Don't Bore Just Dance
October 13, 2008 11:09 PM   Subscribe

I have my first show coming up. My first show will be an admittedly lame DJ set where I pretty much just play one song after the other...if I had more time I would try to come up with something more interesting, but any suggestions for making this performance not so boring?

The setup consists of a really basic DJ mixer with a Pioneer CDJ200 into one input and my laptop, running Ableton Live, into the other. I have an MP3 CD in the CDJ200 and the MP3s of my tracks in Live. Basically, I will start a track in Live, and then queue up the next track on the CDJ200, and hand-off the tracks between the CDJ and the laptop. If there are any transitions between tracks, its minimal.
I've also got a Behringer BCR2000 hooked up to my laptop, partly for show and partly for effects. It controls the effects in Live, which right now are only an autofilter plugin and a beat repeat plugin (the latter of which I haven't really grasped yet, so I might not use it at all). Other than a couple buttons and knobs, the rest of the BCR2000 remains unused.
Now I was thinking of just twiddling with the extra knobs and buttons on the BCR2000 during my downtime (i.e. the majority of each song) to make it look like I'm doing something. I've also got a two octave keyboard that I could incorporate.
I'm considering throwing more effects into Live, but there aren't many effects that really have any appeal for a live performance (anyone know of any that I might have overlooked?).
Ideally I would have cut up all my songs into loops and parts and then just mashed everything together on the fly, but the show is less than a week away and I do want my songs, at least for my first show, to be for the most part similar to their original form.
So basically I'm looking for any suggestions to liven up the show so that I'm not just hitting play and sitting there. If I can get over my stage fright I'll probably end up dancing a bit and moving to the beat (I end up doing it in my practice sessions) but other than that I'm worried it will be a stale performance. I don't have the time/capacity/money for any sort of light shows, and the show is during the daytime and outdoors.
posted by god particle to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a little confused about this question, it sounds like you're looking for things to do to make it seem like you're doing more at the show, but it seems to me, as a person with a lot of dancing in clubs/at shows experience that it's never really mattered what the dj was doing as long at the songs are good, danceable, and have smooth transitions.

I've djed at clubs before too and usually just hit play and try to dance a bit. No one has ever called me out for not doing enough or looking busy. I've seen Justice before and those guys both performed with basically one hand in the air pumping up the crowd for most of the show; I suspect they weren't doing much either.

My biggest issue when djing is watching the crowd too much to try to figure out if they're into the music. It stresses me out to do that so I just try to focus on the music and get into that. If your music is good (and you have the right crowd for it) you don't need fancy light shows, that's not what people are there for.
posted by nerdcore at 11:23 PM on October 13, 2008

You can load up entire tracks into Ableton channels, so I'd leave the CD player at home and just do everything with the laptop. Beyond that you can cut the existing songs into large chunks (verse chorus etc) and re-edit them on the fly, dubbing in effects if you like via the send channels.
posted by rhizome at 11:24 PM on October 13, 2008

You are way over thinking it and setting yourself up for train wrecks (or worse) in your live performance.

The only effects you should be using is the EQ Three unless you're very comfortable with anything else. You should be doing everything in Ableton, not switching between it and something else (unless you have a hardware failure), you can match and transition much better between tracks in Ableton. I don't know that specific hardware in question, but the best hardware for DJ-ing live with Ableton is a midi controller with a A/B fader, BPM knob and 3 level EQ perchannel, plus solo buttons. (And and audio output for cue.) This will cover you for everything 95% of DJ's ever do in a live performance. and 110% of what a first time DJ should be attempting.

Play good music and don't train wreck. Pay attention to your audience and play more of what they like, even if you hate it. Since it's your first show, make our your full palyist with BPM and in/out points before hand, with maybe a branch point every 5 songs, to respond to the audence. Practice it. Later, after you get your clum legs you can improvise on the fly, but you aren't epcted (or recommended) to do that on your first show. You're better off bing dcent, but not amazing than playing decent tracks but fucking up seriously once.

Bring and iPod or two as emergency back up, but run everything else as simple as possible through one piece of hardware.

There is a lot of pressure for an all digital DJ to do a bigger performance than is needed. Don't, at least at your first shows. I was at a club recethy where the DJ was all digital, and he stood in the DJ booth, arms crossed surveying the crowd when he didn't have to tend to a mix. He rocked the house.

Don't do something just for make work. If you want to spice it up, spend the money on a light setup and control the light show when you have nothing else to do.
posted by Ookseer at 12:18 AM on October 14, 2008

If you've already built mini-sets out of your playlist that can be extended/switched depending on requests and already have a fabulous outfit picked out, you shouldn't need to do anything else.

Do your thing with confidence that you've got good music, pay attention the floor, and look good doing it. That's really all you need to do, at least to start.
posted by batmonkey at 12:46 AM on October 14, 2008

Thanks for the advice so far, but I do want to add:
It will be a set of my original music, which is all danceable but not necessarily your standard club fare, and because of the limited amount of original music I have, the set will be a little under 40min (which I figure is a decent set length).

I'll look into doing the entire set in Live, the only problem is I only have one audio output so I'm not sure if I can set up a headphone cue (which is the main reason why I'm working through the mixer and the CDJ). Everything else (crossfader, BPM knob, EQ settings) should be easy to set up on the BCR2000.

Also, what do you mean by "branch point"?
posted by god particle at 12:49 AM on October 14, 2008

If you only have one audio output on the laptop then you won't be able to set up a headphone cue point using the laptop only. Get a cheap USB/Firewire audio interface and you'll be set. Also, don't listen to the haters. I know of a few DJs that use an outside source and Ableton mixed through a hardware mixer and who have been quite successful.

For playing an original set, I'd look into getting a nice MIDI device to trigger clips etc. That'll convince the audience that you're actually doing something other than checking your emails. I use a Korg PadKontrol alongside a MIDI keyboard, and not only does it look neat, it's a better interface for triggering stuff. Plus it's got a cool XY pad thing that's fun if you map FX to it.

If you can get your confidence up, play something live, like a couple of riffs on your keyboard or something. Mapping a few FX to the Behringer's knobs, and making a big deal out of a filter sweep or something is a good way to add a bit of flair.

Lastly, Beat Repeat can be a bit mysterious, but if you read the manual and just experiment a bit to get to grips with it (throw a simple four four loop in there and play with each knob individually), I think you'll find that it can be a really powerful and fun effect.

Good luck!
posted by Magnakai at 1:09 AM on October 14, 2008

i just did some shows (at a small beach bar, on my vacation, for free drinks and kicks) with a single laptop instead of my usual, more elaborate setup, and i too was stuck for things to do between loading up and cuing the next song. as you are spinning your own music, some of this may not apply to you, but between mixes/fades:

1) adjust the gain/volume/eq of the next track in your headphones. cue and start the next tune, and alternate listening to the track that's playing and the next track up in your headphones, loud enough to where you can really hear them over the house system. try to match the relative volumes and eq level EXACTLY. this will make you sound smoother, and can easily take a minute or more of fidding around with knobs so you look like you're doing something. heck, you ARE actually doing something.

2) cue it up, practice punching it in a few times. is there a long intro? set the cue point to the point where the song really kicks in. is there a small delay between hitting the start button and the song actually starting? try punching it in a few times just through the headphones to see if you can get the start off smoothly.

2) check the crowd - if you're spinning other peoples tracks, it's important to check to see if they dig what you're playing, if you need to raise or lower the energy, are they packing the dancefloor or leaving it, etc. since you're playing your own tracks, probably one after the other in a predetermined order, this may be less important. still, it'll give you an idea which of your songs the crowd likes best, etc. don't take a negative reaction too personally though, the same stuff played to the same club on a different night (more people in the club, better or worse opening act, tuesday vs. saturday night, or any other number of random factors) can get a completely different response, seemingly for no particular reason.

3) jump around or dance or whatever else you do to exude stage presence. if you feel the need to pretend to do stuff to look busy, heck, go ahead, but standing up straight, looking comfortable, smiling, bouncing around, and otherwise looking like you're having a good time will go a lot farther than fake-fiddling with some knobs.

4) if you are running everything through live, pre-beatmatched, what do you need headphone cues for? with traktor (and i would assume any other auto-beatmatching software) cueing isn't strictly necessary - since you've got a week to get ready, spend some time setting up everything so you can play the whole set straight through on your laptop, and keep the cd on standby in case your computer crashes (this happens, believe me)

i'm guessing what ookseer means by branch point is: you should have several groups of 3-5 songs that work well together, and are roughly the same style and energy level. in your playlist, you might have what you think is the ideal set of that club for that night. if you notice the crowd thinning or looking frustrated, not smiling and bobbing their heards, etc, be prepared to switch styles a little. have some 3-5 song sets prepared that change the vibe, so that you can easily switch the mood if they arent digging what's on at the moment - i might put these alternate "branches" at the very end of the songlist so they're easy to find if i decide to abandon my original playlist.

though this may not apply here, as you're spinning original stuff. still, it might be a good idea to have an alternate set or two on standby in case the club owner comes up and asks you to change the music (dunno what the club you're playing at is like, but these things happen, and if you're prepared to change direction at the drop of a hat when asked to, they might ask you back even if they don't like what you started out playing)
posted by messiahwannabe at 1:52 AM on October 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

Don't just stand there. Really, that's the most important thing. I'm not saying twist fake knobs or anything, but if you're not into the music, it's hard for anyone else to be. I see a lot of laptop shows, and that's what makes the difference between a so-so show and a great show.
posted by Jairus at 4:16 AM on October 14, 2008

I think what Ookseer means by a 'branch point' is that every so often it would be good to have an option worked out so that you can go into one or another of a couple of slightly different flavour tracks from a given point, so that you can 'change direction' in response to the crowd if need be.

I've never DJed digital, so i can't advise you on the techie stuff here, but from my 'analog' experience I'd say nthing everybody who tells you to Keep.It.Simple. That really is the best way to go, and you really shouldn't be worrying at all about 'doing enough' or messing around with keyboards etc. If they are dancing and having a good time then you're doing enough.

IMHO the trick is almost to forget they are there but also to be attentive/responsive to the crowd (but also don't keep changing direction all the time if you lose one or two from the floor - people need to rest/get a beer/whatever, so it may not be down to you). I know that sounds contradictory - it's a balancing act and you will pick up the nuances. Keeping the tech side within your limits allows you to have time for looking, learning and listening, which is what will grow you as a DJ and producer.

In a nutshell, it's not about you - it's about them - just play the tunes, look like you'e enjoying yourself (important!) and keep it flowing - good luck!

on preview: messiahwannabe totally nails the branching thing...
posted by Chairboy at 6:05 AM on October 14, 2008

I've been on stage/in the DJ booth with electronic musicians who've had their entire set pre-prepared as an AIFF or WAV file, and pretty much just danced behind their laptop. It's cheating, really, but if the music is good, no one cares.
posted by jack_mo at 6:12 AM on October 14, 2008

Have to recommend you go with something like this for mixing, if you can grab say a USB soundcard to give you two outputs from your laptop. Using the original mk1 version, you can set them to output seperately and then use a mixer between.

Doing this, I've done numerous sets where I end up mixing between tracks at more interesting points than just beginning and end of songs. Mixing between four different covers of a track, at certain intervals, may not be the best sounding mix I did, but showed some of the potential.

I preferred putting more thought into making the whole set a soundscape, using ambient/industrial stuff in places as segues for instance.
posted by opsin at 7:08 AM on October 14, 2008

Oh yes, for instance, the way I do it, the 'downtime' is spent auditioning the parts I want to mix out of the current song, where to mix into any of a number of potential next songs, or setting up a third or even fourth instance of the software to bring in four layers of tracks in some of the interesting segues.

It does allow for the most playing around with mixing I've managed.
posted by opsin at 7:10 AM on October 14, 2008

For one thing, STOP describing your upcoming performance as "admittedly lame"...both to any potential audience members AND to yourself. For yourself, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. For someone else, it's...."man, I really don't want to go to this thing, even the guy doing it says it's going to suck".
posted by the bricabrac man at 8:10 AM on October 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

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