How to DJ your first set without knowing how

I was asked to DJ a one-hour set, though I had no previous DJ experience. I didn’t know how to beatmatch, transition smoothly, use Ableton or Traktor, and neither do you. You just have to be comfortable with being a laptop DJ.

Know your audience
I had never been to the venue and from what the outside looked like, I figured inside was a bunch of dusty overweight 30-year-olds with massive facial hair. I took a weekday evening trip over and had a beer inside, scoping out the clientele. I learned that from the balcony dj booth (!), I’d be playing for an affluent, educated set of 20- and 30-somethings that weren’t necessarily music nerds, but seemed receptive to different sounds.

Determine the theme
I thought about what music has moving me lately. While I wanted to do an all out electro-rock-dance-indie set with jams like Wolfmother’s “Woman (MSTRKRFT Remix)” and Madonna’s “Hung Up (Diplo Remix)”, I instead took influence from the very summery flavors of Nickodemus and Captain Planet.

Select your songs
I went through my entire music collection picking out the best tunes that fit the afrobeat/tropicalia/soul/funk vibe. If your audience won’t be earnestly dancing, don’t pick vocal-heavy tunes. Keep a mental picture of the venue inside your head as you listen to your potentials.

Narrow down your picks
After my first sweep, I ended up with 60 tracks, clocking in at 3.75 hours–far more than the one hour I was given. Toss anything that will garner significantly more or less attention than the rest of your set. I had to let go of some classics like Barrett Strong’s 1962 hit “Money”.

Cut it down to size
After tossing half my selections, I still had nearly an extra hour of music. Time for the surgery. I went in using audio editing software (CoolEdit and Audacity work) and cut out extra pieces: extra repetitive choruses, needless verses, instrumental solos. I wanted to keep the song lengths between 2 and 4.5 minutes to keep the energy level moving. [As this takes a bit of know-how and technique, this step is completely optional.]

Put them in order
I used Traktor to help identify the BPM of all the tracks. If you don’t have any audio software, just manually gauge the energy level on a scale of 50-150 for an approximation. My set started with my lowest BPM (79) and gradually worked its way up (with a few tweaks) to finish with my quickest song (126bpm).

Configure your crossfade
Using winamp? I suggest the SqrSoft crossfade plugin. Using iTunes? Even easier; if you left the default settings, your crossfade is already working, though you may want to tweak it in Preferences.

Play it!
Run through it at least once, in its entirety. Watch your levels, some songs are louder than others. iTunes has a fix for this called ‘Sound Check’; try it. Write on a notecard which songs have levels that stick out so you can tweak ’em with your mixer. Otherwise, you’re ready to go!

Well it’s about time for a finished product!

Grab my ‘Breeze and Sweat’ mix.

Like my How To? Be a cool kid and Digg This.

41 Responses to “How to DJ your first set without knowing how”

  1. Satisfied '75 :

    well done – sounds like you had a good time. cheers.

  2. El Vikingo Holandes :

    SQRSofts Crossfader is super. Have been used to for years playing at parties :)
    Love it’s versatility!

    Cheers on your DJ’ing, it’s always fun isn’t it?

  3. DT :

    Very Awesome, I ‘ve always wanted to be a DJ and now i can!

  4. Eric Bogs :

    you should check out the mixmeister mixing software — takes out a lot of the work of doing the prep work you mentioned above — works great for live mixing too.

    my deejay alterego swears by it ;)


  5. Paul Irish :

    Eric, my girl mentioned that software, she apparently uses it for it’s BPM calculator. Thanks for the tip!

  6. simon :

    Forget all that … buy ableton and your there.

  7. d :

    this is not djing. this is making a playlist and playing it at a party.

    djing is playing music live. picking and chosing songs that fit the moment.

    while making a big playlist like this works, its def not djing.

  8. Paul Irish :

    D, I’ll unequivocally agree. I have the utmost respect for the DJ, the technique, and the talent that comes with the name. By no means am I trying to degrade or devalue the word.
    I do think it’s useful, however, to provide some sort of introduction to the basics. After all, shared music is a shared enjoyable experience and I believe the foundations of it shouldn’t be restricted to an elite few.

  9. Benn :

    This is almost like radio airplay.

    You play what you want. You know what your demographc is like, but you don’t need to make them get up and move, or act on your music. The only exception is that you don’t want them to leave the venue – so no Julio Iglesias.

    Also, you’ve got zero option to make any edits on the fly here and add in anything different, which you can do on radio – say if someone makes a request.

    Music isn’t restricted to a
    elite few. DJing isn’t, as there’s plenty of people out there who think they are DJs. Just like playing a guitar well or cutting up the decks in a turntablist style, it all comes down to skill. The difference with the DJ is that the skill isn’t just technical, but it’s the ability to understand the vibe of the moment, and accelerate it, or if it’s 7am – decelerate it! :)

  10. Toke Nygaard :

    I have recently been in the same situation where my wife and I were asked to DJ at a benefit. We more or less followed the same steps, but luckily we brought our entire music collection – otherwise the gig would’ve been a disaster. We simply weren’t prepared for the reaction (or lack of it) – there was a big difference from playing loungy stuff as people arrived to trying to get people dancing as they got drunk. I would def suggest bringing back-up and knowing your material well.

  11. Paul Irish :

    Good call Toke. I once handled the music for a large family party that was similar. I did the same smart thing and brought everything I had.
    I got a very demanding request for “more 80s” so I put on Soft Cell, A-Ha, and Bananarama, natch. But the same guy comes back up and says, “how about some 80s??”. I respond that I thought that’s what I was playing, but he goes, “No.. like Bon Jovi, Def Leppard.” I mean.. ugh! When you’re not talking “Eighties” 80’s, you really gotta clarify! Ok. </rant>

  12. Ivan Minic :

    Great stuff :)

  13. dz :

    i will have to give this a shot when i get home.

  14. thatkidandy :

    Second what d says mostly.

    I’ve been a minimal techno dj since 8th grade, its taken me years of practice to master beatmatching and eq. I agree that technology like this allows for greater creativity in some respect, but I feel stuff like this is destroying the organic feel of being a real DJ.

    Understandably this is exciting for people who want their moment in the spotlight, buts its almost like playing glorified air guitar.

  15. Thomas Christensen :

    HEY DJ, FUCK YOU! – Anyone Can Rock the Party – This is just too funny.

  16. Paul Irish :

    a similar howto from Vice: HEY DJ, FUCK YOU! – Anyone Can Rock the Party (thx thomas, jason, dave)

  17. Anonymous :

    I was thinking about becoming a Professional Disk Jockey. The only problem is that I don’t really like music or mixing music, nor do I care to learn. I do however have a super name and I all ready own a boom box with at least 30 to forty cassette tapes. I have witnessed the Chicken Dance at a wedding once and that was way cool! Please respond with cruel and shameless comments that will make me reconsider this most undesirable career change.

    DJ McNasty

  18. Nedward :

    For mac users who may not need/want all the features of Traktor, I would recommend Disco – it’s got a simple interface, automix, pitch shift/bend, and cue-pointing. All for $25.

    Also, I love River Gods… there is definitely a clientèle to aim at there. Great steak sandwich, and one of the best Guinness pours in Cambridge.

  19. Garrincha :

    Glad you got the chance to DJ, my friend. It’s a must-do for music lovers like us. I really reaaly enjoyed it back in the days and I wish I still had the time to do so today.

    My piece of advice : 1) DJ for the crowd, do not DJ for yourself (it seems obvious but sometimes it’s not) and 2) while preparing a setlist is a good thing, feel free to improvise and to adapt to the feeling of the night.


  20. Richard :

    For a freeware alternative that finds the BPM of music files, try MixMeister BPM analyser. It does that one thing, but does it well (Windows only, I’m afraid).

  21. thelorax :

    As far as doing your final sequence in iTunes:

    in addition to sound check, you CAN set the output volume for individual tracks – just go select the track, go to “get info”–> options –> Volume adjustment. Then you don’t have to ride the mixer.

  22. Toryn :

    First simple rule of DJing: never, ever create a ready-to-go, shrink-wrapped set list.

    You won’t be responding to the party, and you won’t be playing for the crowd (the whole point of DJing in the first place).

  23. DJ Clipz :

    i agree its not proper djing. its fine to select songs as to be sure of the time scale and bpm levels, but dont just leave it as a playlist to just press one button on the night. always mix the songs live, or if your just making a studio mix, mix it when your recording it live.

    peace DJ Clipz

  24. DJ Who? :

    What a joke some sort of wanna be fucking DJ

  25. Paul Irish :

    DJ Who & all the haters,
    I made no qualms about this being ‘real’ DJing and obviously learning the craft from veterans like yourselves would be preferable, but it’s obvious to everyone here how open you guys feel about teaching someone.

  26. diskötek :

    dj’ing is technically getting easier everyday, but the important thing is selection-taste (that requires few qualities i believe)

  27. Izzy :

    People just need to understand that the name of the game is to have fun, and ensure that the audience is doing the same.

    It really shouldn’t matter if you are a “purist”, mixing on the fly, or a “cheater” with a set playlist. As long as you follow the basic rule as stated in the first sentence, then all is good. After all, that is the whole reason for spinning….

  28. Keith :

    Thx for the tips. im a DJing on a couple websites. And yes I dj at parties! very fun…

  29. Amar :

    These ideas are great for first timers. It gives me confidence that i can depend on. Thank You.

  30. Matthew :

    THIS IS NOT DJ’ing…

    This is a joke… I could sit here right now and wack a few songs together, record it to cd and just not even bother turning up to the club, just playing my cd. what a joke, don’t even think of calling yourself a DJ if you think this is what DJ’ing is about! your being fooled!!!!!!!

    DJ’ing is an art, and it takes years of practice and dedication to fully appriciate the skills of top DJ’s. I have put a few points below as to exactly what I see being a DJ is all about…

    – A love for music [or one genre of music] – A lot of DJ’s branch out into their personal favourite genres of music, as I do with drum and bass – my record collection is 99% dnb.
    – Dedication to the music scene and to DJ’ing [I practice at least 7-10 hours a week – and I only do it as a hobby!]
    – An understanding about music; understanding about the keys of tracks, the BPMs, understanding which tracks you can put with other tracks [building a database of knowledge about tracks within your mind]
    – Be able to beatmatch blindfolded [This isn’t all that hard, after a few months of dedication, maybe an hour or more a day of mixing you will start to get there]
    – Be able to scratch; I don’t know many good DJ’s who can’t, although they do not always do it on live sets! – its all about understanding about beats and breakdowns within tracks; it broadens your knowledge and makes you a better DJ.
    – PRACTICE, PRACTICE AND MORE PRACTICE! – Without dedication you will not get anywhere; either put the hours in and call yourself a DJ once you’ve learnt the basic skills and are confident with playing out

    – Go out and buy the book “how to DJ properlly” – after reading this, you may well understand that there is a heck of a lot more to DJ’ing than just playing tunes one after the other!!!!

    Until you understand the art of DJ’ing, don’t bother calling yourself a DJ, you’ll get laughed at and look like an idiot!!!!! [I did it when i first started and didn’t really have a clue! – getting laughed out the building isn’t my favourite past-time!]

    – Any advice… ensure before you start DJ’ing you have a true love for the music you are going to start collecting… unless your a millionaire or a very skillful DJ, you will be playing one genre of music for a long time! [as with me = dnb]. You need to make sure you really love the music before starting on your journey! – i know ppl who did not and they soon quit!!!!

    – Don’t be scared – when your starting out, its obvious your skills are not up to scratch, but go out and play with more skillful DJ’s, you’ll be surprised how much you can learn from watching professionals DJ’ing.

    – Don’t be scared to practice, if you don’t practice regularly, you will loose your touch, you need to be dedicated enough to practice at least a couple of times a week.

    – get yourself a set of turntables; they are expensive, and are the records, but once your collection is geared to music you like [after a few months of buying a cpl records a week] – there is nothing like vinyl, not even CDJ’s, for me DJ’ing is vinyl although its starting to move away into the time of the CDJ, I think vinyl will never die out – its the original and the best way! don’t be fooled by these fancy CDJ’s! although they are nice bits of kit!!!!

    – learn to scratch!!! – its so hard and frustrating, but once it clicks and you finally start getting that sound you’ve been looking for its the best feeling in the world! it helps build your understanding of music!!!


  31. Anonymous :

    WEll yea i have been reading and taking ome mental notes that dj’ing is not just about playing music like a ipod if u catch my drift it is more about switching them while playing you cant just let the song play out i was at a party im in 8th grade but w/e the dj just sat there and watched people dance i was like come on! at least use some synthesizers or some more bas or cut in and out of songs lol.. i want to learn how to do this and i really want to learn i want to be more like trance dj make my beats and play them well thanks for reading and post some things on how to help me im 14 – Vic

  32. chaz :

    just came across this by accident. sorry mate but this is the antithesis of dj’ing, since the whole point is a spontaneous musical response to the crowd. you weren’t djing but might have well have put a mix cd on. this is an entirely pointless exercise and your audience have every right to feel cheated

  33. r :

    How did you scratch and beat-match?

  34. ¯|¯®ãÑ¢é ÃddÏc¯|¯ :

    I’ll have to agree that is most definitely not dj’ing. However you have to keep in mind this guy has absolutely no dj experience and is the position in which we all have been at one point in time. I’d advise do as much research as possible, buy some dvds, go watch some live dj’s spin, and buy a set of direct drive turntables….preferrably technics SL 1200 MK2’s, some shure m44-7 cartridges and a good mixer w/ plenty of effects such as the pioneer DJM 800. Vinyl is the way to go and where the true talent is. You want respect go vinyl. Learn to read the crowd and play to the mood of the crowd. Never hate on newbies as alot of these people as hating on you. Everyone is unique and can better themselves with experience and heart. Share the love :)>-

  35. Paras :

    Love the song selection definitely some I would play.

  36. ¯|¯®ãÑ¢é ÃddÏc¯|¯ :

    Sounds like Matthew has it all down pat….. let’s just hope there aren’t any trance, house, or breakbeat fans in the house considering Matthew’s record collection is 99% drum n bass as he stated. Selfishness to one style leads to rocking only a certain percentage of the crowd, which in turn leaves a shitload of people wondering when the fuck he is going to play something different. Lol there’s no way this rookie spins in front of crowds, or shall i say at least a second time… lol

  37. dj poo :

    to all wanna be djs,get your equiptment watch learn practice the three steps to being a great dont need books expensive stuff,someone tellin you in 30 sentences what you should do.ive been doing it for 22 years,i watched learned and practiced,i wouldnt say im the best but i know what im doing.i switched from vinyl to cd,i think cds are better-but not fun at all transfering them.still have my 12s though.but anyway thats not djing just playing a cd you gotta get into your music,mix,match,and scatch–dj poo

  38. DJ/Producer :

    You cant call yourself a DJ unless you understand the fundamentals of DJing (cueing, beatmatching, EQing, sound levels and training your ears). You’re Cheating! Put in the time and train yourself right.


    DJing is a ART, not something you learn in 5 minutes, this is playing songs not Djing….

  40. djrlemsa :


  41. vlad :

    best vishes

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