Behind the DJ booth

With new technologies available, anyone can rock the virtual turntable

Boris Boitsov
Image by: Alex Choi
Boris Boitsov

Boris Boitsov says anyone can be taught to DJ, but I’m not so sure.

As someone whose musical abilities are questionable at best, I worry I’ll be the lone exception when it comes DJing — the process of playing and mixing music for a live audience.

But as it turns out, on a basic level, the process, which can involve mixing samples from well-known songs, is simpler than it seems.

Boitsov, ArtSci ’12, has been professionally DJing for the past year and a half in Kingston under the alias DJ Red Star.

Nervous about trying to mix music for the first time in my life, I meet with Boitsov and his laptop to try some DJ skills out for myself, hoping for the best.

When Boitsov DJs events, he brings just two main items to the venue: his laptop and a controller, a small grey box with knobs and dials that can control a song’s frequency, tempo and volume.

He drops two Avicii songs for me to mix into the virtual DJ software, a program he purchased online for about $300.

With their synched tempos, the songs melt into each other for a seamless transition. If the songs don’t have the same tempo, the DJ can manually synch them through the software.

I wait for the first song’s last few measures, called the outro, and then hit play for the second song. This transition is triggered down to the second, so that the beat sequences of both songs match.

My unsteady hand presses the button at the wrong moment, playing the second song out of synch with the first. I worry that I’ll have to start again. Luckily, though, the controller has an auto-synch button to re-match the tempos and fix my mistake.

“If the tempo is the same in both songs, you can piece them together perfectly,” he tells me.

When it’s time to mix the songs, only one thing needs to be done: a simple volume adjustment. I raise the volume of the second song, letting the first one fade out.

It hasn’t always been that simple, though. DJs used to work exclusively with vinyl and turntables before the advent of CDs. Now it’s all done digitally with units like the one Boitsov owns.

“The DJ world has been changing. It’s transitioning away from CDs to these controllers. It’s quite literally a hardware unit that’s all digital and it’s a USB plugin.”

With modern digital technology, DJs can have larger music collections than ever before. This lets Boitsov break out of simple transition work to use complex mixing techniques.

“The problem with just doing intros and outros is that it’s not particularly interesting,” Boitsov said. “If you’re going to listen to the whole song and wait for the outro to exit, the crowd is going to get bored.” Boitsov keeps his ear tuned for parts of songs that would go well together. Their compatibility doesn’t just depend on the artist though, but rather on the pitch.

“One song might have a really good buildup and the other song might have a really good drop,” he said.

Getting a gig in the first place was all about connections for Boitsov, who got his first Stages gig after a friend heard him perform.

This was at a time when DJ culture was on the rise in Kingston, due in part to simpler technologies, like the DJ program Ableton.

Even though the job interest is in town, Boitsov said he doesn’t find the scene too competitive.

“In my case, I do it for the fun of it. I’m not in it to make any money or things like that. If I don’t get a show, I won’t be upset,” he said.

Last year, he DJed once a week at Stages Nightclub and MyBar, usually making about $100 per gig This year, he plans to do four or five gigs in the Hub.

Boitsov estimates it takes him about four to five hours to put together a quality set, along with practicing transitions for two hours before each gig.

“It’s just kind of like learning to play a guitar,” he said. “You have to practice.”

At the beginning of the night, he’ll choose more obscure songs.

As the headlining act approaches, better-known tracks will dominate the speakers.

Although house music and mainstream tracks are most common in the Hub bars, there’s a market in the city for different sounds.

Queen’s campus radio station CFRC offers a free DJ service that focuses on alternative and independent music. The station, which holds training sessions twice a year for volunteers, has members who regularly DJ community events.

“You’re not going to find the top 40 hits and mainstream club music that commercially-oriented DJs will be into,” said Kristiana Clemens, operations manager at CFRC.

The station has a basic set of portable equipment to loan to volunteers — a turntable, a two-deck CD mixer, headphones, microphones and other external sound sources.

At its workshop sessions, volunteers are trained in music mixing, beat-matching and how to set up equipment. Clemens sees a variety of equipment used by the station’s DJs.

Today, the majority use either CDs or laptops, but as recent as three years ago, she said there were still people using vinyl records. Now, things have changed even further.

“We have people DJing off of iPads,” she said.

Clemens, who herself DJs on occasion under the handle DJ Sealegs, began working with vinyl records in 1998 — a time when everyone used the same type of gear.

“I think that was an advantage to DJ culture 15 years ago. It was pretty easy. There was a lot of peer learning and mentoring and people could help each other out,” she said. “[Now,] DJs have to be a bit more self-reliant in terms of figuring out what kinds of gear they want and learning how to use it.”

As a DJ, the best way to make yourself accessible is to know your crowd, she said.

According to Clemens, this is best done by preparing a variety of music and being open to audience interaction.

“Sometimes that means taking requests. Sometimes that means veering off into a different genre than you expected,” she said.

“You can really only handle that spontaneity successfully if you have really listened to all your music and you’ve really planned things out in advance.”


beats, Dance, DJ, Music

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