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How to tell if your DJ is actually a DJ!

September 19, 2015

So, most mobile DJs, especially when they specialize in weddings and private parties, will tell you that these skills/factors are the order of importance when making an evaluation about the DJ you select:
1. Emcee skills
2. Musical knowledge and ability
3. Customer Service
4. Equipment used

This is 100% true, and we agree.

For the purpose of this blog entry we’re going to focus on that number 2 spot.  This is an important, and often overlooked skill when it comes to picking a DJ, and it’s also the hardest for customers to gauge during a meeting with their DJ.  It’s also an overlooked skill by many “DJs” out there.  It begs the question:  how can one call themselves a DJ without being a DJ first?  

By the loosest definition being a DJ is simply having control of playing pre-recorded music for an audience.  At the same time there exists DJs of all skill levels out there – anywhere from DJ Jazzy Jeff (on the left, one of the greatest hip-hop DJs of all time, notice the turntables) to your buddy “Joe” (on the right using a chair for a speaker stand) who likes to put playlists together for his back yard parties.
Practically all mobile DJ companies fall somewhere in between this range.  Sadly, by simple law of averages, there are quite a few that aren’t a whole lot better than “Joe” skill-wise.  These are the DJs that are working as their “side-hustle”.  It’s easy to spot these vendors too.  They will be the cheapest in the market with their main package (not the lowest or highest priced, but the one that the majority of their clients choose) typically starting somewhere under $1,000 (your market may vary slightly lower, or higher).  We even saw one DJ try to use the excuse of “I DJ because I want to, not because I have to,” for why he was so cheap.  The truth is if that DJ could charge more they would.  Just like any other profession where artistry is involved, there are lots of people who do it, but only few who do it well.

Brides & Grooms, if you’re reading this, and you’re trying to go cheap on your DJ, reconsider.  Your DJ is like buying a lobster dinner.  At some point the price has got to be low enough to scare you (bad lobster, food poisoning, etc.), and if it’s high enough where you have to think about it you know that’s got to be some amazing lobster (fresh catch, prepared by a master chef, perfect side pairings, etc.), and it’s definitely worth splurging on – especially on an occasion as big as your wedding day.

Scary Cheap Lobster

That cheap lobster dinner wasn’t such a great idea after all. Seriously don’t eat that.
The Best You've Ever Had

It may have cost a little more than you planned, but it was worth it. Delicious!

This is your brain on music.

Back to mixing – so what makes some DJs better at being a DJ than others?

First and foremost is music knowledge, and managing “energy levels”.  A good DJ knows not only great music for people to dance to, but they know what song should come next.  These two nuances are mutually exclusive to one another, but still go hand in hand.  Here’s an example – “Drop It Like It’s Hot” is a great tune to do your West Coast sway dance, and who doesn’t get amped when they hear “Party Rock Anthem”?  However, if you go from “Party Rock Anthem” into “Drop It Like It’s Hot” (and we’re talking just playing one song after the next) they don’t transition well into each other.  It’s also a HUGE energy change between the two, and this can clear a dance floor.

Second, is reading the dance floor.  This is a skill that is complimentary to music knowledge and energy levels.  Some DJs will disagree with “reading the dance floor” as being the complimentary skill, but it is.  Reading the dance floor facilitates making musical selections, and managing energy levels.  Some would say that this skill belongs up there with number one, and I can agree with that to a certain extent, but it is a separate and distinguishable skill.  A DJ can read a dance floor, but if their knowledge of music leads them to bad selections, then what good is reading the dance floor?

These first two skills are the basis of being a good DJ, and no one should call themselves a DJ until they have a good handle on these two things.  They are the foundations of being a good music programmer, and if you have a good music programmer you can have a respectable party so long as your DJ also has solid emcee skills to go along with these fundamentals.

Third, is a DJs skill set when it comes to mixing.  This is the skill that starts to separate reputable DJs.  In our opinion it is important to have good programming AND mixing skills to truly bring the full DJ experience.  Therefore, to utilize good mixing skills one needs a proper set of tools.  Is it possible to DJ from the mouse and keyboard?  Yes, but barely.  Laptop-only DJs are very limited to what they can do when performing.  If they use software, such as the popular “Virtual DJ”, the software offers some automated features to make transitions, but the accuracy and capabilities of the automation is very rudimentary.  The accomplished DJs in your area will use some kind of equipment that allows them to have better control over the musical playback.  Amongst us DJs we may debate whether Vinyl, CDJ, or Controllers are the best, but to our customers they are all a tool, that when used properly, can make a huge difference in the performance and fun of your night.  

CDJ Setup Example

CDJs – Yes

Pioneer DDJ-SX, or another high quality controller – Yes
Turntables & Mixer Setup Example

Turntables – Yes
All three of the above are often used in conjunction with a computer these days, but the computer is simply acting as the music catalog and heads up display.  The control is being handled through the device of choice.
Laptop DJs don't bring enough excitement.

Laptop DJs just don’t bring the same energy with them. They may think they do, as illustrated here, but the capability just isn’t there.


So how do you know if you’re hiring an expert DJ?  It’s pretty easy to spot someone who would be a good emcee, and someone who you will feel provides great customer service.  Even spending 30 minutes researching their equipment will tell you if they invest in good gear, but the hardest skill to spot in your DJ is if they are in fact a good DJ.  There are two ways to find out this information, and I recommend you do both.  The first way is look at reviews, and ask to talk to a DJ’s previous clientele.  If a DJ is willing to provide references that’s already a great sign, and if those references can attest to how awesome their night was that’s good too.  The other way is to ask the DJ, and I’ll even give you the questions along with guidelines of what to listen for in the answers you receive:

What equipment do you use to mix?  As mentioned & pictured earlier, if the DJ responds with “Turntables”, “CDJ” (it’s a special type of CD player with a huge jog wheel/platter on top of it), or a controller (while using something is better than nothing, there are lots of cheap controllers out there that some DJs will buy just to say they have one – if they say it’s a Pioneer DDJ-something, or a Numark NS6 or 7 those are considered industry standards, and are the most popular among professionals) this is a very good indicator already that you’re dealing with a DJ that cares about being a DJ.

PictureIf this is Greek to your DJ just say “pass”.

Ask if they know how to mix harmonically.  Most DJs can fudge their way through the question “Do you beat match?”  Plus, there’s a hotly debated button in DJ software these days called the “sync” button which beat matches for the DJ.  The more skilled DJs consider this button a “cheat”.  While this button might help some DJs beat match, it can’t help them mix harmonically.  Harmonic mixing makes music “sing” together.  It’s when two different songs are in relative keys to one another, and line up not only in tempo, but in harmony too.  Some DJs use the “Camelot Wheel” while others use traditional keys (i.e. D Major & B Minor).  Either is fine.  

Do they use “lyric play”?  This is where you can take songs with similar lyrics, or lyrical cues to one another and mix that way.  A great example is taking Trick Daddy & Lil Jon’s song “Let’s Go”, and on the last “Let’s Go” shout in the chorus switch over to when Busta Rhymes says “Let’s Go” before his verse in the song “Look At Me Now.”  Two songs, fairly close in tempo, but overlapping in words to make a great transition.

Do they use EFX?  Here’s another tool that can also add excitement to a mix, and make transitions like “Party Rock Anthem” going into “Drop It Like It’s Hot” possible.  Using a well timed echo effect, or a brake effect can make a transition from a fast song to a slow song smooth, and effortless for your dance floor to respond to.  The key is it draws interest and attention to what the next song may be.  If done at the right time, reading the dance floor, and during the right cues in the songs it can go from being a dance floor killer to a dace floor thriller.

Of course SoundFire DJ is a DJ company that strives to be accomplished in our musical and speaking abilities for the benefit of our clients.  If you are ready to experience the difference of what an accomplished professional can bring to make your event one-of-a-kind please Contact Us today.  Thanks again for reading!

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