What is a DJ Set?

Anyone with even a passing interest in electronic music or DJ culture will have heard the words “DJ set”, and at first glance, it seems easy enough to understand. But then when you really start to think about it, you realize it’s quite a slippery term that can be tricky to define.

So what is a DJ set? Let’s think about different definitions.

The set as a performance

Technically speaking, a DJ set refers to one session on the decks, and it can also be taken to mean a DJ’s timeslot in the lineup.

You might hear people saying things like “Oakie’s set starts at midnight”, and even wedding DJ’s will refer to the time they spend playing as their “set”.

However, to dance music fans, a set is more than this.

When a DJ takes to the decks, they are doing more than just playing one track after another, and when someone tells you they heard a mind-blowing set at the club last weekend, what they are talking about is the performance as a whole.

We evaluate DJs by their technical skills, their record collection, their track selection, how they read a crowd and react to the mood on the dancefloor and their ability to take you on a journey.

When we talk about their set, it is a combination of all these factors we are considering.

Playing a stormer

Playing a stormer
Image: Noname Music

If we say a DJ played a storming set, it means their transitions were smooth, blending the tracks into one seamless mix while teasing the crowd with the build-ups and extracting the maximum impact from every drop.

It means their music selection was immaculate, playing the right track at just the right moment, driving the atmosphere and keeping the dancefloor moving.

It also means the DJ was perfectly in tune with the people in the club, reading the mood and adapting the music to build things up at the right times but also giving you time to recover after reaching each peak.

And it means the DJ artfully wove all of this into a coherent whole, using the music to transport you, telling a story with a start, a middle and an end – and with lots of twists and turns along the way.

This is what we mean by a set. It is the way a DJ is able to take a collection of individual tracks and build a narrative, to play with your emotions, to ease you in and then work you into a frenzy.

This is the true craft of a DJ, and when you hear one who does it well, you are listening to someone who can take those individual tracks and turn them into something far more powerful than each individual record alone.

Streaming a set

But what about if you’re not in a club? Is there anything else we can call a set?

In recent times, technology has developed to allow DJs to play online, so they can film what they are doing and stream it live.

Especially in recent months, with the worldwide covid lockdown, DJs have been streaming their sets live as we look to fill the void left in our lives by the closure of clubs and the cancellation of festivals around the globe.

But are they playing sets?

Absolutely they are.

While they might lack a crowd and a living, moving dancefloor, all the other elements are there.

The DJ is showcasing their mixing skills, they are playing the latest gems from their record box along with a few surprises and past classics to keep things exciting. They’re telling a story and taking you on a journey.

Most importantly, it’s a coherent performance – so yes, this is a set. In fact, the sets that some DJs have been putting out during lockdown have been of the highest quality.

Check out some of the charity sets that big-name DJs – and some less famous ones too – have been playing for Beatport since the start of lockdown for countless examples. Here’s a video of Carl Cox’s techno set from lockdown in Melbourne.

Pre-recorded sets

What about if it’s pre-recorded? Does it need to be live to be considered a set?

No, it doesn’t. If I put a camera on myself and record what I’m doing and then upload it to YouTube, it’s still a set. If there’s no camera and I just hit record on Rekordbox when I start playing and then upload it to Soundcloud when I’m done, it’s still a set.

But one proviso – for it to be considered a set, I think if you just switch on your CDJs and record yourself practicing, that doesn’t qualify.

For me, a set needs a structure. It needs to be a coherent performance – even if you’re performing by yourself – and you need to consciously be playing a set. Otherwise, you’re just messing about on your decks.

Does it need to be good to be called a set?

So far, I’ve described what a DJ set should be like, but it doesn’t always work like that.

You might go to a club and hear a DJ who seems to be playing tracks at random, chopping from one tune to the next with no discernible logic and completely unable to adapt to the dancefloor. But does that mean it’s not a set?

No, it just means it’s a bad DJ.

It means the person you’re listening to just isn’t capable of putting together a decent set.

If you are booked to play in a club, you’re supposed to play a set, but just because you don’t have the skills to pull it off, it doesn’t mean it’s not a set. It just means it’s a bad set.

Or perhaps it’s the type of place where the music doesn’t matter, and the DJ is just playing without much thought for what comes next.

In this case, I would argue that they are playing music but they’re not playing a set.

DJ set vs Live set – What’s the difference?

DJ set vs Live set - What’s the difference
Image: Noname Music

There is one situation where seeing the word “set” might cause some confusion, and that’s if you see a flyer or poster with “DJ set” or “live set” next to an artist’s name. So what’s this all about?

Actually, it’s quite easy to grasp, but first you need to understand the difference between DJs, producers and musicians.

To start with, DJs are easy to define. They play pre-recorded music, usually in the form of digital audio files or from vinyl records. As we have seen, their job is to read the crowd and work the dancefloor with the music they choose.

The difference between producers and musicians is a bit more blurred, but for the purposes of this post, we can define producers as people who make music, usually by arranging it on dedicated music production software.

Musicians, on the other hand, are people who play live music on instruments, either traditional ones such as guitars and violins, or on modern ones, like synthesizers and drum machines.

According to these definitions, there’s considerable overlap between producers and musicians, but the point is, DJing, producing and playing music are three distinct activities.

However, just because you do one, it doesn’t mean you can’t do another – many producers can also DJ, for example.

Consequently, if someone is known for doing more than one of these things, it needs to be specified on the billing to let people know what to expect.

Let’s look at some examples to make it a bit clearer.

Who’s playing?

First, take the electronic music duo Orbital. They were among the pioneers of live electronic music, and their shows are legendary. However, they aren’t DJs, so if you see a flyer telling you Orbital are playing, you know to expect a live show.

Now think about Camelphat, a pair of English producers and DJs who have been around for a while but who shot to worldwide fame a couple of summers ago with their track Cola.

They make music in the studio, but they don’t perform live, so if you see Camelphat on a lineup, you know they’re appearing as DJs.

However, some people perform as both DJs and as live artists, in which case, the flyer should tell you what they are doing, especially if they are performing in the format they are less famous for.

A perfect example – although this is going back a few years – is Boy George. As everyone knows, Boy George was frontman for the 80s pop group Culture Club that was famous for such hits as Karma Chameleon and Do You Really Want to Hurt Me.

However, Boy George consequently carved out a second career for himself as a DJ, and if he is spinning rather than singing, on a poster, you will see the words “DJ set” next to his name. This specifies that he was be performing as a DJ rather than as a singer.

The same is true for a DJ who also plays live – if the artist is due to perform live music with instruments rather than playing records, the poster will include the words “live set” to tell you what to expect.

If you have seen any of the excellent Cercle videos on YouTube, you will have seen a mixture of DJ sets and live sets. Here’s HVOB playing a live set against a stunning backdrop in the Copa del Sol in Careyes, Mexico.

Two small words but several meanings

As we’ve seen, the term “DJ set” is not as easy to pin down as you might first imagine, and this is probably because it is used to mean different things at different times.

However, when someone talks about a DJ set, it usually implies a coherent performance rather than just one turn on the decks.

And if you see the words “DJ set” or “live set” on a poster, this tells you the format of how the artist is going to deliver that performance.

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