by Alex Cosper
Can anyone be a DJ? Yes, anyone who knows how to make a list of their favorite songs can be a DJ. Just get a free music program like iTunes or one with similar functions and start lining up songs then click "play." If you decide you want to have even more fun with it, you may want to invest in DJ sofware and equipment.
Can anyone be a mobile disc jockey? Anyone who knows how to have fun, speaks clearly and knows how to get people's attention and has a wide knowledge of musical genres and eras can be a mobile disc jockey. Chances are the mobile DJ has to also know something about sound equipment, which isn't too big of a deal once you learn the basics. Even someone who does not fit all those qualifications can pull off a gig by renting the right equipment and following a safe program, which I will describe in this report.
Mobile Disc Jockeys can be the best providers of affordable music and entertainment at weddings, reunions, corporate events, house parties or any kind of function that utilizes sound for crowd enjoyment. I have done hundreds of these events over the past few decades and I still love it. I've also done radio shows and even though radio has a bigger audience and more industry credibility, I've actually had more fun doing live events.
Unlike radio, mobile sound is in direct touch with the crowd and you can see people's reactions instantly, whereas in radio you have to wait three months to get a ratings report that doesn't even tell you if people liked your show or not. Also unlike radio, the mobile DJ can take instant requests and isn't bound by a strict pre-determined playlist, usually concocted by someone that looks at statistics instead of actual live crowds. While radio stations have to follow uniform playlists that repeat around the clock, the mobile DJ has much more freedom to say and play whatever seems right at a particular moment, either by reading crowd reaction or simply injecting surprises into the mix.
Mobile DJs actually make more money than radio DJs, believe it or not, if you look at average pay per hour. In big cities radio morning show hosts can command six figures but most other jocks around the clock are lucky to make $10-$15 per hour. Prior to the mid-nineties radio personalities in big cities made much more money but corporate consolidation of the industry along with cheap voice-tracking has lowered the pay scale across the board as corporations look to cut costs, in an effort to impress their shareholders. Meanwhile Mobile DJ pay has steadily gone up to the point where even in medium-sized markets they can make $100 per hour. The downside is that mobile gigs tend to be just on the weekends (mostly Saturdays), but that's still good money for having fun.
Building a mobile dj business isn't easy at first, unless you already know a lot of people who need one. Marketing is important to any business, but word of mouth is the best. Advertising in the yellow pages can be expensive and should not be relied upon as the only source of leads. People getting married like to know that the dj is professional and not just some kid with any kind of sound system, so they usually turn to friends for help or to someone they picked up a business card from at a wedding they attended themselves.
One big problem with the mobile sound industry is that it is flooded with lots of novice or cheesy players in every big market. When I say cheesy I mean guys who might do a decent job faking it, pretending to have a good time, who say dumb things on the microphone to pose as entertainers and happen to have a decent sound system. Some people get away with this act for years and make a good living at it. But a great DJ is someone who creates a memorable crowd-pleasing atmosphere, without forcing phony personality. Of course, it's usually all about the music, but personality goes a long way too. If the music is great and everyone has a good time, there's still a good chance no one will ever remember the DJ. But if the music is great and the DJ sparingly adds geniuine character to the event, that DJ will get a lot of people asking for his or her business card at the end of the event.
DJ equipment is important, but it doesn't make or break the event, unless it's pure garbage. All that matters is that it works and it doesn't add noise to the content. Any speaker or mixer with a loud hum is either trash and should be replaced or needs to be fixed prior to the event. Sound problems at an event are an instant credibility-burner. The worst thing a DJ can do is allow loud feedback or noise to be heard through the system. Sometimes, though, weird stuff happens and the DJ has to turn into a technician and fix the problem right away. Usually it's no big deal if everything was checked an hour before the event start time. But if an amplifier or speaker blows, the DJ will look like a fool to a lot of people if there is no back-up equipment ready on deck.
Music knowledge is important even though these days clients are more aware about picking their own selections or crafting their own playlists. Still, if someone knows as much about music as a mobile dj, they should think about becoming a mobile dj themselves. It used to be most djs just had to know the current hits. But since the advent of multiple musical generes that touch the mainstream djs need to be aware of a lot of styles and a lot of time periods. Unless the gig is focused on young people who want to hear just the latest dance songs, chances are a crowd characterized by a wide range of ages will want a buffet of music that includes swing from the 40s, rock and roll from the 50s, Motown and rock from the 60s, disco, funk and rock from the 70s, a little 80s new wave, pop stuff like Madonna and Prince, a few techno songs from the 90s, a certain amount of rap, hip hop and r&b, Latin music (Salsa, Merengue) spiked in and maybe even a little country from various eras. Of course, love songs are big crowd-pleasers despite what the most hyperactive djs try to dictate. This wide variety can be pulled off by the dj who understands music flow and which styles work best back to back.
Crowds need to be warmed up over time. Forcing a crowd to dance when they aren't ready to dance is a mistake and creates an awkward embarrassing atmosphere, causing the people to get the freak out early. Very few events begin with instant dance craze, unless it's a high school rally or some function of pre-charged up maniacs. Many mobile sound events begin with background or dinner music. Usually the best music for this period is jazz, lounge music or some form of easy listening that allows conversation level of the people to dominate the atmosphere. Then as the event progresses the tempo picks up and people become more relaxed and warmed up to dance. Many dances begin with ballads, because ballads are the easiest songs for dancing that most people can relate to. Dancing at a wedding reception tends to start with the bride and groom's first dance as a married couple, which is always a love song.
After a few more ballads the dj breaks the ice either by gradually moving up the tempo or just jumping into a faster tune that seems right for the crowd based on demographics and energy level. Once the pulse is pumping the dj can either go the beatmix route and keep tempo steady while gradually shifting through peaks and valleys or just reading the crowd and taking requests. Whatever it takes to keep people dancing is all that matters. Sometimes everyone will clear the floor unexpectedly, but the great dj knows from experience what the good comeback songs are. For an 80s crowd it might be something like "Super Freak" by Rick James and for a swing crowd it might be "In The Mood" by Glenn Miller. Whatever the case may be, it's up to the dj to keep the crowd on the dance floor. In cases where no one wants to dance the whole night, chances are it's just not a dancing crowd and more of a scene where people want to socialize.
In my experience I have done a lot of gigs where everyone was screaming at the end of night for "one more song." I love those gigs the most. But in cases where dancing is sporadic or even non-existent, I know it's still my job to play music that people in attendance like, and everybody likes music, no matter who they are. I find out what people like by talking with them. If they don't come up to me, I come up to them. Sometimes it turns out all they want to hear is good background music, and that's fine with me. But it's those raging crowds that raise the energy level to the maximum that get people talking how good of a dj you are. So always go for craze unless the situation demands otherwise, because you can always fall back on good listening music. The idea is to outdo the radio, which is just an average presentation that people become conditioned to accept as average. Be the memorable event by playing what the crowd tells you to play either with their requests or body language. But also have your own treasure of surprises that they could have only heard from your mix. And let them know you are with them, not above them. Create a scene that makes everyone feel like a star. That is a great mobile dj.
Mobile DJ Crash Course
If you have never done a mobile DJ gig before, this section will explain what to do. First of all, if the expectation level is high to make the crowd go crazy with nonstop dancing all night, it might be better to hire a professional DJ. But if the expectation is simply a good time with background music a lot of the time and occassional dancing toward the end of the event, then this crash course should be the answer and will help save you a lot of money.
First, you will need to rent a sound system, unless you already have a decent one. If the event is outdoor and there will be a lot of people in attendance, you need a powerful system (at least a 250 watt amp). But if the event is indoor for a small group, any system will do that includes either a computer system or a traditional sound system.
1) Computer/laptop or iPod/mp3 player
2) Music scheduling program (PC DJ for PCs, MegaSeg for Macs) unless you're using an iPod
3) Powered speakers with cables or non-powered speakers with amplifier and mixing board
4) Microphone (unless computer has built-in mic) and other optional assessories such as headphones
Traditional Sound System:
1) CD players or turntables or iPods or a set of any other sound sources
2) Mixing board with at least 4 channels
3) Powered or non-powered speakers with cables
4) 250-500 watt amplifier
5) Microphone and other optional assessories such as headphones
Don't worry about lights because that's something extra that DJs throw in to make extra cash and the event will not hinge on lighting, unless the boss says so. In other words, the light show is not required to create a successful dance, but if someone demands it, you can rent affordable things like strobes, beacons and mirror balls.
The cost of renting an adequate sound system may be anywhere from $50 to $500 depending on the quality you're looking for. The rack-mounted all in one systems are the best for last minute gigs. Sound systems are generally easy to set up and usually just involve plugging in chords. Mixing boards can look complex, but really a mixing board is just redundant knobs and sliders of multiple channels. Once you learn how one channel works, you've practically learned the whole mixing board.
These days the easiest way to pull off a gig is with an iPod hooked up directly to powered speakers or a mixer that feeds an amplifier that feeds speakers. If you have a laptop with iTunes on it with the songs already loaded, then all you have to do is let iTunes play the songs back in the order that you want. A more sophisticated scheduling program would be MegaSeg for Mac or PC DJ for PC. These programs would be better if you wanted to have more control on how the songs mix together and how you categorize songs for your library.
If you are using two CD players then you will not have the luxury of being able to walk away from the program unless you are just playing full-length CDs, which is fine for background music. If you want the music to be nonstop in which every song transition is a segue that overlaps the songs, then you'll need to be conscious of song length and what you are always playing next. Even professional DJs can become easily distracted if the next song is not set up toward the end of a song that is playing.
Don't worry about beat-mixing, which is what club DJs do to create a continuous dance beat. That's for when you become more advanced. If the event is a wedding, reunion or birthday party and the client is not specifically requesting a beat-mix DJ, definitely don't worry about it. Concentrate on how songs will blend together rhythmically and sonicly. The purpose of headphones for the DJ is to listen to music in cue to preview the next song's open or compare how the songs blend. Don't worry too much about the science of mixing as much as the feel of the music.
Musical transitions sound amazing when they flow and awkward when they don't. It is somewhat a matter of taste, but sometimes when the mix is too random with extremes, the effect can be what is called a "trainwreck" in which out of time beats on top of each other and musical sounds turn into awful noise. One way to avoid a trainwreck is concentrate on songs that end cold, meaning no fade. A cold ending usually allows for a smooth segue into any song. When playing songs that fade, you can either let them fade all the way (which can slow down crowd momentum), use the fader on the mixer to do a gradual segue or practice your own technique that creates smooth transitions. When the next song begins with a strong drum beat, it creates an easy segue when you quickly fade the previous song.
If you absolutely don't want to stand in front of two CD players all night and change songs every three minutes, consider making a long "mix tape" on cassette or even CD. If you don't have the right recording gear then you can buy all kinds of dance mix CDs in record stores. The purpose of continuous music is to create continuous dancing or some kind of continuous atmosphere. If that's not important to the event, but you still want an unpredictable mix of songs, you have some options. With an iPod or iTunes you can use the shuffle function. With two CD players you can stand there all night and switch songs, but you can also find someone else that wants to help while you go on break. It's no big deal to hit "play" on a CD player to make the next song play, which is mostly what this type of DJ does all night.
Announcing is certainly a whole different dimension from understanding how a sound system works and how music mixes together. If you have never done announcing for a crowd before and you don't feel comfortable, limit your talk. Some DJs only talk a few times a night and it's still a party. If you already have an outgoing entertaining personality, let it fly. Don't worry about little things like whether or not you have a good speaking voice, because people don't instantly judge that. They are more likely to respond to content than style until they get familiar with your style.
In a sound system situation it's usually better to speak slower on a microphone and to repeat things so that people get the message. Not everyone is going to be paying attention when you talk and it has nothing to do with you. They might already be engaged in a conversation and simply can't hear you. That's why it's good to take into account that the crowd is not always waiting to hear you speak. A good way to get people's attention without saying "may I have your attention" is to tap on the microphone a few times. Or you can say "Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming here today" and lead into announcements that repeat a few times. Don't be afraid to repeat announcements, because sometimes it's the only way for everyone to get the message.
The standard distance for speaking into a microphone is about six inches. Beginners tend to forget while they are talking to hold the mic up to their mouth. You see this all the time when the mic is passed around for toasts. Someone will hold the mic to their stomach and then not only can you not hear their voice very well, it can create noise such as feedback if the mic is pointed toward the speakers. Some mics have an on/off switch, especially wireless mics. Leave the switch on while a mic is being passed around because switching it off makes a loud noise. Wireless mics usually require a battery and switching it on and off wears down the battery faster. Use the volume control on the mixing board to control the mic when others are using it. If the sound system ever starts to feedback or create loud unwanted noise, always think of "master volume" as the first thing to turn down unless you know the channel where the noise originates, in which you would turn down that channel.
Those are the basics for doing your first gig. If the gig involves a lot of requests, the simplest route is the iPod, iTunes or the programs PC DJ or MegaSeg. With a software-based system all you need to do is type in the name of the song or artist and the file will pop right up in a second, assuming the program is organized beforehand. If you are just playing CDs but the playlist is diverse and specific a little more planning will need to go into constructing the playlist. Either way, it's never rocket science and should be a lot of fun. If it becomes too stressful, then consider letting someone else handle the presentation. Regardless of experience, never let stress dictate the event. Just relax and concentrate on the agenda. Always know what happens next at all times and everything else will fall into place.
Sample Program For Weddings
First two hours during dinner: jazz instrumentals, ballads, lounge music
After or during dinner the Best Man gives the toast then the mic is passed around for other toasts
Cake Cutting: this can be done anytime but DJs like to get as many things out of the way as possible that won't interrupt the dancing. Also, photographers don't always stay the whole time and like to get as many things done early on. Caterers also like to get things done as soon as possible.
First Dance: play the love song chosen by the bride and groom after announcing that the couple is doing their first dance as a married couple (this is one of the high points of the evening, so it's very important the photographer is aware and prepared).
Wedding Party dances: these may go on for awhile that might include: father/daughter dance, mother/son dance, everyone in the wedding party dance, the money dance in which anyone can dance with the bride or groom if they donate money
All Dance: if the crowd is composed of all ages it's a good idea to start off with oldies or mass appeal songs that everyone knows then play more for the younger people later on and toward the end of the event
Garter Toss/Bouquet Toss: This is done at more traditional receptions, but in recent years less couples are doing it. The groom removes the garter from the bride's upper leg, hidden by her dress. All the single men line up to try to catch the garter to see who will get married next. Then the single women line up to try to catch the bouquet of flowers the bridge throws over her should to see who will marry next. The bouquet toss can go first and then the garter toss. There are no set rules to doing any of this. It's all completely up to the couple or the wedding coordinator. The winners of the two tosses then get together for a photograph. During all of this, the DJ has a chance to shine and say funny things as long as it's appropriate for the crowd. A typical song to play during the garter removal is "The Stripper" by David Rose or "Legs" by ZZ Top. A typical song for the bouquet toss is "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" by Cyndi Lauper.
Back to Music: Many times a ballad will bring a crowd back to the floor, but if you feel lots of energy in the room, a fast song is just as likely to work. If there are more events, try to combine as many at one time so that the rest of the event will just be dancing, since sometimes it can be difficult to get a crowd back out on the floor after a long break. If someone else is planning the agenda, just follow it and do the best you can.
Last Song: The last song should be memorable for everyone, especially the bride and groom. It may even be a song they picked. Many receptions end with a slow dance, but if they request a fast song as the final song, pick something very powerful and familiar. End the night by saying something to the effect of "best of luck to (groom's name) and (bride's name) in the future." If the crowd responds with applause and cheers, let that be how the event ends.
Mass Appeal Dance Songs for Weddings
Kool & The Gang - Celebration
Village People - YMCA
Michael Jackson - Billie Jean
Sister Sledge - We Are Family
Bob Seger - Old Time Rock and Roll
Glenn Miller - In The Mood
Beatles - Twist and Shout
Commodores - Brick House
Prince - 1999
Madonna - Holiday
Bee Gees - Stayin' Alive
AC/DC - You Shook Me All Night Long
B-52s - Love Shack
Frank Sinatra - Theme From New York, New York
Aretha Franklin - Respect
Love Songs for Weddings
Nat King Cole & Natalie Cole - Unforgettable
Etta James - At Last
Anne Murray - Could I Have This Dance
Barbara Streisand - Evergreen
Carpenters - We've Only Just Begun
Frank Sinatra - The Way You Look Tonight
Bette Midler - Wind Beneath My Wings
Joe Cocker & Jennifer Warnes - Up Where We Belong
Chicago - You're The Inspiration
Dido - Thank U
General Evolution of DJ Equipment
1980s thru 1990s DJ gear: Two Technics 1200 Turntables, 4 to 16 channel mixer with crossfade, Shure SM 58 microphone, two Klipsch Speakers
Early 2000s DJ gear: Mac iBook with MegaSeg software program, Numark CD Mix 2 mixer, Shure SM 58 microphone, powered JBL speakers
Later 2000s DJ gear: Macbook Pro with MegaSeg software program, Numark CD Mix 2 mixer, Shure SM 58 microphone, powered Bose L1 Model 1 sound system.
I like this innovative sound system by Bose because it keeps the speakers and amplifier in one place, eliminating the need for long chords (that someone might trip over, even taped down). Also, the longer the chord the more signal you use, so this system improves that situation as well. The L1 also is efficient in that it's stereo even though the speakers are stacked in one tower. It's all light-weight, easy to transport and easy to set up and tear down. On top of all that the sound quality is amazing. However, this system is best suited for smaller crowds of 200 or less. Bigger crowds require bigger, more powerful speakers on stands. Sometimes multiple speakers are necessary.
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