There’s nothing more illustrious than Djing. Mixing beats for a crowd is an electrifying thrill. So, we don’t blame you one bit for wanting to know how to become a DJ – and we’re here to help!
DJing isn’t just an orderly process of meshing one song with another. It’s a true expression of musical talent. Before you unleash your raw artistic power on the crowd, you need to master DJing mechanics. Follow along with this comprehensive 5-step ‘How to DJ for beginners’ tutorial to conquer the DJing method!
How to DJ Step 1: Exploring DJ Software
Analog tools limited old school DJs. Vinyl sounds excellent, but scratching, beat matching, and simple FX can only go so far. New-school DJs have far more weapons in their sonic arsenal. DJing software unlocks a trove of fresh features. Here’s a quick breakdown on these extras:
Each channel has a digital turntable in the software. These virtual DJ turntables link to the decks. As you move one deck table, the virtual table moves in unison. They display song data useful for mixing.
This is a visual representation of the sound. The waveform will show the sonic characteristics of a song which is useful for beatmatching tracks.
Analog effects can only be applied one at a time. Digital effects are a different beast. Layer them on top of each other to create unique sound flavors.
A song’s tempo, calculated in beats per minute. Most Djing software automatically recognizes and displays a track’s BPM, which is essential for the beatmatching process.
DJing software will synchronize different tempos of two tracks. This doesn’t always work correctly, but it helps a DJ get the process down.
A song’s key is the range of its musical notes. A key can shape the style of a mix. The DJing Software will detect and display a track’s key so that DJs can pair keys.
This lets DJs trigger sounds, like drum hits or guitar rhythms, to add more to the mix or to create a custom beat.
This allows DJs to bookmark places in the track to playback from. They also trigger loops in timed increments.
Our top 3 DJ software picks
There is a bunch of DJing software on the market that you must familiarise yourself with if you want to learn how to DJ. Check out a breakdown of the most well-known software and find out which one is the best option for you.
1. Rekordbox DJ
Its crucial advantage is that it comes from Pioneer DJ – the world’s leader in DJing hardware. So, the Rekordbox software integrates into much more gear on the market.
Top-level clubs typically stock pioneer mixers and players. If high-level DJing is on your horizon, you might want to invest in Rekordbox. The downside of Rekordbox is that it doesn’t support controllers from different brands.
The software has a good selection of SFX, including a sampler and 4-deck control. One flaw is the sampler doesn’t have any native sounds. Rekordbox stands apart from the others with a whopping 16 HotCues.
It’s the current market leader. People might recognize it by its previous name, Serato Scratch Live. Most DJs get Serato because it interfaces with all kinds of rigs. Serato doesn’t manufacture equipment, so it’s intended for use with any brand.
Another perk is that Serato comes in two levels: Serato DJ Lite and Serato DJ Pro. If you’re just starting, the Lite version might be the best option (which can easily be upgraded to Pro.)
The Serato software turns a DJ into a VJ as well. It will control different video elements like lighting and karaoke.
Compared to other software, it lacks in SFX, looping, and hot cues.
Produced by NI (Native Instruments), a juggernaut music production company, Traktor Pro, brings a lot of tools attractive to DJ producers. Electronic artists love its remix decks and stems, which allow a DJ to separate and play individual elements in a song. DJs can produce unique tracks while mixing.
Traktor is a very inclusive ecosystem, exclusively combining with its Kontrol series controllers. You won’t be able to mix on different brands. It might be worth it to use a Traktor controller, which has strong SFX and intelligently designed players.
The software lacks in hot cue functions, doesn’t have a separate mic input, and isn’t the easiest to navigate.
How to DJ Step 2: The Fundamental DJ Skills
Every DJ needs to understand and put into practice beatmatching. Mixing two tracks doesn’t just magically work. If you play two raw tracks together, you’ll notice they clash – like two ocean waves crashing together.
What you are hearing is mismatching track speeds. Each track has a different speed, or tempo, that needs to match up. Beatmatching is the process of slowing or speeding down one song to match the other.
DJs move a pitch fader on one of the players up or down to accomplish beatmatching.
DJ software and controllers will automatically sync the tracks, but it won’t always work, especially with complex tempos.
If you want to master the art, you should learn how to beatmatch manually. Check out our comprehensive beatmatching tutorial to learn the process.
You’ll know two tracks are beat-matched because they’ll mesh seamlessly together. Each track becomes almost unrecognizable.
A musical phrase is a group of notes in a song that can be looped or played like an entire song. Phrases help DJs beatmatch. They cue where to start mixing the songs during playback. Not only does the beat need to match, but the phrasing also needs to synchronize too.
Here’s some useful info that’ll help clarify phrasing.
Test it out with two beat-matched songs. Play one at the start of the song, then play the other at random. The tempo matches, but the music will still sound off. Snares will hit when the other track’s kick hits, and so forth.
Using the faders
There are two types of faders:
This is the horizontal fader located in the lower center portion of a mixer. Use it to mix one deck into the other. It features different curve
Each channel has a fader that controls the track volume in the mix. The channel faders have an adjustable curve to change how the track volume comes in.
Faders for Scratching
Learning how to scratch DJ is another skill to master. Firstly, set the crossfader curve to “fast.” The crossfader will cut the music off if pushed to either side. The two tracks will play equally loud at any other point. This allows a DJ to thrash the fader back and forth during scratching, and never sacrificing amplitude.
Set the Channel faders at equal amplitudes – the scratch shouldn’t overpower the main track, but it shouldn’t hide behind it.
We will be soon looking at how to scratch with a DJ controller in a later article, so keep your eyes peeled for that one!
Faders for Mixing
Set the crossfader curve to “slow.” The crossfader will slowly bring in the music until the center point, and then the tracks will play at equal loudness. This allows a DJ to transition one song into the mix and the other song out. While the two tracks play continuously, keep the crossfader at the center point.
The channel faders will shift throughout the mix. Each song will have a melody that you want to highlight. Using your ears as a guide, push one channel fader a little bit above the other to get the right mesh.
In audio engineering terms, an equalizer adjusts the music’s frequency response. In lamen terms, it changes the nature of how the song sounds. Most basic EQs have three knobs: Hi (treble), Mid, and Low (bass).
EQ for Scratching
Scratching should pierce through the mix but not overpower anything. Cut the high & low a little bit on the scratch track to get the sweet spot.
EQ for Mixing
Highlight the melody on one track with boosted highs and trim the low end on the other slightly.
Gain is the amplitude of a track as it enters the mixer. There’s usually a knob at the top that says ‘Gain.’ Songs enter the mixer at various amplitudes, based on the compression and mix-down.
Set the gain so the songs play at equal amplitude when channel faders are equal. Here’s what you’ll need to do:
- Set the channel faders at a matching level.
- Play the tracks.
- Turn both knobs up if the amplitude isn’t loud enough.
- Turn the gain knob on either channel until both amplitudes match.
Using DJ Headphones
No DJ is ever complete without a massive pair of headphones strapped around their neck. They aren’t just for show; there’s a good reason for having them.
The headphones come into play heavily for cueing new songs, beatmatching, and fading songs in or out. You’ll want to route one channel to the headphone mix while listening with one ear. The other ear and channel will concentrate on the monitor.
Mixers will have a headphone routing section. Select the channel you are introducing to the mix. When the tracks match up, bring up the channel fader.
Pro mixers will feature a headphone mono split, which separates the two tracks into each side of the headphones. You’ll be able to use both hear for mixing, before cueing the mix live.
DJ headphones we recommend…
If you’re looking for the best all round DJ headphones then look no further than the Sennheiser HD25 DJ Headphones. These are pretty much the industry standard when it comes to cans. They have great range, right from having thumpy low-ends to super clear mids and ethereal highs. The Sennheiser HD25 DJ Headphones also have a semi-modular design which means you can replace each part if something was to break or snap. As well as being light-weight, excellent quality, and industry-standard, the Sennheiser HD25 DJ headphones are pretty good value as well. Click the big blue below to find the best prices on these badboys.
How to DJ Step 3: Understanding DJ Hardware
We’ve used terms in this article, like player, controller, and deck. These names refer to the device that connects to the mixer or DJ Software. You’ll want to pick the right player that fits your DJing style. Let’s go over the types of gear that play songs for DJing.
How to use a DJ Controller
A DJ controller is a player that only uses digital tracks. It’s an all-in-one unit, with a mixer and two players combined. The design makes it handy, so DJs don’t have to lug around a bunch of gear.
They typically have a variety of digital features also, with lots of flashing lights and buttons. DJ controllers can be cheaper than CDJs or Vinyl players, which entices the average consumer.
Their most distinguishable feature is their small platter, known in the biz as a jog wheel. The jog wheel allows a DJ to scratch, nudge, or seek through a song.
Connecting the controller to a DJ software is pretty straight forward if they are compatible with each other. Connect the controller with the computer via USB cable. If you can’t use some DJing buttons or features, you may be able to map them manually.
Most DJ controllers have an SFX section, hot cue/loop/sampling pads, pitch fader, and Sync button. Higher-end models have LED displays to view and select tracks, along with other performance info.
DJ controller we recommend…
Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S4 MK3 gives digital DJs like you the options, control, and portability you need to perform like a pro anywhere. This amazing 4-deck DJ system pushes the envelope of hardware/software integration, providing you with a DJ rig that performs like standalone hardware but offers the extreme flexibility of software. Juggle beats, fire off loops, add effects, and scratch with absolute confidence with your Traktor Kontrol S4 MK3 using either the included Traktor Pro 3 software or Native Instruments’ Traktor DJ. Whether you’re remixing in the studio or performing live, you’ll be totally blown away by Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S4 MK3.
How to DJ using Digital Media Players (or CDJs)
This type of player is a hybrid CD/digital deck. There’s a CD port on the front to insert and eject CDs. They have a similar jog wheel to DJ controllers.
CDJs will play digital files from a disk drive, thumbstick, or SD card. Usually, at the top of the CDJ, there will be an LED display, so the DJ can search and select tracks to play. Most times, the display will show BPM, waveform, and other performance information.
Playing files on-board the CDJ lets you bypass DJing software, but you’ll have to spend extra time beforehand preparing playlists and setlists.
CDJs are usually expensive. It isn’t standalone, so you’ll need to have two CDJs and a mixer. It’s easier and cheaper to buy a DJ controller. Serious DJs only use CDJs because you can stack multiple units together. Pro DJs will have 4-CDJs combined for mixing.
Digital Media Player (CDJ) we recommend…
The Pioneer CDJ-2000NXS2 inherits all the best features from its predecessor – the CDJ-2000NXS – and takes a giant leap forward. We’ve added a larger, multicolour touch screen with a Qwerty keyboard and search filters to help you select tracks faster. 2 banks of 4 Hot Cues give you more creative freedom, while a 96 kHz/24-bit sound card and support for FLAC/Apple Lossless Audio (ALAC) means you can play with higher resolution formats. Download the rekordbox™ music management software or the rekordbox app to prepare your sets.
How to DJ with a Laptop
Using a laptop Set-up means you are only mixing and playing from the DJ software. DJing software has all the virtual buttons and controls you’d find on a DJ controller. A laptop is where the mixing takes place if you use a DJ controller.
So, you can, in theory, only use your laptop, although your wrist will start to ache from maneuvering the mouse to select options. DJing hardware makes life simple, allowing a DJ to change or trigger something quickly.
If you are going to mix straight from your computer, here are some tips to make it happen:
- Use a USB Audio Adapter or Soundcard, which allows you to plug directly into a sound system and free-up your headphone jack. So, you can listen to tracks and beat match before playing the mix live.
- Decrease your screen resolution. This will make all the software buttons and features larger; easier to select.
- Prepare your setlist beforehand. Shuffling through tracks will be tedious. Have the songs ready to go when you start mixing.
- Customize your view. DJing software lets you choose what windows to have open and to position them at will. This will improve mixing efficiency.
- Utilize a laptop trackpad. Press with one finger to select the option, and use the other finger to dial it in.
How to DJ on Vinyl
The old school is still relevant. DJs around the world use vinyl because it has top-notch scratching. Vinyl offers a tactile feel that improves scratch quality. Vinyl players can be cheap so that you can purchase two tables and a mixer at a modest price. Check out our article to find out what turntable is a good fit for your needs!
Vinyl players don’t have many bells and whistles. Usually, you’ll only get a start/stop button and a pitch fader. If you want to mix prolific electronic music, vinyl isn’t the best option.
Vinyl is harder to maintain. There are mechanical components that breakdown and parts to replace. Vinyl disks themselves need to be cleaned and kept in a safe place.
Vinyl can operate DJing software, thanks to DVS. DJs need time-coded vinyl and an external sound card to make this happen.
DJ turntable we recommend…
The Reloop RP-2000 MK2 may be an entry-level turntable, but you might not know that from its construction. With an attractive black metallic finish, it looks completely pro. We dub it the best entry-level turntable because of its excellent build and reliable performance.
How to DJ Step 4: Practice Makes Perfect
Learning how to become a DJ isn’t an overnight thing. Many people spend years of their life to get performance level skills.
DJing is difficult. If it were easy, anyone would do it. You gotta put in the time and effort to master the craft. Start slow and straightforward.
Get your gear and begin playing tracks. Then, start practicing beatmatching. Move onto SFX, loops, and samples.
Don’t get discouraged. Mix music until your fingers turn red if that’s what it takes.
Once you get to a decent level, record your mix. Listening to your mix will help you find mixing deficiencies and places to improve.
How to DJ Step 5: How to Record Your DJ Set
Lastly, we always get asked how to make a DJ mix that can be sent out to promoters. Don’t panic, we are going to create another detailed article really soon about the methods behind that. But for now, you need some sonic representation of your skills to hand out to the masses. Distribute it on the street corner or parlor shop, yelling, “check out my mixtape!”
In all seriousness, the masses are streaming DJ sets daily. People aren’t tethered to the club or venues any longer.
One personal example I adore is Above & Beyond’s Group Therapy; Weekly mixes greet my ears. You could be feeding your audience with the same good vibration. All you need to do is record your DJ set and post it.
Not only does recording your mix help refine your skills, but it’s also the only way you’ll book venues and get gigs. It’s the first thing a club manager will ask you for.
So, if you didn’t realize it yet … you should record your DJ set. There are a few ways how to do it:
Recording Through DJ Software
This is probably the most effective method. Recordbox, Serato DJ, & Traktor all have recording features. It’s as easy as pie. Hit the REC button at the top of the screen, and your DJ mix will render in a designated folder.
Traktor takes a little bit more work to get to the audio recorder. Just an FYI.
Recording to an External Device
There are ways to record directly to your mobile device, using an app as the recording interface. A small device will connect your mixer output and send it to your phone via lighting or USB-C port. One cool gadget you should check out is the MixBox 2.
It also lets you live stream directly to Facebook Live and Youtube. The price is extremely reasonable.
Recording to a USB drive
Some controllers feature built-in recording direct to a USB drive. XDJ-XZ is a perfect example – It might be your match made in controller heaven.
Final Thoughts on How to become a DJ
We get that this how to DJ tutorial is a torrential downpour of info. It’s best to work slowly through each step. Don’t jump ahead and learn how to DJ patiently. We intuitively designed these steps to take you from DJing scrub to the newest hotness. Bookmark the page so that it can be a continual resource for you.
Do you think we missed anything important in how to be a DJ for beginners? We’d love to get your feedback in the comment down below. Whether bad, good, or impartial – we want to hear your thoughts.
Learning how to become a DJ has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Nothing beats seeing people’s faces glow, as you light up their endorphins with your artful mix. The process isn’t overnight. It might take years or decades, but the reward is worth the work.
Share your DJ set recordings with us when you get to that point! We want to hear your mixing progress.