Learn exactly what each type of gear does – make sure you’re getting exactly what you need for your setup!
By Kyle Novak
In today’s modern music culture, the terms ‘DJ‘ and ‘producer’ are thrown around all of the time. You hear it when you turn on the radio, fire up your favorite streaming platform, or hit up the social media airwaves. It’s incredibly common to hear music that is created by these types of artists using the newest technology. Do you or someone you know want to dive into this world of music, but need a refresher about what the terms mean? This article will make everything clear.
DJ is short for ‘disc jockey,’ and at its core, it’s an incredibly straightforward job. They play songs for an audience, one after the other. That’s it. It doesn’t matter what type of technology they use or what techniques they use to transition from track-to-track. In fact, disc jockeys on the radio (AM/FM/internet) and podcasts often engage in conversation in-between tracks. Interviews, current events, artistic critiques, and a whole host of different topics are discussed during a DJ‘s show, or ‘set’.
When looked at from a live music angle, DJs are primarily associated with pop, hip-hop, and rhythmic electronic dance music (EDM). This particular DJ is a performer that takes various forms of audio, ranging from small bits or “samples” all the way up to full-length songs, and creates an unbroken, flowing collection of music that moves from one thing to the next. They employ a number of techniques to loop, edit, slice, combine, mix, and deconstruct the elements of the audio to their liking. How do they do this? Let examine the gear that makes it all possible.
Influenced by the hip-hop culture of the late 1970s/early 1980s, early DJs started with two turntables (more casually called ‘record players’) and a mixer equipped with a crossfader. This gave them the ability to seamlessly blend two songs as they jumped back and forth between tracks on different records. DJs served both as the musical foundation and the personal hype behind an MC.
During the same time on a parallel front, the beginnings of club EDM had taken hold. These songs were being composed with analog and early digital synthesizers, drum machines, and a host of new recording techniques. They were also were being printed and released on vinyl. As these two styles grew, a growing number of DJs created the earliest mixes drawn from their personal collections. Dance clubs. Music venues. Underground ‘invitation-only’ spots. House parties. These played host to DJs armed their gear and a crate of records. These types of sets go on for hours, sometimes even days at a time!
What to know.
If someone is looking for a turntable as a gift, ask what they plan to use it for. If they want a device just to listen to records, then a more consumer-friendly model with USB connectivity is the way to go. You can even convert vinyl recordings into digital files to bolster any collection. However, if they want to explore the world of performance DJing, then a direct-drive model is an absolute must. These types of turntables have a motor positioned underneath the platter that powers the whole mechanism. Durability and consistency are the trademarks of direct-drive – this means that you can scratch, cut, juggle, and quickly change records confidently.
With the resurgence of vinyl records over the last decade, DJ turntables are as popular as ever. They are also flexible when paired with modern mixers. Due to their size and construction, direct-drive turntables can be a bit heavy and awkward to transport. If you plan to pick up and travel, be sure to include a hard case for the whole setup, mixer included. Brands such as Odyssey, Grundorf, and Magma offer hard-sided cases that are the perfect partners for today’s top-selling turntables from Pioneer, Denon, Stanton, and Roland, just to name a few.
You can go old-school by matching tempo and key by ear plus picking out and ‘slip-mixing’ in samples. Or, you can go in a groundbreaking new direction! They work great with the newest DJ computer software and a pair of control vinyl – a record outfitted with circuitry to sync with the program. So go ahead and incorporate your entire library and employ tons of specialized effects and controls. The look and feel of turntables are the big selling points if you’re looking for something a bit more compact and modern . . .
During the mid-to-late 1980s, compact discs (CDs) steadily rose to prominence as the way to consume media. These advances led to the creation of newer devices in the DJ realm. The most notable was the CD turntable or CDJ. This offered DJs the ability to set cue points digitally using the track timers. With a comfortable feel similar to turntables, you no longer had to carry a heavy crate of vinyl and could use a book of CDs. Fast forward to the late 1990s. With the spread of file-sharing and ‘burning’ CDs with CD-writers (a sort-of mixtape 2.0), you can see why the CDJ was an incredibly popular choice in the industry.
What to know.
While the term ‘CDJ’ is still used, the modern name for this device is ‘media player.’ In addition to playing CDs, most models can play audio from MP3 discs, DVDs, flash media, SD-storage, and even connect wirelessly to access an entire music library. Tempo indicators, cue points, an individual track’s sonic waveform, and your effects setup can all seen on bright LCD and OLED screens. Touchscreen technology has also made the jump to many of these devices, making it even easier to control every aspect of your set. Compared to turntables, media players are a bit smaller and make for a more compact setup. That being said, a hard case for your whole rig is still recommended for transport. A pair of media players is a versatile way to DJ with any type of digital audio without needing to be dependent on a computer.
Brought to prominence in the 1980s, these devices served as musical add-ons in the DJ realm and important composition tools in the music studio. Drum machines started as a digital library of pre-programmed grooves that you could activate and trigger. Samplers allowed you to record and capture bits of audio, and save them to the internal hard drive. Then, you could recall them by using the device’s interface and touchpad buttons. Sequencers were laid out in a linear grid and gave you the ability to construct your own rhythmic patterns by loading samples at points in the line.
What to know.
Today, the majority of hardware in this family can do it all! It can act as a sampler, sequencer, and drum machine in one package. Modern DJ hardware include auxiliary ports for other external gear. This is a great way to include additional sounds on top of the existing tracks. These gear pieces are highlighted for their ability to serve as a standalone hardware, but their versatility does extend to the software side as well. Many are equipped with a USB port, which means they are able to interface directly with a computer. Create your own instrument, drum, or audio samples using softsynth programs from your computer and you’re able to import them to these devices. You can also go the other direction. Exporting projects into your DAW (digital audio workstation) session on your computer.
How They Are Used
If the device is equipped with MIDI ports, it can be synced with another MIDI-capable device to combine forces. The sonic information from the one hardware piece can be routed into another. It could be a hardware synth, another drum machine, a keyboard MIDI controller connected to a computer, and so on.
These are excellent gear pieces for solo performers or ensemble members looking to incorporate DJ elements into a show. That means samples, beats, grooves, and soundscapes can be incorporated into live performances without needing turntables, players, or a laptop. Build up your own beats using the device’s internal sample library of presets. Companies like Roland, Korg, and Elektron load these products up with tons of studio-quality sounds. Manipulate single samples by slicing, reversing, tweaking frequencies, using filters, and adding effects like reverb, and delay. With the proper practice, you can quickly cycle through your sample options and load them up. It’s an incredible way to wow your audience in a live setting.
Stay tuned for part two, where we’ll dive into more terms used in Music Production!
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