When most people think of DJs, they automatically think of a man or woman behind a DJ booth, scratching records and wearing headphones. But why do DJs use headphones? Are they simply part of the DJ persona or do they actually serve a purpose?
Most people think it’s to block the noise of their environment or protect their hearing from the loudspeakers. But when a DJ wears headphones, they serve a much higher purpose.
Why do DJs wear headphones? The reason is primarily to help with cueing. When a song is playing for clubgoers, the DJ is listening to the next track in their headphones, paying attention to the beat, rhythm, and tempo in order to determine the right time to switch to the new track, smoothly. They will also wear them in order to block out environmental noise in order to pay closer attention to cueing while also saving their hearing from the loud club sound system.
There are other reasons too. Headphones have long been a staple in the DJs dress code. High-priced, top of the line headphones can be a status symbol of sorts considering many of the leading DJ headphones go for hundreds of dollars.
Now that you know the main reasons the DJ uses headphones during a set, find out how you can get the most out of your DJ headphones, how they can help you to layout a killer mix, and how to use them when you practice or when you’re editing a set.
Upping Your Game
DJ headphones are more than just a classic accessory. In fact, they can serve a purpose in a variety of ways, whether you’re in your home studio and creating your own unique mixes in order to get ready for an upcoming gig, or you’re a beginner and you’re practicing cueing songs and learning how to correctly transition tracks.
They can also come in handy in the club scene for the very same reasons, however, when you’re in a noisy environment and you’re focusing on cueing, then a good quality pair of headphones can mean the difference between a killer set and one that was obviously put together by a beginner.
The Number One Reason for Headphone Use
One of the biggest reasons why the DJ wears headphones is cueing. Obviously, the DJ doesn’t need to focus their attention on hearing the crowd. Instead, they need to focus on listening to the next song that they’re planning on transitioning into the mix. As matching beats and rhythm of a couple of different tracks is very important when creating a mix, the DJ must listen to the next track in line before they play it for the crowd.
They will attempt to transition it in as smoothly as possible. As soon as the track that’s playing in the headphones matches the track that’s currently playing for the crowd, in tempo, the DJ increases the volume of the upcoming song, which allows both of the tracks to play at the same time. The crossfade of both the tracks allows for a smoother transition.
Wearing headphones can also come in handy if the DJ isn’t very familiar with a track because it allows them to mix the track on the fly. However, these days, there are many leading software programs that can easily handle the cueing, which is why some DJs choose not to wear headphones.
Aside from cueing purposes, another reason is to block out sounds from their environment. This allows them to focus on the upcoming track. Additionally, they can help to protect their hearing from the loud sounds emanating from the speakers.
In most cases, the DJ doesn’t need to listen to the reaction of the crowd. However, some DJs do prefer to keep an ear on their audience in order to hear requests or gauge their response to certain tracks.
But for the most part, simply watching the crowd and seeing how many people are dancing, in addition to the type of energy going on is enough to clue the DJ in regarding whether they need to start up a slower track or a more rhythmic track.
Fashion Sense in the Scene
For many DJs, headphones are also used as a fashion accessory. Most experienced DJs are able to do a great job of mixing tracks without them, so they don’t actually need to wear them, but for years, they have been a major part of the DJ’s wardrobe, which is why you’ll often see popular DJs wearing the latest in headphone tech.
Top of the line headphones such as the Sennheiser HD 800 S (on Amazon) can create a fashionable, professional persona that showcases the DJ’s status in the industry.
How Can a DJ Cue Without Headphones?
As I mentioned earlier, an experienced DJ can easily mix a track without the use of headphones, but how is that even possible? If you have experience, you can easily mix tracks without listening to the beats first, in the following situations:
- If the DJ has a pre-ready mix, which means the tracks they’ll be playing have been chosen ahead of time and arranged in a very specific order. The DJ will then only need to apply effects when the track comes on, which is why there’s no need to wear them to hear the upcoming track.
- Some DJ software programs can handle all of the mixing since they display the different waveforms and are able to determine when the best moment is to cue up a new track. However, there are times when these programs fail and the mixes aren’t exactly smooth, which can have a negative impact on the DJ’s rep in the scene.
The one situation in which the DJ, regardless of skill level, has to use their headphones is when they’re using turntables. With this type of setup, a DJ isn’t able to automatically match the beats or have it cued up beforehand, which is why wearing them is a must. But turntables aren’t as commonly used these days as they were just five years ago.
With the modern technology now available, most DJs have switched to digital sets simply because it’s much more convenient, and at times, it can also be a total hands-off process if the DJ has already created a set of tracks, and added effects and transitions.
What DJ Gear Do You Need to Use in a Club?
If you prefer the old school way of DJing, then you’ll need to use a couple of turntables, a mixer, headphones, and bring along your music collection. If you’re into the digital age of DJing, then you’ll need an entirely different setup. This will include a laptop that holds your extensive track and sound effects library, software, and a DJ controller. Read my article on how to DJ in a club to learn more.
Why Do DJs Turn Knobs?
When a DJ isn’t busy mixing tracks they’re often using a variety of techniques in order to enhance a track to make it their own, using a unique style. With knobs, they can adjust the tempo or add effects from a sound library. It can also involve adjusting the EQs.
Basically, when you see a DJ turning knobs, it means they’re working on a track and changing the feel, tempo, and sound. This is usually done with a mixer or DJ controller.
To learn more, check out my DJ controller buyer’s guide here, where you’ll find useful information that can help you to choose the best model on the market based on your skills and DJing style.
How Do DJs Make Music?
A DJ can make their own unique tracks using special software that includes song samples and sound effects. They can incorporate different sounds and add their own unique touch to popular tracks using the same type of software program.
Many of the biggest DJs in the industry create their own music and handle many of the elements of song production from editing and mixing to sound engineering. Of course, in order to do this, you’ll need to have experience using music editing software programs.
If you’ve stayed with me this far, then you know that the main reason DJs use headphones is to cue and transition the upcoming track. But they can also wear them in order to block out the sound of the crowd and the club’s sound system.
Additionally, even experienced DJs still wear them, even if they don’t use them, purely for fashion reasons. However, the beginner will need to rely on headphones to learn how to correctly and smoothly transition from one track to the next.
In most cases, headphones will allow the user to clearly hear the beat and tempo in order to transition an upcoming track at the right time. In the DJ scene, a smooth transition is everything, which is why the right type of headphones can have such a major impact on the DJ’s performance.