How To Play Long (5+ Hours) DJ Sets
Most DJs who play a lot of gigs will at some point get the opportunity to take on a marathon gig, spinning tracks for upwards of 5 hours. As the length of a set increases, the more it differs from a “normal” set. How can you prepare for sets that last all day or all night? Read on for our tips, including advice from experienced long-haul performers Elite Force, David Morales, and DJ Harvey.
An average set time for a “typical” DJ set can run anywhere from a relatively quick 45 minutes to a longer 4 hour set. The length of a set will vary wildly depending on the type of gig, and each type of event presents its own set of challenges. But when time behind the decks starts stretching on past five hours, it becomes less of a simple set and more of a marathon. We’ve collected some great advice for any DJ training for this type of marathon set in a few key sections below:
BEFORE THE GIG: PREPARE FOR THE NIGHT
“Make sure you have sufficient range, don’t be afraid to take it much deeper & slower than you might normally do, and make sure you have ample music at your fingertips.” – Elite Force (Simon Shackleton)
Planning out your entire set is out of the question when you’re staring down this long of a set time. Instead focus on making sure you have good collections of music for different parts of the night. As Simon notes, you’re going to need a good range of music that is appropriate for different moods. Make a playlist for high energy tracks that you absolutely know need to get played, and also another playlist for songs that you want to test out or that are deeper cuts.
A long set is the perfect opportunity for digital DJs to shine because you’re already carrying your entire music library – no packing crates of vinyl and wheeling them into the club.
“I never really prepare for a set. I will just go through my library and create a playlist of old tunes. In the old days, you packed a lot of records. A lot!” – David Morales
AT THE GIG: PACE YOURSELF (MUSICALLY)
“[…] when I DJ for six, or eight, or 10 hours, there’s room to do an awful lot with the music. You can start ambient, then slowly build up to several peaks during an evening. When I’m in control I can also cleanse the dancefloor — give people a break or a breather and then bring them back, and do that several times throughout the night.” – DJ Harvey (excerpt from a full interview at SF Weekly)
Playing an extended set really gives you, the musical curator, a lot of space to work with. You can let your songs breath – so if you want to play the extended version of a track, do it. If you want to work on an extra-long mix between two songs, go for it.
Every hour or two, break up the mix with two major weapons in the DJ arsenal:
- Change tempo drastically
- Explore multiple genres
This keeps the event fresh, and even more importantly it keeps you interested and challenged. A bored DJ can get sloppy and complacent – so avoid that all together by challenging yourself and trying different tempos and genres.
“You have to know how to pace yourself. [the crowd isn’t] going anywhere. So it’s ok to try different things. You already know how to pick the energy back up. It’s so amazing to play something that they wouldn’t expect. You want people to leave the club and say ‘Wow, he played this, and he played that.’” – David Morales
AT THE GIG: PACE YOURSELF (PHYSICALLY)
Taking care of yourself is very important if you’re hoping to be just as good (if not better) of a performer at the end of your set as at the beginning. A few basic tips for taking care of yourself:
- If you’re drinking alcohol, take it easy. 5+ hours is a long time to be ingesting alcohol, and more booze is going to mean more time spent away from the decks searching for the bathroom. Drink as much water as alcohol to avoid getting an end-of-set hangover!
- Ergonomics: Make sure all the equipment is at a comfortable level before you start playing. Also, have great shoes that support you well throughout the night.
- Snacks and drinks: Figure out what you need to make it through a whole set. It can be a slice of pizza just after midnight, an apple and some trail mix in your DJ bag, or an energy drink of your choosing – but know how your body will be happiest and want to continue working.
- Know the location of bathrooms. You’re not going to make it through your whole set without needing to pop off. Have a friend who can cover for you for a few songs, or a mini-mix that will fit in nicely?
AT THE GIG: WATCH FOR SHIFTS
At every event, a DJ should keep a close eye on the crowd to tell what the reception of tracks and musical direction is like. During a super-long DJ set, it doesn’t matter as much at any one time what the number of people in the venue or on the dance floor is. They’ll come in waves, some of the music you play will be a hit and some of it won’t go over as well. Part of surviving and flourishing in the long run is to roll with the waves – don’t worry too much about making sure your set is perfect or if you’re keeping every set of shoes shuffling.
“a lot of ‘EDM’ (Event-Driven Marketing?) is very much focused on the stage and the spectacle, so much so that the music and the groove is often lost these days amidst the sea of arms-aloft adoration for the DJ. Long sets are a chance to restore the groove, to balance the focus across the entire experience, an experience that the DJ is the central cog in. I’m very conscious in these sets to ensure that there are periods where I take it rolling and tracky, to allow people to focus on the ‘below-the-waist’ component, the groove – during these periods I try to avoid notable builds & drops and attention-grabbers; it just means that when you do drop something BIG or unexpected, stylistically, the roof comes off the place. This is just part of the essence of DJing for me – it’s all about story-telling; writing a book rather than a short story.” – Elite Force (Simon Shackleton)
AT THE END: CLOSE STRONG OR SMOOTH
“Then, if it ends early, you end on a high note. If it ends late, you let them out easy … and by late, I mean 7, 8, 9, 10 in the morning.” – DJ Harvey
Having an “end of night” plan is important. You don’t need to know how you’re going to end the night when you start a marathon set, but as you’re playing it’s a great thing to keep in the back of your head. Two very common end-of-set styles are:
- Leave them wanting more: This is where a performer closes out a set in the peak vibe – where it’s action right up until the last second. This keeps the energy up so that people are almost begging for you to keep playing at the end of your set. Often works better with relatively short sets.
- Ease out: This is where everything comes full circle, much like an epic saga of a book with tons of closing epilogues and tying up loose ends. This could mean playing songs that have an “end of night” feeling or theme to them, or slowly fading the energy levels so that the audience feels good about the evening closing out.
During your set, pull aside tracks that feel like they might be right for the last few selections of the evening. Keep them in their own playlist so that you can come back to them when the time is right. Make an assessment of the crowd, and decide how you want to close it out – a strong ending, a smooth ending, or something in-between the two.
Have your own tips for DJs jumping into a super-long set? Let us know in the comments below.