If you’re a newbie in the DJ world, you probably wonder why DJs use headphones and always put them on and off while playing a live set.
Is it only for show, or they’re doing something?
Some people think, “Well, the music is almost always so loud that listening through headphones is utterly pointless since the music coming out of the speakers overpowers the sound of the headphone output.”
DJs wear headphones because they are searching for the next track to mix in, cueing that new track – deciding where to start the new track from, and beatmatching the new track with the current one – matching BPM with the song that is currently playing, all while trying to ignore the noise at the venue.
In this article, we’re explaining all the reasons why DJs wear headphones and how necessary they really are.
Why Do DJs Wear Headphones – Explained for Beginners
1. DJs need to hear the next track to play. The track that is originally playing is played in the speakers from the stage, all people hear it, and the second track, which will be mixed further, needs to be heard in the headphones.
2. DJs need headphones to set the tempo similar to the track that is playing on the stage. DJs adjust the song in their headphones to the BPM that plays in a club.
As you know, the song has a certain tempo. The tempo, in our case, is the playback speed of the composition – which is BPM (or – beats per minute). On each player/controller, you can find this parameter and adjust the tempo of the next track so that both songs play smoothly.
3. They’re setting the gain. A track may be louder or quieter than another in the original. In headphones, you can compare the volume level and use the Gain/Trim knob to equalize the output signal power.
When we mix compositions, both tracks must have the same power on the channel because if by the time we remove the previous track, and the next track is quieter, the dance floor will “sag.”
The opposite case – we output the track, and it is sharply louder – this “scares” the dance floor.
4. They’re beatmatching. On the dance floors, where you can hear when the DJs play both tracks out of sync, you get an effect that sounds like “horses” in slang. To avoid this “effect,” you can hear both tracks in headphones and align the drawings.
After the desired track is selected, the gain is aligned, the tempo is set, the track is mixed, you can output the second composition and mix it.
There are two more (less important) reasons the DJs won’t tell you, and they sometimes really do this:
- When they put on headphones, they’re grooving to the music since it sounds better that way.
- They’re ignoring someone that’s holding their phone in front of them with a song request.
On a serious note, the DJ is not only worrying about how the crowd responds to the music, i.e., following the movement of the audience to judge whether to play a faster or a slower beat but is also concerned with the song that he has cued up to be played next.
In simple words, they are preparing to mix the new track into the track that the audience is listening to. While “cueing” the audience cannot hear the upcoming song, while the DJ can listen to both on his headphones.
Not necessarily all tunes have to start from the beginning. Some songs may have exciting sound effects, or other stuff that the DJ may feel is right to throw into the mix so that he may cue his track at that point.
One of the arts of DJing is also a quick transition between songs in the set.
Beatmatching and other techniques can be used to transition from the song being played on the loudspeakers to the song only being heard in the DJs headphones, which will shortly become the song playing on the loudspeakers, once the DJ flips the fader switch on his mixer all the way in one direction.
The Two Most Important Elements Why DJs Use Headphones
Cueing is definitely the main reason why DJs wear headphones while mixing. DJs mix their tracks at the parties to get the crowd in the right mood and adjust mixing according to the environment.
They play either slow or fast-paced songs. As one track is being played, DJ simultaneously listens to the next track and tries to find the right time to implement it into the current track.
As soon as the two tunes match in the beat, the DJ drops the current track’s volume and builds it on the next one. That way, the songs seem to flow out of each other with hardly any obvious crossfade.
As you see in the photo above, a standard professional DJ mixer will have a cue button for each channel that will light up when pressed.
When active, it will send the audio coming into that channel to the headphones, even if the channel line fader is fully down. This way, the DJ can hear the music while the audience can’t.
Secondly, a typical DJ mixer also has some headphone controls. The CDJ-900 Nexus has, as shown on in the image above, a split cue control, a cue/master control, and a level knob. Let’s break down what these mean:
- Mono split/stereo – Split cue: when fixed to mono split, the mixer will assign the cue signal in mono to the left earcup of the headphone, and the master signal (the original sound heard by the crowd) to the right earcup of the headphones. This way, the DJ can level up the upcoming tune to the current track in the headphones.
- Cue/Master: When the split cue function is locked to stereo, this knob will limit the quantity of cue (the sound reaching into the channel(s) with the cue button initiated) versus the master signal listened in the headphones. Typically, if a DJ uses an external monitor to mix, this control will be all the way to the left, set to CUE.
- Sound volume – volume in the headphones is adjusted with the “level” knob.
Beatmatching is the process of mixing a cued song with a playing song. It’s basically pitch shifting or time-stretching an upcoming track to match its tempo to that of the current playing track and adjust them such that the BPM (beats per minute) is synchronized.
The DJ needs to fit the tempo of the incoming track, to match the pace of the playing track.
Using the cue functionality of the mixer described above, the DJ can hear the incoming track without the audience hearing it.
He adjusts the pitch of the track with the pitch fader, cues it accurately at the starting point, and brings it into the mix by slowly opening the line fader or switching the crossfader.
How DJs Wear Headphones (6 Different Ways)
You’ve probably seen DJs wear their headphones in different ways, sometimes very practical, sometimes weird, or extravagant.
This largely depends on their way of mixing, needs, and style.
Here’s how they wear headphones and the pros and cons of each way.
The headphones are worn in a “normal” way
DJs place it on their two ears as if it were a classic use and not for mixing.
– Advantages: this allows optimal acoustic insulation. They can then find and prepare their next tracks by being less distracted by the sound.
They can also set the tempo and mix only with headphones more easily without using the monitoring speakers.
– Disadvantages: they have to remove their headphones to put them somewhere (next to the turntables, around your neck, etc.) between each pre-listening.
This takes a bit of time each time and can be cumbersome if they want to check and/or reset the tempo regularly, for example, every 3 seconds if they’re mixing on vinyl.
This solution completely disconnects them from the environment, so if something important happens (skipping vinyl, a bug in the mixing software concerning the Master output, a drop in volume on the front panel, etc.), they are the last to know.
“Normal” position with the ear cups offset
DJs place the headphones “normally,” but their earpieces are shifted behind the ears.
– Advantages: they don’t have to move their headphones each time they pre-listen. The gesture to apply to be able to listen with one ear is minimal, so DJs save time and comfort.
– Disadvantages: this solution works well, especially if they have headphones with articulated ear cups, so as not to have them on the ears while the headband is positioned normally (vertically).
Around the neck in a “classic” way
The DJ headset is left around the neck, with the ear cups placed under the chin.
– Advantages: this allows DJs to return to listening on the monitor speakers with both ears quickly, just by releasing the pressure between their ear and shoulder.
– Disadvantages: requires using the shoulder and twisting the neck to hold the headset in place. Otherwise, they have to sacrifice a hand to keep it on the earpiece to be able to listen, which reduces their range of action during that time.
This technique does not allow pre-listening with both earpieces. Depending on the model of headphones and the diameter of the ear cups, it may be awkward to keep it around the neck.
Around the neck but “upside-down“
The headphones are worn around the neck, but in a non-classic way, but with the earpieces behind the neck.
– Advantages: the same as if it were worn around the neck in a “classic” way.
– Disadvantages: there are risks that the headphones fall, especially if DJs mix while leaning forwards.
Personally, I don’t see any interest in this technique. It may be a question of “style” to differentiate themselves from other DJs.
Horizontally with the hoop on the forehead
The headphones are held on the upper part of the head horizontally, thanks to the pressure exerted by the arch.
– Advantages: I found none. – Disadvantages: I haven’t tested this technique, but it doesn’t seem very comfortable to practice.
In addition, the arch risks falling on DJ’s nose during the mix unless they’re wearing a cap.
A variant of this technique consists in having the headband always horizontal but behind the top of the skull, with the earpieces resting on the temples.
A single-ear headset is worn like a phone
This kind of DJ headset is quite unusual: it doesn’t have a headband but a kind of “stem” (or sleeve) instead and has only one earpiece.
Look at the Numark Redphone, for example.
– Advantages: DJs can place it next to the turntables easily and quickly between their pre-listenings.
– Disadvantages: they have to keep it between the neck and the shoulder (or with one hand) at all times. Otherwise, it will fall.
Unlike conventional headsets, this type of headset does not allow isolated pre-listening with two earpieces.
Do You Need Headphones to DJ?
You definitely need to use headphones to DJ. For creating loops and blending tracks in different parts, not just intros and outros, mixing without headphones is diving into the deep end. This is especially true for beginners, as they first need to learn how to match beats and mix properly.
That being said, headphones are a great asset and can be very helpful.
Use them, make sure your songs are beat-matched, and cue up songs if you’re unsure if they go together and listen before.
No matter what you do, please don’t make it a goal to DJ without headphones. You can undoubtedly practice at home without headphones because you are the only one that will hear your mistakes.
In fact, I knew a guy who was doing DJ courses for beginners and would first start teaching beatmatching without headphones. He said it’s easier to understand the concept, and he could hear what’s going on and give advice. This could be true, but it doesn’t mean anything without a mentor.
A few months ago, my trusty Sennheiser HD-25 crapped out on me after years of constant use at a gig, and I had to play a 1.5-hour set without headphones. It was one of the most stressful events ever.
I had to roll with the batch of tunes I knew by heart and could not do anything fun or exciting. Also, mixing was a total nightmare because it was a beach party, and I had no monitor. If you’re doing your job well and reacting to the crowd, you will have to change your game plan and mix songs and change moods at awkward times, and that is difficult to do well without headphones.
How Do DJs Mix Without Headphones?
Some DJs who know their music well enough to know what tracks go together and when to get them to the same BPM could make it work. They also need to know their cue points to the core.
To mix without headphones, a DJ needs to (1) use DJ software to mix, (2) pick the songs that will match together before starting the set, (3) check beforehand that all tracks sync perfectly with each other (4) set the cue points in the songs, (5) by looking at the waveforms, figure out the time to launch a track.
That, in my opinion, produces awful results: it’s always lovely to hear the next tune to be sure you have the one you want and how good it blends at the selected time.
There are two more (unpopular) possibilities:
1) The whole set is already preset (all the tracks pre-chosen and in order) in some software like Ableton Live, so all the “DJ” has to do is hit play when he wants to play the next track;
2) The whole thing is entirely fake, and he is not mixing anything (not as rare as you would think) – just playing a prerecorded set;
Some DJs who aren’t working with headphones aren’t DJing at all. With the level of technology we have in the 21st century, it is pretty simple to fake a DJ mix. All you have to do is prerecord a full set and play it back. Then, you jump around a lot and turn some knobs, and you look like a superstar DJ. Pretty easy, right?
This may trick folks who have never DJed before, but most DJs will see right through this. Any time a DJ does something dramatic on his decks, but nothing changes in the mix, that’s a dead giveaway.
The one circumstance in which would be impossible for a DJ not to use headphones:
If he’s mixing tracks with CDJs or turntables.
Because then he’d have to beat match by ears, and no matter how unbelievably good a DJ you are, you can’t beat match without headphones.