The Struggle of Music Producers Trying to DJ

Not everyone can be skilled at both art forms
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Not everyone can be skilled at both art forms
DJ (photo by Barbu Cristian)

(photo by Barbu Cristian)

In the voice of Peter Griffin: "You know what really grinds my gears?"

When the mass population blurs the line between DJing and music production. Or when, by default, a music producer is labeled as some random, highly over-paid guy or gal who “just turns knobs” and picks up the mic to ask a very hyped and drunk crowd if they are ready to party or not. In fact, when the two art-forms are consistently being turned against each other, I like to think of these Negative Nancy’s as amateur DJs who mix two very different and contrasting songs together without really knowing anything about them.

Don’t be DJ Negative Nancy. Understand that DJing and producing are not one in the same, and some are simply more known for one over the other.

When I lived in Las Vegas and worked as a nightclub promoter, I constantly heard people bashing on residential heavyweight artists like Skrillex, Diplo, RL Grime, and Baauer as “glorified knob-turners.” Time and time again through passing, I would hear one of two extremes—people from around the world eagerly anticipating sets from their favorite artists, or some club-goers questioning their decision of clubbing at all and saying aloud, “Why are we here to watch someone push buttons?”

At the time, it was just worth a small eye-roll.

But now, after becoming a producer myself, it's just plain frustrating.

So what is the real difference between the two?

DJ: Someone Who Mixes Recorded Music in Real Time

DJing, by definition, is mixing two songs together in a set and often times changing the format and structure of the song through particular techniques. Such methods include looping, adding effects, cutting low or high frequencies, scratching, and so forth. It takes practice and yes, as opposed to many opinions out there, it also takes a required level of skill and accuracy. Moreover, DJing takes preparation, as you have to have a tuned ear, proper song selection, and know the tracks through and through. If you mess up, you better find a way to fix it—or everyone will know, and even worse, everyone will remember. The pressure is on with DJ sets, and just because Paris Hilton does it (poorly) doesn’t mean you could pull any average Joe off the streets, set them up in front of a pair of CDJs, and say, “Play me a dope set,” and they will be able to.

Actually, find me a Joe that can do that, and I’ll get him booked for shows now.

There is some truth to the notion that anyone can be a DJ. That point has already been proven. There's a wide selection on the decks these days from Playboy bunnies, to bands turned EDM enthusiasts (Breathe Carolina anyone?), actors from TV shows (am I the only one still trying to get used to the fact that Penntucky from Orange is the New Black is a DJ?), and everyone's favorite, Paris Hilton.

That being said, learning to DJ may not be the biggest learning curve to some, but it's not instantaneous. Unless you are someone playing a pre-recorded set, you did have to put in time to learn how to DJ in order to know your way around the turntables.

But the skills for DJing and producing are vastly different and in order to be a pro at both, an extended amount of time with the craft is needed. 

Music Producer: The Visionary and Executor for Recording Songs or Albums

Brace yourself—this is going to sound like a nightmare of a life, but trust me, we love every second of it.

Producing is when you slave away for days, weeks, or months practically living in your studio from morning to night with your friends and family questioning if you’re even alive. Coffee practically runs in your veins, and you either lose weight from forgetting to eat or you gain weight because the gym sounds nice and all… but this track needs more work.

You become a vampire and sleep during the day and wake up at night. In fact, your schedule is so upside down that instead of being mocked as a “glorified knob turner,” the more appropriate name would be, “glorified night owl.”

Your skin might grow so pale that you reflect the sun—or in contrast, you might never see daylight anymore, so you read this and wonder to yourself, “Sun? What is sun?”

You endure this toilsome and strenuous process just to create a 2 - 3 minute track from a blank slate, pushing on with each day because you’re driven by the pure thrill and addiction to creation and artistic expression…while also maybe hoping in the back of your mind that you’re making that single ear-catching tune that can separate itself from millions of other songs out there.

And then there is all the post-work. Similar to the production team behind shooting a feature film, actually filming the movie is only half the task. In fact, when you finish a song, you haven’t really finished the song. Let’s not forget about the additional hours of polishing it, compressing sound levels, adding effects, mixing it down, and mastering—or just suddenly deleting everything because you realized, “Oh shit, this is shit.”

You Don’t Have To Do Both

DJs can be Producers, but not all Producer have to be DJs, and vice versa.

Nowadays, being able to mix a DJ set seems to come with the territory of being a successful and flourishing music producer. However, there is an exception, like the very talented producer, Dan Farber, who would rather work from the studio than behind the turntables. Many months ago, I was told that you wouldn’t catch Farber on stage anymore. Though the statement turned out to not be entirely true, I still had to seek him out myself to get his take on live performance. With over a million plays on his tracks on both YouTube and Soundcloud, releases on some of the biggest labels in the industry, and the entire Buygore army behind him, Farber has tipped hats from around the world with his consistent level of top-notch production. And he’s not ready to stop yet. He has an upcoming album about to drop and a whole new project called “Donny” that is bringing him even more into the spotlight.

So with so much success, why does he prefer not to jump on the decks and wear the title of “DJ”?

After touring for six years, he developed a new take on things:

Releasing songs from his studio—and staying there—is far more engaging and intimate, plus it allows him to connect with his fans rather than jumping on CDJs and playing out different tunes, most of which aren’t his own. 

Ironically enough – and what Dan came to find out—a small level of intimacy and connection with your fans can be slightly lost while you’re on the decks—even though you’re only ten feet away from the crowd.

Because in those 60 – 75 minutes, you're the DJ first and a producer second. And sadly, it can’t even begin to emulate the 10 + hours a day you spent sitting in a studio, staring at the computer screen, designing waveforms and manipulating sound, creating an entire song from nothing. It doesn’t represent the blood, sweat, and many tears, and the endless trials and errors, and constant, never-ending fight with the lurking shadow of doubt. Instead, both the ignorant millennials and non-millennials (do I need to mention what my dad thinks about all this again?) interpret you as someone who is praised for turning knobs left and right, dropping other people’s songs, and pushing a simple play button. Not everyone truly understands what it takes to be a talented producer or a talented DJ. However, there is more than meets the drunken eye, especially if you produce yourself, know a friend who produces (and perhaps disappeared off the face of the earth for his/her musical endeavors), or have a much more open mind than the standard average Joe. (Average Joe, have you learned to DJ yet?)

Exploring Live Sets

As far as I know, a couple of the best DJs I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching perform, know their way around a turntable better than any producer I’ve ever seen.

I would rather with-hold from name dropping anymore than I have, but if you go to shows enough, then you surely have a grocery list of artists that have either gotten too wasted on the decks, or didn’t know the gear and completely botched transitions. 

When someone like me, who is far from a pro at DJing, can tell that YOU don’t know shit about what YOU’RE doing – that’s when you need to practice a little more.

So what could be the remedy to trashed DJ sets from your favorite producers?

If you’re a producer who is struggling to learn the ways of the CDJs, you might find comfort playing in your own home field. Ableton, is one of the most common Digital Audio Workstations for producing, and also offers an alternative for DJing. Ableton Live aids with beat-matching through the warping feature, and you can trigger all the tracks, samples, and loops that your little heart desires. You aren’t confined to only two or four decks (by all means, set up 50 decks, but just be sure not to make your CPU and/or computer explode) and can even integrate your synthesizers, which might be beneficial for live remixes. Considering that Ableton is primarily used as a production tool, you can create your own tracks beforehand and easily implement them into your sets. Not only that, but you could hook up your Ableton Push and show off to the world your finger drumming skills.

But would a set without a jog wheel to scratch on, and the challenge of beat-matching and phrasing, actually constitute as real DJing? Probably not, as it's a live set. Also, what if Ableton suddenly glitches—and crashes? There is a small roll of the dice that comes with it, but then there are also many perks.

So, all in all, you can be a producer, you can be a DJ, or you can be a hybrid of both, or you can be none at all and be a critic who analyzes the craft (like a lot of people in the media).

If you do decide to take the up the role of DJ or Producer, just make sure you understand the differences between the two, and the intensive level of dedication and hard work required for both.

Fly free, my glorified night owls.