Sunday, April 12, 2009

How to be a Good DJ

Being a good salsa DJ isn't as easy as it seems! Here is my take on it... hope this helps!

Before you Start

Here are few a questions ask yourself before you begin:
  • Who is your audience (beginners, advanced, mixed levels)
  • What do they want to dance (salsa, cha, zouk, bachata, ...)
  • For salsa, is it cuban salsa, or more linear/western styles, or are both cool?
  • Do you want to play known "good old favourites", or do you want to play progressive music to help dancers grow and appreciate newer sounds and flavours
  • Are you open to "requests" on the night
  • How long is the set for
  • Are you the only one DJing for the night (if not, you need to ensure that you have no double-ups, and that the tempo of both DJs is consistent for the night)
  • Which media are you going to use? I prefer using iTunes from a PC, but I also like iPods too. MP3 CDs are okay, and if need be, I sometimes use good old CDs, but basically these are just a straight continuous playlist burnt to sequential disks.
  • Do you want a pause between songs (for social interaction on the floor), or do you want it to be "hard and fast", where songs come one after another with no break at all.
Along these lines, here is a great article about whether or not to mix songs.

A few tips for the night

Here is some advice that I learnt the hard way!
  • Have a backup of everything: your music (burn it to CD as well as having a copy on your harddrive). Carry your backup with you!
  • Don't ever let anyone walk up to you when DJing and let them play a song off an iPod, CD, etc. It could be a shite song, it could jump, it could last for 20 minutes, and it could totally wreck the continuity of the line up.
  • I never allow requests unless it lines up with what I am doing. If I am playing hard mambo and someone requests a samba, it's a no from me. But if it is a song that will fit, then sure, as long as it won't cause too much of an effort in terms of squeezing the song in.
  • Playing directly from an iPod is sometimes a great idea. The playlist is fixed, there is no changing it, and it saves any arguments by patrons who want a song requested. You can just set it and forget it.
  • Build up the intensity of the music as the night goes on. I always start with slower songs, and then every song is the same or faster than the last. To see why to do this, try putting on a slow song near the end of the night. That will be the last song you will play that night... the dancefloor will be dead. Everyone's energy will be shot, and it will be time to go home.
  • In terms of equipment, make sure that you have enough spare batteries, power supplies, replacement cables, and noice filters (especially for laptops that run off power supplies). Also, if you are playing from a laptop, make sure that you turn off all the desktop sounds, and make sure that the laptop is set to not switch off after 2 hours of inactivity, and that the lid shutting doesn't turn the laptop into standby either (I accidentally depressed the button that the lid presses down on once, and that was the longest two minutes of my life!).
What is the right mix of salsa?

I have a magic formula. It is: 4 salsa songs, then something else. Repeat until done (with each 4-set faster than the last).

As for the "something else", this is normally whatever happens to be the next big thing in latin dance at the time (Zouk, Bachata, Reggaeton, just whatever). However, I am a bit of an oldie (really), so I always put a few oldschool cha chas in the mix too.

For my personal taste, I really really enjoy listening to cuban salsa. However, I don't dance to it, don't even like dancing to it, and hate it when it is played in dance clubs. So, at my nights, I make it clear that it is a linear/mambo night, and that it is for good social dancers, not beginners (there are other nights for them, such as dance school socials, etc). Harsh, maybe. Appreciated, yes!

Sound Quality

Never let an old musician set up the PA system! Why? They are usually deaf, which means that they set the treble up waaaaay too much. Instead... give them a high-treble (and loud) foldback speaker, and they will be happy playing from this.

In terms of music quality, do not compress your music files, in particular when the PA system is of poor quality. It will magnify the reduced quality of the music.

I always go for moderation when setting up PA systems... no massive differences between bass, midrange and treble, and always have the input levels just occasionally touching the top end of the scale. Once set up, I always go down and have a dance, just to get a feel for how the sound is actually playing out on the dance floor (and to check that all the speakers, subs, etc are going).

To Mix or Not to Mix

This is a hard one. I love messing with music... particularly live music. You know the deal... reverb on one channel, a slight delay, putting in a wee bit of an echo, ahh... I just love it!

As for salsa... I say no! As dancers, we rely on the beat, half beats, syncopations, and all sorts of other subtlties. In a rave when everyone is already smacked on ecstacy, it's cool to do basically whatever you like (probably due to the fact that you yourself are currently on an eight hour buzz too). As for salsa, dancers know the songs intimately, they know the breaks, they know the vocals, and they use this. If you flatten this out with an echo or a bit of reverb, it will really thrown them. And if you even think of layering in other beats or samples... well... you will soon be told where to go!

The Age Old "Am I a Good DJ Test"

This one surprises me big time. A DJ plays a new styled song, or changes from salsa to a riggaeton (or something else). The dancefloor clears immediately. Tumbleweed rolls across the floor. Oh well, a good time to go to the bar, except that everyone else has the same idea. So, the rule here is "if dancefloor clears out, don't do the same thing again". However, the number of (bad) DJs out there that either don't know this rule (or ignore it) really freaks me out... too often I see floor-clearing song after song being played. People tell you what works by getting out there on the floor (people want to dance and will dance to nearly anything). If the floor is empty, you are doing something really really wrong.

Running the Entire Night Yourself

Running the night by yourself can be fun. Just one word of advice: tell all staff that are in a position to turn PAs up or down, turn lights up or down, turn airconditioning up or down (basically anyone who knows where the switchroom is), to always, always go through you and only you everytime a request is made by a patron for something to be changed. Some people want the music up, the music down, the heating up, the heating down, etc. This is your call... as one person's bad call (particulary heating requests) can take a long time to fix, and annoy a whole room full of people in the process.

DJing Before, During and After Dance Performances

During salsa nights, there are often performances. Here are a few tips regarding these:
  • Performances, to hold an audiences attention, should not really be more than two minutes (or so) long. For amazing performances, a little longer is normally fine, but not all performances are amazing :-)
  • Try to only have a couple of performances each night, no more than four.
  • For me, I try to get all performances done in one go... otherwise it interrupts the flow of the dancers too much.
  • Having varied performances is a good thing... four salsa performances all in a row can be a bit too much.
  • Have the introductory material for each performance ready ahead of time, and make sure that this has been double checked by the person doing each performance (there is nothing worse than a performer trying to correct a DJ/MC right at the start of the performance).
  • Test each track for each performance ahead of time. Label each CD or track as "track 1", "track 2", etc, so you know which one to play next.
  • Verify how each performance group wants to start the performance. Do they want to be out on the stage, then the music is queued, or do they want the music to play as they are walking out (having a clear protocol for when to restart the music, pull the music, turning it up, etc is important too - keep any eye on the main performer and see if they are trying to tell you something. If they are not looking at you, you are doing well).
  • Make sure the music is loud enough. It might sound fine to you and the crowd, but if the music is too quiet on the stage, it can make a performance terrible. My advice: turn up the music loud... the crowd will tell you when it is too loud (by a few quick glances in your direction). The performers won't mind if it is too loud... they will be too nervous most of the time to register the loudness anyway!
  • Check the music onstage beforehand. Often there can be soundwaves which bounce off the back walls from the main front of house speakers, which will overpower any foldbacks, but unfortunately with a one or two second delay. This is impossible to dance to, but undetectable from the sound booth and the audience seats.

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