So, you’ve got the basics of DJing down and are looking to record a set. You want to do this to promote yourself and get gigs, or you’re about to play your first show. Here are a few tips to help you create an engaging DJ set and nail it. There are no absolute rights or wrongs with DJ sets and they will differ depending on what genre or kind of event you are playing.
A good set is like a story. It has its ups and downs and its twists and turns, while taking your listener through a journey.
Start with a basic concept
You might be playing a club set within a certain genre, or a more event based set for a wedding, birthday or awards night. Either way, think about who’s going to be listening to the set. What kind of vibe will the gig have?
This will help you to narrow your track choices down to a selection that creates the right atmosphere. Part of creating this vision is knowing your audience. If you’re playing a DJ set at a club, think about your time slot. What will the crowd be like at that time?
Generally, people aren’t ready to go to full energy as soon as they walk into the club. Also, think about who you’re playing before and after. What is their style? How can you complement the headliner?
It’s good to have your first five tracks set out, as this helps to establish the vibe that you’re looking to set with the listeners. At a live event, you may change from your original plans based on crowd reactions (more on this later), or you might get into the flow and deviate while in the moment, but it’s good to establish the vision for your set right at the start.
Set up your crates or playlists for the set. You want to be able to access what you want quickly and in the moment, without having to scroll through your entire library. Try creating sub crates with particular sub genres or changes.
It’s often a good idea to include a few throwback tracks in your mix. These give your set a more personal touch, as well as giving your crowd that nostalgia high. Or alternately, have a few tracks that are half or double your main BPM. Always group these into sub crates for quick access and make sure they don’t clutter up your key playlist.
Before you play, listen to every track in your crate. Get to know the break points, moments where there is a major transition, a breakdown, or a shift in direction. Get to know the intros and outros for each song and set up some hot cues to give you quick access to these on the fly.
Phrasing is a term used to describe the act of lining up two phrases in a mix. Most western music uses 16 or 32 beat phrases. These are key to a smooth transition, where one track finishes its phrase just as the new one starts. It’s a common mistake to have your BPM’s matched but drop the new track too early or too late so they breakdown at the wrong time. This can create a lull in the mix where nothing is happening. Or, if the new track drops too early it will be messy and you might have overlapping vocals!
Having listened to your tracks in advance, you will know the structure and phrasing for each song and be able to line them up perfectly. Software such as Serato DJ Pro is perfect for this, as you can see the waveform laid out. The darker parts will show where there is less going on and the different colours will show the pitches of each part of the track.
It’s important to recognize the energy of your tracks. Energy relates to, but is not necessarily the same, as BPM and key. A Hard Rock song and a smooth RnB song might be the same BPM and the same key, but they will have very different energy levels.
Consider the energy of each track and use it to your advantage, to guide the crowd’s highs and lows. If you mix from a high-energy track into a more chilled out track, you’re changing the vibe drastically and you can lose your audience. Your song selection builds on the concept and vibe that we discussed at the start of the article. But, the song order creates the energy you’re looking to produce.
Using the energy levels of your track selection can shape your mix. This is a major factor in keeping the listener engaged and is important to think about when planning your set. Not all shapes work for all times. A few common shapes are:
The Ramp – where you slowly increase the energy throughout your DJ set. This can be done with energy levels in songs and by increasing BPM’s. This is great if you are playing before a headliner and want to build to the peak of the night. But it might not work so well at 4am!
The Wave – where you create peaks and troughs to give the crowd ups and downs throughout the mix. This keeps your audience interested and is a great technique for making mixtapes. By allowing the mix energy to drop, you have space to bring in a higher energy track. You can snap the listeners’ attention back to the mix without ever getting too extreme.
The Story – Many books and movies follow a pattern where they build up with smaller climaxes throughout the narrative, then crescendo before winding back down to wrap it up. This is a journey we’re used to experiencing and it can also work great in a DJ mix.
PRO TIP: You can also change energy by changing rhythms. If you are playing a breakbeat set, throwing in a four on the floor track can increase the energy. As there are twice as many accented kicks, it sounds like it’s more intense while being the same BPM.
Similarly, if you are playing a house or techno DJ set, a track with lots of toms or a more bassline driven rhythm can change the energy and draw people’s attention back to the beat, as well as the rhythm.
Matching BPM’s and Phrasing is the first step in a good mix, but to take it to the next level, consider the keys your songs are in. Like a band playing in different keys, blending two songs out of key is going to sound jarring and make for a sloppy transition.
When you Analyze your tracks in Serato DJ Pro, it will detect the key of your song and save it to your library. This means that you can sort your crate by key, keeping tracks of the same or similar keys in order. The key of your song can be displayed in traditional keys, Am (A minor), C (C major) etc. or in the Camelot system.
Designed for DJs, the Camelot system makes it easy to see which keys will work together. Different keys are displayed as numbers 1-12 and A or B for minor or major.
When key mixing using the Camelot system, transitioning 1 number up or down or within the same number from A to B will work well and create a smooth mix.
E.g. 11A-12A or 5A-5B.
Read the Crowd
Many DJs wonder how much of their set should be pre-programmed and how much should be a live selection. Finding a happy medium between these two is key to a successful set. You can have what you think is the most amazing set planned out and find that it doesn’t work on the night. Alternatively, if you go in entirely unprepared, you may miss good mix opportunities that will take the set to the next level.
The best way to manage the prepared/on-the-fly balance is by watching the crowd’s reaction. Look for tracks that get the dancefloor pumping. Stay on top of tracks where you can see people start to fade. Part of being a DJ is understanding what people want and what frame of mind they are in.
By placing yourself mentally on the dancefloor, you’ll get a sense of what’s going to work well. Remember, you don’t have to follow the original plan. But, having a plan avoids stage fright and helps you get back to the core theme if you feel you’re drifting off track.
Don’t be afraid to use something that’s working. If the crowd is enjoying a particular break, loop it and repeat it an extra time before letting the next part of the song drop. Alternatively, if you see that the crowd is tiring, play something with a little lower energy. Or, slow the mix down slightly to give them a break before bringing it back up again. People can love all the big drops, but if you constantly keep the energy at 110%, it will start to lose the impact.
PRO TIP: Plan mini-combinations. These work great for 1 – 2 style drops, and give you a chance to back up a great moment with another great moment.
Plan out 3 or 4 songs that work well together and keep them in groups. This is a great way of combining the planning of good combinations and still keeping it feeling live. It’s like a chess player that thinks a few moves ahead.
If you’re playing a set that features a bunch of different genres or you’ve read the crowd and decided you need to change direction, think about bringing in some transition tracks. Having these special tracks ready to go is a good way of bridging between different energy levels, tempos or rhythms. Identify songs that have changes inbuilt or have a good feel and not too many recognizable melodies. Keep them up your sleeve for transitions. It is likely that you won’t play these tracks in their entirety. They are just there to bridge to your next big hit. But, they can be very useful to give the listener some mental space to make the transition!
PRO TIP: The TR sequencer on the Roland DJ controllers is a useful tool for transitions. Having a drumbeat without a melody allows you to dial up or down the tempo without making a song sound “funny”. It can also be a great way to change from four on the floor to breakbeat patterns.
As you can see, there is a careful combination of planning and freestyling that the best DJs use to create an amazing set while keeping that live performance feeling. Knowing what you’re trying to achieve is key in deciding what to play, when to play it and how to mix it all together.