Whilst messing around with the fancy ‘FX’ on your shiny new DJ controller is all well and good, if you’re not familiar with the basic functionalities of your DJ mixer, you could end up looking like an amateur (or worst) when you actually play out!
With beginner DJs in mind, here’s what we’ll cover in this post:
- EQ controls (low, mid, high) and the musical elements they represent.
- What the gain controls (or ‘trim’ controls) are used for.
- How to set your levels correctly, and avoid ‘clipping’/’redlining’.
- How to turn things up at a mobile gig.
What’s a DJ mixer?
The mixer is an essential part of any DJ setup. It allows you to mix one track into another, whilst previewing the incoming track in the headphones before you play it out to the audience.
On a DJ controller, the mixer is already built-in to the unit itself, although for any other setup the mixer is a separate unit that’s positioned in the middle of two music sources (your decks) – usually either two turntables or two media players/CDJs. This is essentially your main control centre.
Pictured: The DJM-750MK2 pro club mixer from Pioneer DJ.
Line faders and Crossfaders
Regardless of whether we’re talking about a standalone mixer (like the Pioneer DJM-900NXS pictured above) or an all-in-one unit (like a DJ controller), there are still only two main types of ‘fader’ on any DJ mixer: line faders and the crossfader.
The line faders move up & down, controlling the individual volumes for each channel (or music source), whereas the crossfader transitions from one music source to another, moving left & right.
By flicking the crossfader left and right, it allows you to switch from one music source to another, either lightning quick (used like a switch), or gradually to create a blending effect.
You’ll often find that house & techno DJs will use the line faders to execute their transitions more so than the crossfader, as it’s easier to achieve smoother transitions that way.
Whilst a lot of DJs use the crossfader in the mix (in addition to the line faders), it’s not an essential component to make smooth transitions and execute a mix. It’s often used to better effect by scratch DJs and turntablists, with Hip Hop and Drum & Bass DJs using it for ‘’quick cuts’’.
As a house music DJ myself, whilst many DJs simply have the crossfader switched off completely, my personal preference is to have it positioned dead-center at the start of a mix. I’ll then sometimes use it (not always) towards the end of a mix to assist with finishing off the transition, or even to bring the outgoing track back in briefly.
EQ’ing and Input Gain controls
The equalisers (EQs) are used as volume controls to increase or decrease the different frequencies for each channel/music source.
No matter how complicated or expensive a mixer is, you only have 3 main EQ’s to worry about: the bass, the middle (or midrange), and the treble – often referred to on mixers as ‘low’ ‘mid’ and ‘high’.
Here are the musical elements the 3 EQ’s represent:
Bass: Low-frequency sounds, such as basslines and kick drums.
Middle: Mid-frequency sounds, typically more melodic and percussive elements, plus the lower half of vocals.
Treble: High-frequency sounds, such as hi-hats, snares, and the top half of vocals.
The EQ controls are generally used to minimize or prevent two tracks from clashing with one another when you’re in the mix so your audience won’t notice the ‘stitching job’ you’re performing in the mix.
Whilst a lot of DJs probably only use their EQ knobs to tweak certain mixes now & again, others will use them all the time. At the very least, the EQ’s will come in handy when switching from different genres, and also with varying qualities of music file.
What’s the input gain used for?
Simply known as ”the gain” (and sometimes referred to as ”the trim”), this is the knob that’s positioned immediately above the 3 EQ knobs on each channel.
As not all recordings and music files are created equal, the gain is often used to tweak the volume of the track that’s coming in to balance things out. For example, it could be an older MP3 that needs remastering, or one that’s been recorded slightly differently and just isn’t as loud.
On the other hand, it might simply be that the track you’re bringing in doesn’t have much going on at the start, or that the track that’s currently playing is quite ”noisy” and has dominating musical elements, and so you need to emphasize the incoming track so that people can sufficiently hear it as you transition. (You can also use the mid and the treble for the same purpose.)
Regardless of the reason, you’ll need to trust your ears to gauge if the incoming track needs adjusting – which will come with practice. And just remember, you’ll need to turn the gain back down to where it was (usually 12 O Clock) as soon as possible otherwise you’ll keep turning things up louder & louder.
Why you MUST get your levels right
As I touched on at the beginning, if and when you do start playing out, there’s no quicker way to make yourself look like an amateur than by turning things up too loud! This is often referred to as ”clipping” (which is when an audio signal is amplified past the maximum allowed limit) …or just ‘’redlining’’!
You don’t have to be a sound engineer to be a DJ, but unless you want to stay a rookie forever, it’s important to get into good habits early on.
Here’s a quick overview (some basic guidelines) for those of you setting up your gear at home:
First, set your 3 equalizers to ‘12 o clock’ (this should always be their default position) with your master output volume and gain knobs turned down nice and low to start with.
The master output should be set no higher than 8 out of 10, and ideally shouldn’t go above ‘0dB’ on the master display scale (or as high as possible without going into the red).
After you’ve set the master output volume, you can now look at finding an approximate default position/level for your gain controls. A good test to do this is to stick on a track and find its loudest point, monitoring the LED display on that channel as you play it.
It’s basically the same situation as the master output, whereby you shouldn’t be going too far above ‘0dB’. As a rough guide, you might expect to position your gain knobs somewhere between 10 and 12 o clock, and running a bit over that when necessary… which you’ll sometimes need to do when you come across a lesser-quality music file with a lower volume output.
As long as the master output and the gain controls are used correctly, you should be able to take the line faders to 8 out of 10 on their scale, and even right to the top when required without a problem.
In conclusion: If you turn things up too loud you’ll just create distortion and decrease the audio quality. And although limiters are commonly built into most modern audio systems these days (and now often in your DJ software), turning things up too loud to the point where the limiter kicks in will make you look like an amateur! (Again, that’s better known as ‘’clipping’’.)
Sure, with new mixers these days going into the yellow and orange isn’t too much of a problem. And as long as you’re mostly keeping out of the red, as a general rule, you should be fine. Either way, it’s best to understand this stuff.
How to turn things up at a mobile gig
Whilst PA Systems would more frequently be used by mobile and wedding DJs, it’s crucial for ALL DJs to understand one very simple concept …even if it’s only for the occasional private party here or there – and it’s this:
If you need more power in a live situation (to avoid clipping/redlining – you’ll first want to turn down the master volume on your mixer, and then increase the volume on the PA system. Not paying attention to this can damage the equipment and will make you look like an amateur.
Regardless of whether it’s your own equipment or the venues, setting your levels correctly is crucial. So turn things down, and pride yourself on getting good sound.
More resources for beginner DJs:
- Goal setting for DJs: 7 actionable tips
- What Are The Different Types of DJ?
- A Quick Introduction to DJ Controllers (and how to choose the right one)
- A Quick Introduction to DJ Software (and choosing the right one)
- Understanding Monitors, Subwoofers and PA Systems
Check out our ‘best DJ controller’ posts:
- 5 of The Best DJ Controllers for Beginners in 2021
- 5 of The Best Mid-Tier DJ Controllers in 2021
- 7 of The Best Top-Tier DJ Controllers in 2021
- 5 of The Best All-In-One DJ Systems in 2021