Drawing our Starting Out series to a close, Harold Heath looks into the very heart of DJing: mixing
A DJ should be a music collector and a music fan first and foremost, but a DJ also does something else - mixes. They select, juxtapose, then transition. You might not realise that when you were banging out your +8 techno set on Sunday morning at the afters, that you were actually selecting, juxtaposing and transitioning, but you were.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve developed my own patented system of categorising the skills of the DJ. There’s a lot to it, but it boils down to a trio of decisions in descending order of importance, starting with what you play, then when you play it, and finally how you play it. The ‘what’ is vital; the ‘when’, the timing, that’s pretty crucial too. But once you’ve got the what and the when, you’re left with the ‘how’.
You’ve chosen the best, correct record for this exact moment. Now you can bring it in stealthily, teasing and tantalising your audience, so that it creeps up on them, its sublime energy slowly leaking out into the room. Or you can kick the legs away from the decks table and scream “This is what you need!” before smashing them in the face with this week’s banger.
Whichever style you choose, somehow you’re going to have to drop that tune, and that means some kind of transition, some kind of mix. No matter if it’s cutting up vinyl on a pair of 1210s, utilising Ableton to layer the parts from different tunes on top of each other, or pulling off a cheeky reload, mixing is at the heart of what we do. Our job is to make people stay on the dancefloor - and after song choice and timing, mixing and transitions are the main weapons the DJ has at his or disposal for this purpose.
Sometimes mixing is merely blending between a couple of tunes, a simple slow push of the crossfader, but even a simple blend of two BPM-synced tracks has an art to it, or at least a craft - it’s something you can practise and get good at. Some times the layering of one tune’s beginning over another’s ending can produce enticing results and give the DJ lots of chances to get in the mix and manipulate those beats to build a little more tension or energy. And then of course, there are those moments when you drop a tune on top of another and discover that they’re perfectly in key with each other, allowing for lots more mixing and blending fun.
Get the mixing right and you can enhance the music, making your brilliant tunes momentarily even better. The whole process used to be based around how tricky it was to learn to beatmatch vinyl on a pair of Technics. Now beatmatching is much less of an issue, and for many DJs it’s no longer an issue at all. Many of the tricks that were performed out of necessity - extending a break using two copies of a record being a great example - are now phenomenally easy, whereas they used to present quite a challenge.
Kill me now
For a quick rehash of all the tired old arguments in this area, by all means go on social media and see if you can find any DJs with an opinion - there's bound to be one or two. Essentially, you could argue that DJing has become much more accessible, resulting in a marked increase in the number of DJs generally, and mediocre DJs particularly. But no one would listen, because although it might be true, it’s already happened, so such concerns are as moot as a hoot in a boot.
Yes, there may be a downside to the fact that DJing is now something ‘anyone can do’ - but it also means that DJing is even more fun than it ever was. DJs can now go out and deliver fantastic quality mixes, doing all sorts of mood-enhancing tricks with their music, and hardly ever make a technical mistake.
And hey, for everyone who says that when a DJ makes a mistake it makes the whole thing more human... erm, you’re in a room packed with humans, with a human playing you music which was in turn created by humans - you don’t need a mistake to get feeling, emotions or energy in a DJ set. That’s like saying that the scratches and pops on old vinyl enhance the listening experience and add atmosphere - as though an Aretha Franklin, Mr Fingers or Hi-Fi Sean record needs added ‘atmosphere’ generated by the failings of outmoded technologies. I don’t want to hear a sonic trainwreck, and I certainly don’t need mistakes in order to be convinced of the DJ's authenticity, thanks.
You can now pull a tune apart live, smother the drums in flanger and the vocals in delay, drop in a beat from somewhere else and play in a b-line - and when it's done well, all that stuff is just brilliant. If ever an older DJ tells you it isn’t, they’re wrong - we would have killed to be able to do stuff like that when we started out.
Easy on the FX
Effects can be used to enhance a mix, and are super-useful for when you want to change the tempo - slam a massive reverb or delay onto a tune, let the effect wash over your punters and you create a sonic break, a pause in which you can then smoothly drop a tune at a completely different speed. For me, though, DJ effects are like liqueur chocolates - apparently my wife "doesn’t like" them and yet somehow the box is finished. No, effects are like liqueur chocolates because they’re nice, but only really in small doses, or they’ll give you a headache.
The flipside of all this is developing the skill of knowing when to leave the tune to just play. Some DJs have started to think that if you're DJing you always have to be doing something: fiddling with the EQ, adjusting the gain, composing a pithy tweet about phones in clubs. But you don't. Part of the skill of DJing is knowing when to let the tunes just do their thing. I know it’s hard: you’re often up on a stage, the entire crowd is facing you, and you feel as though you should do something. Back in the vinyl days, we'd crouch down and look through our record boxes in-between tunes, so we suggest that you keep all your MP3s and WAVs in a crate under the decks, enabling you can drop down there and have a good root through from time to time.
Resist the urge to constantly fiddle - if you’ve got nothing to do for a couple of minutes, then have a dance and the music. You've got the best job in the world, after all.
Words: Harold Heath