Ah, DJing. With the advent of the 21st century, the DJ has supplanted the traditional musician when it comes to playing live performances, replacing guitars twangs and drum beats with electronic sounds and knob turning.
And talking about knobs, have you ever wondered why DJs turn knobs when performing? This is something that I always wondered when I was a little kid.
After all, aside from talking a little bit on the mic, the only thing that a DJ does is tinker away in his controller, turning knobs while bobbing his head in sync with the beat.
The truth is that knobs are primarily used to modify the mix being played in the speakers. In other words, the knobs modify the equalizer, or EQ for short, which makes the track have different sound frequencies, such as higher or lower bass, lower treble, higher mids, etcetera.
Most modern controllers also have other knobs that have a diverse set of uses, like for example the vinyl speed adjust knob.
The fact that DJs need to properly mix 2 tracks while at the same time properly adjusting the EQ levels means that DJing can be pretty challenging for the average newbie, but as long as you know what everything in your controller does and practice often, you should improve very quickly.
If you want to know more about why DJs turn knobs, what do the knobs do, and how to use the EQ effectively, please read on!
So as I said above, the main reason why DJs turn knobs so often is that they are changing the sound frequencies in their sound mix.
As you probably know already, DJing is the act of mixing different songs or parts of a song that complement each other, which creates a completely new piece of music.
The DJ does this for the entirety of his set, constantly removing and introducing different songs, making sure they go together seamlessly, while at the same time adding several small touches to spice up the mix.
One of these touches is working the EQ, short for an equalizer. This is a part of the DJs gear that controls the sound frequencies that are outputted from the speakers or PAs.
There are 3 main types of sound frequencies mentioned in the music industry and the DJing world as well: Bass, Mids, and Treble. Each of these can be modified by the DJs gear.
Bass refers to the lowest notes in the mix. To get a little bit technical, bass refers to the frequencies between 16 to 256 Hz, and it is usually modified as a way to transition from one song to another.
The bass band is also often adjusted when the DJ desired to use the bass or drum notes of song #1 and use them for song # 2. The end result is a symphony of complementing sounds that bring out the best of each passage.
The mids feature frequencies between 256 to about 2000 Hz. The mids are usually adjusted to provide split-second adjustments by muting one song’s mid-band, providing some small touches as the mix goes on.
The mid is the frequency that most stands out of all the three. The treble features frequencies higher than 2000 Hz, and like the frequencies above, it is used for split-second adjustments in the mix, and when possible, a possible combination of the trebles of both channels.
(NOTE: keep in mind that these are the 3 main bands used in DJing. There are higher-end controllers that actually do feature a more comprehensive band adjustment though.)
The trick with using the EQ is to actually feature sounds that are balanced and symphonic, while at the same time making sure that the bass notes of the 2 channels are as aligned as possible.
When this happens, the average layperson will think that the DJ is just turning knobs to look cool, when in fact he’s mixing smoothly enough that he doesn’t notice the EQ adjustments.
Now, just like beatmatching, properly working the EQ can be pretty challenging and intimidating, especially if you are a beginner. Thankfully, as long as you mix often, you will be able to get the hang of it quickly. Below I provide some tips to ensure your EQ adjustments are as smooth and as complementary as possible.
One of the easiest ways to start learning about EQing and correct adjustments is to play around with the bass frequency. As you probably know already, the bass frequency outputs part of the rhythm section, which includes the bass and/or drum notes.
These provide the constant beat to the songs, and swapping the bass notes from one passage to another is a very effortless way to add some character to your sets.
To start, simply play channel #1 and channel # 2. Reduce channel #2 mids and highs, while having channel #1 playing. Then you are going to reduce channel #1 bass notes, leaving you with the mid’s and highs.
After this, introduce channel #2 bass notes. The end result should be using part of the first song’s high notes with the second song’s base.
Doing this is an excellent way to introduce yourself to EQing, and you could always try doing the same with the other frequencies. The trick is switching tracks to know what works with a certain adjustment and what doesn’t.
One of the things that I often advise new DJs is to be watchful of vocals when they are mixing. Not saying that it can’t work out, but the mixing of vocals (especially in the same frequency band) often results in a disjointed mix that shuts off the crowd.
The only situation where I do this is if I’m going to be transitioning from 1 song to another in quick succession, or if one of the vocals are soft that the combination isn’t as noticeable, and even then, it’s recommended that you try hushing one of the track’s vocals.
The same thing goes if both tracks' midrange is aggressive and dominant.
Another thing to always keep in mind when working the EQ is to treat it as if you are adjusting a crossfader. What I’m trying to say is that you should make sure you are keeping the mix as balanced as possible.
More is not always better when it comes to working the EQ, and if for example, you are going to be lowering the mid’s of one song, you should increase the mid’s output of the second one. Doing so keeps the sound as full and rich as possible.
There are a few situations where you want the opposite effect though. The first one is if you are trying to introduce a slower song to the mix.
This is something that you might want to do depending on how the crowd is feeling: if you have played a lot of fast songs in succession, it might be wise to let the crowd “rest” and introduce something slower, and a way of doing so is adjusting the EQ to lower the frequencies that are most vibrant and aggressive.
The second situation is the type of music that you tend to play, which brings me to my next point.
Something that is very important is knowing the type of music that you are thinking of playing. Many DJs now specialize or prefer playing certain music genres, and the ideal EQ adjustments will all vary between them.
House and Tech House DJs tend to feature longer song passages and seamless blends without adding too much complexity into the mix, meaning that their EQ adjustments tend to be more subtle and gradual.
In comparison, mainstream EDM tends to feature a higher amount of complexity, especially in the mid and treble bands, and some DJs tend to use the EQ in a more extreme or radical fashion, kind of like a crossfader.
In short, the music that you are thinking of playing will definitely influence how you use the EQ.