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

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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Comments (55)
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  • Nic Martel

    Hey Ean & everyone – i know this post is yrs old but hope someone can assist.
    I’m wanting to add a Novation Circuit to my setup. My mixer (Nov. Twitch) does not have midi out.
    How can i push traktor’s midi to the circuit easily? Do i just need a usb to midi cable and set something in traktor? Thanks!

  • Iwan

    OK, so I have use Serato and a pioneer controller… how do I connect a tr-09 ?

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  • Eva Odland

    It is odd that most all DJ Mixers lack a MIDI Clock that can be locked and overrides any beat detectors on board and be user controlled via a knob. I suppose it is assumed that a DJ Mixer is going to have some sort of player (CD, Turntable, iPad, Laptop) and the mixer needs to react to the incoming BPM. My setup is more about live mixing an Electribe SX with a Synth and Effects processor and preforming the music on the fly. the Behringer DDM4000 is the only mixer I found that comes close to doing that and was still affordable. It has issues but for my rig it works. The biggest drawback to having this mixer control the clock is if you bump any one of 8 buttons you will hand over BPM control from the MIDI Clock to one of the two beat counters that can totally screw up the sync of on the fly recorded samples on the KP3. The recorded loops on the KP3 are dead on as long as the tempo doesn’t change too dramatically. But sometimes hitting one of those buttons causes a beat counter to become assigned to an effects processor or the mixer’s on board sampler and then it all turns to shit. Making sure to assign the MIDI Clock to the beat counters is done by holding both ADJUST buttons down until the correct BPM shows up in the Effects display windows. I have tried to have the DDM4000 be a slave to the Electribe’s clock but unfortunately it doesn’t accept MIDI Clock only sends it and the Beat Matching is too sketchy either by an auto counter or manually. So DDM is in control. The problem with being isolated to a single brand of mixer is then you have to hump the mixer with you to gigs instead of just hooking your synth/KP3 combo and Electribe up. I think all mixers should have MIDI Clock out feature on them. I haven’t tried a DJM-800 yet but from what I read in the manuals this should be able to send clock to external devices.

  • Fayek Helmi

    here’s a question that came up as soon as a started to experiment with layering a drum machine on top of a dj set that now that i think about it, i’m surprised it doesn’t get equally covered in these “add a drum machine to your set” articles:

    How would one go about layering the drum machine on top of the set?
    To be more specific, i’m talking about the frequencies, let’s say i love jamming on a drum machine and i do that for my own productions where i build a melody without the drums and play the drums on top of it. but when you DJ most songs will already their full spectrum drums intertwined with the rest… (except if you want to go the stems way, but as of writing this, stems has literally just came out a few days ago and most DJs already ahve an entire set list of non stems files)

    Like, im guessing #1 tip would be forget about the kicks right? i mean most songs nowadays have a pretty heafty kick too and putting another one on top of that would just be too much, and as for snares and hats and stuff, trying to cut out the frequencies top shine your own sounds will cut too much of the melodic frequencies too and make the set sound weird i find….

    anyways would love to hear about people’s own ways of doing this…. maybe it’s just as simple as, fuck it layer that shit. blow dem speakers out!

  • Birdman Munsen

    hi 🙂 so ive tried this manually, which just seems unreliable to stay locked in. Even using the fine knob it doesnt really sync………am i just shit or am i missing something?

    advice please would be awesome

    • Groovegsus

      Same here , on my windows PC it really don’t work good , but when i test on my mac it is perfect….. any idea why ???? Is it a way to have a good midi sync on windows ? i tryed using my audio 10 or my s4 Mk2 and it is absolutely not in sync , when i use the same gear on osx it sync really good… I use my macbook to perform live but i would like to practice it on my windows PC at home.

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  • Christiaan Gombert

    Dear DJTT and other people,

    I tried syncing Traktor on my windows PC with my Roland TR-8. Sadly the sound of the PC lags behind. Although the clock BPM over midi is pretty accurate, it comes in to late. The music from Traktor lags somewhere around 20-50ms behind.

    When i shift the timing of the deck just a little bit ahead of the master tempo in Traktor, the sound is flawless. But using this method for every song is a impractical solution.

    I tried using the PC as master clock as well as the TR-8 as master clock. In both cases i get the same result. Giving the clock a offset in Traktor makes the difference in milliseconds even bigger.

    Is there a way to solve this? Can i somehow give the Traktor clock a negative offset?

    Greetings, Christiaan

  • Trevor

    This is pretty cool. I would like to start incorporating my Akai XR-20 and my APC-20 into my sets.

  • djtetsuo.

    I have been trying to find information about this.
    This article got so close to solve my problem but not yet.
    But here’s my problem…
    I have 2 CDJ 2000 NXS and DJM 900 NXS.
    I love my CDJs and I love traktor.
    But I absolutely can’t stand HID mode for my CDJs.
    I was interested in getting a pair of Kontrol D2s that just recently came out, BC I want to use the sample packs and stems format.
    But I want to be able to mix both traktor remix decks & my CDJs (running songs off of a flash drive w/rekordbox) together and in sync.
    Is there a way to do that? I can’t find any articles online to help with this problem.

  • Tim L

    So I bought the new TR8 to incorporate it into my DJ setup. At present I’m running Traktor on my MacBook Pro into the DB4 via USB. I also have a powered USB hub plugged into my Mac. The hub is used to run Two X1 Kontrols, One F1 Kontrol and one LPD8. Now I want to hook up the TR8 and when I try and hook everything up using the Audio 8 DJ, nothing works. The soundcard tells me Software Lock. Is it because the DB4 isn’t Traktor Certified? Is there a way I can do this? I want to be able to run my Mac andTraktor through the Audio 8 into the DB4. I want to use the MIDI Out on the Audio 8 into the MIDI In on the TR8 and hopefully things would be synced up. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

  • zzzuperfly

    heyEan stay out of traktor reds 🙂

    • zzzuperfly

      i tried to do that third option with traktor -> ableton with loopbe and traktor midi out but ableton was incapable to handle tempo changes – it just sucked. After that I realized the old school way using my vestax platters to sync up was way easier.

  • Hibou Blaster

    For our first synced sets we used the laptop clocks, with one set to slave and the other to master, mostly with ableton but also with traktor, but this method was really unaccurate. The tempo was always moving and changing, and everything ended up being out of sync.

    The easy way is to use a piece of hardware able to provide a consistent and reliable midi-tempo. I find that the older models of MPC are really useful in this way, because they do have a lot of midi outputs (at least two on my MPC2000XL).

    Anyways we are all settled with a tight midi-clock we bought from Germany called the ERM Midi-clock, fantastic tiny box thay I would recommend to anyone having midi-sync needs!


  • Matt

    Great article. On #3, in my personal experience it is generally better to use the external drum machine as the sync source, rather than the laptop. This does limit your ability to mix tempos somewhat but it is WAY more stable. If your laptop chokes for a quick second it is easy for the clock to fall off.

    Another thing you can do is get a midi thru splitter (i have one of these so you can use the same clock source for a grip of devices. Fun for the whole family!

  • CUSP

    If you’re going to play drums during your live set, it will take a while to learn how to appropriately fit it in. If you don’t already know how to play fills, that will take more time.

    My suggestion is to start off with light use (in usual fill and transition places) and building your repertoire from there. It’s very easy to overdue it, so be conservative.

  • Oddie O'Phyle

    I have always been of the mind that music is more fun when shared with friends. About 6 months back I upgraded from a Z2 to an 850, I really wanted my faders for C/D and MIDI send back. I also wanted to have the ability to use the send/return from the mixer to start experimenting with Guitar Rig, as I have the hardware in the studio anyways for my daughter, but the real reason was this… As a former Live user I realize that it is hard to share with friends. As a Traktor user I no longer have this problem. Run MIDI cable out, send clock and patch them into channel 4… inspired by the days of deck, efx and 909’s, I feel as if technology has brought me to a place that I envisioned 10-15 years back.

    • JasonTucker

      you couldn’t send a Midi signal to your “friends” from Live?

      • Oddie O'Phyle

        So… what channel of your Push are you going to patch your friends’ line into? Read a bit closer, run Midi, send clock… patch friend into channel 4. Its a little hard to run a party or accommodate your friends when running contoller and a soundcard, how does that share well with friends? I can see it now, you’re done playing your set and everybody has to wait 5 minutes while PA gets shut down so you can unplug your audio interface and your friend can plug his in.

  • orge

    Picked up a machinedrum a few months back but struggled with syncing. Recently discovered that the problem was that I had tempo sync selected instead of beat/phase sync. Feeling inspired now and gonna revist this at the weekend! 🙂

  • thundercat

    Regarding manually syncing…. Does the TR-8 have a dedicated pitch nudge function?

    It’s all well and good setting the tempo the same but without an easy way to nudge the phase in sync it can really be a PITA. This control needs to be easily available, nor hidden under a shift layer somewhere.

    IMO having a nudge function easily accessible is the only way to really use a drum machine as a third deck.

    For example:
    – Ableton software has dedicated nudge controls that are mappable, that said the Push controller default map does not
    APC controller does
    – Maschine standalone software AND controller does not have dedicated nudge
    – Octatrack does have dedicated nudge
    – Volca series does not have dedicated nudge

    • Ryan Dejaegher

      Hey Thundercats, unfortunately it doesn’t but the TR-8 does have a notched tempo encoder so it’s really easy to dial in specific values. This is why it’s suggested to set your tracks to whole values so that it’s easier to match the tempo of the tracks and drum machine.

    • jkuss

      on TR-8 you can hold Tap and then hit Start Stop to start the pattern over, or you could bump the BMP 1 and then back down, just like on a Turntable.

  • flopdog

    Since the early 80’s actually. I had half a studio in the Better Days booth by 1985 using a Kahler Human Clock prototype to run Akai 900s, loops in Korg SDD2000s plus live keyboards; internal or modules. Way before 1990. David Cole used to come in and play live all the time, starting on a crappy CZ101 along with vinyl: early 80’s.

  • Julian

    I just want to add my trick for connecting my TR-8 to my DJM-850.

    I do use the traktor midi clock syncing method.
    But I wanted to keep my 4 traktor ch. and have another aux ch for the TR-8

    I plug the TR-8 into the mic 2 input.

    BUT YOU NEED AN L PAD ATTENUATOR CABLE (50 dB) that you can make yourself

    I just want to add my trick for connecting my TR-8 to my DJM-850.

    I do use the traktor midi clock syncing method.
    But I wanted to keep my 4 traktor ch. and have another aux ch for the TR-8

    I plug the TR-8 into the mic 2 input.

    BUT YOU NEED AN L PAD ATTENUATOR CABLE (50 dB) that you can make yourself

    In the end I have my 4 traktors ch + an aux channel with high and low EQs and that I can send to FX section of the DJM Mixer
    (only drawback = no cueing possible)

    I chose the TR-8 instead of the traditionnal Maschine or Push setup.

    In the end I have my 4 traktors ch + an aux channel with high and low EQs and that I can send to FX section of the DJM Mixer
    (only drawback = no cueing possible)

    I chose the TR-8 instead of the traditionnal Maschine or Push setup.

  • Denis Nov

    Hey Ean or anyone else, would you have an idea on how I could sync up a korg volka beats with traktor, also I have an s2 and not an s4 so how would I send the MIDI out of Traktor?

    • Phil K

      same way as explained in the article and use a usb to midi cable to provide the clock source

  • roadhouse

    Can’t you send a midi signal over the TR-8s USB connection?

    • Julian

      YEAH this is how my TR-8 is synced to traktor.

      • Lukas Lange

        How do you do that? It doesn’t work with my tr-8.

        • thj1706

          Hi this is Julian and here’s my setup
          1st you need to have the usb drivers from ROLANd website installed

          2nd just follow ean’s instruction in the video Sync + Perform With Maschine and Traktor on djtechtools account on youtube

          from minute 4:00 to 4:20 (if you have a mac)
          think it won’t work with a Windows based laptop
          then from 4:50 to 5:00
          In the video above, ean’s is using the same technique but instead of a virtual output port he’s using the S4 which might be the solution for someone with a Windows based laptop

  • Oddie O'Phyle

    The article mentions the DJM 800 and 900… no love for the 850? Sweet lil 12″ with the same circuit path as the 900.

    • Ryan Dejaegher

      Hey Oddie,

      It would work with the DJM 850 as well =).

  • Tim Maughan

    Jeff Mills on DJTT! Finally! And not even a photo caption….for shame.

    • Ean Golden

      good point! photo updated – he was the original 🙂

  • Sergio Alvarez

    Potential idea: Could you aggregate a smaller sound card that is capable of sending out Traktor’s midi clock with the DJM-2000?

    • Phil K

      In use the Roland UM-ONE mk2 USB to MIDI cable which works great

      • Ean Golden

        that’s correct. A simple USB to MIDI cable is the easiest way to make it happen out of the computer.

  • Sergio Alvarez

    The DJM-2000 can’t send midi out from the Traktor software out to external gear?

    • Phil K

      no it cant it only works with its own internal fx engine and bpm detection clock

      • Sergio Alvarez

        Wow.. that super unfortunate. I would have never guessed and now the idea of ever owning one has officially been thrown out the window.

        • CUSP

          They made that decision to coerce people to “come into the fold.” Stuff just typically works better (and more features are enabled) when it’s from the same manufacturer.

          • Kutscher

            I have a DJM2000 for my own and can confirm that the midi clock isnt able for mapping as an midi device. furthermore all DJM mixers have the architecture that the bpm information is cougt direcly from the output. so using a nexus player or rekordbox as a nudgeable master isnt a solution. the sync bpm tempo and the miditempo have nothing to do with each other 🙁
            this was unfortunatly confirmed by the german tech support.

          • CUSP

            I was speaking to the Roland line of gear, but fortunately, sync works well with Traktor and a device that MIDI clock syncs.

    • Thijs

      You can use a separate USB to MIDI cable to bypass the DJM-2000.