A great way to spice up your DJ sets is to add a drum pad or button controller. In today’s article, guest contributor Nadav Biran shares a few sources of inspiration for adding a drum pad to a DJ setup.
Why Use a Drum Pad?
After watching your favorite DJs perform, what do you feel? Often, a performance is compelling because the DJ carefully manipulates the atmosphere of the room and the audience. These skilled curators have dynamic sets, keeping the audience engaged by manipulating the sonic environment.
Instead of just pressing a button to trigger a loop or track, keen performers find ways to play and interact with the song. A drum pad will supply this energy. When you perform live, the audience gets an intimate breakdown of the DJs take on the song.
Also, a drum pad can be a utility device. Think bigger than a drum pad as being “a pad that plays drums.” The modern drum pad is a MIDI triggering tool. It is a programmable digital interface that enables you to do the impossible. Access song parameters, perform a bass line, incorporate some 808 beat action, trigger the next song to play… the possibilities are endless.
Common Drum Pad Setups
So every DJ is different. Individuals have preferences that range anywhere from “standard” to “eccentric.” To further explain, let’s ask a simple question… what is a drum pad?
Roland SPD-style Pad
For many, the drum pad is…well, a drum pad. Think along the lines of something like a Roland SPD pad. This is a straight forward drum pad. It has midi trigger mechanisms with a whole load of parameters and options.
Midi Fighter-style controller
Other people may use something like a arcade button controller. This MIDI controller is used for performance and utility functions. For traditional drummers, this might not be as natural feeling as something like the Roland, these types of controllers have a lot of advantages (more triggers, unique lighting, etc). They tend to be smaller and eccentric (perfect for many DJs).
Another controller that can be used as a drum pad is the Ableton Push. This is a powerful device that acts as a fully functional digital parameter interface and performance hub. Many pros use the Push (or similar controllers like Maschine) as the center of their DJ setup…kind of like a brain. They also might layer it against other DJ gear – like what Dubfire does – or this unique setup below:
Creative Ways To Use Pads Live
When programming a DJ set with live drum pad use, keep in mind that you need to perform. Many DJs curate a wonderful track…but it’s finished. Very little needs to be accomplished live for the track to work.
The drum pad brings life to a room – making performance the central element in a set. We put together some creative and useful ways of incorporating drum pads below:
Performance or Instrument Substitution
This is a common production technique. Hitting the mute button is one of the best ways to find what is actually appropriate and what can be embellished.
Once you’re done with the full track, mute the drums. Now see if there’s any way you can perform these live! You don’t have to play drums the entire track mind you, but maybe reserve the first half of a verse in your set to play the drum part.
This is a good example of tangibly performing a set with drums. When watching the video, listen to what is being played with your eyes closed. Sounds like a standard set. However, when you see what is actually happening, the performance pulls you in.
Show Off Your Chops
Go about your normal performance, but add in a breakdown! Maybe throw in a new bridge or tag to spotlight a performance moment. This is where you can show off some live performance chops.
Even if you stay within the realm of drum sequencing for the most part, or if you are more comfortable performing polyphonic/melodic areas of your set, you can always add a drum pad to keep things interesting.
Develop a live performance attitude and bring performance to the forefront in your sets. This may be different than what you’re used to, but the payoff could be worth it. Make it a habit of always recording and looping drums live. Some programs will naturally quantize what you play, so you don’t have to worry about too many egregious errors.
When you play your set as if you were simply a musician – and not just as a DJ – the music becomes more captivating and fun to watch.
Play with Dynamics
Using a drum pad for layering is a great way to retain the foundation of a set while adding an interesting and variable dynamic range. JNTHN STEIN incorporates this technique often. He layers drum hits on top of pulsing synth waves to add punchiness and zest to his tracks.
Beats can be layered on top of chord changes or melodies. When performing, a drum pad can be used to emphasize the intricacies of the track, and it will keep you busy and moving – letting you further engage the audience and the track.
Proper Setup Incorporation
To set up your pad, you need to start with the brain of your performance. For many, this is software. DAWs and DJ programs allow you to assign the drum pad interface to digital elements. If you’re using a pad as a live performance instrument, start by assigning the pad to control drum samples.
These samples can be recorded and looped live, or they can be simply played. Now, if you are using a more sophisticated drum pad, you can program it to not only act as a trigger and sequencer, but as a song navigation tool. With the touch of a button, you can enter into the track’s chorus, or you could even switch to the next song in your set.
Just remember that when setting up your pad, find where it belongs. Sophisticated pads will be at the center of your rig, and plain old instrument pads sit on the side as an instrument or basic trigger.
More than anything, the music is what is most important. Adding a drum pad shouldn’t be a burden – it should help bring your music to the forefront! Adding live aspects to a DJ performance can take a set to the next level. Try incorporating some of these suggestions, find where you need to grow as a DJ, and get after it!