Syncing Drum Machines and Synthesizers With a DJ Set

Since the 90s DJs have been running analog synths and drum machines alongside their DJ sets but this concept is still alive and very relevant today. How did DJs keep external machines in sync with their set? Today Ean Golden shares 3 ways to sync up hardware like the Roland TR-8 in your set. Whether it’s with CDJs, Serato, Traktor, you’ll be able to sync up analogue/digital gear with your DJ set and have them sound good together.

There are 3 ways to sync up a drum machine to your DJ set. The first way is to treat the drum machine like a turntable and sync it up manually by increasing/decreasing the tempo until the drum machine is in sync. The second way is using a mixer that has beat detection and midi output (such as the Pioneer DJM 800 and DJM 900). The beat detection can detect the tempo from any channel on the mixer and than send the tempo through the midi output to sync the drum machine.

The last way to sync a drum machine is to have a midi signal sent from DJ software on the computer straight into the midi input of the drum machine. This will make the drum machine a midi slave to the DJ software and it will follow DJ software tempo. Both Traktor and Ableton can send the master clock via midi output.

1. Manual Sync – The Old School Way

Jeff MIlls playing his signature 909

Manually syncing a drum machine is the fastest way to get started, no midi clock or midi cable required. Simply match the tempo of the drum machine to the playing track and start the drum machine in time. With DJ software or CDJs, set the tempo of tracks to a whole value (ex. 123 BPM). This makes it easier to set the tempo on the drum machine.

If the drum machine falls out of time, use the fine tempo knob of the Roland TR-8 to increase/decrease the tempo until the drum machine is in sync. The downside to this method is the drum machine won’t automatically follow any tempo changes in the mix.

2. Using A Mixer With Midi Output And Beat Detection


With a mixer like the Pioneer DJM 800/900 the mixer is capable of auto detecting the beat of incoming audio on any of the mixer channels. If the mixer has a midi output then DJs can run a midi cable from the midi output to the midi input of the drum machine. Once it’s connected DJs can send a midi signal from the mixer to the drum machine to sync them up.

The disadvantage of the beat detection/midi sync method is that there’s no manual tempo adjustment. Anytime the tempo is changed the midi sync/clock will typically fall out of place and the only way to get them back in sync is to restart the midi clock. For the most control it’s  best to just sync the drum machine manually.

3. Sync To Midi Clock From DJ Software

Traktor Master Clock

For DJs that are using Traktor or Ableton they can send the midi clock to the the drum machine. With a controller like the Kontrol S4, DJs can run a midi cable from the midi out on the Kontrol S4/Traktor to the midi input of the drum machine. There are a couple things to setup to send the midi clock from Traktor.

  • Open Traktor’s Preferences —> Controller Manager
  • A generic midi mapping in the controller manager (Under Device –> Add –> Generic Midi)
  • Set “Out Port” to Kontrol S4
  • Turn on Traktor’s midi clock, if it’s connected properly the drum machine will start playing
  • If the play/pause button is disabled go to Preferences –> “Midi Clock” and click “Send Midi Clock”
  • If the two aren’t tightly in sync you may need to adjust the “Sending Offset”
  • If the sync falls out of time, DJs can always restart the midi clock to get them back in sync

That’s it! Adding a drum machine is a super fun way to incorporate dynamic loops and sequences into a DJ set. They can be used to add a heavier kick to a track that’s lacking in the low end, add percussion elements to tracks, or to create hi hat patterns to help bridge tracks together.

Using Drum Machines Live


Some people may be wondering how practical is this for a live set? Ean Golden recently returned from the CNTRL tour, and posted several mixes on his sound cloud page that heavily feature a drum machine running over the mix.

Here is one example, of the techno variety:

And a deeper set with several spots with only the drum machine:

Interested in supporting Ean’s DJ work? Please follow him on Facebook.

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