79. 'What I learned from being a DJ that helped me become a mapper'

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The craftsmanship quality of DJ-ing is not unlike that of map-making. It's a process of compiling large quantities of digital media and presenting it back to the audience in order to entertain, educate and/or take on a journey.

In this week's post we're in Dubai, United Arab Emirates to meet a DJ/geospatialist who understands the technical and creative aspects of both visuals and audio as well as anyone.


Originally hailing from Germany, Sebastian Behr is a GIS Project Coordinator at RAK Municipality in the fast growing Middle Eastern city. In this republished post Sebastian explains how the art of DJ-ing has made him a better geospatial professional and, quite likely, vice-versa also.

Over to Sebastian.


Currently, most people know me as a Geographic Information System (short GIS) mapping specialist, map designer, “map artist” or urban planner while few remember me as a deejay, artist, producer, event organizer or promoter. In this essay I want to show how the two – at first glance – totally different worlds of deejaying and mapping match perfectly together.

It has been already 12 years since I had my first deejay gig (musical engagement in a club, bar or festival). Since then, I’ve had more than 100 performances and organized a couple of my own events with friends. All of that led to me becoming a well-known deejay in my hometown. I believe, deejaying has guided me to become the mapping specialist I am today. It may sound crazy that my thesis is: “being a good deejay helped me become a good mapper”, but the seemingly illogical becomes clear in the following lines.

Step 1: Building your deejay set vs. building your map content

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Understandably, a deejay needs music/tracks to build and create his set. To do so, he browses online or in record stores he trusts. He does not select records of totally different genres. Instead, he seeks mostly records of similar genres. He knows his gigs and what sounds the crowds want to hear to drive them crazy. If the crowd expects to hear techno, then he selects techno music. Back at home he builds his set by selecting and sorting tracks. Next, he tests the sets by playing the records in different orders and trying out effects such as delay, flanger or reverb as well as the volume levels, until he has created the perfect, harmonic set.

Similarly, a mapper also needs to know what the “crowd” wants to see. Based on the requirements he searches for proper available data. If the “crowd” expects a mountain slope plan, the mapper will not look for utility data. Instead, he will collect for example a Digital Elevation Model (DEM or DSM if required), hillshades, contours, elevation points and polygon features that designate mountainous areas and separate them from lowlands.

The mapper’s many layers are what music tracks are to deejays. After compiling the proper data, the mapper builds his set by preparing and arranging layers, testing and setting transparency effects. He does this until he has a harmonic and smooth layer combination.


Step 2: Testing the deejay set vs. preparing the map layout

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Most deejays are well prepared prior to entering the stage. They have selected their sets and sorted their tracks to perfection. In turn, they are ready to perform it with smooth and seamless transitions. The ideal technical set has no bumps between song transitions. The set should feel like a never-ending track that keeps the crowd enthusiastic on the floor.

The deejay’s harmonic precision corresponds to the symbol and layout selection for the mapper. Choosing and preparing the right symbols and layout determines if the “crowd” will engage with a map or not understand and set it aside. Returning to the mountain slope plan, the mapper will prepare a layout with a seamless transition of hillshade effects, a clearly symbolized slope plan (transferred from the DEM) with spline curve and well organized contour lines that act as the icing on the cake. All of these well-organized layers are explained in a clear map legend.

A reputable deejay does not play his set too loud and avoids unwanted distortions. The reputable mapper also does not exaggerate or give unnatural numbers to a scale or scale bar (such as maps drawn to perplexing, useless scales of 1:1,389). Similarly, a quality mapper will not play with misleading or confusing colors, just as the quality deejay will not paste tracks of totally different, not matching genres into his set.


Step 3: Performing the deejay set vs presenting the map

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A focused deejay arrives early to check the sound system, bringing his own needles if he plans to play with records. If he is playing digitally or live, he will check the space at the desk/stage. A good deejay starts his first set by playing a low-key intro track. He knows he should not overstrain the crowd at the beginning, and he watches the intensity in the crowd increase with time as his tracks ramp up. When everything goes smoothly and the set awakens the crowd, the deejay also gets pumped and flows with the music.

The deejay has spent weeks preparing to thoughtfully play/perform his music. Similarly, the mapper must carefully select the final formatting for his map. To start with, the mapper checks a variety export options for his creation. He does not just transfer the map to a picture file without thinking about it. Instead, he wisely selects the best resolution according to the medium where the map will be displayed, online or in print. Different plans require different display sizes and good mapper needs to manage the balance between labels, sizes, and information. As soon as a map is printed or posted online the “crowd” is able to “explore” it. An excellent map captivates viewer, and the information comes slowly and does not overstrain the “crowd” at the beginning. The perfect map can be viewed for a long period of time because there are so many interesting details to be discovered.

Try to think of the last time you listened to music that really captivated you. Now, try also to remember a map that did the same. I personally can lose a lot of time in exploring maps when they have plenty of detailed information, just as I can spend hours dancing or listening to an exceptional deejay-set.


Addition 1: Producing deejays vs. producing mappers


Not all deejays build sets of purchased tracks. There are deejays who produces sets using their own sounds. There are a couple of deejays outside who have thousands, if not even millions, of software packages such as virtual studio technology (VST) extensions, sound-presets, music-loops or one-shoots to utilize. Besides that, hardware instruments such as synthesizers or amplifiers are a very common playground for deejays.

Equally, mappers have thousands of options for how to collect and produce data in similar ways, and sometimes they also need to collect their own data with hardware such as a GPS or tachymeter. Returning to the mountain slope map, a mapper who needs to collect own data has multiple options. For example, he could select a company to do a LiDAR (stands for Light Detecting and Ranging and is simply spoken a laser scanning method for the surface) scan overfly. However, a cheaper option would be to look for existing content on the internet. After purchasing the data online, there are hundreds of GIS tools to “manipulate” data that allow the creation of a smooth DEM along with slope calculations and contour lines extraction. Correspondingly, the deejay has his tools to manipulate sounds until a thrilling set is created.


Addition 2: Better deejay vs. better mapper

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With the rapid growth in technology over the past decades, it is easier and cheaper to become a deejay now than ever. There are thousands of deejays with millions of sets, and it is not possible to even hear a fraction of them in a lifetime. However, only skilled deejays can mesmerize a crowd. To be a good deejay is time consuming and requires trying many new things. It further requires a deep understanding of how different tracks fits together and what will engage audiences.

Drastic technological advances, particularly over the past ten years, have also made map producing easier than ever. However, new technology does not make anyone a better mapper - skills and experience do. A mapper never stops learning to produce better plans, particularly in terms of how he collects, prepares, edits, and adjusts spatial data. Ultimately, a mapper needs to have a feeling about how layers fit together. Therefore, a good mapper always finds new and different ways to engage the crowd. How many maps you have held in your hands throughout your life? How many of them you still remember?

 To sum (the tangle) up

The deejay and the mapper worlds have many similarities, and I see my thesis confirmed every day. My previous deejay life allowed me an easy transition to a good mapper. The harmony of mixing music tracks together in a set is similar to the harmony of matching layers together in order to construct an informative map. Both fields require taking the “crowd” along to hear a set or learn from an interesting map. A strong, clear map puts the viewer in another world, and it captures the imagination in the same way a good deejay set does.