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3 Tips for DJ-ing from Sarah Davies

by Sarah Davies, 2nd September 2021

I didn’t bother much about DJ skills for many many years. I knew the basics in Traktor;  put one track on one side, another track on the other side, and slide the bar over and it sounded good enough. If it sounded wonky (odd or jarring), I’d hide it by talking over it and remind myself “it’s not about the music”!

Then, a couple of years ago, after moving into a larger hall and getting more speakers I ran into all sorts of sound distortion issues. I decided to spice up my skills. I took a few lessons from a variety of teachers and I’ve been enjoying learning a few new tricks. I’ve seen on the dancefloor, when it sounds peachy and those moments when the mix goes well – ummm hmmm, it can shine a light on the magic that’s already happening through the dance. It’s not about the music, until it is about the music. The music is a catalyst, a soul stirring delicious tool in your toolbox.  

Here’s my three top tips: 

  1. Buy music in wav format rather than mp3, it is uncompressed and it really makes a difference with big speakers. Bandcamp, Beatport and Juno (instead of iTunes) are good. (Also, Bandcamp give more percentage of sales to the musicians). Having good quality tracks in the first place makes a big difference to overall sound quality.  If you do use MP3s, check the bit rate of your recording and try and get the highest available. 128kbps is very compressed, 320 will sound far better. 
  2. Use an external controller (I was so resistant to this, now I’ve got two!). A super useful way to mix is using the filter knob. A simple method that works well most of the time: cut the bass on the outgoing track (slowly turn the knob left), cut the high on the ingoing track (slowly turn the knob right), as you slide to the ingoing track bring the filter knob to ‘0’, Tra la! Woop woop!. 
  3. Learn about ‘Harmonic Mixing’– it doesn’t always make a difference but oh so amazing when it does. The basic idea is that certain keys mix well with some and not so well with others, and to notice major chords (more uplifting) and minor chords (more somber or serious). Traktor has a wheel system with colours and numbers which makes it easy for us non-musicians, along with a colour corresponding ‘Key’ column in the Traktor interface. There’s a lot online about it, it’s easier than it looks. One article that seems to explain it quite well is here. (see also new features for managing keys in the recent Traktor release 3.2).

I’ve taken a few courses and got advice from DJs. I did Nina Perry’s Sounds Physical’ online course which really helped to understand the science of sound. I did a course Why Does Music Make You Move? I’ve worked with three DJs who come to my classes and therefore already know my DJ’ing. You may have some in your communities, otherwise feel free to contact these if you want individual tutoring, they all offer online sessions as well as in-person: Will Softmore, Iszabel Fairbairn, Charlie Roscoe.

Two of the many books I’d recommend about music ‘This is your brain on Music’ by Daniel J. Levitin and ‘Why You Love Music’ by John Powell.

Above all, I wish you much fun in creating soundscapes, and I leave you with the words of Plato: “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”

(Originally published in July 2020 newsletter. )

Sarah Davies, 5Rhythms and Open Floor teacher from the UK.

Sarah Davies loves to help people who want to revive, enhance and engage with their creative spark. She is a founding member of Open Floor International and has developed her own blend of art and dance as an online group with optional workshops: Dance Your Art Out.

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