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A DJ often provides musical entertainment for events like weddings and celebrations. And, many successful DJs have taken center stage themselves—performing live shows for massive crowds.
Have you ever thought about becoming one yourself? If you’ve got a love of music and an ear for beats, a pro DJ gig could be for you.
To give you your best shot at learning how to DJ, we’ve compiled a guide with advice from experts who will walk you through everything from how to start a DJ booth to how to use a DJ mixer.
What Do You Need to Be a DJ?
When you’re just starting out as a DJ, you don’t need to worry about how to build a DJ booth in its entirety. Instead, begin with just a few staples.
A dependable bag to carry all of your equipment is a must. According to Rolling Stone’s Joshua Kanter, there are three things to look for: a bag that’s large enough to hold all your gear, that has plenty of pockets for cables and other peripherals, and that suits your carrying style. For example, are you making short trips to and from your car or using public transportation to get from gig to gig? Choose accordingly.
If you want to learn how to be a DJ, you’ll need a fast laptop with a big hard drive. While you could get by with 4GB of RAM, most DJs agree that 8GB is a safer baseline. We recommend getting the largest amount of RAM that you can afford.
Here are a few more considerations:
- Make sure your screen is large enough. If you have trouble viewing screens in dark spaces, shop around for a laptop that you feel comfortable using during a live event.
- Opt for a matte screen. Glossy screens look nice, but matte screens reduce glare while performing.
- Take build quality seriously. Machines made of metal (like Apple’s MacBook Pro) rather than plastic are more durable when you’re on the go.
You’ll also need to make sure that your laptop has enough USB ports for all of your equipment—at least five—otherwise, consider getting a USB hub.
Additionally, spend an extra few dollars for a laptop with a solid state drive (SSD). These have fewer moving parts than a traditional hard disk drive (HDD), which DJ and Skillshare instructor Young Guru says is essential. Not only are they less likely to fail, but they’re more resistant to the vibrations you’ll experience on a live stage.
To mix beats, you’ll need a DJ controller, a device that enables you to mix music via a variety of knobs, encoders, jog wheels, faders, backlit buttons, touch strips, and other components.
4. External Hard Drive
As you unpack the finer details of how to become a DJ, EDM artist Young Guru offers up some wisdom: “It doesn’t exist if it’s not backed up twice.”
DJs rely on a variety of sound effects, music tracks, and software. If any of them become unavailable or fail, you’ll find yourself stuck at a gig without a fallback plan. That’s why it’s critical to have everything backed up on an external hard drive.
Young Guru recommends the Thunderbolt, but if you want something less expensive, look for a drive that’s at least 500GB. Again, opt for a solid state drive over a hard disk drive.
5. Audio Interface
An audio interface allows you to connect instruments and microphones to your computer. They also upgrade the sound quality that you input to your computer, and more importantly, the audio that you output to a sound system.
There are very expensive options, but you can get great results with an audio interface that costs less than $300. Our previous guide on essential music production equipment covers what to look for when shopping for an audio interface in detail.
6. Mixing Software
Some DJs still mix tracks using old school vinyl turntables, but many others opt to do the job via software.
Industry favorites include Serato, rekordbox, and Traktor. But no matter which one you choose, look for a DJ application that covers all the basics, including EQing, hot cueing, looping, scratch emulation, and browsing.
7. Studio Headphones
It’s no secret that your studio headphones are critical to your success as a DJ. According to Equipboard, there are several things to look for:
- A pair that produces a punchy sound. DJs need to know that their mixes are evoking the emotions they’re aiming for—and that’s typically achieved through high levels of bass and reverb.
- Closed-back studio headphones. This type of studio headphone blocks out any ambient noise, which is essential in a loud club setting.
- Durability. Buy a pair that can withstand some punishment. In many cases, the most expensive headphones aren’t the best options for DJs.
8. Extra Cables
Finally, make sure you have the following cables on you—and enough of each type to connect all of your instruments and interfaces:
- XLR (or instrument) cables
- ¼ inch “male” to “male” cables
- XLR to ¼ inch mono cable
- USB-A to USB-C cables
How to Become a DJ
Step 1: Learn Basic DJing Techniques
Every beginner DJ needs to learn how to operate their equipment as well as techniques that professional DJs use to mix music. A few basic DJ effects include:
- Beatmatching: Getting two songs to play at the same beat and tempo
- EQing: Changing frequencies to blend audio tracks or highlight certain sounds
- Phasers: Modifying the depth to create a more synthesized sound (like a robot’s voice)
- Compression ratio: Reduces the space between a sound’s quietest and loudest level
- Reverb: Trying to mimic how sound bounces off of walls to place something farther away or closer to you
Step 2: Mix Your Tracks
Once you’ve got the basics down, dive in and start mixing your own tracks. As you build up your library of songs and sound effects, you can find copyright-free music on sites like Bensound, Free Music Archive, or Soundstripe.
While you should feel free to experiment, many DJs rely on what Phil Morse describes as counting to four, and then to eight. “Typically, a whole ‘section’ of a song will be eight ‘bars’ long,” Morse explains. “Your ultimate aim is to start your new tune playing at the start of an eight-bar section.”
Once you’re ready to start mixing your tracks, ask yourself the following questions:
- Would the vocal line of the first song’s chorus sound good over the instrumental of the second song?
- Where might I add instrumental breaks or vocal-only sections?
- Does each song maintain its feel even at slightly faster or slower tempos?
While these tips sound prescriptive, remember that there are no rules, except to experiment and have fun mixing your tracks.
Step 3: Publish and Share
Once you’ve got your tracks mixed, it’s time to upload or stream them on social media.
Even if your goal is to perform live, building a social media presence is a huge part of becoming a successful DJ. Whether you post behind-the-scenes content on Instagram, share mixes on YouTube, or live stream on Twitch, you’ll build an audience while also letting people know you’re available for hire. If you’re thinking about how to become a famous DJ, know that it’s tough to rise to the level of superstardom without a solid online presence.
Step 4: Look at How to Get DJ Gigs
As a DJ, you need to play shows to get experience and get your name out there. The good news is that, regardless of where you live, someone is probably in need of a DJ.
Here’s just a few ideas of where to look:
- Small fashion shows, street fairs, or farmer’s markets
- Birthday parties, anniversaries, weddings, and house parties
- Clubs, restaurants, and grand openings
Start by asking friends if they know of anybody who needs a DJ. You might be surprised by the opportunities that are quite literally in your own backyard.
Step 5: Improve Your Skills
DJing is an art, which means there’s always more you can learn. Keep your skills sharp and your creative energy flowing by:
- Mixing music in a different genre
- Getting inspired by experienced DJs on YouTube like Mix With the Masters or Waves Audio
- Taking a DJing class on Skillshare to pick up new techniques
Like any creative pursuit, becoming a DJ takes time, practice, and patience. But, if it’s something you’re passionate about, it’s more than worth the effort.
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