How to be a background DJ

From gigs in bars, to chill-out rooms, and ambient sets, we explore the subtle art of DJing in the background.

We’ve all seen them. The DJs you might not have immediately known were there. Tucked away in the corner of a bar. Behind the mixer in the chill-out room. Seated in a booth shrouded in tapestries and fairy lights. Or silhouetted by trippy video projections. They are not the night’s main performers. It’s possible no one has come specifically to see them. And yet their task is a delicate one, the kind of thing that takes practice, skill and a kind of humility not always associated with their profession. We’re talking about background DJs.

By “background” we mean to group a few different DJ scenarios, all distinct from each other in terms of atmosphere and sound, but connected by the fact that they place the DJ in a supporting role, one in which people will most likely not be dancing or even paying close attention to what they’re playing. You’ve got ambient sets, chill-out sets, bar gigs, restaurant gigs; rarer varieties include things like guided meditations and, while there’s no catchy name for this one, DJ sets for people who are literally asleep (the concept of a stage for at least one German festival).

If you get booked for something like this, there’s no telling what you’ll get until you turn up. The venue for your ambient set might turn out to be a crowded bar, where anything too subtle will get lost in the din. The chill-out space at the rave might wind up being the most popular room, demanding music both mellow and party-friendly. You may find yourself playing for three people with their eyes closed and no one talking, leaving nothing but your selections to fill the silence. Each scenario can bleed into the next. The same room at a club or a festival might cycle through each of them in the course of a night.

For the background DJ, it’s a classic choose-your-fighter situation. You have to be well-versed enough in every possibility to bring flair and style to your task. Even if you’re not the main attraction, you want to do something distinctive—music, not muzak. In other words, you want to be background without being boring.

Here are some tips to boost your background game.

Learn the three pillars of background DJing: bar gigs, chill-out sets, and ambient sets

Within the broad umbrella of what we’re calling background DJing, there are three essential types of performance: bar gigs, chill-out sets, and ambient sets. Occasionally you’ll have a gig that’s fully within one of these camps, but more often you’ll get something that falls in between, blending one or two or all three. Let’s break them down one by one.

The bar gig is the most self-explanatory of the three: you’re DJing in a bar, i.e. an establishment where people have gathered to socialize in an environment both relaxing and energetic, where the music is not the main attraction but plays an essential role nonetheless (no one wants dead silence or bad music in a bar). Musically, this is one of the most open-ended environments a DJ could face. Depending on the same parameters that guide musical selections in any DJ situation (atmosphere, energy level, crowd type, sound system), you may draw from just about any corner of music—rock, pop, hip-hop, trip-hop, jazz, dub and reggae, maybe even a bit of house from time to time. Basically anything can work so long as it’s neither too energetic (pumping rave music) nor too chill (beatless ambient). 

It also helps if most things you play have a clear hook, something that cuts through the noise of the room and resonates even on what is likely to be a relatively quiet, bass-light sound system. More than in other types of background sets, you can go for big tunes, albeit with a modest goal. Best case scenario, someone might pause a conversation to say, “Oh man, I love this one.” No one’s putting their hands in the air. Even as a subtle undercurrent, though, the right tunes can make this kind of night out far more special for everyone involved. 

You can think of chill-out as something halfway between the bar gig and the ambient set. Picture a space at a club or a festival where people take a break from the dance floor to sit and chat with friends, but without withdrawing from the party atmosphere completely. You want something more mellow than what’s on in the main rooms, that gives the ears and the feet a break from the action, but that still keeps you in the heightened sensory state of the party. 

How energetic or how beat-driven you go depends completely on the moment itself. In the course of a single night, there may be times when the room is mostly quiet, either because there aren’t many people or the people in it aren’t talking much, and others where it’s closer to a bar, buzzing with movement and chat. In the former situation, you might roll out drifting tones à la Global Communication’s “14:53.” In the second, you could dig into trip-hop, psychedelic rock, IDM, slo-mo house, mellow disco—anything that matches the laid back mood and that speaks to you personally.

Ambient sets sit on the opposite end of the spectrum from bar gigs, bordering the chillest side of chill-out. This is decidedly subtle, spaced-out music, in which drums are either understated or nonexistent, the kind of thing to lay down to, zone-out to, maybe even fall asleep to. Where so much DJing is about meeting or elevating the energy in the room, ambient music is about meeting it and taking it down a notch, luring the audience into an introspective headspace and taking care of them once they’re there. It tends to work best in a comfortable space with plenty of seating and people either not talking or talking very quietly.

Gauge the vibe

Once you get to the gig, your first step will be figuring out where on this spectrum you find yourself. You need to be prepared for anything, as no one, including the event organizer, can accurately predict conditions on the ground. To give one example: I was once booked to play an ambient set in the second room at a dub techno night. My little area turned out to be a packed, noisy bar where my subtle selections barely registered. A half hour or so into my set, a bartender asked when I planned to start playing. Despite the vibe of the party and the intentions of everyone involved, this was obviously an occasion for my USB folder called “BAR,” which I was very thankful to have.

You’ll need to keep gauging the vibe across the night. These spaces are even more dynamic than dance floors. A set ending in the next room can transform your chill-out room from an empty space with one guy passed out to a bustling party—albeit one where most people are sitting down. It can go the other way, too, with ambient music growing more and more appropriate as the party thins out and punters run out of steam. It can even happen that, as people get looser, they start grooving gently on your non-dance floor. After a night of refined IDM, it may come to pass that the perfect final track is, to use an example I once experienced, George Michael’s “Freedom ‘90.” Whatever happens, you should adapt to it without too much allegiance to whatever preconceived vision of the night you had.

Learn to tell a story

Even with no one dancing, you’ll still want your set to go somewhere, giving anyone listening closely a sense of the proverbial musical journey. In some ways, this is actually easier with background music than with a classic dance floor situation, in part because you have more room to play with. Practice moving through your crate in a way that’s dynamic and immersive, starting one place and ending up somewhere else, increasing and decreasing the energy, throwing in curve balls, even creating the background version of a big finish.  

In an ideal scenario, you could start with an ultra-subtle drone or field recording, then gradually ease in melody and rhythm until you arrive, over the course of however many hours, at something groovy enough to dance to (dub, instrumental hip-hop, slo-mo house, whatever). In terms of genre, energy and emotion, that’s considerably more range than you’d get in a typical club set. Granted, the people you’re playing for may not be 100% tuned in. But more often than not they’ll notice if you’re really bringing something inspired, moderate volume be damned. (And, let’s be honest, it’s not like club DJs can count on having their crowd’s undivided attention.)

Mix without beatmatching

At some point in your set, you may land on a stretch of tunes where it makes sense to beatmatch and do club-style blends. Overall, though, in a setting that calls for eclectic selections, you’d be limiting yourself if you only played tracks close enough in tempo and style to be beatmatched. This can be both a blessing and an interesting challenge. For a club DJ choosing the next track, the need to beatmatch can be a crutch, as anything with a similar style and tempo will, in most cases, more or less work. For the background DJ, you need to suss out a more subtle connection between songs, and decide how to mix without purpose-built 16-bar outros. Most of this comes down to familiarity with your tracks. If you know them well enough, you’ll sense instinctively that one will nicely follow another, and when and how to move between them.

If you’re mixing tracks with different keys and tempos, the best transition is often just a radio-style fade-out: lower the fader on one track smoothly and steadily, then start the new one on the one-beat of the old one. If you’re mixing between tracks that don’t have discernible rhythms, you can blend them easily and ambitiously, using filters or EQs to weave them into each other, layering one on top of the other, or moving back and forth between them. This is especially easy if at least one of the tracks is a textural composition without any melody.

If both tracks are more musical, you’ll ideally mix in key, a technique we’ve written about here before, but which, it bears repeating, can be done purely with preparation and the right software (including rekordbox) and no musical training. That said, if you want to mix like an old-school ambient DJ, you can turn off master tempo and adjust the pitch to match the keys of two beatless pieces. (Definitely practice that one at home first.)

Get weird

This is particularly advised if you’re playing a straight-up ambient set, which offers room for experimentation that just doesn’t exist in other kinds of DJ sets. In both your track selection and your mixing technique, explore the outer reaches more than you normally would. As you dig for new tunes, delve into the world of field recordings, spoken word and drones—stuff on the border of what we normally consider music. 

If you’ve got more than two decks, try layering a few things at once, or using one long and subtle piece as a sound bed for more conventionally musical tracks, keeping it humming away at a low volume in the background or returning to it throughout the set. Play around with loops and wide mode—virtually every piece of music has an ambient track hidden inside it. Don’t believe us? Take a folk song, loop a random part of it and play it back at -100% tempo.

Take a seat

A simple but essential tip for background DJing: do it sitting down. It makes sense for club DJs to stand up. You’ve got plenty to do, what with all the mixing and EQ’ing, and in any case, pretty much everyone else in the room is standing up, too. In the vast majority of background DJ situations, you will have less occupying you moment to moment, which can make standing a little awkward, especially if you’ve got people’s eyes on you. Even worse, standing can make you restless, or give you the feeling that you should be doing something—a voice in your head saying, “Don’t just stand there!” 

A lot of the music you’ll be playing works best played in full. If you’re playing an ambient set, some of it might be really long. Don’t get in your own way by mixing too soon or too often purely because you’re feeling antsy. This is harder than it may sound. Letting a 12-minute track play in full while you’re meant to look like you’re doing something can be challenging. But there are ways to mitigate this. The easiest one is to get yourself a chair. If you can have the equipment set up low to the ground, all the better. 

Beyond the basic comfort factor, this serves a deeper purpose, too. In any DJ situation, you want to get on the same mental and emotional wavelength as anyone listening. This makes being onstage as a background DJ distinctly suboptimal. To create a truly organic link between DJ and crowd, the background DJ must, themself, become one with the background.

Text: Will Lynch