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How to DJ your own wedding

If you want a great wedding on a budget, you may want to consider running the event's music yourself--everything from the processional to the dance party. CNET's Donald Bell offers the tips and tricks he's used for his own wedding and for others.

Now playing: Watch this: Use iTunes to DJ your own wedding

The DJ plays a critical and often misunderstood role in any wedding ceremony. If you can afford a professional, by no means should you use the following tutorial to skimp out. You'll save yourself loads of hassle and be able to enjoy your day with one less concern floating around in your head.

Also be aware that the term "professional" does not apply to your estranged pothead cousin who owns a bunch of DJ gear and could really use some extra cash. In fact, that scenario is potentially more stressful and prone to failure than doing things yourself. Really, if you can afford an experienced wedding DJ, it is worth every penny.

That said, not everyone can afford a DJ for their wedding. I sure wasn't able to when I got married years ago. My wife and I sunk our budget into the venue and catering. For the rest, we either tried to do it ourselves, or got it on the cheap. We figured that with enough good food and wine in a beautiful setting, the wedding would be a success, even if the place settings weren't up to Martha Stewart standards.

One thing I did have was access to a great PA system and enough time on my hands to assemble a handful of useful iTunes playlists. The results, while not fairytale-perfect, worked well enough to steer a beautiful ceremony into a fun party with a full dance floor.

In fact, it worked so well that I was asked to pull off the same trick at a recent family wedding. So, while the experience is still fresh in my mind, here are my tips for using iTunes as your wedding DJ.

Make a music plan
Take 10 minutes to plan out all the places you'll need music during your wedding, along with a ballpark of how long you'll need the music to last.

For example, you may want music playing as people arrive and mingle, but a different set of music for when they're instructed to sit down. You'll probably want music for when the wedding party files down the aisle, but a different song for when the bride walks down the aisle. Do you want a particular song to play right after the ceremony has been concluded? What about music while people are eating? First dance? Father-daughter dance?

The point is, you need to state the problem before you can solve it. Also, just because the facility or church you've rented has stated that it can provide music for the ceremony, don't leave it to chance: have backup music prepared. The organ player could call in sick or the provided music could sound cornball, and you don't want to scramble at the last minute. Better to invest the dollar in downloading Wagner's "Bridal Chorus" and never need to play it, than to not have it when the church speakers poop out.

Next, think of all the locations you'll need this music. I've seen small backyard weddings where the same speakers used for the processional are just flipped around to play toward the porch where people are dancing. I've also seen weddings where separate speaker systems were needed to cover each part of the event: ceremony, dining, dancing, etc.

Figure it all out, and assume that you will not want to be breaking down, carrying, and setting up the same PA in multiple locations throughout the wedding. If you need multiple PA systems, just add that into the cost.

Mic check
Unless your wedding is being held in a secluded monastery, you are going to need a microphone at some point.

Aside from the expected round of sentimental speeches, a microphone is a useful tool for corralling guests, quickly locating people (hopefully not the bride or groom), giving thanks, and letting the owners of the blue Honda Accord know that they're blocking the catering truck.

Because the microphone will need to be plugged into a PA in order to be of any use, you'll need to weave this into your list of locations where sound reinforcement is needed.

Book the gear
OK, now that you have a basic game plan for where and when you'll need music and/or a microphone, it's time to line up all the necessary gear. To make things simple, you can book all or most of the equipment through a local pro audio rental company. You can search Craigslist service offers for "PA" or "sound system rental." And of course, you can also call in favors with any of your musician or DJ friends to see if they have any gear, or know where to rent some affordably.

Here is a list of what I consider the core components:

  • A computer, preferably a laptop, with a power adapter.

  • A small audio mixer with a stereo input and output (the less complicated the better).
Compact mixer.
A six-channel compact audio mixer gives you just enough to connect any laptop, microphones, or iPods you might need, without being unmanageable. Alto Professional

The ideal: a six-channel compact mixer.

It's small, and it features two stereo inputs, standard mic inputs, color-coded, uncomplicated, stereo output.

The minimum: two-bus micro mixer.

One mic input, two stereo inputs, stereo output.

Any local music store will have these in stock, and if you're feeling sneaky, you can probably buy one for a few days and then return it in good condition.

  • A pair of powered PA speakers (with stands).
Mackie SRM PA speakers on stands.
Popular sound systems like the Mackie SRM 450v2 include built-in amplification and sound phenomenal. Just connect them to your mixer with a pair of balanced audio cables, and you're ready to go. Mackie

Aside from a computer (which one can assume you already own), this is the big investment. If you just need something for announcements, you can get away with a single, rinky-dink PA speaker, like this one.

But for music, a quality sound system will be the difference between people running to the dance floor, or running to the door.

In my opinion, a pair of Mackie's pole-mounted SRM series speakers are a flawless choice for this application, but there are plenty of equally great choices out there. If you know enough to disagree with me, then you're already ahead of the game. Look around, demo a few at your local big-box music store, and seek out advice. Just know that bigger isn't always better. It's all about finding the appropriate sound system for space. Plus, the bigger the rig, the more time it takes to set up and break down.

  • Audio cables

There are at least a dozen different audio connection types out there, so do your home work on what needs to be connected to what, and how long a cable you'll need. Most computers spit music out of a stereo mini-jack output (aka 1/8-inch out), while most mixers receive stereo input as a separated pair of 1/4-inch plugs. Do your homework, and also make sure you use a "shielded cable" for this particular connection, or you might ruin the moment with some ear-piercing cell phone interference.

The rest of the pro audio cables you'll need are generally shielded against interference, but it can never hurt to ask. Standard microphones use a unique XLR output connection, but many of the inexpensive compact mixers on the market need a 1/4-inch mic input, so you may need purchase an adapter or specialized cable.

For the speaker cables that run from the mixer to your powered speakers, you'll need a pair of balanced cables that can run from your compact mixer (typically 1/4-inch TRS output) to the powered speaker inputs (typically XLR or Speakon). Don't mistake balanced cables for typical guitar cables (aka, TS cables). They make look the same and make the same connection, but balanced cables have the advantage of being better able to carry a line-level signal over a long distance without degrading or introducing noise.

If you're confused, just call up your local big-box music store. They talk to newbies all day long, so you won't shock them with your cable questions.

  • A microphone (preferably with a built-in off switch).

The standard: Shure PG48

Any standard mic will do, but having the built-in switch is a nice feature to help kill any unintended feedback and prevent you from running back and forth to the volume knob on your mixer every time someone wants to speak up. Also, if you can, pick up a mic stand.

  • Extension cables, power strips, and gaffer tape.

Bring more cables and power strips than you think you'll need. There are always surprises, and an extra extension cord can be a life-saver. Also, to minimize the chance of someone tripping over any power or audio cables, bring some black fabric gaffer tape to tape cords to the ground and keep things looking relatively classy.

Lean on a friend
Bad news for all you control-freak do-it-yourselfers: you're going to have to let someone else run the show. You can't be running back and forth to the mixer--and even if you could, you'll have a lot more fun giving the job to someone you trust.

It's a fun job for any tech-inclined friends. They get to feel like they're playing an important role, and putting their nerd skills to good use. Don't give the job to anyone who is going to be too glued to the wedding itself (they'll miss their cues or fall to pieces) or have social butterfly tendencies (they'll be tough to track down when you need them).

Also, it's not a job for heavy drinkers. Spilling a beer on your computer could grind things to a halt, and you'll need someone with a clear head to follow your instructions. Anyway, you can always promise your friend first pick of the leftover booze when the night is over.

Playlist breakdown
Now, you have the plan, you have the gear, and you have a warm body to push the buttons--all that's left is the DJ brain to make the right music happen at the right time.

Wedding playlists.
Wedding playlists. Donald Bell/CNET

For this, we're going to use your best guess at the music you want to hear, along with the multiple playlist capabilities of Apple iTunes.

Take the "music plan" you made at the beginning, make sure it still all makes sense, and create a playlist for each event. You may end up consolidating them later on, but for now, each event gets its own playlist (arrival music, processional, recessional, reception, dinner, opening dance, etc.).

Now, iTunes likes to organize playlists alphabetically, so to keep these playlists ordered chronologically you'll need to give them all a common prefix to group them together. As an example, you could have: Wedding 1-Arrival; Wedding 2-Processional; Wedding 3-Recessional; etc.

It may sound like work, but this is actually the fun part. You and your future spouse get to spend time choosing what song you want to walk down the aisle to, what song is played after you kiss, what song you'll dance to, and what songs will get your family and friends out on the dance floor. You're not going to figure it out all in one night, and there will probably be some arguments about song choice, but compared with picking out flower arrangements, this is the fun part.

Also, keep in mind that you can loop 20 minutes' worth of arrival background music and no one will care. Don't go dropping $50 on hours of background music. Same goes for dinner music. People are eating, talking, and having a good time, not analyzing your dinner music selections.

It's the processional, recessional, and first dance that really matter. Those are the songs to deliberate on. You can stick with the classics, or do something unexpected, but those are the moments where your song choice is being scrutinized.

At the end of the night, when you finally kick off that finely tuned dance playlist, be patient. Depending on the crowd, it may take a while for the party to really get hopping. It's not your failure as a DJ if people don't immediately mob the dance floor. That said, song choice matters, you're probably dealing with a lot of aunts and uncles, and throwing on 50 Cent in the first 10 minutes isn't going to help your cause. In my experience, a mix of upbeat Motown and '80s classics is like dance floor kindling. If the crowd doesn't take the bait with Jackson 5's "ABC" or Devo's "Whip It" then you need to fire your bartender, not the DJ.

With all of your playlists filled out and organized the way you want them, your wedding music is now plotted out step-by-step and you can give it a trial run to make sure it sounds right. Also, since it's in iTunes already, be sure to sync all of the playlists to any iPod, iPhone, or iPad you might have, just in case the computer gets its own glass of champagne.

Advanced options
What I've outlined here is a bare-boned, methodical, relatively simple way to get professional-sounding music at your wedding. But there's plenty of room for you to do your own thing and expand on these ideas.

For example, you might want to try a wireless microphone that you can pass around the reception for toasting. You could set up the Apple Remote app on your iPhone or iPod Touch and adjust playlists and song choice right from the dance floor. Maybe invite guests to steer the music using iTunes DJ feature.

Like I said in the opening paragraph, hiring an experienced professional DJ for your wedding is worth every penny, especially when it comes to removing stress and worry from your wedding day.

There are dozens of little things that could throw a wrench in the works. Hopefully, practicing things ahead of time will iron out some of the kinks.

Here are some tips and common mistakes, though.

  • The microphone feedback is unmanageable. As a quick fix, turn the microphone down or switch it off. The root of this problem is usually caused by speaker placement. If the speakers are position behind the person using the microphone, the mic will pick up their projected sound, the speakers will amplify it, the mic will pick it up, the speakers will...you get the point. It's a feedback loop.

    To fix the issue, make sure the speakers are facing away from the microphone. There's a tendency to place speakers back against the wall, but they really should be out in front of the microphone, projecting away from the mic and towards the audience.

  • The music is too quiet. In the setup I've described here there are six volume knobs, and any one of them could be turned down too low. In order, these volume controls are: the volume slider in iTunes, the master volume on your computer, the channel volume on the mixer (typically located near the bottom), the channel gain (typically located next to the audio inputs), the master volume on the mixer, and the volume control on the powered speakers.

  • The music is distorted. This problem is also typically associated with all of the various volume controls at play. When a volume control is turned up too loud, or there's an imbalance of loud amplification applied to a quiet signal, you can get a noisy or distorted sound.

    Nothing should be set at full volume. If the volume meter on your mixer is peaking into the red, you're doing something wrong.

    Here are my suggested volume settings: iTunes at 75 percent, your computer at 75 percent, channel volume at 50 percent, the channel gain at 50 percent, speaker volume at 50 percent, and then slowly turn up the mixer's master volume to the appropriate level. That conservative setting should shake off any distortion, but if it's still too quiet with the mixer's master volume at 75 percent, you can try edging up the channel volume and gain to 75 percent and turn up the volume directly on your speakers.

  • There's no sound at all. Three things need to be turned on: your computer, your mixer, and your powered PA speakers.

    Next, run through all of the volume settings outlined above.

    Finally, check the audio connections. Is the cable running from your computer connected to the audio output, or did you plug it into the audio input by accident. Is it possible that the mixer has some type of mute button or tape output button enabled? Can you hear sound when you plug headphones into the mixer? Does the microphone work? Try plugging in your iPod or smartphone--does that work? Is it possible that you have a bad cable?

Parting thoughts
The perfect wedding is the one where everything is done for you, exceeds your expectations, and just allows you to enjoy the experience without stressing on a single detail. No matter how much you love music or audio technology, or just love the act of doing things yourself, when you rope yourself into running part of the show you are heaping responsibility and stress onto yourself at a time when emotions and anxiety are already running high.

It's not for everybody. Hire a DJ if you can. But don't let a tight budget prevent you from dancing like a fool on your wedding day. Good luck.