The art and craft of dj-ing

William Morris, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I am a music addict and an avid record collector (cca. 1000+ records and counting). Occasionally, I share the music I discover with other people through dj-ing at parties. I had some mild success in the last 5–6 years, sharing my music at various places. Some of these were bigger electronic music festivals in Romania, others were smaller parties more in the “hidden gems” category.

The most fascinating part of listening to music is that people can get into a meditative state. Combined with the physical movement through dance, it can have a huge therapeutic effect, that produces big emotional release and muscular relaxation. This therapeutic effect does not come as a surprise, when we analyze the history of music and humanity. Music is something that has been incorporated in our DNA from the very beginning of times. It has always been part of our lives in various forms, ranging from seemingly chaotic tribal drumming, to sophisticated classical music and modern music. It was always a central element of the rituals in numerous cultures, often inducing trance-like states in the participants.

Music had its own peculiarities in every culture and time. While a lot of these characteristics of music are common in every culture, there are some elements that are differing. As a party goer and a dj, I have identified two important ingredients of any good party that helped me reach this therapeutic state. The two ingredients are the art and the craft of playing music. In the rest of the article I will try to define the two ingredients:

The art

From my experience, the most important part of getting into the “trance” state is good storytelling. A good dj, in my opinion, should be a good storyteller who is able to take people on a journey. It should feel like embarking on a magical train, where the passengers enjoy the mesmerising landscapes of mountains and seas. It is a train ride where the journey is more important than the destination.

The art of keeping the journey interesting is the job of the dj, and it is something that requires passion, a lot of practice and a sprite of talent. In order to let the creativity flow, I tried analysing the good journeys, recognizing patterns, but my best finding is that I have to keep it playful, and do it rather naïvely, just as a child who plays for the first time. It is not an easy task to forget what we already know about a certain topic and to approach it with fresh eyes, as we did the first time. Sometimes this means forgetting about all the logical rules we learnt earlier, in the name of creating something new, that seemed impossible before.

The craft

The other ingredient of a good party is knowing the craft side of music. This is something specific to modern music and it relates to all the modern media and equipment that makes it possible for us to listen to recorded music. The route of the music from the artist to the listener is a really varied route, crossing through different media and devices (think of, record player, mp3 player, amplifiers, speakers etc). The quality of these devices has a great impact on the end result that is served to the listener. Imagine this like the difference between watching a 90’s TV, versus an UHD 4K display. Some of the displays can distort the image in various ways, changing its shapes and colours. This is the same for audio as well, the equipment can distort it and colour the music. To really enjoy the music in its original form, you have to have a decent equipment to listen on.

As a dj, you should be able to choose the right equipment that helps you to transmit your story. You have to know, that all of the equipment that will be on the chain of transporting music from your record to the speakers has its own characteristics and its own way of “colouring” the sound. This is something really similar to what visual designers experience when they print out their design and they realise that the green colour that looked good on the monitor, looks horrible in print. The same way your music can sound good or horribly bad, depending on the equipment you are listening on.

Apart from choosing the right equipment, knowing how to operate it correctly is also the dj’s responsibility. Often times, this is the most overlooked aspect that makes a huge difference in a party. A very famous and recurring mistake of non-technical djs is called the “red-lining”, and it happens when they are pushing the equipment to its physical limit.

The led strip indicates the limit of the mixer’s maximal volume, red means the mixer is hitting its physical limitations and will result in a distorted sound. Don’t do this.

Red-lining can happen in various stages of creating and playing music, and it causes harm to the music at any stage. To explain it really simply, imagine that you have a canvas where you draw mountains and valleys. Of course all the djs want to draw the biggest mountains and valleys, because those will have a bigger effect. A logical step would be to take your drawing and put it on a bigger projector so you can increase its size substantially. Instead of using the magnifier on the projector, some djs will try to draw a bigger mountain, that will go out of the boundaries of their canvas. This will lead to losing some parts of the image for the sake of making it look bigger. Even worse, this could have an effect of damaging the audio equipment, or even people’s hearing.

On the other hand, a good dj can use this knowledge to his advantage, and even use the equipment in a way, that it produces a more dramatic effect on the music, to the delight of the audience. This takes a lot of practice and understanding of the limitations of the dj mixers, amplifiers, speakers and pretty much every audio component that is present in the transport chain of delivering the music from the record to the audience.

Perfecting this art and the craft is what keeps me up at night, metaphorically and sometimes literally as well 😊.

Finally, I’d like to invite the dear reader to a listening session. This mix pretty much ticks all the boxes mentioned in this article and has been made by one of my favorite djs, the almighty Andrew Weatherall who untimely passed away 1 year ago, R.I.P.

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Software engineer and hobby audio enthusiast.

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dombesz

dombesz

Software engineer and hobby audio enthusiast.

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