How to DJ back-to-back

There are no rules to DJing with a partner. But whether it's preparing for the set in advance or your etiquette in the DJ booth, there should be some best practices.

“Like any good relationship, a back-to-back is essentially about communication and empathy with your partner,” said Jack Adams, the DJ and producer better known as Mumdance. 

Adams is without doubt an authority on the back-to-back. In 2017, he shared the decks with 40 different DJs on his Rinse FM show, many of them for the first time. The styles could hardly have been more diverse—his pool of guests ran the gamut from techno icon Surgeon, to Detroit electro legend DJ Stingray, to drum & bass and jungle trailblazer DJ Storm, to gloomy post-punk outfit Tropic Of Cancer. 

Why would someone embark on such a quest? Playing back-to-back—that is, taking turns playing tracks with another person, or multiple other people—is a form of musical performance unique to DJing. Back-to-backs bring a level of looseness and unpredictability that you can’t get with just one DJ behind the decks. But there’s something more to their magic.

Back-to-back sets can unlock something in DJs, leading them to play music they wouldn’t normally play, in ways they wouldn’t normally play it, merging two artist’s sounds and styles to create something neither of them could deliver on their own.

When they go well, that is. Back-to-backs don’t always work. They can feel flat, forced, or even awkward. DJs share the work in a back-to-back, but they also face challenges that don’t exist in a solo set. As Adams said, these challenges mostly have to do with your ability to connect with your partner. Long-time DJ partners, or established DJ duos, come to know each other so well they fall into a groove without much conscious effort—they can just turn up and let it rip. For everyone else, the back-to-back lives and dies by the DJs’ ability to find that all-important flow state

To help you get there, here are ten DJ-endorsed tips for how to properly play back-to-back.

Talk to your partner before you start

Whether you want to plan things or just turn up and vibe, the important thing is you and your partner agree on an approach. In the weeks or days leading up to the gig, check in to ask how they’re feeling about it. Maybe you decide to have a practice home mix. Maybe you just chat about what kind of music you’ve been feeling lately and what you expect to play at the gig—it can be particularly handy to know what genre and tempo range your partner wants to draw from. 

“It’s fun swapping tracks before,” said Batu, DJ, producer and founder of Bristol’s brilliant Timedance label. “You can almost build the set before you’ve done it, you know? Laying down this foundation for what the vibe might be. It might only be a handful of tracks, but you can encapsulate what your vision for the set is, and show the person you’re playing with before, so you’ve got these bedrock tunes, which you might not even play, but still work as a kind of mission statement for what you think the set could be about.”

It can also be smart to decide ahead of time who starts, who finishes, and how many tracks you each play at a time (more on that in a sec). You might be more anxious than expected on the night of the gig, so it’s good to agree on these things in advance, when the pressure is off. 

Even if you want to totally wing it, there’s one form of prep that’s always a no-brainer: pack as much music in as many different styles as you possibly can. (This can be true in all DJ scenarios, but especially when you never know what kind of tune you’ll be mixing out of.)

“I tend to make much bigger playlists than I would for a solo show,” said Batu. “For my solo shows I’d generally have about 100 tracks in the main playlist, although that might include multiple playlists or ways of dividing it up. With back-to-backs, I tend to have a lot more music, covering a lot more ground. This is the space for improvisation, for less focus almost, less muscle memory of going through whatever my current thing is. And more for playing music I’ve not usually played.”

Decide how many tracks each person plays per turn

A back-to-back set is two or more DJs taking turns on the decks. How long each of those turns lasts has a big impact on how the whole thing flows. The longer each person has per turn, the more they can explore their own sound. The shorter the turns are, the more you have to work together, especially going one-for-one, in which case you’re always mixing out of the other person’s track. 

You can keep things fresh by varying the length of each turn. Many DJs find the best way to do this is to take long turns at the beginning and make them shorter as the set goes on. 

Say you have a three-hour set. Start by doing 15 minutes each, or by playing four or five tracks per turn. This way you’ll get comfortable with the gig’s particular atmosphere, sound and setup on your own, without the added challenge of reacting to your partner’s selections. After an hour, switch to two each. By the final hour, you’ll both be warmed up and ready to go one-for-one. 

If you get inspired and feel a burning need to play more than your allotted tracks, go ahead and ask your partner. They mostly likely won’t mind, and they can do the same on the next turn if they want. “Sometimes if I have a setup or trick or something which needs a few tracks mixed in quick succession, I will let them know that I need a few more tracks,” said Mumdance. “But otherwise it’s really bad form to hog the decks.”

Pick a partner who matches your mixing style

Some DJs are all about long blends and subtle EQ tweaks. Others go for more fireworks—cuts, spinbacks, effects and the like. It’s important you express yourself, but consider how your mixing might sound alongside your  partner. Contrasting styles can make the back-to-back pop, but if they differ too greatly the whole thing can feel uneven.

“Sometimes it’s a problem and sometimes not,” said TJ Hertz, AKA Objekt. “It’s a problem if you’re playing with someone who only ever does smooth blends and it sounds musically jarring when you come in every other transition with lots of quick cuts and fader tricks. But that doesn’t mean you have to dumb yourself down entirely. I think it should also form part of your decision on whether to do the back-to-back in the first place.”

DJ Bone, a Detroit DJ known for his lightning fast cuts, agreed, especially on that last point. “I wouldn’t want to play back-to-back with someone if I thought they couldn’t keep up with me.” He balked at the idea of holding back your talent for any reason at all. “You should never hold back. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there! Haha. Some people are playing dirty, just trying to get bigger and better gigs or get more Instagram followers, whatever. It should be about creating something special. So, if you’re not confident you can handle me on the decks, don’t try playing back-to-back with me.”

In other words, don’t compromise, but do be perceptive to your partner’s style and try to find a middle-ground. If you’ve never played together, research your partner to get a sense of what’s in store—ideally before you agree to the gig, so you can politely decline if you don’t think it would work. 

Riff off your partner’s selections and find a flow state 

A back-to-back won’t come to life if both DJs are playing exactly as they would alone. That said, all DJs have their strengths and weaknesses—tempos, styles, energy levels where they feel at home, or not. In a back-to-back, you never want to leave your partner stranded, stumped for what to play after your last record. At the same time, you shouldn’t compromise your sound for your partner’s sake. 

Here, too, it’s all about being perceptive to what your partner’s doing. Don’t just stand there sweating your next selection—listen to what your partner is playing, get into it, groove to it, and let your intuition guide your next selection. After a while, you’ll sense your partner’s vibe without having to actually think about it. This when a back-to-back set really takes off. 

Don’t be discouraged if things don’t happen easily. It can take a lot of time and effort for multiple DJs to get into a groove together. All-night back-to-backs are ideal for this reason. “If you can warm up together and ease into it, that tends to work really well,” said Batu. Try not to be shy in your communication with your partner. If you feel the set needs a fresh direction, let them know. 

“If you’re already engaged with how it’s going musically then the chances of it getting into a good flow state are better,” said Batu. “I’ve seen it before with a lot of back-to-backs. There are points as well sometimes where you can end up a bit stuck. They’re working it into a really good place, then it almost gets a bit lost, or stuck in this one thing. I think it’s really important to discuss these things, otherwise the moment slips by and the set doesn’t turn out as interesting as you want it to. If you’re playing with someone you don’t know too well, it might feel a little, well, not polite. But if you chat about these things as you’re playing it keeps it interesting.” 

Don’t be too eager in the mix

A big part of DJing is choosing when to make your transition. Mixing out in the last 90 seconds of each track every time will not make for a dynamic set. But there’s nothing worse than someone mixing out of your track too soon, or right before the good part. So how to find a happy balance? 

This is another area where clear communication really helps. If you like flying through tracks quickly, you could suggest to your partner ahead of time that you do fast mixes, and tell them they can mix out of your tunes as fast as they like. If you’ve got four minutes left on your partner’s track but your spidey sense tells you to mix out, get your tune ready and ask your partner what they think.

“I find that sometimes the energy in a back-to-back is so high, so exciting, that a lot of people tend to mix a little too early,” said Berlin-based DJ and producer Mor Elian. “Of course, not everyone, not always. I personally like to take my time a little bit. I’m a little protective of my tracks, so I like to ask the other DJ, ‘Would you mind waiting till this part plays out?’ Usually I’ll point at the CDJ, and say, ‘That’s a really nice part, anytime after that,’ or, ‘This is a really hard part to mix in, I’d recommend mixing here or here.’ Sometimes when you do it a couple times it seems like people get that vibe in their head and they become a little more relaxed and patient.” 

Mumdance added that, if your partner is playing their own new track, or a new one on their label, you should be especially wary of mixing out too soon. 

Keep your hands off your partner’s transition

If your partner’s clanging a mix, it can be tempting to swoop in. But nine times out of ten you’re better off standing back, letting them handle it, and saying something reassuring to them afterwards. If they’re mixing out of your tune and the two start to fall out of time, it can feel natural to reach over and adjust the platter or the jog wheel on your deck, especially if you can clearly hear which one’s too fast or too slow.

All too often, though, they’ll think the same thing at the same time and make a correction on their side. Even if your fix works, being rescued might make your partner feel embarrassed or micromanaged. Long term, this kind of booth tension is worse for your set than a couple bad mixes. 

So on the question of whether to fix your partner’s mix, our advice is: don’t. But with two possible exceptions: your partner has admitted to having a rough night and is receptive to being helped (something that can happen to just about anyone). Or if your partner is inebriated, flubbing mixes left and right. In this case, it’s their own fault, and so you might need to take drastic measures.

When it’s not your turn, act natural and give your partner space

What you do with yourself when you’re not mixing is really up to you. Some people like to stay physically present, standing by the decks and tweaking the EQ. (This works a lot better if each DJ stays on the same deck, or decks, all night, that way you each have your own zone and you’re not crowding each other.) If you and the other DJ are good friends, it could be fine to stand there chatting and joking around. Nathan Micay said he likes to act as casual as possible while the other person mixes. Mumdance, meanwhile, likes to take a full step back from the decks to give his partner space. Whatever you do, the important thing is you look natural and don’t distract your partner.

Leave the mixer the way you found it

No one likes bringing up the fader on what should be a seamless blend, then realizing no one can hear it because the last DJ left the filter open. Before you pass the headphones back, try to leave the mixer in a neutral state. Make sure the cue volume isn’t too loud. Turn off filters and effects on inactive channels. For good measure, put the EQs back to 12 o’clock. If you threw the CDJ into reverse, remember to toggle it back. If you were messing with WIDE mode, return the tempo range to whatever your partner’s been working with… you get the idea.

Maintain good vibes in the booth

No matter how experienced you are, playing music for people, whether they’re in front of you or listening (or watching) from home, will play on your nerves. It only takes a minor slip-up, even one imperceptible to anyone but you, to give you what golfers call “the yips.” Sometimes you have an off-night and botch a few mixes and selections. Sometimes it’s mostly imaginary. Even the vague sense that you’re not connecting with the crowd can be enough to sour the mood. In any kind of performance, the feeling that things aren’t going well can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

This is all especially important in a back-to-back. With your body language and your booth chat, you and your partner influence each other’s mood, and your collective mood influences the music, and subsequently the party. So do what you can to keep things upbeat. If your partner makes a mistake, tell them “don’t sweat it.” If you make a mistake, flash a self-deprecating smile and move on. Try to appear at ease, like you’re chilling and having fun. Granted, given the pressure of many gigs, this will often be its own kind of performance. But it can work to keep the prangs at bay. 

Playing with a good friend makes this a lot easier. Take Shanti Celeste and Peach. “Serena [Peach] and I have this game we play,” Shanti said. “It started at this one particular gig that was really, really bad. I’d just bought a new pair of headphones and wanted to use them, but Serena wanted to use hers, so for the first time in a back-to-back we played with separate headphones plugged into the mixer. But I kept passing my headphones to her every time I mixed, and she’d crack up because she didn’t need them. She started doing it back to me. Now it’s a game we play: you pass your headphones to the other person, if they take them then they fell for it, and you get a point, you know? We have little games like that. Or we just dance and make each other laugh.”

Shanti reckons this is the beauty of the back-to-back: even if the gig is hard, you have a friend there to keep you grounded and having a good time. 

“If the gig is not great and you’re playing back-to-back with someone, the very fact that you’re playing back-to-back makes it more fun,” she says. “If I’m DJing by myself and the gig isn’t great, I get really sad and insecure. I’ve gotten much better at managing that now and I realize that some gigs are just not as good as others. But it’s a lot harder to motivate yourself than it is to motivate another person.

“If I see that Serena’s struggling, or the other way around, we can motivate each other and have fun together just as friends, you know what I mean? Which immediately lifts the mood, because you have someone to laugh with and have a good time with. Also, when you’re playing back-to-back, the moment when you’re not playing, that’s when you can take a second to be grateful that you’re there, and that you have the job you have, and that it’s not so bad—something you otherwise wouldn’t be able to do. You’re having fun with a friend, and you have the time and space to have a moment with yourself and say, ‘It’s OK, don’t worry, it’s cool.’”

Whatever you do, do not remove the wrong USB

The back-to-back set’s ultimate “oh shit” moment, resulting in either an emergency loop, or, in the case of older CDJs, total silence. It might seem like we should be past this by now, but the truth is that killing the music by taking out the wrong USB—that is, the one containing the file that’s currently being played through the speakers—remains a major threat to back-to-back sets, at least when CDJs are involved.

“I came up with a genius solution to this years ago after an incident at a major festival in Belgium led to a good chewing out,” said Nathan Micay. “Which I deserved, because I took out the wrong USB in front of 2,000 people.”

The main cause of this threat, of course, is that so many people use the same, or similar-looking, USB sticks. Micay’s solution: buy a USB with a loop on the end (a very common feature) and thread a plastic zip-tie through it. Many DJs attach other kinds of unique charms to their sticks. Any dangly old thing will work, so long as it tells you at a glance which one is yours and which one isn’t.

Maybe that’s enough. You could make it a rule to never touch anyone’s USB but your own. But just for the sake of argument, let’s say you’re having a back-to-back and all the USBs currently plugged in are identical. How can you make sure you don’t pull out the wrong one?

Before you reach for that stick, check to see if the CDJ is set to USB or LINK. If it’s the former, that means the USB you are about to remove is playing through the CDJ into which it is plugged. Look at the interface. Is anything playing? If so, see if it’s playing through a channel whose fader is up on the mixer. If it is, do not remove that USB. If the CDJ is set to LINK, that means it’s playing through one of the other CDJs. If there are multiple CDJs, check to see the player number in the upper right-hand corner, then find which CDJ is assigned that player number. The USB plugged into that one is the one you shouldn’t pull out.

If you want to be absolutely sure the USB you’re about to remove is not the one playing, press the “USB Stop” button. If you hear a dip in volume, that is indeed the one currently playing. Of course, the crowd will hear that dip, too, so you’d want to use this method sparingly. All that in mind, Micay is right—it’s probably easiest to just throw some flair on your drive.

Words: Will Lynch 

Mumdance, Alienata, B.Traits photo credit: Camille Blake