Planning your DJ set Vs. Spinning “on the fly”

This is a hot topic that everybody seems to have an opinion on. I put up a facebook post regarding this subject and received widely varying responses. Some are completely against it, while others think it depends on the situation.  I thought I’d share my thoughts on the subject.

The prepared set

You may or may not know that I come from a background of playing guitar in bands, so let’s look at things from this point of view.

In a band, you practice your ass off. You work out every possible kink before you go live & you plan out your setlist before you ever step on stage. I’d say that 98% of every band you’ve seen play live planned ahead to give you the best show possible. Think about that. Every great show you’ve seen was planned ahead of time. There may have been unplanned “moments” within the gig, but the show was well rehearsed. So why is it so taboo for a DJ to plan her sets ahead of time?

Daft Punk, Deadmau5, Skrillex & many other EDM artists prepare ahead of time to make their set pretty much plug & play.  This is also done to make sure the visuals sync up properly. In my opinion, this is fine (within reason). It’s like watching a play or going to the opera. If anything, the preparation makes for a better show. Great movies are all built around preparation & happy accidents that happen along the way. Once the movie is released, that’s it. You like it or you don’t. The personal beef that I have with prepared shows, is if a performer is acting like they are doing something they aren’t. If someone was hired to DJ & they just bring a pre-mixed CD & wave their arms around, I’m not ok with that. Preparing & cheating are 2 different things.

As a rule of thumb, I’d say that if you are new to DJing live, there are a number of advantages to preparing your set:

* You have less technical stuff to worry about & hopefully all that practice in your bedroom pays off to where it becomes instinct.

* If you don’t know your tracks inside & out playing “on the fly” is going to sound pretty amateur.

* Just playing through 1 track and blending the ends with another track smoothly doesn’t make for a great set. So with some
preparation, it’s possible to turn an average set into something special.

* It also helps to work out in advance if a certain track fits with certain tracks better when slightly pitched up or down.


“Seat of your pants” mixing

A prepared DJ knows when to get in & out of a track for perfect transitions & dictates the breaks & builds in their set instead of relying on each song to do the work on the dance floor “as is”. You really need to know your tracks for this to work on the fly, but if it’s done right, you can go places the “prepped” sets could never go. You just can’t predict a crowd or your mood in advance. When you know your tracks, this is definitely where the magic can happen but an unskilled DJ who isn’t very familiar with their tracks is going to fall flat when they try to wing it.

The reason we like to hear a set created “on the fly” is because we like the idea that the DJ is reacting to the crowd. Sometimes you realize the prepared set isn’t what the audience is needing and want to switch gears. There is an enormous difference between playing “on the fly” and “winging it”. One is like a skilled guitar player creating a special moment by playing a rehearsed part a different way. If you don’t have the skill to do that, these moments stand to be pretty embarrassing & will only make you look unprofessional.
Best of Both Worlds

My approach tends to be a hybrid of preparation & knowing my tracks. If practiced enough to know all the mix points & which tracks work best with which and what EQ settings work best in a given situation, it’s pretty easy to go in any direction you’d like.

I like to  re-edit my songs to work best for my style of playing. I may cut out a vocal I don’t like or extend I part I do like. If the track has a weird arrangement, I’ll edit myself a cleaner intro for easier mixing.

Often times I’ll have “mini-sets”, which is 2 or 3 tracks that I know work great together, then I can transition from 1 mini set to another at a moments notice if the dance floor isn’t responding to what I am currently playing. With a 100% prepared set, you’re pretty locked in to doing what you planned with no exit strategy. Bad idea. This is the reason some people frown on pre-planned sets.

So when I look at the preplanned set vs the “on the fly” set, I’d say neither model is perfect. I choose the middle ground of preparation, knowing your tracks & being flexible enough to switch gears when needed.

I find that spending the time to do some preparation also makes me much more familiar with my tracks. I’ll try things out with a few tracks in Ableton so I can visually see how certain songs go together. This sticks with you when you pull out that song in a set and helps you make better decisions instinctively.

Knowing where you are headed makes for a more relaxed experience in the moment & gives you the confidence to take more risks, because you know you are prepared enough to recover from any mishaps.

Finally, everybody has to start somewhere, so I suggest you use whichever technique will give the audience the best experience of you in this moment. Push yourself to always improve & don’t be afraid to take a risk, but also know your limits before they become very apparent in the clubs.

And please, for the love of God… Don’t fake it.

Happy DJing,





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