From the Outside: How Do DJs DJ?
As I mentioned in my last installment, seeing DJs do their thing up close and personal made me wonder why I’d never looked into how exactly they make the magic happen before. While many fans have at least a rudimentary knowledge of what happens in the DJ booth, I have to confess that I know absolutely nothing about where electronic music comes from. I can’t be the only person wondering, can I? So this week, I sought to find out what exactly constitutes the art of DJing.
Thank god for the Internet. Though I felt a little stupid typing “how does a DJ work” into Google, the search results immediately informed me that something called a “DJ mixer” is of crucial importance. The DJ mixer is a type of audio mixing console, and since I din’t know what that is either, I figured I’d look that up too. Apparently it’s an electronic device used for mixing or combining sounds, as well as changing the level, timbre, or dynamics of sounds. I probably could have guessed that, but I like to do my homework right.
Back to the DJ mixer. It’s used to create smooth transitions between songs, which come from sound sources that are plugged into the mixer–that explains why you so often see a turntable next to a DJ at work. (And I thought it was because turntables look so cool! Just kidding.) DJ mixers are different from other kinds of audio mixers, though. They also allow headphones to be used in order to single out certain parts of a song, and they have a crossfader, which makes the transition between sources easier. The crossfader is how a DJ fades one song or sound out while fading another one in at the same time.
Since I like history, here’s something cool: as with most technologies and trends, there was a pioneer of DJ mixing equipment, named Rudy Bozak. He was born in Connecticut in 1910 and trained at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, going on to receive four patents and do revolutionary work in loudspeakers, commercial sound, and mixers. Bozak died in 1982, well before electronic music developed into the sound we know and love today, but the advanced design of his DJ mixers is one of the things he is most remembered for (though he also did a lot of work for the advancement of sound technology in general). His mixers were designed to be sold to discotheques, revolutionizing the world of DJ mixing as we know it. Thanks, Bozak!
So the DJ mixer functions kind of like your mom’s KitchenAid, but for music instead of cookie dough. With modern technology, it seems mixers can beat-match songs quite easily (slowing down or speeding up a loop or sample from a track to match the tempo of another). The computer has been integral to the development of electronic music, which would explain why a DJ without a laptop is such a rare sight—and the laptop is a much more portable music source than, say, a turntable. Though I don’t have the tech knowledge to explain the mechanisms of the mixing technologies themselves, the idea is pretty straightforward: using technology to separate out bits of songs, and then to put them back together in a creative new way.
This brings up a good question: is DJing hard, or can anyone learn to do it? Deadmau5 told Rolling Stone that it’s about as easy as gigs come: “It takes two days to learn, as long as you can count to four,” he said. Deadmau5 isn’t exactly known for censoring himself, of course, but is it really that easy? It certainly can be self-taught, as countless artists have proved. But there is actually now a school for DJs called Scratch DJ Academy, which to some purists no doubt sounds like cheating. Then again, since you can major in painting or writing in college, taking DJ classes doesn’t seem that far off. Like many crafts, DJing sounds as though it can be learned quickly yet you could spend a lifetime mastering the nuances of the art.
Deadmau5 has also knocked his fellow artists for “button-pushing” during sets, preparing the tracks ahead of time instead of mixing the set in real time on-stage. If you can prep everything beforehand, maybe you are diminishing the skill level involved: the pressure of live performance and doing everything on the spot can’t be denied. However, most people agree that not all DJs are great, even if they know how to mix with all the latest equipment, so there’s more to it than just being able to put a set together on or off-stage.
To quote a Forbes article on whether or not DJing is hard, “Even if it might seem that technology makes a DJ’s job easier, the musical know-how required to play what an audience wants to hear before they know they want to hear it is a talent difficult to teach.” With today’s technology, anyone can learn to DJ, whether in a class or in their own basement. But to become an artist in the DJ world, you need something more, that je ne sais quoi that separates art from average. Now I know a little more about what a DJ does during a set and that I could even take a class and learn how to do it myself. But could I slay the dance floor singlehandedly? Let’s be honest; probably not. There are some skills that just can’t be taught, and to be honest, I’m glad. It makes me respect the art form that much more.