Many BPMs ago, when vinyl was the standard format, I was a nightclub DJ. Most of the places and many of the witnesses to my successes and failures have vanished into Boston’s past, but during my decade in the DJ booth I was lucky enough to not only learn from some of the best DJs the city had to offer at places as storied as The 1270 and Chaps, but also to be steeped in the lore of disco’s golden age by spending endless afternoons with Caril Mitro and her fantastic clientele at her much-missed record store, Vinyl Connection before putting away what I then thought were “childish things”.
After a decade-long musical semi-hibernation, I’ve again dipped my toes in the water of playing out and realized that those childish things, if properly resurrected, may benefit from some hard earned adult wisdom and, dare I say it, supervision. While I’ve found that with the advent of digital music as the nearly standard format much has changed technologically, I’ve also been reminded that some truths about DJ-ing will never change.
So whether you’re a former vinyl jock like me, or a budding laptop DJ looking to play out in public, in your bedroom, or for a podcast, here are 8 tips, ranging from the technical to the philosophical to the mundane to think about before you get spinning.
1. “Extraordinary, how potent cheap music is”: Noel Coward understood it, and you should too: Don’t be afraid to play hits when you need to keep a crowd engaged. That doesn’t mean playing them all night or playing a particular song that you hate, but nobody wants to hear a whole night of music they don’t know. Trust me. That’s not an argument for dumbing it down, or saying they can’t be enlightened, which leads me to:
2. Don’t Play To Impress Other DJs: Now, this may not apply to you, but just remember there are other people in the room, and unless that room consists entirely of DJs, they aren’t going to be impressed by a night of flawless mixes if the music is needlessly obscurantist or aggressively snobbish, and they should be forgiving of the occasional trainwreck if you’re playing what you love with conviction.
3. Stockpile Some Secret Weapons: Especially relevant if there are other music fans or DJs in the house, is the canny deployment of a little known remix, a brand new track, or a track that you can show off in a new context whether via the audacity of its placement or other wizardry at your disposal. With “sharing” being the operative phrase in these days of social media overexposure, the element of surprise is often your best ally, perhaps now more than ever. You’ll know you have their attention based on the number of smart phones that go up in the air to give Shazam a workout. There was a reason those white label mixes and acetates (promotional or test pressings of records often distributed in plain packaging with no text or artwork) were a closely guarded secret, at least for short while: so nobody knew exactly what the hell it was you played that made the crowd euphoric. And music software such as Ableton Live has made sampling and remixing/re-editing tracks yourself easier, so if you’re so inclined, have at it.
4. MP3 vs. WAV: The Sound of Settling?: Ask any DJ and you’ll get a different answer about whether to use “lossy” MP3 files or the uncompressed, “lossless” WAV format (we’ll save discussion of the myriad of other formats for another time). Some professional sound engineers now insist that a 320kbps (kilobit per second) MP3 and a WAV file are barely distinguishable on most small to mid-sized sound systems. Audiophiles may scoff, but occasional use of 256 and 192 files is defensible depending on the venue and, distressingly for purists, some studies indicate younger people even prefer the “sizzle” sound associated with MP3 compression. With large capacity storage devices getting smaller and cheaper, I’d recommend getting the highest available MP3’s (no need to go larger than 320) you can get your hands on. If you’re successful enough to work on a massive system, invest in a lossless format and its attendant storage needs.
For further reading on sound formats, check out the audiophile forums at Hydrogenaudio
5. Know Where To Get Quality Music: The debate over the ethics of downloading music from P2P networks is in part a generational one, and one that I won’t wade too far into here except to say a lot of files of unknown origin are overly compressed or otherwise compromised in terms of quality. If you’re looking for high quality files, consider commercial sources like Beatport, Juno, Amazon, and (in a pinch), ITunes. I’ve found some very random, obscure files at each of these sites, so they can surprise you. Other sites I recommend include Lavamus.com, a pay per track site that offers files for even more obscure tracks, the only problem being they are often VBR, or below 320mps, and they don’t otherwise indicate the bit rate unless they explicitly tell you that it’s 320 until after purchase it, but will suffice if you can live with a lower bitrate. Blogs like Hard Candy, the blog aggregator Hype Machine, and podcasts such as those found on Soundcloud are a good place to find mixes by talented producers willing to give away or sell high quality tracks, or lost, reworked, and rediscovered classics, so think of this as a temporal shift in crate digging. Like you need an excuse to spend more time online.