Have you always wanted to be a DJ? If you’re mesmerized after watching the DJ at your favorite club, festival, or you’re inspired by a video performance on YouTube, perhaps it’s time to explore the world of DJing yourself.
DJing is the art of mixing two or more tracks together in a musical way, and playing recorded music for an audience. It’s a fascinating hobby or career for someone who is drawn to music and technology.
Although starting to DJ may appear to be a big undertaking, the rewards of playing music you love to an audience are immeasurable. If you’re drawn to this artform, it’s worth exploring your interest and learning how to DJ.
Read on to learn more about different types of DJs, what kinds of DJ equipment you will need, the benefits of using Traktor to level up your DJ skills, essential DJ techniques, tips for beginner DJs, and more.
Jump to these sections:
- What is a DJ?
- What equipment do you need to DJ?
- How to become a DJ
- DJ marketing: how to brand yourself as a DJ
Follow along with Traktor, the ultimate platform of hardware and software for DJs with hands-on control of decks, effects, one-touch looping, and more.
What is a DJ?
A DJ, short for “disc jockey,” is a skilled music curator and performer responsible for selecting, blending, and presenting music to entertain an audience. DJs use various audio equipment, such as turntables, mixers, and digital software, to seamlessly mix tracks, create smooth transitions between songs, and maintain a lively atmosphere at events, clubs, or parties.
They often have a deep knowledge of music genres and crowd preferences, allowing them to tailor their playlists and live performances to suit the mood and taste of their audience, ultimately creating memorable and engaging musical experiences. DJs play a pivotal role in the world of music and nightlife, shaping the sonic landscape and keeping the dance floor alive.
Different types of DJs
The landscape of modern DJing is diverse, with various types of DJs that have emerged in today’s music industry.
A club DJ primarily performs at nightclubs and bars, keeping the crowd alive on the dance floor. This is what you might typically imagine a DJ to be. They mix together music from at least two different tracks. A club DJ needs to be able to read the crowd and adjust their set to keep the crowd moving. Generally a club DJ performs on equipment owned by the venue. A club DJ might play one-off nights, although it’s possible to be a resident DJ at venues, which means that a DJ performs on a recurring basis.
A DJ/producer is an artist who produces their own music, mashups, re-edits, remixes or original productions. This type of DJ performs around the world at venues and music festivals. A DJ/producer makes a name for themselves by releasing their own recorded material, which gives them coveted gigs outside of their hometown and a different level of success. This is a good path for someone who feels they have ‘something to say’ with music, beyond what simply DJing allows them.
A turntablist is a DJ who uses the turntable as a musical instrument. By definition, a turntablist improvises on a turntable or controller by scratching and using samples in a musical way. These types of DJs often make routines and videos, and put on special live performances. Though they may be able to perform a club set, this set will be noticeably unique as it will likely include scratches and juggles. Turntablists can perform at music festivals, clubs, and they may have their own Youtube, Twitch or TikTok accounts that highlights their creative work.
A mobile DJ is able to perform anywhere a DJ is needed, including corporate and private events, and weddings. They may be required to bring a professional sound system, lighting and be the emcee for the event. The events may require travel and a large music library that spans several decades and genres. On top of musical know-how, this type of DJing requires physical strength and a vehicle to transport equipment and gear, as well as business savvy to secure the bookings.
Radio DJs host live and pre-recorded shows that are played on internet, satellite or traditional radio stations. Radio DJs are historically influential tastemakers who chose all of the music for their own shows. As times changed, the commercial radio DJ role has shifted away from music curation and leans towards hosting. DJs who host shows on college and independent radio stations are still able to select all of the music that they play and can promote new music.
What equipment do you need to DJ?
In order to DJ, you need the right DJ equipment. Let’s take a closer look at the essential tools and gear that empower DJs to create electrifying mixes and unforgettable performances.
It’s recommended to invest in a laptop for any type of digital DJing. If you plan on using the computer to run only DJ software you’ll need a fast computer and an even more powerful one for music production.
Pay careful attention to the CPU and RAM of the laptop. The CPU handles all the calculations and RAM is your computer’s memory which is essential for running multiple programs at the same time. Always check the software’s specifications to make sure it will run smoothly on your machine.
One of the best and most cost effective routes to begin DJing is to invest in a DJ controller. A DJ controller offers an all in solution that includes a DJ mixer, two jog wheels, pads, and a standardized club layout.
A DJ controller works together with DJ software like Traktor Pro 3 and allows you to control every aspect of the program, and creatively mix two or more tracks.
DJ controllers will allow you to learn the basics of DJing and are lightweight and portable. A controller is a good choice for club and mobile DJs and can be easily brought to events and parties. The Traktor Kontrol S2 is a good controller for beginner DJs. DJs who wish to mix up to four tracks may want to consider the Traktor Kontrol S4 or Traktor Kontrol S3.
Vinyl DJs can connect turntables to the Traktor Kontrol S4 to mix records from their collection into digital sets, as well as play digital tracks with DVS support.
Another great option for a DJ controller is the new Traktor X1 MK3. This portable, versatile DJ controller can bring you a dynamic and flexible DJ experience that includes endless possibilities for effects, loops, and mixing.
Every DJ will need a pair of DJ headphones. Do your research and invest in a good quality pair of headphones that are comfortable and allow you to hear the music well. Headphones connect to the headphone output on a DJ controller and allow DJs to hear one or more tracks playing at the same time.
DJ software like Traktor Pro 3 allows DJs to mix up to four tracks together. If you’re just starting out, start mixing with two tracks. Traktor is great for honing your beatmatching skills, but it also allows users to align their tracks to a tempo-based Grid.
During set preparation, DJs can align tracks to the Grid and use the Sync button to quickly beat-match your tracks during performance. Traktor allows DJs to set cue points on tracks, loop tracks, and features some of the best effects on the market.
Traktor also offers DJs the ability to map each feature of Traktor to a MIDI controller. If you’d like to get a feel for mixing in Traktor, there’s a free Traktor Pro 3 Demo available and a free version of Traktor DJ 2 that’s handy for learning to mix on a desktop or iPad.
How to setup DJ equipment
Let’s explore the basic steps of setting up your DJ equipment, ensuring that you’re ready to unleash your musical creativity with precision.
The first thing that DJs will need to do is learn to connect their equipment together.
The controller needs to be plugged into a power source using the power cable. Traktor Pro 3 will need to be installed onto a laptop or computer. The computer connects to the laptop via a USB cable.
The speakers connect to either the controller’s main output or booth output, by XLR, RCA or ¼” cable. The main output is used for the sound system that will face the audience. The booth output is for a monitor, (a speaker that faces the DJ) so that DJs can hear their mixes. If you are setting up your DJ system at home, you can use either the main or booth output. The headphones connect to the headphone output on the DJ controller.
How to become a DJ
Beginning your DJing journey includes music selection and organization, understanding DJ techniques, harmonic mixing, and more.
1. Music selection
One of the biggest considerations for DJs is music. It’s important to listen to different styles of music, so you can learn about the music you like. Choose a genre or genres that you are drawn to, and tracks that express something that you’d like to communicate to an audience.
DJs should always be ‘digging’ for new music and consider subscribing to at least one streaming service for the purpose of music discovery. There are many good digital stores online for purchasing music, including Beatport, Beatsource, and Bandcamp. Other stores to check out include Juno Download, Boomkat, Qobuz, and the new Electrofans Music Store.
More mainstream download sites include iTunes, Amazon, 7digital and HDtracks.
There are many online DJ pools where users pay a monthly fee and are given access to a large library of tracks that are available for download. DJ Pools are an especially good way to build up a music collection if you’re just starting out and want to find some re-edits of songs. BPM Supreme, DJcity, zipDJ and Promo Only are a few of the most popular digital download sites.
A download pool is more cost-effective than buying individual tracks and there are many more pools out there for those who want to build a specialist collection with styles like latin, reggaeton, or dancehall.
An up and coming way to DJ is by using streaming, and perhaps this is where the future of DJing is headed. Beatport and Beatsource Streaming are streaming services that make their extensive catalogs available directly in Traktor Pro 3. With Beatsource Streaming, you can seamlessly explore, tag and mix new music with the music you already have in your local collection.
2. Organize your music collection
Once you have some music, you’ll need to decide on a central location to store it. This could either be on your laptop, or on an external hard drive. In Traktor Pro 3, DJs can organize music into playlists. A few ideas for organizing playlists could be by genre (eg. house, tech house, techno, etc) or by the month the songs are purchased in.
You could organize songs by their key, and if you’re curating a playlist for a specific event, the event name could be the title of the playlist.
Inside each playlist, you can choose which headers will appear (title, artist, BPM, release, etc.) Songs can be sorted inside each playlist by their key, BPM, and alphabetically by their track or artist title. Once you begin to amass a music collection, it’s highly recommended to spend some time organizing it. When you’re playing a set, you’ll want to be able to find tracks you want to play quickly.
3. Basic DJ techniques
Mastering the fundamentals is key to becoming a skilled DJ, and in this section, we’ll delve into the foundational techniques that every aspiring DJ needs to know to create seamless mixes.
Before beginning to DJ, it’s important to learn how to count the beats in music. Dance and urban music is written in 4/4 time, meaning there are four beats in a bar. To learn to count in 4/4 time, turn on your favorite track, and as the first kick drum plays, count along like this:
One two three four, two two three four, three two three four, four two three four, five two three four, six two three four, seven two three four, eight two three four.
You just counted eight bars of music. The song structure of the majority of electronic tracks is built using this eight bar cycle. In general, changes in dance/urban music occur every eight or sixteen bars. You will have to use this counting system as a guide to help you learn when to release a track, and bring in the next mix.
The following list includes basic steps for starting to mix your tracks.
- If you’re using Traktor Pro 3 DJ software, drag a track from either the Track Collection or a playlist to Deck A. Take note of the key and BPM (beats per minute) of the track, as you’ll want to choose the next track to mix in based on both of these elements. When you mix two tracks together, their keys should be harmonically compatible, and the BPMs should be about +/-5 BPM of each other.
- To play your track on your controller or DJ mixer, turn up the channel fader of Deck A all the way. The gain level should be set at 0 dB or below, so that the track level does not go into the red when it plays. Press the Cue button to listen to your track in the headphones.
- Electronic tracks and most DJ re-edits have intros and outros that are mainly percussion, and these are the easiest places in the track to learn to mix with. Play your track and familiarize yourself with the intro. How many bars is it? When does the bassline of the track drop? Learn as many details as you can about your track’s song structure.Next, try to find the outro of the track. This is when the track winds down to a percussive groove towards the end. In Traktor Pro 3, you may also notice a change in color in both the intro and outro.
- On Deck B, load up a second track that’s within 5 BPM of the first song, and in a harmonically compatible key. (see next section) To hear the track on Deck B in your headphones, press the Cue button on Deck B. Bring the Channel fader of Deck B down so it does not play through the master output. Press Sync on Deck B to sync the BPM of the track to Deck A.
- Go back to Deck A and find the outro section of the track. You may want to mark it by creating a Cue point in Traktor Pro 3.
- Next, begin the track from the beginning. Sixteen or thirty two bars before the outro, press play on Deck B and begin to mix in this track. Slowly bring up Deck B’s channel fader and listen to the sound of both tracks playing together. If you’ve done this correctly, they should blend together like one track. If what you hear sounds like a mess, you’ve created a ‘train wreck’ and may need to begin the mix again to get it sounding right.
- If you don’t want to use the Sync option, you can adjust the pitch on Deck B to make the BPM of this track match the BPM of the track playing on Deck A. In Traktor Pro 3, the BPM of each track is displayed at the top right hand corner, and the actual BPM that the track is playing at is displayed in the lower right hand corner. The lower BPM is the tempo that you’ll need to match to the BPM of Deck A.
Important note: Just because the track BPM’s are matched together does not mean the mix is automatically playing at the right time. You will have to use the song structure of the track to learn when to mix in the second track.
4. Harmonic mixing
It’s a good idea to use harmonic mixing techniques, even if you don’t have a musical background or know music theory. Mixing two tracks that are harmonically compatible will sound good, while mixing two tracks that are not in key will sound dissonant, and out of tune.
Most dance and urban music is written in major or minor keys. Major keys sound happy and uplifting, while minor keys sound more melancholy. A program like Mixed In Key can analyze your tracks before importing them into Traktor Pro 3. Traktor Pro 3 also features its own key system.
Traktor uses open key notation, and songs you import into Traktor are automatically analyzed using its key notation. On the Open Key circle (pictured below) the outer ring represents major keys and the inner circle represents minor keys.
Adjacent keys on the circle complement each other. Choose a compatible track by mixing a track that is one value higher or lower than the currently playing track, or in the same key.
The simplest way to mix harmonically is to mix two tracks of the same key. Major and minor keys can be mixed together by mixing numbers that share the same number but have different letters. The best rule of thumb to follow when harmonic mixing is to use your ears to make sure the two tracks sound good together and complement each other.
In a simple mix transition, if you start with a track playing in Deck A, the EQ should be flat on the track, which means the hi, mid and low EQ should be set to 0, not boosted or cut.
When you have a track that’s ready to mix in on Deck B, turn down the low EQ of Deck B so that the bassline doesn’t interfere with the one that is playing. Slowly raise the volume of Deck B and let the two tracks blend together. Turn up the Low EQ of Deck B, and at the same time turn down the Low EQ on Deck A. Slowly (or quickly) bring down the channel fader of Deck A.
There are many times when you’re DJing that you may want to create a loop. A few examples are when you need to extend the intro or outro of a track, when you want to create an artistic mix or when you’ve been chatting to a friend for a little too long and need to quickly create a loop so that the music doesn’t run out.
Looping is very easy in Traktor, just press the button below the track to choose the number of bars to loop. The numbers (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc) correspond to the number of beats that Traktor will loop. The loop will automatically be created and play until you press the same loop button again, or the active button to release the loop.
Traktor offers a wide array of futuristic sounding effects. There are two different types of effects in Traktor Pro 3; Deck FX (Single FX and Group FX) and Mixer FX.
Traktor offers over forty effects that can be used as Single or Group FX:
- Click on the FX button in the upper right hand corner in Traktor to see the FX, and select an FX from the drop down list.
- In the Preferences panel, select ‘2 FX Units’ and for FX 1 and FX 2, select ‘Single’. This will give you two single unit effects to unit work. On FX 1 select Delay and on FX 2, select Reverb. To engage an effect, on Deck A select FX 1 and turn the Delay on.
- Turn up the D/W (Dry/Wet) knob of the delay to hear it on your track. Delay is an effect that can sound good when it’s quickly turned on, then off.
Although there are really no written rules about how to use effects, it’s best not to overdue any effect. Just like spices in a recipe, effects exist to add to the mix. Try working with a few effects, like delay and reverb to really learn how they manipulate sound before trying to use them all.
8. How to read the crowd
Once you’ve mastered the basics and built a music library, the best way to learn to DJ is by playing to an audience.
Even before you begin playing, you might be able to ‘get a feel’ for your audience by having a look at them, how old they are, how they are dressed, etc. Watch the crowd as you play your tracks, and see how they react. Are they dancing and having a good time? Or are they leaving the dancefloor when you put on what you thought was a good track? Your audience may not have exactly the same taste in music as you do.
If you want to be a good DJ, play songs in your DJ set that both you and your audience like. If the crowd doesn’t seem to be enjoying the music, you need to switch tracks and change the vibe.
Pay close attention to the general ‘mood’ of the songs you play; songs that are groovy are going to make people dance, while songs that are melancholy will send these vibrations out to the room.
Music has a direct emotional impact on people, so be mindful of your selections! Keep the energy up in the room, and keep the crowd moving on the dancefloor. At the end of the night, hopefully everyone will be happy and you’ll be invited back to play again.
DJ marketing: how to brand yourself as a DJ
Marketing yourself as a DJ is one of the most important things you can do, besides DJing itself. It’s important to give people a reason to book you and follow you on social media. These days, it’s necessary to have a social media presence. Create content for YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, or Facebook (or all of them). Brainstorm ideas for content like short mixes, tutorials, artistic photos, videos from your gigs, DJ tips, etc.
Another great way to build your brand is to get professional press shots and build your own website. To get some good creative ideas, research other DJs you like to see how they are promoting themselves online. Do they have a regular Twitch or YouTube show or a mailing list? Maybe you could use these platforms too. Do they have a DJ residency? Perhaps you could look at securing a DJ residency at a club or bar, or starting your own party series.
You can upload your mixes and demos on platforms like Soundcloud or Mixcloud and post links to your mixes on social platforms. Another avenue to try is recording videos of yourself mixing and posting them on YouTube. Shorter mixes or DJ content can be posted up on TikTok or Instagram.
Try creating your own Spotify playlists with tracks you like and updating them on a regular basis. You can use social media to promote your Spotify playlists. You’ll need to find your own unique way to present your mixes and DJ skills to fans, promoters and employers. After three to six months, evaluate what you’ve created, and which marketing and promotion strategies are working best for you.
Become a DJ and start your journey
Starting a journey to being a DJ is no small undertaking. It’s going to take time, research, DJ equipment and software, a willingness to learn, practice and develop your craft. If you’re interested in a DJ career, it will take some business and networking skills to move forward.
Whether you’re looking to DJ as a hobby or aspire to become a professional, DJing is a wonderful and rewarding artform that can be a lot of fun! If you love music and want to share it with others, DJing presents a lot of good opportunities to do this.
Using DJ equipment and learning about new tools and music will keep you on your toes, and there is always something new to be learned. Begin your journey as a DJ by investing in a DJ controller, like the Traktor Kontrol S4, the Traktor X1 MK3, and Traktor Pro 3. I hope your journey to becoming a DJ is an inspired one, and you find a lot of support for your new interest!