How to be a better Swing DJ. In my opinion.

DJing is a skill. In the hands of some, an art form. Many Djs are indiscernible and arguably less exciting than an iPod on shuffle.. Some will make my night. Live music is quickly becoming the preferred mode of entertainment in our community, for good reason, but there are times the djs need to fill in the gaps, and the approach can make or break a night. At a dance, if there is no band, you are in fact the most important person to the entertainment of the evening. Your choices determine if people will have a good time, a mediocre time, or a flat-out bad time. For this reason, I take the job pretty seriously, and I hope to share a few tips and tricks with you. By no means is there one “right” way to play recorded music from your computer, but if you take into account the following, you will – in my opinion, make dj’ed dances better.

DJing can basically fall into two categories: 1) When a band is not feasible, possible, or for some reason appropriate you will provide all or most of the entertainment. You’ll be responsible for bringing the energy up and down and for reading the crowd, and providing a wide variety of music all night. 2) As a compliment to the band, your job is to provide a nice atmosphere and maintenance of the energy and crowd interest through the break. Not to be more interesting than the band, louder, etc. Be a compliment to the band, facilitate overflow dancing, and keep the crowd “warm and receptive” while the band is on break. I see dj’s “whip-it-out” with hi-fi live recordings that swing like crazy and try to out-shine the band. Don’t do this.

For this post, I’m going to concentrate mostly on the former, but most of the following applies to the latter as well.

Now, if I could condense this entire blog post into one line, it would be this: “Your job as a DJ is to get the crowd high on jazz music.” Wide-eyed, falling in love with everything, serotonin-flowing, sweaty, can’t pull themselves away from the dance floor stoned-on-the-good-shit-circa-1930. Your mission, should you choose to accept it: to play music which is deeply felt on a physical and emotional level as representing Lindy Hop (or Balboa, or Blues, or a mix when appropriate). You should expect yourself to choose selections which dancers from all cities, all skill levels can have a good time dancing to.

I have done this. To varying degrees. I have played the perfect mix for the room. I have also bombed. On my face. Horrible, missed the mark crap-tacular-rama. And, everything in between. I like to think that I’ve learned a few lessons on the way.

Learn to love Swing (or Blues, or your genre).

I’m going to make a controversial statement here, and say that very few people truly love the music. Many “like” it.. Some may love the activity, or the sense of community, or even enjoy/know the music.. but you need to “like like” it. Like feel-it-in-your whole-soul love it. You have to have a big ‘ol crush on it and want to listen to it a lot. If your friend comes over to your house and you say “hold on- I just need you to listen to this Basie track I found”, that’s a good sign. It’s not a love that happens overnight. When I started dancing I couldn’t “find the one”… now I have almost 800GB of swing music that I listen to as much as possible. It’s been a process. I didn’t always love it, I didn’t always love it the way I love it now, and it took time to get there. My biggest piece of advice is to sit down with high end headphones (invest at least $150) and take a good song you like at the moment and just listen to it over and over again. Listen to every instrument. Listen for musicians talking. Listen to the solos. Tune out the melody and focus on the Rhythm. Look up the names of the artists on the track. There’s an album by Duke Ellington called “And his mother called him Bill” that they recorded after Billy Strayhorn’s passing. Try to feel the emotion behind the player’s intentions for a good example of what I mean. Basie is also great because his band was almost unchanged for 30 years. They played together really well. Try Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue. 9 minute versions of Flyin’ Home. Anything with Buddy Rich on drums.

Love it. For the reals. Over time. Let it develop.

Choose the order of your songs appropriately.

Long ago there was a school of thought going around that your tempos should follow a roller-coaster up and down… getting faster, then slower then faster again, and as long as you rode the BPM sine-wave, you had mastered the art form or DJing. I no longer think this is true.

What I think is more important is that you play songs in an order that makes sense. That the feel of the song is a small degree of change from the previous song. (Unless you just played something the crowd hated, in which case, go an entirely different direction). This will allow the bodies of the dancers to acclimate to the music in terms of pulse and movements choices, as well as give them a certain trust that the songs following the current one will be easy to dance to once they get into the current groove.

To further explain, I’ve divided most of the sub-genres of jazz that we dance to into several sub categories. Like a food pyramid, most of your “diet” should be in the primary style group… Then some secondary, and occasionally, and if you’ve eaten your vegetables, move to the third, or tertiary group. Then back again.  It’s called “Swing dancing” for a reason.

Primary Styles

  • Swing
  • Small group swing
  • Swing from the 1930s
  • Swing from the early 40s
  • Modern swing bands that sounds very authentic
  • Songs that could not possibly be called anything other than swing
  • (Has my point been made?)
  • * Substitute Blues, Authentic Blues, etc here if that is your genre

Secondary Styles

  • Early vocal jazz, like Billie Holiday, early Ella, etc.
  • Jazz that swings (Lincoln Center Orchestra, etc)
  • Western Swing
  • R&B (Early stuff, like Buddy Johnson)
  • Vocal Swing (like the Mills Brothers or Delta Rhythm Boys)
  • Jump Blues
  • Trad Jazz
  • Stride Piano
  • New Orleans
  • Gypsy Jazz
  • New Testament Swing (50s and later recordings of swing artists)
  • 1940s pop (Like most Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, etc)

Tertiary styles

  • Gospel Swing (Sister Rosetta Tharpe, etc)
  • Soul jazz (groove)
  • Soul
  • Crooners (like Sinatra, etc)
  • 50s (Big Joe Turner, etc)
  • Dixie
  • Boogie Woogie
  • Vocal Jazz (later Ella)
  • Rockabilly

Please don’t ever play this (really)

  • Novelty (Muppets, etc)
  • Songs that are for laughing at, not dancing to. Chicken-in-the-mood is not funny when you want to get your dance on.
  • Broadway musical recordings
  • Jazz with a flute (exception, Chick Webb)
  • Acapella swing
  • Songs with implied violence
  • Electro Swing
  • Pop (there’s plenty of places you can find this. Let’s try for an authentic experience)
  • Songs with an extreme tempo change in the middle (unless the song is baller), because dancers sometimes choose a partner based on a tempo.
  • Anything that the Fox has ever said.

Your goal is to travel out of your primary genre, into secondary and sometimes tertiary and back again… and travel from one song to the next in a way that makes sense. For instance, I’d never play songs in this order:

Jazzy vocal song -> Django-style gypsy song.

I would go

Jazzy vocal -> Jazzy Swingin’ -> Swing (for a song or two) -> Chunky swing (like small combo) -> Django style.

As an exercise, take two unrelated styles of music and then practice transitioning smoothly from one to the other. A little trick I use is what I call a “transitional artist”… Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan are both great.. They help me move from swing into r&b. Alix Combele helps me move from Swing to Gypsy. Sam Cooke is great for R&B to soul.

I’ll use another example. Say I want to go from Groove to 1950s.

Instead of

Groove -> 1950s

I would go

Groove -> Jazz that swings -> Swing -> Cab Calloway (or other transitional artist) -> R&b -> Jump Blues -> 1950s.

How many songs you spend in each place will depend on crowd reaction. Stay in a sub-genre for a while if you are getting good response. Djing with an agenda to get to a certain kind of music is going to give the set a disjointed feel. The only caveat to this is if your set feels boring or is really missing the mark I would recommend taking a right turn and trying something different.

This isn’t the only approach I use, and it’s not the only approach to take. What I think is important here is that you think through why you are playing the songs you are playing, and not just being a metronome.

Use good bit-rates

If you are a swing dj, and the word bit-rate means nothing to you, I’ll give you a quick intro. Remember when you used to copy a VHS tape, or if you’re older, a cassette tape? Then you’d copy that copy, and so on? You’d notice that the copy would lose quality as you went on. This is called “transcoding”… every time media is shifted from one format to another, some transcoding occurs. The biggest loss is when the music goes from a monologue source to a digital one. This usually happens long before you get the music. These days the quality can be pretty good in digital, more and more every day, as it’s quickly becoming the standard for original over reel-to-reel, etc. Our ability to minimize this loss is reaching an asymptotically low place as our storage media grows and gets cheaper.

Now, when a song goes from CD to your computer, you can choose a variety of options to minimize transcoding. FLAC is a common format which will incur almost no transcoding… It’s still large for my taste. The hard drive aspect is fine, but transferring through email, drop-box, thumb drive etc is still a little awkward. Most people (including me) choose a compressed format like mp3. You can compress mp3 files in a variety of sizes, but the smaller the file, the more information is left out (transcoding)… typically the high and low ends are dropped in favor of more middle frequencies. High bit-rates= large files with good sound, and low bit-rates= small files with bad sound. On your ear-buds or home system, it’s probably indiscernible. Over a large sound system which favors volume over accuracy, you’ll hear this dropped information (or rather you won’t hear it) and the sound will not sound full or rich. It may sound “tin-y” or “hollow”. You’ll end up compensating with volume, or the dancers will think you have chosen scratchy recordings. The song’s magic will be lost. At extreme low bit-rates, your playback hardware may even click or hum oddly. These days with hard drives under $100/TB, there is no reason to save a few megabytes of disk space. Hands down and without exception use the best possible bit-rate you can (along with secure rip settings on your CD drive to ensure nothing is skipped, as it can be in burst mode) Once you become aware of it, you will start cringing every time you hear a song with low bit-rate. It’s a blessing and a curse.

You’ll want to look into some terms like “VBR”, “Alt-preset-extreme”, “Alt-preset-insane”, etc. I like to encode my own CDs. I don’t like to use many digital music services for this reason. They save disk space by making smaller files. Smaller files = less information = unfavorable dj’ed music.

I also shy away from the “Proper Box” series for its low end sound engineering… though I do make some exceptions because the price point and variety is staggering. It’s a trade-off, and like all rules it can be broken given the correct context.

Manage Gain

Inside every MP3 file is a setting called “gain”… basically how loud the player should play the file. Over a large sound system, you’ll notice little differences in gain. Maybe you even have one or two files that are especially loud. There are three ways to handle this. 1) Watch every song. This can be difficult, and you can get some varying results. It’ll also take you away from your primary duty, picking good songs. 2) You can equalize all your files offline. There are many pieces of software for this. I don’t favor this, because you have to continually do it as you add files to your collection 3) You can process it real time. I use WinAmp, and there is a plug-in called “Tomsteady” which will equalize gain in real time. I suspect many pro DJ software systems have something similar. Regardless, it’s something you’ll need to address as a swing DJ.

Room Size Considerations

The larger a room is, the more the quality of recordings is going to become apparent. Thing of the sound coming out of your speaker as bouncing rubber balls, coming out in all directions facing from the speaker. The sounds will exit your speaker and travel across the room, bouncing less and less as they travel. The longest distance they will travel is to the corners. Corners can be a little dead, but you want the center of the room filled with sound. A “live” room will have sounds reverberating all the way to the corner. A “dead” room will not. This quality is called Rt-60. It’s a measurement of time from when the sound comes out of the speakers until it drops to basically being inaudible. In your headphones, Rt-60 is near meaningless… there is not an appreciable distance between the speaker and the listener. The larger the space, the more it becomes obvious. If you use recordings with higher quality and more depth from high-end to low-end, the sound will essentially have more “bounce”, or longer Rt-60. This is one (not the only) reason bands sound so good. Better reverb. This area of sound engineering is whole science unto itself, but as you can imagine, bodies in the room, flooring material, carpet, ceiling type, speaker capability and amplifier quality all affect this.

This of this as being (roughly) 1/3 affected by the sound equipment, 1/3 affected by the space, and 1/3 by your music selections. If the room is not designed for sound, or if the equipment is not appropriate for the venue size then your selections are going to make a big difference.

You will often see me walk to the middle of the floor to hear the sound, and adjust the facing of the speakers to cover the corners as well as I can. Again, this changes as the night goes on, so re-check after people fill in. I may take more risks with older recordings late in the night. During the main part of an evening, I’ll choose good stereo recordings with good depth to overcome the bodies, the talking, and the general acclimation of everyone’s ears to Swing.

*Pro tip, music audio is different than speech audio. When the announcements or M.C. comes on, drop your volume so there is no echo.

Use Live Recordings (short ones)

Live recordings give a wonderful rich feeling to the room. You hear the magic of the event where they were recorded, and the background sounds can be warm and energetic. The only “gotcha” is that sometimes live recordings are produced quickly and the post-production work is short-changed. Some of my favorite albums are live albums, and they can give your set a feeling of being more in the moment.

That being said, watch out for long songs, especially in the live department. The song has to be fairly amazing for me to play ones over the 4 minutes mark, preferably closer to 3.

Don’t pander (entirely) to newbs.

It’s easy to throw on the Rockin’ Robin and see the fun your new dancers are having, but why mislead them? Point #1: You need to please your most advanced dancers because they’re going to be around for a long time, and because they set a good example for your newbies.. If the good dancers aren’t dancing, the new dancers don’t have anyone to watch. My solution, Cats and the Fiddle or Slim and Slam. It’s a good compromise. Gordon Webster’s CDs have been great for this as well. New dancer or old-and-jaded, everyone seems to love it. Point #2: if you are in love with jazz, play jazz you’re in love with. No cotton candy. The kids might love you – for a time, but they won’t feel the depth of what this music can be. Don’t alienate. Don’t just educate. But do show the proudest side of this dance.

Do your homework

I can’t tell you how much going to the Louis Armstrong Museum changed my life, let alone my Djing… And how much reading biographies of different artists has influenced what I play and helped me to hear the history behind it… Here’s a couple to get you started.

Kid Ory’s Creole Trombone

Louis Armstrong’s Later Years

While you’re at it, take the time to watch Ken Burns Jazz series… At least the first few volumes… It’ll give you some background on the origins of the music, and while the details are contentious at times, the overall picture it paints is pretty accurate.

Use songs with a natural clap-a-bility.

Swing is definable in really boring terms. Rhythmic displacement. Letting the after-beat fall with as much tension from the down-beat. Groups of two or three sounds, split in an unpredictable way. In easy terms, it’s a feeling of wanting to clap along. To tap your foot. To get up and bounce. Some songs have this. Some don’t. Ask yourself with each song: “Did I pick this because it’s 145 beats per minute, or did I pick it becuase it swings like crazy?” ALWAYS favor swing over almost any other quality. Lavender Coffin is the classic example I use of natural clap-a-bility. There are many others. Queue the song, listen to it and it it doesn’t make you want to bop, or groove or tap a foot, pick something with some more heat on it.

Don’t be afraid to hit the ends of the spectrum tempo wise

A lot of new djs stay in a tempo range. A narrow one. When you open up your tempo range, not only are you pushing the dancers, and yourself as a dj, but it’s more true to the music that’s played by bands now and back-in-the-day. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised how well received an occasional quick or slow song can be. Plus it will clear the palette for another few songs in the middle range. When I think about how many people have told me that they saw a jam once, and that’s why they’ve been dancing for the last 10 years, it reminds me to play a burner from time to time.

Go to your go-tos if you need to

We all have a few songs in our DJ bag. Tunes that you know are going to get the room going no matter what. Don’t be afraid to use them. They’ve worked in the past, they’ll work again as long as you don’t use them too much. Your job: a full floor.

Understand Consensus Reality

Consensus Reality is the quality that people agree on a reality instead of having an objective basis for it. The more isolated your scene is (by size of city, frequency of workshops, number of dancers who travel, etc), the more likely it is that your scene suffers from this. Understand that your dancers learn to love songs through familiarity and agreement, not always through the fact that something is a good song. When you DJ try to really play good music that other scenes are playing as well. I’ve been to cities where there is WAY too much gypsy jazz, or too much groove, or they played the CD of a local band who wasn’t all that great. Try to cross check your sense of what’s good over what’s familiar.

Read your crowd

In general, a crowd that is dancing is a happy crowd. A standing crowd is not. Unless this is your barn-burning fast tune of the night, or a slow one. Take note when you play a song that the crowd likes. What are they responding to?Sometimes the crowd likes to dance to favorites (dances near the holidays are famous for this).. sometimes they love dancing to lots of chunky rhythms… and sometimes they don’t.. Ask yourself: what kind of songs are making them dance. Them play more of that. Vary and see if you can get them to keep up the energy. If not, go back to what was tried and true. This is one reason I dislike preparing more than 4-5 songs before I go out to dj… If I’ve done the work of selecting songs, I’m not truly reading the crowd and honoring the moment..

Play the damn requests

Requests are a way of saying “I’d like to have fun in x-way” Now every DJ on the planet has gotten such requests as “In the Mood”, “Sing Sing Sing”, etc.. And you don’t need to play them. (You _should_ if you think more than 50% of the people will have their night made by it, and Sing Sing Sing is way too often stigmatized unfairly, but I digress), however, read the deeper message. “Sing Sing Sing” can mean “I want to hear more energy”. or “I want to hear something I know”, or another request may mean “My honey and I want a slow one”… remember that it take a lot of wherewithal to walk over to the dj booth and talk to the dj and all their friends while they stare back at you condescendingly. It’s a message. Use it to build your fan base, and take it constructively. I promise there is always a song that will please 99% of everyone in the room and still basically fulfill any request. And being excited about other people is the mark of a winner. Even if the song is 100% suckiness, say “I love that song, let me see if I can put it in, or if not, I’ll try to play something similar”.

Save your playlists

I save all my playlist. I have one called “never play these songs again”, and one called “this was the best night I’ve djed so far” and a bunch with names of the events. You can measure your progress, share playlists with other djs, and have a few songs ready to go for when you are the “emergency” fill in for another dj.

Develop a personal relationship with your tunes.

This is hard in the days of iTunes and digital downloads. I used to know all my cd’s forwards and backwards. Memorized by track. I still play those tracks because I know them. Take a CD and just listen to it over and over for a week. Read the liner notes. Wikipedia the band. Then dump it on to your hard drive. It’s better to know the exact moment for 100 songs than to make guesses on 1000 songs based on tempo or quick queue alone.

Have a crash CD or Crash pod ready to go.

I have a dedicated DJ laptop. It has an Operating System, a music player, a web browser and my music. I turn off automatic updates, and I turn off system sounds. I use no images on the desktop and no color schemes. Nothing to suck down processing power, memory, or restart me at an inopportune time. But sometimes it does weird stuff. Always have a crash cd or iPod ready to go in 10 seconds or less if things get squirrel-y on your computer.

I remember one time I had planned to DJ an evening from records. I listened to my records for weeks. I made notes, organized crates, and made a big deal out of it. I even practiced with my turntables. Then, when I got to the venue, things were fine until the room really started dancing… The movement of the floor was causing the needle to skip. Point is that I thought I had thought of everything… and I had to change last minute. I was glad I had a backup. Of course a few skipped songs really wrecked the night. You can’t plan everything. Improvise in the moment.

Get technical

Make sure you have a Turtle Beach Amigo card (Turtle Beach Audio Advantage Amigo II USB Sound Card & Headset Adapter) to queue songs. I like turtle beach because its drivers are on flash-ROM.. (you don’t have to install anything). I’ve tried other cards, and they have caused hardware fault. Try different Dj software until you find one you like. I use WinAmp… It’s probably not the best out there, but I know it has a low memory footprint, it’s free, it doesn’t alter my sound much, and I’m used to it (less accidental skips). I use the on-board sound for my main playback, because I trust it more in terms of driver / hardware stability, and the USB queue-ing card can get pulled out by accident. This may vary per computer. Check your own hardware and see what plays back better.

Carry all the proper cables. Learn to mix audio a little at least. Toy with the mixer to get the sound “just right”. It takes extra work, and people hardly notice a good dj… they will however notice a bad one, always. Learn more about bit-rates and audio standards, etc. Know what your Djing software does to the songs you play. Learn common problems with your sound card. Etc, etc. It’ll come in handy one day.

Learn what causes feedback in a microphone (short story, the mic picks up input from the speakers, feeds it back though the speakers in an infinite loop)… without a doubt you’ll come to be the person controlling the sound board while an MC does their thing at some point in your djing career.

Learn to wrap up an XLR cable correctly. Stop tapping microphones to see if they are working. It damages the internal workings. Instead, say words like cab, cap, cat, test, tssk, pop, etc.

I use this cord organizer to hold all of my adapters, etc.  It’s the best $16 I ever spent (Click on image to buy at Amazon)

Post your playlists on Facebook

This is a nice way to let people know that you are interested in DJing. I often hear “no one asks me to DJ”…. well, they won’t if they don’t know you are interested. So, publicize yourself. As an added benefit, you may get some feedback. Work though the sting of feedback gracefully, and integrate it (if it’s someone who’s opinion you value) and the whole scene grows.

Buy lots of modern artists

Support the work of Glenn Crytzer, Meschiya Lake, Tuba Skinny, Solomon Douglas, Gordon Webster, Johnathan Stout, George Gee Swing Orchestra, The Careless Lovers, Titan Hot Seven, Casey McGill, Baby Soda etc. They are great bands, the recording quality sounds great in big rooms, and we should do everything we can to publicize their work. George Gee’s Frankie Shim Sham is my favorite version, BTW.

The Frankie Test

Sometimes when I play a song, I ask myself if Frankie would like it. It’s a good test to help me remember if I’m keeping things in a good place. It does’t have to be Frankie.. you can pick any dancer you admire, but I like to think he’s looking down whenever we swing out. If the answer is no, take it back to the classics. I often find that this test let’s me know when I get too “Charleston-y”.

Make sure your djing has a flavor

Last of all, remember that someone asked you to DJ because they trusted that you have good taste and love to swing out. It’s easy to play songs other djs play, or to be safe… but the best moments I’ve had are with risks, and with songs I discovered myself that no one else has. It’ll make that night feel better for everyone if you put a little piece of yourself into it.

I love Djing, and I hope this article was of a little help to someone out there. Leave me a comment if you have questions or ideas.