10 mistakes every DJ makes: "DJing is a job and you’re likely better at it when you’re not incapacitated"

Hands on a DJ mixer
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Landing a decent DJ gig is a chance to shine; to share the music you love, demonstrate your impeccable tune selection and ability to read a room, as well as your technical prowess. But like any job, it’s also a chance to make mistakes – although, unlike most jobs, as a DJ your mistakes might be in front of hundreds or even thousands of people.

While never reaching the heights of the superstar DJ, I’ve been DJing for many years, and at some point in my career I have personally made many, many DJing errors. And from chatting with my peers, it turns out that most working DJs have made many similar errors too. 

So we’ve gathered together ten of the most common DJing mistakes for you to take note of – and to then make sure you avoid.    

1. Red-lining

We’re starting with a pretty basic mistake, but one worth mentioning: don’t let the signal on the DJ mixer go into the red. Those red lights are there for a reason, they’re warning you that the signal is too hot, it’s clipping and distorting, and while it might still sound OK in the booth, it’s unlikely to sound good on the main sound system. 

It’s tempting to have your main mixer output as strong as possible, right on the edge of the red without actually touching it because hey, the louder the better right? But this might not be the best approach. There will always be small volume variations in the volume levels of individual tracks, and once you start adding FX, filters and EQ into the mix, you can create all sorts of volume spikes. Better to leave yourself a little headroom and keep those meters out of the red. 

Headphones sat on a DJ controller

(Image credit: Getty Images)

2. Headphones pt1

In the minutes before taking over from another DJ, many DJs put their headphones around their necks, putting the cable in their pocket so they don’t trip over it, ready to plug in when they get on the decks. And then, because it’s a high-tension role, in a disorientating environment, in front of an audience, in the dark, they put their headphones on forgetting they’re not plugged into the mixer, then spend the first minute of their set desperately trying to work out why they can’t hear anything in the cans. It is surprisingly easy to do, and as a writer with a now lengthy DJing career, I can assure you that it’s surprisingly easy to do more than once. 

We've rounded up our pick of the best DJ headphones here. 

3. Headphones pt2

The other great headphones mistake is walking away from the decks with your headphones either on your head or around your neck while they’re still plugged into the mixer. This can be particularly memorable if you do it while trying to look cool and then pull the mixer onto the floor behind you.

4. Peaking too early

Also known as Playing Utter Face Melters No Matter What Time You’re On. 

If you’re warming up or playing early it can be tempting to drop all your biggest tunes to get noticed, but there’s a lot to be said for approaching your DJ set as a part of the entire night’s entertainment. In that context, if you’re playing earlier, then a slow-burn, subtle-build-up approach might be more appropriate, where you hold back, leaving room – in terms of tempo and intensity – for the DJs who will follow you. 

The irony of course is that by doing a great job pre-peak time, and being happy to adjust your music to suit your time slot, you’re way more likely to be noticed as a competent DJ and get those peak-time bookings where you can then melt their faces off to your heart’s content. 

Hands on a DJ mixer

(Image credit: Getty Images)

5. Not having a back-up

It’s a bold DJ who rocks up to the club with just a USB, headphones and a smile, because if you drop that USB in your complimentary drink five minutes before you take over from Armin you’ll wish you’d bought a back-up. Always bring back-ups! 

6. Sticking to what you planned at home no matter what

It’s good to go out to gigs prepared, having spent a bit of time with your tunes, deciding which go well together, which are warm-up tracks, tension-builders or peak-time; and maybe having worked out some mash-ups you’ll do live or some transitions that sound great. However, there’s no point doggedly sticking to what seemed like a good idea a few hours ago in your bedroom when the room in front of you clearly doesn’t agree. So when your impeccably curated set of rare Hawaiian disco isn’t doing it, you’ll need to do that thing that all DJs talk about – read the crowd, and respond accordingly. If it’s not working, change it up. 

7. Overdoing The FX

No doubt that beat-matched delay sounds superb when you start using the high pass filter with it too, but maybe not on every track! There are no solid rules as to how often a DJ should use the effects on the mixer – every DJ has a different style with some DJs literally never using them and others happy to rinse out the phasers and reverbs all night. When it comes to effects, it can be helpful to think of the DJing/cooking analogy, where the DJ is like a chef, their tunes are the ingredients and the effects are the spices. No one wants chilli powder with every meal: when it comes to FX, less is more. 

8. Over-indulging

We all know that club culture can be tolerant of alcohol and substance use and misuse, and it can be tempting to indulge pre-gig to help calm the nerves, or to get into the same state of mind as the audience. However, we also all know that there’s no guarantee this won’t affect your ability to DJ. We’re not your mum and we’re not going to tell you how to live your life, but on this subject it’s worth remembering that DJing is a job and you’re likely better at it when you’re not incapacitated. Also, people may well have paid to hear you, for some in the club this might be their only night out this month, and there are a hundred hungry DJs who would love to be in that booth instead of you. So it's probably best to leave the majority of the partying till after the gig. 

Hands on a DJ mixer

(Image credit: Getty Images)

9. The high pass filter and the disappearing audio

This is another DJ mistake that's surprisingly easy to do, and is so common it’s almost like a DJ rite of passage. You perform a perfect transition, seamlessly filtering one track out while simultaneously filtering another in. The crowd love it, you drop the fader and go through your playlist looking for the next banger but when you cue it up, you can’t hear it. Because in the excitement you've forgotten that the high pass filter's still on. Extra points are awarded if you have to get the sound engineer, other DJs, or your mate to come and help troubleshoot the problem. 

10. Forgetting to enjoy it

Yes, it’s a job and you have a responsibility to do it well, and yes, sometimes it can be stressful or nerve-wracking – but also, DJing is easily one of the best jobs in the world. It’s good to occasionally remind ourselves that all an audience will ever really want from the DJ is great music to dance to, and they will definitely enjoy it more if you’re enjoying it too. Your enthusiasm and love of the music will be infectious; so remember to have fun. 

Harold Heath

Harold Heath is a UK music writer and author. A DJ since the late 80s, Harold also produced a few hundred singles and remixes and two artist albums, and worked as a performer, ghostwriter and music-technology teacher. His first book Long Relationships: My Incredible Journey From Unknown DJ to Smalltime DJ was published in 2021.