Throwback Thursday: How to DJ Professionally – Trust the Levels

Every thursday we’ll be bringing back a helpful article from the DJTT archive. The article will be updated where necessary if any information is outdated. Whether you’re just learning how to DJ or you’ve been DJing for years, this is a timeless article that will teach the importance of trusting the mixer levels. Originally posted by Ean Golden on May 16, 2010. Last month we wrote a DJ Essentials on etiquette explaining some of the core principles to keep in mind when dealing with club owners, DJs and bouncers. Along with a stellar response to the article, we got one email from a sound technician protesting: “Hey, you left us out! Why cant DJs keep levels out of the red!?” Ironically, our article reflects the common feeling about techs and sound levels: we usually forget about them in the face of the clubs more distracting clientele. But wait a sec, we are playing music in a heavily amplified environment – sound quality is important and distortion sounds bad, so why don’t DJs keep levels out of the red?  The problem may be more complicated than you suspect.


The club owner has, in his inebriated state, agreed to put YOU at the helm of a very large amplified party bus called his club. The Dj is in charge of driving music decisions and keeping the music levels at an even level throughout the evening. In the first hour everything is going smoothly and the levels stay nice and steady but it’s after the 2nd hour that the weirdest thing starts to happen. Even though the levels are the same, the music just does not seem as loud, so most folks do the natural thing:  turn it up! In the 4th hour- the mixer is clearly broken because all the gain knobs are cranked, the master is at 11 and the EQ’s are at twelve but it is STILL NOT LOUD ENOUGH! Congratulations,  everyone – including yourself – is now deaf, because you were driving the club blind.


Immediately after noise exposure, people experience what is called a “temporary threshold shift” in which their perception of what is really loud becomes significantly lowered. This usually goes away after a few hours of silence but for some unfortunate people it can become a permanent reality. The trouble is that with continuous exposure to noise over long periods, a temporary noise shift can easily start to kick in mid-set. This means that if you are relying on tired ears to gauge where to put levels, then chances are you are making all the wrong decisions. The only solution is to accept that the captain is flying blind and trust the level meters that will provide an accurate picture of the situation. Here is a study that examined 30 DJs in Brazil and demonstrated that they all suffered from significant “temporary threshold shift” after their sets. Another study demonstrated that alcohol could make things worse – great!


So if we all agree that our hearing can’t help us keep levels even throughout the night, then it is safe to say you need to trust the meters on the mixer. This part is easy; keep them even through the night and, if at all possible, stay out of the red! When the meters on a mixer or software start hitting red, this is called “clipping” and distortion begins to occur. Some mixers, like Rane, are designed with a soft clip feature so that the distortion does not sound terrible, but even this is going to drive the sound techs crazy.


Here is what Mike Miribal (the sound tech mentioned at the top of the post) has to say about sending him clipped out levels.

In an ideal situation, you should never be above the 0 gain level on the mixer. If you send a signal that is clipping, there is no way we can clean up the signal going into the amps or speakers.  Sure, we can compress it, but if someone is sending me a signal that is clipping out highs and sub bass, it’s gone for good. If you’re spinning at a venue you haven’t been to, talk to the house audio guy, find out where they want it to be.  If you send us low volume levels, we can always pick it up at the mixer and boost the signal from there. If going directly into self powered speakers, send yourself a signal of no more than +2dB out of the mixer (usually 1 or 2 red/yellow, depending on the mixer) and check the back of the speaker where the amp panel is.  If you see the clip light on, you can either back down the speakers so that the clip indicator doesn’t come on (or only slightly comes on during the kicks if the system is really soft). That is where you want to be for the night.  Its better to have the amps lower just in case whoever is DJing accidentally pops in a track that’s too hard. One more thing, keep the bass gains at 0.  A good audio engineer will boost your bass from the mixer if its not punching hard enough.  I saw some DJ this weekend run both bass gains at +2.5, but his kicks were phasing each other out… it sounded absolutely horrible. It’s almost always your bass that’s going to clip out first, and well, EDM without bass is like a car without an engine – its not going anywhere without it.  That’s why staying out of the red (or at least not clipping out) is so important.

distortionDj Basicsdj essentialsDj Tipshow to djThrowback Thursdaytrust the levels
Comments (17)
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  • Zunuvabeesh

    I loved the perplexed look on the sound guy’s face when I played gabber and he saw I wasn’t in the red :-). He would just scramble to figure out where the distortion was coming from.

  • Oddie O'Phyle

    red is never good… it’s why i never called myself a dj, even back in the vinyl days.

  • Onira

    Problem i have is that some Promoters do not get adequate sound systems for events so that your forced to ride the system. Doesnt really apply for in house situations but i have been in the situation loads for outdoor events or events where a sound system is brought in, what can i do if the room cant catch a vibe due to low volume

  • CUSP

    This is exactly why I set hard limits on drive rack limiters. In conjunction with auto live EQing, tends to save a DJ from themselves.

  • kebzer

    One very important addition is that NOT all mixers clip the same.

    For example, the Vestax PMC-08 (probably the one featured in the cover photo) has 3 red lights, not just the usual one. Out of experience, clipping occurs from the second onwards. So, when using a 08, you should actually allow your audio to touch the first red light.

    However, I highly doubt the same applies to other mixers. So, spend some time and learn the clipping thresholds of your mixer. Or if you don’t own one (or usually play in clubs’ pre-installed setups), ask the in-house DJs where does the clipping thresholds lie in that specific mixer. Or do your reading in the web.

    I just spent last Friday in a gig where temporary threshold shift was so obvious, I could make a youtube video out of it. The sound quality deteriorated at such a point where halfway through the event you could barely hear kick sounds anymore.

  • elseanjuan

    quick question, i read in a book years ago that on you CHANNEL not your MASTER that your volume at it’s peak loudest, should just touch the red slightly, any truth? i’ve been doing this for a while now, haven’t noticed any clipping (pioneer djm850)

    • CUSP

      While that is true, it’s your source signal, not your output signal. Some mixers, in some configurations have post-fader punch-ins (I’m sure we’ve all heard the effect that lingers after the song is faded out) which adds power to the sound you’re reading the levels on (after what your levels show) so you really care about what we call “source”, which is the output from the board.

      • elseanjuan

        good stuff, thanks gents.

    • tretuna

      True general rule of thumb as an engineer… Nothing should ever touch the red… The sad thing is that companies have made it seem ok to do this. Instead of having their levels going from say -? to 0, they go to +4, 6, 8, etc. Pioneer honestly being one of the worst about this, probably only because they know idiot DJs are going to do it. I LOVED my DJM-600 that had the sneaky true master volume little screw on the back.. Why do this though? It’s the “But my amp goes to 11” mindset… While it’s probably not hurting the sound too much, because of this factor, I guarantee you, that following a general mindset of never touching the red except on accident on rare occasion, your sound will be basically guaranteed to never have any fragments in it.

  • tretuna

    As both a DJ and an audio engineer of near 14 years, I will say this is an absolute must read for DJs. I’ve seen even the top guys redlining things… It’s also why I create one HELL of a monitor system on my stage for DJ shows (2 QSC KW152s, 2 EAW Micro-wedges, and 2 QSC 18″ subs, to supplement the 4 dual 21″ EAW subs under the stage for FoH… Yes my stage rumbles like a mofo when you hit 45 hz hard, haha). So they can turn up their monitors to ear bleeding levels, but keep the levels to Front of House at a level that is good for the main system. My rule for our Pioneer 900 is +4 max on the main out, or 3 yellow lights… And it sounds good. Pioneer has done really well with their soundcards on high level outputs. It kills me when people pump it into the red.

    It seems like it should be a non-needed thing to even tell someone that it’s a bad thing, and surprises me that many just can’t seem to get it through their heads to trust the meters, and turn up their monitors, not the main output… Of course some don’t even think about the monitor knob and turn up the channel gains without respect to thinking that effects not only their monitor level, but the mains level as well.

    And then there’s something here that also need to be explained.. Watch the levels on your channels AND the mains! I’ve had people clipping their channel lines, but not the main, and when I tell them there’s a problem they look at me going, “But the mains are where you told me to keep them. What’s the problem?” Well guess what? You’re distorting the channels, which feeds the mains, aka getting the same bad sound in a different way.

    It’s a lot for some people, but believe when I say, you MUST TRUST your engineer that’s running the sound!! He will make sure you sound good in the room, as long as you give him something that sounds good to work with! He knows the room, you may not.

    Temporary Threshold Shift is definitely a thing… The biggest and best thing you can do for yourself to prevent this is wear good earplugs up until your set, and keep monitor levels at a tolerable level during your set.

    Trust the meters, and let the engineer do his job, because believe me, he wants to make you sound good and he’s the first person people look at when you don’t. All he asks is you give him something proper to work with, and he’ll do the rest. At my venue I’ve got 100k watts of sound feeding my EAW system, believe me, I can make it sound damn near the best you will hear in any venue this size…. But when you send me a distorted signal, it’s like polishing a diamond with a turd…

    • CUSP

      I totally agree. I sometimes wish I had a tool I could use to reset the actual DJ, to help them not be a jerk.

  • Quinn Brideau

    The other thing is too booze does affect your hearing so don’t drink to much in the booth.

  • Panagiotis Hatzisavvas

    A must article for every DJ which respect his music and his crowd. There’s no meaning to turn up the volume so loud to get any attention. I feel lucky because most of the times I work with club/bar owners which are music lovers and don’t act like crazy demons and send you to distortion hell. In my opinion the problems starts when booze involve and the first idiot sreaming “louder!” and his company followed him. Always or almost always I never reach the red level and at the end everyone is happy BUT the truth is the most of the DJs I know the last two decades goes straight into the red zone after the warm up section of their set and that’s one of the reasons I don’t go out clubbing the last years except if I’m playing before or after them.

  • Scribbl3

    I’d never heard of “temporary threshold shift.” Makes sense. I’d say the worst part about DJing someplace is when you have the manager come up and turn all of the levels up to the red. That’s when you shut up, put your headphones on, and get through the night.

    • CUSP

      Oh nice, the club manager just made you a liability. Red zones aren’t there as “fun limiters”, they exist because something stupid will happen when pushed beyond this level, be it illegal sound (100dB or greater indoors), distortion, or equipment failure, something bad will happen.

    • Oddie O'Phyle

      I’ve experienced it many times. In the 90’s after a weekend of warehouse and after parties the beat wouldn’t leave your head for a day or 2 and hearing wouldn’t fully return till about Tuesday or Wednesday.

  • Jack

    Rebel Sound definatly need to listen