In the first of our ‘How to DJ’ guides, we look at the different formats you can DJ from
The number of people who want to know how to DJ these days is probably on a par with those who want to play the guitar. The DJ has steadily become the star performer of an evening’s entertainment ever since pioneer, Jimmy Saville, put the DJ on the stage at his early events.
If you’re reading this, the chances are, that you know that you want to be that person, up in the DJ Booth, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. However, you may not know what DJ Equipment you’ll need to get started, or what a DJ actually does, other than play music. This is the first part of a beginners’ series aimed at demystifying this subject. Here, we present a guide to the main music formats available to the DJ.
CDs, MP3s, Vinyl, laptops, memory sticks – Choice of Media
If we’d been considering what media (i.e. which format you’re going to use to play your music from) 15 years ago, the decision would have been far more straightforward. Vinyl was still the first choice, with a new generation of CD decks (notably the Pioneer CDJ range) starting to appear, though these were still quite expensive.
These days the options open to the DJ are seemingly endless. Vinyl decks are still available, along with CD decks, digital decks that can stream from USB storage devices, and computer based DJ controllers. You might be wondering which will suit your needs the best. Well, here’s a little guide.
For the past few years, DJs have debated over whether vinyl is a dead format for the DJ. Whilst we won’t open that debate here, it would be difficult to say that vinyl has a long future. Technics discontinued production of its legendary 1200 and 1210 turntables a few years ago, which would seem to be a ‘death knell’ for the format. However, vinyl turntables are still available, as are records, so it can’t be written off just yet…
- Range available – Records are the original currency of the DJ, and so there’s a vast ocean of music available from the 1930s and beyond
- Sound quality – this gets debated a lot, but there really is nothing like the warm, compressed sound of vinyl
- Exclusivity – many producers release rare ‘test’ mixes on dub plates (acetates), which are only playable on vinyl decks. Plus, many classic, non-mainstream tracks were only released on vinyl
- Sharpens your skills – Vinyl requires far more delicate control than other formats, which means that switching from vinyl to another medium is much easier than the other way around.
- Technology is becoming obsolete – Technics have stopped production, others won’t be far behind
- Vinyl is heavy – carrying boxes of records is not for the faint hearted, or those with back problems…
- Records are easily damaged – a scratch can wreck a record forever, and some won’t be available any more
- Requires a more delicate touch – It takes little to make a stylus skip, and accurate cuing takes far more practice
The first digital format to be embraced by DJs, the CD offers advantages of greater portability, robustness, and no needles to skip or jump.
- Weight – Far smaller and lighter than vinyl.
- Tougher – CDs are designed to correct errors, meaning that a scratch or scuff may not affect playback at all
- Readily available – despite being 30 years old as a format, CDs are available everywhere, and just about everyone will have a collection of some sort that they can use
- Additional functionality – as a digital medium, loops can be set-up, as can cue points, enabling easier cuing, and advanced DJ techniques
- Weight – CDs still weigh something, and will still require carrying
- Can be damaged – CDs are far more robust than records, but can still be damaged by scratches
- Versatility – whilst more versatile than vinyl, CDs still can’t compare to the options offered by DJ software
MP3 and digital audio file formats
The fastest growing medium, MP3 and other digital audio formats are revolutionising the DJ world. With a 64Gb USB memory stick able to store around 16,000 songs, it’s easy to see why. This format is used on many digital turntables (via CDs and memory sticks/ USB storage), and on computer/ software based systems.
- Weight – weighs only as much as the storage device Thousands of tracks can be carried in a pocket, on a memory stick
- Far less likely to be damaged – the storage device could be damaged, but the tracks themselves are just data, and can be backed-up
- The ultimate flexible format – use CD turntables or software, and manipulate tracks to your hearts content
- The future? – The area of greatest technological development, this format is fast becoming the first choice of DJs
- Portability – if using a computer, a rucksack can carry your rig
- Quality – Most commercially available MP3s are still fairly low quality 9though many specialist sites, such as Beatport and Juno cater for the DJ in this respect), and can become ‘grainy’ when pitch is adjusted
- Availability of music – if your taste lies in the rarer and older corners of the musical canon, it’s likely that you may have to transfer your music from vinyl to a digital format to play it, at some point
So there are the main options. These are not exclusive, and many DJs use a variety of different formats within their set-up. however, if you’re just starting out, you’ll probably want to stick to just one. The equipment will be discussed at further length in the next instalment of ‘How to DJ’, but here’s a brief ‘rule of thumb’ summary. Vinyl is the least practical of the available formats, with digital media offering greater reliability, flexibility and portability. Of the digital media, MP3s/ audio file formats offer the greatest portability and flexibility, and if you already own a reasonable computer, can be the least expensive means of trying your hand at DJ-ing.
Next time in ‘How to DJ’ – DJ equipment….
Joe is a contributor for the Dawsons Music blog. Specialising in product reviews and crafting content to help and inspire musicians of all musical backgrounds.