How to Build a DJ Set (Detailed Guide)
"Learn the rules like a pro so that you can break them like an artist," the great painter Pablo Picasso famously stated.
DJing is an artistic medium. And a successful DJ set should use music to tell a tale or create an image. Songs are our colors, and the dance floor is our painting.
It's challenging to develop general guidelines or formulas for designing a DJ set. But what we can do is offer recommendations. After all, perfection isn't the point. It concerns purpose.
This comprehensive manual for creating a DJ set will teach you:
- How to classify and organize tracks
- Phrasing and effective use of it
- Why 'a tool but not a rule' when mixing in key
- How to perform the first set
- How to perform in a headliner set (using key shifting)
- Platform-specific key analysis
- a lot of sophisticated advice, tactics, and methods
How to Sort and Classify Tracks
Knowing his songs is far more important for a DJ than the technical knowledge required to mix between tracks, utilize effects as needed, and create cue points.
The best course of action would be for you to become familiar with how the dynamics of the various songs integrate into the dynamics of a mix. Going through ALL of your music would be the first step after saying that. Play each and every song you have.
Once you've made a solid enough choice, have it all examined and key-tagged. That folder is arranged by key and has a respectable amount of music that you can recognize. It's rather easy to limit your choices if you enter the library view and list everything by key. Your set quality will significantly improve only from that.
However, I came to the realization that occasionally, despite knowing my music and mixing in key, I would still make poor decisions and mix my favorite lower-energy songs into techno bangers, ruining the mood.
So what is the answer? Go through each piece of music in your collection, give it a listen, and assign an intensity level to it.
Create three folders: the first one should be an introduction or the start of the set, the second one should be the middle of the set, and the third one should be the peak.
Avoid having a single folder with 40 tracks in it. You'll need to follow those three folders, then break them down into three or four subfolders based on the sorts of music and the intensity. However, at least you can plan your route and know where those various song genres are kept.
It's in folder two if you're looking for music with a low-intensity level, like a lengthy tribal sound.
”. As a result, when you go there, you don't have to spend as much time searching through your files for the right music and can instead concentrate more on making sure that your big set will sound great, will blend properly, and won't be out of tune.
When preparing sets the rest of the time, especially if they are working on the go, DJs won't have to sift through a ton of garbage to find that one uncommon track that they recall as being ideal for dropping.
It's simple to confuse how you feel about a song's intensity level. I also realized that since I'm sorting through and rating everything according to energy level, I no longer need to organize by genre.
The Tech-House, House, etc. were now in the middle, and the Tech-House bangers accompanying more pounding Techno tunes were now on the high end of the range. Minimal, Deep House and dubby music that tended to have lesser energy levels were now at the lower end.
Energy levels assist you in staying coherent without limiting yourself to playing only particular types of music after preparing tracks in Rekordbox.
Phrasing and Appropriate Use of It
The practice of aligning two sentences into a set is known as phrasing. Western music typically uses 16 or 32-beat phrases. These are essential for a seamless changeover, where one song's phrase ends and the new one starts at the same time.
A common error is to have your beats per minute balanced but to introduce the new track too soon or too late, causing them to crash at the wrong moment.
Additionally, if the new song is released too soon, it might be jumbled and have vocals that overlap.
It is usually simple to count the phrases till the next part of a mainstream techno track because the track structure is quite similar to other types of music. Massive room Techno is a term used to describe music with a lot of noises that are typically more digitally produced and big booming kicks that may fill a large space.
Quick Phrasing Tip (1)
You will be able to line up your songs appropriately since you will have listened to your tracks in preparation and will be familiar with their phrasing and structure.
I adore introducing the following tune first. I'm aware that I get thrilled when a DJ begins mixing a portion of the next track, especially when the song that follows is one I like. Because you know what's coming, anticipation is essential.
Here is an illustration of two tracks that have similar phrasing. Although these might not completely line up because of the layout, you'll still get the idea.
Each "O" stands for a bar that contains the entire bassline.
Each "o" stands for a bar without a bassline.
- Track A: O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O (end of track, or breakdown)
- Track B: o-o-o-o-o-o-O-O-O-O-O-O (first breakdown or drop)
What you want to happen is that the basslines from songs A and B never play simultaneously (except if they can complement each other harmonically). The basslines for each of the songs can be added to and removed using the Low knob or a high-pass filter if desired.
Quick Phrasing Tip (2)
I frequently listen to techno. Or even Techno or House occasionally. The manner I usually mix has proven to be the most engaging and seamless while still making sense in terms of progression. Try it out, please.
A smooth transition involves matching the first or second entrance phrases of the music you are entering with the last one or two drop phrases of the track you are leaving.
I discovered that when I do that, both songs automatically rise up into a quieter and lower section before naturally building back up into another drop. It resembles phrases within phrasing in certain ways. Do you get what I'm saying?
I started using this technique to mix in any style, and it sounds great. You experience this simple energy progression. It's simple to smoothly transition between the two songs by adding reverb, HPF, LPF, echo, delay, or anything because they are both entering another build-up phase at the exact same moment. It all depends on what kind of music and aesthetic I want to take away from the set.
Why 'A Tool but Not a Rule' when Mixing in Key
Although my cousin is a music teacher and is proficient with keys (she utilizes the key names rather than the numerical system), as a DJ, she generally pays little attention to them.
Although it does provide excellent sound, she advised me to concentrate more on the songs I want to play and how they work together.
Fun fact: Nine times out of ten, keys on the opposite side of the wheel are used for half-step key changes, which are the most common in current music. So it is familiar to our ears. (However, not while the two are interacting in play)
Keys can be converted to anything (modulated) from any place, but the trick is in the execution.
The same tracks would sound the same in all key mixes if everyone did it that way. It's not an unbreakable law.
Listen to DJs who play comparable music to determine the order of the songs. Find out how they changed from one track to the next and try to figure it out. To determine what worked and what didn't, record everything and play it back.
I simply produced a 7-track mix, choosing tracks impromptu or on the go, and it turned out very well. During every transition, I don't want to be constrained to using only tracks in two keys. My goal is to concentrate more on energy.
But adding a key is beneficial for a few reasons:
- First off, if you want to layer melodic music, it usually (but not always) sounds terrible if the keys aren't different.
- Second, the MIK (Mixed In Key) program includes good instructions on how to perform an "energy leap" if you choose to conduct one.
The song best suits the "narrative" you're trying to tell is the next song to play if you're preparing a mix for yourself or listeners. It will be a more upbeat song in the same genre if you're aiming to create energy throughout the set. Or a tune with more vitality in a similar but distinct style.
It has nothing to do with the key.
All things considered, the optimal scenario is when the song you wish to play and are required to play is in the appropriate key. And I have to admit that when I think to myself, "Holy cow that was excellent," the mixes by the DJs I listen to are typically in tune.
To mix in the key is a tool, not a rule, because of this. In general, picking the perfect song for the following scene is far more crucial while DJing live.
Headlining Set Building vs. Opening Set
Many DJs prefer to arrange the songs they want to play that evening such that the set includes more musical minutes than they really have to perform.
Depending on the genre, a two-hour performance usually requires 25–30 songs. You must bear in mind that you lose time on either side of the song as you mix in and out, so if you're doing extended mixes on either end, a six-minute track becomes a three-and-a-half-minute track.
Bring two hours of music if you're playing a one-hour set. Go double, and as long as you have enough variety in there in terms of track speeds and key, you should be rather secure.
My favorite DJs are constantly surprising me with their DJ mixes, whether it be by mixing different genres, shifting tempos, etc. And when I play, I want to achieve that. For me, it's about a trip.
Every DJ commits this common rookie error early on: planning your entire mix from beginning to end with no opportunity for change. When you arrive at the event, it's 10 p.m. and there are twelve people present, despite your best efforts to prepare a peak time set of stunners at home. It won't be successful.
To learn more about what makes a great DJ and how they are always ready for these situations, read our article.
Knowing your performance time is crucial because the beginning and end of the night are at quite different times. Planning ahead for different scenarios is considerably easier when you're using a digital DJ setup. When there were only vinyl records, if you showed up with a set that wouldn't play, you were out of luck.
Due to the fact that most DJs prefer to perform when the dancefloor is full, warm-up (opening) sets are not as common. I must, however, emphasize the importance of playing lots of opening sets.
After all, an opening performance is crucial to establish the mood for the remainder of the evening and get the headline DJ to perform with a respectable level of intensity.
- Start off at a relaxed pace so that people can move around the dance floor, and then gradually increase the pace.
- Practice restraint.
- Leave them where the headliner can pick them up: between 121 and 122 BPM for a party that is Deep House or Progressive House, possibly 123 for a party that is Tech-House, and 124 BPM for a party that is Techno.
You should give the headline DJ some leeway to crank up the volume.
When the opening DJ does a terrific job, warms up the room for him, and leaves the crowd wanting more, my dear friend, who frequently serves as the headlining DJ, believes that makes up at least 20% of his performance.
The headlining set is where you may express yourself more creatively and experience the roller coaster-like ups and downs. A headlining DJ has a large blank canvas in front of him and two, three, or four hours to work with.
You can play the rapid music for a while, then slow things down and unwind a bit before picking it back up. You make the song a little weirder by taking it to a darker realm for a while, if possible.
How to Create an Opening Warm-Up Set
The opening DJ is crucial because he or she sets the correct tone for the crowd's energy.
In their opening set, inexperienced DJs frequently play too many chart-topping songs. This is incorrect, but understandable given the thrill that comes with the first gig.
These songs, though, simply have too much vitality.
Start with more mellow, relaxing, and perhaps some Deep-House music. In addition, start out playing at a BPM of as little as 119 while simultaneously gauging the speed and intensity.
It's typically inappropriate to play techno at 126 BPM at 10 o'clock at a club with only two waiters, two bartenders, and perhaps 15 patrons relaxing or ordering drinks.
It would be ideal if you played music suitable for the club and the time. Unless the party has a techno theme and everyone requests that you play techno the entire time.
Usually, you don't have enough time to do as many ups and downs as you might in a longer set to experiment with a voyage.
Since you only have a limited amount of time, you usually start out slowly, letting people trickle in and getting a few to start dancing. As the opening DJ, it is your responsibility to entice a few patrons from the bar onto the dance floor.
People need to start participating in it. So you might quicken the pace with one of these energizing tunes when you notice that there are four or five individuals on the dance floor. Additionally, you make an effort to entice a few more folks away from the bar, direct them to the dance floor, and keep them moving. pleasantly slow
The main thing you should focus on is dance floor retention, and it's not always simple to execute.
When the DJ preceding them starts playing hard tracks with significant breakdowns, build-ups, and drops, headline DJs often don't like it. Because they enter the scene, it is now challenging for them to create tension and move the crowd in the direction they desire.
When the DJ enters a position where you've been playing a lot of energetic music, he or she may be wondering, "Where do I go from here?”.
Additionally, the promoters will likely comment that "this guy is playing incredibly hard, rapid music for early in the night," which may be the reason you won't be booked again.
Keeping the promoters, nightclub owners, and, of course, the customers satisfied are all part of the business aspect of DJing.
How to Create an Opening Set
Here, the sky is the limit. With the energy released, you can play a lot more powerful songs and keep the crowd moving. Although people will certainly continue to party, you don't want to play the same music for too long.
If there is a lot of upbeat music, it's excellent to offer some diversity to the audience. Keep your sound from becoming monotonous.
You can play songs that are a little bit less hectic and have fewer percussive elements in their beat instead of slowing down the music's actual BPM.
A song will sound quite rapid if you play a recording that is 122 BPM but contains a lot of percussion, sixteenth notes, and drum beats in the hi-hat style.
Another thing you may do is apply a little bit more effect and a little bit more volume control, for instance, during breakdowns.
When I'm in the crowd, I've heard other DJs do the same thing that I occasionally do, which is to gradually lower the level before raising it again to emphasize the build-up and the swell. I consider it helpful.
Key Changes and Voices
To vary the ambiance of your mix as well as the mood and emotion in the club, you may also use key shifting. When I mention a key, I mean the key the music is in.
How do you interpret that? You might be aware that Western music is written in major keys, and that Western ears like ours hear music in major keys. To us, it seems more appealing, whole, or right, if you will.
Minor keys have the effect of sounding more wicked or darker when you perform a song in them. Like in a movie when the killer enters the room or a dreadful event is going to occur. The music at that point is usually in a minor key. And the film's music writers did that with deliberate intent.
So, if you are playing on tracks and decide you want to change the tone and pull folks down that rabbit hole, you play a song in A minor or D minor after playing a few songs in a major key. It will also sound a little nastier.
I find that vocal tracks may really engage the audience. It may be time to add some vocals if you've been playing for an hour without any.
The key is to be open to variety, pay attention to it, and remember that not everyone enjoys music in the same way.
In each club on any given night, there will be folks in the crowd who enjoy vocal recordings.
I don't necessarily have any song suggestions, but in general, you should combine the first track's stripped-down voice (preferably practically a cappella) with the other track's outro drumming. Alternatively, you may mix it in like any other track and repeat the outro beats, or you can do a hard cut (lift the fader of the new tune up and reduce the bass by half on the tune that is playing).
To make it smooth, gradually remove the lows, mids, and highs from the looped best and use reverb or another effect to create a build-up before the master track's steady drumming enters. Try it out and see what works.
Platform-Wide Key Analysis
While you shouldn't completely disregard what the software says about the key, merely use it as a general guide. Key analysis across platforms has always been a problem for me because Beatunes says one thing, Traktor says another, and Serato says yet another.
Trust your ears, heart, and gut, but use keys as a secure sorting tool. Go on if you believe two songs go together well despite the alleged incompatibility of the keys. Although Traktor's BPM analysis and beat gridding are superior, Serato's key analysis more dependable. I only use Beatunes to manage files, including removing duplicates and removing information, tags, and genres.
Play a different tune alongside the one you're playing and, if they sound well together, go for it. Trust your ears, not your eyes.
Also, don't have faith in the beat grid. In your headphones, turn on cue/PFL for both tracks simultaneously. Listen for the "budoomp" of the two kick drums as they slightly overlap one another. Adjust the incoming track with the jog wheels. If it gradually begins to go "budoomp," you have a BMP that is slightly out. To solve it, either reset the incorrect beat grid or turn off sync and adjust the pitch control.
DJs should practice beat matching without sync because of this. You, therefore, have a backup strategy even if you never wish to use a laptop.
Whenever I practice, I simply choose a song, genre, or bpm at random and go from there. Your audience and curator are you. Even if it seems gloomy, there is always something to be learned.
I take it easy half the time: spin material I haven't played much, drop hot cues till the last 8 bars, mix, repeat. "These keys clash, but I nailed the beat match" or "Keys and sync sound fantastic, but the mood change is too strong." Everything in your library is available for learning.
How to Choose Music with Confidence
The easiest strategy to minimize your collection from getting loaded with average tunes is to just purchase the music you genuinely love and believe to be "excellent music." The top DJs don't stress too much when packing for an event since they know that their bag is full of quality music.
One thing is certain: your tastes will evolve, so don't be afraid to delete or relocate songs you no longer enjoy.
I enjoy the music I listen to, and if I can get even one other audience member to enjoy it, I will be happy. However, what matters most is the background music you play while the hit songs are playing. DJs that play fantastic songs I've never heard before are my personal favorites.
Please use your own style and song selection to communicate your narrative. It's about having fun and acting in accordance with your moral convictions (presuming beat matching, key, etc. are in check).
Relationship with the Audience
The emotional demands of the crowd do not have a single, universal solution. Furthermore, more often than not, the attendees matter more than the DJ. The dance floor-rocking set from one week might not do so the following week.
However, when all the elements are in place—music, people, and setting—it can generate a spirit that is difficult to describe.
Everyone I spoke to who saw Hot Since 82 at Cercle the previous year agreed that it was legendary; people still talk about it today. Every song was well received by the audience, which was helped by the great weather, the fact that it was the only event, and the outstanding sound system.
Before you can engage the crowd, your body's sensation and your consciousness must be at ease and operating at a specific frequency.
Additionally, if you don't feel like you belong with the group, it's likely that you'll go off-topic or leave them hanging, which is a certain way to ruin the conversation and empty the room.
Intuition will always keep you from making a mistake during the performance when you are in tune with the dancers' energy. Being at ease, at the moment, and physically close to your records is vital for this reason.
The movement is in DJ's hands, heart, and ears. Eyes are frequently half-closed, and they can enter a zen state of movement meditation when their thoughts can become secondary to their intuition.
The only way they can do a faultless set is with a calm and tranquil mind. With a hand on each turntable, truly in touch with the beat, their entire body is engaged in a dance with the music. Although not quite there—the art isn't that straightforward—definitely it's near.