So, you just booked your first gig for Friday night, and you can already feel panic setting in. You’ve never made a DJ set for an actual gig before, and you don’t know where to start.
Luckily for you, here is an ultimate guide to making the most incredible DJ set of all time. From developing your concept to setting your cue points to hyping up your audience, here are all the ways to craft a perfect DJ set.
This article is part of our educational series on learning how to become a DJ. Check it out!
What Makes a DJ Mix or Set Good?
While many novice DJs think that the key to a good DJ set is to play hit after hit, unfortunately, they are sorely mistaken.
When you play only hype music, your set becomes monotonous, boring, and audiences will soon tune out.
On the flip side, other novice DJs will take too long to ramp up their songs to a hype banger because they are trying to drag the tension out. However, when you do this, you run the risk of a similar problem. Ultimately, audiences will check out if you don’t pick up the pace.
So, what makes it a good DJ set? The answer is a great balance between tension buildup and release.
The key is to build suspense and tension, as well as play songs that work well together.
Another way to make your DJ set stand out is to play good music. While that may seem obvious, “good” music is subjective, and you want to know your audience and what kind of music they think is good and not just play your favorite tracks.
It also helps to play a combination of well-known songs and unknown songs. If you play only obscure songs, you can distance your audience, but when you throw in a truly amazing song that isn’t as well known, you will gain respect from your audience.
How Much Do DJs Prepare their Sets or Mixes?
Most professional DJs typically do not prepare their sets to the point where every track is locked down beforehand. Of course, some sections are pre-recorded, but a good DJ knows that each crowd they play is different; therefore, it’s impossible to prepare a perfect DJ set.
Instead, professional DJs will go into the gig with an idea of what tracks they will play but will allow themselves the flexibility to play live once they tap into the audience’s energy.
The more skilled you become as a DJ, the more you will want to play live. Prepare by researching the audience to know what tracks you may want to play, but never lock yourself down to a specific tracklist.
How to Make a DJ Mix: Our 12-Point Checklist
1. Start With A Clear Concept
This is where understanding your audience comes into play. You want to plan the first few tracks of your set so that you start with a clear concept of what they’re in for the night.
It’s essential to have a clear concept so that you target your audience to maximize their enjoyment. For example, if you are DJing a Bachelorette party for women in their 30s, you’d want to play 90s hits like Backstreet Boys or Britney Spears. If you DJ a high school reunion party, that concept will be different music entirely.
Another good rule is to not start with all the high-energy songs at once. Instead, ease people into the energy. If you burn through all of your high-energy songs at once, you’ll burn people out.
2. How Long is your DJ Set?
You need to know how long the gig will last to plan an adequate amount of material. Typically, most sets will run for about an hour or two, although in some cases, a set can last as long as six hours (as is the case for weddings, bat mitzvahs, etc.).
Make sure you’re on the same page so that you have plenty of song ideas to play. Always make sure you’re prepared if the set goes over longer or if your tracklist doesn’t last the amount of time as your set.
How many Songs does a 1-hour DJ Set?
Typically, you’ll be playing around 30 songs for a one-hour set. However, this depends on how long the songs are as that average is calculated based on a two-minute run-time. If you’re playing a genre with long song run-times, you’ll be playing a much shorter tracklist.
3. What Genre of Music Are You Playing For?
Understanding your audience is key to a successful set. You need to have a broad depth of knowledge of the genre you plan to play. Influences, classics, lesser-known musicians within the genre are all key to creating a varied and mixed set.
The more varied your set, the more exciting it will be. To do that, you need to have a firm grasp and understanding of the genre you plan to play.
4. What Type of DJ Set Are You Playing?
What Time will I be DJing?
The time you will be performing plays a crucial role in what kind of set you should prepare.
For example, if you’re playing in a bar at an earlier time slot, you don’t want to pump the crowd up too much as your audience is primarily there for casual drinks, after-work meetups, and so forth.
If you have a time slot at the very end of the night, people are much more open to partying and turning up the vibe, so your set should match that energy.
The warm-up set is the set you play before the main attraction comes on. As a DJ for a warm-up set, it’s your job to get the audience excited for the main headliner.
However, just because you may not be the main attraction for the gig doesn’t mean you can’t play an integral piece in the event. While this is a challenging type of set to perfect, it gives you a chance to experiment more with your set since you aren’t the main event.
To be an effective DJ for a warm-up set, you must connect with the crowd and get them ready for the vibe ahead. Play music in the same genre (but make sure not to play any music from the headline DJ to not steal their thunder). It’s essential to raise the energy and mood of the audience gradually, so you don’t play anything too fast.
The headline set is the main event. This is what people tend to think of when they play a gig. The time has come, the world is your oyster, and it’s time to enjoy the spotlight!
Play to your heart’s content, and own that stage – after all, it’s your moment. Crowd interaction is critical here, much more than in previous roles, as a strong headliner has a healthy relationship with the microphone and knows his stage presence. Play to your heart’s content; closing support will help finish off the night.
5. Know your DJ Set’s Audience
The key to playing a successful set is understanding your audience, giving them what they need, and raising the hype through your music. To do this, you need to understand the vibe of your audience, the venue, time, and general circumstances surrounding your set.
Reading the Crowd
Some DJs think they don’t have to interact with the crowd, but this is plain false. If the audience senses you’re removed from the audience, they’ll be less likely to engage with the event, and, as a result, you will feel a lack of energy in your set.
Professional DJs know how to read the crowd and interact with them. You’ll be able to see when you throw your hands up and see if they react by doing the same. You can see if people seem annoyed if you talk too much, or you can see what kind of music they’re responding to.
Make sure to continually check in with your crowd by seeing who is engaged with the set, if people begin to leave, or if people are right up there with you singing the words to all the music or dancing their heart out.
6. What Venue will I be DJing in?
Before you go to DJ your set, be sure to know what type of venue you plan to play in. Different sized venues will impact your set. Is there enough space for people to dance? Is there so much space that you need to increase the energy to get people to dance more?
Understanding the venue also affects the type of equipment you should bring in. For example, gigs played in bars should have their sound system. Their sound system could range anywhere from the local radio station, a TV channel, or the owner’s Spotify playlist. Typically, bars often don’t have their DJ gear, so plan to come prepared with your own gear.
7. What DJ Setup Does the Venue Use?
The type of setup varies from venue to venue. Clubs usually have the most gear, and a typical club setup has turntables or CDJ, a mixer, special software for music, headphones, and some form of sound system.
Again, bars usually don’t have as extensive setups as clubs will typically do, so be prepared to bring your gear. It’s a good rule of thumb to check in with the venue in the days leading up to your gig to see what equipment they have and what equipment you should bring.
8. What Do You Need Before You Start Building Your DJ Set?
To be a DJ, you need the best software based on what dj equipment the venue is using. In most cases, they are likely to be using Pioneer club standard gear. With that said, prepare your set playlist on Rekordbox.
DJ Music Library
Most DJs have hundreds of songs at their fingertips, so make sure to create a thriving, packed DJ library for your own mix or set.
Remember, you’re taking the audience on a journey, so having a variety of songs are varying energy levels will be helpful (I will be covering this further down).
USB Stick Compatible with your DJ Software
USB sticks are imperative for any DJ’s success as it allows you to transfer your library or playlists onto different laptops or equipment. It’s also a great failsafe if the internet or any other technology goes down – you will still have all your music backed up on a handy USB stick after all.
However, not all USB sticks are compatible with every DJ software. Make sure you purchase a USB stick that can handle the amount of data you want to transfer. It’s always a good idea to test out your USB stick before your set. Make sure that it can transfer all the music files you need.
Let’s look at what things you should know and consider when looking to build that killer set.
9. Plan the Direction of Your DJ Mix (Track Selection)
Track selection: one of the most important (and most fun) aspects of DJing. Through your track selection, you can create a set that goes well together and has great flow so that your whole night is packed with fun.
Here are some ideas to get you off to the right start so that you start developing some great sets.
How to Take Your Audience on a Journey (Hint: Energy Levels)
Even though many DJs don’t plan a DJ set to a tee, they have general ideas of what tracks to play.
The idea is to take your audience on a journey and plan to have a cohesive flow that builds on energy the further you go in your set. Building your set and sending them on a cohesive journey is crucial; you don’t want to play a high-energy song and then drop down to a soft, melodic song right after, as that would kill the vibe.
Instead, you want to plan your songs so they make sense together – otherwise, you’ll have a confusing, chaotic track set that doesn’t result in anything except for a confused audience.
It’s also about building and releasing tension at the perfect moments. You don’t want to play hit after hit, or else that will become boring.
Get to Know your Tracks
Before you get up there during your gig, you must understand the tracks that you’ve created. Where are your breaks? Where are your fades? Understanding your tracks and where these moments are will help with transitions, breakdowns or will help if you decide to shift in direction.
Harmonics – Mix Tracks in Key
It’s fun to mix different tracks, and this is a great way to flex your creative muscles. However, make sure you mix the tracks in complementary keys. Understanding how to create balanced, interesting tracks by mixing with related or complementary tracks will elevate your DJing skills to an even higher level.
There are charts you can use to gain a better understanding of what keys go with each other. It’s all about having a solid understanding of music, dissidence (clashing keys), and what sounds blend well together.
- For a more detailed guide, check out this tutorial on harmonic mixing
- Check our Mixed In Key’s official guide to harmonic mixing
Set Cue Points
Cue points are helpful flags in different parts of the song that help you immediately locate what part of the song you’d like to play. Cue points are great to use because they help you locate the best parts immediately, so they’re helpful during high-intensity gigs where you don’t want to spend time searching through the track to find the best part.
Many DJ software lets you put multiple cue points in one track (some up to 8 cue points), but you must set them manually. Set your cue points where you find the most interesting part of the track, and then enjoy during your set.
Plan your Opening
The opening to your set is critical because you’re setting the tone for the entire set. It’s a good idea to start slow and build your way up to those high-energy tracks the further along you go.
Give yourself the freedom to deviate (especially if the crowd doesn’t seem to vibe with what you’re playing), but having an idea of a few tracks to open with (or a few variations of setlists) to open with, is a way to have a strong start to your DJ sets.
Plan The Ramp Up
The ramp-up is exactly what it sounds like – this is when you gradually increase the energy of the songs or “ramp up” the power of the songs until you reach a sweet climax where you drop some heavy energy sets and make the audience go wild.
You can achieve this in two ways. The first is the most obvious, which is to increase the energy in the songs. The other way is to increase the BPMs (beats per minute) in the song.
The ramp-up is a pretty fun tool to use during a set. Because you’re amping the audience up, you can also use this technique if you’re warming the crowd up for a headliner set. You want to be wary of doing this too early as you don’t want to build tension and not have it go anywhere for hours.
Plan The Mountain
The mountain refers to when you rise to a peak halfway through your mix and then continue to make a symmetrical descent down to lower energy songs.
This is a very satisfying tool to use. However, you want to make sure not to plan the mountain too early in your set, as once the audience goes back down, it’ll be harder to raise the energy levels again.
You also don’t want to do it too late and risk not carrying the audience back down for lack of time. This is where having a solid knowledge of your tracklist comes in handy.
Plan The Wave
The wave is where you through a series of peaks and valleys where you bring the listener up and down throughout the mix. However, this technique takes the most skill. Many DJs will have difficulty reading the audience and will play songs that don’t match energy-wise, thereby simply confusing the audience and the vibe of the set. You don’t want to do this because the audience will soon get frustrated, and it will be hard to bring them back.
Make sure there’s a logic and thought process to your wave if you plan to use this technique.
Plan Your Outro
Planning your ending to a set is just as important as the beginning. You want to leave your audience on a solid note to remember you and the night by, but what a good note means is subjective towards the type of audience you’re playing for.
For example, if you’re DJing a wedding, you may want to play an ending that’s a little more melodic and romantic. If you’re wrapping up your set at a club at 4 in the morning, you may want to end it on a high-energy song that gets the club pumping.
Use your skills to read the people to determine how to end the song and the set the best.
10. Read Your Crowd
The best indicator to tell you what you need to do more of is to read the crowd. They’ll let you know exactly what they want through body language. If you notice a lack of engagement, no one’s dancing, or just lackluster energy, this is a significant indicator that you need to switch your methods, whatever that may be.
11. Plan & Practice Your Transitions
Transitions are the most vital point of your set because you want to have a smooth transition in and out of songs where it doesn’t seem like you’re cutting off a piece too early, but you’re also avoiding that dreaded moment of silence in between tracks.
Basically, a transition is a move from one piece to another. Instead of cutting abruptly between two pieces, you can blend them so that they play together. Some DJs combine more than two tracks (sometimes three or four) during their transitions. It all comes down to personal preference and what sounds the best.
Make sure to practice your transitions ahead of time so that you’re prepared during your gig. The worst moment when your DJing is when you fumble between tracks, so plan ahead and nail those transitions down ahead of time.
12. Most important Tip: Have Fun with Your DJ Sets
Certainly, the most important tip is to have fun and be creative! The crowd will take your lead on your energy. If you’re not having any fun or seem bored, your audience will pick up on that, which will translate to the set.
On the other hand, if you come into the set with passion, vitality, and high energy levels, even if you’re a beginner and make some mistakes, the crowd will latch onto that passion and have a good time with you.
Have fun, be open, and make mistakes: it’s all part of the learning process.
Final Thoughts on Crafting an Awesome DJ Set/Mix
Creating your DJ playlists is one of the most creative ways to flex your DJ skills. While you have to leave room for freedom and playing off the cuff, it also helps to go into your set with a general idea of what you plan to play.
Having fun and keeping high energy levels is the best way to make a DJ set. Make sure to always listen to your audience, have fun throughout, and you’ll have an excellent DJ mix that people will be talking about for weeks to come.