by Sheldon Drake
I remember a girl in Germany telling me she’d love to learn to DJ, but she was just much too old too start. She was all of 21. I enjoyed telling her I didn’t start until I was 35. It’s never anything more than the mix in front of you right now.
You have four basic tools: your records, two turntables, headphones, and a mixer. Oh, and your brain and ears.
My first and best advice: only buy records that you really love, you’ll be too excited to hear them to worry, and even if your mixing is off, you’ll still be brilliant in between. Besides, there's already enough DJS with unbelievably mad skills and excruciatingly generic records; be the other kind please.
When I started out, I didn’t buy any records at all with beats on them, played totally ambient. This is probably an unrealistic enterprise for most DJs, who will want to get into beatmatching right away, but making it easy on yourself can also be helpful. You are always responsible to be your own teacher; if you are having trouble with an aspect of your learning, break the problem down into steps that you can solve, and watch yourself progress. Buy ten solid house records, or minimal techno, or whatever, but all within a narrow enough range. Work that limited bag off itself, just to the bone. Add other stuff if/when you want, but design problems you can solve, then solve them, and move on, a nice plan.
Buy great headphones if you can, or use whatever’s handy. BASS!! And remember to straighten out that bent neck once in a while.
On the turntable, you have only two variables: position and speed.Where is the needle on the record, and how fast (and which direction) is it going? That's it, period. There’s a pitch control for overall speed adjustments, but if you watch a DJ (which is always great practice, as is just plain old listening, anytime, anywhere), you’ll also see his (or her) hands flying in little glances off the label, edge, spindle, whatever, anything it takes to get it into sync and keep it there.
You’ll encounter many mixers, but all include certain basic functions: cue/PFL (pre-fader levels) switches to send a channel to the headphones for previewing before bringing it up into the main system, and volume sliders to bring a channel up or down. There’s usually also a cross-fader to cut, slowly or quickly, from one side to the other; leave it in the middle for now. There are often additional EQ/tone controls, sometimes a gain (volume) control to balance high or low signals, a master volume, maybe level for your local monitor, and other bells and whistles on higher-end stuff that you can learn when you’re ready. Every time you go to a gig, you might encounter new mixer; you have to find your way around each one, no big deal.
At any time during practice, stop and deliberately mess up, stop one deck, randomly change tracks, whatever. Do it until you’re not afraid of it anymore. You’re home alone; the part of your mind devoted to worrying could be put to better use, like listening.
From here, it’s perfectly simple, yet you could practice your whole life. Get one record going, turn up the appropriate channel in the mixer, adjust the speed to your liking.Then, put a record on the second turntable; start it, and select that channel for headphone preview, and work it hard until it’s ready to come in. If it was that easy.
Two aspects: sync and speed/tempo. Two records that have their tempos/bpm (beats-per-minute) perfectly matched can still be out of sync, like two clocks, both the same speed, just set to different times. More likely, the initial condition is that the speeds will be different, but they’ll slowly drift in and out of sync, as the faster one passes the slow one again. even if you do nothing.First, you push and nudge, whatever, to get the second (incoming) record into sync with the first: pick a snare part or some regular sound, imagine in your ear where you want it to stick it in the first record (like right on top of the other snare), and PUT it there. Then, through further nudging back and forth and mad troubling of the speed control, you keep it in sync. When it goes out of sync, put it back in, and start again, and again. Someone once told me to just use the speed control a lot at first, don’t even touch the record until the speed is very close, and this sometimes seems to actually work pretty well. Whatever, just get on it and make it happen, utter focus.
Listen with your body, move your toes. It helps to bob your head vigorously to the beat you’re trying to match to; it can get pretty distracting to keep two big kicks separate in your ear otherwise. Move faster, too fast to be thinking about it; stay in your senses, not your thoughts.
Realize too that most tracks have a four-bar pattern or so; you can have records synched and beatmatched, but one will be cycling through the larger pattern out of phase; don’t sweat this now, but it will become apparent in time. Then again for a lot of tracks it doesn’t seem to matter so much.One common technique is to grab the record as a bar/section begins, hold it, then release it as the other record comes through. You can also learn to start records on specific beats that way, get it ready and cut it in. Do it 100 times; it’ll come.
Generally you'll want to cut the incoming bass out and match the high hats first, bring them in and make sure they're right, then either gradually or all at once swap the basses: oh that is so satisfying.
Again, first you get it in sync, then you do whatever you have to to keep it in sync. If it drifts off, back to step one: put it in sync again, then keep it there. Very simple in concept, really it is, but it takes hours of practice until your margin of error is small enough. So what; begin and continue, get some water under the bridge. Until it drifts off, it’s a lovely mix, hurry and make another one. Experienced DJs still work their records very hard, lots of hand contact, but the difference is they fix their mistakes before you can hear them. Once you understand the principles, go stand behind a DJ and watch; see how well you can follow the correspondence between what the hands do and what you hear. Watch when a new record is coming in (typically the bass gets shut down and the high hats come in first, much less likely to be obnoxious if it slips off), listen as the sync gets fixed, think what you would do to it.
Once you learn the techniques a bit, what the hell record to put on next? For me, they often seem to kind of take care of themselves. I’ll reach for my record bag, and through some sort of inverted dodgy intuition (like, grabbing one that seems like a really dumb idea typically works great, actually, though certainly not always), and start checking tracks, and very often one that I don’t really know well will just mesh right up with whatever’s playing, sometimes from the moment the needle hits, Oh. Weird synchronicities happen with regularity; records made decades apart slip into these wonderful duets, and all you can do is just try and stay out of the way and let them waltz.
BTW, DJs usually love compliments, but they tend to like their little bubbles of focus; the best time to ask questions is when they are putting a record away. Keep practicing, and you’ll be on the other side of the decks before you know it, maybe even giving hot tips to some poor humble beginner.
And after that, you still have to practice.