What Are DJ's Doing In Their Headphones?
What is a Cue Point? The Definitive CUE Process Guide for DJs
Why a DJ Needs Headphones
Headphones are an essential tool for a DJ because they allow the DJ to prepare the next song.
The DJ can put music in their headphones that the audience cannot hear.
The Headphones are separate from the Master Output.
Learning to Mix with headphones will involve learning the CUE process.
It may seem complicated at first until you finally get the hang of it.
What Does a DJ Hear?
When a DJ is wearing headphones, They are listening to the potential next song.
They are concerned with Music Programming; The act of choosing the right song for the right moment.
They are thinking, “How does this next track fit in with my mix” based on the crowds’ energy and song fit.
The Headphones allow the DJ to mix and monitor the incoming track. The DJ tests the song before the audience gets to hear it through the loudspeakers.
The CUE Process
The term was taken from acting when a “Cue” was presented to an actor to indicate timing.
For a DJ, we take our Cue from music to get the right part of the song, playing at a precise beat/moment in time.
The headphones are a vital part of the Cue Process when a DJ is mixing.
When you are first learning the skills involved in the Cue process, it can feel like learning to drive a car.
There seems to be a lot to think about when getting the next song ready.
Once you get the hang of it, it will become second nature.
The word “Cue” appears in many forms in the DJ world.
Three different Cue terms can confuse new DJs:
A Cue point is a reference point where the next song should start. For example, a DJ will usually choose the Downbeat (First Beat) of a song.
The downbeat is usually a distinct beginning and would not include silence.
Many songs start with a small gap of silence or unrelated talking before the music begins.
The DJ’s role is to find the logical first beat to start the music in the right place.
A DJ may choose to start a song at its chorus or verse instead of the intro.
The DJ will listen for the Downbeat that begins the phrase of music, such as the chorus.
Using Vinyl, a DJ would scrub to the first sound and move the record back and forth between the downbeat and the silence before the sound to pinpoint the exact start/CUE.
The Vinyl DJ will rock the record back and forth, waiting for the right moment to drop in the new track. Usually dropping in on the One Count (1,2,3,4,1).
There is a CUE Button (usually above the Play Button) on a DJ Controller that achieves a similar result.
There can be multiple CUE points set called Hot CUEs or Memory CUEs, but that is a topic for another article.
Each Digital Music Source will have a dedicated CUE Button.
The physical button is a way to both set your CUE point and also test your CUE Point.
The CUE button is used together with the PLAY/PAUSE Button to prepare the incoming song.
The DJ will search for the downbeat, and then when the song is paused, they can finetune the song position with the platter to find the exact moment when the downbeat starts.
Pressing the CUE button while the song is paused will set the Cue Point.
Once the Cue point is set, the Cue button will act as a push switch that is momentary or temporary. Holding the button will let you test the Cue Point, and releasing it will return you the CUE point.
You can press the Play/Pause button while holding down the CUE button for the song to continue.
Setting a Cue point especially helps when beatmatching because you can use the CUE button to test that your BPM is aligned and adjust accordingly.
Aligning the downbeat of one song with the downbeat of the song playing is one of the first steps towards beatmatching. Dropping the 1 of the incoming track on the 1 of the song playing.
The DJ mixer will also have CUE buttons specifically for the headphones.
The DJ headphones Cue buttons will allocate what music channel will go to your headphones.
Using the headphone controls, you can choose to hear only channel 1 in your headphones or a mix of channels.
A DJ will usually toggle between listening to both Left and Right headphones.
When a DJ is listening with one ear, the other ear references what the crowd is hearing through the loudspeakers.
There are other ways to reference the Master Output that the crowd is hearing.
Using the Headphone Mix Controls creatively, you can practice Mixing using only your headphones.
Thie Master/CUE knob is handy at home, late at night, allowing you to mix without making any noise.
Why Mixing In Headphones Can Be a Savior
Music sounds very different coming out of loud loudspeakers.
In a Club or large venue, the speakers are generally a distance away, and as a result, you will hear some delay.
There is nothing you can do to really prepare for this except gigging practice.
Learning to Mix well in your headphones, however, will help.
Most Mixers have a Cue/Mix knob in the headphone control.
If you can master the use of this knob, you will be able to resolve the problem of not knowing what is coming out of the master channel.
You can bounce between the Cue (hearing only your assigned CUE channels) and your master mix.
Join The DJ Queue
The distinction between the three uses of the word CUE makes it easier to understand what a DJ hears in their headphones.
When a DJ is in their headphones, they are going through the steps of the CUE Process.
It may seem like a lot to comprehend, but this will become second nature to you with practice.
Below are some Visual Aids in an attempt to depict the CUE process and the headphone mix.
Image 1. Cue Process
Image 2. Basic Headphone CUE