Learning to mix only in your headphones is totally possible and is a helpful skill for DJs to have.
It will work well for practicing DJing quietly, but also it will prepare you for gigs when the DJ booth monitors are weak or non-existent and plan on DJing with in-ear monitors.
In fact, that’s how I do it most of the time because I can’t DJ too loudly once the kids are asleep.
What you’re about to read are the descriptions of the setups you can use when you want to practice at home, but it’s too late for you to play as loud as you usually do.
The setups you can use to DJ with just headphones are:
- DDJ-400 solution
- Master cue solution
- Split cue solution
- Traktor solution
Without further ado, just pick one that fits you and get to work!
Let’s examine how you can do this on Pioneer DDJ-400.
Song A (left side) is playing a tune, so you’re ready to Cue up and bring in Song B (right side).
Adjust the headphone signal knob in-between ‘Cue’ and ‘Mix.’ Ensure you’ve only selected the Cue button on Song B, not Song A. Otherwise, you won’t be able to listen to the beat you are cueing up that good.
Right now, you should be able to hear both the live Song A and be able to listen to yourself cueing Song B, by utilizing either the Cue button or jog wheel.
Begin cueing the new tune and use the headphone settings noted earlier to jump to a beat and begin beat matching.
Once you’re happy with the beats being in sync, it’s time to proceed to the live mix.
Before playing with the crossfader and any other transition routines as EQing, set the new headphone settings in-between ‘Mix’ and ‘Master.’
That will enable you to hear your new Song B getting into the blend when the crossfader begins mixing it with Song A.
Master Cue Solution
First of all, make sure the “Master Cue” function is on (the one above the Sampler Volume knob).
Next, use the “Headphones mixing” knob below the button to go back and forth between the cue and the Master output.
- Cue – the channels you have with the cue function on – just use the next song for this
- Master output – what everybody is hearing
Start with the knob all the way to the left to give your next track a swift listen, check your levels, and get your opening point of the tune cued up.
Then, move the knob in roughly the middle. Different DJs have various opinions about whether you want to have the knob more on the left side so you can quietly hear the master, or, moreover, to the master side so that it’s more noticeable when your beatmatching is slipping out of sync.
I like to be either precisely in the middle or more to the right side, but play around with it yourself and see what you’re most satisfied with.
Press play on the song at the proper moment (start of a phrase, for example) and then listen to both the cue and the Master and ensure you match the beats as you should.
Then you’re ready to bring up the new song into the mix. Note, if you hold your knob in the center between the cue/master, as you bring up the fresh tune, that tune is going to get much louder relative to the main output, because now you’re receiving the output of the song from two sources together.
I like to turn off the cue on the channel so that what I’m hearing is what the audience is hearing. If the mixing is a bit complex or the next track is way quieter, I may go back towards the cue to better hear the next tune and make sure I can grab my beatmatching drifting before the crowd hears it. Still, for the most part, when both tracks are going full-on, I like to have the headphones working only the master output.
Then mix out the outgoing tune, and begin fist-pumping to the new track.
Split Cue Solution
This is how my friend does it.
His controller is plugged to some speakers with a headphone jack, and his headphones are connected continuously.
When he desires to mix, he has a set of budget earbuds (a la these) that he connects into the cue segment on his controller.
He puts one of the earbuds in one ear and then his primary over-the-ear headphones over that. This way, he can cue up with the earbuds and yet hear the master mix on the large headphones.
That explains the difficulty of getting your timing right when releasing in on the one, hearing the suitable levels, and, most importantly, seeing if your transitions are going right.
There is a feature on his Nexus 900 called Split Cue. I haven’t seen it on many controllers. What does it do? It plays the set in one ear, and your cue in the other.
He began on an old Rane Xone 68 that had it, and he claims it was great because you didn’t need to have your bedroom monitors on at all, making late-night sessions much more considerate of the family.
He says that with his technique, it’s 99% probable to learn, but hard to make a mix. He now has a Pioneer CDJ-900 Nexus, and while he does keep it in the apartment from time to time, if he craves to do any mix recording, he pulls it out to the garage where it won’t wake up his wife.
If you live in an apartment block, and bass after hours is pretty much a no-go, this is also a solid option.
I must mention, though, that this is for “leave your cue headphone over one ear all the time, and utilize the cue button to turn on and off the cue” crew, rather than the “move the headphone from your ear when not cueing and leave cue turned on all the time” guys.
This system also works at clubs with a crappy booth monitors (as long as your soundcard can support a booth, headphone, and master out, or the venue’s controller has sufficient routing).
If you’re working with Traktor, at least 24-Bit/96kHz soundcard and/or an external mixer setup with T. Scratch, with a little adjustment, this should work perfectly.
Things you’ll need:
- A set of big-cup DJ headphones or studio monitor closed-back headphones (I have used Audio-Technica ATH-M70X that has a pretty reliable comfort level);
- A set of low profile earbud-style headphones (your regular ones should be fine);
- 2xRCA or 2×1/4″ (male) >> 1/8″ or 1/4″ stereo (female) converter. The 2-lead male ends should equal the style/size of your soundcard outs; the stereo-female end must match your DJ/Studio monitor connection).
How to set it up:
- Set master out in Traktor to one set of 1/4″ outputs on your soundcard,
- Assign your monitor output to the soundcard headphone output.
- Connect your 2×1/4″ male>>1/8″ stereo-female converter to the soundcard outs set to your master.
- Connect DJ/Studio monitor headphones with the stereo end of the converter.
- Then connect the earbuds with the headphone output on your soundcard.
- Before mixing, put one earbud in the ear you usually use for headphone cueing and place DJ/Studio monitor headphones over both ears (earbud too)
And that’s it; from then on, it’s DJing as usual.
In use, this system requires a little getting used to, and I notice that it works better if you have the master-out volume in Traktor moved somewhat over to the ear that has the earbud in it.
When your cue button is not turned on in Traktor, the drop in master volume through the ear with the earbud attached in it is not as important.
It’s slightly different from mixing with monitors and cue headphones, but close enough not to feel too overwhelmed while mixing.
Advice for DJing with Headphones Only
Get a set of comfy headphones
If you want to DJ only with a set of headphones for a short time, please buy suitable and spongy around the ears.
There’s barely anything worse than owning a set of budget headphones that squash and bind your ears back after 40 minutes of mixing.
Take regular breaks to prevent ear weakness
Ear weakness is dangerous, and loud music can affect your hearing. So what you will learn is that if you like loud music, as I do, you can merely take so much time to DJ in this fashion.
Have in mind how loud you adjust your volume. That will pay off because you can then listen to your mixes afterward without taking a substantial break from listening to sets.
To progress better, record your sets (you can do it on Rekordbox and every DJ software) so you can listen to them after you’re done. What I’ve found that works best is making shorter mixes (like 20-25 minutes) so that you can faster see where you’re wrong and correct it immediately in the next mix.
Practicing only with headphones can help with performing live
There might be a situation in club environments where you are faced with a problem with the DJ booth monitors (speakers). By this, I imply the monitors might not be there or might be too far away or even not working.
When you exercise with just headphones with the advice suggested above, utilizing the ‘cue-mix-master’ methods, this could be a lifesaver.
Try beat match by ear to help you DJing with just headphones
Rekordbox and other DJ software visually display the waveform of both songs in the mix. So when you’re mixing only with headphones, you can practice working with the visual waveform to equal the kick drum and snares.
Do not practice with that for a long time. Instead, learn how to use the pitch shift and jog wheel for beat matching. There’s no replacement for beat matching by ear.
Mixing only with headphones is possible, but all you really need are speakers that make sound and your headphones to prepare the next song.
The more advanced you get, the more you will desire “reference” monitors. These just help you to control frequency much better, like an excellent screen for photography.
But like everything artistic, don’t let the little things hold you back from learning. You’ll get there.
If you want to use your headphones only to mix on the fly and learn to match beats or hear what songs sound like in the right key (or alternative minor) or the wrong key, then get working. Learning will always serve you later, even if it’s not the optimal setup.