I think there are two kinds of audiences: those who desire what they expect, and those who desire what they don’t expect.
That said, most people want a DJ who will get them to twist their bodies like they have an alien in them.
For a DJ set to be good, it is all about acknowledging that you are a part of something much bigger than you. It is about recognizing that the performance does not begin and end with your skills, ideas, music, and ego.
It’s a tip of the hat to your teachers and peers. It is a way of saying that nothing is subordinate to anything else.
The continuous series of segments, from record to record to record, is just a different way of expressing that we’re all in this together.
After a few philosophical thoughts, shall we continue with all the elements that make a DJ set good, or even great? Let’s go.
What Makes a DJ Set Good in General
Stating that the DJ set is “good “or “great” is subjective, BUT… There are elements that all good DJ sets have in common.
Starting the set with good/fun energy, and adding some unexpected mixes/mixing styles will always get the audience hooked from the start. Then track selection and timing on the mixes. Not necessarily timing it technically perfect, but knowing when to bring in a new track or mix the two to create something memorable.
In most deep-house, trance, tech-house, and progressive house, the last one and a half minutes are the winning spots. Many producers will make intros and outros that are way too long.
Many of us also love when genres can be blended. Sometimes, you don’t realize it’s changed because of the way it’s mixed into the set.
It might be because the mix searches limits of sounds or techniques or because the DJ set was picked correctly for the event and timeslot.
It could also be because of the location, atmosphere, and people align perfectly with the promoter and the performers.
Every set I’ve thought was legendary, was because I was being exposed to new sounds with a room full of people who were also having their minds blown.
Unique Song Selection
First of all, and probably this is obvious, but great music. The best DJ sets I’ve listened to aren’t where the artist picks out whatever is significant at the time. It’s better when they take the time and dig for exciting and unique tunes.
It’s like the DJ is telling you, “I love this music, and I want to share it with you.”
One of the most enjoyable things a DJ can do is to blow people away with a bunch of tunes no one has heard before. It just bothers me when I can’t get my hands on that setlist later.
Most of the time, people want to sing along, but the songs you play in between that people have never heard can set you apart.
As Laidback Luke once said, “It’s about those tunes between, not the hits.”
I won’t fight the fact that playing to 5,000 people twelve times a month and 130 nights per year could require some streamlining and some smoothing of the edges.
Andy Warhol said he loved Coca-Cola because “it tastes the same everywhere you go.” Things worked out well for Coca-Cola and Andy. But there seems to be a heated contest for becoming the Coca-Cola of DJing – everyone’s working on their “brand.”
I favor surprises more.
Programming and Arrangement
By this, I mean putting those tunes together in a way that makes sense. A lot of big “festival” DJs (or more precisely – DJ producers) just play bangers end to end. It gets boring quickly.
A DJ set should almost turn out like a symphony. I’ve heard sets with the same songs, but with different orders, and I usually prefer one of the mixes way more than the other. Some tunes just set up other songs so well, whether it be keeping the energy up or bringing it down.
The form, in my opinion, is possibly the most underappreciated art in DJing.
At a live event, it’s excellent when the set starts with the first few tunes planned out, as this serves to establish the vibe that the DJ is looking to set with the audience.
Many DJs question how much of their set should be pre-programmed and how much should be a live pick. Finding a beautiful medium between these two is key to a thriving mix.
You can play what you think is the most incredible set planned out and discover that it doesn’t work on the given night. Alternatively, if you go in completely unprepared, you may miss great set opportunities that will take the set to a higher level.
At a live event, artists may shift from original plans based on people’s reactions (more on this later), or they might get into the flow and wonder while at the moment, but the best DJ sets always were those when the DJ has some kind of vision of how everything’s going to play out.
For example, when I DJ for friends, I have smaller sets in my head already. I know I’m going to go with these 5-6 tracks in a row, but I won’t plan my entire set out. I’ve only ever DJ’d house parties, but I am working on getting my first club gig.
One of the best set-programmers of all time is DJ Vibe.
Quick Tips For DJs
- Set up your playlists for the set. You want to be able to reach what you wish to quickly and at the moment without scrolling through your library. Try creating sub-crates with particular sub-genres or changes.
- Usually, the crowd isn’t ready to go to full energy as soon as they get into the club. Don’t overdo it if you’re performing first.
- Also, consider who you’re playing after and before. What is their style? How can you compliment the DJs you’re sharing the evening with?
It’s truly amazing when a DJ takes you on a journey by transferring the energy seamlessly from one song to the next while maintaining a high level of style and sophistication.
Tension and Release
Builds-ups, and bring downs. Dramatic changes can take your breath away. The energy comes in waves. It keeps things exciting and makes a DJ mix something more than just a bunch of songs.
DJ set should have stages of tension and release allowing you time to recover from intense dancing without losing the vibe or making you feel bored; the right consistency and change of energy when necessary.
If people feel like they can’t leave the club even for a single minute because they might miss something phenomenal, then the DJ is doing their job correctly.
For me, it’s surprising like I can just be dancing along on the dance floor enjoying the music, then BAM! An impressive drop/song comes on that’s completely different from the one before it. It makes me step back and appreciate the work the DJ is putting in.
Quick Tips for DJs
- Don’t be scared to use something that’s working. If the people are enjoying a specific break, loop it, and repeat it an extra time before letting the next part of the tune drop.
- Alternatively, if you see that the crew is exhausting, play something a little more energetic. Or, slow the set down lightly to give them a break before bringing it back up again.
People can be crazy about all the big drops, but if you continuously keep it at 110%, it will start to lose its purpose. We all like an element of surprise in techno sets. And to some people, DJs who play the same style for 2 hours can be a bit annoying, even if they’re okay.
I love Rodhad’s productions, but his sets are too generic for me sometimes. It’s the same for 2 hours. Some people prefer that to go deep into the zone, but I need a bit more diversity, while still keeping a specific line in a set.
Smooth and Seamless vs. Innovative Transitions
People usually enjoy it when tracks are so well-transitioned so that you don’t even realize that the DJ has moved on to the next song.
I say “usually” because it actually depends on the genre.
After Madeon’s gig, I was convinced that instant changes at the right moment can take a party to whole new levels. But if the genre doesn’t suit it, then slow transitions are amateurish and annoying. Madeon’s party was some kind of electropop, and when I listen to deep-house or tropical house DJ set and don’t even realize songs are changing, I call that success.
Thus, some genres even depend on excellent, smooth transitions, and maybe a bit on-the fly remixing.
Harmonic (Clean) Mixing
Something crucial a lot of DJs seem to ignore is harmonic mixing.
Transitions in set sound so much smoother when the two tracks are mixed in the same key, or at least fairly close (off by a fourth or fifth) that they blend the chords of the first song with the bass of another.
My friend was once playing some Psy breaks in a college town club. I was sitting at the bar, and one of the people sitting next to me thought he was playing the same tracks over and over again. His ignorance was the best compliment he could get.
Equalizing BPMs and phrasing is the initial step in a good DJ mix, but consider the keys your songs are in for taking it to the next level. Like an orchestra playing in separate keys, blending two songs out of the key is going to sound clashing and make for a poor transition.
Quick Tips for DJs
- Before you get on the stage, listen to every track in your case. Get to know the breakpoints, moments where there is an important transition, a breakdown, or a shift in direction.
- Get to perceive the intros and outros for each tune and set up some hot cues to immediately access these on the fly.
- If you’re setting up a set that features a lot of various genres or you’ve read the people and decided you need to swift direction, think about bringing in some transition tracks. Having these unique tracks ready to go is the right way to bridge various energy levels, tempos, or rhythms.
Identify records that have changes inbuilt or have a good feel and not too many recognizable harmonies. Keep them up to your sleeve for transitions.
Likely, you won’t play these songs in their fullness. They are just there to connect to your next big hit. But, they can be useful to give the listener some mental space to make the transition.
It’s all about:
Whether you mix in key, jump from one track to another, or prefer long transitions, it doesn’t matter. The tracks have to fit together and work together.
Good DJs can keep a 3-hour set running without disrupting the flow of the music. I can’t stand it when you go to a club, and the DJ is just pushing play to a new track once the other one ends.
Flow makes the entire thing for me. Going from a progressive house song to a trap song and back to future bass is just sloppy.
It’s not about jumping around the energy levels too much like up, down, up, down. It should be organic or steady.
Telling a Story With a DJ Set
There are no certain rights or wrongs with DJ sets, and they will vary depending on the genre or event you are playing.
It’s all about taking the crowd on a musical journey and telling a story through the DJ mix. Ups and downs and twists and turns. A good DJ set finds a groove in some emotional pathway in your brain and takes it for a ride so that playing the tunes separately, or even changing the order, could never do.
The way one tune blends into another should add something to both tracks and necessarily make a whole new track for the transition period.
A DJ mix that tells a story (even in an abstract sense) through controlling energy and creating good cultural references is one of the most crucial elements of DJing.
For example, Daft Punk from the early days (1997 Essential mix) and Jeff Mills are exceptional at this. I would even argue that Above & Beyond and old Skream do this successfully. Also, check out the old Larry Levian mixing. He was the master of this.
Old Bangers With Different BPM in Sets
I want to hear both tracks and curation; after all, you can’t have one without another.
I want the artist to teach me something, amaze me, and pull out a 15-year-old track I’ve never heard.
It usually makes a lot of sense to add to a set a few throwback tunes. That gives your mixing a special touch, as well as giving your audience that nostalgia-high.
Or, when DJs include a few tracks that are half or double their primary BPM. Grouping those into sub-crates for fast access makes sure they don’t clutter up their playlist.
As long as the genre’s changes are fluid and not random, that will be an enormous plus.
If the Set Doesn’t Include a Lot of the Top 40 Songs
Okay, this is a bit personal and very subjective, but let me explain…
Electronic music culture has always been a collective industry. It is as much about the creativity of the audience, as a genius. So DJing (“playing other people’s music”) has a subtly ideological dimension, too.
Why am I saying this? Because we need to support developing artists whenever we can. Even throwing even a few songs that we like into a set helps much. Even if you have a gig where the big boss orders you to spin only Top 40 tunes because the crowd loves it.
But I surely don’t mind if the DJ plays his or her big hits. Just needs to be moderate. I don’t think I’ve ever gone to see an artist demanding or even wishing to hear a specific track. But I assume that for a new generation, that may be strange.
Tunes have become extensions of a DJ/Producer’s brand, and they are supposed to be delivered in the set.
Energy, Connection Between the Crowd & DJ
The best way to maintain the prepared/on-the-fly balance is by following the people’s reactions. DJs need to be looking for tunes that get the dancefloor pumping. The key is staying on top of songs when you see souls start to fade.
Part of being a DJ is reading what state of mind the crowd is in and what they want. By putting themselves mentally with the crowd, DJs get a feeling of what’s going to work well.
It’s not about following the initial plan but having a strategy to avoid stage fear. That also helps to get back to the core theme if they feel they’re straying off track.
I like it when in a DJ set artist transfers energy by changing rhythms. If they’re playing a breakbeat set, delivering a four-on-the-floor track can increase the energy. As there are twice as many emphasized kicks, it looks like it’s more potent while having the same BPM.
Likewise, if a DJ is playing a house or techno set, a tune with many toms or a more bassline rhythm can transform the energy and draw the crowd’s awareness back to the beat and rhythm.
Using the energy levels of song selection can make or break the DJ set. That is a vital factor in keeping the audience engaged and is crucial to think about when planning. Not all forms work at all times.
Quick Tips for DJs
- Consider who’s going to be attending. What kind of vibe will be there? You might be performing a set within a particular genre, or a more event-based set for a wedding, birthday, or bar-mitzva.
That will assist you in narrowing your tune choices down to a selection that produces the right atmosphere. Part of building this vision is knowing your listeners. When you’re performing at a club, think about your time slot, where will the people be in their journey at the time?
- Allow yourself to be spontaneous. It’s crucial to identify the energy of your tracks. Energy relates to, but is not the same, as BPM and key. A Pop song and a smooth RnB song could have the same BPM and the corresponding key, but they will have mixed energy levels.
Acknowledge each tune’s energy and use it to your power to control the people’s highs and lows. If you’re playing from a high-energy track into a more chilled-out track, you’re breaking the vibe drastically, and you can lose it very quickly (and not in the way Fisher does, “I’m losing it”).