Ten steps towards better tango DJing

Only play really good dance music

  • Opinions will vary about what makes good tango dance music, but the Golden Age for traditional music was, roughly, 1935-55. A very high proportion of the best dance music was recorded in the first half of that period, and a good starting point is to select lots of the music you play from that decade.
  • Be highly critical of your own music collection. Almost every tango CD or download album contains weak songs or poor transfers. Don’t play them just because you have them.
  • Dancers want to dance to good music, and the familiar is usually preferred to the unknown. Novelties and specials should be played very sparingly, but no one will miss them if you don’t play them at all.

Play coherent, balanced tandas

  • Be conservative in selecting groups of songs to combine into tandas. The general principle is to select songs by the same orchestra, with the same singer (if any), with a similar mood or feel and from roughly the same period. Mix tandas sparingly: the usual convention has stood the test of time and is more durable than you think.
  • The opening song of a tanda needs to make people want to get up and dance. Aim to continue or develop the mood and feel of the tanda with the remaining songs.
  • Even if you know the music very well indeed, only compile your tandas ‘live’ once your experience means that you could no longer compile better ones in advance. DJs who select their music during an event are not as common as you might think, and the results can sometimes be comical.

Sequence your tandas carefully

  • Follow the convention of playing tandas in a cycle of tango, tango, vals, tango, tango, milonga. Tango tandas usually have four songs, but three can work if the event is of short duration (say, less than three hours). Vals tandas can have four songs too, but it is very common to play three songs; and three is the most common number for milonga tandas.
  • Each tanda should offer something different: certainly a different orchestra, and frequently a change of style or period. Contrasts (unless they are jarring ones) are good, but do seek an overall balance between styles, periods, orchestras – in fact in everything.

Play really good music right from the start

  • Dancers will not attend events from the beginning unless the DJ is playing music that makes them want to dance, right from the beginning.
  • If you are known to play junk for the first hour, don’t expect anyone to come for the first hour.
  • Even if there is no one in the room at the start of the event, play a good tanda. Experienced dancers will recognise good music, as they arrive, and it creates the right atmosphere. Aim to be playing something that makes everyone wish they had come earlier – next time, they might.

Play for the dancers, not your ego

  • Don’t play games with the energy or emotions of the dancers. You are there to play the music, not the crowd. Always remain at the service of the music and the dancers – they are the stars, not you.

Don’t upstage the tango with intrusive cortinas

  • Vintage recordings usually have a restricted frequency and dynamic range. The ear is very forgiving of such shortcomings, particularly if the sound quality is fairly consistent; but selecting loud pop music, in punchy, bass-heavy, stereo sound for your cortinas constantly draws attention to the limitations of vintage sound and can be counter-productive.
  • Choose cortinas carefully, and play them at a volume that doesn’t break the flow of the dance music.

Sound matters: use decent professional equipment

  • The internal soundcards of most budget laptops do not provide a very high quality audio signal, and may be poorly shielded from hums and interference. Instead, use a high quality external soundcard/DAC.
  • A recycled domestic hi-fi, or some powered PC speakers will almost certainly sound awful in a large room. Use a professional sound system with plenty of amplification power in reserve, and good quality, full-range loudspeakers. If practical, raise the speakers above the dancers’ heads on sturdy stands.
  • The weakest link in your audio chain determines the overall sound.

Sound matters: play high quality transfers

  • There is a huge variation in sound quality between different sources of vintage recordings. Poor transfers sound dreadful, are fatiguing to the ear and are an insult to the dancers who have paid to attend the event.
  • Seek out, and invest in the best transfers you can find. If you compile tandas in advance, you can often source better versions of the individual songs in high quality transfers, rather than buying complete albums.

Sound matters: equalise replay volumes between songs

  • Not achieving consistent replay volume from one song to the next is lazy and incompetent. Many software utilities, such as ReplayGain, can help automatically. There is no excuse, ever, to have one song blasting out uncomfortably loud, followed by one that is barely audible.

Sound matters: manage gaps between songs properly

  • Not ensuring that there is an appropriate break between the songs that you play is just being lazy and incompetent. You can edit many digital sound files to have a consistent 2-3 seconds of silence at the end; you can use software that automates the process; or you can have short tracks of 1, 2 or 3 seconds of silence that you can build into your playlist.