Question I get asked time and time again are â€œDo you plan your DJ set in advance?â€, “How do you start planning a DJ set?” or â€œHow do you know what records to play in your DJ set?â€ So I thought Iâ€™d take some time out to write an article on planning a good DJ set.
So what goes into planning a DJ set then?
So you’ve been buying records, CDs or MP3s for a long time and practising long and hard in your bedroom. That mix CD that you sent off to the local club promoter has finally got you a phone call to come and play at his club. Are you nervous? Hell yeah! What are you going to play and in what order? Who knows! Weâ€™ve all been there but hopefully I can help you to overcome your fears by sharing my experiences with you. As with anything you do in life, planning and preparation are the key. These pointers should help you out in your quest for the “perfect” DJ set. Well, maybe it wonâ€™t be perfect but you can make it a set you are proud of.
Research the night
You have been invited to DJ at the promoter’s successful Saturday night at your local club, so you need to know what sort of music is being played. Thereâ€™s no point in turning up with a box of trance, hard house and banging techno if everyone is expecting a night of soulful US garage. Who is going to look stupid then? Yes: you! Hopefully youâ€™ll have done your research prior to sending off your demo CD but just make sure you know what their music policy is. If you havenâ€™t been to the night before, go down and check it out if you can. Have a listen to which tracks go down well so you know what the regulars like. If you know the resident DJs then have a chat with them or check out their tunes and youâ€™ll get a feel for the vibe on the night. Youâ€™ll soon be able to tell whether the clubbers like vocals or tougher tunes and at what time each style of music should be played.
Sort your record box
Once you get home from the club (or maybe leave it until the next day if you have had a big night out!) itâ€™s time to decide where you fit into the night and what you are going to play. Are you the warm-up DJ or the guest DJ for the night? Your slot time will alter the style of music you need to play. There’s nothing worse than a warm-up DJ playing all the big tunes before a guest DJ starts. You need a night to build-up: just banging out the big tunes will make the night feel really flat. The selection of tunes in your box should reflect the slot that you have.
For example, I go through the tunes Iâ€™d like to play and sort them into about five different sections: warm-up tunes, vocal tunes, tougher tunes, big tunes and classics. You may decide to split up your tunes into different sections depending on your style if you are a non-specific dance DJ, e.g. house, tech-house, electro, breakbeats and trance. This is obviously personal preference but the main point is to sort out your tunes into key areas. This allows you to pick out a tune to mix depending on the vibe that the crowd have on that particular night.
After I’ve sorted out the tunes, I put them into my box in the order of the night. If it’s a residentâ€™s gig rather than a guest spot then my tunes will be warm-up at the front of the box, vocal and tougher tracks in the middle, big tunes towards the back and finally classics at the very back. It’s similar if I am doing a guest DJ spot, but without the warm-up tunes. This allows me to work through my box from front to back and progress the night from slower tunes to the heavy hitters. This can obviously apply to CDs too, so just organise them in your CD wallet in a similar sort of order.
After I play a tune I’ll always put it at the front of the box after the last track I played. This gives me the advantage of remembering the mixes that I have done and if anything works particularly well then I have the tracks next to each other. This is obviously more problematic when using CDs so youâ€™ll just have to use your memory there!
Know your tunes
The best way to make your DJ set flow is to know your records or CDs. This sounds like an obvious point to make but Iâ€™m always amazed when DJs drop a mix and find that they have two clashing vocals. Watch the DJ panic as the clubbers start staring in disbelief! He obviously didnâ€™t check out his tunes before he started playing them.
Most DJ tracks have DJ-oriented intros and outros which aid in the mixes but some donâ€™t. The best way to find out is to listen to the whole tune. Itâ€™s far too easy to buy tunes by listening to the middle of the track and Iâ€™m as guilty of that as the next man or woman. I normally listen to a record in a shop by skipping the start and putting the needle right in the centre to check out the main hook. Donâ€™t forget that this isnâ€™t the part you will be mixing. So when you get the tune home make sure you (a) listen to all of the mixes and (b) listen to the start and end of your chosen remix. Work out whether it starts and ends with beats. If it doesnâ€™t then how does it end? Is there a synth line that youâ€™ll need to mix a drum intro from another track into? Make a point of remembering this information if you can. If you find this difficult then it’s time to mark your records.
Mark your tracks
Youâ€™re in a club, itâ€™s a rocking night and you pull out the latest hit 12″ or CD. You look at the label and think, â€œWhich mix am I going to play and how does it start?â€ If youâ€™re playing a progressive house tune before it then youâ€™ve probably got ten minutes to work it out, but in most cases youâ€™ll have three or four minutes to decide which tune to play, what mix to play, how and where to mix it and to take a swig of your vodka Red Bull!
I make a point of marking all of my records after I have listened to them. Firstly I mark the remix I am going to play. On a CD I put a little star next to the mix Iâ€™m going to play or if it has no track listing I will write â€#3â€ to indicate track three is the one I want to play. On a 12â€ I will mark the side of the track I want to play by getting the needle to the start of the mix I want. I will then draw a line from the centre spindle to the needle. This helps me to indicate the start of the track for scratching and cueing purposes. It will also help me out if the club has no lights on their turntables, which is often the case. I can get the track out of the sleeve and put it on the turntable and instantly tell Iâ€™m on the right side. I’ll only need to do a minor cue up to see that the arrow is pointing at the needle and hence Iâ€™m at the start of the track.
I have also seen other DJs mark up the sleeve of their track with notes for playing. It will often say â€œmassive tune, drum intro, strings outroâ€. If this helps you to know your tunes better then do it. Why not get yourself some freezer stickers (the ones used for marking up your freezer bags!) Put notes on them describing the track, beats per minute, style and intro and outro information. Stick it on the sleeve and you have instant information to help your DJ set to go well. Yes, I know it will decrease the resale value on Ebay, but it’ll help your DJ’ing!
Plan some mixes, but not the whole set
Do not plan your whole set in advance. Just in case you didnâ€™t hear that the first time Iâ€™ll repeat it. Do not plan your whole set in advance. You’re asking for trouble if you do.
In theory, planning your whole DJ set seems like a really good idea. In the comfort of your own bedroom it is easy to pick and plan every tune and place each track one after the other to create a flowing mix. You can perfect the mixes between each track to the nearest millisecond and youâ€™ll be seen as the hottest DJ in town. WRONG! I have done this a few times when I started DJâ€™ing and I got into a whole heap of trouble. You play the latest hit US garage groover and it starts clearing the dance floor as the clubbers arenâ€™t feeling that style of music. If your planned set contains another three US garage records after this, theyâ€™re just not going to work. As a DJ itâ€™s your role to get the crowd moving, so be flexible if they are not feeling your track selection.
My approach to this problem is to plan a few mixes in advance but not the whole set. Get together some â€œmini mixesâ€. These are groups of two or three records that you know really well which you can mix together perfectly. You can start off with one of those tunes and if it works you can play the group of three records. This then gives you more time to determine the mood of the crowd and decide what to play after the â€œmini mixâ€. Once you have done this a few times youâ€™ll have a few mixes which will help you to survive even the harshest crowds. Before you know it you’ll have a palette of ten or twenty mixes that you know well and can be used in the future. I can remember some classic mixes that I perfected eighteen years ago and they still work now!
The set structure
So how should you structure your set then? Different people will have differing opinions on this I’m sure, but I always try to build up the night. This will depend on when you are playing in the night but I like to ease people in with some funky but easy going tunes. If I am warming up then I’ll start with some deeper house tunes and some US style vocal tunes. This can then be switched up a gear into tougher, dubbier territory. I then drop big tunes once the time is right and try and get the floor rocking. You’ll have to play this one by ear a bit but you should have some “mini mixes” planned already and you can watch how they work. Dropping a classic tune is a good way to get the crowd on your side but don’t go overboard if you can help it. I like to play a few big tunes and then drop it back down a notch and repeat a few times. You don’t want big tune after big tune or people get tired of them. Think of what you would like to hear in a club when you’re listening to your favourite DJ.
Read the crowd
Do you remember the time when you decided to play the deep, dark and bassline-heavy Armand Van Helden remix of â€œSpin Spin Sugarâ€ by The Sneaker Pimps when the crowd hadn’t enjoyed your previous speed garage tune? No? Oh, that must have been me then! We all get it wrong from time to time when we are DJâ€™ing and itâ€™s almost always for the same reason: not reading the crowd.
In my story, I didnâ€™t pay attention to the fact that the crowd werenâ€™t feeling speed garage. â€œSpin Spin Sugarâ€ was a huge tune for me at the time, but not in Germany so the dance floor cleared. As mentioned earlier, this is why you shouldnâ€™t plan a complete DJ set. If the crowd doesnâ€™t like a track then they will vote with their feet all the way to the bar! Similarly you shouldnâ€™t play all of your newest records just to impress. Very few clubbers will know all of the latest tunes and they want to hear at least a couple of tracks that they know. Always have some floor fillers ready in case the stuff youâ€™re playing isnâ€™t working. Some DJs take only the records they’re going to play to the club. This is never going to work. Always have a back up plan with at least half a dozen quality “dance-floor-friendly” tunes.
Learn from your experience
So the gig is over and hopefully you’ve rocked the club and are going to get another booking. Alternatively, things could have gone wrong, so it’s time to look at where you could change things. Just as preparation was the key to planning a DJ set, experience is the key to getting better. If you followed my advice from earlier you should have all of the records from your set in the front of your box. Take a look through them the next day and ask yourself what worked and what didnâ€™t? Are there any tunes that didnâ€™t work? If so, take them out of your box or make notes like â€œtoo pumping for warm upâ€ or â€œnot hard enough to play at 2amâ€. Also make a mental note any groups of any mixes that worked well that werenâ€™t pre-planned to make into â€œmini mixesâ€. Try and use them next time. Itâ€™s all a learning process and there are no hard and fast rules. Every gig will be different so you have to adapt each time you play.
Hopefully this article has given you a bit more of an idea how to plan your DJ set. If you have any more questions that I havenâ€™t answered then get in touch via the contact form and Iâ€™ll add them to this article. Alternatively you can just post comments below. If you manage to become the main DJ at the biggest club in your town or city then make sure you remember the advice I gave you and get me a guest DJ spot!
Special thanks to Clare for proof reading and correcting my grammatical mistakes and inconsistencies!