Learner Experiences with MOOCs and Open Online Learning

Becoming a DJ: Learning How to Mix Electronic Music via the Open Web

Michael Mendoza

I feel as though this is the first time I’ve learned from the Internet in a way that could bear intellectual, personal and professional returns

My experience learning how to DJ in a completely independent and online fashion has been incredibly rewarding. Although learning how to DJ has been a goal of mine since I purchased my DJ equipment several years ago, I never really addressed this curiosity because I always felt as though I was too busy for it and I could simply get to it at another time. However, due to my procrastination since purchasing some rather expensive equipment, I felt guilt and regret. As a result of my online learning experiences, I feel that those negative feelings are now behind me.

My online learning experience was one of independently guided discovery. As I had no formal course in which I was enrolled, there was no curriculum or lesson plan that guided my process. I started the process by deciding which sounds I liked from DJ’s with whom I had been familiar with and I set out on learning how to spin similar music. I joined discussion forums, listened to more of my favorite DJs’ mixes, familiarized myself with the producers and artists they were spinning, and acquired music and attempted to mix it. I would largely attempt to imitate what I heard other DJ’s doing. Through this process I slowly realized the areas in which I faced technical difficulties, and spent time researching and practicing those areas (e.g., beat-matching). I relied on my own intuition to figure out whether I needed to work on a particular area. If something I mixed did not sound aesthetically pleasing, I would ask myself why, reflect upon the problem, and then research the solution. As a pianist with an extensive musical background, listening to problem areas (e.g., incompatible key or time signatures) was not difficult for me.

As a result of recent technological advances that greatly increased information availability, I did not need to directly rely on other individuals to be the unique holders of DJ knowledge. Rather, I was able to glean information from a variety of sources and compare them in the comfort of my own home via the instantaneous nature of the Internet. I could then decide which information was best for me and my purposes.

Even though I was not participating in a structured course of study, and much of the information I found online was not published with students in mind, I feel that my work was guided and encouraged simply by my decision to spend a few hours each week working towards bettering my DJ skills.

Prior to this experience, it seems as if I took the Internet for granted. Being able to look up information and being able to learn about myriad authors, artists, or schools of thought always seemed a relatively simple and mundane process. I didn’t expect my Internet searches to yield any lasting tangible results. However, I have now gained the ability to seek out specific information and apply it to a concrete skill set. I see my newfound DJ skills as not only a source of amusement and enjoyment for myself, but also as a potentially professional skill. In essence, I feel as though this is the first time I’ve learned from the Internet in a way that could bear intellectual, personal and professional returns. Two factors facilitated this type of experience: love of the subject and the acquisition of a tangible, marketable skill. Personally, I’ve developed a hobby that I find incredibly enjoyable as I love the music. It has been intellectually rewarding insofar as preparing DJ sets requires me to engage with and analyze each track in-depth. Professionally, I’ve already been commissioned to prepare three different mixes for upcoming weddings. Is there a way institutions of learning can reproduce this type of experience for their students? As long as there is a love for the subject from the students, a clear path to a reproducible and tangible skill, and willingness from the institution to allow students to explore and learn in a manner and tempo that best suits them, I believe that educational institutions can create similar types of experiences for students.

I found this experience to be inspirational because, in the process of reading about so many different music producers and so many different DJs and genres, I have discovered names and styles that I would have never experienced otherwise. I've learned from others’ experiences and wisdom. Many DJs began their musical path with limited experience and exposure in electronic dance music. Thus I could see myself in their narratives. Throughout this process, the discovery of what a large variety of DJs are actually doing in the studio, in clubs, and on tour has been very beneficial as it has exposed me to such a wide variety of styles and repertoires. Soundcloud, a social networking platform that allows individuals to record, upload, and share audio, had been immensely beneficial in this endeavor, as it has exposed me to dozens of DJs and hundreds of sounds. DJs often upload entire club sets and include the full track-lists of music that one would never hear on the radio. Even though I explored dozens of artists, I feel that I have learned a lot from Worthy, J. Phlip, Christian Martin, and French Fries. Exploring record labels such as ClekClekBoom and DirtyBird was also very beneficial.

Many professional DJs and individuals associated with record-labels, have live mixing and production demonstrations online. I see these as forms of virtual DJ master-classes and performances. Skills and topics explored range from beat matching, planned cueing, or mixing different styles, to producing tracks in professional software such as Ableton. This experience brought a diverse range of Londonite, Parisian and San Franciscan DJs to my living room and provided access to individuals delivering lessons using every possible type of equipment.

The skills I’ve learned in this endeavor range from beatmatching to mixing tracks with non-conforming beat emphasis.

To illustrate my learning, I’ll discuss structuring a mix and cueing (one aspect of my learning) in a more detail: Structuring a mix and cueing is an important skill. Mixes cannot simply be a random assortment of tracks played together over the duration of a mix. They should represent a logical progression between styles, textures and harmonies. Imagine a symphony by Mahler or Beethoven; with each movement or section a mood is created and certain responses are evoked from the listener. The same can be said about a DJ mix. As a DJ, careful consideration must be made to blend textures and to cue appropriately. These were some of the concepts that I learned by watching this tutorial on YouTube. Although this DJ doesn’t spin the music I like, he does have the same equipment and thus learning from him and translating the technical know-how to my music preference was easier than learning from someone who has different equipment.

Since I chose an unstructured approach to this experience, my learning was limited only by my imagination and the information available to me on the World Wide Web. As questions or technical areas such as the ones listed above arose during the self-discovery process, I would use a search engine to troubleshoot. Generally, I could find answers to my questions. Occasionally I was not able to find answers to my questions, and in those cases I reached out to specific DJ's directly via Twitter. Unfortunately, they did not always respond to me. Since there is no student/teacher relationship between myself and the experienced DJs they were not obligated to answer. I find this to be one of the challenges of an unstructured learning plan that is guided by the individual.

At the very beginning of this experience, I already had developed an intuition for the types of sounds and DJs that I appreciated. The more I listened to them, the more I was able to discover other types of music. Soundcloud allowed me to explore how professional DJs mix tracks together in addition to the names of the exact tracks that they are spinning. This was essential in learning how to distinguish between genres and styles. Without this experience, I would not have been able to classify a track into one of the many sub-genres of electronic dance music. By listening to thousands of examples of music and associating the different sounds with the labels that DJ’s use to describe those sounds (e.g., “trap”, “dubstep”, “house”, “deep-house”, “tech-house”, “electro-house”, “future-bass”, “grime”, etc), I was able to learn and understand which sounds, textures and rhythms merit which labels. As a classically trained pianist, I found this part of the learning experience similar to developing a discerning ear in distinguishing the musical gestures which make Scriabin, Rachmaninoff and Mussorgsky so distinctly of the late-Romantic Russian school when compared to Haydn, Mozart and Schubert whose music is of the Classical Austrian school.

My practice during this experience were relatively unstructured. When I learned about a new technique or new approach to accomplishing something while mixing music, the impetus was on me to practice these techniques on my own time. I did not have the advantage of an expert to grade what I did or give me feedback. Thus, I had to devise my own ways to reflect on and critique my own work independently. As a check on the quality of my work, I attempted to emulate or recreate the mix or sound of certain DJs with whose sound I am familiar with and then compared my final recorded result with that of the DJ that I was studying. This technique of critically listening to myself is something that I've used for years when learning languages and playing the piano. In those two areas I found it indispensable to listen to myself and to identify with the audience members’ experience. In this way, I can explore the exact sound being produced as a listener and not just as a language speaker, pianist, or DJ. I spent considerable time practicing and I have been able to publish my own mixes, sharing them with the whole of the World Wide Web. In this particular mix for example, I set out to accomplish several things: 1) recreate a mixing gesture accomplished by one of my favorite DJs, 2) practice balancing basslines; 3) explore mixing styles and genres; 4) explore mixing different patterns, 5) smoothly transition between all tracks; 6) experiment with effects such as echo, flanger, filter; 7) sample a vocal element and make it part of the preceding track.

Although I enjoyed the work that I did, I believe my experience would have been improved by the inclusion of a few resources commonly associated with formal classes. For example, I would have liked to have a mentor who would be able to directly answer my questions. A mentor could also provide guidance toward topics that they deem essential. They would have a better idea of what a new DJ needs to be able to do. Although I’ve done well on my own, there could be entire areas of DJing that I'm inadvertently leaving undiscovered.