My old DJ setup I started building way back in 1995 from scavenged and repaired parts and it consisted of simply a Technics component amplifier (150w), some floor standing speakers I bought off a friends parents and a few old CD and casette players connected through first a hand made mixing desk then through a professional mixer my parents finally bought me for my 16th birthday. I made no money at the time because I was more interested in playing music than making money and I would play any chance I got. I started to actually make a little money with a few parties and some blue light disco events for kids but my equipment at the time was not worthy of hire.
Over the years the system has been updated with new amps, new speakers but I never had the drive to really progress with it since I had moved to production and music composing over the years and then having kids in 2008 I simply did not have the time. I love music, love creating it and love playing it so it was only a matter of time before I would get the itch once again.
Step 1: Designing The System
I have been asked numerous times over the years if I could DJ an event based off of previous events but I have turned down many requests because I simply did not have the suitable equipment for the task. I decided to move away from CDJ players and completely into the laptop world since I am very comfortable with computers and it would save a lot of effort.
I stumbled upon the new Numark NS7III motorised controller at the end of 2015 and instantly fell in love since I have owned a Numark CDX for 10 years and loved scratching and performing on it. This was the first thing I started with after a sale allowed me to save a few hundred $$$ on the purchase.
DJing is way more than just a selection of music and a sound system and for a mobile DJ there are a number of challenges since you also need to provide a good sound system, atmospheric lighting and effects and a professional appearance. Luckily system design, planning and engineering are all strong points of mine so I spent months designing and researching just what I wanted.
This is NOT what I wanted:
I noticed a bit of a trend in small self promoted DJs who had a controller, speakers and some cheap lights:
We all have to start somewhere but in many of the above examples it is not the equipment specifically that is the issue, It is the lack of attention to detail. The setups look ugly, there are cables hanging everywhere, black stands with white extension cords snaked around them and no real effort put into even making it even look nice. The addition of a lot of small cheap light effects are also something I did not want to be caught with so I needed a budget and a plan on how it would be put together, where to start to get gear and the time it would take.
I do not have loads of cash to burn but I do have a full time job, savings and avenues of income from the work I do online so this allowed me to put together a decent budget over the course of 6 months to get the components together.
I broke the whole system into categories and started work on researching each part of each category:
- Music and controller components
- Speaker and sound system
- Lighting & effects system
- Power and cable management
- Cases, Stands & transport
- Overall appearance
Step 2: Music & Controller Components
I already have a huge music collection from 30 years of loving music which I have mostly converted over to MP3 format but I spent a good month going over everything and updating all tag information in all my music and started signing up to some DJ pools to fill out the collection with new music. I designed a few scripts to help tag the correct year and genre in my music and spent huge amounts of time getting everything to the point I could create advanced smart filters in the software to find music fast! I also implemented a method to backup all my music and import new music on a regular basis.
I purchased the first piece of the puzzle, the Numark NS7III controller and used my existing older laptop to run it all which I discovered (and expected) was just short of the task.
I looked around and found a great deal on a new laptop which would easily run the system (ASUS N550JK) and also had a number of very useful features such as aluminium construction, touch screen and illuminated keyboard so well designed for the task. MAC was a consideration but I have always operated with PC and can easily buy several laptops for the task in the case one fails so it's a cost effective solution I am comfortable with.
I did a test gig at a friends party just using some of my sound equipment to see how the controller and laptop would fair and it was all good to go so I started on the next part of the system... The sound system.
Step 3: Sound System
I worked on the sound and lighting systems at the same time but it took 3 months to fully design and build the sound system from the ground up. I started with what I had:
< The speakers I had been using were 3 way custom built speakers designed to easily fit in the boot of a small car. They come apart in sections and have very good clarity due to the separate drivers for bass/med/treble and crossover unit. I added the subs which are 300w bass reflex designs tuned at 40Hz and throw out huge amounts of bass for their size.
I did realise these would not be suitable in all locations plus they don't have a professional appeal and a lot of the work I am asked to do is outdoor events and parties so I wanted a set of big speakers that could push a lot of volume in an open environment but without too much cost since I needed to juggle initial component costs and look at additional upgrades down the track
I came across the Behringer EuroLive PV2520 dual 18" PA speakers and from all accounts and reviews these seemed like great value for the cost and I found a supplier that was running their last 2 out at dirt cheap cost. I had to weigh up transporting these but already had a caged trailer so I did not have to limit myself to what could fit in the boot of a car. I purchased the speakers then decided I would really need to power these from much bigger amps and would also need a good EQ to suit. I also wanted to drive my subs and an extra set of speakers should I feel the need so started work on researching amps and building my "Power Rack"
Building The Power Rack
The Power Rack is a 19" 12R road case that houses the amplifiers, equalisers, power conditioner and a DMX switching unit for controlling certain lights and bubble machines etc. The rack was built over 2 months and I tested a few different amps but finally settles on the Behringer iNuke-4 6000 which is a 6000w amp with 4 channels of 1500w each. This was more than enough to drive the new speakers and my previous speakers and it is only weighs in at 5kg compared to the 15kg cheap amps I tested. It also had very clear sound. One of my old 1200w amps is at the bottom to drive subs or act as a backup so basically the rack has 6 channels available which can be bridged to 3 channels for a huge amount of drive for large speakers and subs
There are 2 Behringer EQ units for the 4 channels of the Behringer iNuke to fine tune each set of speakers that may be attached and a low pass crossover output runs to the small mixer above the EQs which drives the sub amp. This allows easy control of sub levels and has a drive output via the monitor headphone jack to connect to the DMX lighting controller which allows lighting to trigger purely from the bass signal.
The DMX switcher on the right is a custom built 8 channel switching box that is triggered from DMX to operate up to 8 non-DMX devices. I have a few lights and a bubble machine that I can trigger easily from the DMX lighting controller with manual override switches to trigger without DMX.
At the top is a power conditioner that connects everything together and filters transient voltages and power spikes from the system as well as providing light for the rack. Above this is a draw for manuals and cables etc.
The reason I chose to use passive speakers and amps over self powered speakers was a few reasons. Firstly, all control over every speaker is available from the rack. Second it saves on having to run power out to each speaker. Third it saves on cost since if I want to upgrade I simply need to source new speakers and not have to shell out for the amps built into them too. 4th it offers a lot of flexibility if things go wrong such as a failed amp I have backups easily available. It's a personal thing but powered speakers are typically used because they are simple and convenient to move around and most beginners don't even bother with EQ units or anything so its easy to understand. I am more focused on the best sound I can get.
Around the back of the power rack is a bit of organised chaos. I had to construct a number of custom leads and connections to make it all nice and easy to setup so everything within the rack is already connected and ready for action. I then built a patch panel at the top with all speaker and bridged speaker connections from the amps along with combo XLR/TRS audio inputs and DMX connectors. This allows equipment to simply plug into the patch panel without having to reach into the rack and find the connections. It also helps to keep the back tidy and clear of obstructions so there is good airflow through the amps.
The next addition will be a set of stand speakers for smaller indoor functions or extra tops for the Eurolive speakers to replace the custom 3 ways I have which have done their duty but need to be retired.
Step 4: Lighting & Effects System
Audio has been my game for close to 20 years so sound is something I understand but for a mobile DJ the music and sound quality is really only half of the overall experience you have to deliver. The lighting and effects is something I have never really focused on since the effects I provided in the past were simply a few light chasers I built back in 2002.
I was always interested in programmed DMX lighting systems having worked with some lighting boards back in high school drama productions and attending many clubs with brilliant synchronised lighting displays. I wanted to provide a similar club like experience with dazzling light displays and effects as well as a toned down effect for weddings. This is where I started to look into DMX controllers and how DMX lighting worked.
I started looking online for a DMX controller to get started and put a bid of $50 on a DMX240A controller which I won so as a starter this was pretty good and the unit was basically brand new so was a good piece of gear to start on.
This type of controller is very common and is available from a few different manufacturers in different appearance but with the same features and operation. It allows control of 12 fixtures (lights or devices) with 16 channels available to each fixture. There is an audio input for detecting audio for sync as well as program banks, chase sequences and total manual override of anything.
All sounded great but I had no lights with DMX to test with so I started researching lights and spent months looking at demo videos, reviews etc. I did not have the chance to actually go and check these out due to work hours and the fact South Australia has limited avenues for good pricing on these so I joined up with a few Melbourne based DJ supply stores and spoke with some of the guys there about ordering some and testing them. This was great since I was able to test and return if they did not suit my needs.
Ebay has loads of available lights with most being quite cheap and rubbish. Most of the quality fixtures were available from the stores at the same or better prices and in fact the only "no name" light I decided to test from Ebay which appeared decent from a local supplier turned out to be rubbish and also did not operate correctly on DMX. It was a hassle getting money back so I stuck with official stores since they looked after me.
TIP: The stores often have 10-25% sales (especially around christmas, easter, new years, halloween etc) and will often discount some items as single discounts but also apply the overall discount. I saved over half in some cases on lights and in total I saved over $500 on my fixtures by either buying at the right time or asking for a better deal and in fact I did not pay full retail price on almost anything I purchased because most stores were willing to do some deals anyway. Always give it a go.
After some time I finally wound up with the folowing lighting and effects as a start:
2 x AVE Cobra 100 Moving Head Scanners - These were chosen because I love the sweeping effect from these scanner lights. The AVE Cobra comes in a 30 or 60 watt version and I chose the 60 watt version which I am glad I did because I certainly would not like less light than these. They are not super bright like a scanning head but they create tyhe desired effect.
1 x AVE Solar RGB 700mW Laser - A cost effective laser that provides a very good show. Using DMX you can set the pattern and mix colours. Works great with smoke and able to create tunnle and scanning effects which.
1 x CR-Lite RGBW Derby - Throws out pinspots of light similar to a mirror ball and is very good at filling a room with colour. Has some nice movement and strobe effects. This was the first light I tested.
1 x Beamz Tripleflex Scanner - Not as fancy as the Cobra but has 3 LED matrix heads that sweep the dancefloor via the mirror sweepers and creates cool moving patterns. In a smoke room this looks great and alternating between this and the laser is a stunning combination. This was actually the cheapest light of the lot at just $80.
2 x Chauvet Shocker 90 Strobe - This was one of the most expensive lights funnily enough but I considered many other strobes but loved the idea of this over a traditional strobe. It is quite small and uses SMD high intensity LEDs arranged in 4 independant rings. Not only can it create your typical strobe effect but also is able to trigger the rings at different times creating a really eye catching display and can also act as a spotlight to light up a room. Worth the extra money and never needs a bulb change.
1 x ADJ Revo4 LED Moonflower - This light produces amazing floor filled LED matrix and chase effects and is very bright. The combination of the effects from this light and the sweeping effects of the tripleflex makes for an exciting light display. This was one of the last lights I purchased and one of the most fun.
2 x PAR 8w Light Chaser Boxes - These are my old trusty PAR light boxes that I rebuilt. A simple chaser sequences these to music. The chaser unit is not DMX controlled but I have a DMX switch I use to simply switch the unit on and off. The globes are 80w Par floods so really fill a room with light and great when you just need to light up a room with soft light. The chaser can be set to full on mode for room lighting.
1 x 1500w Smoke Machine - You gotta have a smoke machine. This was just a no name brand machine with DMX and wireless control. Works great though I have also modified it to have a maual input from the DMX240A controllers smoke machine trigger button.
2 x Bubble Machine - Commercial grade high flow bubble machine that is activated by a DMX switch. Bubble machines are great for kids but also for outdoor events where smoke does not last long. Bubbles work well with lights and are a good atmosphere effect especially since bubble liquid is very cheap.
I am always looking out for a new deal or fixture to help round out the system but the combination of the above creates a good mix of effects... And that is the key word... MIX!
Why DMX, Why not just music mode?
Many of the effects have sound mode built right in and it is easy to just set to sound and forget about it. So why even bother with the complication of DMX control? Well imagin a 5 hour night event where all lights were running all the time for 5 hours. It would very soon become overwhelming not to mention a tad boring or completely unsuitable during certain songs.
Part of the design of the new system was to offer something many simply do not, a complete audio/visual show. I wanted to be able to easily deliver the right type of mood for the music playing. Having a singalong moment to Stairway to heaven for instance you don't want full on lasers and strobe effects.
This is where I spent a good month designing and testing a good mix of DMX scenes and had to create a special database to pre-program the lighting sequences on paper first before programming the controller. The result was almost single touch operation to change mood and I was also able to create quick strobe switches so the strobe could be worked at just the right time. Linked to the music the lighting effects were mixed exactly as I wanted and worked so much better than I could have imagined.
Step 5: Power & Cable Management
There is some challenge around managing power and cables but it's part of what I do as another job. Firstly, when I started designing the system I had to be mindful about power requirements for the overall system. A standard GPO (power point) in Australia can supply a MAX of 240v x 10A = 2400w. The aim of the system I was designing was to keep the overall wattage under this number.
This will limit the total power of the amplifier system and part of my reason for using a central amp with passive speakers was you gain efficiency using 2 central amps over 4 sattelite amps in each speaker and sub. The next part of the equation was to ensure the lights would not load the system too much which is why most of the lights are LED effects. The smoke machine was the only worry since it is rated as 1500w that chews up half of the allowance but in most cases this can be run from a separate GPO via extension.
To test the setup I used a watt meter to measure the overall power draw. It was apparent the requirements for the system should be fine and I also discovered my el-cheapo 1500w smoke machine was only 1000w.
To protect the system and my safety I use a power distribution block with trip switch which protects the system and myself from shorts, faults and overloading. There is then also an individual switch for the audio system, lighting system, smoke machine and emergency floods all within easy reach.
Cables & Spares
I totaled up everything I would require in terms of DMX data cables, power extensions, speaker cables and audio cables and made sure I had spares of each. In the case of DMX cables where I need a lot of short 1m patrch cables I needed 10 so I have 20 just in case. Extensions are all black, power boards are black, DMX cables and plugs are black and all for good reason, to hide the exposed cables against the background of the lighting stands.
In addition to cables I also made sure I had a good cable tester that can test speaker, audio, dmx, usb, network cables. One thing you really need when dealing with a heap of cables is a way to test things if something doesn't work.
Step 6: Cases, Stands & Transport
Mobile DJ work is tough on gear so it was just as important to me to have good cases to both transport and store the equipment as it was to have a good system.
The Numark NS7III was the first to get a case since it was the most expensive and important part of the whole setup. Being a pretty new controller there was little available in Australia for it (make that nothing) so I had to fly one over from the US at an extra cost of $100 but it was a small price to protect the controller. The case is a ProFX brand and holds the controller securely in place, has removable front/back panels to access cables and allows transport and use of the controller without having to take it out. There is a laptop shelf which slides out and holds the laptop and DMX controller nicely and plenty of room in the back and under the controller to mount a power board, laptop power and all the connections to the controller.
A mobile 19" rack holds the amps and EQs and also allows for these to remain connected up so wiring the system is quick and easy. Apply power and its up and running within seconds.
The lights obviously needed a stand or truss to mount them off. I chose a medium duty 1.5m + 1.5m portable truss which I have kept as a single 1.5m span. This has just enough room to hold the fixtures of my choice. The truss has pre-drilled holes for mounting but I found many of my fixtures simply did not fit where the holes were so I had to purchase some mounting brackets.
This is where things got a little interesting. Most professional stage and fixed truss systems are 50mm diameter tubes but the portable truss I had was 35mm diameter. You then have 2 types of mounting clamps:
C Clamps will suit a large tube size because they simply have a hook and a tension screw that presses into the tube. These are also quite cheap at just a few $$$ each so it seems like a good bet for a budget. The issue with C Clamps is they dig into the metal which is fine for thick 50mm pipe but the portable truss systems are thin tubes and dent and scratch easily. I did not want to have my stands looking like shit after just a few gigs so I decided these were not the option for me.
O Clamps are ideal since they wrap around the whole tube and tighten with a wing nut. These create a very strong fixture point without any scratches or dents but as I found it is not simple to find 35mm clamps and they are not cheap at about $20 a clamp. It took some digging but I finally managed to find $10 clamps which were very good quality and heavy duty.
The whole lighting rack is stored in a carry case to keep it all together and looking like new. The trick is to keep things looking as new as possible for as long as possible.
The last storage concern was the fixtures and smoke machine and lighting controller. I have a few Pelican cases that fit the lighting controller and chaser units and found that simple plastic tub storage containers are perfect for transporting and storing lighting fixtures and other bits.
As for transport thats an area you need to think about before even getting started. No point having a super system that you cannot move to your gig. I already own a large caged trailer which can move everything but in the event it failed I can fit most the gear in my ute.
Step 7: Overall Apperance
This was an important aspect to me. I have an OCD problem with cables and apperance of setups like this and have to have things neat and hidden whihc is why I went to the lengths of sourcing black cables for everything or painting cables black. As part of my toolkit I have 20m of velcro tape, gaffer tape and zip ties to make sure cables are bundled together and almost completely hidden from view
Cables on the truss are tied together and hidden behind the fixtures with nothing hanging down. A power board is fixed onto the truss which is painted black from the audience side and cables are all as short as possible.
For a table I used a common fold up tressle table but purchased a fitted cover for it that alows all the cables and boxes to be hidden under it while also blending into the lighting stands. Its a simple and effective way of holding the controller.
I have had a chance to run the system at its full capacity at an outdoor party held at a sporting oval. The system went together no problems and worked with the first flick of a switch. The only issues I noticed were the 12" subs simply were not powerful enough and basically fell flat compared to the massive Behringer towers. I pushed them to the limits and overheated the sub amp which caused them to cut out and neither I nor the party guests even noticed. The Subs will be replaced with bigger self powered units.
The other thing I noticed was the amount of setup time required. I had estimated about 1 hour with a chunk of time spent on wiring the DMX lights with interconnections and power cables. The plan is to attach cables to the rack to allow direct connection of the lights without having to connect and then tidy these. That could save me about 10 minutes which all counts.
Transporting and loading/unloading was all fine and though I did have some help it would have been easily achieved alone.
All in all it's a good starter system and I had a blast running it.
Update [24 August 2016]
The system is still growing and evolving. With each gig I notice things I want to change/add to the system.
I had a failure of my bubble machine so have 2 I now use since the one gig it didn't work was one where a lot of kids were present so it would have been great to have it working. The fan simply did not function and although I could repair it easily, it wasn't possible on-site. The cost of these machines was only $25 so I grabbed a few more.
Setup time is still something I am focusing on reducing. After the first gig I noticed I wasted a hige amount of time wiring up all the lighting so I have now fixed cables to the lighting truss which saves a good chunk of time. Another area I noticed I waste a lot of time with is wiring up the controller to the amp rack. There are about 10 cables between the rack and the controller with most of these in different bags so a lot of time is wasted locating these cables and figuring out what I need to connect. Additionally, some cables are 10m where I really need only 3m so I spend extra time making these neat bundles. I am now in the process of making a bundled cable snake that has all cables between the amp rack and controller bundled together. The speaker cables are also being custom cut to length to save having to neaten up long cables.
Lastly is the amount of space this gear takes up for transport. Currently it almost fills a trailer completely but part of this is to do with the boxes not stacking properly so I need to try and compress this as much as possible in the trailer.
In the works is some promotional videos showing the whole setup and some more photos to really help promote it.