DJing For Dummies
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.
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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.
"The hardest thing is filling up the dance floor. Once you can fill it up, there's a point -- for myself at least -- that I know that I've got 'em, and then I can start taking it here, taking it there, and being a little more experimental and taking them on a little journey. But until I do, the hardest part is getting them to that point, getting them on the floor and getting them to dance and have confidence that you're going to deliver."
Rudnick learned how to program by listening to mix CDs by more-experienced DJs. "I took a closer listen to see how they really programmed the whole CD so that there were some highs and some lows, and not too many vocal tracks together, not too many instrumental tracks together."
Records: Once you understand crowd dynamics, keeping the booties moving is a matter of being able to pick out good music -- not just for one night, but perpetually, to keep your sets fresh. At $6 to $10 per record (each vinyl platter contains just one track), staying fresh ain't cheap. "We might play 150 records a night," Rudnick says, "and you have to spend a hundred bucks a week to get the ten best things that came out."
Rudnick hits up to five different specialty DJ stores every week to make sure he's hearing the fullest possible range of new material. "I might listen to 150 tracks and buy 10," he says. Additionally he notes: "I go on Websites all day long and hear what tracks people are talking about." (The site streetsounds.com is one of his favorites.)
Rudnick incorporates the latest tracks into his sets at "Good Life" but rarely practices anymore. Beginners can take a cue from his early diligence, though. Starting out, he remembers, he practiced two or three hours every day, "taking different records and seeing what sounded good together, seeing how long I could mix two records together. Just trying to learn the equipment. On the turntable itself, there's a hundred different tricks you can do. You can touch it certain ways to slow down the turntable. There's certain things you can do with the tone arm. You just learn all this stuff after using your equipment for that long."
Like the first DJs who learned to blend tracks smoothly for the benefit of dance crowds -- the disco mavens of the '70s -- Rudnick is more concerned about the flow and energy level of the music than manipulating it extensively. But DJs can personalize their sets in simple ways. Some mixers, for example, feature bass, midrange, and treble knobs that give DJs even more control over the sound. Rudnick's partner Leventhal demonstrated this on a recent Wednesday at crobar by flicking up the treble on high notes for emphasis and alternately bumping up the bass frequency on certain beats, playing the mixer like an instrument.
Another common technique is scratching, which is accomplished by dragging the needle across the record or pulling the record backward in short, rhythmic bursts while using the controls on the mixer to let the crowd hear as much or little of the derived sounds as desired. Scratching is most often associated with hip-hop DJs, who emerged from the early rap scene.
Whether you're interested in spinning dance music or hip hop, as an aspiring DJ, you'll eventually want to play in front of people. Try a friend's party to begin. But don't be afraid to push for real gigs: "Be aggressive," Rudnick says. "Approach club owners. Approach promoters. But believe me, they hear from 20, 30 kids a week, so be different. Have your own style -- your own style of mixing records, your own style of music, of putting a night together.
"If the music's there, then that will substitute for a lot of the DJing skills," he adds. "Whether you're at home, at a party, or in a huge club, it's all about entertaining the crowd. They can definitely feel your vibe and your energy, and it really comes across in the music."
Contact John Ferri at his e-mail address:
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