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“A disc jockey (abbreviated DJ, D.J. or deejay) is a person who mixes recorded music as it is playing.”
Deejaying is the practice of mixing recorded tracks together in a continuous fashion to keep the energy of the music flowing without interruption (put semi-subjectively). Today it exists as a profession, wherein the “DJ” shows up to a location with some music and turntables (usually the sound system is prepared beforehand, but if the DJ is dedicated – or a skinflint – they might bring their own), and provides music by playing a selection of music (recorded tracks) and mixing it such a way that an uninterrupted flow of music that fits the mood is present for the audience to enjoy.
Because of the live nature of the activity, deejays are considered live performers, and every event is a performance as such. Since the idea exists nowadays that the modern deejay simply presses a few buttons for a mix exists, it should be mentioned that even when solely mixing on a computer various techniques exist to achieve the desired effects of the perfect mix or the complicated performances that the purist turntablists exhibit.
Every DJ has basic components to allow themselves to give a performance. These basic components are:
- Two physical or virtual turntables
- A physical or digital mixer
- An audio output to play the music from (speakers of any kind really)
- A source from which the music is played
These basic prerequisites can be expanded upon to have different setups that are unique from each other but in essence every setup boils down to these components working in conjunction with each other.
The idea of the continuous mix is as follows: The two turntables exist to cue and play the tracks while the mixer controls the various effects, EQ and the amount of volume being sent through to the speakers from either turntable A or turntable B (this is determined by the position of the crossfader relative to the point equidistant from both turntable A and B and the channel in which the turntable is plugged in to). While one song is playing out loud the next is cued up silently (The crossfader is fully pushed to either A or B, so that only the signal from one turntable is being output, further volume adjustment can be done on the channel faders), the deejay listens on his headphones which are plugged in to the mixer and beatmatches the track playing in the headphones to one playing out loud . When the track playing out loud is coming to the end, or when the point of transition is nearing occurrence, the deejay slowly slides the crossfader to the other side, which starts sending some signal to the output from the track that was previously silent. Assuming the tracks have been beatmatched properly and assuming ideally that the tracks are in key (in melodic harmony with each other), the result is a smooth melting transition between one track to the next. If performed correctly, a continuous mix may also be achieved with a well-timed drop mix. This is simpler but needs to be timed well. An instance on the track is selected and cued silently, for example the first kick at the beginning of a 16 bar phrase. The deejay ‘holds on’ to this part by selecting it by physical or digital means (clicking and holding or physically pressing the finger down on the record) and waits until the end of the phrase of the track being currently played. At the moment that phrase ends the deejay ‘lets go’ of the track was cued up on the first beat of the next phrase and lets it play. If done correctly, the track will seem to end on the phrase and ‘drop’ into the next phrase of another track. This is known as a drop mix. An extreme version of this exists on vinyl setups called a needle drop, wherein the deejay finds the spot to be played from and drops the needle on the exact spot while the record is spinning. This is a difficult manoeuver and requires precision and timing.
The three most common DJ setups consisting of the components above are the original vinyl, the CDJs and a virtual replacement.
A vinyl setup consists of two turntables, a mixer, speakers and of course vinyl records. A record is placed on the platter, the needle is placed on the beginning of the groove on the record and start is pressed to begin playback of the record. The most common representative of vinyl is a turntable model known as the Technics SL1200. Their build quality, durability and solid motor design have made them very popular and therefore iconic. Production ceased for the unit but recently Panasonic announced they would be re-releasing the model for consumers and DJs again. These setups are analogue by nature, and have a warm, full sound. The build quality of most vinyl turntables is good and means a model can last a very long time if taken care of properly. A vinyl turntable is susceptible to dirt accumulating in the nooks and crannies and directly interfere with playback if dust or dirt gather in the grooves of the record while playback is occurring. It is generally considered more difficult to operate on these because more features exist on other setups to help the deejay beatmatch and perform other techniques more easily. Skill and finesse are required to beatmatch and perform various turntablist techniques smoothly, making this the more finnicky alternative.
A CDJ setup is similar to a vinyl one except for the turntables. A CDJ turntable already looks quite different, and many different models exist and are used all over the world. A CDJ turntable has a ‘jog wheel’ that rests in place of what would be the platter on a vinyl setup, and this wheel is used to scrub through the audio files on the CDs. A CD is inserted into the CD slot beneath the wheel and when the CDJ recognizes the audio files on the disc it begins playback of the CDs. The jog wheel can be used in a fashion similar to the way a record is handled on vinyl, but also has various other functions. The CDJs have a variety of options and features that set them apart from the vinyl turntables, such as the ability to set a cue from which playback will begin when the appropriate cue button is pressed. The tempo adjuster (or bpm slider) is much more accurate, with a reading on the lower right hand side of the display indicating which tempo the song is playing at. I have used these more than the other setups and from personal experience I can vouch for the ease of use and exciting interface. Perhaps the biggest draw for me is the bpm indicator, which lets me very easily beatmatch songs and mix them together as far is tempo is concerned. The build quality of CDJs varies from model to model but the usual consensus is that CDJs have a lesser build quality than the vinyl decks which means they don’t last as long, since CDJs have more plastic parts which break more easily than metal parts. CDJs are also weak to dust and dirt accumulating in the workings of the device and care has to be taken especially in large dusty or dirty venues so that the functionality of the device remains intact. Because of the features present it is generally easier to achieve a smooth mix when operating on this device.
A virtual setup works with the same logic as the physical ones but can be partly or entirely digital. There are countless possibilities to mix and match parts in this case. Should the deejay choose to go entirely digital, they have the advantage of carrying an entire deejay setup sans good speakers and an interface with a laptop (or just a laptop if the aforementioned peripherals are provided). This makes the setup as durable as the computer, but without external controllers a deejay would find it ultimately cumbersome to handle a mix with a mouse and keyboard (unless they’re into that sort of thing). In this case an external controller is most often used, either a midi device or a specifically designated deejay controller (e.g. denon-mc-7000). They are usually conveniently able to be connected to a computer straight away via USB and most have a soundcard built-in to be able to preview tracks pre-mix. However, using actual physical turntables and/or a deejay mixer in conjunction with a computer (or more parts if you’re into that sort of thing) will complicate the process and incorporate all of the information mentioned above. Research has to be done in every case to find out which setup suits the deejay in question best, and actually trying it out is even better.
“Probieren geht über Studieren; Experimentation over Expatiation (or Research)”
- German saying
The genesis of deejaying can be traced back to the invention of radio and before that the phonograph. The desire to spread the spread music and broadcast it everywhere. The radio was created at the turn of the twentieth century, and eventually personalities became a staple of radio, commentators would moderate the music so-to-speak and give their opinions and thoughts in-between. This led to the employment of the first disc jockey in 1909. Ray Newby from California at sixteen years old disc jockeyed the first records (played records in quick succession with very old radio equipment) under the watchful eye of Charles ´´Doc´´ Herrold. On-air announcers and programmers would later be known as disc jockeys. The first radio announcer and programmer in the United Kingdom, on the BBC radio station was Christopher Stone. Franics Grasso was also influential, claiming to have invented and popularised beatmatching in the sixties.
“The term disc jockey was first used in 1935 by American radio commentator Walter Winchell to describe Martin Block; the first radio announcer that became famous for his show “Make Believe Ballroom” where Block would pretend he was broadcasting from a ballroom by playing the nation’s top dance bands. The term “disc jockey”, derived from “disc”, referring to the disc records and “jockey” which is a machine operator, caught on and appeared in print in “Variety” in 1941.”
The second aspect of deejaying is turntablism, which is the skillful manipulation of the record on the turntables to make original music or give original performances using a variety of techniques. The inventor of the scratch is a deejay known as DJ Grand Wizard Theodore. The technique was invented when he was interrupted in the middle of an experimentation session by his mother who wanted him to turn the volume down. He swished his finger back and forth while his mother was scolding him and heard the weird “scratches” he made when suddenly pushing the record back and forth quickly. He cultivated this phenomenon in secret and then performed it at a party. After this people copied and built upon the technique and created many other versions and varieties. He is considered THE pioneer and forefather of turntablism, and was donned with the Grand Wizard title by his peers as recognition of this.
I performed a 20-25 minute deejay set in the canteen of my college. I used two physical CDJs, a physical mixer (Pioneer DJM750), a pair of Sennheiser DJ headphones and two CDs. This system was cabled to an external 12-channel mixing console which served as a hub for various synthesizers, pads and other instruments which were used by other performers but were not part of my performance. From the external mixer, the output was routed to a crossover and then an amplifier for two subs which sat below the two QSC PA speakers. There was an issue in the beginning where no sound could be heard so I assisted to make sure the subs and the aux sends were wired properly. The auxiliary sends were used to send the rest of the sound to the three QSCs. Two facing the audience, and one facing the performer (to be able to hear oneself).
I chose to perform with the CDJs because the idea appealed to me the most in terms of ease of performance and convenience. I work very well with the CDJs and I like the interface (admittedly I had chosen them very early on over the vinyl turntables and hadn’t had enough time to fully appreciate the vinyl setup), the ability of the CDJs to play CDs and the various functions they present over the vinyl setup had won me over in the end. The CDJs have a very useful tempo slider at the right of each turntable which not only accurately adjusts the tempo but also indicate the tempo being adjusted, which is very useful for quickly switching between slow and fast tempo songs without losing track of the rhythm. This fit my set perfectly along with the fact that the music I chose was easily obtainable through mp3 download and all I had to do was burn it to a CD. The XDJs seemed appealing but they arrived too early for me to practice enough on them. I could imagine using the XDJs in the future as using a single USB with a link between the two turntables would be even more convenient than CDs. I would also like to try using the vinyl setup a couple of times just to say that I could do it if I wanted to.
My set list consisted of eight EDM tracks which I pre-selected based on vibe and atmosphere. The first three are meant to kick off the set with some Trap bounce, with the very first being a creation of my own. This is then succeeded by a mellow (Dubstep?) drum heavy tune. After this we have some melodic tracks with vocals and heavy drops ending off with an epic remix that incorporates violins, beautiful vocals and an incredible festival Trap drop.
The techniques I used were within the ‘normal’ spectrum of DJ techniques. I beat matched most of the tracks and a couple I drop-mixed in at the end of some previous ones for an immediacy effect as well as to demonstrate the technique. At the end of the songs and the beginnings of the next ones I would pay attention to the bpms and adjust them accordingly to smoothly transition between the two. This either consisted of slowing down the song currently playing or speeding it up to match the tempo of the upcoming track or speeding up or slowing down the upcoming track and then reverting it back to normal in the intro, sometimes a mix of both. This would ensure the smooth transition between the tracks despite the gap in tempo and rhythm. during the transition I would also adjust the EQ settings on the mixer to further create the acoustic illusion that the tracks were morphing into each other. This usually meant gradually cutting highs and mids off towards the transition and turning them back up going away from the transition. Doing this makes the tracks sound more similar, and since the music I played was very bass heavy the tracks shared frequencies in that range and so seemed like all the tracks were ‘glued’ together. This also hid a mistake I made in making the set. I hadn’t initially payed attention to this but some of my tracks playing after one another had not shared musical keys so playing them at the same time caused disharmony which was a problem I quickly had to deal with so I used the EQing effect to my advantage here. Every so often when my next song was cued up and I had a minute or two I would cut high or low shortly before the beat dropped to make the mix more dynamic. For some extra spice, I sometimes crossfaded the playing song with the cued song while scratching it to give the mix some individuality with some scratches of my own. I had cued up the songs in a slightly unusual fashion in that I left the crossfader at the midpoint most of the time while relying on the channel levels to mix the tracks together. Another unusual thing I had done was instead of listening to the tracks to beatmatch them I had found the bpm out beforehand and written it down on a list, ruling out the possibility that I might not find the correct tempo in time, because I already knew what they were. This made it easy for me to transition between the tracks. All I had to do was look at the bpm and figure out how I wanted to transition, and adjust the bpm fader accordingly.
I had initially planned to perform an improvisational piece as a part of my set, wherein I would assign certain parts of the last track to hot cues on the left CDJ and a part of the first on the right. I would then make a ‘beat’ on the spot by looping these small parts that were cued on the CDJs. Due to the nature of this it was decided I save it for later.