All DJs have their ideas about their ideal sets, and those fantasy moments where it all comes together for pure magic; hundreds, maybe thousands of people united in a moment of euphoria and togetherness. Hands in the air, a seething mass of happy humanity.
But there are also more practical concerns that it pays to be good at – and one of the simplest of these is the art of the changeover. It might not seem like much, and in many ways it is one of those things that if you do it right, it goes almost unnoticed. But do it badly, and it can really, really reflect badly on you. And that does not help you get to the magic moments!
So I’m going to talk through a few common issues, warn of some pitfalls many fall down, and share a few stories from my time behind the decks!
DO BE FRIENDLY
This might seem crashingly obvious, but it is amazing how often egos or nervousness get in the way of this one. Trying to be too cool for school, or maybe being insecure about your status next to the other DJs. Seriously – a happy smile, a friendly greeting, and some kind words (“awesome set!”, “have a good one, this is a great crowd!”) can go a long way to helping the party along. And ultimately, we are all there to serve the party!
DO GET THERE IN PLENTY OF TIME
There’s a bunch of reasons for this one. For a start, if you budget to get there 5 minutes before your set and then get held up, then you are in trouble! Also, at big clubs it can take surprisingly long to get from street to booth. Really, you want to be there in enough time to meet the promoters/booker that is employing you, take a walk around the club to see what it looks and sounds like and get a sense of the crowd, and to be able to hear what the DJ before you is playing. The amount of times I have handed the decks over to someone, and then within their first 2 or 3 songs they play something I played 10 minutes ago… Oh dear! And if you are the first DJ on, you don’t want the club having to wait for you before they open their doors, and getting there early is a good chance to chat to the staff.
DO TALK TO THE OTHER DJs
Another reason to get there early – you can chat with the previous DJ about how to do the changeover. You might have preferences for this, and they might have preferences for this, and there’s no guarantee that they are exactly the same. If you are dealing with a big name DJ that is higher on the bill than you, it is sensible to defer to their preferences. But it is worth asking them if you are following – some will want you to let their last song play out, some will be happy for you to mix straight in, and you never know, this sometimes can lead to impromptu B2Bs! And the same applies if you have been warming up – they might have a big showbiz intro they want to do, they might want to encourage some applause for you, or they might prefer a seamless mix into their set. Be prepared for any of these possibilities! It shouldn’t really need saying – don’t play the headliner’s tracks in your warm up, unless they have expressly said that it is OK to do so! But generally, to even ask the question is seen as a faux pas by most people!
If they are following you, maybe offer them the chance to look at your play history to avoid doubling on tracks. And if following someone, you can ask them for the same, to avoid looking silly yourself, or ju get there in enough time that this isn’t a worry.
If you are the headline DJ on a line-up, communicate your preferences to the promoter and residents, but try to avoid seeming pushy or arrogant. If you are the smaller DJ, do your best to to find out what the headliner would like from a warm up set. On the night, simple questions like “Is there any tempo you want me to finish on” and so on communicate to them that you are there to set them up as best you can. They will really appreciate this thoughtfulness.
DO THINK ABOUT TECH SET-UP
If you are on USB, it is generally a pretty straightforward process to swap over. But once laptops and Serato get involved, it can get more complicated. Fake Blood used to joke about the “15 minutes of confusion” trying to change DJ booths round, and when your focus is on that, it is very easy to lose sight of the party. If you have to use a Serato box or similar, try to get that set up by a sound tech if it is a possibility, and if that can be done at the start of the night, even better. Pulling the wrong cables out in the middle of a busy night is without doubt the stuff of anxiety nightmares. If you are on Serato, seriously considered purchasing their club kit plugin. It means that you can plug directly into the USB port of a whole range of mixers, including most industry standard club installation mixers such as the Pioneer DJM900. This saves SO MUCH hassle.
I once had to take over from a DJ at a gig in Sheffield, not long after I had been in the world final of Red Bull 3style. The warm-up DJ had another gig to get to, so I had to swap from his Serato box to mine. We were high up on a stage, in front of a huge crowd. Somehow in the changeover, my box got knocked. I watched it, seemingly in slow motion, topple from the stage. All cables disconnected at once, and the unit smashed into the club floor below. TOTAL silence, and about 800 people suddenly staring right at us! Brilliantly, we were using vinyl for Serato that night, so the option of just quickly switching to a track on USB wasn’t there. While he ran off the stage to rescue my Serato box (which miraculously hadn’t been killed by the fall), I plugged a deck in, and chucked a record on to break the silence – only then realising that the emergency record I’d pulled out had no markings to say which was the A or B side. Thankfully I guessed right, and New Order – Blue Monday drew big cheers from the crowd, and we just about got away with it… But I learned a lot of valuable lessons that night!
DO FINISH AT THE APPROPRIATE TIME
I’ve seen this one more times than I care to remember. These days, 1 hour slots are very common, so as to stack a line-up with DJs. But then, at 11.59 and 45 seconds, the DJ that finishes at midnight mixes in Mo Money Mo Problems, and you are left in the weird situation of either mixing out before the Biggie verse, or losing 5 minutes of an already short set! So – DON’T BE THAT GUY! Stay in communication with the DJ following you – “OK, gonna do two more, you good to go then?” – it is always possible that they might need you to play a little beyond the exact time. Be ready to finish on the dot, and also be ready to continue on for a little if their set-up is taking longer than expected.
DO MAKE SURE THE NEXT DJ KNOWS HOW YOU LEFT THE MIXER
I tend to mix using both the crossfader, and the channel faders. I have learnt over the years that a LOT of DJs prefer to just use the channel faders, and to leave the crossfader switched off. All too often I have forgotten to relay this information to them, they’ve tried to mix in, and panicked as time ran out, and the new track isn’t coming through the system. Now, I always try to check – “Do you want the crossfader on or off?” – and also leave the EQ and gain pots at 12 o’clock as well.
DO MAKE SURE YOUR PEOPLE BEHAVE
It is very common for DJs to roll with a bit of a crew – partner, friends, maybe agent or manager if you are at a certain level. Most times, they will expect to be in the booth with you. Its crucial that they understand the etiquette you are following – having your mate start messing with the faders while a headline DJ is trying to get his set started is not a good look!
DON’T HARASS THEM WHEN THEY ARE STILL PLAYING
If you want to get a pic with the headliner, or exchange contact details or whatever, there are better times to do this than during someone else’s actual set. In the green room/backstage early or late on, or during your set, where you can manufacture a bit of time and space to do this. All DJs know the frustration of the punter who doesn’t get that you are at work while on the decks, and won’t leave them alone – the last thing you want to do is create the impression that you, a fellow DJ, don’t understand this!
DON’T LEAVE THE DJ BOOTH IN A TOTAL MESS
There are few things less pleasant than taking over the decks and there’s empty glasses everywhere, no clean surfaces to set a bag down, rubbish all over the floor, drinks spilled all over the equipment, and so on. Keep the booth how you’d hope to find it, and make sure to tidy your stuff away when the next DJ arrives, and definitely make sure there is room for any bags or flightcases they have with them.
Much of this comes down to communication.
Try not to be intimidated by the headline DJ, even if you are a big fan – if they’ve travelled to be there, they are looking for friendly faces. Strike up a good rapport and then the next time in town, you’re that great warm-up DJ they got on with so well before. A lot of friendships in DJing start this way, and it can really open doors over time!
If you are the resident, in some ways you are the face of the night to guest DJs – that is a real responsibility, and the promoters and clubs genuinely value residents who take this side of it seriously, and act accordingly.
If you are a guest DJ, or even the headliner, making it clear what you would like in a way that isn’t condescending or mean is just common sense. I have heard so many 2nd or 3rd hand tales of “Oh, such and such a DJ is a total idiot, they were really rude to everyone” – often based on the only time they met the DJ in question. People love a bit of gossip, and a lot of insecure DJs will use any opportunity to trash talk about someone higher up the ladder than them.
So, even if you are jet-lagged and tired, try your best to be polite and friendly, or you risk picking up a reputation – and people would rather book DJs that are easy to work with! Clarity ahead of time (and arriving in plenty of time at events to make sure things are the way you want) will iron out a lot of the issues you might run into.
Ultimately – the more professional you are, the more that people will treat you like a pro, whether you are just starting out, or are at the top of the game.