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    • CommentAuthorIsaacSher
    • CommentTimeMay 17th 2010
    So, I picked up Paul Sizer's BPM this weekend, which is the story of a DJ. I'm still working my way through it, bit by bit. I'm at work, so I'm not able to bring up the music that he refers to, which is unfortunate, because I've only heard of maybe one out of five of the songs he references.

    There's a whole world here that I've completely missed out on, and I'll freely admit that I feel a little sad about it. I've only gone to clubs maybe half a dozen times in my life, as well as attenting the "Soap Bubble" dance at Anime Central on a few occasions, which I'm told has garnered a nice reputation among non-anime clubgoers as a good gathering of DJ talent. I wouldn't know, and that leads me to this thread.

    I like good music, including really good electronica. I grew up on 80's rock, but also on Wendy Carlos' electronic versions of classical pieces (and her soundtrack work, such as Clockwork Orange and TRON). When I switched from cassettes to CD, the first disc I ever bought was KON KAN Move To Move, which I'd heard at a high school cast party once and loved. As I've gotten older, I've gotten into unusual percussion (Blue Man Group, STOMP), classic rock (BOC, The Who, Led Zeppelin), Metal (ranging from Metallica to King Diamond) and the odd dance mix I hear on games like Dance Dance Revolution. I like all sorts of odd little stuff, and I try to keep an open mind for new material. I've heard some German pop that I liked (Peter Schilling, Alphaville), I've had my mind blown by Bela Fleck & The Flecktones (Vic Wooten performing live is almost a life-changing experience), and there's a live remix of Daft Punk's "Harder Better Faster Stronger" that never fails to put me in a good mood.

    So here's where my confusion comes in. My idea of a DJ as a kid was a pretty simple one. They put on the music in whatever order seemed appropriate, but they just played it as is. Now, of course, a DJ is far more than that. At one of the "Soap Bubble" dances I mentioned, I was invited up into the booth by a friend who was spinning (Greg Ayres), and he had all sorts of gadgets going on up there. Turntables, gauges and slides for treble and bass and god knows what else, and a few other consoles that I couldn't fathom in the slightest. Hey, it sounded great, the crowd loved it, and he was certainly enjoying himself -- but what exactly was he *doing*? I had no clue, and I certainly didn't want to bother him during his set to ask.

    The best guess I can come up with, and I know this is deeply ignorant of me, is that a DJ does on-the-fly sound editing. Upping the bass levels here, doing some funky auto-tune sound effects on the vocals there, throwing in a classic turntable scratch as a background sound effect here and there, and even throwing in clips from other songs or sound clips (it seems like a running gag that a techno song has to have at least one sci-fi movie quote in it). And I would imagine that part of the skill is not just technical, but social. You have to read a crowd's mood, notice what works and what doesn't, and know when to back off with lighter material after working the room into a frenzy, and when to push that frenzy even higher still.

    That's my *guess*. But it seems like there's something I'm missing. Where does the alchemy come in that elevates it to the artform it obviously is? Yes, you're doing sound mixing, but it's not quite the same thing as the guy in the studio helping Rock Star Guy record his latest album, is it?

    I'm seeing the edges of a whole new (to me) artform, and I've love to know what I'm looking at, what to look for, and where a good place to start might be.
    • CommentAuthorFan
    • CommentTimeMay 17th 2010
    I know nothing, except that I once saw advertised a piece of software which would tell you what key (e.g., I don't know, "F major") a music fragment is in ... because (the software advertisement explained) a DJ ought to know the keys of each of the music fragments they play, in order to arrange them in a pleasing sequence/progression of keys.
    • CommentTimeMay 17th 2010
    Hurk. Urp! Oh god, sorry... Hang on. Hrrrp! Oh dear, give me a minute...

    *takes some fresh air and comes back*

    Sorry, I just caught the mention of throwing funky auto-tune sound effects on the vocals and nearly regurgitated my coffee.
    • CommentAuthorIsaacSher
    • CommentTimeMay 17th 2010
    Meh, I kinda like the auto-tune effect, if used in small doses. Some people go overboard on it (coughTPaincough), but that doesn't mean it's all bad. *shrug*

    Also, "Auto Tune The News" is just awesome, but that's another topic entirely. :)
    • CommentTimeMay 17th 2010
    Well that all depends on what you're doing, really.

    Personally I play more old school / rare groove funk and whatnot, so I consider my role to be more that of a curator than an audio manipulator. Sure, a little reverb and EQ, crossfades and so on, but I very rarely even do beatmatching (where you nudge the tempos of songs to match and then do your damndest to get the changes seamless, or into something new).

    And autotune? Not really a DJ tool. Pitch shifting is a natural byproduct of changing the speed of the vinyl, and nowadays you can do pitch shifting / tempo changes without one effecting the other, if you're going digital.

    I find the single most important tool a DJ has at his disposal -- even moreso than any other musician -- is an encyclopedic knowledge of music. Understanding the connections between styles, similarities between different elements on different songs ("Oh look, the rhythm on this bassline reminds me of the drum break on this song.")

    I find my primary concern as a DJ is FLOW, and that's not something you can do ignoring the audience. It's a feedback loop. And so, for emphasis::

    have to read a crowd's mood, notice what works and what doesn't, and know when to back off with lighter material after working the room into a frenzy, and when to push that frenzy even higher still.

    And then there are the guys who build everything up from samples, as demonstrated here by DJ Shadow (who is absolutely sublime).

  1.  (8247.6)
    Please see the following films:

    Berlin Calling
    Groove & 24 Hour Party People (to an extent)
  2.  (8247.7)
    @ IsaacSher

    You might be interested in what Ean Golden is doing over at

    He is doing stuff with midi dj controllers that is very next level.

    like this

    this is how he did

    here's a good intro to the whole concept that's being called "controllerism"

    check it out via attack of the show
    • CommentTimeMay 17th 2010
    That's a nice tip, as I'm using the same equipment.
  3.  (8247.9)
    @IsaacSher. Speaking as one who has spent a good deal of his 20's and thirties clubbing and being actively indolent about the mechanics behind it I would say that what makes a good DJ to me is someone who knows how to play the crowd, who is much like a conductor in that he not only gauges the mood, but creates it, manipulates the ebb and flow and takes the clubbers on a journey in which they will be surprised and delighted (I would guess a receptive audience is as much a part of that too). The best example I can give of this was when Andy Weatherall and Slam were playing one night at "Never Get Out the Boat" here in Glasgow back in 95, 96?. Not only was it a blinding set, but seemingly everyone was bombed out of their mind on some fine E that was doing the rounds that night. Early on they played (iirc) The Earth is Burning by Orbital which got everyone going mental, the set continued at a fine pace for a good while, the guys started to bring it down a notch and take it up to keep the crowd going. At one point they played something that was trance but mellowed into almost ambient before suddenly hammering back in with the keyboards from "The Earth is Burning" again to an ecstatic roar.

    Heh, as I'm reading this out to my good lady, a broad grin just appeared across her face. It was that good, that special.

    That's what I think makes a good D.J.
    • CommentAuthorTAL
    • CommentTimeMay 17th 2010 edited
    Read this to find out what a DJ is. Best book about the history.
      CommentAuthorPaul Sizer
    • CommentTimeMay 18th 2010
    Well, if you've read B.P.M., you know what I think a DJ is.

    The best DJs are educators. Let me explain.
    Special effects, tricks, transforms, beatmixing, pitchbending, all worthy skills, and ones that I give much respect to. The consistent quality of a DJ that I hear across the board is deep knowledge of music, and the ability to share that knowledge with each audience in a new way. A smart playlist is ultimately more important than all the DJ tricks in the world. Technique should always serve the content. This doesn't mean a DJ can't be funny, intense, wild, or a complete ham in the booth, but the best ones I've seen also slip a little knowledge to their audiences, giving the crowd something they didn't know they needed.

    And even though it's a parody, I'd recommend IT'S ALL GONE PETE TONG as a film for showing some actually smart insights on what a DJ does and why they do it.

    Thanks for picking up the book, Isaac, glad it formed questions in your brain.
    • CommentAuthorIsaacSher
    • CommentTimeMay 18th 2010
    Finished BPM last night. :) LOVED it.

    I never got to any clubs much as a teenager. I've never been much of a dancer, I was a gamer geek who didn't hang out in the popular crowds, and the few times I went to a club, I was out of my element and not made especially welcome. It wasn't a hostile reception, but it wasn't exactly friendly, either. And when I was in college, I was in a small town in Indiana that, to the best of my knowledge, would not have tolerated any clubs opening up in its borders. The place was infamous for ignoring its teenage/college population, to the point that the only entertainment teenagers had was hanging out in the Wal-mart parking lot and having sex. Between that and the local educators refusing to teach kids about birth control beyond abstinence, it's no wonder that Richmond had one of the worst teen pregnancy rates in the nation. But I digress.

    I sometimes wish I'd made more of an effort to find other clubs, though, if for no other reason than to immerse in the music.
  4.  (8247.13)
    I sometimes wish I'd made more of an effort to find other clubs, though, if for no other reason than to immerse in the music.

    It isn't too late man.
    • CommentAuthorIsaacSher
    • CommentTimeMay 18th 2010
    @Ginja -- Know any good clubs in Chicago, then? I used to work in the Division Street bar district, and all the clubs I saw there were strictly twenty-something meat market that may as well have had a jukebox instead of a DJ. I also went to Excalibur once, but got a nasty "rich kid snob" vibe off it. *shrug*

    If there's a good place where someone can go and just sit around nursing a drink while they take in the music and atmosphere, I'd be all for that.
    • CommentTimeMay 18th 2010
    I'll second TAL's book recommendation. I love that book.

    I think you're on the right track, as far as figuring out what a DJ "does", and don't worry about feeling like you're missing something: I think that's a pretty common reaction (I certainly felt that way when I was first getting into electronica).

    Here's my "explanation of a DJ for someone who's never heard of DJing" (so apologies if it's overly simplistic or patronizing)...

    At the most basic level, a DJ chooses the order of the songs. A good DJ will, as you stated, do this by continually monitoring the crowd reaction and using the feedback to create a good flow.

    After that is beat-matching (most commonly used when playing techno/dance and related styles). This is where a DJ speeds up or slows down each song so they all play back at the same tempo. Using turntables or some digital equivalent, they literally match the beats of one track so they precisely overlap the beats of another. Then the DJ can fade out one song while fading in the next, and the crowd can barely even tell the song has changed.

    Then there's scratching, which some consider an essential skill of a DJ while others do not. See the DJ Shadow video above for an example. The DJ is basically doing a "live remix" by manipulating the record in realtime.

    Beyond scratching is a whole universe of digital audio manipulation tools. Basically any kind of gear that can alter the sound of a song is used for creative effect by the DJ.

    Hope that's helpful.
    • CommentTimeMay 18th 2010

    Looking at's electronic music events in Chicago, I'd wager at the very least teh LCD Soundsystem and (ESPECIALLY) the Mr. Scruff gigs will be a splendid opportunity to catch some primo DJ'ing. Keep an eye out for flyers and posters, start keeping track of which DJ's play at which shows, take it from there.

    Hope you find something, and DO check out that Mr. Scruff show on the 29th.
    • CommentTimeMay 18th 2010
    Seconding Taphead really, there's not many who could give you a better taste of what a DJ *does* than Mr Scruff.
    • CommentAuthorIsaacSher
    • CommentTimeMay 18th 2010
    @taphead -- ARGH, the link is blocked by my job's content filter! I'll check it out tonight when I get home. Mr. Scruff is a particularly good DJ, eh?

    Am I going to get weird looks if I'm sitting off to the side just taking in the music, and not getting on the dance floor? The last thing I want to do is give of a skeezy vibe of "creepy guy there staring at the girls dancing" or something.
    • CommentTimeMay 18th 2010

    Anything, absolutely ANYTHING on the Ninja Tune label is gold.

    Also, chilling on the sidelines is not frowned upon, in my experience.
    • CommentTimeMay 18th 2010
    @IsaacSher If you want to see a dj that illustrates taphead's idea of a dj as a curator and Paul Sizer's of a smart playlist Mr Scruff is a really good place to start - he's a curator in the mode of Pitt Rivers and plays some really ecclectic stuff. Plus if it's anything like it's Brighton/Manchester incarnations it's full of people wanting to have fun rather than exude cool. And you can often get a nice cup of tea.