DJ Buyer's Guide
How to Build a DJ Rig
If you’ve accumulated a collection of songs you’d like to use to entertain an audience, DJing is for you. DJing begins with playing, blending together, or manipulating pre-recorded music. Regardless of the format (vinyl, CD, MP3, etc.), or the type of DJ you are looking to become (club DJ, mobile DJ, radio DJ, karaoke DJ, turntablist) you’re going to need some DJ tools of the trade. All of the buttons, knobs, and faders may seem intimidating, but after you learn the basics, you’ll be spinning in no time.
DJ mixers are one of the things all DJ rigs have in common. It is the foundation of the art form. Some DJ mixers are stand-alone hardware, others are built into all-in-one systems, and some come in the form of a DJ controller. DJ controllers usually control a virtual representation of a mixer within software.
Other than music, as DJ you will need to decide what type of media players you wish to manipulate. Each source, whether a CD player, turntable, digital media player, iOS device, or virtual representation of a turntable within software, is referred to as a “deck”. Typical DJ setups contain two decks, with more advanced DJs using four (or more). Each deck is plugged into a channel on the mixer, which has a vertical fader to control the volume of the source material.
Other than a mixer, and two music players, the other essential items you will need to get up and running are a pair of headphones, as well as a way for your audience to hear the music. In this guide, we will give you an overview of DJ equipment options to help you decide on the perfect system for your needs.
The DJ mixer is the heart of every DJ setup. All DJ mixers have one common trait, the crossfader. The crossfader allows the DJ to seamlessly switch, fade, or mix two or more sources of music such as turntables, CD players, digital media drives, or iOS devices. The crossfader is a special type of horizontal fader that allows the DJ to switch (also known as cross-fade) between each sound source. When the crossfader is in the middle, both channels can be heard (provided each channel’s volume fader is up).
Analog DJ mixers typically have two to four channels of inputs and support a wide variety of sound sources. Each channel strip has a vertical fader, along with a set of equalizers, also referred to as EQ. The EQ allows for the altering of the low, mid, and high frequencies of the song. Whereas on a live-sound mixer, the EQ is usually used to make instruments sit better in a mix, on a DJ mixer the EQs are used as musical tools to filter out entire portions of the frequency spectrum. Some DJs use the EQ to temporarily remove the bass or boost the mids or high frequencies of a song. Another example might be to accentuate different parts of two different songs blended together. For example, if you turned the low frequency all the way down on one song, you might no longer hear the bassline, allowing the baseline of another track to be more prominent in the mix.
All DJ mixers also have what is known as a cue mix. The cue mix, sometimes referred to as the headphone mix is what the DJ listens to in their headphones. The cue mix section of a DJ mixer will usually have a fader or rotary knob that allows the DJ to choose which deck they want to listen to. In addition, the cue mix allows the DJ to hear what the audience hears. This allows the DJ to get the next song ready (also referred to as cueing) while the current song is playing. Once the DJ has the next song ready, he or she can listen to what the decks will sound like together, before the audience does. This is valuable especially when mixing two or more songs together. The DJ can line up the down-beat of each song, make sure they are the same tempo, and once satisfied with the cue mix, blend them together for the audience by using the cross-fader.
Higher-end DJ mixers offer better build quality to withstand the rigors of the road. Many employ built-in integration with popular software or brand-specific media players. In addition, professional DJ mixers have superior sound quality with pro audio connections such as balanced XLR outputs. Finally, on-board effects and computer connections round out the feature sets of more desirable models. Regardless of your choice, there is no denying that the mixer is one of the essential DJ tools of the trade.
Pioneer DJMS9 Professional DJ Mixer
Rane TTM57mkII Serato DJ Mixer
Rane SixtyTwo Serato DJ Mixer
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Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol Z2 DJ Mixer and Audio Interface
All DJs require headphones in order to monitor what is being played on each deck. Without headphones you will not be able to cue up or mix the next song. There are a few different characteristics that make headphones specialized for DJing.
Most DJ headphones have cushioned, swiveling ear cups. You’ll want your headphones to be comfortable because you may be wearing them for hours at a time. In addition, swiveling ear cups allow you to hear what’s coming out of the main speaker system while listening to what you are cueing in the other ear.
Many pairs also have what is known as a closed-back design. These ear pads enclose the whole ear so that sound cannot travel in or out. In a noisy environment, you’ll want to hear all the details to get the perfect mix.
Once you own a pair of DJ headphones you will be on your way to knowing how to build a DJ rig.
Pioneer HDJ2000MK2 Professional DJ Headphones in Black
Pioneer HDJC70 Professional DJ Headphones
Shure SRH750DJ Professional DJ Headphones
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Sennheiser HD8 DJ Headphones
The title “DJ” is short for “disc jockey”. When the term originated, “disc” referred to a phonograph record due to its resemblance to a disc. The resurgence of vinyl in recent years has helped fuel a new generation of DJs that want to use turntables. All turntables have a pitch/speed fader that allows the DJ to speed up or slow down the platter (the part that holds the record). This allows the DJ to blend two records at the same tempo.
Belt drive turntables use a rubber belt wrapped around a roller that is attached to a motor which turns the platter. These turntables are normally not recommended for scratching, but some beginners start on them due to their affordability.
USB turntables are popular for people that wish to convert their vinyl collection to a digital format but are not essential to all DJ setups.
Direct drive turntables feature a platter attached directly to the motor allowing for greater response and durability. The torque of the direct drive system determines how fast the record starts or stops. DJs requiring precise control use more expensive turntables (due to their build quality) for optimum response and sound quality.
Turntables require a phono preamp to operate properly. All DJ mixers that have phono inputs, have a built-in phono preamp. If you are using your turntable in another way, such as just to play records through a sound system, you may require a phono preamp.
Pioneer PLX1000 Professional Direct Drive Turntable
Reloop RP8000 Hybrid Torque Turntable with MIDI
Stanton ST150HP Direct Drive DJ Turntable
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Audio-Technica ATLP1240USB Direct Drive Professional USB Turntable
DJ Turntable Cartridges & Styli
The needle on the record player is called a stylus. The stylus is what carries signal from the groove of the vinyl back to the cartridge. The cartridge is what converts the signal into audio. There are several different DJ equipment options for cartridges and each one has a huge impact on what you get out of your vinyl. If you are spending money on a high quality turntable, you’ll want to buy a higher quality cartridge. Remember the golden rule of audio; you’re only as strong as your weakest signal.
There are also several different types of styli, the most popular for DJs being spherical and elliptical. Elliptical needles have a slightly improved sound quality and produce less record wear. On the contrary, spherical needles are more robust and the choice for scratch DJs (turntablists). While spherical are better for scratching, they also tend to wear records out quicker during normal play.
If you’re using turntables, both cartridges and styli are considered important DJ tools of the trade.
Numark CS1RS DJ Replacement Stylus
Ortofon DJ S Spherical DJ Stylus
Audio-Technica ATN3600L Replacement Stylus For ATLP60 Phonograph
Ortofon Concorde Q.Bert DJ Turntable Cartridge
Audio-Technica ATN120EB Replacement AT120E Stylus
See All DJ Turntable Cartridges
See All DJ Styli
Shure Whitelabel DJ Turntable Cartridge
DJ CD Players
DJ CD players are available as tabletop single disk players and rack mount dual-disc. The single disk players are generally set up to feel more like a traditional turntable, down to the torque (feel) of the platter. Similar to turntables, DJ CD players a have pitch/speed modulation fader. In addition, many DJ CD players have the ability to emulate the scratching sound of a vinyl turntable as well as on-board effects.
DJ CD players typically will play traditional CDs as well as other forms of media. This includes data CDs (burned with hundreds of digital files), and various types of memory cards. Unlike in the past when a DJ had to bring hundreds of CDs to a gig, now thousands of files can be read in seconds. The latest generation even have WiFi, allowing the DJ to play songs remotely from a computer or other sound source.
You won’t find CD players in every DJ setup but many big city clubs still have them as part of their DJ rig.
Pioneer XDJ1000 DJ Performance Multi Player
Pioneer CDJ2000NXS2 Professional Wireless Multi Player
Pioneer CDJ900NXS Professional DJ CD MP3 Player
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Numark NDX500 USB CD and Media Player DJ Controller
DJ Audio Interfaces
DJs that want to use real turntables or cd players to control digital audio files on a computer, require an interface that can communicate special time-coded vinyl or cds with a computer to control digital audio files. These purpose-built interfaces are most commonly sold to work with Rane Serato Scratch Live or Native Instruments’ Traktor Scratch.
Alternatively, DJs wanting to use any random MIDI controller (or no controller at all) with DJ software will benefit from an audio interface. Interfaces built for DJing allow the DJ to cue and monitor one song with headphones while another plays out the main outputs. If you already own an audio interface, perhaps for recording music, it must have more than one set of stereo outputs to use it for DJing.
If you plan on using a computer; how you hear your music from it will be one of the more important considerations as you learn how to build a DJ rig.
Rane SL2 USB DJ Audio Interface for Serato
Denon DJ DS1 Serato DVS Digital Vinyl Audio Interface
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Native Instruments Traktor Scratch Audio 6 Digital DJ System
DJ controllers use MIDI to manipulate DJ software or files from USB drives. Many are all-in-one controllers that offer audio players with a mixer, along with on-board effects and integration with popular DJ software. DJ controllers offer the advantage of being more compact than having separate components. In addition, many are purpose-built for integration with specific DJ software, although they can be programmed to work with others.
Many DJ controllers are also audio interfaces. This means they don’t require an additional interface, and may have inputs to hook additional gear such as microphones and turntables.
The more advanced the DJ controller, the more intuitive and responsive. DJ controllers typically have two platters (also referred to as jog wheels) which are used to manipulate, cue, and blend music. Some are built to feel like turntables, whereas others use touch-strips to locate within a song. Touch-sensitive pads are also commonly employed to set up cue points (assignments of specific locations) within a song, or chop an audio phrase into separate samples.
For the current generation of aspiring and professional DJs alike, the controller is one of the most popular DJ tools of the trade.
Pioneer DDJSX2 Professional DJ Controller
Pioneer DDJSZ Professional DJ Controller
Numark NS7III Professional DJ Controller
Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S8 DJ Controller
Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S4 MK2 DJ Controller
Denon DJ MC4000 Professional DJ Controller
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Numark MixTrack Pro 3 USB DJ Controller
Some DJ software require specific controllers or audio interfaces in order to work. These controllers and interfaces will typically ship with at least a light version of the software.
See All DJ Software
If you already have an audio interface with more than one set of stereo outputs, you can start DJing with software. Many different titles of DJ software allow you to blend songs, add effects, and record your mix.
If you are using a computer, software is definitely a consideration as one of your DJ equipment options.
DJ CD & Media Player Systems
Similar to DJ Controllers, DJ CD systems offer control using multiple jog wheels as well as a mixer, all in one unit. Many have built-in effects and the ability to play music from multiple sources such as audio and data CDs, or digital media from memory cards.
Some DJ CD systems are also DJ Controllers that can control software on a computer or iOS device. These allow for total control when mixing from CD, thumb drives, or a computer. In addition, many will have external inputs for connecting turntables or other types of players.
Many people enjoy starting out on these types of systems due to having many DJ tools of the trade all in one portable unit.
Pioneer XDJRX Professional DJ System
Numark CD DJ Package with CD players Mixer Cables and Headphones
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Gemini CDMP7000 DJ Media CD Player and USB Controller System
DJ Processors and Effects
If you are using an all-in-one DJ CD/Media player system, or a purpose-built DJ controller with DJ software, chances are there will be on-board effects. Using effects are a great way to put a unique spin (heh heh) on a track. They can be used for transitioning between songs and or played as part of your performance.
For those with a more traditional DJ setup, such as two turntables and a mixer without a computer, there are stand-alone effects processors to spice up your mix. Many of these will have multiple effects that can be chained together and recalled on the fly.
You won’t find DJ effect processors in every DJ setup, but they do allow for more creativity during your performance.
Pioneer RMX1000 Remix Station DJ Effects Controller in Black
Pioneer RMX500 Remix Station DJ Effects Controller
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Korg KP3 Plus Kaoss Pad Dynamic Effects Sampler
Lighting is the easiest way to elevate a DJ’s performance. DJs that use lights offer a more engaging experience, as they control both the auditory and visual mood of the crowd. Lights can be programmed in advance, or set to respond to the music. Thanks to advances in LED lighting technology, lights can run for long periods of time without generating too much heat or risking blown bulbs.
Spot fixtures throw tight beams of light, where even from a distance, the light is a tight and concise beam. Mirror balls work well with spot lights.
Flood fixtures are designed to throw a spread of a single color in a wide beam angle. These are great for lighting up the dance floor.
Effect fixtures such as lasers, strobes, scanners, and moving heads create jaw-dropping visuals that will make your performance unique. Fog machines help to showcase many of these types of effects, and gobos are used in front of lights to create unique shapes or custom logos.
When it comes to lighting, one thing is certain. Having them will set you apart by making your performance more memorable. It is also one of the elements that lets people know you take your DJ equipment options seriously.
Chauvet GigBar 2 Lighting Effect System
ADJ Mega Flat Pak Plus Lighting Package
ADJ Inno Pocket Wash Stage Light
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Chauvet DJ Intimidator Wave IRC Effect Light
Karaoke is a bit of a different art form in that what the DJ plays is dictated by the audience. Since the audience will be singing along, you’ll need special CD+G (graphics) discs, DVDs or files which contain backing tracks and visual lyrics. Karaoke players will always have some sort of video output to display the lyrics. In addition to the players, you’re going to need a video display as well as microphones.
Most karaoke players have built-in effects such as reverb, as well as the ability to change the key of a song. This can be useful if your singer’s vocal range doesn’t fit the original key.
Karaoke players are not considered essential DJ tools of the trade unless you are becoming a Karaoke DJ.
VocoPro Gig Star Professional CD Karaoke System
VocoPro Hero Rec Portable PA with Digital Recording
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VocoPro DVD Soundman Wireless Mic Karaoke PA System
Amplifiers & Speakers
Headphones will allow you to cue up and mix your records but you’ll need to connect the main output of your DJ mixer into a PA system.
Powered speakers have a built-in amplifier and are easy to use. Just plug the main outputs of your DJ mixer into the inputs on the back of the speakers.
Non-powered speakers require an amplifier. Plug the output of your DJ mixer into the amplifier and the amp into the speakers. You must make sure that your amplifier and speakers are correctly matched to avoid damaging the speakers or the amp.
Also don’t forget about speaker stands. Elevating your speakers will prevent them from sounding muffled. Try to mount your speakers six to seven feet off the ground.
There are many DJ equipment options for allowing people to hear your music so be sure to choose the one that’s most practical for your needs.
QSC K12 12 Inch 1000 Watt PA Active Loudspeaker Pair
Electro-Voice ZLX15P 15" 2-Way Full Range Powered Loudspeakers Pair
Mackie Thump15 15 Inch 1000 Watt Active PA Loudspeakers Pair
JBL Eon615 15 Inch 1000 Watt Powered PA Loudspeakers with Bluetooth Pair
Electro-Voice ELX215 Live X Dual 15" 2400W 2 Way Passive Speaker Pair
Bose L1 Model II Portable Line Array PA System With One B2 Bass Module
Electro-Voice ELX118P Live X 18" 700 Watt Powered Subwoofer
QSC KW181 18 Inch 1000 Watt Active PA Subwoofer Loudspeaker
Bose F1 Powered Subwoofer
JBL PRX 418S 18 Inch Passive PA Subwoofer
QSC RMX5050a 2000 Watt Two Channel Power Amplifier
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Peavey IPR2 7500 Power Amplifier
Final Words on DJ Setups
Now that you know how to build a DJ rig you’re on your way to rocking the next party. DJing is a great hobby but can also be a lucrative business. Explore all the DJ tools of the trade that American Music Supply has to offer and in no time you’ll be moving the crowd.
About the Author - Headsnack
Hailing originally from Long Island, and now living in northern New Jersey, Headsnack has specialized in creating training materials for some of the biggest names in music gear retail, for over 12 years. His Training Snacks brand has produced several pro audio category and product training segments which can be found on YouTube and in written form on AmericanMusical.com.
As a musician, Headsnack is a positive-minded producer, performer, and lyricist who specializes in electronic beat-making, and writing hilarious songs that mock humanity. His music, which has been described by fans and reviewers as everything from “throwback boom bap” to “futuristic”, has been licensed to several artists, labels and films including Public Enemy, Sky Mall, and the Independent Film Channel. His viral-style YouTube videos have garnered over 60,000 views and he has also DJ’d for various clubs and parties for over 15 years.