Wiki wiki what’s up!? So, you want to be a DJ but don’t know where to start? That’s okay. Whether you want to blend, mix, create, or simply play all sorts of prerecorded music, AMS has everything you need to become the best DJ in town. And the foundation to becoming a great DJ, like just about everything in the music world, is gear.
DJs use all sorts of different gear to put on their shows. And we’re going to run through some of the most essential building blocks for your DJ rig. Here’s what you’ll need if you’re ready to take up a life of mixing and scratching as a DJ.
The DJ mixer is the heart of any DJ setup. It allows you to “mix” (imagine that!) different audio sources — typically two. In times of yore, the two audio sources were usually two phonographic record turntables. A few years after that, CD players. And several years after that (like right now), digital audio interfaces that usually look like traditional vinyl turntables — in a strange twist of historical fate.
There are tons and tons of features in a typical DJ mixer, so let’s take a look at the most prominent one by one:
Every mixer has one common trait: the crossfader. It’s that little slider on the bottom (mostly) of the mixer that lets you choose which audio source actually makes noise.
This isn’t your typical on/off switch. A crossfader lets you choose exactly how much of each audio source goes into your mix. You can slide it completely to either side to get 100% audio from one source and mute the other, you can put it smack in the middle to get both sources to play equally, or you can slide it anywhere in between to take complete control of your mix.
Hopefully you’re starting to see why they call it a mixer…
Most mixers also include a set of equalizers (EQ) that let you control the high, mid, and low frequencies in your mix. For most musicians, the EQ helps to fine-tune their tone. However, in a DJ setup, you can use the EQ to actually create mixes.
For example, if you want the bassline Song A to be featured more prominently, you can use the EQ to turn down the low frequencies of Song B. You’ll keep Song B’s mids and highs (typically the melody) while mixing the bassline from song A.
In a DJ rig, the EQ can be used for way more than simply making simple tonal adjustments.
You’ll also find a few other faders (or sometimes just knobs) labeled cue mix. The cue mix is a fancy term for what you hear in the headphones.
It’s also sometimes called the headphone mix, but I wouldn’t have sounded as smart if I called it that first!
The cue mix is used to adjust what you hear in the headphones. This is helpful for “cueing” up the next song — imagine that!
If the audience is happily bee-bopping to Song A but you want to see if Song B is ready, you can turn up the cue mix for Song B and listen to it in your headphones to make sure it’s at the right spot without affecting what the audience hears. Then when Song A is over, you can move the crossfader to Song B for a smooth transition.
Listening to the cue mix is also helpful when you’re mixing two songs together. For example, you can match downbeats between two songs listening to the cue mix, and once everything is ready, you can blend the two songs together for the audience with the crossfader.
And a bunch of other stuff
While the crossfader, EQ, and cue mix are the three “standard” features on any DJ mixer, modern mixers have tons and tons of additional features DJs can use to create their sound.
These are just a few of the favorite modern DJ mixer features:
- Digital effects (reverb, chorus, flanger, etc.)
- Low-/high-pass filters
- Depth adjustments
And if you catch a DJ mixer that looks sorta like Darth Vader’s chest piece with all the flashing lights (like the RANE SEVENTY), there’s a good chance it has assignable MIDI switches. You can assign each a soundbite, and when you touch the little glowy pad, it’ll play the sound. They’re great for adding a little live pizazz to your performance.
If you’re looking to take on some wedding or high school dance gigs, you probably won’t need all these fancy features. However, if you want to start mixing your own dance beats and use your DJ setup as a creative outlet rather than just a music player, some of these features could come in handy.
Think about what kind of DJ you want to become and choose the mixer that has the right features to fit your style.
Now onto the fun part! What’s a DJ rig without a set of turntables? They’re the most iconic part of any setup.
The term “DJ” is an abbreviation of “disk jockey.” Back in the ancient times, DJs actually used disks to create their music — more specifically, vinyl records. The turntable is the part that holds and turns the disk.
Turntables have three main parts:
- Platter – The round, flat part on top that holds the record and spins around.
- Pitch/speed fader – Controls how fast the platter spins.
- Start/stop button – Starts or stops the platter (kinda obvious…)
Analog turntables (the ones designed to hold real, physical records) will also have a tone arm. That’s the part you swing across and place on the record to create sound.
But because this is the modern era, most DJs use digital turntables. Digital turntables still have a platter, but it’s not designed to hold a vinyl record.
Digital turntables are also called DJ controllers because you use the platter to “control” software on your computer. You can use a digital turntable to move through songs just like an analog turntable, but the music is coming from your computer and not an actual disk. As you might have guessed, digital turntables don’t have (or need) a tone arm.
If you’re looking for that lovely high-fidelity sound that only vinyl records can make, an analog turntable might be for you. Audio Technica makes some amazing analog turntables!
All analog turntables need a phono preamp to operate properly. But if you find a mixer that has phono inputs, it’ll come with a phono preamp, so you won’t need to get one separately.
However, if you want to make wild dance beats and crazy creations with music production software, a digital turntable would likely be better. It might not give you that authentic pop and crackle that everyone loves with vinyl records, but it’ll give you way more control and tools to create music the way you want.
There are also DJ turntables available that play CDs, but really…?
Once you choose the format of your turntable, you’ll have to decide how you want the platter to turn. The platter on a DJ turntable is driven by an electric motor, but the motor can be attached to the platter in two different ways:
- Belt drive – A rubber band-like belt attaches the motor to the platter, similar to a serpentine belt on a car.
- Direct drive – The platter is connected directly to the motor.
Because of the shock-absorbing qualities of the rubber belt, belt-drive DJ turntables reportedly provide better sound quality. You don’t have to worry about pesky vibrations ruining your hi-fi audio. Of course, that’s only true if you have an analog turntable.
Most professional DJs prefer direct drive turntables. They provide better response and durability, especially if you plan on scratching. They just give you better control. But they also tend to be more expensive.
Cartridges and styli (vinyl records)
If you’ve decided to go the pretentious route and get an analog turntable (just kidding!), you’ll also need to think about cartridges and styli.
The styli is the needle that rides along the grooves on the record, and the cartridge is what converts the vibrations into an audio signal. Naturally, they’re pretty important in the music-playing process.
Turntable styli come in two main styles:
- Elliptical styli – An elongated needle that has slightly better sound quality and reduces record wear.
- Spherical styli – A rounded needle that sounds more robust but wears out the records a bit faster.
Why the heck would anyone choose a spherical styli if it doesn’t have the same sound quality and beats up your records!? It sounds better for scratching! Which is why most battle DJs prefer rounded styli.
However, if you just want to listen to some nice tunes without wearing out your records, an elliptical styli might be the best choice.
And when it comes to turntable cartridges, the higher quality the better! Your sound is only as good as the weakest part of your signal chain — so don’t skimp!
Want to use an analog turntable with a computer? You’ll need a DJ audio interface to help old (vinyl) and new (computer) communicate. Think of it like posting a meme on Facebook (except the older people actually understand it…).
Audio interfaces communicate special time-coded vinyl or CDs with the computer and let you control and cue digital files in real time. They’re also helpful if you want to use a MIDI controller in your DJ setup.
There are so many different parts to a DJ rig. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was an all-in-one solution that gives you everything you need to start mixing and scratching right away? Well, today’s your lucky day!
DJ controllers use MIDIs and USBs to control specific DJ software and files from USB drives. Most of them are exactly the all-in-one platform you’re looking for with integrated turntables, mixer, audio interface, and usually plenty of onboard effects.
Rather than drag a bunch of heavy pieces to your next gig, you can just grab your controller, pop in a few cables, and you’re ready to rock! Naturally, these digital controllers are the most popular choice for modern DJs.
Because DJ controllers are all digital and don’t play vinyl records, their “turntables” come in a variety of formats. You can get controllers with platters that look and feel like an analog turntable (called jog wheels), and others have simple touch strips. You can use the jog wheels and touch strips to manipulate your digital songs, just like you would if there was a real record playing.
Modern DJ controllers come in many shapes and sizes with tons and tons of different features. Think about what kind of DJ you want to be, make your wish list, and then go shopping! There’s a controller configuration to fit any need. Check for popular brands like Pioneer and RANE.
What doesn’t run on software these days? If you plan to use a computer in your DJ rig (like just about every modern DJ ever) you’ll need some form of DJ software to manage your songs, keep your mixes, and control with your super-awesome DJ controller.
There’s a ton of DJ software out there. And some of it is brand specific. So before you go buying a new controller, make sure all your DJ parts will play nice together. Some DJ controllers even come with a software download.
But the real question is, can your DJ controller run Doom…?
DJ processors and effects
Most digital DJ controllers and software come with onboard effects. So if you plan to go that route, feel free to skip this section!
However, if you want a more traditional DJ setup with analog turntables and a mixer, you might want to put a little “spin” on your mixes with DJ processors and effects.
These standalone effects modules can add basic FX, isolate tracks, or even add sound effects to your tunes. They’re easy to connect to your mixer or studio computer for integration into your rig.
DJ lighting and effects
“I thought this article was just about the DJ rig essentials…?”
Yes! Lighting is an essential part of any DJ setup! Every good DJ show has at least a few lights to help set the mood. And there are tons and tons of different DJ lighting options to choose from. These are the basic types any DJ should at least know:
- Spot lights – Puts a tight beam of light on a single spot. Couple with a mirror ball for a groovy disco look.
- Flood lights – Flood lights “flood” the entire dancefloor with a wide beam of a single color.
- Effect lights – Effect fixtures do crazy things like strobe, flash lasers, and create jaw-dropping visuals to accompany your DJ show.
In addition to typical lighting options, you can also grab some other DJ effects like fog machines. And who can resist a DJ show with a bubble machine!?
Lighting and effects are a staple at any DJ show. And there’s no such thing as “too many” lights and effects…
Every DJ needs a good pair of headphones. And no, not just to look cool holding them up to your ear with one hand while you pretend to push buttons on the controller — though that’s definitely a perk.
You’ll need a solid pair of DJ headphones to listen to your cue mix during the show (now that you know what that is) and sync up the next song. What makes a pair of good DJ headphones? I’m glad you asked!
The best DJ headphones have cushioned, swiveling ear cups. Cushioned because you’ll be wearing them for most of your set and they need to be comfortable. Swiveling so you can look cool holding them up to your head with one han— so you can quickly monitor your mix without needing to actually put them on.
You’ll also probably want some headphones with a closed-back design. Most DJ environments are noisy. Closed-back headphones are better at keeping outside noise away so you can actually hear what you’re doing in full detail.
And speaking of detail, headphones with larger drivers typically provide better audio quality — which you’ll want plenty of to get the best mix. Plus, they’re louder. And who doesn’t want that!?
Pioneer makes some amazing DJ headphones to fit nearly any budget.
Amps and speakers
Okay, you can hear the mix on your awesome headphones, but now the audience needs to hear it. It’s time to pick out a set of killer PA speakers.
Speakers come in two types:
- Active PA speakers – Have built-in amplifiers but need a power source. Plug them in and you’re ready to play!
- Passive PA speakers – Just speakers, no amp. You’ll need a separate powered amplifier to power your speakers, but at least they don’t need to be near an outlet!
Most DJs like active speakers because of the simplicity. If you choose passive speakers, you’ll need to make sure the amp power rating matches the speakers. Otherwise, you could damage some of the components.
It also never hurts to grab a subwoofer (or a few) to really get the bass a-bumpin’. They’re designed to work best at low frequencies to fill out your sonic range. The bass-tastic beats are half the fun of a good DJ show anyway!
And while you’re shopping for some big-ass speakers, don’t forget to grab a few speaker stands. Speakers work best when elevated about six feet above the floor to really spread the sound pattern and reduce muffling.
Can you hear me out there!? Make some noooooise!
What if you want to pump up the crowd? Perhaps you’re throwing a karaoke night at the local bar. It’s not crucial, but many DJs like to have a microphone or two handy as a part of their setup.
Most DJs prefer handheld dynamic mics, and the Shure SM58 is hard to beat! They’re easy to use and provide clean vocals without much interference. Just plug it into the back of your mixer (or DJ controller) and adjust the input levels to let people talk — or shut them up.
Lots and lots of cables
Oh my gosh the cables! DJ rigs require a lot of cables for everything to work properly — especially if you choose to mix and match separate turntables and mixers.
Because each DJ setup is a bit different, I can’t tell you the exact number of cables you need (or which ones). I can, however, tell you about the various types of cables in a DJ rig and what they’re used for:
- RCA cable – Most common type of unbalanced DJ cable. RCA cables connect different components in the DJ booth, like interfaces to club mixers and such. Most mixer inputs use RCA.
- XLR cable – Three pins for balanced sound! XLR cables are typically the master output from your rig to the various speakers and any microphones you might be using. They have large metal end caps that lock into their respective sockets for a secure connection.
- 1/4 cable – Quarter-inch cables are mostly used for headphones in a DJ rig, but they can also be used for speakers in a pinch. They’re essentially guitar cables.
- USB – At this point, everyone knows what a USB is… Connect your gear to your computer, it talks back and forth, blah, blah, blah. Most DJ equipment comes with a USB cable.
- MIDI – Although they’re not as popular as they used to be (with the invention of better USB cables) MIDI cables are six-pinned cables used to transmit data between gear like your controller to a MIDI interface and then to your computer so you can control software with your instrument. However, they only transmit data in a language called Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) and can’t transport sound.
The easiest way to determine which kind of cables you need (and how many of each) is to think about how many pieces of equipment you have in your DJ rig. Everything needs to be connected, so make sure each piece has the proper connection.
Look on the back panel of each piece of equipment for clues about which type of cable it takes.
Of course, you’ll also need a bunch of power cables, but each piece of equipment you buy should come with its own power supply. If not, remember to check the power ratings on your gear before you buy a power cable! If you don’t, your next show could be a short one…
Ready to become a DJ?
With all the parts, pieces, buttons, and flashing lights, it can be daunting to begin your DJ gear journey. But half the fun of starting to mix and scratch is building your rig!
Start with a great DJ controller (unless you want to go analog), grab some compatible software, get some killer headphones, and take it from there. Once you’re comfortable with how everything works, you can start to build on your rig with speakers and lights and such.
And if you’re still confused, the AMS gear nerds are here to help! Just call our helpline at 800-458-4076 and talk to one of our DJ pros. They know everything there is to know about DJ gear and can easily (and friend-ily?) point you in the right direction.
With the right set of gear at your side, it won’t be long before your DJ dreams become reality! Wiki wiki AMS out [drops mic].