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August 20, 2008

What do DJs actually do these days?

cdjBack in the day, DJs used to spin records.

You could groove down on the dance floor, look up and see the DJ picking through records, pulling one out of its sleeve and slapping it on the turntable.

Then came the switch to CDs. Same deal, except the CDs were harder to see, and the turntables were digital ones like the CDJ-1000 (pictured, at right).

Now, a lot of DJs use mp3 files, load them onto a laptop and "spin" through that.

I've never been a DJ, so I don't know for sure, but it sounds to me like that's a piece of cake. You synch up the beats (or maybe the comp even does it for you), twist a couple knobs, push a button and the music plays.


I'll bet if you had a camera pointed at the DJ table when Moby came to the Virgin Mobile festival, you would have been bored out of your gourd. It looked like he had the music on autopilot. 

He would push a button, jump up on the table, throw his hands in the air and groove for a while. Then he'd jump back down, twist a knob and groove some more ...

Armin Van Buuren would step back from the table for a minute at a time and clap or make the devil's horn sign with his hands.

With all the advances in technology, do DJs actually do anything anymore? It doesn't look like it from the crowd.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not hating on house music. I like dancing to techno and trance and love some electronica. But I'm not enamored with DJs unless they actually do something (or look like they're doing something).

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Posted by Sam Sessa at 12:23 PM | | Comments (36)
Categories: Local music


One thing they do is, get paid way too much money!

The industry standards are as follows:

Turntables = Technics SL-1200's (MK6's are the latest)
CD players = Pioneer CDJ 1000 (MKIII's are the latest version)
Software = Serrato
DVD Players = DVJ 1000

Not many will disagree with the above assessment. Though others may disagree, mixers, samplers, and speakers, to me, largely come down to taste.

I agree with you about the knob-turning DJ's, Sessa, but my beef isn't with the large touring/recording DJ's. It's with the locals (and the local clubs/promoters who hire them) who have nothing but 100GB of pirated music and a beat matching program that matches beats for any song they put into a playlist. These people are not DJ's. They are jukebox programmers. I heard a guy at a well-known/well-established club "mix" two songs where there was about a 40 bpm difference. It slowed one track down 20 bpm and sped the other up 20're listening to The Chipmunks vs. Frank the Tank after getting shot with Stiffler's "most powerful tranq gun on the market."

The AVB's, Moby's, and Bokem's of the world exert their effort in the studio. That is not to say that they're not mixing live as well, though.

The knob turning you're referring to is generally the blending of multiple songs. The DJ will drop Song 1's high, Song 2's mids, and Song 3's lows. This creates a whole new song.

Of course, somewhere in there, you have to make sure your beats are matched (or it sounds [trashy]). Beat counters (whether on-board, external, or software embedded) help a lot with the beat matching, but they are imperfect. The DJ needs the ear for it.

Beat matching is an art form--any DJ will tell you that--so is knowing what sounds go well together. This is where technology and art combine, much like when photography was taken digital. There are tools to assist the artist, but the fact remains, the artist must be an artist in the first place.

The bottom line is that the true DJ has to know what to play, when to play it, and how to play it (technical side), whether he/she is spinning at the local bar/club or doing arena shows.

Sam you are correct. During the Disco era when DJs came to fame, they were able to use 2 turntables and mix the same song or seamlessly go from one song to the next song with no change in tempo. You would think with all the improvements in the equipment that ability would be easier to accomplish. Now most DJs act as if they only have one machine and have to load each disc at a time. When actually they are just living of the legends of the past.

That's like saying all a conductor does is move his arms around and then it sounds good.

They do a lot more than just sync up the beats.

More important than anything else is track selection. What separates Paul Oakenfold from DJ Nobody isn't technical skill, it's track selection. Paul Oakenfold can look at the dancefloor and know EXACTLY what song to cue up next, and when to fade into it. That's a skill that takes tons of time to master.

Nothing has changed in the DJ world except for the medium. The amount of talent it takes to pull off a good party is still massive.

There are exceptions of course, like Girl Talk. He pre-makes all his mixes and literally presses play and dances along with the other club goers. That to me is a complete lack of talent.

If you want to see a great knob turner search for Peter Hook on youtube.

Thank God for Real DJ's like Larry Heard. Armin and Oakenfold, please!

DJs do the same thing they have always done, with different technology.

If you think a DJ has to "look like they're doing something," you're entirely missing the point.

I might suggest you go and listen to a DJ.

As a DJ for the last 18 years, the change in technology has been pretty amazing.

I'll admit - the knob turning abletron guys are very annoying.

I've played on straight vinyl, dual cd decks and tabletop cd platters. I've also done mp3's with a pcdj and a dual controller.

Then came Serato... It has simply changed the game in terms of feel and creativity. You get the best of both worlds - real vinyl records that control your computer. You also have the ability to mix and mash up any type of song from any genre. You can even make your own edits and remixes. Check out DJ AM on YouTube

The technical aspect of beat mixing is one part of being a great dj - it's knowing how to read your room and rock the party.

If I wasn't clear when I said it before, let me be 1200% clear:

"The bottom line is that the true DJ has to know what to play, when to play it."

That is the true key to DJ'ing.

And kudos to Michael's statement: "I might suggest you go and listen to a DJ." Well said.

Great points all around.

Jason, I got the feeling Moby's set and Armin's set were both pre-recorded, at least at Virgin Fest.

Michael, you're right -- I know they don't have to look like they're doing something, but I just think DJs back in the day looked like they were doing more.

THANK GOD for HipHop DJs/Turntablists!! Nothing boring about it. The new technologies can only help us innovate certain aspects but the skills still have to be there. We (us good ones) can do what other DJs can do, just not vice versa! LOL

Come see!

"The bottom line is that the true DJ has to know what to play, when to play it."

Wow. That's quite a talent. If only the artists that originally created those songs knew that, they wouldn't have wasted all that time learning instruments, creating songs, rehearsing and busting their butts in crappy bars only to get signed then and have people pay to watch someone else press play on the ipod and mix their song with an AC/DC riff. Please! Support local LIVE music!

if you wanna see a funny dj who spends the majority of his time on stage hyping himself (not behind the decks)...then just search "tiesto" in youtube.

plus his ridiculous introduction, which says something like "when life started there was no music..until TIESTO brought music to everyone"...and takes about 10 minutes to get through


While I agree that bands that perform live should be supported, how many would gracefully accept that they just provide continuous background to which people can dance to for five or six hours, assuming they had the stamina ?
I think their satisfaction with playing live would evaporate if they didn't get the feedback and appreciation of an attentive audience.
An apples and oranges comparsion.

It appears that the craft of the DJ is to customize a soundtrack that provides for continuous dancing and casual listening with enough insight to choose music that attracts and engages his audience and makes the venue owner satisfied by a high nightly head count.


If a DJ brings in enough paying customers, aren't worth a percentage of the increased revenue over the usual take of not having them and their audience?

Rick, all I can say is wow.

Have to love someone who considers themselves an artist, but yet has no respect for other art forms.

At least you had one good point. Absolutely support local [artists], local DJ's, local bands, local painters and sculptors....ALL local artists.

Keep hating. Art progresses the furthest in a closed mind.

All a chef does is throw a bunch of ingredients in a pot and put it in an oven! I'm going to echo a lot of commenters here: A good DJ will take bass lines from one track, high hats from another, vocals from yet another, all to create a seamless ever evolving set. Beat matching is a skill akin to kneading bread. Anyone can do it right with a little practice, there is no art to beat matching, just a skill. The art and deeper skills lie in the selection of songs by matching the key, timbre, and sourcing some eclectic material.

I disagree with a lot of folks talking about oakenfold, listen to a set by fatboy slim, and you will get it:

I missed V-fest this year and was kind of bummed that I would miss Moby. I remember when Moby would DJ parties here in the early 90s and he was incredible (yeah, I'm that old). Moby would work two turntables, a mixer, keyboards and a guitar and do it all live -- nothing pre-recorded. So much for his desire to "get back to his DJ roots.)

Alex Gorstan,

I assume your opening remark was sarcastic.
You would of done better, for the benefit of ignorant, to explained what a real chef does.

Be not offended by the use of word ignorant, it is because the average person doesn’t really understand what a chef is or does beyond being a professional cook.

A real chef knows all that is needed to run a restaurant kitchen. He is the foreman in charge, ergo he is the chief or in French chef. He knows how to do everything from order supplies, creating the daily menu, determining when produce is at the optimum moment to be used, monitors what everyone is doing and giving directions on how to make the end product better and if need be take over from anyone regardless what their task is.

The Wikipedia link if interested in greater detail:

BTW there are still many DJ's who still use Vinyl records. Many people are now using a program like Serato because one can still have the same amount of control as they would with a vinyl record. Analog or digital turntables are used in conjunction with Serato so the DJ has the option of being have all his music on his laptop, instead of carrying around hundreds of pounds of records. It utilizes the same exact technics that a dj would in the past, but allows more creativity and conveiniance.

I think many people are conjuring up this image of a dj from one of the local 20 something bars around the city. No, they do not utilize much talent, but the audience doesn't demand it. The crowd just wants to hear top 40. If you go to a venue that really embraces DJ culture, then this is a different story. It takes a lot of time to master the sets they play. For anyone who says otherwise, I dare you to try and beat match two songs on a set of turntables. It would be impossible for a novice.

A turntable can be used just like any other instrument, Hence the term "turntablism". Scratching and mixing are as difficult to master as any other instrument, maybe even harder considering the lack of resources available to learn the skills.

On a side note, DJ Craze will roll over any other DJ posted on this thread. Seriously, it's not even fair. Youtube him, and you can see for yourself.

It is easy to hate on DJs, however, it is important to understand the DJ's role in music's (sub)culture...

John Peel of the BBC (RIP) was probably the most influential DJ of all time (he did not beat mix -- but he did continue to play live gigs well into 60s). Without exposure on his program, we would not know many artists we love today -- in fact, there are a few genres that would have died before getting started.

Gilles Peterson is another hugely influential DJ (who also does not mix) -- his coining the term "acid jazz" and playing a style of down-tempo / non-dancefloor music helped fuel a style of music that might not have existed if the British press didn't latch onto his catchy "acid jazz" phrase. (The story goes that within ear shot of a Mixmag journalist, Gilles was asked what type of music he played, just after hearing someone refer to what they played as "acid house", he with tongue in cheek said "acid jazz" -- the rest is history).

Without Afrika Bambatta's block parties in late 70's -- hip-hop would not be what it is today.

And Reggae/Dub may be the genre where the DJ is most important (even with today's dance-hall and reggaeton) -- Producers create "dub-plates" (pre-vinyl pressings) for DJs and their sound-systems to test songs before they are released to the public.

For club music -- especially house music -- today producers and labels are sending DJs MP3 files usually 6 months ahead of official release.

Unfortunately, in today's DJ culture, most DJs are playing tried and true songs -- but breaking new artists and new tunes is essential to music's evolution.

last night a DJ saved my life.

Our DJ Uses Vinyl only

w/ DJ Addikt

"For club music -- especially house music -- today producers and labels are sending DJs MP3 files usually 6 months ahead of official release."

Sounds like a brillant strategy to lose the buzz by 3 or 4 months, ergo lose the any sales momentum.

Club music usually takes much longer to break than a pop record.

Producers send out pre-release mp3 to their DJ friends first.

Then the label releases "test pressings" to another group of select DJs.

Then "promo" copies go to yet another group of DJs.

It is then actually released to the public -- by the time it comes out, people in the clubs have been exposed to the record and are looking for it. Radio play doesn't usually happen until after 4 - 6 months of club play, if it happens at all.

Most producer/DJs don't make their money off of record/mp3 sales, however. They make their money by DJing or live appearances (if they are not a DJ).

They also make most of their money through licensing -- either for a compilation or mix CD by a large indie or major label, or for use in a commercial, video game, or tv program.

Exposure is key to licensing, and in America, that means through club DJs playing the track in the clubs. There really isn't much of a radio presence for club music -- unlike in Europe, and even Asia.

Also -- most DJs are also promoters, like myself, or producers -- most of the DJs I book I am familiar with because they are producers and I am playing their music. These DJ/producers tour the world through their connection to DJ promoters.

There will be some "real" dj's playing at the MOL party at the Hexagon this Friday. 1825 N. Charles. $5 BYOB. Doors at 10PM. 18+

Exclaime, Craig Sopo and Disconapper will be playing some old house, disco, acid and techno classics.

P.S. It is a dance party not a rock show. Focus on dancing and having fun not staring at the stage.

Yes shameless promotional plug indeed.


What is MOL?

You're trying to judge new things with old eyes, and not trying very hard. This is such a trivial argument, and no doubt we'll have to slog through it over and over again until it takes on the next form. When guitars became electrified, people stated authoritatively that it wasn't music, then when synths came along, there were more stately sneers. Every new technological innovation is accompanied by a crowd of fascistic old-skooler-than-thou whiners. When vinyl DJs first started to emerge as artists, people called them jukeboxes. Then when CDs started becoming popular, vinyl DJs took on the role of the uh-uh. Now that laptops are taking hold, the vinyl/CD DJs are digging their heels in. Round and round it goes, to nowhere.
Meanwhile, maybe if anyone actually made the effort to understand what's going on onstage, you might realize that a lot of laptop artists operate at an extreme level of skill and awareness; those knobs you don't understand might well be connected to some very esoteric functions, choreographed at a level that's pretty mind-boggling.

The real problem is that well over a decade since techno was first born, this country is still so musically backwards-looking. There's so much meaty stuff being produced, but the only names most people know are the derivative saccharine crapbags like Oakenfold, VanBurin, the always-execrable Moby, or the stupid faux-ironic electrofluff the hipsters gobble up.

Support live music? I'll support live music when you start playing some [gosh darned] techno.

The MOL party is going to be topnotch. Hope people have the sense to show up; hardly holding my breath. At least there will be room to dance ; )

A Baltimore based techno label and monthly party.

Pick up a copy of the City paper tomorrow ;)


"Hope people have the sense to show up"
The proceeding statement sounds positively arrogant and elitist. People tend to respond to the familiar, ergo they need to be introduced to the innovate or novel in a manner that they will, at least, give it a chance. Like anything the now regarded avant gard, it needs to be sold to the presently disinterested.

People don't usually go to parties to meet a roomful but friends and acquaintences, although their usually amenable to meeting some new people. Basically the same with music.

Your attitude, like many who are or fancy themselves on the vanguard, puts people off, this insinuation they don't know what's good.

Remember the old adage about using honey, not vinegar, to attract bees.

"I'll support live music when you start playing some [gosh darned] techno."
Talk about reactionary and narrow minded!


"Hope people have the sense to show up; hardly holding my breath."

For the record the above is not how the promoters, djs and the majority of the party patrons feel about MORE OR LESS.

We encourage new people and don't take an elitist stance towards the music we play.

may i most humbly and without arrogance or elitism demurely suggest that the next time Craig Sopo is spinning, you make your way there. dress light, don't eat too much beforehand. You might just want to dance your totally respectable derriere to blushing exhaustion. translation: at that More or Less party tonight, WHAAA HE TOTALLY KILLED IT!!!!! absolutely masterful, wicked huge.

The best writers can actually write
not just reorder some other writers phrases.
You are limiting yourself if you can't produce original melodies or harmonies.

well, imo (in my opinion) DJ's play this music for you a twist some knobs to make it sound better... If you just want normal music DONT HIRE A DJ! Go play your music and have a bad Party!

(thanks for your time).

From Bobby brown
13 years old oacc taylors lakes :)

TO be honest..... even if cdj display the bpm etc..... u still need to have a technique to play music properly with them. ud can either see them as moedern turntables , or on the other hand as innovative products which allow the dj a broader range of messing with the tracks, as well as creating completely new sound......

Good DJs are good craftsmen, and even good artists, but they are not in the same league as the songwriters who created the music that they spin. If they were, they wouldn't just spin the music, they'd create it themselves. The songwriters are the gods. Their tunes and lyrics will live forever. Singers, musicians, and DJs will be forgotten with every new generation. It's the songs that will be remembered. If you want your work to live on forever, don't be the DJ, don't sing the song. Write the music.

I do agree with you DJs now a days use laptops because it is a hell off alot easier, and there right it is. But your not a proper DJ if you cant mix and when you are using a laptop you cant do that or tricks either!, its just a lazy way off djin and it could breakdown or crash at anytime! at least with CD players they would never crash or battery wouldnt run out!! also if you can drop good lines on the microphone and you can keep the crowd entertained you in my eyes are classed as a good DJ! Nice Post! very interesting!

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About Erik Maza
Erik Maza is a features reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He writes for several sections of the Sun paper and contributes weekly columns on music and nightlife. He also writes and edits the Midnight Sun blog. He often covers entertainment, business, and the business of entertainment. Occasionally, he writes about Four Loko, The Block, the liquor board, and those who practice "simulated sex with a potted palm tree." Before The Sun, he was a reporter at the Miami New Times. He's also written for Miami magazine, the Orlando Sentinel, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Gainesville Sun. Got tips? Gripes? Pitches? He's reachable at Click here to keep up with the dumb music he's listening to.

Midnight Sun covers Baltimore music, live entertainment, and nightlife news. On the blog, you'll find, among other things, concert announcements, breaking news, bars closings and openings, up-to-date coverage of crime in nightlife, new music, round-the-clock coverage of Virgin Mobile FreeFest, handy guides on bars staying open past 2 a.m. on New Year's Eve and those that carry Natty Boh on draft. Recurring features include seven-day nightlife guides, Concert News, guest reviews of bars and concerts, Wednesday Corkboard, and photo galleries, as well as reader-submitted photos. Thanks for reading.

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