Gain Staging and Gain Structure

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.

Dangers Of DJ USB Hubs

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.


Using USB Sticks for Mixers and Audio Interfaces

A Quick DJ USB Stick Guide

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

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.

Drive Space

DJ USB stick
Way too small.

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.

DJ Equipment Guide For New DJs

DJ Equipment Guide For New DJs


The technical world of DJing can seem daunting at first for newcomers. This guide is meant to explain to aspiring DJs what each piece of gear does, what the specifications mean and give general tips for purchasing decisions. With this guide you’ll be able to make informed purchasing decisions on your first pieces of DJ equipment and understand the more technically minded reviews to give you an edge on finding quality gear.


You’ll need different gear set ups depending on your needs. At the bare minimum you’ll need a laptop and some DJ software. You can find free software online or purchase a paid version for better features and more support. With just a laptop and software you’ll only be able to create premade tracks. You won’t be able to dynamically change the beat on the fly. The settings are too complex and require a lot more than a mouse or keyboard can accomplish. If you want to start doing live mixes or easily make premade tracks you’ll need to get a controller. If you want to go the more traditional route with vinyl or CD mixing you’ll need to get specialized devices called CDjs and turntables. However you can stick with just your laptop if you plan on using digital mp3 tracks.

As you go live you’ll want to be able to monitor your sound, you’ll need headphones for this to prepare songs and hear the outcome of your actions. Depending on the venue you’ll also need to get an audio mixer and speakers for the room if the room doesn’t have a sound system. You may need to get a coffin, table or stand for your gear as well.

DJ Controllers

Dj equipment guide

Proper DJing requires using software to build and mix shows. Controllers are control panels to use these software programs on the computer they are connected to. They don’t do any processing or manipulation of sound on their own. They’re like keyboards for a mixing program. With pads, faders, buttons and jog wheels as well as displays they connect with a laptop’s software. The controller allows the DJ to control the sound much more easily than a traditional mouse or keyboard ever could. The use of a controller vastly speeds up your actions and allows you to focus on the audience and your show.

Important factors to consider when purchasing controllers are price, quality, companion software, and the amount of controls or features. When it comes to the companion software most companies ship controllers with a light software and not the full version that the company has for sale. If you’re intending to use the controller to it’s fullest potential you have to understand and plan for that hidden cost. You can choose to use the light version if you’re on a tight budget. But if you’re intent on full functionality you’ll want to be aware of the additional purchase when making your decision.

When researching the hardware you can see if the software is just a light version intended to get you hooked. You can do this by checking to see if it’s a lite, LE or light edition. Be sure to take some time to look up tours of the software on YouTube to see if it’s a good fit for you. Software is usually best paired with it’s intended controller by manufacturer design. Though most controllers can be key-mapped to any software. Remember controllers are just like keyboards. So digital controllers are limited only by their buttons and dials. You can choose which dial does what in any program. You can set buttons for samples, dropping sound clips, and looping tracks and customize your set up.

There are media features that look enticing for your show but drive the price up. These are things like the ability to use USB drives and CDs. While these do make a controller look a lot cooler. In practicality the ability to manipulate songs from these sources is very limited. If you’re looking to do more effects than beat-matching you’re going to need the media on a laptop. The devices are very limited without the companion software. If you want to use CDs or USB you should look into CDjs.

Another factor in deciding on which controller to get is the age of the design of the DJ equipment. There’s a term utilized in the hardware and software world called “Grandfathering”. Grandfathering is the choice of a company or standard to keep up support and maintenance of older equipment. As devices age and get replaced with new technology the cost of maintenance and support of older technologies becomes less beneficial.

Newly developed software will be made with the newest devices in mind and older devices will be grandfathered as an afterthought. But its not uncommon for older devices to be unable to integrate with the newest software. It’s important to check and see which software versions your device is compatible with. It’s not usually the case that the controller can’t talk with the software at all, but features may be inaccessible.

Another aspect to think about when it comes to the age of the controller is the age of the physical technology as well. User interface devices make major strides each year and DJ controllers are no different. Newer jog-wheels, dials and faders will be much more smoother and much more accurate. The more state of the art a deck is, the more comfortable and precise it will be.

Audio Interface

DJ Audio InterfaceAudio interfaces are the mediator between the sound system and your laptop. These devices are the center point of your operation. Any modular devices are routed through the audio interface and connected to your computer to be manipulated. The output of the interface goes out to another mixer to manage levels or directly out to the speakers if it’s a power amplifier as well.

Computer sound cards are usually lower resolution and are integrated chips on the motherboard without much processing power. Unless your desktop computer specifically has a separate sound card you installed yourself it is unlikely you have one. Sound cards will be necessary for high quality sound. If you’re running a laptop setup you will need to get one. Some mixers and all in one controllers have their own installed.

The general rule for set up is if you have a sound signal going to or from the computer an audio interface should be between it. For example if you have CDjs, route the sound to the interface’s inputs. If you want to transmit sound from your Laptop to the speakers, connect the speakers to the interface and the interface to the computer with the USB.

When deciding on an audio interface the most important thing to ensure is that you have enough inputs and outputs. These are a big factor on the price. More sources means more money. To determine the size, figure out how many sources you have. Each source is a channel with both left and right audio. So if you have three sources you need a three channel sound card. The computer connecting by USB is not counted in this calculation at all.

Another important thing is to determine what kind of connectors each source is dealing with. RCA, 1/4″ jack and XLR connectors are all possibilities in audio equipment. In a pinch you can get an XLR to 1/4″ adapter cable. XLR and 1/4″ are both balanced lines while RCA are unbalanced. RCA unbalanced lines aren’t noise resistant. This means that RCA cables will bleed the signal over to other nearby RCA cables. In simple set ups this isn’t a problem, but if you have lots of connections you’re going to want to opt for balanced lines (1/4″ or XLR cables) whenever you can.


Open and closed-back are headphone designs that determine how isolated your headphones are from the room around you. When you have open or semi-open- back headphones you can hear the ambient noise of the room. These are more comfortable than closed but can be hard to concentrate on in noisy environments. With closed headphones you’ll have to swivel the ear pads away from your ear to hear the noise outside.
You should go for 20Hz to 20kHz for spectrum, you can get away with 20Hz-18kHz though. You’re just looking for low bass and sharp highs. Bass line, kicks, snares and high hats.

You want around 40mm drivers, they’re the perfect size for playing lows. If you’re going to get something other than 40mm go bigger than smaller.
Depending on how loud you have your headphones you’re going to want to go for around 3000mW max input. This is offset by sensitivity. dB/mW is how loud the headphones will be. The higher the rating the louder they will be for the same amount of wattage.

dj headphonesYou want to get strong joints and hinges, avoid plastic wherever you can. Titanium, magnesium and aluminum keep weight down which is a big plus for comfort during long sets. An easy way to see if a pair will be manageable is to check their weight in grams.

Check reviews to see how comfortable the headphones are, you want to pay attention to customizable sizes and quality of pads. Good ear pads should swivel on the arm to allow for single sided monitoring and positioning. Pads themselves should totally cover your ear and not compress them at all.

Single cord over double cord. Coiled cables don’t get caught on gear as easily. Length is also a major issue for mobility. Too long and it will be difficult to manage, too short and you’ll be leashed.

Unless you have specialized case transport or a spot for them you’re going to want folding headphones if you put them in all purpose bags.


When it comes to creating and sharing music your speakers will drastically effect how the sound is presented and perceived. You want a perfect representation of your sound, and not a distorted version. If you don’t have the right speakers you’ll find that the mixes you make at home and in the studio will sound different when played on a professional sound system.

You want to get a speaker set that accurately portrays sounds and frequencies as pure as possible. When it comes to studios you’ll want to avoid consumer stereo speakers. Consumer speakers have different frequency responses that attempt to boost bass and drop off faster to make a beat pop. If you mix with stereo speakers you’ll find that your songs won’t sound the same when you go up on stage.monitor speakers

In a studio setting instead of consume stereo, you’ll want to go for monitor speakers. They have a clean flat frequency response that allows exactly what’s put in to play without distortion. These speakers require a lot of extra design and quality control research to manufacture and as such their price point is higher, but I’ll tell you what’s most important for purchase decisions.

The first specification is frequency range. This is the range of frequencies the speaker can recreate without warping the sound. For most uses 50Hz-18kHz is fine. When it comes to frequencies below 50Hz and bove 18k and you’ll start to edge into frequencies most people don’t usually hear anyway. These additional frequencies are a luxury and a usually a placebo. These frequency ranges are pretty much standard for all monitors so you can find the correct specifications at any price range.

If you’re really looking to work with heavy base you’ll want to work with studio sub-woofers instead anyway. Most all range speakers do not handle the low end well and there are sharp roll off curves (distortion) below 60Hz.

Wattage or power of a speaker is how much energy a speaker set can play out. When pricing out for high quality monitor speakers this number doesn’t play out like you normally expect. When humans perceive loudness, what’s actually being perceived is the distortion created by the sound. Monitor speakers are very precise and don’t spread a lot of distortion and harmonics, while consumer speakers do. This means if you compare same wattage and same output level of the two types of speakers side by side, the consume speakers will sound louder. Monitors creates a weird effect where you think the speakers aren’t loud but when you go to speak you’ll realize these speakers are drowning out the sound. Most studios won’t need more than 50-60 watts. If you’re in a large room go for more power, if you’re in a small studio bring it down.

Another specification for speakers is THD or total harmonic distortion, it’s how drastically a speaker set affects the sound before it is played. The higher the percent, the less precise the rendition. What you want depends on how accurate you want the music portrayed. Anything less than 0.015% THD is outstanding, and anything more than 0.3% will start to be noticeable.

Quality is directly related to price when it comes to monitor speakers. For producing hip-hop, club mixes and freestyle you’ll want to get a sub-woofer assisted 2 monitor set up at the minimum.

Tables, Stands and Facades

For live shows your going to need your own stand and gear in case venues don’t have their own stand set up. When it comes to your stage set up you have three options. You can opt for a table, a cross stand or a facade. If you want to run a facade or cross stand you’ll need a coffin. If you use a table you’re going to want a tablecloth or you’re going to look unprofessional.

Deciding between a keyboard stand and a table is important, tables sometimes give extra space, but sometimes a stand or facade is better for ease of travel and set up, space issues and appearance of show. You need to know what venue you’re going to and what to expect for your set up beforehand.
Whichever path you choose there are three main concerns that you want to be aware of when finding the right table, stand or facade to purchase. The three biggest DJ concerns are stability of the set up, space for equipment and comfort for extended performances. When you find a set up that satisfies all three your comfort in shows will let you focus on what matters.DJ Facade Stand

The first and most important aspect is size. Without enough space you’ll be finding yourself having to come with extra gear or needing to invent genius impromptu solutions every show. Instead of wasting space and time you need to get a table that can fit all your gear. Try different setups and see how much space the gear takes all together. Determine the absolute minimum space you can get away with and add 15%. This is a good way to figure out exactly how much work space you’ll need. For more portable shows you’ll want to look at getting a coffin if you’re really intending to play a lot of venues. Usually a 5-6 foot table will work for most two deck set ups. Larger setups will require larger tables.

When it comes to stability you need to assess how much you apply force on the table. For example if you’re just using controllers to play and mix beats you won’t have to worry as much. But if you intend to scratch for your show you’re going to find the motion wobbles less stable tables and it will distract you. You need a solid table or stand or it moves too much if you scratch. This is a huge issue with most cheaper folding tables, so you’ll want to set one up or look into reviews before you buy.

After finding a stable table you should look into the height. This aspect is comfort based for extended shows. You’ll want the height of the table so you dont have to bend over for the duration of your show. This prevents back strain and allows you to play longer. For maximum comfort you want to have a 90 degree or more angle on your elbow to operate gear. The best way to figure out your optimal stand or table heigh is to measure from the floor to your elbow and take two inches off your measurement. This takes the height of your gear or coffin into account to find the best height for your stand, table or facade.