Before I started DJing, I used to spend many hours watching and listening to the DJs in my local nightclubs. As I watched them, I always wondered why they wore headphones.
Why do DJs wear headphones?
The main reason why DJs wear headphones is to prepare the track that they will play next. While one track is playing through the speakers, the DJ is selecting the next track and then using their headphones to adjust the speed and the volume to make sure that it suits the atmosphere.
How does the DJ control the atmosphere?
There are many things that the DJ needs to get right to ensure that you have a good night, and they need their headphones to be able to do all of it:
When a DJ beat matches, they are increasing or decreasing the tempo of their next track so that it is identical to the speed of the track that they are currently playing. By making sure that the tempo is identical, the DJ can mix the beats together to make sure that the transition from one track to the next becomes almost seamless.
If the DJ didn’t do this, the music would be similar to how it is played on the radio, with one track starting as soon as another track finishes. While this is fine in certain circumstances, to really build the energy and atmosphere in a venue, the mix should be continuous.
The majority of DJs nowadays will use the sync button in their software or on their decks to automatically beat match for them. However, beat matching is still a very valuable skill to have, particularly when playing from vinyl or when playing digital tracks that haven’t yet been analysed by DJ software.
- Volume Control/Monitoring
Nowadays, most DJs play digital music from laptops or USB flash drives. Most of the industry recognised DJ software will analyse the individual tracks and will set the decibel level to a pre-assigned limit.
However, there can be some fluctuation and the DJ will need to listen out for this to make sure that the volume of each track is equal. This can be even more of an issue when playing from vinyl as volume levels can differ vastly.
In addition to the overall volume control, tracks are also mastered differently. This can lead to differing levels of bass (low), midrange (middle) or treble (high) frequencies. The DJ will adjust these frequencies using the EQ function on their mixer or DJ software.
- Setting Loops
Have you ever been in a nightclub and you have heard the DJ play a clip of “Put Your Hands Up In The Air” or “One, Two, Three, Four, Uno, Dos, Tres, Cuatro”?
The chances are that the DJ has triggered a vocal loop which is repeating until a satisfactory response from the crowd is achieved.
A loop isn’t necessarily limited to being a vocal sample. Sometimes the DJ will also loop a certain element of a famous melody, which they will also repeat over the beats of another track.
Whatever kind of loop the DJ has decided to trigger, they need their headphones to listen to the loop before they play it to the crowd.
- Setting Cue Points
Many DJs will make use of cue points. A cue point is a certain part of a track, usually during the intro, that the DJ assigns a marker to. The cue point will allow the DJ, at the touch of a button, to change the position of the track.
The use of cue points can differ greatly, but the most common use of a cue point is to ensure that the mix from one track to another flows perfectly.
If the track that the DJ is currently playing has a 32 bar outro, but the track that they are mixing in only has a 16 bar intro, then there may be some kind of clash with vocals or melody patterns.
The DJ may realise that they have started to mix the next track in at the wrong time. This can easily be adjusted by utilising the cue points that they had set previously, which will realign the phrases of the tracks and make the timing perfect again.
- Microphone Monitoring
There have been many occasions during my career where I have started to talk on the microphone, only to find that my voice is either much too
If you see a DJ wearing their headphones while they are talking on the microphone, the chances are that they are doing this so that they can hear the volume and tone of their voice in comparison to the volume of the music.
Wearing their headphones while talking allows the DJ to make the necessary adjustments to ensure that their voice sounds clear and that the microphone volume is consistent.
These adjustments can include tweaking the high, mid-range and low frequencies of their voice, as well as the master volume of the microphone.
Do some DJs wear headphones as a fashion accessory?
DJing has definitely become more fashion-conscious, and headphones are one of the main things that can assist the DJ in building their image.
Some DJs choose certain headphones because they work better with their particular hairstyle. Other DJs will select a pair of headphones because of the brand.
Noticing this trend, a number of headphone manufacturers identified a niche in the market and now provide ranges of headphones that can be personalised with the logo of a DJ. However, this is more of a brand building exercise than a fashion-conscious move.
Can a DJ hear me if I talk to them while they are wearing headphones?
The honest answer to this is – probably not!
Most DJ headphones have greater noise cancellation than standard headphones, meaning that they block out most of the sound around them. DJs are at greater risk of damaging their hearing, so they do everything they can to protect it.
What does it mean if a DJ isn’t wearing headphones?
If the DJ isn’t wearing headphones, it could mean that they are playing a pre-recorded mix and aren’t actually mixing at all!
More realistically though, a lot of DJ software nowadays – Serato, Traktor and Rekordbox to name a few – have such detailed interfaces that you can actually see, rather than hear, that your tracks are aligned, which can mean that the DJ doesn’t necessarily need to wear headphones at all.
What else do DJs listen to in their headphones?
I have done several gigs during my career where I have spent 4 or 5 hours in the DJ booth and very few customers have walked through the door.
Some of the extreme things that I have used my headphones for is to watch movies on my phone, listen to podcasts and even listen to voice messages on WhatsApp!
However, when I do have gigs like that, I normally tend to spend my time more wisely and sort through my music and organise it a little better. This can include searching for duplicate copies of MP3s to free up space on my hard drive, set cue points on new tracks and create new playlists for upcoming gigs.
In general, DJs are using their headphones to enable them to do the best job possible and create an experience for their guests that will ensure that they want to return again and again.
Some DJs will select their headphones based on the technical specifications they offer and other DJs will choose which headphones best suit their image.
As long as the music that comes out of the speakers is good and the majority of people enjoy themselves, then it can be said that the DJ is doing a good job.
I hope that this article has helped you in some way. If you have any further questions or any suggestions about the reasons why DJs wear headphones, please feel free to leave a comment.