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DJing with Vinyl: How It Can Improve Your DJ Skills

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For me, it all began with vinyl. My first encounter with DJing was at high school when a friend showed me turntables, he’d received for Christmas, feels like a lifetime ago now. This ultimately led me down the path of turntablism, scratching and the art of juggling and mixing records. By the time I’d discovered House music I was completely hooked. Fast forward a few years and armed with a stack of records, I was shlepping bags of vinyl to spin in bars and clubs. However, around 2008 times moved on and technology evolved, I found myself buying less and less wax in favour of its digital counterpart for use with DJ software that were beginning to shape the industry. Sure, CDJs existed (for use with actual CDs, not USB sticks) however it wasn’t until I discovered Traktor and it’s Digital Vinyl System (DVS) that I truly moved into the digital realm. It was an exciting time and when I look back, I feel like it was the precipice of DJing transitioning from analogue to digital for ever.

It’s not like my love for vinyl ever waned, I’ve always had a pair of turntables and a mixer set up everywhere I’ve lived; believe me moving house with a record collection is painful! Plus, I’m a sucker for music technology and DJing digitally provides many creative options. However, when the pandemic hit and gigs got cancelled, I found I wasn’t searching for new music online, rather I was rediscovering a bunch of old club records I owned that hadn’t been played for years. Before I knew it, I was dusting of my record collection and mixing with vinyl again.

Here are some my favourite reasons why I think spinning wax is not only great for developing your DJ skills, but can also help shape you as a DJ.

Use Your Body, Feel the Music

Today, the most popular and easiest way to DJ is by playing music files from a USB stick. Pioneer’s Rekordbox software has done amazing things for managing playlists through to playing your tracks at a gig. Personally, DJing with USB sticks and CDJs had made DJing highly automated and routine-like. I had all the tools I needed to make DJing as easy as possible; screens easily displayed helpful information such as BPM and waveforms for each track. Furthermore, the precision of CDJs makes it easier to stay in phrase. These tools are amazing; however, I was finding I needed to be challenged further.

Vinyl is an analogue format, therefore no screens, no BPM displays, no looping. Vinyl is raw and unforgiving, it’s a hands-on physical experience with a delicate skill requiring manual practice. This technique is the main reason I fell in love with vinyl. Even though the concept of DJing is primarily the same with vinyl to digital, the use of vinyl pushes you to think about DJing in a completely different way. It forces you to trust your body, to use your ears and focus your concentration on the amplified sound immitted from the record. Unlike digital formats with visual feedback from screens, the sound of your beats is essentially the only thing you can respond to, the same thing as the audience who are (hopefully) moving groovin’ to the tunes!

Heavy Records = Heavy Selections

Vinyl is really heavy to carry compared to USB sticks or a laptop. So, when you’re off to play a gig you can’t take your entire collection, if you’re brave maybe 2 bags of records. Effectively this forces you to develop your track selection by being super selective about which tracks you will take to a gig. It’s the traditional way of creating a playlist before there was Traktor or Rekordbox. Although you need to make sure that every record you take you will play. Additionally, vinyl isn’t cheap, in Australia $20-30 will set you back for a new 12” release, equates to a minimum of $20 for four tracks. With this in mind, you need to be confident that when you’re selecting records that each record has a minimum of 2-3 tunes that you will actually play in a DJ set otherwise it’s almost not worth it, unless of course that one track is absolutely banging. Ultimately the weight of records informs your record selection, and this limitation can help make you a better DJ. You won’t be able to easily reach for another track in a pool of 5000 tracks on your USB stick, you need to make good use of the records you have in your bag only!

Take Pride in Your Collection

When purchasing digital music, tracks tend to become disposable, and you may only play them a few times not long before you feel the urge to buy a tonne more. It doesn’t take long to fill a hard drive with 20,000 tracks. I’m just as guilty of purchasing more music than I can play because I enjoy discovering new music. However, owning a physical record collection is a whole different experience as you develop a sense of pride and you connect emotionally and physically with your record collection, something you can’t do with MP3s. Building a collection of tunes one record at-a-time informs a new perspective; it ultimately builds confidence in your selection throughout a DJ set. As your collection develops, you’ll have new tunes you want to add to your sets whilst still playing the older ones, informing a gradual more meaningful evolution of your DJ sets. This also helps to builds your DJ profile as people will become familiar with your style, through your track selection and the progressive evolution of your sets. One way to know how a great DJ stands out amongst the crowd is by how recognizable their DJ sets are. This can be attributed to a confident overall ‘sound’ or vibe that can only be achieved through the subtle evolution of one’s track selection, and not by playing new tracks at every opportunity!

There’s also lots of artists who release their music exclusively on vinyl and these tracks are unlikely to be available digitally through Beatport or Traxsource. These tracks are generally limited to very small numbers and are unlikely to be repressed. Artists do this because they want their music to remain exclusive, in turn making it rather cool for DJs who are lucky enough to get their hands on a copy, it’s unlikely your DJ mates will have it.

Infectious Fun

There are many other benefits that you can get from DJing on a couple of turntables with some records, but more importantly the level of physical and mental stimulation you gain when spinning wax is like no other kind of DJ experience. Trust me when I say it’s a thoroughly immersive experience that takes you away from reality as you ‘get in the zone’ focusing on what you’re doing, listening and responding to the music. Everything from the time choosing the records at home, carrying those records to the gig, putting a record on the deck, choosing the next record, cuing it up, mixing it in, feeling that sense of success as you get the mix right and dancing to it – the whole theatre invokes a level of enjoyment and confidence that will inform a greater happiness and your audience will see and feel it too!

Record Stores

Record stores – yes, those shops that actually sell records! Sure, you can go online and buy your records, naturally if it’s not available locally, although there really is something to be said about going into a record store, having a chat with the store owner and getting some recommendations. Record store owners are like qualified music taste makers, they have their ear on the pulse and really know what’s up. They have broad musical knowledge across a wide range of genres, so it’s likely you’ll discover something new. Buying records from record stores you can walk into also has that social interaction and provides an experience that I think is really important to our community. It builds relationships, creates opportunities and it’s great for the local and cultural economy.

There really is something to be said about stripping away all the screens, tech and USB sticks and going back to the bare bones of traditional DJing. Now, don’t get the wrong idea I’m certainly not against digital DJing by any means, it remains an important part of my DJ career. Perhaps the best way I can summarise this is by saying; DJing with vinyl won’t make a bad DJ good, but it will make a good DJ better!

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