DJing after turntables – why digital DJing still needs skill

It’s a rarity these days to walk into a club and see a DJ spinning actual vinyl. The majority of DJs use a laptop and controller, CDJs or, to a lesser extent, software such as Ableton Live. But just because no wax is involved, does it mean that DJing is now as simple as pressing a button? Deadmaus would have us believe that it is. But there is definitely an argument to say that DJing with digital files is no less a skill than mixing real life vinyl.

It’s as easy as you want it to be

If you really want to (and I have seen this being done), you can press play on a pre-mixed set and your crowd would be none the wiser…but that’s not DJing; that’s pretending to DJ.

There’s no doubt that using computers or CDJs has made it easier to mix two songs together. The infamous ‘sync’ button found on most pieces of current DJing hardware means that there’s no need to match the beat of the incoming song with the outgoing song. Beatmatching used to be the first thing that a budding DJing would need to learn. It took hours of practice but when you finally nailed it, it was amazing! It was like mastering your first barre chord on a guitar – you learn it and it’s with you for life. Not needing to beatmatch with new technology is the reason a lot of people think that digital DJing isn’t ‘real DJing’. But just because the BPMs are already synced, it doesn’t mean your work is done.

You still need to mix

There’s still the decision of where to place your song in the mix. And how to mix it in, for that matter. Do you cut it, lay it over the existing song, bring it in slowly and imperceptibly, swap the basslines? You need to be aware of song structure and phrasing and you might also want to mix harmonically. Making sure the key of the incoming song blends well with that of the outgoing song is an art that can win you a lot of fans… and avoid some ear-splitting key clashes.

Choosing your songs is the real art

No matter which format you use, the songs you select are the most important part of DJing. A DJ spends hours searching for new songs – this used to be in record shops; now it’s done mainly online. This, and which song to place next to which, is where the real skill lies, in my humble opinion. Playing a ’70’s soft rock classic straight after the current Beatport number one might be an inspired choice or you could have the crowd calling for your head. Only you know which one it will be, based on what the crowd has danced to so far that night and on your experience as a DJ. And of course sometimes you just have to take risks!

Use your effects wisely

If you want to loop a few bars on a pair of Technics turntables, one way to do it is to put a piece of tape at the point in the record where you want the loop to end. The tape makes the needle jump back and play the loop over again. Nowadays, digital DJs have to do no more than press a button to turn on the loop function. There’s no doubt that the effects built into software such as Serato or Traktor or on effects boxes have made using effects a lot easier. There is also a huge range of them at our fingertips. The flipside of this, though, is overkill. We’ve all heard DJs overuse the ‘siren’. And it’s not pretty.

DJ as live performer

New technology also means new possibilities. There are some great DJs using all sorts of equipment to create some amazing mixes. DJs such as Kink play recorded sound but also produce live beats, play live synths and even record the crowd and incorporate that into their set. This turns their set into a live performance and leaves you in no doubt that you’re witnessing a creative act.

If you still don’t think that there’s skill involved in digital DJing, type ‘controllerism’ into YouTube and you’ll get results which will dispel all doubts.

It’s true that technology has made great changes in the field of DJing. Not only are we using different equipment to create with but we’re required to market ourselves online using ever-evolving social platforms. Plus, we can learn to release our own productions without relying on the record labels. Today’s DJs don’t require fewer skills – we just need different ones.

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