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Dance-club DJs ply their craft obscured by clouds of billowing fog and flashing lights, hidden behind banks of equipment. It's no surprise, then, that the rest of us have no clue what all the mysterious knob-twiddling is about. Truth is, DJs do a lot more behind the turntables than put on one record after the next. DJs at weddings and school dances might be able to get away with that approach, but turntablists who want to move a more discerning crowd employ a combination of psychology, technical skills, and musical savvy to fill the dance floor.
Sean Rudnick learned the ropes during nearly a decade of spinning in South Florida. The 28-year-old grew up in Deerfield Beach but took frequent trips to New York City to visit family and friends. While there, he checked out nightspots such as the Bar Room and Limelight and found himself in awe of pioneering house DJs like Frankie Knuckles, Little Louis Vega, and Junior Vasquez.
"These guys were really at the forefront of their art," Rudnick recalls. "I was just wowed. I wanted to do that."
He started buying records and practicing at home and landed his first real DJ jobs eight years ago, when he spun at Respectable Street in West Palm Beach and the now defunct, but then popular, Club Boca. Rudnick now spins at crobar in Miami Beach's old Cameo Theatre, where he cohosts the Wednesday night "Good Life" party with Mark Leventhal and DJ Sugar.
Aspiring track masters have a long road ahead of them before landing such a choice spinning slot. But according to Rudnick, if he can do it, so can you. Here's his guide to getting started.
Essential Equipment: You can get everything you need for around $500, Rudnick says, and the first order of business is locating two turntables. At crobar, DJs spin on Techniques 1200s, the industry-standard "decks" (as turntables are also known), which go for up to $550 each new. But beginners can find a cheap pair of used decks for around $100. They should be direct-drive models equipped with a pitch-control dial, the use for which we'll get to later.
Acceptable needles range in price from $29 to $150 and with heavy use should be replaced after 60 hours of play. "That's if you are in a club," Rudnick says. "It's all about how serious you are about your sound quality."
In order to segue seamlessly between tracks or to blend sounds from more than one record into each other, known as mixing, you'll need -- what else? -- a mixer. A console that sits between the turntables and connects both of them to the amplifier, the mixer lets DJs control which turntable is being heard at what volume or run both turntables through the sound system at once. The high-end mixers used in clubs cost as much as $2000. Fear not, Rudnick says. You can buy a new mixer for a hundred bucks or a used one for as little as $30. "A kid wanting to start out should do what he's got to do to get himself set up," he says.
And since beginners won't have the luxury of pumping their sound through a club's system of amps and speakers, a home setup like Rudnick's is fine for practicing: "I have [my turntables and mixer] hooked up to a regular stereo amp. Both of the turntables are shot out of the mixer, and it plays right through my home speakers."
The DJ's ubiquitous headphones don't have to be especially high-end, either, because no one else hears them. A cheap pair, like the type included with portable CD players, will work just fine.
Technique: The phones are used for listening to the next track in the set while the current song is playing through the speakers, called cueing. The DJ uses the pitch control on the turntable to make slight adjustments to the speed of the new cut, so that, as the volume is brought up and the initial song fades away, the beat patterns mesh during the transition. DJs also use the volume and input controls on the mixer to combine sounds from two songs. "You play one record over another record, and you have a new song that you've never heard," Rudnick explains. "You're consistently making new music as you go along throughout the night." For example, he says, DJ-friendly record labels put out a cappella cuts of songs, which can be played over instrumental versions of entirely different tracks.
"A big part about DJing is knowing your records," notes Rudnick. "So if a record's not working, you know when the next little breakdown is -- the next 16 measures that don't have any vocals, that have just beats -- and you can mix out of that song real quick."
And if knowing your material measure by measure within a track is important, even more critical is putting together an entire set of songs that keeps people on the dance floor. DJs call this programming, and the trick is not to go all out all night; energy peaks are critical.
"That's the real key, and it comes from years of practice," Rudnick explains. "Every crowd is different. At the beginning of the night, I'll be all over the board. I'll play some vocal-type stuff; some real disco-y, filtered-type stuff; a little bit on the harder house edge, just to see how the crowd reacts. Once you see what the reaction is, you want to follow that lead.