Regardless of the gig, you need to know how to plan a DJ set – here are some tips how to do it…
Like any performance, planning underpins a DJ gig to varying degrees, so if you want to perform well, you really need to know how to plan a DJ set.
It might seem like the DJ is making things up as they go along, but this improvisational quality is usually built on the foundation of a plan.
So, how do you get started when planning your set for a forthcoming gig? Here are some handy tips…
1. Know your audience
There are innumerable situations in which DJ can be performing, and a clear understanding of this is key to planning your set.
It may seem obvious to many, but packing your crates (whether they are physical or virtual) with all of YOUR favourite tunes is seldom the way to go. In any DJ situation, the audience is king. If they have a great time, you get more gigs.
So, if you’re playing at wedding or pub, you’re unlikely to need those bangin’ dance tunes (unless they’ve requested it, of course), and conversely, if you’re playing at a real house-music (or any other genre of dance) club, you won’t be needing ‘Come on Eileen’ or ‘Tarzan Boy’…
The bottom line is that you’re there to please the audience, not yourself, and this should be the foundation of your musical choices.
2. Use your organised library to full effect
You might have read in previous posts that an organised library is key to everything, really. One of the most common ways to do this is to use the star rating to separate early set (1 star), main body of set (3 star) and bring-the-house-down set climax/ closers (5 star).
If you use this method to organise your library, it means you can have a plan of where you want to start, go through and end, but with plenty of options for those moments when you want to go ‘off-piste’.
If you have a crate organised for the gig, having a star rating will make picking the right tune for the right time a lot easier.
3. Know where you want to go
You know your audience, you know your music, and you have your crates packed- all that remains is to decide where you want to take your crowd.
Like all creative performances, there is a need for light and shade, for dynamic shifts, and a sense of direction. Think about a musical track- let’s say Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. It hints at what is to come in its intro, introducing the riff, but without the distortion. Then, it explodes into the main theme with the distorted riff. Then, it drops back into the mellow verse sections, before building back into another riotous chorus.
It continues this loud-quiet alternation, with each loud section getting louder with every repetition, until it bows out with a bit of a sonic stampede.
This can be a great template for a set, teasing the crowd with bangers, but giving them a chance to recover before the next, then hitting them with everything at the climax.
This use of dynamics is sometimes referred to as ‘push’ and ‘pull’, and approaching your set in this ‘musical’ way can really pay dividends.
Carrying out the set can be via a carefully structured playlist, or something less rigid. It always pays to have more music than you’ll play, whatever you decide.
A good technique is to plan for, say, 2 or 3 different track options for each step.
For the main body of your set, you might want to have several differing ‘routes’. So, have a few different collections of 3-5 tracks that you know work well together, each with a different overall feel, but which finish at a point that is fairly similar. In fact, many DJs find it helpful to work with tracks in groups of three in this way, for their entire set.
This means you can judge the audience, and see which route suits the best on the night. Each finishes at a similar point, so moving into your musical climax shouldn’t be a problem, whichever you choose.
There are no rules here, of course, but have a guide as to where you intend to go, balanced against some opportunities for improvisation is likely to yield great results.
If you want to improvise, well, you need to practice a lot, so that everything seems seamless. Experiment with different setlists, and find which mixes work. You’ll be able to draw from this experience when performing.
Pack a few longer tracks for, er… ‘emergencies’
It might be hard to believe, but even DJs get caught short and, er… need to ‘use the facilities’. Pack some longer tracks for this eventuality, and they should still be playing when you get back.
Getting a great balance between a good set plan, and improvisational feel is the key to putting in a great performance. Get your tunes organised, and put in the practice, and the rest will follow…
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.