How to be a DJ in Source Engine Games

Someone searched for this and because I am a goddamn hero, I will tell you how. But I’m going to assume you’ve already been to HLDJ‘s website and already know the technical aspects of installing and using their add-on and also the etiquette thereof so you don’t get banned from all your favorite servers.

What I’m gonna tell you is how to make it fun for everyone else.

Admittedly, I’ve never DJ’d in TF2, as server admins in that game typically discourage the use of HLDJ. Because TF2 is about team work and requires communication, and you’re playing with up to 31 strangers, each of whom will approach the game with varying levels of seriousness, this affects how much people are going to enjoy your music over being able to tell each other there’s spies behind them.

I have played many a song in Left 4 Dead though. In zambies, you only have to worry about the opinions of three other people and odds are they are all your friends. Nonetheless, my guidelines should be applicable to TF2 as well, provided you make sure the server is in general agreement that your music would be an improvment to the game and not a hindrance.

But it’s not as simple as just playing whatever music you like.

For one thing, if you’re planning to rawk the fuck out with your favorite Slayer tunes, don’t. Generally anything with heavy base or with people screaming in it is not going to sound good coming out of HLDJ. You have to bear in mind when selecting songs that you’re going to be lowering the sound quality greatly and that it has to still be fun to listen to even if it sounds like a melted cassette tape. Raining blood though you may be, it’s just going to sound like a lot of loud static.

Aside from music, you may also wish to include sound effects. Unfortunately, HLDJ can’t just import those itself like it does with full song .mp3’s. Don’t ask me why. Trying to get them in that way makes them sound like Satanic record backtracking and adds about 20 seconds of silence to the end of them. To add sound effects, you have manually edit the sound clips into HLDJ’s audio restrictions. The HLDJ Manual has guidelines for how to do this here.

Because of these issues, I highly recommend that you run the game by yourself before playing new additions just to see if your new sounds are listenable or not. Even things that you assume will come out okay may surprise you with their shittiness when actually played. I’m looking at you, Brian Setzer Orchestra’s “Gettin’ in the Mood”.

For sound effects too, it may be worth your time to look into setting up keybinds. The way me and Logan have ours set up, we have all our sound effects in a subfolder of the audio one, so it separates them from your full songs, and from there, each is separated by topic. You know, TF2 Spy, TF2 Soldier, Macho Man Randy Savage, and so forth. From there, you can build a system of quick shortcuts to sound effects. This is especially helpful since timing is everything in comedy. A rimshot or sad trombone’s hilarity is inversely proportionate to the time between what you’re responding to and when you deploy the sound effect.

But practical matters out of the way, let’s talk about song selection.

To me, the most important things to understand is that DJing in-game is not some hipster record collection dick waving contest and if you want to make a shitty frag video, put in the heavy metal music in post production. You can always tell when someone is playing a song because they think it’s cool and not because it makes the game more fun. So no WE ARE FKN HARDCORE AND METAL music and leave your Muse tracks at home.

Speaking of Muse, try not to pick things that go on for fucking everrrrrrrrrrr. Even if “Through the Fire and Flames” comes out of the HLDJ meat grinder sounding okay (I don’t know if it does because I have more sense than to want to play it, but I suspect that it might), no one wants to listen to eight minutes of guitar solos. It gets boring and you’re bogartin’ the mic. Try to keep it under four minutes.

The exception to this rule is that you can play a song that exceeds four minutes if you cut it off when it starts doing that shit where they repeat the same two lines 25 times in a row before the closer or fade out. Same if the last three minutes are just instrumental meandering. If the song is enjoyable otherwise, great, but turn it off once everyone gets the picture.

If you are a Certain Kind of Person, this might have ruled out half or more of your intended playlist. But I have faith that you can think outside the box and fill it back up with plenty of fun shit.

The easiest trick to finding great songs to play, in my opinion, is to go for things that seem completely at odds with the content of the game. In Left 4 Dead, for instance, the trailers and people’s frag videos tend to use metal and rock bands for their music, to go with the DARK AND GRITTY atmosphere of the game. So go with just about anything else. Genres that have seen success in games I’ve played include disco, big band, lounge, swing, country, comedy, 80’s synthpop, 80’s regular pop, glam rock, doo wop, rockabilly, and videogame remixes. And there’s plenty more beyond that. The world is vast and there’s much to choose from, so don’t feel confined by the theme of the game.

You can often work with theme to great effect though. I find that it’s nice to have certain songs that are specifically for certain situations. There are generic situations that you can plan to have songs for. Rescuing teammates, dying, clusterfuck-y “Yakety Sax” situations. Winning, I guess. You can also plan for particular events in the map. Train-related songs for subway maps or the roller coaster crescendo in “Dark Carnival”. Children’s songs for Kiddie Land. Banjo shit for the shack village in “Swamp Fever”. You get the idea.

Me and my dudes also have a category of songs we consider inspirational. We play them during crescendo events to motivate everyone and keep them in good spirits. There’s no real guidelines for what these songs should be, beyond that they’re generally fast-paced and cheerful. There was one time when we did the “Hard Rain” finale to the Carpenters’ “Rainy Days and Mondays” though. Situation specificity, yo. You basically just want to keep people feeling good.

That’s really all DJing in game is about. Just as in real life, your job as DJ is not to show off your music collection, but to keep the party mood going.

And just for fun and example, here are my favorite HLDJ tunes:

Al Hibbler – After the Lights Go Down Low
Amii Stewart – Knock On Wood
The Andrews Sisters – Strip Polka
Blarsa – Garden Party
Brian Setzer Orchestra – If You Can’t Rock Me
Brian Setzer Orchestra – Let’s Live It Up
Dolly Parton – Itty Bitty Pissant Country Place
Donna Summer – Hot Stuff
Electric Six – Danger! High Voltage
Elevated Level – Tunnel Snakes Rule (Elevated Remix)
EnigmaEvocative – Cap My Point (Telephone)
Gary Wright – Dream Weaver
Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass – Spanish Flea
Lionel Richie – Dancin’ on the Ceiling
Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five – Open the Door, Richard
Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five – Choo Choo Ch’Boogie
Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five – Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens
Loverboy – Working for the Weekend
Olivier Bernet – Musique de Merde
The Pipettes – Pull Shapes
Re-Flex – The Politics of Dancing
Stevie Wonder – Sir Duke
The Trampps – Disco Inferno

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September 2021