How do I become a DJ?
January 1, 2009 1:38 PM   Subscribe

How do I mix live music like Justice (or Diplo, or Ronson)? What equipment do I need to get started? How does one get into this?

I have an extension collection and knowledge of music, along with a somewhat cursory understanding of how to DJ live sets. I have no professional aspirations, but I would like to take it as a serious hobby. I'm sort of stuck on how to get going. It is my understanding that DJs like Gillis / Girl Talk will take songs, cut them up in a program like Adobe Audition and then use a program like Ableton to control the tempo and pacing of the songs, but that most of the work is done beforehand creating the actual mash-up.

That part doesn't interest me, but I'd like to be able to do what Justice does in their live shows. The A Cross the Universe set uses the same source songs as their album, but they somehow manipulate the songs in real time to respond to the crowd. How they do this is completely lost to me. I understand how someone say, playing a piano, can alter the tempo or change keys or otherwise improvise a set, that's obvious, but how do DJs accomplish this?

It looks like I would need several components to get going on this, and have played around with Serato and Ableton, but it is not intuitive. Most of my collection is high quality MP3 and I have it nicely organized on a network share. Ideally I'd like to be able to access this directly instead of using a CDJ. It looks like the idea behind Serato is that I use their control vinyl with time codes on a regular turntable to manipulate the music. Is this all I need? A couple of turntables and it'll come to me?

I realize that this comes across as sort of "I heard a piano piece, what is a piano and how do I play Beethoven?" but I'm sort of stuck as what to do next. The only equipment I have now are several computers, and a nice stereo system. I'm also looking to spend no more than $2k, so if this is out of my price range that would nip this in the bud right now.
posted by geoff. to Media & Arts (5 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
One way to play live like Justice is not to play live. Beyond that it sounds like you just want to be able to mix the files you have rather than create all-new tracks, which is fine and the way people have been DJing for fifty years. You don't need Ableton, decks, or anything like that because there is software to put a DJ mixer in your computer. Traktor, Mixxx and Zulu DJ are a few options here, some of which may allow for constant-pitch tempo manipulation, filters, sampling, scratching and all the other techniques you've heard and seen.

If you're looking for tips on mixing and such, just start doing it radio/cassette style, one song after another. If you want to start beatmixing and smooshing things together a bit more, the software will help with that, too.
posted by rhizome at 2:57 PM on January 1, 2009

Possibly the quickest and arguably the easiest way to get into this - is to look at the Native Instruments DJ line of products.

Traktor will allow you to DJ directly with your MP3's on up to 4 decks, with associated effects.

I use Traktor Pro in conjunction with an Audio Kontrol 1 interface to allow me to have two channels (one for pre-fade listen). I master my mixes into Acid, which then allows me to edit & overdub samples etc - I get reasonably good results with this workflow.
posted by mattr at 3:17 PM on January 1, 2009

Best answer: I use Ableton Live in place of turntables or CDJs, a lot of control gear for manipulating internal effects and for hands-on control of Live, outboard effects, and a small mixer for routing audio and controlling effect sends. I think total my entire setup, which I have accumulated over the course of a year or so, cost maybe $1000 (not including my laptop). I plan on adding a lot more outboard effects in the future.
The majority of a "live" set is done way in advance. I think this is true for all similar performances/acts (Justice, MSTRKRFT, Deadmau5, etc). You develop a basic idea of how you want your live performance to go, keeping it flexible so you can respond to the crowd, and then you pre-beatmatch everything, organize your loops/tracks, etc. Then the rest is pretty simple. Trigger loops, tweak effects, mix tracks together, and so on. I believe a key thing is being able to set loop points on the fly (which is easy in Live), and then with that you can basically remix songs live.
Alternatively, you could opt for CDJs or turntables + Serato (which are what my friends use) and beatmix and match live. I prefer not to do that because I feel like the Ableton system allows for a lot more chopping up and such...and I'm not very good at beatmatching.
I'm not exactly sure how Justice does their live sets, but I've heard it usually just involves CDJs and a laptop. It's probably surprisingly simple. Personally, I feel like its important to develop your own method for performing live. Just start simple and then thinking about what else you could do to make things more interesting.

P.S. From what I understand, Xavier is the one doing more or less everything live. I've seen videos of them live and Gaspard usually sits in the back smoking a cig, stepping in every once in awhile to slightly tweak a knob or two. Instead, Gaspard is the genius behind the composition of their tracks.
posted by god particle at 3:57 PM on January 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

I've been listening to A Cross the Universe and they probably have their full tracks and drum beats separate, or everything in separate tracks, and they have things run through effects and samplers for all their stutter effects. They mix in cuts and loops of other songs, tweak loop points, and so on. It can all be done with CDJs + a mixer or a laptop system like the one I mentioned.
posted by god particle at 5:47 PM on January 1, 2009

Response by poster: Wow thanks for the advice! Part of my problem was trying to define exactly what I want to do (which is alluded to here). I went out and bought an MPC (MPD24) and a keyboard. I'm beginning to wrap my head around how this works. I think I'm going to try a two prong approach, first try to make a few solid playlists and see if I can make them flow together, sort of like Ronson's Hard Rock Mix, then I'm going to see if I can do the same thing on the fly.

Ableton is great, and for me right now, better than Reason (since I'm not coming from a background of actually using the physical products). It is a really intuitive program. I'm playing around with Traktor, I might actually end up using that until I can get the quirks of Ableton down. Really it looks like turntables are really just control surfaces and I can achieve the same thing with a turntable using a MIDI controller. I guess a lot of live DJs are more theatrical than musicians, they've already done most of the heavy lifting before they went on stage. I really want to know what exactly they're doing on stage, I remember seeing DJ AM and he was constantly doing something, I could never figure out what. I wonder if they have dead knobs on their devices that they twist and turn to make it look like they're doing something.

Also rewatching A Cross the Universe I do notice that Gaspard does very little during the live set. I don't think they were faking their live sets, they respond too well to the crowds, I bet they have samples lined up on their pads and more or less control the pacing / tempo of the songs. Anyway I'm excited, getting into this is a lot easier than learning an instrument, at least as far as right off the bat making music is concerned.
posted by geoff. at 11:31 AM on January 3, 2009

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