For many DJs, playing a set is largely a solitary endeavor. Most of us scour the internet or local record stores isolated in our headphones in search of new music. This new music is then processed through the many different methods we use to filter, tag, and arrange all incoming tracks. The few tracks that make it through the selection process are then played in our bedrooms and studios until ready to be played live in a set at a club.
What do you do if you have to deviate from your set list? What if there is an MC or instrumentalist that wants to play with you? Do you have any material that you can whip out for such an occasion?
There is a difference between playing solo and playing with others. When solo your only interaction is with the crowd, but when there are others on stage you have to learn to interact with them also. Anyone who has played in a band before might already understand this, but with a bit of practice anyone can play with other musicians.
One key concept to understand is that unless the performance has been pre-planned and rehearsed you will be relying on your improvisation skills to get you through the set. It is hard to improv with a planned set list, so you will need to prepare some other sound material to keep on top.
There are two main elements you can use in your live improv; loop material and playable instruments. The ways that you can use both of these will depend largely on what kind of setup you are playing on. Real vinyl users have limited options (mostly scratching and beat juggling), while digital DJs have more options available to them. Traktor and Serato users can use the loop banks to load up various loops and one shots, while Ableton users have almost limitless possibilities in this area. One easy way to prepare for this is to simply get a bunch of basic drum loops in a variety of styles. Simplicity is often the key when playing with others for the first time, so basic drum and percussion loops create a good foundation for others to build on. Another thing to do is have some drum one-shots prepared (i.e. kick, snare, clap, etc.) that you can load into your sampler for finger drumming. If you don’t have a good sampler/loop function in your software you can simply load up a drum loop and put cue points at each of the sounds to play as you wish.
Ableton users can also load up instruments to play with a MIDI controller, which gives the user a huge range of sonic possibilities. Also, if you are proficient at an instrument you can always bring it along with you to gigs in case you have the opportunity to play.
Regardless of the system you are using, two of your best friends when playing with others will be the tap tempo and nudge buttons. These are absolutely crucial when playing with non-computer music sources because real musicians always have variations in tempo. One way to avoid having to rely heavily on these functions is to become the ‘drummer’ for the group. If you are playing all of the main rhythmic content everyone will most likely follow your lead. If you are playing other parts you will have to listen to everything else that is going on and try to keep in time.
If you are playing with other digital DJs, another option is to MIDI sync your computers. This works well if you are both using the same software, but you can sometimes sync between different software if you know how. It can be very beneficial to the live performance if the master tempo and transport controls are synced between the computers. However, while the sync process is fairly simple it can also be plagued by errors. If you have someone join you onstage while playing and they want to sync up, I would be cautious. If at all possible try to sync up offstage and check to make sure that the connection works.
The final link in the live performance chain is the master audio output. If you are at a venue with a dedicated sound tech then you probably won’t have to worry about everyone’s sound levels. If not, you’ll have to take care of this yourself. How this works out will be completely dependent on the individual setup of the performers and the stage, but there are a couple general rules that you can apply.
If it possible try to run everyone through the main stage mixer. If there is a vocalist, have him plug into the main mic input. If there is another computer source, try to run it through an open line-level input or the aux input. This way, you have control over their mixes in relation to your main mix and the overall mix won’t exceed the levels set from the main mixer output.
If you have extra instruments or microphones that can’t run through the main mixer you can try to run them directly into the P.A. (perhaps through a D.I. box) or you can run them through your audio interface. If you are using Ableton Live and have an audio interface interface with multiple inputs you could create new audio tracks for each instrument and control them through Live. The goal here is to create even sound levels that let everyone shine through the mix.
The tips above are basic points to help you prepare for playing with others. The best way to prepare is to find someone else to play with and practice with them in your bedroom or studio. Apart from all of the prep and technical aspects of playing with others, everyone has their own style and method of playing that suits them. The only way to find this out is to jam with a variety of musicians and see what feels best. Have fun with it!