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So you want to buy some DJ equipment, but you need a little more information before you crack open your wallet? This guide will walk you through the different equipment out there and define some of the DJ vocabulary you'll need to know in order to pick the best equipment for you, whether you're just starting out or you're a seasoned pro thinking about adding some digital gear to your setup.
The basic DJ setup includes something to play the audio (turntables or CD/MP3 players), a DJ mixer, DJ headphones, and an amplification system. Keep reading to find out more about the components of a DJ setup, tips and tricks, and advice on the best gear for your playing style.
Vinyl vs. digital
The first thing you’ll need to decide is whether you’ll be playing digital audio or vinyl. The heated debate among DJs about which is better cannot be settled here, so let’s just mention a few reasons you might choose one over the other. CDs won’t warp or wear out, you can burn extra copies, and with MP3s you can take a huge collection of music with you in a heck of a lot less space than records.
The reasons you might choose vinyl are a bit more subjective. Some swear the sound is better. Others say it’s more creative than CDs and some say it’s just plain sexier. Another reason to choose vinyl is that you can actually see where a breakdown is in the groove of a record, so you always know when it’s coming.
There are two types of drives that make vinyl turntables go ’round. Belt-drive turntables feature a motor attached to a smaller spindle that turns a large rubber-band-like belt, which is linked to the platter. Belt-drive turntables are more affordable than direct-drive tables, although they take longer to get up to speed and can be sluggish when making pitch adjustments. Belt-drive tables are not recommended for scratching and it's harder to lock tempos manually.
Direct-drive turntables feature a motor with a ring of powerful magnets that drive the platter, which decreases the time it takes to get up to speed. Direct-drive turntables are the overwhelming favorite among experienced DJs, and it can save you money in the long run by starting out with a quality set of direct-drive turntables that you’ll be able to play out on when you get good enough. Direct-drive tables are recommened for scratch DJs.
|Technics SL-1210M5G Pro Turntable|
The platter is the round plate that the record sits on and the spindle is the metal tip in the center of the platter that the hole in the record fits through. The spindle can be used to make adjustments in speed; you’ve probably seen DJs pinching and twisting it. Strobe dots are the marks on the side of the platter that are used to ensure your turntable is calibrated correctly. When the platter is spinning at exactly 33 or 45rpm, the strobe light will cause the dots to appear as if they are standing still.
The slipmat reduces friction between the platter and the record allowing the DJ to stop the record with his or her hand and not affect the platter’s movement.
You’ll want to leave the power on while you play—if you want to start and stop the platter, use the start/stop buttons. Some turntables let you adjust the start and stop times so you can wind the music down or slowly start it up. When shopping for turntables, be sure to compare the startup speed. Turntables with higher torque specs will have faster startup times, so think about what kind of speed would work best with your playing style. The versatile Numark TTX offers a variable torque motor with three settings: low (2.5kgfcm), medium (3.7kgfcm), and high (4.7kgfcm).
The speed selector buttons set the initial playback speed to 33 or 45rpm (some turntables also have a 78rpm setting), which you can then fine-tune with the pitch control.
Most tables let you speed up and slow down up to 8% (or more). A turntable with an 8% pitch correction would show that specification as ±8% pitch control. The pitch control is used for cueing and beatmatching.
This light, balanced arm on one side of each turntable holds the cartridge used to play a record and points it in the right direction.
|Numark Battle Pak DJ System|
The orientation of the turntables in your setup will depend on where you want the tone arms, based on your playing style. In standard mode, the turntable is oriented so that both tone arms are on the right side of each turntable and pointing directly at you. In battle mode both turntables are turned so that the tone arms are away from you (see photo at right). Battle mode is used mostly by turntablists because it’s harder to bump the tone arm when scratching in these setups.
Because of their better tracking ability, straight tone arms are ideal for scratch DJs. If you aren’t planning on scratching, an S-shaped tone arm will better suit your needs. The Numark TTX comes with both a straight and an S-shaped tone arm for maximum flexibility.
|Ortofon Nightclub S Turntable Cartridge Twin Pack|
The grooves on a record cause the stylus to vibrate. Magnets in the cartridge detect these vibrations and turn them into an electrical signal that is then amplified for output through speakers. The stylus will wear out over time and most are replaceable separately from the cartridge. A consumer cartridge won’t hold up to the stress put on the cantilever (the piece that holds the stylus) from back-cueing and scratching. DJ cartridges have stronger cantilevers to handle the stress.
Spherical (conical) styli feature a small sphere at the tip, which contacts the V-shaped groove in a record and one point on each side, which concentrates the force on two small points and wears out your record during normal playback. However, during scratching, a spherical stylus wears out your records less than an elliptical stylus because there’s less contact area. For this reason, spherical styli are the choice of scratch DJs. Check out the Ortofon Q.Bert stylus.
Elliptical styli provide better high-frequency response and are ideal for general-purpose use. Their egg shape lets them get deeper into the record groove and spread the tracking force over more area to reduce wear during normal play and increase the frequency response. Since this shape gets deeper in the groove, you need to be even more careful about cleaning dust off your records with a record brush. Check out the Ortofon Night Club E stylus.
The counterweight allows you to balance the weight of the cartridge and tone arm to ensure the needle is putting the right amount of tracking force on the record. Tracking force is the downward pressure required to keep the stylus inside the grooves of the record. Too much force causes excessive wear on your record and too little can cause the stylus to lose contact with the record and damage the groove when it lands. The position of the counterweight is adjustable to suit your needs and complement your cartridge, which should have a recommended setting for ideal results. Scratch DJs sometimes turn the counterweight around to gain even more leverage so that the stylus stays inside the groove during the most difficult scratch maneuvers.
|Technics SL-1210MK2 Turntable|
First produced in the 1970s, this turntable remains the industry standard for DJs around the world in MK2 to MK5 versions. With their direct-drive motor, quick startup time, and variable pitch control, the Technics 1200s have stood the test of time in a world where most technology is obsolete within a few years. While many turntables today offer more advanced features, the DJ’s love affair with the 1200s won’t end anytime soon. Many club/rave and hip-hop DJs would recommend starting out with Technics 1200s because of their excellent resale value and because that’s what you’ll be playing at most clubs and raves when you start playing out.
The first thing to consider when looking into digital players is whether you would rather play on a dual rackmount CD player or on two tabletop players.
Tabletop players are usually set up on both sides of the mixer, just like phonograph turntables. Some of these digital turntables feature pressure-sensitive platters that let you simulate scratching or cueing a record by spinning it forward or backward. Some players also offer platter effects like reverse, brake, and more.
Dual rackmount CD players offer versatile setup options with two rackmountable units, one with two front-loading CD slots and one with the controls. Dual rackmount CD players come with speed-sensitive jog wheels that let you speed up and slow down the song like you would a record on a turntable for scratching and beat juggling. A dial around the wheel lets you fast-forward and rewind a song.
When buying a digital CD player, be sure to check out the audio formats it supports. Most of the newer players support MP3s. If you’re considering MP3 players, look for features like ID3 tag support that displays title, artist, and album; BPM tags (automatically recalls the BPM); and MP3 file search systems that allow you to easily locate files by name or folder.
Shockproof memory is one of the strong arguments for digital players, especially for rave and club DJs who’ve had needles skip when the dance floor shakes or their gear is bumped. A standard feature on DJ CD players, shockproof memory ensures the music won’t skip a beat.
Your ability to control the pitch on a digital player is much more versatile than on a turntable. Digital audio players, like turntables, have a pitch control fader, but in many cases you can select and change the range of the fader, say between ±8%, 16%, 25%, or 100%. In addition to the fader, digital players offer pitch bend buttons to allow precise pitch adjustments. Many players also offer a pitch lock button (also called "key lock"), so that when you adjust the pitch bender, the speed will change but the pitch will remain the same.
If you plan on playing in dark clubs, make sure your digital player has a bright backlit LCD display; most players do.
Most digital players let you set cue points so you can go to a certain spot in a song with the push of a button. Some players let you save cue points to a removable memory card (see the Memory section below).
The looping feature on digital players lets you select a given section of a song to play. All you have to do is give the player two cue points, the start and the end, and your loop is set and ready to play at the touch of a button. If you want the loop to play over and over, simply press the reloop button. This feature is called seamless looping because you can play the loop over and over without a break in the music. Seamless looping can be used to extend songs, which is handy when creating your own mixes or creating extended base tracks on which to add new sounds.
Many digital players offer effects like filter, echo, phase, flanger, transform, and pan. While the effect is enabled, the platter and other controls can be used to change the parameters of the effect to create dynamic remixes.
Fader start is a feature some digital players offer that works with compatible mixers so that when you cross-fade over to a channel, the cued song automatically plays without your having to press a button. Fader stop is similar in that it will stop the player as soon as you fade out its channel. Fader stop can be configured to reset the CD to a given cue point. This feature is especially handy for beat juggling.
Some DJ CD/MP3 players offer data storage with removable memory cards. For example, Pioneer’s CDJ-1000MK3 has a memory feature that lets you store wave data as well as cue and loop points to a removable memory card (MMC or SD) or the player’s internal memory. The removable memory card can also be used in any CDJ-1000, so once you’ve stored your favorite cue and loop points they’re stored for life. The CDJ-1000MK3 also has a feature that allows you to duplicate memory cards.
Many players offer an eject lock button that prevents accidentally ejecting a disk during play. This feature can be turned off if you want to do quick mixes.
The main differences among DJ mixers are the effects and the number of inputs and channels. For beginning DJs, a basic mixer with two or three channels and enough inputs for your turntables or CD players will be adequate. Let’s look at some of the basic features of a DJ mixer.
On the back panel of a DJ mixer, you’ll often find RCA inputs to plug in turntables and aux inputs to plug in CD players. (If your turntables have built-in phono preamps, you can plug them into the aux inputs.) You’ll often find a 5-pin DIN connector to plug in the power cord, balanced outputs to send the sound to your amplifiers, and a ground post to ground potentially harmful electricity and reduce hum. There may also be insert points used to send and return the signal through external signal processors or effects. Some mixers have additional inputs and outputs; just be sure your mixer provides the number and type of connections (RCA, 1/4", and XLR) you’ll need.
Basically, each signal input into the mixer is a channel. The right turntable and the left turntable, for example, will each get their own channel. Every channel on a mixer has the same controls, so once you learn how to control one channel, you’ll know how to control them all, no matter how many there are.
Most channel sectors have a phono/line selector switch, which you’ll set to phono with turntables and line with CD players. This switch can also be used while mixing to cut out a channel quickly.
The gain/trim control is usually at the top of each channel section and it’s used to control the level of the individual input channel. Most DJs use the gain/trim control for setting the initial level of the signal source and use the fader for adjusting the volume in performance.
Below the gain control, you’ll usually find the EQ knobs, which let you adjust the response of the bass, treble, and midrange for each channel. These are also called "rotary kills" because they can be used to smoothly silence a frequency band.
Some mixers offer kill switches, which let you turn off the lows, mids, or highs. You can pull them down to kill a frequency band momentarily and they’ll pop back on their own, or you can flip them up and the frequency band will remain off until you flip it down.
Each channel fader allows you to control the volume of one channel at a time. The crossfader allows you to simultaneously fade in one source in while fading out another. For example, if the left turntable is connected to channel 1 and the right to channel 3, then you would assign channel 1 to crossfader side A and channel 3 to side B. Then you would move the crossfader to the left to fade into channel 1, the middle to play both, and the right to fade into channel 3. Look for a mixer with a replaceable crossfader—especially for turntablists—because it’s usually the first thing that gets worn out.
Some mixers come with a curve control, which lets you adjust the amount of fading it takes to switch channels. For example, if you set it to a smooth curve, your mixes will be gradual as you slide the fader from side to side, but if you set it to a sharp curve, the mix will be much faster. A curve control is especially handy for scratch DJs.
The hamster switch (usually found on scratch mixers) lets you reverse the crossfader positions so that you move the crossfader to the right to fade into channel 1 and the left to fade into channel 3. This feature allows DJs to scratch using the same motion regardless of which turntable is in use.
The level of the final mix can typically be adjusted by one or two master controls on the right side of the console.
Peak meters show the level of each channel or the master output and indicate any signal clipping (distortion) that occurs.
Most mixers offer a mic input, which can come in handy even if you don’t have a microphone; it sounds funny, but in a pinch you can plug in your headphones and yell into the earpiece. It’s not pretty, but it gets the job done. Some mixers have a talkover button that lowers the level of the music while you’re talking and is handy for mobile DJs.
|Pioneer HDJ-1000 Pro DJ Headphones|
The cue level controls the volume in your headphones and the cue mix is a crossfader for your headphones so you can preview mixes before the audience hears them.
Some mixers feature BPM (beats per minute, or tempo) counters, which let you see at a glance if the BPM of your records matches up.
One of the main factors you should consider when buying DJ headphones is comfort. You’re going to be wearing them for hours on end, and they should feel good to you. Another important factor is flexibility. Since you’ll want to bend and twist them to many different positions, look for headphones with swivel earpieces. They should allow easy and comfortable listening using only one ear, as you’ll be doing that often when cueing your next song. You’ll also want to look for headphones with a closed-ear design to isolate noise in the high-volume situations you’ll typically be playing in. The better they can isolate noise, the less you’ll have to crank up the volume and damage your ears. Check out our Headphones Buying Guide for more information.
1/4" connector: also known as phone plug. Unbalanced connection using a phone-patching cord
Anti-skate: counteracts the tone arm’s tendency to pull toward the center of the record. Anti-skating controls adjust to match your cartridge’s recommended setting
Balanced: a three-wire cord that provides noise-free transfer of audio in areas susceptible to electronic interference, like recording studios and live sound venues
Beatmatching: also known as beatmixing. Matching up the beats of two tracks so they play simultaneously in order to create a new track or seamlessly transition from one track to another
Belt-drive: inexpensive turntable design that usually has a motor below and to the side of the platter and drives the platter via a rubber belt
BPM: beats per minute. Measured by counting the number of beats in 60 seconds. Determines the pace or tempo of the music—for example, hip-hop will have a lower BPM (slower tempo) than jungle.
Cartridge: converts the mechanical energy of the stylus to an electronic signal. Can be identified by its four metal prongs
Channel: a single path of audio through a mixer, processor array, recording device, or computer interface
Clipping: distortion due to an overdriven preamplifier or amplifier
Counterweight: located at the opposite end of the tone arm from the cartridge, it adjusts the amount of tracking force pressure exerted by the stylus on the record.
dB/Decibel: a logarithm that describes the ratio of two powers (1/10th of a Bel). Some approximate reference points: a normal conversation has a decibel level of 60dB, a ringing telephone is 80dB, shouting in the ear is 110dB, and a jet engine during takeoff is 150dB.
Direct-drive: turntable design in which the motor is located directly below the center of the platter, producing higher torque and allowing the platter to achieve full speed in less time.
EQ: short for equalization or equalizer. Usually refers to a circuit that provides control over the frequency response of an audio signal that passes through it. Can be used to balance frequencies for more pleasing sound and reduce undesirable frequencies.
Fader: a sliding lever that typically adjusts levels. Has the same function as knob-based controls but provides a smoother response, more fine-tuned control, and visual feedback for quickly determining level.
Frequency response: a measure of output amplitude (level or loudness) over a specific frequency range. Simply put, this is the frequency range (or bandwidth) that the unit will pass without severe decrease (attenuation) in amplitude. It is measured in dB and will usually be presented as follows: Frequency Response: +0/-1dB @ 35Hz - 20kHz. This means that there is no more than a deviation in level of -1dB from 35Hz to 20,000Hz, while frequencies above and below that range will be attenuated severely. Increases in amplitude are not discussed in the case of properly designed solid-state devices, since they are the sign of an unstable unit. Tube designs with output transformers will show an increase in amplitude. Even though frequency response is an objective measurement of a unit’s performance, it cannot predict sound quality.
Frequency band: portion of the frequency spectrum, e.g., bass, treble, midrange
Headphones: pair of miniature drivers (speakers) designed to be worn on the head for monitoring audio material. Headphones come in closed, open, and semi-open designs. Closed headphones seal the ear off from outside noise for better isolation and are ideal for monitoring during performances and playback. Open headphones sit on the outside of the ear but don’t seal it from exterior noises or the acoustics of the room. Semi-open headphones seal the ear, but usually have a semi-open ear cup, which allows the audio to interact with the acoustics of the room more naturally while still providing some isolation.
ID3: stores information about an MP3 file in the MP3 file itself, usually the song title, artist, album, year, comment, and genre
Level: the amplitude/strength of a signal
Monitor: speaker specially designed for high-fidelity playback of audio material. Varieties include near-field, surround, active, and passive. Near-field monitors are designed to be used in very close proximity to the listener to limit interference from the room acoustics. Surround monitoring arrays use all the normal speakers included in a typical 5.1 setup. Active monitors have built-in power amplifiers that eliminate the need for a traditional, separate amplifier component. Passive monitors are traditional speakers that require an external power amplifier.
Noise Floor: Usually measured in dBV or dBu, this spec is an absolute measure of the mixer’s noise. A mixer with a lower noise floor will be quieter than a mixer with a higher noise floor, hence a lower dB rating is better.
Phone plug: also known as 1/4" connector. Unbalanced connection using a phone-patching cord connector. The most basic connection in audio.
Phono plug: the more correct name for an RCA plug. This connection was developed and popularized by the RCA corporation in use with their audio equipment, resulting in it being called RCA. Most often used in stereo pairs.
Pitch control (also called pitch bend): allows you to adjust the speed of playback in order to beatmatch one record to another. It’s called a pitch control instead of a speed control because as you change the speed of music, the pitch also changes.
Power amplifier: Basically there are two types of amplification: the voltage amplifier, which boosts voltage, and the current amplifier, which increases current. The power amplifier is a derivation of the two. In electrical systems and mechanical systems, power is a measure of work, which can take the form of physical work, as in moving a speaker cone, or thermal work (heat), which is actually more common in audio. In an electrical system where voltage, current, and resistance are present, power can be calculated as the product of voltage times current, and is measured in watts, which represents work done over time. (P = V x I — where "P" is power in watts, "V" is voltage in Volts, and "I" is current in Amps.) In terms of physical work, voltage would equal an amount of weight being lifted and current would be the speed at which it’s lifted. In the audio chain, we generally have a preamp followed by a power amp. The preamp boosts a low-level signal to line level, which is an increase in voltage (but not a significant increase in current). The power amp, which is the last stage in the chain, provides current via its power supply and boosts both it and the voltage from the preamp in order to provide enough power to drive a loudspeaker.
RCA: see phono plug
rpm: revolutions per minute
S-shaped tone arm: pulls toward the outside of a record and uses an anti-skate mechanism to counteract this pull. S-shaped tone arms position the stylus at the optimum angle for sound quality and the S shape dissipates external vibrations.
Send: An output on a mixer that sends that channel’s audio to wherever the send is routed. Sends included level controls and can be used for routing audio to external signal processors and usually include a return input as well so that the audio can be returned to the mixer.
Signal processor: generic term which loosely groups components such as compressors, limiters, equalizers, microphone preamps, noise gates, reverbs, chorus, delays, modulation, filters, and enhancers/exciters. All are used in audio to process sound in order to achieve a desirable effect.
Signal-to-noise ratio (SNR): the ratio of the desired signal’s volume to the unwanted noise, usually measured in dB. Manufacturers measure this ratio in many different ways, but basically the higher the number, the better and cleaner the signal.
Sound Pressure Level (SPL): the strength or intensity of acoustic sound waves, measured in dB. A typical SPL reading for a rock concert is 95dB.
Straight tone arm: exerts no inward or outward force relative to the platter. Straight tone arms minimize the risk of skipping at the cost of increased record wear and decreased sound quality because the angle of the needle doesn’t line up straight with the grooves.
Stylus (needle): the tip (and cantilever holding it) that picks up vibrations from the groove in a record so it can be translated into sound. These tips are usually made of industrial-grade diamonds to withstand the extreme pressure and heat generated as the tip goes around a record groove. Spherical (conical) styli feature a small sphere at the tip and are better for scratching, while egg-shaped elliptical styli are better for general-purpose use.
THD+N: acronym for Total Harmonic Distortion plus Noise. Smaller is better when it comes to this spec, which measures how transparently the mixer will reproduce music without distorting it.
Tone arm: the arm that holds the cartridge and points it in the right direction. The tone arm height is sometimes adjustable (most DJs leave it all the way up).
Tracking force: the downward force that allows the stylus to stay between the walls of a record groove. Adjustable via the counterweight.
XLR: a balanced, circular 3-pin connector typically used for microphone and line-level signals. Developed by the Cannon company, it is sometimes called a Cannon connector.