10 ways to up your DJ game in 2024

Mixing in key, weekly routines, going deeper with rekordbox — we highlight 10 areas to consider focussing on and improving for the year ahead.

New Year’s resolutions have a reputation of not actually getting done, but that’s often because people choose things that are basically a bummer. Wake up earlier, eat less carbs, do crunches every morning—the stuff most people choose has a “party’s over” vibe that is the last thing you need come January 2nd. Those first weeks of January are hard enough as it is, what with the return to work and the status quo after time off and a string of cozy get-togethers. Why not find ways to improve your self, boost morale and have fun?

For many of us, DJing is our happy place, the way we blow off steam, engage with music we love, and connect with ourselves and others. It’s also a deep craft in which anyone, whatever their level of skill or experience, will always have room to improve. In other words, an ideal focus for resolutions—ones that you will actually keep. As we ring in the New Year, here are ten ways to up your DJ game in 2024.

Learn to mix in key

If you’ve never played an instrument, words like “key” and “harmony” might make you nervous. But even for someone with zero understanding of music theory, mixing in key is not as hard as it may sound. It could even revolutionize the way you DJ

What’s the payoff? Well, basically if you’re mixing with no regard for key, your options are to mix out one track before any melodic or harmonic element from the next one comes in, or hope for the best and deal with inevitable key clashes when they happen. Many, or even most DJs, do some version of that and get by just fine. But mixing in key will open up new possibilities, allowing for more ambitious blends, even full-blown mashups. You can dig into the theory of it all if you want, learning which keys work together and why. Or, you can take advantage of the available technology—with the built-in features of rekordbox, for example, you can organize your music by key and use the Traffic Light feature to see which tracks should go together, all with absolutely zero prior knowledge of music theory.

Go deeper on rekordbox

Even if you only use it to organize and playlist your music, rekordbox is a game-changing tool for digital DJing. But it’s also deep software, with many features that can dramatically improve both the preparation and performance aspects of DJing. Whatever your current familiarity with the software, take the time to learn a few new features. They’re easy to get the hang of and often immediately rewarding. 

Some people simply whack their tunes into rekordbox and let it rip with no further preparation. If that’s you, a good starting point is to habitually process every track you add your library, checking the beat grid aligns the way it should (making sure, for instance, that 160 BPM tracks aren’t analyzed at 80 BPM, and the other way around), and scanning tracks for places where loops might be helpful in the mix, beginning with any intros or outros that are shorter than you’d like. Spend an afternoon mastering Hot Cues, a feature that, by letting you skip directly to predetermined points in a track, gives you vastly more control over your music. Use Slip Mode and see how it changes the way you use loops and spinbacks. 

Organizing your music can be much more efficient and effective with the use of a few simple tools. Speed up your workflow by learning (or edit) your hotkeys. Use Playlist Palette to browse up to four playlists at a time. If you don’t already use Intelligent Playlists, you may be amazed at how much of the work they do for you.

If you’re at a more intermediate level, try a deep dive on your settings. Maybe you like Hot Cues but wish they just brought you to a specific point in the track without it playing? Go to settings, controller / CDJ, scroll down to Hot Cue and untick the box that reads “During Pause, GATE playback is applied.” The software is full of little tweaks like this that will help you make it work exactly how you want it to. Spend some time with the manual, fire up some YouTube tutorials, and see how much there is to explore.

Go broader and deeper in your digs

One of the best things about DJing is that you can play literally anything from the entire history of recorded music. The only things holding you back are your methods for finding music, and your own taste, or, more specifically, your biases—that is to say, untested assumptions about what is and isn’t your thing. 

Whatever your main methods of finding new music, there will be some you haven’t tried. Try them. Think of an artist you know is good but whose music you don’t really know. Go on Beatport, look them up, organize their tracks from oldest to newest, and check out the samples. Browse Spotify and YouTube playlists of genres you’re curious about. If you haven’t already, spend some time with the Bandcamp Feed. 

If you’ve not delved into the physical realm of record shops and Discogs, have a poke around. Even if your setup is purely digital, Discogs lists and comments are a rich resource of crowdsourced recommendations. Same goes for the “new releases” section of many record shops (most of which sell digital files these days anyway). However you find your music, you’ll find more and better tunes by diversifying where you look. 

Now, about your taste. Everyone has artists, labels or entire genres of music they feel simply are not for them. This is often true, of course, but not as often as we think. Mysterious factors cause us to make snap judgments that stop us from exploring music we would really love if we gave it a chance. 

Say you find music by browsing online shops, but scroll past anything that doesn’t speak to your current tastes, whether because of the artist, the label, the style of music, the look of the artwork, whatever. See what happens if you sample everything in the new arrivals section of an online shop. For sure, you’ll hear a lot of stuff you don’t like, but sooner or later you’re bound to find something you love that would normally slip under your radar. (And hearing music you’d never buy isn’t a waste of time—it will give you valuable perspective on what’s out there and what other people are playing.) 

Even if you don’t fancy yourself to be an eclectic DJ, digging broader and deeper will breathe new life into your sets. A DJ is nothing without good tunes, and the wider you cast your net, the more good tunes you’ll snag.

Improve the acoustics of your DJ space

You may feel satisfied with your monitors placed on whatever surface is nearest to your decks, without a thought to their elevation. The idea of sound-treating the room you mix might seem like more than you really need to worry about. But our experience of sound affects us more than we realize. In fact, the way we experience music and our ability to enjoy it—or even properly hear it—is enormously affected by simple factors, some of which can be easily addressed at little or no expense. 

First of all, find a way to get your monitors at ear level, whether that’s with proper stands or something more DIY—like, say, stacks of books. Position them equidistantly from your mixer or controller—where you’ll most often be standing while you DJ—with at least a foot of space between them and the wall behind them. If your monitors have knobs on the back (gain, mid, treble, bass, etc), play around with them and see what sounds best in your space. 

As for the room itself, you might start by considering whether you’ve chosen the best possible room for your DJ set up. Ideally, the space wouldn’t be square, have plenty of stuff to scatter the sound, and would not have many reflective surfaces, like windows, mirrors or blank walls. If there’s a place in your apartment that fits this description better than where you’re currently set up (and where you could do your thing without bothering anyone), try moving your setup in there. 

To improve the sound of the room, the goal is to maximize sound absorption and minimize sound reflection, which you can do by hanging or attaching soft or porous materials to the walls, especially over otherwise reflective surfaces. Professional producers and mastering engineers might sink lots of money into treating their studios; you can probably make your space noticeably better for free, using stuff you already have around the house. Blankets, curtains, thick towels—basically anything that would absorb liquid, and that you can hang over some portion of the room’s reflective walls and windows, is going to improve the room’s acoustics. If you decide you’re willing to shell out some cash to this end, you can buy panels or diffusers made specifically for this purpose. All of this means that your music will sound clearer and your ears won’t get tired as quickly.

Organize your craft into a weekly routine

Here’s one of the many wise things that legendary record producer Rick Rubin has said about creativity: “Living life as an artist is a practice. You are either engaging in the practice or you’re not.” 

If you’re reading this, you are most likely someone with an artistic practice, whether you currently think of it that way or not. The more regular your practice, the better your results will be. Even passionate DJs may suddenly realize that weeks have passed since they last had a proper mix or got new tunes. That’s totally normal and OK, life is unpredictable, and our engagement with things we do for fun tends to wax and wane over time. But by designing and following some kind of weekly routine, you can ensure that you keep, to borrow Rubin’s phrase, engaging in the practice. 

Everyone’s routine will be unique to their schedules, lifestyles and general disposition, but it usually works to identify the key elements of your practice and assign them to specific blocks of time in your week. For example, you might dig for tunes every day after lunch, or all evening on Tuesday. Some people separate the tasks of looking for new tunes and deciding which ones to buy, scouring throughout the week and throwing whatever sounds good in a cart or a wantlist, then sifting through the candidates on a different day with fresh ears, separating the must-haves from the non-essentials, and clicking “Buy.” 

Schedule a mix for the same time each week and spend the week playlisting for this mix, as if it were a gig. Dedicate time not just to mixing, but to practicing mixing, honing techniques and trying out things on the edge of your abilities. If you’re shaky on spinbacks, do ten or 20 in a row. If you’re halfway there on Hot Cues, use them nonstop for a half hour. This can work as part of your weekly mix, say, at the beginning, or a different session altogether. This kind of regimented practice will make sure you’re systematically improving and fine-tuning every aspect of your DJing.

Record a mix you’re happy to show off

Even if you’re a bedroom DJ who’s never had a gig, chances are that, sooner or later, someone will have their interest piqued and ask to hear a mix. Whether they’re a curious friend or a person in a position to give you some kind of gig, you’ll want to have something to show for yourself when that moment arrives. Ideally, you would have a recorded mix you’re happy with ready to go at all times. It doesn’t have to be perfect, showing the absolute height of your technique and musical taste. But it should be something you feel represents you well enough, that you personally enjoy, and that you’re proud to show to other people. 

This is a valuable exercise even if no one ever hears it. Having a fun mix at home is easy. Recording a mix you personally like—that you might put on at home for your own pleasure—is not much harder (presuming you’re an honest enough DJ to play tracks you genuinely enjoy). Recording a mix for an audience, even a hypothetical one, is more of a challenge, forcing you to reflect on what kind of music you’re feeling at the moment, what technical standard you hold yourself to, and what side of your sound you want to put forward as your own. Again, it’s smart to have a mix that meets these standards ready to go at any given time. When opportunity knocks, you’ll be happy that you do. In the meantime, this practice is a good way to keep pushing yourself.

Lean into your personal brand

Some DJs get the ick just thinking about this. Others find this side of things a fertile ground for creativity. However you feel about it currently, we encourage you to give the second perspective a shot. Maybe you feel strongly that nothing should matter aside from the music, but unless you intend to keep your DJing strictly for yourself and a secret to everyone else, you should think about how you present yourself to the world in all the other ways, from the user images on your social media accounts to the way you title your mixes to the name you choose for yourself as a DJ. 

These are all artistic choices, opportunities to show people who you are and what makes you special. Take them seriously and have fun with them. Maybe that means professional headshots, a poetic DJ name, maybe even with a logo. Maybe it’s something more modest—your given name, a SoundCloud account, no Instagram. Whatever the case may be, make sure you choose it intentionally and arrive at something you feel good about.

Identify and execute at least one concrete form of self-promotion by March

OK, you’ve got those last two sorted out. Time to put them to use. Whether that’s aiming for gigs or just sending your mixes to friends, make sure people know that you DJ and that you have something unique to offer. Opportunities can come out of nowhere. Friends can ask you to play a house party, or a wedding. Someone might ask you to guest on their radio show. Or another DJ might invite you over for a Friday night back-to-back.

But none of that can happen unless you make it clear to the world that this is a thing you do and that you’re good at it. In the first part of 2024, identify and execute at least one way of doing this that suits you and where you’re at in your journey as a DJ, whether that’s angling for club gigs or just passing your latest mix around to anyone you think might like it.

Learn to produce

Countless DJs never put out a record. Many never even try to make one. For sure, there’s a certain comfort in dedicating yourself purely to DJing, and maybe a sense that to start making music would eat away at whatever precious free time you already have for mixing. But it’s worth, at the very least, trying on music production and seeing how it fits. After all, what’s stopping you? There was a time, not too long ago, when completing your first piece of club music required a small armada of hardware, lots of patience, resourcefulness, and ideally a mentor of some kind.

Today the story is very different. We live in an era of downloadable production software, rigorously honed for ease of use, and free tutorials for anything not covered in the manual, not to mention online workshops and masterclasses. You have the good fortune of living in the best ever era for electronic producers. In a way you’d be crazy not to take advantage of that. No one’s going to deny the mad fun and deep pleasures of DJing. But music makers are, to quote both Willy Wonka and the Aphex Twin song that sampled him, the dreamers of the dreams.

Words: Will Lynch