Learn how to DJ at CTRL Studios

CTRL Studios near Zhongshan Park is launching a brand new DJ academy

From left: Wendy Wu, DJ Caution, Aho and Dominic O'Brein in the studio

Want to learn how to DJ? CTRL Studios near Zhongshan Park is launching a brand new DJ academy this month. Time Out speak to co-founder Dominic O’Brien to find out just how long it’ll take for us to be rich and famous

It’s mid-June and the second day of plum rain season. We’re standing in a downpour with our umbrella in one hand, phone in the other, staring at a grey, nondescript tower block of the type that late-’90s Shanghai seemed to excel at. As we stand there, caught in a deluge that in one day dumped the whole of the plum rain season’s average seasonal rainfall, the earlier WeChat message of studio co-founder Dominic O’Brien is ringing in our proverbial ears: ‘Give me a call when you get here. It’s a bit hard to find.’

He wasn’t joking. We’re struck by the fact that this does not seem a typical location for a recording studio. Luckily for us, we notice O’Brien in the distance waving in our direction. As we walk to the studio it becomes clear why the address doesn’t provide a room number; as with many of the best things in the city, CTRL is in the old bomb shelter basement of the building.

Although CTRL might be new to your ears, it’s been in Shanghai since 2012. ‘We’ve been around about three years now,’ says O’Brien (aka DJ Q-Kraft). ‘Me, ConRank and a guy called Marcus Manning set it up.’ Three years on and CTRL is still in business, but how exactly does a recording studio make its money here? ‘Producing music and sound FX for ads, recording bands, teaching music production; that’s the bread and butter,’ O’Brien says.

Although he could pass for someone in his 20s, O’Brien is 34 and his experience in the music industry already runs deep. ‘I did a degree in music production and I started working professionally as soon as I left university,’ he says. ‘I was a live engineer in England for eight years working with acts like Kate Nash and Booka Shade. I also toured for two years with Kano, a grime MC.’ Eventually Kano got dropped from his label and that left O’Brien with nowhere to go, apart from Lanzarote, Egypt, the Dominican Republic, Cyprus and Taiwan. Who knew sound engineering could take someone so far?

For O’Brien the situation in Shanghai could be better. ‘The problem with Shanghai is that there are a lot of fake DJs who can’t mix,’ he says. ‘The commercial clubs book people just to look pretty and press play.’ But the CTRL DJ academy has not been set up as a response to this; it’s much simpler than that. ‘I’ve been DJing since I was 14 and it’s something I’ve always been passionate about,’ O’Brien says, ‘so I want to teach others to do it.’

Luckily, there are also a lot of talented DJs in Shanghai, and O’Brien has drafted in DJs Caution, Misloop, HBD, Mau Mau, Dexter and ConRank to run courses covering mixing and turntablism in both English and Chinese.

The CTRL DJ academy courses put a strong emphasis on teaching the fundamentals of mixing. They even start with vinyl, a format rarely used in these digital days. But why? ‘Once you learn to DJ by ear on turntables, then all the other formats are much easier.’ says DJ Caution. ‘Throughout the 10 weeks we’re going to teach mixing by ear on vinyl, then we’re going to go into what’s happening now, in terms of [DJ software] Serato, CDJs, USB sticks, all these other things.’

So is there a qualitative difference between DJs who learn to beat match and other DJs? O’Brien thinks so. ‘A lot of DJs these days just use DJ controllers with beat sync and they cut out learning how to beatmatch. Beatmatching is really important because you get to know the music better and you become a better DJ.’ Caution agrees: ‘If you DJ by ear then you’ll be focusing on what’s in front of you; your audience. You’re supposed to be DJing for an audience, not while you’re making a Skype call, Dom,’ he says. ‘He told me he did that once [laughs].’ ‘It was Christmas!’ protests O’Brien.

The course will also take in things like DJ etiquette, setting up equipment and programming. ‘It’s kind of like courting a woman,’ says Caution of programming. ‘You’ve got to build it up, meet her at a restaurant, maybe play mini golf – whatever she likes to do. Then you take her home, or she takes you home.’ It’s an analogy lost on O’Brien, ‘What are we talking about here?’ he says, laughing. Turns out it’s all about playing the right music at the right time. ‘If you’re an opening DJ you can’t be playing bangers right off the bat,’ Caution explains. ‘You have to start slow and gradually build up the energy.’

As something for students to aim for, CTRL will organise a gig at the end of the course at Jingan bar URVC where students get to show off their new skills. It’s a fun idea and there is equipment at CTRL that can be used for practice by students who are without their own. But can students really expect to be ready for a gig after only 10 weeks? ‘If you come for the two hours a week for ten weeks you’re going to learn some crucial techniques, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good DJ,’ says O’Brien. ‘The concept of getting two tunes to play at the same speed is actually quite simple, you don’t need someone constantly standing over your shoulder telling you what to do. You just need someone to tell you the fundamentals and then the rest is up to you.’ As with much in life, practice is the key to success.

CTRL Studios 700 Wuyi Lu, near Kaixuan Lu. See full address details. Courses at CTRL DJ Academy start on Monday 27 July and cost 5,000RMB for 10 two-hour sessions. To put the CTRL DJ Academy to the test, deputy editor John Ovans will be undertaking a full course, culminating in a gig at URVC in August. Stay tuned for his progress soon!