DJ Basics: What Are the DJ Tools of the Trade?

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DJs aka Disc Jockeys have a basic set of tools for working their art, whether they are set up in a home studio or out in the club scene. The tools only vary according to the style of music the DJ is going for, the location, and the need for portability.

What are the basic tools that DJs use? The basic tools of the DJ are easy to list, and you see them in use whenever you watch DJs perform:

  • Turntables
  • CDJs or Decks
  • Mixers
  • Controllers (DDJs)
  • Headphones
  • Speakers
  • DJ Software

This list is actually overkill. To be honest, a DJ needs two sources for music and a mixer along with his or her headset and speakers (often provided by a venue) to do their thing. However, DJs have developed so much more along with technology that I needed to list all of these here as options. Let me explain!

Music Sources

Turntables and Digital Vinyl Systems (DVS)

Turntables were once the core component for a DJ, but have seen a steady decline in usage thanks to the portability and price of digital music. A turntable is the portion of the record player that holds the record and spins it while a stylus translates the song imprinted on the record vinyl through an output like a player, a speaker, or a mixer. 

It is a source of music that can also be manipulated to make other sounds through scratching, speeding up, slowing down, etc. 

Generally, a DJ will have two turntables, one on each side of a mixer that can also be used to add effects to the music. Turntables to use while DJing should be reliable, durable, and have additional features such as pitch control, speed control, and good design.

Turntable/DVS

Because of the possible harm turntabling can cause vinyl, a system called a digital vinyl system is used more often. With this system, one can transfer the music from an analog signal record to be assigned through software a digital sound file which is then able to be manipulated like a vinyl record.

This DVS uses either CDs or digital music from a USB through DJ software instead of the actual vinyl record, yet allows the manipulation – including scratching – of the music just like a standard turntablist would do. I go into further detail about how this works in this article.

A digital vinyl system is a bit more complicated, but is explained perfectly in this video:

CDJ or Decks

As I stated before, these are the modern versions of the turntables and you’ll often find that clubs and venues have turned to decks or “CDJs” as the industry standard. They are the modern DJ’s source of music. They allow you to carry your music on USB drives and simply plug them in. Most have digital screens that show you the lineup of music available and the beats. These have to be connected to a mixer (not a laptop) and you will usually see one on each side of a mixer in standard DJ performance. 

DJs can add as many CDJs as is allowed to the particular mixer they happen to be using. The limitations between these units are just the software compatibility. These components also have their own set of features that control speed as well as a small platter that the DJ can manipulate to keep tracks in time or create new rhythmic sound by combining music samples from two or more decks.

One of the decks most often found in both clubs and used by headliners is the Pioneer. The CDJ-2000NXS2 is probably the most common club install deck out of Pioneer DJ’s full lineup. These things are about $2000 (if they are on sale).

DDJ Controller

These are all-in-one DJ systems. This is one unit with the same layout as a large CDJ set-up. There are two small turntables on each side of a middle mixer. Because it’s an all-in-one unit, a DDJ is great for portability. Some of these units can then be connected to other components that are both input and output – such as midis, microphones, and speaker systems.

Functionality goes hand in hand with the layout being the same as what you usually find with the CDJ decks. These units are great for hobbyists and beginning DJs. Because their layout is so similar to the industry standard, a lot of people learn on these units and can go into a professional DJ setting to use a deck & mixer set up with ease and confidence. 

Using a controller instead of using a club’s gear can be awkward, but it’s not always a bad idea. For one thing, DJ equipment takes a lot of abuse, and you may not know what problems are inherent in the booth that’s already been occupied by many DJs before you. Bringing your own controller can alleviate that. So long as your controller will fit into the booth and is what you’re accustomed to using, it might be the better choice. Not to mention, now that the technology has been around a while, these all-in-one units are coming with better features and are much sturdier and more reliable than they ever were before.

The best Serato DJ controller is the Pioneer DJ DDJ-SX3 and the best Traktor Pro 3 based controller is the Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S4 Mk3 

The Mixer

A mixer allows you to transition between two or more sound sources. These sources are usually turntables or CDJs/decks. Most mixers feature built-in effects and faders to help with beat matching. And speaking of sources, it helps to have a mixer that allows for more inputs, including a microphone. EDM and Hip-Hop are among other genres that need more than 2 inputs for the magic they make.

Mixers usually come with their own software and DJs or owners need to be sure that it gets along with other components, including output – such as recording devices or speaker systems. Some mixers have the availability of a USB port for recording as well. 

The most popular mixers (that can handle DVS as well) are the Pioneer DJM-900NXS2, though it’s a bit expensive. For a less expensive albeit a bit more limited machine, there is the Allen & Heath Xone 43C or Xone 96.

Other Necessities

Headphones

These are absolutely essential for being a DJ. Most DJs will wear the headphones half-off and half-on so that they can hear what their audience hears as well as what they are queuing up for the next effect, transition, or fade. Unlike headphones for enjoying music (that usually intensify the bass or isolate background noise), DJs choose headphones that allow them to hear songs as the producer intended. They need to fit your head well, be durable and have excellent sound quality. Once you find the headphones for you, take care of them!  

A lot of music producers (those that are beatmakers) and DJs are now promoting their own lines of headphones and gear. I mean, cool for them, but that doesn’t necessarily mean these are great for an actual show or studio work. They are made for fans and for listening to the music as intended – not for working the mixes. So I looked some stuff up and noticed a lot of pictures that showed these same DJs and producers wearing specific brands. Then I compared those to a few lists out there. Usually, the desired headphones have closed backs with a true-sound quality and rotating cups. 

The brand most often used by DJs for their true sound quality is Sennheiser (Sennheiser HD 25) followed closely in popularity by V-MODA (Crossfade M-100). AKG gets an honorable mention as a less expensive but great quality brand.

Speakers

From maintaining your own set to knowing ahead of time what the PA system a venue will be using, knowing your speakers is important. For a home studio, active (powered) speakers are a good choice; the amplifier is built-in, and they often have frequency control. Also, at the venue, knowing your speakers or PA system is essential. After all, unless you’re big enough to rely on a sound or audio engineer, you need to be sure your system will work with the PA system they have. And if it doesn’t? Well, you have a choice. Adaptation of further investment into your own PA system. 

Some of the best PA systems for DJing are the Bose S1 Pro Multi-Position PA System or the Bose L1 Compact. For the lower price point, but still good quality and decent portability, there’s the Rockville RPG122K. 

Software

Technology brought out home DJs that could share their mixes with the masses via the internet.  Even though most DJ software can be used to create directly on a computer or laptop, it works best in conjunction with DJ hardware. Remember, each component usually comes with its own software, so the first thing a DJ needs to do is make sure all of the software is compatible!

Good DJ software allows for the organization of your music, is compatible with your hardware systems, but doesn’t take away from your own skills and artistry as a DJ. 

The two leading DJ Softwares on the market right now are –  Serato DJ Pro and Traktor Pro 3. Keep in mind there are a bunch of additions and upgrades available to these as well.

Other Tools

There are a lot of other suggestions out there for tools and each DJ has their own opinions on these things. For instance,  well-constructed traveling cases for any important equipment should go without saying. Always keep a supply of cables on hand. Also, some DJs use special platter mats or slipmats to place on their platters for decoration while there is no vinyl but can be used with the vinyl to create deeper sounds.

For the more technically savvy, there are MIDI Controllers that can have their buttons and sliders mapped to specific software, saved on presets, and then used along with or in place of a standard mixer. There are preferred laptops, microphones, and USB flash drives for the business. 

Essentially, it’s your show and your budget, so if you want to DJ and you want to get the proper equipment, look further in-depth for each of these tools and get what’s best for you. I cover each piece with much more detail in other articles. I would say, the most important thing to keep in mind about all of this technical equipment is that it needs to be able to work together. So be sure the software for the hardware allows it all to communicate! Then – GET TO IT!  

Rachel Adams

I would have previously thought of myself as an audiophile. But by gaming and listening to my children and their friends, I've been introduced to an entire realm of artists that are not on the radio.