You want to be a DJ?

Get the right gear no matter what you can afford to spend.

The electronic music craze has spawned one of the fastest-growing markets in the North American music industry. In Europe, where the genre is already well established, electronic music is responsible for the conception of countless bedroom studios and such an explosive proliferation of DJs that you can’t swing a record bag without hitting a few. The fame of DJs in Europe is pretty much on par with that of pop stars in North America.

One result of this interest in making and playing electronic music is that DJs–whether in Europe or in North America–have more choices than ever when it comes to gear. The purpose of this article is to help musicians choose the right gear at the right price for the kind of work they want to do.

The first decision you’ll need to make is whether you want to mix records and CDs or whether you want to create the music yourself, taking it from your initial creative impulses to performing the tracks live or seeing them preserved on vinyl or CD. A lot of music producers especially in the dance genre, begin their careers as DJs, buying music produced by others and learning firsthand what makes people dance and what sends them off the floor to get a drink or visit the restroom. By contrast, other producers desire from the start to get involved in every stage of the creative process, making their own music from scratch. Either path you take will involve spending significant sums of money on the gear you’ll need to express yourself musically,

THE ENTRY-LEVEL DJ

When it comes to DJ gear, the beginner’s choices are pretty simple. The basic requirements are two turntables or CD players and a mixer with at least two channels. You’ll also need a sound system and a pair of headphones so that you can hear what you’re playing. (If you want to save money, you can use a pair of home-stereo headphones.)

A range of good, inexpensive turntables is out there. The ones to look for have direct drive and pitch control. Beyond that, just find a model that you like and can afford. You might want to check out the Numark TT1910 ($299), the Gemini XL-500 ($299.95) or the PT-1000 ($499.95), and American DJ TTD-2500 ($319).

To mix CDs, you’ll need two variable-pitch CD players; models to look at include the American DJ DCD-PRO200 ($699), the Gemini CD-9500 ($789.95), and the Next NCD-5000 ($549). Also, Numark offers the CDN-34 ($1,150), which consists of two CD players and a mixer in one compact unit.

The other essential piece of DJ gear is the mixer, You’ll need one that lets you crossfade one track seamlessly into another to create a sensation on the dance floor (of course). The bare-bones requirement is two phonograph channels, each with a level control–but even many inexpensive mixers come with three channels. Most also offer 2- or 3-band equalizers on each channel for more control over the sound. Different mixer-models have different feels to them, and each has-its-own sound. Some less expensive mixers are the Vestax PMC-03A ($160) and PMC-005A MKII ($250), the Next PDJ-22 ($125) and CMX-460 ($290), and the Numark DM2000-X ($240).

THE ENTRY-LEVEL PRODUCER/REMIXER

Novices who have no equipment and little or no musical experience will want gear that is easy to use, versatile, and inexpensive. If you aren’t familiar with electronic instruments, you may have a difficult time with even the simplest operations. Flipping through the user manuals of some synths, samplers, or effects processors, you’ll quickly realize that you might have an easier time reading the complete works of Shakespeare in Sanskrit. Fortunately, some manufacturers do provide user-friendly interfaces that make life easy for the beginning producer/remixer. The Roland Groove Boxes and the new Electrix products are machines that you can use intuitively with satisfying results. They provide a wide array of preset patterns and sounds that can be quickly spliced together into tracks. The WarpFactory ($499), FilterFactory ($479), and MO-FX ($499) from newcomer Electrix offer knobs and switches that you can use to manipulate sounds on the fly for instant results. The Roland MC-303 and MC-505 Groove Boxes ($695 a nd $1,495, respectively) will make you feel like a pro in no time flat.

If you happen to own a computer with decent speed and adequate memory, then you have one of the most versatile and powerful tools available to an aspiring producer. A wide assortment of software can take the place of hardware-based samplers, synthesizers, mixing boards, sequencers, and effects processors. One affordable example is Cakewalk Pro Audio 8 for Windows. For $319 you get a sequencer, a virtual mixing console, hard disk recording, and 32-bit effects processing. Steinberg Cubase VST (Mac/Win; $399) is another powerful tool that can turn your computer into a digital music workstation. Keep in mind that you may need to upgrade your PC’s sound card to make the most of any music software you install.

If you don’t already own a computer, however, buying one might be prohibitively expensive–especially after you factor in the cost of all the software and accessories you’ll need. One of the most versatile stand-alone machines is the sampler. Armed with a good sound library (or with a desire to invent or capture your own sounds), a sampler can replace many of the functions of a synth, a drum machine, a sequencer, and an effects unit. Not all samplers will be able to perform all of these duties, but most can tackle at least a couple of them. Two great all-around samplers that provide a multitude of tools are the Yamaha A3000 ($1,999) and the Akai MPC2000 ($1,599 base model). For a no-fills unit, check out the Akai U40 Riff-O-Matic ($239.95) or the Boss SP-202 ($395). For a sampler loaded with features, check out the Roland SP-808. It costs $1,695 but includes an analog synth simulator, an 8-track hard-disk recorder, a built-in lomega Zip drive, and effects.

Some affordable units, such as Yamaha’s RM1X MIDI sequence remixer ($899) and Korg’s Electribe. A and Electribe R modeling synthesizers ($499 each), provide remix-oriented, real-time controls. Such devices might include an analog-style digital synthe sizer, drum kits, a sequencer, effects, and more.

If you’re using more than one piece of gear, you’ll need some kind of mixing board to control the level, pan, and EQ of each sound. The Mackie MS1202-VLZPRO-($459) is a 12-channel board with a 3-band EQ and stereo bus on each channel; it should suffice for a small personal studio.

You must also consider what-you-will use to record your tracks. As everyone knows, cassette tapes are pretty noisy and lose a little bit of their fidelity every time you play them. You want digital recording. Again, if you own a computer you can take advantage of some excellent software that allows you to digitally record onto your hard drive. You may have to pick up a second hard drive to hold your recordings–digital audio takes up a lot of space. You may also want to investigate a DAT recorder or a CD burner.

THE NEXT STEP

When you’re ready to spend more money on your DJ rig, you’ll probably want to buy components that have better construction and superior sound. For the last couple of decades, the industry-standard turntable has been the Technics 1200 ($699.95). This extremely rugged, high quality deck is found in the vast majority of clubs and party venues. A recent entry that is challenging the 1200’s dominance however, is the new Numark TT-1 ($549) turntable, which offers similar quality and adds some new features, such as increased range in pitch control via a joystick controller, if you’re interested in mixing CDs, look for a professional-quality dual CD player, such as the Denon DN-2000F Mk3($999) or DN-2500F ($1,600). The DN-2500F even offers limited sampling capabilities.

When the time comes to upgrade your mixer, two top-of-the-line models are the Pioneer DJM-500 ($1,199) and the Roland DJ-2000 ($1,495). Both have four channels and allow the DJ to apply real-time effects such as delay, flanger, and filter.

Whether you’re just getting started in deejaying or personal music production or you’re expanding an already successful setup, it’s important to lay out your goals and then look for affordable equipment that will help you fulfill them. Don’t be afraid to talk to DJs, musicians, and equipment dealers, or to post questions on Internet forums. You won’t to talk about what gear they like and don’t like. Advice from other DJs can be invaluable. After all, even the biggest names on the charts were beginners once.

Techno Tools: Jammin’ with DJs

DJs are starting to be recognized by traditional musicians as artists in their own right. After all, being a DJ does require musical skills. The DJ has to match beats precisely to create seamless transitions between tunes, be a wizard at crossfading between songs and loops, read a crowd’s mood to program the right grooves and songs, and, of course, do that scratching thing. But where does all this leave guitar players? With a nice hole to fill, that’s where!

I recently performed at the Battery Park Festival in Cologne, Germany, playing guitar over sequenced loops. I’ve found that E-Bow, distortion, and feedback work particularly well over dance beats, and I’ve also discovered a few other ways to get the most out of guitar/dance music collaborations.

Let the DJ control your level. Typically, the guitarist will play more or less continuously, and the DJ will bring the guitar in and out of the mix as needed. A direct setup is optimum–given the intense noise levels at the average dance club, miking your amp isn’t really an option.

Voice your EQ properly. Dance music has lots of low end (kick drum and bass) and high end (hi-hat, shaker, etc.). Boosting 1kHz by 6dB to 8dB lets the guitar “speak” and cut through the mix without cranking up the volume.

Be sensitive to transitions. A sustained, distorted chord that swells in and out–or a singing high note with lots of whammy action–can help smooth transitions between songs and loops. As DJs use headphones to cue up one turntable while another turntable is playing, you may want to use a “Y” connector to tap your phones into the DJ’s headphone output. Hearing what the DJ hears will alert you to upcoming key or style changes.

Sync delays to the tempo. Dance music typically hovers in the 120 bpm to 145 bpm zone. This translates to quarter-note echo times of 500ms to 413ms, respectively. If you’re not sure of a song’s bpm, start with a 450ms delay and add just enough feedback for a couple of repeats. (The more feedback you use, the more important it is to nail a precise delay time, otherwise each successive echo will sound more off the beat.)

There’s a whole world of dance music out there, and guitar has only begun to be integrated with it. Check out a dance club, get to know some DJs, and play a few jam sessions to see if you click. You might have a lot of fun–as well as open up a new live-performance option.