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DJing Techniques: Just Press Play, or Are More Skills Needed?

Back in June, Canadian producer Deadmau5 made a controversial statement on his blog that could affect how concertgoers view EDM in the future. The DJ born Joel Zimmerman wrote: “I just roll up with a laptop and a midi controller and ‘select’ tracks

[and] hit a spacebar. […] People assume there’s a guy on a laptop up there producing new original tracks on the fly. None of the ‘top DJ’s in the world’ to my knowledge have. Myself included.”

Going further, Zimmerman explained, in his post, that popular software program Ableton aligns tracks, eliminating the essential beatmatching skill, and that producers like him are more at home than in the studio.

So, does this mean that when you go to Ultra Music Festival, Electric Daisy Carnival, or even to your local club to hear some house that the person behind the decks is miming? Is every DJing gig simply like Top of the Pops, only with a laptop or Pioneer CDJ and mixing desk or controller?

On Top of the Pops, at least, you could tell when a guitar or keyboard was not plugged in and notice that a performance had suspiciously studio-sounding quality. So, short of looking to see if Deadmau5’s or another’s DJing equipment is plugged in, how can you tell – purely as a fan, and not producer, of EDM – when someone’s faking, and what are the basics that any DJ must know for live performance?

Hearing and knowing how two tracks – one segueing into the other or mashed up – fit together require basic musical knowledge: beatmatching and key-matching. Want to hear what bad DJing or producing sounds like? Find a mashup video on YouTube, back from the 2007 mashup craze, and listen to it. If an amateur is attempting to merge two tracks, the tempos and beats frequently do not align, and the two overlapping keys create discordant harmonies: modulating to a key too far away, poor chord changes, or dissonant intervals in a single beat. Atonal harmonies work when an orchestra is playing Shostakovich – they don’t go over well at a rave, unfortunately.

A headlining DJ must have this basic foundation. Otherwise, they’re nothing more than a celebrity behind a mixing desk. However, what makes a DJ truly unique is his contribution and perspective to a track. Going back to the Top of the Pops reference, is the track identical to the studio mix, or was something added extra? Avicii, for instance, is known for defaulting on his own produced tracks for sets, but on his recent Le7els Tour mashed up outside vocals with his beats – Florence and the Machine’s version of “You Got The Love” synched on top of “Penguin,” for instance – and altered pitch, intensity, and pacing of other tracks.

But, live, how do you know Avicii simply didn’t record these mixes in the studio and then just “hit a spacebar” during the performance? You don’t, unless you watch multiple consecutive performances, listening for the mixing during each.

While Deadmau5 may claim all headlining DJs go through the motions, Peter Kirn, editor of CreateDigitalMusic.com, counteracted, saying: “There are people who sing or add vocals or instruments, live, over their sets, while still maintaining enough underneath that people can dance. There are people who can play entire techno dance sets, live coding or live patching entire compositions improvisationally. There are artists on instruments like the monome, cutting up patterns as they go. There are controllerists and scratch turntablists, finger-drumming percussionists who toss all the loops and play beats from one-shots, multi-instrumentalists and beatjazz maniacs. And the list goes on.”

Kirn, likely, gives a fuller picture of an EDM performance. Yes, it may be synched up on a laptop or CDJ, but truly skilled producers go to greater lengths to showcase their creativity in a live setting, be it through mixing or adding outside elements.

By | 2016-12-02T15:08:14+00:00 July 13, 2012|News, Opinion|5 Comments
  • DNA

    There is absolutely skill needed to be a successful DJ, and entertain the crowd proper. You still need to know the basics, how it works and how to make it all come together. I admit the amount of physical skill is somewhat low, it is knowledge that makes a DJ standout.
    – You need to beat match (and no, I have seen people struggle with beat matching for years, so not ALL monkeys can do it).
    – You need to know keys and pitch if you want your sets to flow. Learn the circle of fifths, and apply it during your set.
    – You need to know how to read an audience, tailor your set to the mood and learn how to set a mood when you can.
    – You need a good taste in tracks.
    – You need to know your equipment, and other equipment as well.
    But this debate is clearly just a pissing match between DJ’s and the producers. In the end, Did you rock the crowd? Will they come back and see you? Was it the best you can do? The audience doesn’t care if you are using CDJs, Controllers, an APC40 or just a computer running out of the headphone jack. They are there to dance and have fun, so regardless of how you DJ (and I mean DJ not a performing recording artist like Joel) its about moving the crowd and in the end. I do the kind of DJing I do for ME (on the fly remixing, looping, effecting), because waiting out a song to mix its tail end is freaking boring. Joel is fairly right, I press play at the start of my sets, but I follow that up by pressing another 70-100 buttons and turning dozens of knobs.

    • pure EDM

      You press play (or start) when using vinyl turntables as well. This is an interesting debate. DJs are making millions pressing play. I’m not mad, get that loot. However, top touring DJs are still beatmatching. And for DJs that have paid there dues, Carl Cox, Dubfire, Richie Hawtin, Tiesto, etc., all came from vinyl, I’m ok with them pressing play.

  • Thank goodness for DNA’s long comment filling in the gaps of this poorly written article that seems to babble on and come to no real conclusions. The saving grace is the discourse it has spurned here. And I applaud that. However, I think it is worth noting that whether a DJ or producer just presses play, or performs incredible feats of technological wizardry to create/control the music often doesn’t really matter too much in a megarave setting because electronic music is not “performed” (physically at least) in the same way a metal band performs. The sound is received by the crowd from large than life sound systems and supplemented by lazer lights and (for some) mind altering drugs. If we continue to compare electronic music performers to their analog counterparts, we will continue to be disappointed.