Long before I became introduced to online DJ courses, my original interest in DJing began nearly two decades ago during Arizona’s vibrant mid-/late-’90s rave scene. Once I was introduced to that atmosphere and the throbbing beat of electronic music, I was almost instantly hooked.
Soon after, my first experience with DJing came when I was the lucky recipient of a pair of Technics SL-1210 turntables and a Pioneer DJM-3000 4-channel mixer for Christmas, 2002. I began my record collection with a few unmixed album sets (Hybrid’s Wide Angle and Paul van Dyk’s Out There and Back), and I played them for myself and a few friends at my own house parties.
As time passed, my curiosity intensified. Although initially I thought using Pioneer CDJs was “cheating” – silly me – I finally gave in to that platform. Hey, adapt or get left behind, right? So, I spent time dabbling with CDJ-800s and I found them relatively easy and fun to use… not as fun as turntables, for me, but easy enough. And, let’s face it, the whole crates-of-vinyl situation – cumbersome and labor-intensive – was an idea I didn’t miss.
Granted, I never played a legitimately advertised set at a bar or club, but I casually played in public – at house parties, at a restaurant, etc. I always harbored the thoughts that I’m too old, or even that it’s a man’s DJ world – until recently.
With the advent of technology, so much more is possible for those who want to begin a DJ career or, for someone like me, just re-ignite an interest in the craft. Not only are the DJ-related products easier to use, but also the internet affords a slew of online courses that can help instruct DJs and producers of any level. So, I opted to begin taking courses with the Musicians Institute Online, specifically its “Intro to DJing,” a 10-week course with esteemed instructor Charles Chemery aka DJ Charlie Sputnik.
My Gear: These days I still have those same Technics decks, but I now also have a Native Instruments TRAKTOR KONTROL Z2 mixer, and I use TRAKTOR 2 DJ software on a laptop. For the purposes of this course, however, the gracious folks at inMusic Brands provided me with a Numark MixTrack Platinum controller, and I paired it with Serato DJ Live software, as taught by the “Intro to DJing” course.
I’m no big techie, but I’m happy to report that I took the Numark unit out of the box, simply plugged in my USB and RCA cables, and was all set to play! (Love when that happens.) It was even easier than I had initially imagined. And off I went with my current library of music.
I’m a long-time trance fan, but with a serious love for breaks – a bit more melodic and even progressive. I love all things from the Anjunabeats and Anjunadeep labels, but I’m also very much into house and even some electro-flavored grooves. So I loaded my laptop up with tunes and got started.
So, with all that in mind, let’s take a look at my experience with M.I. Online’s “Intro to DJing” course:
Getting Started: This course, “Intro to DJing,” is designed for anyone with a desire to learn to spin from scratch. You not only learn the craft of DJing, but also its roots and how it evolved to grow into the cultural phenomenon it is today.
“Intro to DJing” is comprised of several different learning components. When studied as they were designed, they blend together to create a well-rounded, informative and interactive learning experience. Once you create your own log-in and profile on the Musicians Institute Online website, you are able to view your respective course materials. Each week, you get links to lesson preview videos and curriculum. There are also weekly assignments/assessments based on the content covered. Each week, there’s also a one-hour live broadcast with the course instructor – Charles Chemery (aka DJ Charlie Sputnik) – and getting connected is as simple as clicking on a link sent in a “reminder” email.
Once logged in, you are directly linked to a virtual classroom, in which you can communicate with your instructor in real-time. I found this to be extremely helpful to clear up any confusion I had on a topic, and not only that, it also made me feel much more connected and involved in the class than your average long-distance correspondence course (of which I have taken many throughout the years). However, if you are unable to attend the live-lectures, they are recorded and available for review usually within 24-48 hours, and the instructor was not only speedy, but equally thorough whenever I emailed him any questions. The following is my experience with the course:
Lesson 1 introduced us to the first known human recording (Phonautograph by Edouard Léon Scott in 1860), to recording and reproducing sound (Phonograph in 1877 by Thomas Edison). Bringing things up to current speed, we learn about the earliest DJs (in 1935, the term disc jockey was coined by radio commentator Walter Winchell). We learn that Jimmy Seville held the first DJ dance parties in London, and claimed that he was the first DJ to use twin turntables (for continuous play) in 1947.
We then move into the begging of the turntable era (1972, and the introduction of the Technics SL-1200). They were highly popularized by early hip-hop turntablists like DJ Kool Herc. In 1975, DJ Grand Wizzard Theodore invented the scratching technique by accident. In 1982, “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force was the first hip-hop song to feature synthesizers, as it was heavily influenced by German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk. Then the late ’80s and ’90s were dominated by the “rave scene,” which created the first real “superstar DJs” like Paul Oakenfold and eventually brought DJing into the mainstream. The DJ’s medium morphed from vinyl to CDs and, eventually, streaming music options.
The lesson then discusses in greater detail the different options available (vinyl, CDJs, and controllers) and the pros and cons, and evolution of each. It details all the necessary DJ components from turntables to mixers and needles.
I enjoyed the historical aspect of this lesson. Many people may be more eager to jump in and get on the decks, but I believe that it helps tremendously to know the craft’s origins and evolution, especially in an era when DJing is often conflated with mere “button-pushing.” Plus, being well-informed is never a bad thing.
Lesson 2 delves more in detail of the components that can (and should eventually) accompany a professional DJ set-up. Mics (like a Shure SM-58, for example), special-effects hardware (Roland brand was recommended), as well as a bit more in-depth discussion of the schools of thought between vinyl vs. other platforms. There are definite pros and cons to each.
Records are heavy and bulky to haul around, whereas CDs, USB sticks, or hard drives are far easier to transport – especially on long-distance gigs (although easier to lose or have an electronic issue). Of course, many old-school DJs still swear by the warmer sound only delivered by vinyl. Durability is another point; vinyl tends to wear out and is susceptible to damage, especially in a club environment. Plus, digital music is easier and much cheaper to replace than a rare, one-of-a-kind vinyl record.
Also, the affordability of vinyl vs. digital music is a consideration. Vinyl is more expensive to manufacture, making it less widely available. And in this day and age, digital music is released constantly on streaming and download sites that appeal to our desire for instant gratification – it’s also less expensive. Most importantly, a DJ doesn’t always know what gear a club will be outfitted with, so unless you are bringing your whole set- up everywhere you go, make sure you are well-versed and ready to play on any of the current DJ set-ups.
Another Key Point: It was mentioned that Francis Grasso was the first DJ to develop the idea of “beat-matching” and blending records in New York in the late ’60s. The key point in this development is that by blending one record into another, the DJ was now capable of keeping the dancefloor full at all times.
During his live-lecture, instructor “Charlie Sputnik” demonstrated 30 minutes of live DJing on the turntables set-up. His key points: needle drops; manual beat counts; adjusting tempo via pitch-fader and using hand on the platter to match the beat; and once the beat’s matched, lowering the bass on the upcoming record (via headphone cue) and slowly bringing second record in, swapping the bass and fading out the first track.
I really enjoyed the seasoned viewpoints on all the possible DJ set-ups – the student is given plenty of info to make an informed choice. Also, the history lesson was useful.
Lesson 3 begins with this notion from the instructor: “Beat-matching by ear is a cornerstone of DJing.” This session discusses why learning to beat-match on vinyl – without the assistance of software programs – is important.
I love that this course highlights the basics – a history lesson, of sorts. Knowing “what came before” digital helps create a better appreciation of today’s modern conveniences, such as beat counters and even the controversial “sync” button now available with most DJ software. Bottom Line: You don’t have to rely solely on electronic crutches. Remember, there are tempo changes mid-song that these devices don’t always reflect. Nothing beats having a well-trained ear, there’s a certain prestige to knowing how to beat-match vinyl, and fans don’t always like watching a DJ staring at his laptop.
Lesson 4 gets into the fundamentals of beat-matching and mixing on Pioneer CDJs/XDJs. It goes into a comparison of vinyl vs. CDs, pointing out the much larger capacity of a CD and the simplicity to replace should it become damaged. And although you’d likely never convince a native turntablist to switch to scratching on a CDJ, they have become quite accurately developed to emulate the similar sound qualities to scratching on turntables. The jog wheels of the CDJs are meant to serve as controllers, and tend to be more sensitive than vinyl; however, you can’t beat the tactile quality provided by a record.
Benefits Highlighted: With CDJs, you can precisely adjust the jog wheel to the beat/waveform of the track for a more precise mix. You can use the search button for a frame-by-frame movement, and once you find the initial beat, you can hit CUE to set the starting point with precision. Another definitive difference is in the pitch-control fader. On turntables, it’s generally plus/minus-8- or 16-percent, but vastly greater with CDJs. This is far more beneficial if you like to transition between genres with widely differing BPMs, because it cuts the beat-matching time to a minimum. The final point posed is the fact that CDJs tend to have an anti-skip feature, which comes in very handy in a dark, late-night club environment.
Lesson 5 gets into the DVS (aka “Digital Vinyl System.”) These systems include Serato Audio Research’s Serato DJ, Native Instruments’ Traktor and Pioneer DJ’s rekordbox dvs. With DVS, the actual music originates from your computer, but these software programs allow you to use a time-coded control record that controls the speed and direction of a track. (With this course, we dealt solely with Serato DJ).
“Controllerism” is actually a term coined to describe the art of DJing using an all-in-one controller unit. The controller is much more compact, as it contains the mixer and platters all in one space-friendly, portable device. It’s the most affordable and easiest entry point into DJing. Prior to this course, I’d only ever used turntables, but thanks to the gracious people at inMusic Brands, I was able to work with a nifty Numark Mixtrack Platinum Controller.
Once familiarized with the controller, we dove right into the meat of the Serato DJ program. Without detailing every facet of Serato, a few important lessons included learning the program’s three modes (Absolute, Internal and Relative) and its features (like Waveform and beat-matching displays, Key Detection, Tap Tempo, Key Lock, Censor, Cue Points, Loop/Auto Loop functions and, of course, Sync.) Not only are there tons of useful features, but you get five display modes to suit every user’s preference.
This lesson was super-informative for me because I’m new to DVS. Matching Serato with the Numark Mixtrack Platinum unit, with its hi-res display, performance pads and program-friendly control, I was able to hop on and get going in no time.
Lesson 6 begins the course’s in-depth look at some of the amazing capabilities of Serato DJ. The main topics covered in this lesson are setting cue points and loops. We dive into the finer points of hot cues, loop rolls and auto-looping.
My favorite aspect of this lesson is that, though I may be considered more of an “old-school” DJ, these are new tips and tricks for me. The uses and possibilities are endless. You can either extend a track, or you can use the loop effects to do really cool audio tricks on the fly to help “customize” your mix, or create original, well-crafted mash-ups.
Lesson 7 gets into the world of the sampling, and the sampler effects available in Serato DJ. Its SP-6 Sample Player is an internal sampler allowing you to load and play up to six sources of audio in addition to the two virtual decks. And it’s just as easily loaded – just drag them into the slot of your choosing and they can be played either from the software or the controller – simple.
The lesson explains the SP-6’s three playback modes (Trigger, Hold and On/Off), its variety of advanced controls, plus the Single and Multi-FX modes and the Beat Multiplier function. This function allows the user to shorten or extend the time during which the effect is heard.
The lesson was impressive, although I’m not sure that I, as a DJ, would want to get so intricate. Nonetheless, there’s no doubt that with enough time to prepare your set in advance, these are highly creative options that will enable you to add some new twists to your sets. Get the crowd hooked and keep yourself booked.
Lesson 8 introduces us to Serato DJ’s very cool file-management feature that helps to keep our never-ending music library organized and allows for the creation of seamless, impromptu sets. You can simply click on the “ADD NEW CRATE” button, located below the left virtual deck, and manually add tracks of your choosing. But what really impressed me was the Smart Crate feature, which organizes tracks by adding them based on rules defined by the user. When adding a Smart Crate, a drop-down menu will appear and the user can select which criteria will be applied to add tracks to the Smart Crate.
There is a “Live Update” box the user can check which automatically updates the track whenever a tag verifying one of the defined rules is added to a track in the library. In other words, new tracks added will be automatically sorted, saving countless hours of sifting through unorganized tracks. It’s optimal for a DJ’s time management – I love this tool. If you don’t want to create a permanent crate, searching and organizing files is equally as simple. The user can open a drop-down menu with criteria the user can check to restrict the search fields (i.e., artist, BPM, remixer, year, label, etc).
Serato also has a “History” button which stores all the users’ sessions on that machine. They are organized by date and time, showing the names of each track played which is very helpful if you are just practicing and happen upon a stellar mix – we’ve all had those moments where we were in the groove and once it was over it was difficult to recall what created that magical moment. With this feature in Serato DJ, we no longer have to be a victim to a moment of creative genius forgotten while “in the groove.”
These features were all new to me and I found them to be quite helpful. They’re time-saving, without taking away from what I consider to be the “meat and potatoes” of the DJ experience. As the saying goes, “work smarter, not harder.”
Lesson 9 goes into the details of how to create and record your DJ set – which is (thankfully) quite simple. Clicking on the “Record” button opens up the Recording panel. Once it’s open, select the input source from the drop-down menu. Various numbers of channels are available depending on the hardware used. If you are using a controller, such as the Numark Mixtrack Platinum (as I was), open the “REC” tab in Serato DJ and set the input to “MIX.” Once you have adjusted the recording levels to make sure no clipping occurs, press “REC” in Serato DJ and start your mix. Once finished, enter a name for your mix and save it in Serato DJ.
I found this to be a very handy feature, and once again time- and resource-saving. I have spent countless hours downloading additional software programs in attempts to record sets, and only ended up frustrated in the cumbersome nature of switching between programs and shifting focus. This option makes something so important to the growth of a DJ as easy as opening Serato DJ and getting started!
Lesson 10 concludes this course with a wealth of information on the business side of DJing. Here are a few of the more useful tips:
- Practice constantly! It’s very important to build little sets from three records at a time. A performing DJ should have ready 50-60 tracks per hour to prepare his/her set.
- Pre-plan, but remain flexible. If you don’t want to take requests you can simply say, “I’ll try to get it on,” or “I don’t have it.” Don’t weaken your confidence and credibility by simply catering to the whims of intoxicated bystanders. It will also set a potentially unwanted precedence of being a “request DJ.”
- Know your crowd and time slot. If you are an opener, you probably don’t want to play a high-energy, all-out, banging set. You want to build the energy, yes, but respect the headliner (if you aren’t it), and know your “place” if you want to be booked again.
- Know your crowd’s age. Try to think about what type of music (depending on event) they liked at age 15-18. Many of our strong opinions are formulate at this age, and by playing important songs from their respective era is likely to earn you fans – and future gigs!
- Push and pull. Create drama – don’t just play all one tempo. Build the energy, and for longer sets you can also create the lulls (which bartenders will appreciate) and then reignite, as appropriate.
- Watch the volume! Discreetly, go into the crowd and listen. Bass, for example, can become very muddy, which is not always easy to tell from the monitors in the booth.
- Check out the venue. Prior to your gig, as a “fan,” take a look around to get a feel for the place.
- You can refuse a gig if you do not have enough time to prepare. Image is everything and first impressions are lasting. Don’t do yourself a disservice by being unprepared in the name of money.
- Have a good online presence. Try to create a following – connect to Soundcloud, Instagram, Facebook, and when you get a job – promote it!
- Do not get wasted! You are often given free drinks, but it’s best to wait until after the gig – if you plan to perform to the best of your ability and want to be invited back!
- Have back-up gear. You never know when you may forget something or there is a malfunction or incompatibility. Always be prepared!
- Be selective who you allow in the DJ booth. In the club environment, stuff can easily go missing. Also, you can become distracted and a spilled drink can spell disaster for not only your set, but also for surrounding gear.
- Consider using ear plugs. Only if you want to preserve your hearing later in life! And especially if you are a producer – it will protect your creative assets.
- DJ insurance/rider/contract. Make sure to include all the specifics to your show – date, time, fee, cancellation policy, per diem, etc.
When I wrapped my final lesson, I felt lucky that I could take these courses in this day and age. Back when I started fooling around with turntables, there were very few DJ schools, certainly none online. Lots of DJs learned via trial-and-error, if they weren’t lucky enough to have a mentor.
But now, with Musicians Institute Online’s “Intro to DJing,” I really feel like I made up for lost time. Not only am I aiming to further perfect my skills and eventually play out, but I’m looking forward to realizing some production ideas. Thanks, M.I. Online for rekindling my artistic fire.