which setup you use, this process may slightly differ. However, the main idea behind what mixing is to mashup multiple songs together. This can be as simple as adding a loop or sound effect to a track, or as complex as putting four – six songs together at the same time. If you are a DJ-god, you might even be able to do more than this.
Mixing songs together requires that they are at a similar BPM and key so that they can mesh well together. This is very hard to do on the fly, which is why some DJs will plan out their sets in advance. There are many techniques to mixing. It is simply not possible to learn them overnight.
Much like mixing, transitioning from one song to another requires that both songs be at a similar BPM and key. Most dance songs these days operate in 4/4 time and are between 130 – 140 BPM (65 – 70 BPM), or 80 – 100 BPM (these ones typically don’t double). Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule.
Most DJ software will tell you the key of both tracks, and if they match up together. If you have a setup without software, you are best using your musical ear while cueing your next song(s) to determine if they flow together.
One thing that will help you to learn how to transition is to try and count “1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4…” on beat while listening to songs until you start to notice the pattern of the music and know when to press play. Soon you will start hearing tracks in terms of 16 – 32 bars, which takes practice. You will know you have mastered this when you can “feel” when to press play.
While switching over to another song, a final basic thing to consider is EQs. These are those knobs that you find on the mixer (see picture below). A basic technique is to cut the bass out from the song you transitioning out of to allow room for the new song to come in. Once you move the crossfader over to the new track, put the bass back up before you forget and mess up your next transition.
Selecting the next song is an art within itself. Outside of what we talked about in the transitioning section, you need to be the one to feel what is best at all time. Maybe the next song should be a different genre, maybe you should avoid playing a certain artist, and so on.
Each event and crowd are different, so there are no specific rules for song selection. For best results, do genres in bunches of three before switching genres, and don’t play the same artist twice in one hour. Also, avoid playing the same song twice. The rest is up to you.
Unless you have a setup which doesn’t use a laptop, you will need DJ software. There are many software options for you to consider, including Serato, Traktor, Virtual DJ, and more. Although many ego-flexing DJs like to point out one software as the best, and the rest as terrible, there isn’t a clear top option here.
Typically, Serato has the best reputation for reproducing high-quality scratching sounds. The rest of the details really are left best interpreted to your personal circumstances, setup, and needs. Any of three DJ software options above are professional, and great for learning how to DJ.
The audio interface is arguably the most important piece of your setup if you are a digital DJ who uses controllers or timecodes. Unless your controller comes with an audio interface (or soundcard), you will need to purchase a nice one.
The audio interface is what will help you connect to your speakers and power amplifier (if you have passive speakers). It is necessary for communicating with your laptop and DJ software. This is unless you want to use your basic laptop soundcard, which will likely crash during the middle of a setup. For best results, purchase an audio interface with at least 24-bit sound and a 48 kHz sample rate.
Cords and Adapters
This is one of the most underrated parts of the DJ setup. More than likely, you will spend a great deal of money investing into several cords and adapters for your setup. Once you think you have enough speaker cables, audio cables, and adapters, you will then need more.
Add to Your Music Library: Where to Get Your Music
You can never have enough music as a professional DJ. Think in terms of at least 20,000 songs being perhaps enough. However, this is still a pretty small number in the grand scheme of things. Any collection that adds up to 50,000 – 100,000 songs should be enough for a DJ who wants to avoid not having a classic jam when a perfect request comes.
Online DJ record pools are perhaps the best way to legally get your music. There are countless different options for you to choose from here. Barbangerz and DJcity are just a couple of the countless options for you to pursue here. The great thing about DJ record pools is that you pay a flat or monthly rate in exchange for unlimited downloads.
Most importantly, the tracks you get from DJ record pools are DJ friendly. Meaning, they can easily be incorporated into your DJ software and come with all of the tags (hint: BPM) that you need to mix with them. They will sometimes also have an extended intro and ending to help with transitioning.
Practice Your Skills
No amount of practice is enough if you are learning how to become a DJ. Learning how to DJ is not an easy process, and even the most professional DJs are still learning how to be better. Consider practicing to be like practicing an instrument or sport. It can also be similar to developing an exercise routine. In any case, if you don’t practice it will show. Nobody wants to dance to a DJ’s mix that cuts in and out and is occasionally off-beat.
Market Yourself and Set an Honest Price
Start a business, build a website, put up a Facebook page, create flyers, make business cards, and so on. You will never be able to get steady clients if you don’t establish a name for yourself. Once you do get a steady string of clients, make sure that you have a price that matches your value.
Otherwise, you will never get them to tell their friends about “that great DJ who worked at their wedding.” You need to be business-minded, and entrepreneurial if you want to learn how to DJ and become the best you can be.