What Are DJs Doing When They Turn Knobs?

If you’ve ever seen a DJ perform live, then you’ve probably noticed that they turn knobs and sliders during a set- but have you ever wondered what this actually means?

So, what are DJs doing when they turn knobs during a show? The truth is, 80% of the time DJs are pretending when they turn knobs while on stage. Excessively turning knobs on stage really serves no purpose other than to make the DJ appear like they are doing something when playing a track. DJs will use knobs, however, in the studio in order to mix music appropriately. 

This answer may surprise many of you (it certainly surprised me). Yet, the reasoning behind the purpose of turning knobs is actually fairly complex. Let’s break it down and try to understand it, shall we?

The DJing Technique

DJing is an art, and, like all art, has a specific technique. The technique of DJing is all about time-aligning (“beat-matching”) two tracks and making the transition between them as smooth as possible. Apart from blending the two songs, not much of it is actually done on the mixer. However, laptops have become the primary source of sound for DJs and so beat-matching songs has become automated in many cases. In an age of digital music, choosing songs no longer requires spending countless hours sifting through crates and crates of records, but can easily be done through digging through music pools. When a DJ does find a song worth adding to their repertoire, all it takes is a few scrolls through their playlist on software such as NI Traktor to decide what to play next.

Since modern technology makes it almost effortless to align songs and choose the next song, DJs are often left with lots of free time, and need a way to fill it (similar to how people who work retail jobs often need to look busy when there’s not that much to do). Even in the old days of turntables, experienced DJs would prepare their songs ahead of time (to avoid things like mishaps during mixtures) and beat match quickly. Except for the occasional turntable spin to realign songs, the DJ would not have a whole heck of a lot to do during the main part of the song being played.

The Entertainment Aspect

This is where things get interesting. What DJs actually have to do to provide an amusing sound would look pretty boring, so they’d be left to frolic about and would not appear to be doing much when people look at them. Some DJs actually opt for this route in order to maintain a sense of authenticity and look like they belong in the club environment (although this is more common with veteran DJs in certain locations).

It’s no secret that DJs know their tracks like the back of their hand, so many DJs will pretend to add effects and sounds that are already on the recording. If you are a frequent club-goer, you may soon pick up on this: you know the song and see the DJ playing around with his equipment, but the sound coming out of the speakers is the same thing that’s on the DJs track.

To be fair, DJ equipment does come with effect sections, and every now and then DJs will insert effects to spice things up. Let’s be honest here- sometimes dance music can get repetitive, and the crowd can lose interest, which is not ideal for anyone. Yet, more often than not, DJs “turn knobs” just to look like they’re doing contributing to the atmosphere of the surrounding environment.

Value of the DJ

I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that learning the meaning of “turning knobs” may have turned some of you against DJs. Indeed, this may be the case, as it seems like just an act that provides no value to people. However, nobody is perfect. It’s important not to judge DJs (or anyone, for that matter) on only one thing, and realize that they provide value in numerous ways: namely selection of music and their abilities to match songs together, read the audience, entertain people and control the energy in their surroundings. And hey- who knows? Make-believe knob-twisting may be just the thing that gets everyone in the venue to have a better time. It pays to keep an open mind. I personally do not see the problem in doing something that allows DJs to have more fun and enhances the experience for others. 

Related Questions

Where does the phrase “turning knobs” come from?

The phrase “turning knobs” comes from mixing decks, the equipment DJs use to play music at their gigs. Mix decks come with several sliders and knobs, thus the origin of the phrase “turning knobs”.

What is the opinion of club DJs turning knobs?

This is a tough question to answer. Within the music community, there is no general consensus among whether or not DJs should turn knobs when playing gigs. For one thing, many people seem confused about knob-turning. I’ve come across some responses on online forums where people say things like “WTF is that DJ doing turning knobs?”, and then seem disappointed or frustrated when they learn that it’s usually nothing. There are some who wish DJs would just admit that it really serves no purpose, because they feel that people would be OK with this if they knew beforehand, and not be let down to find it’s just an act. In a way, it could be compared to lip syncing. When attending a concert, most people already know it will probably be lip syncing, and they accept this fact. Something tells me that if the same people who are aware of lop-syncing knew beforehand that a DJs performance would include a lot of improvisation, they would still attend events to see the DJ (although this can’t be said for everyone, so take it with a grain of salt).

On the other hand, some people have no issue whatsoever with turning knobs For example, I read one response on Reddit where someone said “Meh, who cares. People will eventually realize the truth.” This can be true, as some people will often overlook this seemingly useless tactic to enjoy the value and experience a DJ provides. Supporting or being apathetic towards knob-turning stems from the idea that people think it could enhance the club experience for patrons, and because people expect DJs to fiddle with their equipment and look like they’re working hard (just picture the stereotypical DJ wearing headphones and spinning turntables, and you’ll know where I’m coming from). It all depends on who you ask, and if you are a DJ, you have to decide for yourself whether or not a little make-believe knob turning floats your boat