The “Secrets” of DJing: Lesson 2
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In The “Secrets” of DJing – Lesson 1, I wrote about young aspiring DJs approaching me, to learn about my secret techniques. I also explained that learning DJing techniques was the easiest part of DJing, which I still believe is true. But that does not mean that you should not try to improve your technical skills. They are the foundation to being a superb DJ. You must master the technical skills on an almost instinctual level in order to free up your brain’s processing power to focus on track selection and reading the room. In this article I will describe some underlying ideas behind some of my techniques.
Think of your favorite stories, and the effort it took to create them. It takes an enormous amount of training, research and knowledge to write a great story, and it requires an understanding of the underlying dynamics in story telling.
Dynamics can be explained in a number of ways. One way would be be paraphrasing Beavis and Butthead. While watching a music video Beavis says: “This part of the song sucks”, Butthead replies: “Yeah, but thats why the chorus really rocks”. While the meditative folks prefer the yin & yang to relate to dynamics, the tech guys among us might refer to the sine wave. According to Wikipedia music dynamics normally refers to “the volume of a sound or note, but can also refer to every aspect of the execution of a given piece, either stylistic (staccato, legato etc.) or functional (velocity).” Dynamics has to do with changes within the music, the selection of music, and from the DJs point of view, has to do with the way the music is played (volume, tempo, filters, effects etc).
Before I begin a more pragmatic explanation about the dynamic DJ set, I want to emphasize that there are two schools of DJs. The “purists” who believes that music should be played without any alterations whatsoever. No pitching of tempo, no effects, no equalization and no volume changes done by the DJ. And then there is the more accepted DJ practice of mixing, beatmatching and pitch-shifting. One of the best known purists is David Mancuso. He believes that the message the band/orchestra had when they recorded the music is the most important thing to be communicated to the audience. He does not move much when he DJs, and once told me that he would prefer to be invisible, like “a fly on the wall”. You might picture him as a narrator of a book, telling the story without trying to act out or emphasize events with his voice. His calmness becomes a forceful way of emphasizing and directing focus to the message of the book, or in David Mancuso’s case, the music.
And then there is the other side – DJs who use effects, filters, loops and EQs to alter and emphasize the story being told by the music. I like to think this type of DJing is like a conductor, putting his personal touch and reinterpretation on the music. Conductors like Richard Wagner (better known for his compositions) and Wilhelm Furtwängler were known for this. Wagner even went as far as rewriting the score of the music he conducted, which was frowned upon by opponents of this conducting style. Wagner and Furtwängler saw conducting as reinterpretation rather then simply a mechanism for achieving orchestral unison. The techniques that conductors use obviously need to be learned, but if you really want to make the music exceptional, you have to know the piece that you are playing and be the music. Being the music means understanding when you need to step back and let the music play, just setting the beat, and when to sculpt the music in order to bring it to the edge. Don’t think too much about the story you want want to tell, just be the music and let your gestures and sculpting/altering of the tracks be adherent of the music.
So what are the elements that we can work with in order to tell a more compelling story with the music?
In the world of EDM, one of the more controversial ways of changing the dynamics of a set is the use of different genres. There is some fear associated in crossing between genres, maybe because it is an extremely challenging thing to do successfully. The risk of alienating your audience depends on how well you mix the tracks, how well you spur the audience’s interest in the new track and also how open-minded your audience is. Dropping a disco driven track in the middle of an otherwise predominantly minimal set can be a refreshing turn, but should be exercised with caution. There is a fine line between failure and success in those kinds of situations – and it takes courage to dare, so prepare yourself for those types of situations by practicing them at home.
In some cases you would want to migrate towards certain genres in a slower and more organic way, over multiple songs. Going from House to Dubstep can be done from track to track, but more often you might want to consider a slow transition and lure your audience into following you where you go.
Working with tempo
I recently had a talk with a somewhat well-known DJ, who plays live sets all over the world. I spoke with him after his set at one of New York’s most famous venues. His set was short and performed with Ableton Live – using all his own material. I have to honestly say that he lost the audience’s attention fairly soon after he started his set. The beats were good, his bass lines were nice and the general atmosphere in the club was fine, but there was something missing. Outside, in the backyard of the club I had a chance to confirm what I felt inside. I asked him if he ever changed the tempo during his set. He did not. The lack of change in the tempo transformed a rather good set into a mediocre set. This is a reminder to us all – but especially those of us who work in programs like Traktor and Ableton, where the mixing progress is done automatically and synced up with a master tempo. Try to incorporate good habits of changing the BPM to the appropriate tempo at least once every 3 tracks. Small incremental changes during a track can obviously add a little extra tension. While decremental changes can do the opposite. If you work your way down into the teens (113-119 bpm) you can create a breathing space for dancers before bringing them up in the 120s to 130s again. BPM is more then a mathematical term, it’s a number with direct relation to the human heartbeat/pulse. By tweaking the tempo you are essentially changing the energy felt within the body.
The music industry has been plagued with a lack of dynamics in volume levels the last 10-15 years. In the race to have the loudest mix in the radio ether, dynamics in music took a big hit. I remember setting up for a set at Cielo (NYC) and speaking to the soundgirl who takes care of the system there – she was furious. The day before a young kid blew out 2 amps of Cielo’s great Funktion One System. She told him many times that the system was being pushed too hard (every meter was in the red), but he didn’t seem to understand. Being the loudest is a sickness. Rookie DJ’s need to pay more attention to volume, meters and competent sound-people. Using volume to your advantage might take a little bit of practice, but in the long run you will be able to emphasize important parts of your set and enhance the dancing experience for your listeners. Top DJs/engineers like Francois K have taught me a lot about the importance of dynamics in sound level. The human ears constantly adapt to sound levels, therefore keeping the volume the same level all night is a certain way of losing attention, while using volume changes makes people pay more attention. In periods of good dance floor stability, simply turn down the volume a bit to create headroom for the future. You can do it on the master or on the fader of the track playing. Let’s say that you bring the volume down 3-6 db (or 20% from the top of the fader), the next time you have a peak in the song that you would like to emphasize, you have 3-6 db to boost the peak of the track. 10-20 seconds after the peak you can gradually start bringing the volume down again to ensure headroom for the next peak or part you want to emphasize. Work the fader slowly, and the ears will have time to adjust to the new volume level. This way the audience will be less aware of the music decreasing in volume – but their ears will slowly adapt to the new volume and you can again boost it to ensure they stay attentive to the music.
Animating your track
As mentioned above, the human ears constantly adjust to sound levels. Lack of movement, contrast or change in the track (especially within the spectrum) that you are playing has the same effect on your brain. It makes your brain numb and you will eventually lose attention. The best cure is to play tracks that are produced and arranged by talented artists, but in case you run into periods on a track that have a lack of movement – add it yourself. Even songs that are well produced and have great arrangement can be enhanced and animated, bringing the music to the edge.One of my favorite tools for animating music is a good isolator. An Isolator is essentially an EQ with ability to do a “full-kill” on the various frequencies. Isolators, like the EQ on a mixer, boost frequencies within selected frequency bands, typically around 6-15 db, depending on the brand of isolator. Most isolators have fixed crossovers between the low, mid and high (Thrive makes an isolator with sweepable crossover on the low and high frequencies). The crossover points have a huge influence on how the isolator affects the music. If you choose to buy an isolator, don’t spend too much time reading other DJs opinions on the various discussion boards that discuss isolators – instead focus on getting your hands on as many isolators as possible. All the isolators out there are quite different from each other, and it is a very subjective matter whether or not an isolator is good for you. Some isolators are great for disco, some are great for techno, some (like the Thrive) can be adjusted to fit all types of music. I find the “E&S” isolators too niche for my type of music selection, the “Dope Real” not flexible enough (even though it is really dope) and the Thrive just right. To figure out what you need, get some hands-on experience.How do you tweak an isolator? Work the tracks by adding rhythmically emphasized patterns to the music, just like you would do by hitting a drum in a rhythmic pattern. Other times you can use it as an over-sized and boosted EQ – to create wild contrasts and … Well – it’s probably easier to show this, then explaining much more.
Derrick May makes great use of this tool to create a really aggressive but still harmonious energy in the track. By using an isolator you can push the longevity of a groove to the max, and keep the audience spellbound to your constant changes of energy. But be forewarned – it is easy to overuse this tool. Knowing when not to turn the knobs is just as important as to know how to turn the knobs. Feel the music. Be the music.
(Updated February 2012):
Here is a video I filmed with Shorty from SBS Design walking you through some of his ways of altering the music with his ISO-Q2 Isolator.
Filters is another excellent way of altering the dynamics of a track. Filtering out the low-end of a track and bringing it back again,or rolling off the highs only to leave a boomy muffled bass, is always a crowdpleaser. What makes a hi-pass filter powerful, as opposed to the EQ bass knob, is the precision which you can remove the frequencies below your cutoff point. Hi-pass and low-pass filters are especially cool when working with two or three tracks at the same time. By using pass filters you can control and alter the frequency range of the music in a more precise way. Some music tends to have bassdrums and basslines with a wider frequency range than other music – which is why a filter can ensure a more precise cutting of the low frequencies. You can hear examples of 2 track pass-filter mixing here: Around 13:00 I run a hi-pass on the technoish track giving more space to the Nigerian Afro loop that I am desperately trying to nudge into place/sync (traktor sync does not always sync). Later in this mixset you can hear the use of a low-pass filter to blend Lindstrom with C2 (around 55:30). In this mix the low-pass is used to keep the Lindstrom funky bassline play far into the C2 track – it could have been done with a regular EQ, but the low-pass makes the operation more precise. Mixing tracks by using filters is not a revolutionary technique, but it is definately a great alternative to the classic “drop-the-bass-on-channel-1-and-raise-the-bass-on-2″ mix.
Adding effects to your tracks can be a daunting task. No matter what equipment you use to add your effect, you should study the tools meticulously. Learn every single parameter of the effects and if possible, read the manual! Learn some interesting routines, and practice, practice, practice. When practicing, ask yourself what kind of mood you would like to create, what is the purpose of adding the effect? Think about what feeling(s) you want to induce in your audience; happy, moody, dark, intense, trippy, aggressive, mellow, wild, distant, or just plain weird. Then try to figure out which effects do what and how to best enhance those feelings in the track. This way you end up having an arsenal of storytelling techniques that you can pull out whenever you need them. In the world of musicians, the word ‘lick’ means a rehearsed phase or technique that can be used whenever you need it. Learning ‘licks’ or techniques by heart frees up your time to focus on the emotional message you want to communicate. In other words, good DJs are not just randomly turning knobs, there is a method to the madness that comes with practice and forethought.
Using reverbs in your DJ set can be extremely effective at creating an almost psychedelic mood. One of the first observations noted by a person after taking a psychedelic drug, is that a change in spatial perception occurs. Sounds and things that are close can seem far away and vice versa. By using a reverb, you can recreate this effect, by processing and thereby masking the music with a dense reverb to place the music far away and then bring it back again whenever you want to emphasize or “bring-closer” parts of the music. This “trippy” effect is similar to the introduction of light systems in clubs – which may have been inspired by the fact that psychedelic drugs often lead people to develop synesthesia (sounds leading to experiences in other sensory pathways, for example by seeing colors).
Some reverbs effects are simple and only have few settings available, whereas others like the Traktor Pro softwares effect, are more advanced. The more parameters you can adjust the better, as long as you have easy access to editing the parameters. Traktor gives you a sparse but effective choice of parameters to edit and in “advance mode” offers you size, highpass and lowpass filter, along with a dry/wet adjustment knob. Experiment with the filters, since they are essential to the “vibe” of the reverb.
Additionally, the Reverb in Traktor Pro gets a whole lot more interesting when you tweak the effect parameters while the effects is on. Try to alter the filter of the reverb by cutting off the high frequencies of the reverbed space slowly – you will notice that the intensity of the reverb mellows down. If the size of the room is set to max, as well as the HF filter, you can animate the reverb by slowly turning the filter down. The reverb will be, and be perceived as, a smaller reverb, and it gives a sense of the reverb moving away from you. Similar movement can be done with the LP filter, just upwards. Remember that the more low frequencies you allow in the mix the ‘muddier’ it gets, whereas high frequencies can create a crisp but harsher sounding reverb.
Lastly, try changing the size of the room from big to small in the build-up part of a track. You will create the upwards moving pitched reverb that, if timed well, can create a sense of the mix moving upwards.
The delay effect and other effects like Beatmatcher (Traktor) can add intensity to your songs by adding 8ths, 3/8ths, 3/16ths and 16ths of delayed sound to your mix. Adding a delay can make your sound bigger/wider by creating a rhythmically driving push. If your delay has a feedback option, use it to add movement into the somewhat statically repeating echoes you get from the delay without the feedback option. Delays are great tools for adding thickness to the mix without mudding it up like when using reverbs. Again, try to animate the delay when you use it, the more you tweak the effect while in use, the less sterile it will be.
Another way to create a forward leaning movement, and thereby more intensity, is flanger with a very slow movement (16 bars). With the right setting you can create anticipation with the slow movement of the flanger, as well intensity by the flangers siren sound.
Overdrive or LoFi effects can be used to create a more harsh and agressive punch to the music. Traktors Mulholland Drive (on Traktor Pro) really shines with stripped down beats (kicks especially) whereas the LoFi effect (also Traktor Pro) works wonders in breaks by completely pulling the music apart to, well, literally smaller bits and pieces. Remember that digital distortion effects all have a tendency to sound cold, due to an artifact called the Nyqyist Frequency so using distortion to create an aggressive vibe can cause a cold and dark atmosphere in the room as well. If you use analog external distortion effects to add this aggressive punch you can achieve a warmer aggressive vibe.
A melting pot of movement & Modulation tools
Making your music sound weird is a fun and interactive way of playing with your audience. Turn the knobs to extreme settings on modulation tools like Vibrato, Chorus, Flanger, Phaser and Tremolo and you will create weirdness. But to effectively use modulation tools to induce feelings of anticipation and heightened interest you will need to synchronize yourself with the audience, and again, be the music. Ask yourself this question, “Would the music sound great without effects, does the effect add a substantial change to the feelings that are induced in your audience”. If you feel it is the right thing to do, go with your gut feeling and work with the tools. The important thing is that you ask yourself what is it you are trying to achieve and then tweak accordingly.
For example, if you want to reshape the sound scape and renew the listeners’ interest, then chorus and vibrato/tremolo effects can certainly wake people up. If you’re more interested in building or creating a feeling of anticipation, phaser and flanger effects can provide you with slow upward or downward movement over several bars. Even subtle changes with these effects can have a striking impact on your audience.
It is important to understand that this article is not a complete guide to the dynamics of musical storytelling story. Understanding how music affects us at the emotional level is a lifelong study, but a little reflection on why we turn the knobs we do, might help us communicate more clearly and powerfully in the future. Mastering the techniques described here will enable you to affect the tracks, the crowd, and the emotions transferred via the music.
Thank you for reading this far, I am looking forward to reading your comments.