The art of DJ’ing has inevitably evolved over the years, but the core skills have remained much the same. A good DJ needs a musical ear to pick out quality tracks, and can detect the different energy levels and musical feel of each track in their collection so they have control over their set’s dynamics.
They also need the skills to perform the mix live, which can be as basic as crossfading from one track to another in the last five seconds regardless of any difference in BPM, or performing continuous, pulse beat-matching of one track to the next to perform a seamless mix. In fact, genre and DJ’ing styles aside, the only big difference in more recent years has been the degree of audio manipulation involved, along with the use of additional audio loops and samples to augment a mix.
Audio manipulation can be as basic as fast fader and rhythmic flicks of the crossfader to get that chop-and-change sound. The next step would be the use of EQ, filter and multi-FX. Additional sounds can be triggered from a sample deck or cue points on a deck, letting you add single-shot audio-like special effects to your mix or reordering loops and small sections of a track respectively.
These skills, built up over the years, can be the basis of your approach to audio production. Here we’ll look at production that utilises those DJ’ing skills – while minimising the need to learn new skills – for successful music production.
In The Beginning
There are quite a few software choices when it comes to sequencing and mixing your own music. Logic, Cubase, Reason, Pro Tools and Ableton Live are the most common titles you’ll hear when it comes to which program to use. They all have plenty of attractive features, but it’s Live that wins over the DJ crowd. This is mainly due to its looping nature, ease of use, and that 99 per cent of its functions can be carried out during continuous, undisturbed playback. This feature is called Session View, which lets you work like you’re in the middle of a DJ’ing mix, so it’s a comfortable place for you to start.
We recommend that you initially get to know the software by learning to mix a few tracks together to understand its basic functionality. Live comes with some excellent tutorials in the Help View window for this under the Help menu at the top of the screen. An 11-page walkthrough called DJing will teach you the basics on how to beat-match your music (Warping) and add EQ. If you’re completely new to the program we recommend having a browse through most of the short lessons on this page to gain confidence in getting around the application.
We will show you how to use Live for working with looped and single-shot (non-looped) audio and MIDI clips. Use Session View to create a combination of sounds that you can base a track around. You can then use your DJ’ing skills to trigger and shape each Scene (row) to create a full track. Now you are ready to get started, let’s look at a simple trick to help achieve a more professional-sounding track from the very beginning. This involves DJ’ing between your own track and other released tracks that you rate in terms of production value and musical content.
Use EQ on your Deck Groups and individual layers as you would in a DJ mix. Choosing which sounds are allowed to have bass (bass sounds and kick drum) and taking out the bass on other sounds to avoid pushing the mix into the red.
It’s most likely you’re wanting to create your own music because you’ve been inspired by someone else’s. There’s also a good chance that you’re into a particular sound of the moment and have a handful of new tracks that would be great examples of what you want to create. Grab one or two favourites from this selection and drag them onto a new track within Live. This will mean they’re on hand at any moment to help judge how your own work is sounding.
Time spent learning Live’s Beat Repeat will enable you to loop a single beat of your song to then divide into smaller loops, allowing you to easily create build-ups to new sections on the drum group
Another benefit of this setup comes from splitting the reference material into song sections – or what DJs tend to call phrases. In dance music you’re usually talking clean sections of 16 to 32 bars when a track maintains similar sounds and musical parts until a noticeable change at the 17th or 33rd bar. This is the next phrase in the track. After splitting the track into separate audio clips per phrase, you can concentrate on the musical elements and sounds in each phrase. This will give you a more clear idea of the type of material needed to create the given genre and style of music in question.
We’ll now look at the various options available for sound sources in a song and weigh up º pros and cons when used as a DJ’s approach.
An investment in a quality sample pack for the genre you want to produce is like buying the best tracks for a mix – and should not be overlooked. Take time to be the ‘selector’ of your song elements and concentrate on the best starting point for a great-sounding track.
Many people over-complicate the process of music production at the stage of sourcing sounds. As a DJ, you already have an ear for a good or bad sound, so use your skills and treat this stage as you would when building or selecting tracks for a record crate. You don’t need to be creating a track yet, purely building up a crate of quality sounds.
The most immediate source to work with is an audio loop. These are usually 1–2 bars in length, meaning they’ll require some variation over time when played throughout a 16–32-bar section of a song or they’ll quickly become monotonous.
Single samples can be used on their own as the basis of a track or alongside an existing bed of loops. They offer more control as you need to program in your own patterns, but this requires some basic knowledge of how to sequence drums and melodies. They’ll have a professional, polished sound to them, so, as when working with loops, require minimal understanding of mixing and processing. However, they won’t carry the same energy, which may or may not be an issue depending on how sonically dense/sparse the music needs to be.
Instruments offer the greatest amount of flexibility as you can not only program in the notes they play, you can shape how that instrument will sound. They also require a much more in-depth understanding of mixing, although buying specialised preset packs for the genre you’re working with can help a lot.
Working with loops, then, is a good place to start: spend your time picking the sample packs for the style of music you want to create. Although the price of a quality sample pack might point you towards ‘free’ online content, we’ve seen plenty of people waste time looking for samples all over the net with only mediocre results. With commercially released material, the price pays for production decisions by the makers – knowledge you may not have at this stage. Loopmasters, Sample Magic, Prime Loops, Samplephonics, Future Loops and Wave Alchemy are all good starting points.
As you grow your skills, use single samples to augment your sounds. Play to your strengths: don’t jump in too soon, grabbing lots of single samples and setting up instruments. As you’ll find, your DJ skills will enable you to create plenty of interest in your sounds.
When using groups to manage your musical elements like a four-deck mix, set up a channel for each group so you can record your filter, fader and other processing.