The Stage Principle: Telling a Story With Your Music

There are many plays that have only one or two actors, but the most dynamic often contain many characters – rotating in and out of the spotlight. Some of my personal favorite movies, like the film Magnolia, introduce new characters throughout the plot while managing to reintegrate and tie in the past roles. I propose that this can also make an amazing DJ set, and a very challenging way to use four decks creatively.


DJing with music is much like writing a play in real-time. You get to showcase different “characters” and bring them forward on stage one by one. Ideally, there is an extended moment when each character is on stage at the same time, interacting with each other in a unique and novel way before the one takes the spotlight fully. If you are really on your A-Game then the order of these characters and their relationship to each other creates a narrative. This is classic DJ story telling, albeit in a fairly basic way – ready to get Shakespearean?


With most modern DJ software we have the opportunity to play four characters at the same time, and even more if you consider remix decks. Can you imagine what a play would be like with four people at the front of stage, all reciting lines at the same time, each fighting for the spot light? Chaos!

The challenge is using your decks to tell a story where each of the characters supports each other in a fluid and compatible way. Effectively used, this should take the basic 2 character story line into the rich story landscape of themes, conflict and resolution.

The modern stage?


If you are like me at all, then having a system or formula to work off makes complex challenges like this much more digestible for the brain. Here’s one basic formula for how you can use four decks to introduce and manage a rotating cast of four characters (but written like a script) 

In my play, certain types of players are always relegated to specific areas of the stage:

  • Deck A – Front stage left, this is a spotlight and reserved for leading actors
  • Deck B – Front stage right, this is a spotlight and reserved for leading actors
  • Deck C – Back stage left, these position is reserved for themes
  • Deck D – Back stage right – this is reserved for supporting roles (almost like the backdrop)

The stage is empty, and the speakers silent. As a heavy curtain draws and the lights start to burn we hear the faint pulsing of a drum:

Supporting Character (a simple snare pattern) – Starts to loop in deck D, without any defining characteristics and just a steady groove, the rhythm is present but sits in the background.

Theme 1 (Latest Hit) – Is playing in Deck C but has a loop running so the feel is familiar but the character is not yet know. This establishes a theme, which we will keep running for a while. Since the track is looping, it’s not at the front of the stage telling the story but rather playing a supporting role right now.

Main Character 1 (Groovy But Minimal Jam) – Starts to blend in on DECK A. This is in a slightly different key as our theme and the 2 together create an interesting counter balance. We let Main character 2 play fully out, telling the story and creating movement in the composition.

At this point, Drum Track Donny is going steady in the background but might pop in and out to create tension. The theme continues to run but with effects like reverb and echo freeze it’s pushed forward and back in the scene. We want to tease that this character might show up full-time but not too much!

Main Character 2 (Bigger Track, Same Key As Theme) – We experience the tension of our theme and main character 1, and now as character 2 comes to the fore-front and 1 recess a harmony settles in providing sweet release.

Theme 1 > Main Character 3 (we copy the loop from C to A moving theme 1 into a starring role) At the right moment a loop is dropped on Main character 2 which takes it out of the spotlight. Now Theme 1 is allowed to play out fully and the audience hears its full story, moving the theme into a main role creating the resolution everyone has been waiting for!

All this time the supporting track has been consistent, providing continuity and a common thread. We could fade it out and reset the stage for the next cast of characters! For a truly compelling show, bring back these characters later on in the mix and weave them in and out of the story line to tell a larger tale.


To give you a sense of what this might sound like without the tutorial break down, we shot a longer mix sequence. None of this was planned or practiced, so don’t expect any crazy controllerism. You might notice how the same material created very different results in the tutorial or the example video. Because these mixes are always improved it’s very important to use your ears and listen to what the story want’s to tell. Each time loops will be dropped in various places, and different harmonies will emerge, just let them ride and embrace the good and the bad!

Want to try it out? Be sure to watch the video to the 7:00 mark to check out my challenge to see what you can create with this technique! 

charactersdj mixesdj techniquesfour deck mixingmixingmixing themesstage mixingstorytellingtelling a storytheme djing
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  • Frasier Linde

    Was there ever a winner?

  • lrq3000

    Of course music is just like storytelling, and the best original artists master this approach. Thank you for this enlightening article.

  • ClassOneCanines

    This article has beatufilly expressed the importance of the creative elements of Djing. I have attempted to explain this stuff to non-djs or rookies for years, unsuccessfully! EXCELLENT. The way you illustrate what you like to artistically with your live theatre analogy, and then how you translate it back into what you are doing on each deck simplifies and clarifies these techniques and artistic concepts perfectly!

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    […] The Creative Alternative: Pick a recognizable (but not overt) loop from the most popular tune and mix it in under a lesser-known track with the same key. You will get that “this DJ is amazing!” response your under-appreciated ego craves without completely giving it all away. Here’s a great example of the concept in action. […]

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    […] The Creative Alternative: Pick a recognizable (but not overt) loop from the most popular tune and mix it in under a lesser-known track with the same key. You will get that “this DJ is amazing!” response your under-appreciated ego craves without completely giving it all away. Here’s a great example of the concept in action. […]

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  • K-DUST

    Ean thanks! Made great use the principles this weekend at a show. Lots of fun and challenging at times; Using the S4 can be more hassle than it’s worth: filters deliver full bass very close to the 12 O’Clock position, it’s not linear and hard to control (you’ll hear it in the set). I’ll have to test the other filter options and see if there are better ones. The buttons for individual effect knobs on top are very small… make it hard to hit them while jumping up and down on stage… those platters are not only useless if you use proper beatgrids they are in the way, wish they would collapse like the seats in grandpa’s minivan.

    So here is the set, as recorded live, no touchups whatsoever, incl. complete track listing all feedback welcome cheers

  • O

    Im in the middle of Editing my entry at the moment. I have gotten a bit rusty when it comes to After Effects. I am masking the waveforms like in Ean’s video and getting the two video sources and audio to sync perfectly is taking quite a bit longer than I originally thought it would. Like a complete novice I forgot to clap before I started to make syncing easy. I just noticed Youtube does not allow video responses anymore and have not since around September ’13. How are we supposed to submit our video? I realise there is no physical prize but I thought it was a good excuse for me to get back into using AE and it might be a nice little promo video for my portfolio. Has anyone actually submitted an entry to the contest yet?

  • Guest

    Any suggestions on how to mix in the next 4 tracks?

  • Eurotrash

    Any suggestions on mixing in the next 4 tracks?

  • Eurotrash

    Any suggestions for mixing to the next batch of 4 tracks?

  • ATKO

    WOW ! watched this like 10 times now , amazing !!! Such a great groove!

  • Andrew Whistler

    Hi, nice video. I see you were using the A&H DB2 mixer, and I was wondering if you had any issues with the DB2 and traktor? I was thinking about getting the DB2 but other people seem to be having trouble with the sound card on the mixer, experiencing dropouts, latency, and in some cases not working with traktor at all! I understand it’s not traktor certified for scratch which is fine by me, I just want to use it like you did in the video! Did you use a traktor sound card to make it work? Or am I worrying about nothing.

  • Neetlejuice

    Ean, can you please give us an in depth look at how you have your x1’s mapped? Thanks bro.

  • rt13

    Can I still submit a video??

  • Randy Willard

    Hey Ean,
    great video! Helps change the way djs think and their song selection. Very informative! I think a something that could be added is some older techniques like tone play and word play (commonly tagged as being new but have been around since the old days of dj Swamp and dj Noize) that could work into this type of mixing. I think even though a lot of today’s “popular” music tends to be very light on words, it still is a cool mixing trick to move back and forth from songs/characters in the mix. In my experience I have gotten good responses from crowds and I feel that it shows more of the talent side of the dj when a lot of talented cats are getting bad names and categorized as “button pushers.”

    Keep up the good work brotha! Can’t wait for more!

  • Jason Hildreth

    This is my entry called “Feel Your Heart Beat Again”.

    Deck A- “Do It Again” -The Chemical Brothers
    Deck B- “Hard Beat” -Martin Solveig
    Deck C- “Merrymaking at My House” -Calvin Harris
    Deck D- “Night Falls” Booka Shade

    Hope you guys like it!!!

    • Dennis Parrott

      Nice work! Has a really nice groove…

  • scamo

    Nice. Coming back to catch up on the stuff here on DJTT and damn you Ean! This makes me want to stop my work with my other project and get back onto the decks. Ah, what a terrible feeling, because I’ve been neglecting my DJ hobby and this inspires me so much again to go mix some music.

    But, I think my other project is of greater importance. Getting back to work now.

    Thanks for the great vid and inspiration Ean!


  • trillokh

    how do you use 4 effects units at once….i have only two effects effects is there a way to do it …i have a traktor kontrol s4 should i have an additional x1 to use 4 effects units at once
    ???? it wud be great if could do dat?? anybody ideas on how to do it???

    • Stewe

      Look into preferences > effects and switch to 4 FX units.

  • trillokh

    this is amazing jus loved it completely

  • Lappen

    Ean! Why cant you upload your personal x1 mapping?

  • Göran Svensson

    Great vid Ean, does the Allen & Heath Xone:DB2 control Traktors faders+XF (4?) & filters internal? via midi Can you also use VST-filters with it?

  • Dennis Parrott

    This is a brilliant idea and a mighty nice mix… Kudos, Ean.

    Here’s a possible twist on the idea. It might be a bit riskier and “out there” but who knows where folks might go with it…

    Where your idea has “actors” moving on a stage, I would propose using the “stage” to contain parts of a sonic landscape. Use those parts of the stage to hold what you might hear in some stretch of time somewhere on the planet.

    Here is a where the idea comes from… Charles Ives was an American modernist composer (yes, classical…) who did something way out there with his 4th symphony. He had parts of the orchestra playing from off-stage, out in the lobby, down the hall, etc. Each of these parts represented what he was hearing in a city square; sounds from all over were mixing all together. Ives isn’t played much in concert (sadly) and the 4th is rare to hear. I was lucky to hear it when my Detroit Symphony played Carnegie earlier this year. If Leonard Slatkin hadn’t explained it first it would have been incomprehensible. The piece is very daring in trying to capture that soundscape.

    I’ve walked into places where they had more than one stage or band going at a time. Around Detroit there used to be clubs that had multiple DJs spinning all night long in different areas. Imagine being aurally assaulted by that! Now, could you mix that on your stage in a compelling way?

    I’ve been thinking about it and my ideas all seem to run toward very avant-garde, “found sound” sorts of things… Maybe somebody else will read this and come up with a great idea from it….

    Again, great stuff Ean. Please keep it up!

  • enorjy

    took some tips from the intructions but did my own thing. Hope ya dig it

  • thebigblaa

    Great Video Ean (as always).

    I noticed you’ve got three fields showing the key on the tracks.
    I suspect these are the result of Key detection from possibly different systems e.g. Traktor 2.6.1+ and Mixed in Key and maybe KeyFinder. Then again maybe you like to see the key in different formats 11a = Gbm = F#m. Is there some other reason why you’re now using three?

  • shugafoot

    You’re using just the four track decks in Traktor. I would imagine you could manage your “actors” and “themes” with Traktor’s remix decks which would give you even more to play with. That could get crazy!

  • ColorSound

    Great video Ean. This really helped. After watching the videos and reading this over a few times I had little difficulty using this technique with 4 tracks, and it’s definitely a lot of fun. Sort of opened my eyes to incorporating more layering in my mixes.

  • Victor Collado

    My Submission:

    Collision (Original Mix) – Hollen [Main Character 1]

    Kukatu (Original Mix) – Ivan Gough [Main Character 2]

    Metrum (Umek Remix) – Fedde Le Grand [Intro/Supporting Character/Outro]

    Boneless (Original Mix) – Steve Aoki, Chris Lake, Tujamo [Theme]

  • Poukav

    One Question :
    Are you using the EQ mode or filter mode on your XONE DB2 ? I have a little doubt.

    Nice video, let’s see what will follow !

  • Ryan Dejaegher

    YES! I’m so happy that Ean ditched the social media plan and is back to making awesome video’s. Video’s like this are worth a 1000 lol catz. Keep it up!

  • Conor B-K

    You should share your mappings! or sell them!

  • Fraa

    A little bit different, but also a little bit similar to what I did in the past when I was doing 3 decks techno sets on vinyl. I always had a very melodic tune on player 1, a heaver drum-based track on player 2 and something very detailed but light on player 3. Bringing them in and out of the mix created some very interesting mixes at the time, because usually people with three decks would do rapid mixing, sharp cuts, etc. I never really liked that, I always like long mixes with a lot of detail in to them. Really nice to see an article like this on here 🙂

  • mYo

    Love this.


    thanks a lot for this tutorial. have a listen to my take on this. enjoy:)

  • chris

    Telling a story.
    1) check the sphere
    2) check the basic vibe
    3) set the rythm
    and telling a story with an hysteric voice -scnr-

    @ean! nice work.

    • chris

  • Blends

    Check out DJ Z-Trip’s “Anti-War-Mix” if you want a real example of telling a story

    • Chaser720

      Think there was a video response requirement. But that’s totally up to you. ha

      • Will Powers

        Picking up my camera tomorrow, needed to be repaired xP
        probs just gonna make a dif one and video response that 😀

        • Chaser720

          More power to ya. I’m still working on the track selection on my first attempt.

  • DJDeckstar

    Hey DJTT/Ean, is there are cutoff date for entries?

  • Maybe I am being stupid?

    I noticed the on the mixer your EQ’s are past the 12 o clock position for the highs and mids at times. Is this normal? I have always been under the impression you never go past 12 you just subtract and I have been messing with tunes for about 6 or 7 years now although I have hardly ever left the bedroom. Can someone confirm if I am right? Have I been doing it wrong this whole time?

    • Ean Golden

      good question, and great job on noticing the details. That mixer allows you to switch the EQ’s over to Filters (which is amazing!) and so that’s why they are at extremes. Instead of 3 EQ’s I am using high pass, low pass, and band for each track.

      • O

        Thanks for getting back to me Ean, I thought I was going crazy for a moment in my sleep deprived state. I had no idea the DB4 could do that. Sounds like a brilliant feature. This article was a lovely surprise. Looking forward to getting the camera out after work and having a crack at it.

  • Mem Rx

    in a longer form mix, you have sets of characters, different acts, the odd red herring, and sometimes a monologue. the analogy is really perfect.

  • DJ_ForcedHand

    This is pretty much the way I play. Although I’ve added a drum machine into the mix (I guess that’s the Orchestra pit) and a Keyboard controller for sliders and such (I guess that’s the lighting and background?)

    Ean has certainly broken this paradigm with his Wii Guitar so yeah. I suppose a good night would alternate between this story-telling type and when things get dramatic, the fiddly-bits and master-timed drops seem appropriate.

    DJing 2.0?

  • Simone Pontiggia

    realy a good quality article!!!

    It’s funny that in Djing nobody told you how you can mix! So you start, look at your deck and think. . . Yeah but now what I’m exactly going to do??

    They told you that it depends on your creativity. . . that you won’t find in any place something!

    But it’s not true!! There are several way you can perform! And video like this open creativity!!

    Good work Djtechtools!!

  • nukage

    I thought the title of this post meant how to play a show with Your OWN music that you created. But I guess these pricipals apply to that too

  • Marco Becchi

    i’ve waited for a tut like this looong time, tnx ean my friend

  • Julien Delfosse

    I’ve always seen two radically different schools in controllerism:

    * people who do crazy s**t requiring an excellent rythmic sense and coordination (like cue juggling, dramatic effect build ups) pretty much in a way turntablits perform. I’ve always seen Ean Golden on this side of controllerism
    * people who have a more “polished” approach and use a lot of layering in their set. While technically less demanding, this is musically very involved. The most emblematic ambassador of that school would be…Richie Hawtin.

    The skills and the music are usually very different, I love both, but I’ve always felt these two approaches could benefit from each other.

    I truely love seeing Ean Golden exploring that second school and I can only imagine the results of merging the two schools in one set. Maybe in a future video?

    • Niels

      I do too, and I like the mix. Funky stuff. Kinda wish Hawtin would step a little out of his starship enterprise like setup though. I’ve seen the guy get caught up in this style of playing way too many times.

      I guess the danger is that the changes in the mix become so small and nuanced, the audience kind of loses track of what is happening. It’s more of a danger when you play straight techno i’d imagine. I saw Hawtin play a b2b set with Luciano the other day in Space and it just felt like he was playing the same endless track with the occasional bass drop every 3/4 minutes. Which was really weird to see, because he was playing 4 decks AND a Maschine for added drums (i was in the booth, so i got a glimpse of his setup). Now the guy fills up whatever venue just for showing up, so I guess he’s not to worried about it, but I’d advise DJ’s to engage with your audience. See if what you are doing on those 4 decks is translating to the floor. If it falls flat, resort to more linear mixing.

      I once saw 2 Many DJ’s play a set in Amsterdam where they teased the Seven Nation Army riff for like 4 seconds throughout the entire night, without ever playing the full song. Created a lot of tension. By the end of the set everybody was just begging for a release.

      • Matt Orozco

        I agree with you on the Hawtin observation. He tends to ride a theme and for those who are new to his sound or just not in the mood it can be a bit “boring” (for lack of a better term).

        • Jayson Joyce

          I agree “a little” I have watched Hawtin DJ for the last 20 years and his style evolved from the early techno sound of Detroit…We would go to parties and the DJ would build a story for 20 minutes before the beat would drop. No one complained at all, set the mood and took us to a different place before we danced. It was the forerunner to the “minimal techno” sound of today and I have to say that I’m fan of it sometimes but it is really a signature of the sub genre. The hundreds of people that packed Space that night came to hear minimal and he is the master…He breaks out into other stuff sometimes but complaining (I guess not really complaining but making an observation) about him playing minimal all night is like showing up to a Jay Z concert and wanting to hear a Pop track every third song. I’m not a huge minimal fan but that is the sound of the genre.. I wish promoters and clubs would be more careful in describing Techno..most of the time its too broad & confuses, Acid, Deep Techno, Hard Techno, and Minimal genres..and then people show up looking for one thing and getting another. Especially here in Miami. They rarely are played well together in one night because of the reasons mentioned above (some in the crowd are bored with Minimal, some jump around crazy when Hard plays, some don’t like the beeps & buzz with Acid, Deep techno is depressing & sounds like devil worship, lol etc), and the crowd expectations are totally different. Anyway, Ean’s mix was dope -hope the 4 deck / sync Dj’s use as an example of bettering the craft instead of throwing everything in the pot and hoping it comes out ok.

    • Ean Golden

      That’s a great observation. When I went on tour with Richie for the CNTRL tour, playing my traditional “controllerism” would have been in-appropriate for the techno crowds so I took that opportunity as a challenge to see if I could develop a new personal style of “gentle controllerism”. I wanted to find techniques that are very performance oriented without breaking the groove. It’s taken a year, but the elements are starting to come together nicely. I greatly appreciate all the positive feedback and encouragement. If you are interested in hearing what this sounds like for a full night check out this 2 hour mix from Ibiza!

      • Chaser720

        I was reading the article thinking “what the hell is he talking about” then the mix video at the end brought it all together. The screen panning/zooming on Get Lucky at the end was pretty epic btw.

      • djmatthewstar

        From one of the best deep house sets I’ve ever seen at the SAT in Montreal to an epic live dubstep interpretation of a Depeche Mode classic and every you tube video tutorial along the way… Thank you for sharing your passion and helping to inspire ours! Not sure if it was mentioned in the VIdeo but was there a length requirement and/or submission deadline for the contest?

    • Matt Orozco

      Well put!

  • Shizuka

    this article helped me tremendously! i would always feel as if there was too much during my sets and now i know how to balance it out!

  • tony corless

    Ean the biggest challenge I find with four decks and traktor is that you can only have one playlist open at a time. Any workrounds? Maybe ni could address this issue by allowing us to somehow view two playlists a the same time. This would make things much better as you would be able to have your main tracks in one playlist and accapellas and loops in another but still be able to view both lists at the same time.

    • Dennis Parrott

      i’m not getting this… why do you need a second/thrid/fourth playlist open at the same time? (I’m not hating… but i am really, really curious why you want it…)

      • tony corless

        The reason is so you keep your accapellas seperate from your other tunes. So your not constantly scrolling playlists or switching between playlists. If using 3 CDjs for example the third deck would be used for accas and your accapella CDs would be kept seperate from the rest of your music so it was easy to find things and more organised.

        • Ticey

          Isnt there a way to quickly go back and forth between favorite playlists? (I believe bij using the F1-12 buttons?) You could assing your acapella’s to say: F1 and your top 25 to F2 and so on…
          I imagine you could also map this to Midi. (I’m still exploring Traktor but I believe I’ve seen such a thing in a tutorial somewhere. The guy had two X1’s and of course had 4 browse encoders. He assigned every browse knob so it would browse in a predestined playlist… I’ve tried to find the video but I haven’t been able to. I’ll look for it and let you know:P

        • Dennis Parrott

          tony, thanks for explaining why you want this feature…

          i guess i never figured i would need to have all of those playlists open and in view. if i needed to separate things like you want i would have just toggled between the playlists (which i would have put in the “favorite slots” in the browser.

          i guess that i never saw a lot of need to have multiple playlists on the screen simultaneously.

          not saying i am right or that you are wrong… (we DJ so there is a good chance that we are both bonkers… LOL)

          on the other hand, as someone who built software for a living, i don’t think that it would be too big of a deal to separate the user interface elements (like playlists) from the engine that actually plays the music. (i would be surprised if the product wasn’t already separated to a large degree…) at that point it seems like you could make the playlist windows “tear away” from the rest of the interface and have more than one on screen. the big issue is where i would put those windows — you would have to have a second screen of some sort (which further takes us down the “that dork is just up there reading his email” rathole…).

          or maybe there is a role for that shiny ipad you have… perhaps that would make a nice second screen to control the playlists, prelisten and track loading functions???


  • Jared Singer

    Amazing article and video! Thanks!

  • uncletones

    Nice video!

  • David De Garie-Lamanque

    wow! that’s a really cool concept/technique!

  • Oddie O'Phyle

    i was using this concept with live loops in ableton about 5-6 years ago while i was going through my minimal phase. even when i am just playing from track to track, i believe that a flow should almost create a ballad. eg. trauriger sonntag into riva’s kill me now or steinberg’s can’t find my baby.

  • type_omega

    i know what im doing this weekend (besides gta 5)

  • Rutger Willems

    Where can i find the second vid?

    • Rutger Willems

      Oops sorry, it’s say’s to check back later in the vid

  • Ewan Collins

    challenge accepted

  • Hillary Bloch

    Thank you so much. Some may find traditional sonata forms also helpful, especially harmonically, if only as a convention to slice, dice and puree.