Harold Heath has just published his book ‘Long Relationships: My Incredible Journey From Unknown DJ To Smalltime DJ’ in which he details the ups and downs of low-level DJing life. Here Harold considers some of the many technical problems DJs encounter, and how to deal with them.
Any good DJ will tell you that the most important part of DJing is the music. Any great DJ will tell you that the single most important aspect of the role is selection – choosing the perfect piece of music for a particular crowd, in a particular venue and at a particular time. After selection, your mixing skills are next on the list, but then there are also another set of skills that are also vital to becoming a great DJ: knowing the gear.
As a working DJ, you’ll be expected to have at least a basic idea of how decks, a mixer and PA work so you can troubleshoot any problems. If you’re playing at a top-end venue, there might well be a sound engineer on duty which makes things way easier. If anything goes wrong, including you making a mistake, you simply frown at them and the audience will assume it was their fault. This can even work in venues where there’s no sound engineer – you simply frown off to your left or right, as though there was an inept sound engineer napping on the job just out of sight. Job done.
That said, part of a DJ’s role does require least some basic level of technical competence. Each audio format brings its own potential problems and as a pro DJ, you’ll need to be prepared to deal with them smoothly and without drama. It’s always worth remembering that people typically pay to hear you DJ, so aside from your fantastic music selections and peerless mixing skills, an ability to troubleshoot and deal with basic technical problems that can arise should definitely form a part of the DJ skillset.
With that, let’s take a look at a few of the most common technical problems that can occur.
While it may sound slightly ridiculous, it’s always worth checking that you’ve actually got your headphones plugged into the mixer. Many DJs put their headphones on their head while waiting for their set and put the headphone jack on said cable into their pocket to avoid tripping over it – but then forget that they’re not plugged in. Let’s admit it – many of us have been there. In a highly unscientific polling of DJ friends and acquaintances, I found out that this happens surprisingly often to many DJs, including pros.
The other major issue with headphones is forgetting to bring a mini-jack adapter – then realizing, seconds before you go on, that you can’t actually plug your headphones into the mixer. An essential part of your gigging kit should be a couple of spare headphone adaptors. Sooner or later, you’ll either save yourself or some other hapless DJ.
While I wouldn’t particularly recommend it, I have used earbuds to mix in a club situation on one occasion. Whilst they’re far from ideal for the job, they’re way better than no headphones at all. I’ve taken to bringing a pair to gigs with me, just in case there’s some kind of unexpected headphone-related-calamity.
If you’re planning to bring vinyl with you, it’s a great idea to bring a cleaning brush or cloth. There are very few experiences quite as humbling as a record jumping mid-mix, or having the needle so full of dust that it leaves the grooves and takes a swift, extraordinarily loud journey to the centre label. A quick clean of your records before playing can make a huge difference. The same applies to CDs. Although they’re definitely a dying breed of format in the booth, if you’re using CDs, some kind of cleaner – for the disks and the players – should be a part of your DJ kit.
Vinyl brings other issues to consider, too. If the decks table or dancefloor are in any way unstable, you might find your records jump and skip. Aside from putting a weight on the stylus – a coin stuck on with chewing gum was the traditional fix for this problem – there’s not a great deal you can do mid-gig. Installing shock absorbers to the decks table isn’t really something you can do at 3am in the dark whilst still playing. However, while a weight on the stylus might keep the needle in the groove, it might also damage your vinyl – so beware.
Likewise, if someone bumps into a digital DJ set up, they’re unlikely to cause any major problems, but bumping into a table with record decks on can again cause them to jump – so DJs sometimes need to add the role of crowd control to their long list of things to keep an eye on when gigging.
File Not Recognised
Digital problems are of a different character entirely, as they tend to take place under the bonnet so to speak – you can’t pull a piece of fluff off a wav. file. If for some reason the CDJ doesn’t recognise your USB, you can try the old turn it off and on again trick. It might work, but you may need need to rely on your backup if it fails. Wait, you’ve not got a backup? You’ve headed out to a gig with one single USB? Not advisable! You should always bring some kind of back up – at the very least a second USB. Some DJs bring a handful of USBs, and also some music on an entirely different format – vinyl or even CDs, just to be doubly, triply sure that they can adapt to any problem that might occur.
I once heard of a laptop DJ who inexplicably clicked ‘yes’ to his Mac’s request to update the operating system right at the start of his set – then watched in horror as the Mac shut down and then began the long, arduous process of updating. These kind of issues are generally down to nerves. In my experience, those few minutes just before you start your set are the minutes where you’re most likely to make this kind of mistake – see the headphone-cable-still-in-pocket scenario above – so it’s worth being aware of this fact and taking a few deep breaths during this period.
The ‘remain calm’ advice definitely applies to the dreaded ‘no sound’ problem. If you can’t hear the music through the mixer, then check the obvious things – volume, EQ, filters, connections etc. I’ve seen a group of three professional DJs scratching their heads mid-gig over why they couldn’t hear the sound through one channel, checking the connections, fiddling with every control until someone else pointed out that the high pass filter was still switched in.
If you’re bringing additional gear like controllers, laptops or drum machines into the booth, then you need to get your setup routine down to a fine art to avoid bothering the DJ you’re taking over from. Tasks that seem easy at home in daylight, like finding cables in your bag and plugging gear into a mixer, can become surprisingly challenging in the club environment. This video of Lee Foss taking over from Craig Richards (about 45 minutes in) shows the kind of problems that can occur, while also demonstrating the extreme grace and professionalism of Craig Richards.
If the mixer is going into the red, then it may cause the music to sound distorted. Reduce the gain and keep an eye on your volume levels, keeping everything out of the red. Remember: it’s red for a reason! If you’re still getting distortion, then there’s a problem elsewhere. You’ll need to establish if the issues is in the main PA or happening at mixer level. If you’re using vinyl it might be dust on the needle. If it’s digital, it could be a low bit rate mp3 whose weaknesses and artefacts are being exposed by a pro system, or it might be an analogue connection that needed attention.
But at the end of the day – it’s still the best job in the world.
With all these issues, there are two basic things to remember: 1) to remain calm, and 2) be prepared. If you’re calm, you’ll be able to spot the basic things that you might otherwise overlook, especially if you’ve gone into panic mode. And if you’re prepared, then you’ll be able to deal with anything that the DJ booth throws at you.
Most of all, never forget to enjoy what is, after all, one of the best jobs in the world. All these problems happen so rarely and when they do occur, sometimes it’s a bit embarrassing but think of them as battle scars. And it’s not what goes wrong that’s important – it’s how you deal with it that will be the making of you as a DJ.