DJ Headphones – Time to Take Out The Cans

Up until now you’ve been working through your stereo or whatever amplification system you managed to set up for yourself. Now it’s time to get acquainted with that essential piece of DJ kit, the headphones.

DJ Headphones

Pretty much any set of headphones that are loud enough can be used to DJ, but it’s probably better to get a set of cans that are designed for the job. Basically, what you’re looking at here is a set of over-ear headphones (closed cup – meaning they cover your entire ear rather than just sitting out on top of your ears), with some sort of flipping mechanism so that you can listen to only one headphone by holding it against your ear – this is what many people see as the classic DJ stance, although lots of DJs work with both ears in the cans too.

Getting Started With Headphones

In order to begin using your headphones, you’ll need to bring the crossfader on deck one down to zero (or deck two, if you like – just to keep it simple, I’ll presume it’s deck one). This means that you move the crossfader over to deck two’s side, so that only deck two can be heard through the stereo.

The fade balance is now 100% for deck two, and 0% for deck one. This means that you can only hear deck one in your headphones.

If you don’t have a headphone mix function in your mixer, then you’ll have to rely on single ear monitoring to sync things up. This means that you listen to the cued track through the headphone on one ear, and leave the other ear free to listen to the live sound from the PA. A lot of DJs mix this way by choice, so it’s nothing to worry about for the time being at least.

The headphone mix function is a bit like a cue crossfader – it enables you to choose (using a dial or slider) what proportion of the live and cued record is playing through the headphones, without having any effect on the sound that your audience hears.

Note: Beware of the Waves

If you’re dealing with particularly complex beats, it is sometimes good to be able to get the balance between the tracks the way you like it in your headphones, as resonance and diffraction interference on the dancefloor can sometimes make beats a little bit echoey.

What I mean here is that it might be easier to get the timing of your beats right when you have both ears in the cans, as sounds in a venue can be hard to pin down. It depends a lot on the particular venue, the location and structure of the DJ booth and even the number of people on the dancefloor – everything has an effect on how sound is reflected back to you.

Sound Moves – Physics 101

Sound moves around as waves, and these waves interfere with one another when they bounce of different surfaces. The more stuff gets in the way, the more complicated these interferences become, and can create patterns in the sound that are not actually part of the original recording. If you’ve ever been at a big outdoor concert, you may have noticed that the snare drum sometimes has a distinct echo on it – not from digital delay, but the actual sound itself travelling from one end of the stadium and being reflected off the other end back to your ears again. The time it takes for the soundwaves to travel this distance is what causes the echo effect.

Such effects will not be as distinct in a club, and most of the time this will not be an issue. A lot of DJs use the single-ear mixing technique precisely because it gives you direct feedback as to what the people on the dancefloor are hearing – so it’s definitely a good idea to get used to this style of mixing. You’ll also get a better sense of how the crowd are responding to your tunes. But if you find the ambient sound a bit too muddy and indistinct, you might be better off doing your mixing with the two headphones on and go back to single ear later on. There are no hard and fast rules to this – you’ll pick up your own style as you go along, and learn to switch between various techniques as the need arises.

On the other hand, it is worth noting that muddy sound can also be caused by EQ problems – such as having too much bass in the mix. We’ll come back to this later.

Find Your Headphone Style

Now that you’ve been introduced to your new headphones, it’s time to go back and do those beat-matching exercises again – this time using your cans. Practise your mixing and tempo shifting using both the single-ear and full headphone methods. This will allow you to get a feel for using your headphones, and also help you improve your mixing technique. As you start experimenting with more difficult material, you will probably start favouring certain approaches to dealing with particular problems – this is essential to developing your DJ style, and as long as it works then you should go with it.