Value-Added Mixing: When To DJ More and When To Do Less

With the emergence of Sync, the DJs workload dropped by at least 50% – freeing up a lot of time to do other things. “Great!” everyone exclaims, “That means DJs can do other more valuable things!” Well what are those things? At times, digital DJs seem to feel the need to do a lot of things when sometimes less is more. Here are 5 examples of ways DJs can add value, and 5 ways they could end up taking it away.

TAKE AWAY

Here are just five of the ways in which digital DJs try to do more, but end up taking away from the mix. Remember, just because you can do something does not mean you should!

Over-Complicate The Mix


With sync and hyper-accurate tempo tracking, it is now very easy to create endless mixes that never float or fall out of time. Just because you can mix two tracks for 4 minutes does not mean its a good idea. Often mixing for too long can confuse the audience and actually not let the music work on its own.

Tip: Sometimes the very best mix is to blend at the end. Letting the energy come down and back up again between mixes can be a good thing. Try checking out my classic DJTT video on five simple ways to mix tracks together.

Interrupt The Flow


I have to plead guilty on this one, having only discovered it after listening back to my live shows. Beat repeat (or Beatmasher in Traktor-land) is a lot of fun, but on stage it can really throw off the dancers!

Tip: Beatmasher can be used more subtly in the following way: Reduce wet dry to 50% and use the Beatmasher on a backing loop or acapella – not the main rhythmic song.

End The Track Too Early


This one also goes out to me and my fellow ADHD DJs. Digital DJing means we can mix songs at warp speed, blowing through tracks in seconds without breaking a sweat! The problem is, your musical tolerance for tracks is much lower than the audience because they have not heard the song 100 times yet.

Tip: Let the song play out longer than you would want and give the dancers a chance to find the groove.

Over-Sample


With sample decks, remix sets, and cue points at the ready – arcade button-armed DJs can’t help but trigger everything in sight! You might call this condition “Air Horn” Syndrome, which is fairly self-explanatory. No, air horns on every track does not make the mix better.

Tip: Less is more! A single very well-placed sample can be magical – like the Zelda samples in Rustie’s Essential Mix!

Add Too Many Layers


With four decks and remix decks it’s possible to layer many things on top of each other. The challenge is this: without compression, great EQ, and proper stems this all quickly becomes way too much audio information to decipher. The end result is almost always master clipping and sonic mud. Just because we can mix 2500 parts together concurrently does not make it a good idea.

Tip: The low end is the frequency spectrum with little room for new visitors. Think of it like a small bathroom – someone has to leave before another person can use the loo. Unless you are using true stems or stripped down parts, it’s generally advisable to not have multiple kicks playing together because they can cancel each other out.

ADD VALUE 

Bridge the Mix

When many DJs see four decks, they think of four songs, but it’s rarely the case that four songs will actually work well together. Instead, think about using those extra decks as auxiliary drummers that can continually play over your entire mix, creating continuity and a common bridge between songs. This will really help build out those dull moments between mixes and give the entire session a consistent feel.

Try using: congas, high hats, rides, mid or high range rhythmic material.

Avoid: Repetitious short loops and full drum tracks with kicks and low end.

A real example: Richie Hawtin is one of the best in the world at this technique. He uses four decks constantly along with Maschine (via Ableton Live) on top to create a very steady, even groove.

Richie Hawtin – Live @ Minus Showcase, Culture Box (Copenhagen) – 24.08.2013 by Livesets.At on Mixcloud

Dive in Deeper:  Try combining traktor with Ableton or  learn to use Traktor’s Remix Decks this way 

Provide New Context


A DJ’s greatest value add is to recontextualize music in real time, providing a fresh experience on something your audience already knows. That’s something a producer can’t do, and will always pay rich dividends. The nuts and bolts of this is finding harmonically-compatible mixes that compliment each other and create something new and fresh from the combination. These are short, exciting moments where two songs become one together.

Advice: Good to plan these things in advance and always know when the best drop point is.

Try using: Breakdowns are the best opportunity to pop in a complimentary track.

Avoid: Trying to pull off a 3-minute mashup between two tracks. This usually ends up in muddy sounds and is best done in the studio.

Here is a real example: Listen in at 22:30 when I drop a classic house track. This is the full song and it compliments the newer booty track really nicely. Add a few beat-repeat filters and you have a instant money remix that plays differently every time.

Dive In Deeper: Explore mixing songs at various tempos.

Dynamic Remix


With a few cue points, some effects, and a little musical dexterity, you can take almost any sound source and turn your decks into endless musical expression. By sprinkling a little sugar on the mix, you can make the entire thing sound much sweeter. This is particularly nice when the instruments play a bridge between songs providing musical tension and release. Be careful though! Endless noodling and jamming will end up making things just as sour.

Try using: Quantize to make sure the down beats are always spot on.

Avoid: Extended freestyle cue point juggles – unless your timing is really good.

Here is a real example: listen in @ 16:41 when a pulsing synth pattern comes in. This is me playing cue points and then sampling/twisting them in real time. The real payoff comes when that same pattern resolves to the key of the next track producing an amazing feeling every time.

Want to know how I created those amazing beat repeat pattern trails? The new “Ean Golden” Cue Master mapping.

Dive In Deeper: Explore playing cue points as instruments.

Raise The Energy


By understanding your song’s keys and keeping good tabs on them in the browser, you can strategically build mixes that increase the energy harmonically. As a general rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to move up the circle of fifths (and not down) to keep the energy up – but this is an entire world of research on its own.

Try using: Go up 3 steps in the camelot scale – from 3A to 6A as this provides a nice lift!

Avoid: Only mixing by key – sometimes key detection is wrong, and all keyed mixes can tend to get a little flat.

Another real example: Listen what happens from 28:00  – 32:00 as I move up 3 steps in the key and from a very deep song to a lighter mood. This style of mixing provides much needed dynamics in a world of “turn it to 11!”

Dive In Deeper: Read this article on mixing in key and how to get more out of harmonic mixing.

Create A Build-Up / Add Drama


A producer can’t tell in advance when a crowd is starting to get bored, but you can! The DJ can add a lot of value by introducing build-ups and tension when needed in real time. Digital DJ effects on both mixers and in software are a god-send in this department, with everything being time locked, and able to chained up in many interesting ways.

Try Using: Instead of beatmashers, creative delays and reverbs often provide the best lift while not losing the groove.

Avoid: Really big delays and reverbs (and effects in general) like the T3 reverb easily become too loud and overload the channels so be careful with them.

One more real example: Check out 11:00 of this mix where I use a beat masher (but only on a backing track – not the main track) and combine it with a reverb for a clean build.

Dive In Deeper: Watch this video on advanced effects combos in Traktor (applicable to all software!).

The Bottom Line  

My one major piece of advice here (and personal challenge) is to excersise constant DJ restraint. The great horn player Miles Davis, a man who had every right to play a lot of notes, is famous for saying something along the lines of “it’s not about the notes themselves but the space between.” With digital tools, we feel the need and have the ability to do so many things, but very few of them add real value.

Exercise restraint, let the music play, and add things when the mix really needs it – not just when you get bored.

Ean Golden - Author

Ean Golden is the founder of DJ TechTools and a worldwide DJ specializing in controllers and new performance technology.

Follow Ean on: Twitter  Facebook   SoundCloud   YouTube 

  • Bc8410

    A technique I like to use for creating buildups that works really well if your outgoing track has no breakdown/early breakdown/you missed the breakdown while fending off a requester:

    1. Set your loop on the incoming track and get it beatmatched. Channel fader at 0, EQ knobs at 12:00.
    2. Wait for the end of a phrase in the outgoing track.
    3. Cut the bass on the outgoing track on the first beat of the new phrase.
    4. Slowly introduce a bit of echo or reverb on outgoing track.
    5. Slowly introduce some delay on outgoing track.
    6. From here you can play a little, I like to increase both reverb and delay simultaneously but with the delay a little behind the reverb (i.e. echo is at 9:00 while delay is at 7:00).
    7. By this point you should have a good bit of echo (but not too much–be careful!) and your delays will be all over the place, building some serious tension–don’t forget to count your bars!
    8. When the time is right (not necessarily at the end of the phrase, but it’s an easy way to keep from getting lost), slam in track 2 while slamming out track 1. Make sure you kill the loop so the new track starts playing!

    The slam in to track 2 creates a manufactured beat drop to your manufactured buildup. By using the echo effect and killing the channel fader you get a nice 2 second or so overlap of the echo as the new track kicks in for continuity. This technique obviously won’t work for all songs/transitions, but it is fun to do and has a great effect when you nail it. In addition to the situations I mentioned above, it is also great for mixing into a track that is not in key, but compliments the outgoing track in vibe and energy.

  • Pingback: Why Every DJ (Even Big Names) Need Spontaneity In Their Sets | NUTesla | The Informant()

  • thejone

    finally got around to reading this! 100% agree, and the part about the Air Horn made me LOL pretty darn hard =)

  • Anonymous

    Great stuff. Coming from vinyl I understand how easy it is to get bored and keep dropping in tracks all the time and tweaking effects. As a studio synth tweaker it’s quite hard to leave things alone sometimes!

  • I love the article. Important points were discussed. This is going to be useful for beginners like my brother. He really wants to make DJ-ing as a career. I’m sharing this article with him.

    http://www.soundops.com/

  • i learned something valuable when i first started DJ from the oddest of all sources.. A homeless man outside of a pizza shop in downtown san diego. when i first started DJ’ing i was all about playing the hottest track after hottest track after hottest track until i was out of them.

    When me and my buddies got a slice of pizza, the shop was about to close so we ate our slices out on the curb like everybody else was doing. i went to go give this homeless man a couple bucks cause he was drumming away on an overturned bucket. in my drunken stupidness i started talking to him and sat close by to him. that’s when i noticed he would only really drum away when new people would walk by because the people would think he was really good.. when there weren’t many people walking by, he wouldn’t drum as much and tone it down.

    translate that into DJ’ing now. i think we can all agree on if you can get the women to dance, then the guys will follow and everybody will be dancing. when you see a group of girls walk in, let them get their drinks, play some ke$ha, katy perry, lady gaga shit and they will more than likely dance.. rinse and repeat until you can’t keep up with the people coming in the door.

  • Dope article!!

  • Adamhowey

    Where is a good place to find the bridging beats suggested in – Bridge the mix “Try using: congas, high hats, rides, mid or high range rhythmic material.”?

  • “No, air horns on every track does not make the mix better.” Should be told to DJ at Glam’s in Lorient (fr)…

  • DJ Nova

    Great article. Found myself guilty on quite a few of your points. But then, that is how we learn. Try, listen, edit, repeat.

  • celtic-dj

    very good read…having a mix for examples is very good…cheers

  • idiot

    laptop djs suck. Go Laidback Luke!

  • p12

    laughed my ass off on the airhorn part… great article! =)

  • I’m loving your last couple of articles. Keep ’em coming.

  • Agentdownbeat

    good stuff. I can dig it! Now here a link to my mix for a shameless plug. Psych 😛

  • Great stuff. One trick I use with sample decks is to turn the bass down on that deck. This gives the bass of the actual track your playing room to breathe.

  • “No, air horns on every track does not make the mix better.”
    DJ PAULY D WHERE ARE YOU?!

  • another great article Ean.

    Thank you.

  • Very well said, Ean… One of the best articles I’ve read on here lately.

    In today’s world of quantization, sync, feature-laden software and comprehensive hardware, it’s easy to want to cram as much trickery into a set as you can. I think that part of the problem is that today’s DJ struggles with wanting to feel “legitimate”, being that software does a lot of the work for them.

    Since the barrier of entry (both skill and price-wise) has been drastically reduced, a lot of DJs react by trying to stand out in any way that they can. While I understand this reaction, it’s a bit ironic when you think about it. A lot of DJs (especially newer ones) think, “How can I get this crowd to think I’m awesome” instead of “How can I help these people have an awesome night?” The latter leads to the former. Focus on how you can provide value to your audience (and venue owners!), and everyone is that much better for it.

    I talk quite about about subtlety, restraint, and the big picture on my own blog. (For example: http://www.passionatedj.com/four-easy-ways-to-be-a-mediocre-dj/ ) I think this sort of thing is quite lacking during this whole North American EDM bubble. But it’s the DJs who understand the cases in which “less is more” applies that will shine through the fads and trickery, and be able to be called “good DJs”.

  • Excellent!

  • shantanu

    yeah, it’s a great article and i do really go through some of those problems sometime. thanks

  • Since digital djing made it’s entrance a generation of ADHD dj’s have runied dancefloors, too much fx, too much mash ups and too little music programming. It’s goo to see that you point it out.

  • Dual Citizen

    For advancing digital DJing and generously sharing the knowledge to empower the global community of DJs, thank you!!!!

  • BERNUS

    You just got it right

  • pepehouse

    Those of you that needed this article to know what it talks about are not actually playing regularly in front of an audience or have never do it. Period.

    Almost NOBODY uses 4 decks at a club or even in a bar neither effects or sample decks or other “next level” or “live remixing” shit (and if you visit some clubs or bars at the weekend you already know that) at all in a live DJ set for the following reasons :

    -They are too busy (with sync or without it) trying to keep the crowd on the dancefloor to worry about doing complicated martial arts with the music that if they do well and properly anyone that is not seeing what you actually are doing will notice, yes, it even doesn’t pay off.

    -Loops, stems and everything that is not a full song or track that actually tells something bores, annoys and makes most people leave the dancefloor or even the place, sorry guys but what still works in club it’s one song after another whatever NI or Ableton say.

    -When you are really djing you want the less hassle as possible to do your job cause you are afraid that something goes wrong or you press the wrong button screwing your night in front of the crowd and what it’s probably worse: in front of the boss that pays you.

    I could tell you a few more reasons but it’s late and I’m going to sleep, just thank me for those I put here cause if you believe and apply them, I have give you an important lesson today and you’ll avoid wasting a lot of time and headache practising at home what you never could do in a club or bar anyway and save a lot of money and energy in what I call THE GREAT DJ SWINDLE (Yeah, I adapted it from the punk film because the history repeats) aka (they sell you all kind of unnecessary and useless stuff but never give you the actual gigs which is what djing is really about) djing without an audience is fucking boring, just ask yourself: why do you think that this “DJ” blogs are so popular? Why we are not playing and listening to music instead of lurking here?

    Because playing at home is like wanking it’s not the real thing, it works for a bit but sooner or later you need a girl 🙂

    Do you think that pro DJs or even guys that play regularly in whatever place have or waste time reading this stuff? Do you think they actually care?)

    • Edward Ronalds

      TL;DR

      Try making it one paragraph so you can keep a captive audience. Hopefully this doesn’t reflect your long drawn out mixes and superfluous song choices.

      • Ronald Edwards

        I look forward to catching one of your single-track mixes sometime soon.

    • Deksel

      hahaha,

      Why does this offend you so bad?
      Oh btw, did n’t read your elaborate piece of literature all the way through. Would you care to summarize?

      • pepehouse

        It offends me only and exclusively because I have to live in the same planet as you, nothing personal really. PD: It’s not literature, it’s opinion, back to school?

    • pepehouse

      Truth hurts, doesn’t it? 🙂

      • RodrigoX

        Sorry man … I see lots of good DJs mixing 4Decks nowadays … I dont know what kind of club u attend to … I would strongly advise u to open your mind … u are really talking bullshit and sounding jealously.

        BTW, djing its a art, (isnt it anymore?), and all kind of arts has diferent ways of expression.

        Ps..: I mix almost only techno, with 2 decks, only vinyl (not timecode, but vinyl in deed), but I do aprecciate people with the skill to mix in 4 decks doing a nice job.

        Peace, and good lucky opening your mind.

        • pepehouse

          You mix only techno, vinyl only, with two decks and I need to open my mind? hahaha!…I’ll tell you a secret: sometimes I throw an acapella or some spoken word or even a good hook loop in the mix using a third deck but don’t tell anybody please….I don’t want that they think I’m open minded 🙂

          • aluknot

            @pepehouse

            Seriously, which type of drugs you are using?

        • Philip Sires

          now 4 years later everyone is trying to dj on 3 to 4. burn

    • lauti

      Shit man, well said. I’m with you 100%, except for the harsh words towards these blogs, cause there’s some useful info around them. But you’re right onspot.

      real live djing is about making people dance, and people dance to songs, not samples or 5 minutes of scratching.

      and yes, these companies (which make good products) are forcing it too hard on “THE NEXT LEVEL OF PERFORMANCE” adding stuff that you eventually never really use

    • passerby

      Agreed.. and well said. But useful article for some i guess. Didn’t want to comment but scrolled back to the top of this page and saw “Traktor DJ Comes To iPhone” … amusing anyway 😉

    • cath

      It’s apparent you do not have enough experience in the dj circuit. Yes there are many dj’s that do not involve themselves in performance dj’ing….but there are many that do (heny saiz comes to mind…saw him on saturday at he spent literally the entire set doing the things you have mentioned not to do…annd the dancefloor loved it!) The art of dj’ing is completely subjective, just because you do not like a particular method does not mean it is not a valid route.

      • pepehouse

        Yeah, of course, I based all my words on assumptions, sorry about it and thanks for let me know that there’s at least one DJ that is doing the “next level thing”, experienced people like you have to show the path to beginners like me, many thanks.

    • Rob Burns

      In most clubs where people really just want to hear a radio top 40 playlist this is true but for real live shows the audience apreciates something authentic and original. The “djs” who can really pull off a good live show are actually producers and have developed a workflow and ears to actually remix and create work in real time and it truly becomes art rather than just playing someone else’s songs in a sequential order. Fact is most club djs are too lazy to develop the skill required to do this ans dont really have to because most club goers expect the generic.

    • BadData

      There are lots of ways of djing and lots of kinds of djing! Not everyone has to worry about keeping a dance floor lit up all the time. I’ve seen some *awesome* live pa style dj’ing of the kind your speaking against, and I loved it. No it wasn’t danceable, and I’m sure the guy would never get booked at a big club. But I was impressed, and this guy’s craft reached me. That’s worthwhile.

      My #1 favorite live electronic artist is Jeremy Ellis. I also love Mad Zach… You seem to be saying what they do isn’t worthwhile? Seems a bit narrow minded, no?

      Not everyone is trying to be a club dj and please the boss of a club… some of us want to try exploring the many possibilities dj’ing has to offer, and both are all good 🙂

      And pro djs do get into this stuff sometimes, it can help to differentiate them… check out Bass Kleph rockin the finger drumming https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YYHC60xZq54

  • This is the caliber of article I really hope DJTT holds as it’s gold standard. There’s a lot of useful, practical information here and because it’s not only discussed, but shown it adds real value to anyone learning how to DJ.

  • Great article Ean, just so you know a 3 step jump on the Camelot Wheel usually doesn’t work out too well. I use this “advanced” Camelot Wheel which opens up a ton of possibilities http://imgur.com/KYw9IBE

  • Dynamic remixes and raising more energy is where its at for me. Great article. Thanks!

  • Anonymous

    Yep less is definitely more. I have no interest in trying to do a guitar solo with my sample pads or a three song mash-up with one eye closed and one hand behind my back. I just like to mix (add a small dash of effects) relax and enjoy.

  • DJ Gerard

    YES 🙂 There is a difference between a DJ skills talent show and DJing as a service

  • Anonymous

    First rate article Ean with so many good points and examples to consider and utilize when DJ. The “…less is more…” approach can be used in lots of other disciplines in life to and reminded me about what an architect once said about big houses; “Big doesn’t mean better, it typically mean more of something that is already bad”.

  • Superb advice for newcomers and a great reminder of the big pic for us veterans!! Always a pleasure Ean!!

  • I have to say running a maschine via one of the live input decks on traktor has helped me do a bunch of these things such as bridge the mix, create drama/energy, provide new context. Great way to keep things on a more live tip too.

  • The time freed up by digital DJing is the biggest benefit it offers over traditional DJing IMO. So it’s good to see an article covering how to take advantage of it.

  • jerville

    great article ean. Thanks for the tips and advice 🙂

  • Ean, gotta hand it to ya, this is the best article I’ve read on Digital DJ’ing. Cheers!

  • Great article, and a topic which is always worth repeating! I like the clips, it also reminds us to RECORD EVERYTHING we do, and LISTEN to it objectively afterwards.

    • Dan White

      Absolutely turn on record every time you mix and then find time to listen to it. I often find mistakes I made sound no where near as bad as they did when playing, but also have similar realizations to Ean’s of over-doing certain techniques to the point where they take away from the mix.

      • Great article! With regard to recording the set. I see that I get small waveforms. Any thoughts on increasing wave form size?

        • Dan White

          You mean small waveforms in recording, like they’re too quiet? Turn up the gain!

          • CHAS3R

            Software gain or hardware gain? I’ve always kept the software at 0.0 dB and tend to end up increasing the whole mix later in Audacity.

  • Taylor

    This was great; it’s always good to step back and get back to basics. You can get so bored and lack innovation when you play the same nights in your city every week where the crowd knows you and your style but when you go to another club/festival and no=one is prepared for you, you need to be able to ease off the throttle and take a look at your mixes from a subjective standpoint… “would I be able to dance to this easily?”, “does this work well building the energy or am I just playing what I want to play?”

    Keep them coming Ean, love all your guys work!

    PS. Just got my midifighter spectra; rocking it down here in Melbourne Aus!

  • <—-here i put aside my midifighter and F1 and just had Fun with the basics…practicing to learn what works and what doesnt…so i wont do it live

  • Rooshdy

    A good useful article at last! I used 2 1210’s for years and this does limit your layers and sampling ability, not a bad thing. Even when I added Pioneers EFX500 to the set up it was possible to do to much. Less IS more. I really love using my Akai LPD8 with traktor as I find the velocity pads very sensitive and when paired with some nifty macro’s, you can add flashes, space, swoops, even drumrolls as much or as little as you feel. To date the most intuitive set up I have incorperated for FX. I know my X1 does MIDI mode, but does not look or feel like a blank canvas, like the LPD8. You dont have to map everything, just a few tools is best. Why? Cos it is near impossible to remember all the mappings. 1 or 2 useful pages mapped is enough for most DJ’s in Traktor. Hotcues? Yes and no, I only use them to speed along a track, eg turn a long version into an edit to keep the energy high in the mix.

  • Anonymous

    Common sense tips that always need repeating. Thanks Ean, especially for the examples that make the tips even more understandable.

    scamo

  • steve

    Not impressed Ean, seems like a clip show or something.

  • benr

    Thanks for this, I was thinking of this problem right before I jumped on!