There’s a pretty common question I see from lots of new up and coming DJs. They see the cue button in their new DJ software or on their controller and wonder what it does. This great option is universally available, whether it’s in Traktor, Virtual DJ, even on CDJs. Learning how to use it right will improve your performances and recordings. There are actually a few cue buttons to worry about. Each one has a different usage. There’s the monitor cue, hot cue, and track cue location.
What Is A Headphone Cue
The first cue type I want to get into is the mixer, monitor or headphone cue. This cue essentially allows the chosen track to be played in your monitor headphones. If you use the headphone cue anything you play on this channel will be privately played to you and not sent out to the actual mix being played in your performance. This allows you to “cue” up the next song and match beats without worrying interrupting the rhythm of your show. You can easily find starting beats, timing, and key. This cue is usually near your faders, gain, EQ filters, etc. It’s part of the mixer and channel sound controls portion of your deck.
What is a Cue Point?
A cue point is a deck cue that indicates an important point in the song, used to designate when in the track the music will play. It sets the starting point for the track so that you can perfectly beat match the two (or more) tracks together. This button is found on each individual deck. If you push this button while a track is paused it will set the cue point. Pushing the cue track button while the track is playing will cause the track to restart at that cue point. So you set your point on beat and as long as you do it right you’ll always be able to cue up and play on beat music. If you hold this button down after the track goes back to this cue point it will only play as long as you hold the cue button down and will pause/stop when you release it.
What’s a Hot Cue?
Hot cues are essentially just setting addition cue points in a song. Want the track to start at a drop, place one there. Want to skip distracting vocals or an uninteresting section in the song? Place a hot cue after the section when the song becomes useful again. You can build up a list of these hot cues for each track. Hitting a hot cue will set the song to that set cue point. Allowing for massive control and on the fly creativity. They allow you to pick and choose aspects of the song you want while skipping the things you don’t.
DJ Cue Tricks
One of my favorite uses for the hot and regular cue buttons is to create a live mashup. For an easy example, lets say you just have song one running. Song two has a vocal you want to inject into the current song. All you have to do is set a hot cue on the second song just before that vocal. While the second track is paused you hit the hot cue to go to that point in the song. Then you hit the cue button and it will set the cue to start the track at this point. Then all you have to do is hold down the cue button and the song will only play as long as you hold it down. The vocal plays over your track one, and you release the cue. Now you have this vocal that you can drop in on your main track at any time, creating a simple vocal mashup live. This is called cue sampling and you can improvise without needing to set up samples beforehand.
Headphones are one of the most important pieces of gear a DJ can have. Without being able to hear what you’re creating there’s no way to realistically make it sound great. With better headphones you’ll be able to more accurately hear what you’re actually producing and get a real feel for the beat. However when it comes to specs DJ headphones have a lot of confusing and complex stats. So in this guide I hope to give you a quick understanding of how to read the numbers and determine if a set of headphones is right for you.
dB SPL/mW Sensitivity
I figured I might as well get the most technical sounding spec out of the way first. dB SPL/mW sensitivity is a specification that deals in how much sound pressure the DJ headphones can put out for the power supplied. Basically it tells how loud the speakers are. The higher the number, the louder the music is for the same volume level from your player. Misleadingly simple isn’t it?
Max Input Power
Next up is a pretty self explanatory specification. The max input power value is the maximum amount of power the headphones can handle before you edge into the danger zone. If you get a pair of headphones that are too low in this value you might end up blowing the speaker or ruining the frequency response. As a DJ you’re going to want to get headphones with around 3W Max Input Power. Most pieces of DJ equipment with headphone monitoring are in this range and you want to be able to match it. Otherwise your gear is at stake.
This specification for DJ headphones is all about what sounds the headphone can make. Just like singers have a limit to their vocal range, headphones have limits to the sounds they can make. For the most part this is an unimportant stat. The majority of headphones all cover the same ranges. 18Hz-20kHz is what you’re looking for. Human hearing is 20Hz-20kHz so it makes sense, no point blasting your ears with sounds you can’t hear. The only thing you want to watch out for is headphones that only go up to 18kHz. They cut out some of the really high end. While you don’t specifically use pitches above 18kHz very often you’ll find that lower frequencies create these tones as harmonics. Harmonics make your sound fuller and warmer. You want to know what your sound is doing and you won’t get the whole picture if you get less than 20kHz at the top end.
Frequency Response Charts
I mentioned it briefly earlier and now it’s time to explain it. Frequency response is like a headphone’s preference in sound. If it has a high bass response it will put more power into the bass. So the low end sounds louder than the high end. If it has a lower frequency response in a range it will not express those pitches. This is where it gets real sciency. Heavy deep explanations aside, when you look at the frequency response chart, the higher the line is at a certain frequency the louder that frequency will be, the lower that line, the quieter.
Our ears themselves don’t hear all frequencies equally either. Human ears have a frequency response as well. We tend to hear bass and high pitches louder than they are. For a comfortable sounding set of DJ headphones you’re going to want ones that have charts that drop off under 100Hz and over 10kHz, In the middle you want a nice even line so all those frequencies get represented equally, with a slight boost around 7-8kHz.
Finally we get to the last major specification for DJ headphones. This spec is a physics value that determines how easy it is to drive the headphones. A device needs less power to drive headphones with lower impedance values. Phones and tablets work best with low impedance headsets (20-40 ohms). DJ controllers, audio interfaces and other monitoring amps work better with higher impedance headphones (50-80 ohms). The important thing to note is the lower the impedance, the lower the max power input. Additionally equipment can’t run speakers that have too high impedance. So if you go for high impedance spec headphones you definitely want to take some time to see what your gear outputs. So see what kind of output levels your equipment can handle once you go north of 175 ohm headphones.
As a broadcast engineer I frequently work with professional radio hosts who’ve been trained on proper leveling of equipment chains. They pretty much need this skill for job security as stations are broadcasted to hundreds of thousands and the show needs to sound good. But to be honest it hurts to go out and watch live shows of underground and local bands and DJs. It’s very common that their sound set up destroys the very music they’re wishing to play, plummeting quality and creating a loud mess. Due to the nature of the room acoustics the performers can’t even realize this without outside help.
The main culprit I’m talking about is audio distortion and it’s main cause in the live music scene is audio clipping from improper gain setup.
Gain is the amount of amplification of an audio signal. In a perfect world it’s a 1 to 1 ratio and the whole signal gets boosted uniformly and without issue. The problem is equipment has limits to what it can do. The peaks of signals can often be amplified until the point where the system no longer registers them. It’s just “Loud” and no longer notes. The most important thing to note with this is it happens with all gear. This isn’t just a software problem. It happens with mixers, audio interfaces, and sound systems. Here’s a quick video showing the effect on an audio editor:
With this in mind we can see how improper gain management can ruin the quality of a show, and we won’t know how bad it is until it’s playing. Even worse is it provides strain and starts to damage and weaken your equipment. So you have to follow some guidelines to determine how to properly set up the gain in your system. With proper organization and planning you can create a setup that not only removes this issue entirely but is extremely easy to adjust, even with multiple pieces of gear!
So here we go, how do I fix gain matching problems and how do I gain stage? Easy! The first thing you need to do is stop clipping on all your gear. If you have lights showing levels on your EQ meter you’ll immediately have a visual representation of the problem. Just adjust the volume/gain so you’re no longer maxing out. The last level should always flicker at the most. This prevents you from distorting the audio with this piece of equipment. Never go past this point and your audio will be fine. Now if you want to gain stage and you have multiple pieces of gear the best thing to do is max (without clipping) all of your equipment except for your last piece of gear that can set gain. This way you can easily adjust volume levels with just one piece of equipment. The rest of the gear in the chain is outputting the most it can without audio distortion and the last control will adjust the total volume output from the system.
There’s a big issue that people may not realize if they use a Laptop to power all their DJ peripherals. When people use electricity they’re used to the robust electrical systems of buildings. They don’t understand the actual strain that it places on electrical systems to plug in lots of equipment into a power bar or daisy chain extension cords. In a home a fuse just breaks. But laptops don’t have fuses, they just adjust the current output on a USB port. that can handle daisy chaining and plugging in large power bars. This is where the DJ USB hub comes into play and if you’re planning on loading one up you need to understand the rules to properly utilize this.
Lots of DJs tend to go for Macbooks and other laptops based on the specifications of the hardware for processing and their operating system. But oftentimes the amount of USB ports goes under the radar when making purchasing decisions. This turns into a problem later when you have more devices than ports when you want to hook up to your laptop. If you have two ports when you need three the first thing people tend to do is look for USB splitters or USB hubs to open up new real estate. This appears to solve the problem but a lot of unintended issues can arise from a lack of understanding of the technology.
Laptop ports have a maximum power output. Voltage may stay the same but what gets affected is the power output and current running through the devices. If you have a 3W port and plug three devices in, each will get 1W of power. DJ USB interfaces are designed with the intention of only that device being plugged into a USB port. The device expects a certain level of power. Splitters and hubs cut off that supply to the device by sharing it with the rest. As the current flow diminishes in the device it loses vital processes. Some stray currents that were kept in check at full power may damage circuitry. The gear may randomly shut down or act weird as well.
The most important thing is to figure out where your dj equipment gets it’s power from. If it plugs into an electrical outlet it’s safe to assume that it won’t require power from a USB port and the port is just used for communication instead. These devices are safe to plug into a splitter or hub. Never place more than one USB power dependent piece of equipment on the same port into your laptop. If you find that you don’t have enough spots for USB powered gear you need to look into a powered USB hub.
A powered USB hub plugs into an electrical outlet and takes all of the load off the laptop. They power each port as it’s intended to be powered. This allows for all the connected equipment to get all the electrical needs met and work without failure. It’s a must have gear upgrade if you’re using USB powered gear, otherwise you’ll be at risk of damaging your dj gear. They’re only slightly more expensive than a regular USB hub and it protects your extremely expensive investments.
With all this information you know how to keep your gear safe.
As a DJ your music is you, without it you’re not able to give a personal touch. You have to bring your music with a flash drive. When it comes to USBs you only need to be aware of a few certain aspects for managing your own library. In this quick reference guide on DJ USB sticks we’ll go over the basics so you don’t run into any trouble.
File Systems. USB sticks have different styles of file formatting which if incorrectly set will prevent audio interfaces, controllers and software from properly reading the files. Unfortunately you can’t change the USB format without wiping the drive of all it’s data so that’s the first thing you have to verify and set up, even before loading your songs. The biggest culprit is a NTFS drive. These don’t communicate with most gear. You’ll want to check specifications. But usually you’ll need HFS+ or FAT16/32. However the main standard in the industry is FAT32.
If you want to learn how to format your USB drive on a Mac click here. If you’re using Windows click here. Be sure to look up what file systems your gear can read so you know what your options are.
The bigger the drive, the more data you can save on it. The larger the file size of your songs the less songs you can store on it. File size of songs are determined by their length and their quality. Depending on whether you go for a broad library or a targeted library, and intend to have lossless songs you’ll have to find a stick that can store everything you need. If the stick is solely used for your media you’ll find that 16GB-64GB are perfectly fine.
USB 3.0 vs 2.0
USB 3.0 are much faster USB sticks. The issue is the port also has to be a 3.0 port or it will just transfer data at the 2.0 rate. If your gear has a blue USB port, you’ll be able to use your 3.0 on it. When it comes to this specification your really don’t need to worry. Both are capable of high enough speeds for mixing. If you can go for 3.0 go for it though because it will allow for faster file transfers and quicker loading of songs to DJ audio interfaces and software.
USB Hubs and Their Weaknesses
Your laptop may be limited when it comes to USB ports and you may be tempted to use a USB hub to plug in all your equipment and USB drives. The biggest issue with this is that the port has a limited amount of power that it can split between all the different USB devices plugged into it. In this article I go over the options and tips for preventing damage to your gear through accidental misuse.