Learnings From My First DJ Set (To A Crowd of 160!)

A few weeks ago, I was asked by some friends organizing a funk-themed New Years Eve party to do a DJ gig. I love funk and disco, and felt it could be a good excuse to dip my toes into the DJ world. I was asked to be the pre-show to warm up for a pair of experienced DJs who would take over at 11pm.

So with only about 2 weeks of true lead time, I got a Pioneer DDJ-SB3, Serato software, and DJay for practice (my life is Spotify now). While the set went well (or at least people who paid $60 to be there seemed happy), it was far from a flawless night. However, I got into the swing of things, people danced, and in the end was a success.

I bet only a few can say they played for 160 people on their first gig. So let me impart a few of my takeaways from my intimidating first night.

 

WHAT WENT WRONG:

  • Firstly, I should have figured out the audio cords I needed for a large rented speaker system. I was poorly equipped going from my SB3 (which has red/white RCAs out). Fortunately I had 1 cord that did RCA-to-1/8″, but it was a bit panic-inducing to make it work right on a pro-size set up. Be ready for an ‘out’ that’s XLR (the microphone 3 prong), or get a Traktor or more professional controller that has it built in.
  • Secondly, you gotta practice how you play. Get comfortable with the software you’ll use. I regretted not putting more time into Serato. More on that below.
  • While I was live, I realized Serato was being weird–all my tracks were Blue (as if to indicate they’d been played)– so I had no way of knowing which songs I had played already. I have a pretty good memory for this, but I realized right after mixing it in that I had played “P.Y.T.” twice (I immediately felt a pang of embarrassment) but clearly nobody in the crowd cared. Or they hadn’t heard the first time because people were entering in during the set. Either way, not ideal.
  • In general, it’s a bit stressful to coming up with the next track. I read online to “think in 3s”–as in, play several songs in a row that are the same speed–so that people get can into a groove, and you’re not genre-hopping. It’s great advice.

 

WHAT WENT RIGHT:

  • Taste. As the 9-11pm slot on a funk-themed NYE event, I played a lot of classics that I didn’t need to alter much. Think Michael Jackson or Stevie Wonder basics. I did come prepared with some weirder songs in the backburner, but I realized the crowd I was playing for was more here for sing-a-longs and recognizable tunes for funky dancing. However, once I built up some confidence I threw in some riskier cuts. In particular, a few that had great success: “Lights and Music (Boyz Noize remix)” by Cut Copy, “Lady (Hear Me Tonight)” by Modjo, and “Filaou Bessame (Cerrone Remix)” by Amadou & Miriam. “Music Sounds Better With You,” which I have played at my own parties for years, did predictably well.
  • Reading the room. If I had played the set according to the script I had in my head, it wouldn’t have worked. Just have a general game-plan (mine was classics for the first hour, more house-y disco cuts in the second hour). In a way, you can overprepare. Be sure you have more than enough good songs in your crate so you can be confident.
  • I listened and re-listened to my crate (Serato’s term for playlists) in the days leading up. Sometimes you can forget a certain song is actually kind of a downer, or not how you remember it. In general, I recommend being well-versed in the vibe of each song you might pull out.
  • Counting the beat with my feet. It helps you keep your place when transitioning. I learned this from Jon Sine in this EXCELLENT beginner video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_2qNb5cEMAk
  • Aside from a few minor mess ups that only DJs would hear, the set worked out great. In the end 160 people heard it and were dancing. Mission accomplished. Woo!

All in all, it was an exciting way to be thrown into the deep end. You do feel a little famous when you’re up there. I even got a few compliments after. It’s just plain cool to be the DJ. (I mean, is it not evident from this photo?)

Please still hire me.

In time, I also feel I could get quite good at it, but like anything else it just takes practice.

 

WHAT I’ll DO GOING FORWARD:

  • I’ll probably do lots more sets when I have a spare hour. I’ll start recording them to get my transitions down pat.
  • I plan on living in Serato a little bit more. It’s powerful software and its defaults are not user-friendly. I can’t lose by putting more time into it.
  • Set my Hot Cues in advance. You can frontload so much of the work of beat matching with this. I wish I had made more ahead of time.
  • Keep listening to BoilerRoom or Lot Radio for inspiration and new tracks. I want to expand my genre horizons a bit.
  • Learn how to do more effects, transitions, and fun stuff for truly transforming the tracks.

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