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25 posts tagged

DJing and performance

Later Ctrl + ↑

Time traveller’s archive — 11

Some stuff to read (and watch) on the weekend

Richie Hawtin explains his DJ setup with gestures
  1. How I play: Richie Hawtin Model-1 DJ Setup. Despite that this video has a solo marketing purpose for promoting the Model-1 mixer, it’s still nice to know what happening in the mind of such an experienced DJ as Richie Hawtin.
  2. Roland TB-303 vs. TT-303 vs. TB-3 vs. TB-03. Great audio and visual comparison of the legendary TB-303 with its modern reincarnations, made by ADSR. This might be useful especially for those who planning to buy one of these synthesizers.
  3. Everything you hear on film is a lie. Nice and entertaining insights at TED from sound effects designer Tasos Frantzolas on how our mind tricks us when we hearing sounds; most “authentic” sounds (to our ears and brain) are actually fake. Now every time I watch a rainy scene I hear crispy bacon.
  4. 7 Things I Wish Somebody Had Told Me About Releasing Music. It’s good to read a confirmation of what I’ve written about myself. Particularly, this part: “There are lots of labels out there who may offer to release your music, but the reality is, unless they’re really putting in some serious promotion efforts, and have a strong, well established fanbase who are keen to follow the label, and not just the producers they have released, then you’ll probably not see much come from it.”.

    And this: “Let’s face it, you’re highly unlikely to make enough to live on just from selling music. Those making money from music are doing LOADS more than just releasing. We’re talking releasing music, remixing, DJing or performing live, doing sample packs or patches, tutoring, licensing, producing for other people, running events, and more. And even then, some will be doing other things to supplement income that are not related to music.”
2017   DJing and performance   Music industry   Sound design   Time traveller's archive

Dealing with party promoters prior to the event

What to do when as a DJ you don’t know your set time and promoter ignores you

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Hi Dan, I have been asked to play at a festival here in my city and it was originally supposed to be situated in a very beautiful bushland place near by. Due to some issues that I don’t know exactly that have had to change venues and it has been moved to a showground, so totally not a natural environment. People have purchased pre-sale tickets and there is a large number of them that are very upset of the changes as it was last minute, with only 4 days till the event opens.

From a Dj perspective, I haven’t been given any information about set time, start time, genre, event flow, nothing. It’s very frustrating because I want to deliver exactly what should be required for the event. So I guess I’m asking for your thoughts on this as you probably have a bit more experience dealing with promoters and other Dj’s.

My feelings on the issue is that I’m getting very grumpy about it all. Part of me actually wants to withdraw from it all together, purely on principle. Another part of me wants to go and perform, but from where I am, I don’t feel as though I am being respected or treated properly as a DJ for the event. I’ll leave it there – hopefully it all makes sense.

Vernon Jones

Thanks for sharing this, Vern. I totally understand your pain, and sadly, this is a pretty common situation for up-and-coming DJs. Let’s take a look at this from two points of view.

Party organizer’s perspective

First, think from the organizer’s perspective. It’s no-brainer to predict that changing some nice venue to a worse one would piss people off, so I bet they wouldn’t do this without a strong reason.

Party organizing world is full of surprises, and mostly those aren’t the kind of surprise you would like to get. And if they encounter some serious issues, they probably simply don’t have enough hands to both handling the issue and communicating with the artists. It’s easy to blame someone, but I wouldn’t suggest doing this until you know all the details, it’s really anything can happen.

A DJ’s perspective

Now from your perspective. The fact you don’t know event’s genre, start time etc is actually your fault. If you dealing with the promoter directly without some manager from your side, the first thing you should do once the gig is confirmed is to get info: who’s the main person in charge or ‘emergency contact’ for the occasions like this, what’s your set time etc. 

Preparing for a live set

Sometimes it’s simply impossible to know the exact timetable in advance, but at least you should know what kind of set they expect you to play, whether it be an opening set, a warm-up set before the headliner, or a peak-time set, or a closing set.

Opening DJs

Advice

If you want me to give some advice on what to do in this situation, I would certainly not suggest withdrawing from this because it would be unprofessional from you not arriving at the event at all. Just come at the place, look around for some of the organizer’s crew, ask if everything is alright and do they have timeslots for DJs because you still don’t know when you supposed to play. Keep it calm, don’t start with yelling even if you really want to. Even ask if they need some help.

The worse thing they might tell you is something like “sorry man, we no longer have a slot for you”, so you’ll get your days off for nothing. It’s frustrating, but not the end of the world. At least this way you’ll do everything you can do.

When you act like a professional, people feel it. Because it’s a real pleasure to deal with people who control emotions, keep rational thinking, and even offer some help in the stress situations like this.

I hope it makes sense.

The picture on top is here to help people notice this blog on their Facebook feeds. Thanks to Trey Ratcliff for this beautiful shoot from Burning Man Festival.

2016   Advice   DJing and performance

The bridge technique in DJ mixes

Hi Daniel. I follow your advice about harmonic mixes and it helps a lot. I have a quick question: how would you mix two tracks if they share the similar feeling and you really want to put them in a set, but they have different harmonic keys? Would you sacrifice harmonic mixing to keep the vibe going?

Timothy Huff

Timothy, harmonic mixing is not a rule, you have to trust your ears and instincts. If the mixing doesn’t sound right, you probably should find another track to mix with.

But sometimes you may really want to mix some tracks with a similar vibe while they aren’t quite compatible for different reasons: because of different tempo or rhythm structure. And I’d like to tell you about a technique which I call “the bridge”.

February’s Rave Podcast edition was quite a special as it was 5 Year Anniversary, so I’ve decided to play two of my all-time favorite tracks from the 90’s:

I wanted to make a slow-paced mix allowing each track to reveal it beauty rather than instantly switch one track to another one.

The problem was that these two particular tracks are driven by different elements with different stress patterns. On top of that, the key of the second track is one semitone lower than the first one, as the result, it would give a not quite pleasant transition.

Rhythm structure basics

In other words, this wouldn’t work:

Luzon Age Of Love

To solve this, I’ve decided to put one more track in between. But not some random track, it had to be very specific. On the one hand, it should keep the original vibe going rather than drag it into another direction. On the other hand, it should have some common elements of both tracks and prepare the ground to become a bridge between these two.

Luzon → The Bridge → Age Of Love

Here’s a screenshot from my Ableton project that sums it up visually:

Ableton project overview. The bridge used in Rave Podcast 069 along with some extra loops

Note how “the bridge” overlaps the Track A, it almost didn’t sound by itself. You may also notice that the bridge is chopped in several pieces — that’s because I didn’t need its breakdown and climax; basically, I just looped the intro.

As you can hear, this bridge keeps the original vibe and haunting vocals while bringing a new drive in the lower spectrum and percussions which will also appear in the Track B.

Here’s another, more fast-paced example. This time, I wanted to put Thomas Datt’s “The Psychonaut” at the end of the mix but its bassline didn’t quite fit the bassline pattern of the previous track. So I’ve put one more track in between, “the bridge”, and mixed it on a triplet grid.

Ableton project overview. The bridge used in Rave Podcast 068 is preparing the ground for “The Psychonaut”

I’ve been using this technique for years, and you can hear much more examples in my mixes, lives sets, and radio show.

I hope it helps.

2016   Advice   DJing and performance

The importance of proper opening DJs

How to warm-up, not burn

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Who are the “opening DJs” and what’s their role?

Patrick 

Good parties are made of many different aspects: good venue, good sound system, good artists, good bar, and even good toilets. There are much more things that all together make event stands out, and today I’d like to focus on one of them — an opening DJs.

Opening DJ is a person who playing first at the beginning of the event. Alternatively, they called a warm-up DJs. And I believe that opening DJs have the hardest and a very underrated role.

The problem

A DJ think: “Finally I’ve got a gig, this is my time to shine! I’ll show everyone how talented I am!”. And he drops the most banging tracks on the empty dancefloor, or to some people who are completely not ready to this yet. As the result often we see something like this. Please don’t be like that guy. Just don’t.

Laidback Luke explains opening DJs at Dancefair Seminar

The philosophy

An opening DJ should:

  1. Welcome guests.
    People won’t rush to the dancefloor as soon as they come in to the club, even if you drop the top hit track. They want to meet with other people, drink something, i.e. get into the right mood.
  2. Fill up the bar.
    “A bar? I’m a DJ, I have to fill up the dancefloor!”. That’s not really true. First few hours after doors opening is the most profitable for the bars (look at p1 above). If you’ll play a proper background music like it should be at the beginning, party organizer or venue owner will appreciate it.
  3. Prepare crowd for the headliner.
    Prepare means gives them anticipation that something big is about to happen. Tease them, but don’t give those “big things”. Let the headliner bang it. Warm-up dancefloor, not burn it.
A small remark to this picture: this is pretty rough “energy lifetime” scenario for an 8-hours long club event. Primetime energy level may be vary depending on the lineup, as well finishing up time scenario could be different: from rough stop on top of the energy to a very long gentle slowing down. Warming up part is what we’re talking about in this article, so the rest is grayed out.

You see, during the first hour, energy level must be very low and almost not growing up. Just enough to welcome the clubbers on positive vibes. At the end of the second hour, you can start to slowly increase energy, and nearly at the finish of your set you can drop a few tracks with a similar energy level as the headliner will play, but not higher.

John 00 Fleming gives very insightful talk about warm up DJ’s in his vlog

And this not only one man’s opinion, many credible artists think the same. John 00 Fleming, who’s in DJing for two decades now, is one of them.

Advice

  1. If you don’t know a headliner that will play after you, make a research before the event: listen to his tracks, try to find his recorded live shows — it will help you programming the set.
  2. If you haven’t played in this particular venue yet, try to find out as much as you can: some specific things in local crowd habits and behaviors. Speak with the venue manager, the party promoters, the other DJs or people who’ve been there before. In fact, this advice might be useful not only to the opening DJs.
  3. Never, never play tracks with higher BPM than the headliner. If the headlining DJ of this particular event plays a 145+ BPM Full On PsyTrance, it’s okay to start with Psy-Progressive at 130 BPM. If the headliner’s music is 135+ BPM Psy-Progressive, then start with 125+ BPM deep Progressive or even Techno.
  4. Don’t play at full loudness — drop it down up to 90~95% of total volume. Here is the hint: the louder music is, as better we think it is. That’s our body language. That’s why “loudness wars” exists is the music industry. So, if you playing at 90~95% of volume and then the headliner will increase it to 100%, his music will sounds “better”, harder and more pumping.
  5. Don’t play tracks made by the other artists that will be playing after you.
2016   Advice   DJing and performance

Criteria of professional production. Part 3

DJ-friendly arrangement

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What are criteria of professionally-made tracks?

Daniel

In this third and the final part of the “Criteria of professional production” series let’s talk about a DJ-friendly arrangement.

Part 1. Sound design
Part 2. Fills and transitions
Part 3. DJ-friendly arrangement

First things off, let me tell a quick “Mixing 101” for those music producers out there who are not familiar with DJing at all. If you know how Dj mixing works, just skip the next paragraph below.

At first, DJ is looking for a starting point of the track — usually, it’s the first beat following the intro — and marks it as “Cue”. Let’s call this track as “Track B”. Then DJ sets the tempo of this track to match with another track playing on a background, “Track A”. Then DJ waits for a proper moment — usually, the climax of the Track A — and starts the Track B from the Cue point. Track B fades in, and then the crossfade occurs usually at the 32nd bar since dance music usually progresses in 16-bar sections. Roughly speaking, that very basic mechanical part of DJ mixing looks like this:

Rough visual demonstration of DJ mixing basics

You may ask, why I’m telling all those DJs stuff, and why music producers should care about it in the first place?

Well, from the marketing point of view, DJs are one of your target audience group, they are professional consumers of your product (Gosh, I hate speaking this language). DJs host radio shows and podcasts that influences on people’s taste. Artists that make a living off music are plays as a DJs, too. DJing is an inseparable part of electronic dance music culture, that is just fact. So, unless you write some Ambient/Easy listening or experimental music, as a music producer you should keep DJs in mind when making a track.

Here are some common DJ problems, and how to avoid them by making a DJ-friendly tracks structure on the music production stage:

Transition occurs after the 16-bars section

Picture 1a. Do you remember fills and transitions from the “Part 2”? When such transition occurs after the 16-bars section, it shifts the entire structure of the track for the extra 1~4 Bars or whether your transition duration is. This is not a DJ-friendly arrangement.
Picture 1b. The transition occurs within the 16-bars section, the structure remains unchanged. This is a DJ-friendly arrangement.

The break begins too early

Picture 2a. The breakdown starts too soon after the intro, it might be not enough time for DJ to mix the tracks. This is also one of the reasons why DJs prefer full-length tracks rather than their 3-4 minute-long radio versions.
Picture 2b. There are at least 32 bars between the intro and the breakdown. This is a DJ-friendly arrangement.

Too long breakdown with no anticipation

Picture 3a. The long breakdown that has no tension. Some tracks have one-, two- or even three-minute-long breakdowns with nothing but an ambience sounds, which literally sucks the energy out of the dancefloor. The only way for DJs to play such tracks safely is to cut those breakdowns off.
Picture 3b. The breakdown rising it’s energy level over time which led to more anticipation of the drop. This is a DJ-friendly arrangement.

Of course, these are not strict rules, but just general recommendations and a sort of “good manners”. It is up to you to follow these manners or not.

This was the last post from the “Criteria of professional production” mini-series, I hope you find it useful. Make sure to click the tags below for more posts.

2016   Advice   DJing and performance   Music production

Preparing for a live set

Based on a true story

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Please tell about your first live set: what kind of equipment did you use, what preparations have been made prior to the event technically and organizationally, and all that stuff in details. Once you agreed with promoter to play on that event, what was your next steps? I really wondering how all these things works behind the scenes, everything from the moment until you get to the turntables.

Evgeniy Dolgih

Evgeniy, I’m not sure that you’ll get anything useful out of my story because every artist’s experience is unique. Some things that worked well for me doesn’t necessary will work for you, and vice versa. Also, keep in mind that preparation for a local and international gigs are quite different things. But anyway I’ll try to answer your questions and add some practical tips by the end.

I started to play live in 2012 — before that I played with a DJ sets only. At this point I want to clarify: I call set a “live” when you do some live real-time manipulations and edit/transform or change tracks on-the-fly (and these tracks doesn’t necessary have to be yours), as the opposite to traditional DJ sets when you simply mix track A with a track B. It was a Progressive-Psy night with Serbian headliners, and I was a closing artist. Obviously, as an up and coming musician, I was very happy about this opportunity.

Live and DJ sets difference

As soon as my set was confirmed, I asked promoter to show full lineup and timetable — who and when is playing. I’ve checked every single artist (including local DJs), found their social profiles and listened to their music. Also, I went to the venue website to see photos from the previous events. That allowed to me to get an idea of what can I expect from this event, whom I’ll meet on the stage and what music they gonna play.

Once I’ve got all need information, I started preparation of my set. Don’t be confused here: “preparation” doesn’t mean pre-record a set as some people think — at this point, I just test tracks to see what works together, and edit arrangement if necessary — cut too long breakdown or fix non DJ-friendly intro/outro. I always keep in mind those pairs that work nicely, so when some track is playing to the sound system, I know which track will fit in the mix next.

How to make smooth mixes

I was nervous a lot, obviously. That was my first live set, after all! To calm down shaking hands and get more confidence, I practiced hours and hours long. By practice I mean turn the world “off”, and playing 1-2-hour sets like if I would playing on the stage for real. And this actually helped a lot.

At that time my setup was the following: Novation 25 SL MKII MIDI-keyboard/controller connected to a MacBook Pro by USB, and external audio interface Native Instruments Traktor Audio 2 connected to a DJ-mixer via stereo RCA-cable to Line-In channel.

I’ve chose this midi-controller due to it unique specifications: 8× encoders with infinite rotation, 8× 270° knobs, 8× channel faders, and the keys. Faders are quite rare things on the MIDI-controllers, and this is exactly what I wanted to use with my setup. As being said at the beginning, this works for me, but doesn’t necessary will work for you too, so please don’t buy this equipment just because you read about it here. Just for the record, nowadays in 2016 I use Novation 25 SL MKII in the studio only.

Ableton Live is the heart of the setup. In 2012 I posted my Ableton setup I used at that time, so if you don’t mind I’ll just quote myself:

My Ableton setup for performance at stage, posted on Facebook on July 31, 2012

My Ableton setup explained, 2017

“I’m using from 8 to 10 channels. The first three Audio channels – main decks for mixing. Channel #4 is for mashups (melodies, voice etc). On top of this channel – a sidechain-compressor with 4/4 kick pattern from another MIDI channel to prevent kick overlay. Channels #5-6 for some extra hats and percussion loops. On each of this channels – EQ-Eight with Hi-Pass filter. Then some MIDI-channels with VSTs – I’m using it for live versions of my own tracks, playing some melodies or modulate synths in real-time. Then Send/Return channels with various effects such Reverb and Redux. I send these effects to other channels via return, except several effects, for instance, Beat Repeat. All of these things and many more such as scene select, play, stop, pitch control, filters, and more I control in real-time using MIDI-controller Novation 25 SL MKII.”

So that is how I’ve spent last few weeks before the event — preparing, practicing and tweaking the setup.

The day “X” — the party time. My set time was 5 AM, as far as I remember. I’ve made a little mistake and came up around 1 or 2 AM, so I had not a chance to check out and see the stage routing in details prior to the event. I went to the stage in about 15 minutes before to my set, put equipment on the desk, and plugged cables. Okay, now is the time. People applauses, I pressed the play button... and heard no sound from the sound system. Damn! Luckily, I realized that I connected my sound card to the wrong channel on the DJ mixer and quickly fixed it, but it was the scariest 20 seconds of silence in my life!

Promo video 2012, recorded at that event

Recap:

  1. Do research: learn more about other artists in the lineup, local DJs, and venue.
  2. Prepare your set: make sure you know each track in your music library perfectly.
  3. Do rehearsal. This way you can get more confidence and take away the stress.
  4. Double-check your equipment. Make sure all your software and hardware piece of gears are up to date and works properly.
  5. Arrive at the venue prior to the doors opening, so you could do a soundcheck, get to know the venue and the crew.
  6. Take your fee on arrival if you get paid by cash.

Perhaps, dear readers would like to share their first live set experience in the comments below?

On cover images: myself playing at one of my first live set. Forest Quest Festival, Russia, 2012.

2016   Advice   Behind the scenes   DJing and performance

How to make smooth mixes

A quick guide to harmonic mixing

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Daniel, I’m a huge fan of your mixes. How you do such flawless and smooth transitions? E.g. like at the first half of Rave Podcast 059 or your recent guest mix on Global Trance Grooves, you just nailed it, sometimes I can’t figure out when one track ends and another one starts LOL. Some advice will be appreciated.

James Mann

James, good mixes are made of few components:

Tracks selection. This is something that very subjective, it’s purely up to your taste, feel, mood, and a story that you’re trying to tell. Digging and finding good and original tracks is a homework of every DJ, and this is probably the hardest part. Unfortunately, I can’t help here.

Beat matching. This is one of the core principles of DJing, and It used to be a quite tough thing. In order to master beatmatching on vinyl and CDs you had to do everyday practice, but digital era has changed it entirely. The sync button and grids alignment makes your tracks play beat-to-beat so easily, so I won’t stop on this either.

Vinyl vs. sync button

Harmonic mixing. Basically, this is a technique which shows how to mix the tracks in a specific way in order to achieve those smooth transitions as you’ve described. I listen to tons of various mixes, podcasts and radio show, and I’ve noticed that only very few DJs use this technique. So let’s go deeper over this one.

To get started with harmonic mixing, you have to find keys of your track. You can see keys on some DJ stores, like Beatport:

... or use a special software to analyze tracks on your computer. There are several such kinds of apps, but I’d recommend Mixed In Key as the best one. Mixed In Key scans your entire music collection and displays key results in their special way, named ‘Camelot Wheel’. Here is how it looks like:

Organizing music library

There are two circles: the inner circle with Minor keys, and outer circle with Major. Most electronic dance music is written in Minor, so you will work with the inner circle mostly.

Now you need to know how keys are compatible with each other. That’s pretty simple, thanks to Camelot Wheel: compatibles are the same key ±1 one step to the left or right. For example, if our Track A is Am, to find a good Track B to mix with you have to look for Am, Em, or Dm keys, as highlighted on the screenshot:

Pretty much, that’s it! The transition between compatible tracks sounds smooth, pleasant and harmonic.

It is recommended to move only 1-side during the mix — either clockwise, either counter-clockwise. For instance, your harmonic mix could look like this: Fm → Fm → Cm → Cm → Gm → Gm → Dm → Dm → Am → Am.

Some more information and advanced techniques are available on the Camelot Sound website

I hope this is what you was looking for. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments box below.

On cover image: myself playing in Moscow back in 2011. At that time I had no idea about harmonic mixing and mixed intuitively.

2016   Advice   DJing and performance

Vinyl vs. sync button

What makes you a better DJ

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Over the past several years I’ve been a witness of numerous debates around the sacred topic: a “real” mixing on a vinyl versus “fake” mixing using sync button. And very recently a new ‘demotivator’ picture popped up in my newsfeed that instantly flew across all social media, so I thought I had to write this.

In all those internet battles people seems to forget one simple fact. Yes, beatmatching is the core principle of DJing and the very basics of mixing technique, but it alone doesn’t make you a good DJ. Whatever you beat matching in old fashioned way, or sync button does it for you, there are plenty of other factors that professional DJ should learn and care about: music selection, perfect knowing of his music library in general and each track individually, sense of taste, the ability to feel the crowd and guide them through the musical journey, the way how he interact with the people on the dancefloor, how he behave on the public, and the list goes on.

Once you master all of these, your choice of gear becomes absolutely irrelevant. And it works the opposite way too. Let’s say, If you mixing on a vinyl like a cool bro, but you have no idea how to feel the crowd, you sucks as a DJ. If you play using sync button with a ton of other modern tools around, but all do you is just staring at the laptop’s display, you sucks as a DJ, too. As simple as that.

The only reason I see people still play on a vinyl is nostalgic/romantic feelings of that particular person about “good old days”. And it’s totally fine, as long as you don’t put an equality sign between “vinyl” and “better”. It’s no better than any other way of mixing, it’s just different. Someone adore retro cars, someone prefers modern and more practical vehicles, but neither of them doesn’t make you a better driver.

Same with the writers: if someone prefers to write old fashioned way with a nib pen and inkwell, it doesn’t make him a better writer over those who type on a keyboard, just like I do at this very moment.

As for myself, since the childhood I was thinking about electronic music as a frontier of the future: science, technologies, intergalactic travel, you know, all that stuff. So it was natural to me to evolve my setup along the way, trying out new things and new technologies. At the moment I’m fully satisfied with the current setup with Ableton Live and a MIDI-controller, but who knows, maybe someday I’ll step further to the new generation of Pioneer digital players, or something even newer.

Don’t get stuck in the past, but be open minded and courageous to move forward. The future is so exciting!

2015   DJing and performance   I am

The redline: decibels explained

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I’m quite confused with the volume meter indicators on DJ mixers. Is it allowed to go over 0db? What is the recommended volume level? Why there are plenty of DJs push it hard above the redline?

Thomas

Thomas, to answer this question we have to understand what the “red line” and its corresponding numbers are actually means. For instance, does number 10 next to the red LED means overall loudness or what? Such things can be confusing even not among amateurs. Let’s go a little bit deeper into the physical properties of the sound and its perception by human ears.

What is sound

One of the properties of sound, the amplitude, we perceive as loudness. And while most measurements are linear, our ears perceives loudness logarithmically, i.e. by the ratio between two signals. To reflect changes in the volume close to its human perception, we’ve got a unit called decibel (dB). But the decibels are kinda tricky, as basically it’s nothing but a ratio — it only says how loud one sound relatively to another one.

There are two ways to express loudness in decibels: by so-called “dB Gain” and “dB Level”.

“Gain” is a ratio between the sound and its different volume levels. For instance, fader in a typical DAW mixer is an example of dB Gain. If you put it on -6dB, it will make the sound by 6 decibels less than it was originally recorded. The “Trim” knob on top of the each Pioneer’s mixers channel is a Gain too.

“Level” is a ratio between the level of the sound relatively to some reference level. There are several standard reference levels which used to measure the ratio in those particular scales. At this moment I’ll talk only about two of these scales (there are more, but they are not related to the subject). Here they are:

Sound form Decibel scale Reference level
Electrical sound waves dBu +4 dBu
Standard operating level for professional audio
Digital sound waves dBfs 0 dBFS
Maximum operating level in the digital systems

The physical form of the sound in professional analog equipment comes as an electrical sound wave (voltage), and use a scale known as “dBu”. In this particular scale, +4 dBu is the highest average level that steady audio signal can have, excluding transient peaks.

Audio signal above the reference level (+4 dBu) gradually become more distorted, that’s why momentary peaks can be allowed to exceed. The difference in levels between steady audio signal and the peaks is known as “headroom”. Professional-grade analog equipment can output maximum levels of +26 dBu, which gives us 22 decibels of the headroom.

Setting Sound System Level Controls by Dennis Bohn, Rane Corporation, 1997

Digital sound waves use a scale known as “dBfs”, where “fs” stands for full scale. As mentioned above, 0dBfs is the maximum operating level on this particular scale.

Unlike of analog audio, digital audio doesn’t have such thing as maximum average level, hence why 0 dBfs is the average and the peak levels at the same time. Even average levels can be increased up to 0 dB without distortion, however, anything above instantly becomes distorted as the information get literally lost. That means that steady audio signals can be recorded at a higher average level in digital systems than it could be in analog systems. For instance, 0 dBfs could be equivalent to an analog level of +24 dBu and still sounds clean, while average level at that level in the analog system will be very distorted.

Now comes the most tricky part. Volume meter on DJ mixers reflect directly neither dBu nor dBfs scales, which means 0dB VU (volume unit) on DJ mixer doesn’t necessarily equal to 0dBu output.

When converting between digital and analog systems, these correlation levels must be calibrated, and they can be calibrated differently. Pretty common calibration that used in digital mixers is the following: -20 dBfs = +4 dBu = 0 dB VU. But the correlation (in other words, the headroom) varies from one piece of gear to another. To give an example:

Calibration: -20 dBfs = +4dBu Calibration: -12 dBfs = +4dBu
0 dBfs = +24 dBu 0 dBfs = +14 dBu
-10 dBfs = +10 dBu -10 dBfs = +8 dBu
-20 dBfs = +4 dBu -14 dBfs = +4 dBu
-30 dBfs = -6 dBu -20 dBfs = -2 dBu

As you can see, it is really hard to say exact correlation between dBfs and dBu, even the same model can be calibrated a little bit differently. This said, 0dB on the mixer volume meter can mean pretty much anything, unless you know the specs and calibration settings of this particular device.

For instance, Pioneer DJM-900 Nexus mixer has 19 dB of headroom (above zero mark), allowing for that much volume jump before you really hit the clip level. This is a sort of foolproof protection, otherwise, we would experience hard clipping even at the very first yellow LED indicator.

Let’s see what some vendors says about volume control of their products:

Pioneer: “If you experienced distorted sound, adjust the Master Level control so that the master channel level indicator lights at around 0dB at the peak level. ”

Pioneer DJM-900 Nexus Operating Instructions by Pioneer Electronics, 2010

Rane: “Follow the golden rule and keep your level meters out of the red. Think of a level meter as a traffic light. Green means you’re ok to proceed, yellow means caution and red means stop. When level meters hit red, you run the risk of clipping or simply distorting the heck out of the audio. In case you’re wondering, both sound terrible.”

How-to properly set Rane mixer level controls, Rane Knowledge Base

Allen & Heath: “The main meters follow the selected monitor source. The meter reads ‘0’ for an XLR output of +4dBu. The mixer should be operated with these meters averaging around 0dB with loudest peaks no higher than +6dB”.

Allen & Heath Xone DB4 User Guide, Allen & Heath Limited, 2010

So, let’s recap: yes, it is possible to go over 0dB on some DJ mixers without having distortion. However, it is not recommended to go up to the red line as it may cause hard clipping — even vendors recommends to stick around the green zone, with momentary peaks into the yellow, for a reason.

Keep in mind that most venues use compressors or limiters in order to protect their expensive PA systems, so pushing gain all way up will not make the sound louder, but rather make it over distorted.

If you really feel that the overall sound is not loud enough, find the sound guy, ask him to boost volume up on the PA instead. This way you could stay in the safe zone while overall sound will be loud and clean.

A special side note for Ableton users, for those who play live using Ableton like myself. We know that going above 0dB in digital audio literally kills the sound, so it is important to understand that all your efforts for staying in the green zone on DJ mixer will be meaningless if audio that comes from Ableton already has clipping.

If faders on your Ableton mixer are set to 0dB, and you put some audio effect device on top of this channel, like EQ, it is natural that sound will go over zero decibels, hence clipping. To prevent this, I advise to set a maximum value for Ableton faders at -5 or -6dB. Even if you put MIDI-controller fader to its top position, in Ableton it will be still capped at -6dB, and thus you’ll get extra 5-6 dB of “headroom”.

The same applies to any other software, make sure to adjust volume control within the program before check and tweak volume meters on a DJ mixer.

As for your last question Thomas, I guess there is a common misunderstanding among many DJs, so I hope this piece of advice will shed some light.

On cover image: Pioneer DJM-2000 Nexus.

2015   Advice   DJing and performance

Live and DJ sets

Hi Daniel! Can you explain the difference between a live and a DJ set? I see a “Live” label on posters and flyers near the artist names quite often, but when they play, I do not really feel the difference.

Peter

Peter, the definition of “live” performance is very confusing in electronic dance music, indeed.

A fully live set with everything from beat to leads making on the stage is something that almost never happens when we talking about electronic dance music. Such live show requires very complex and accurate setup, one wrong step could ruin it completely. Thus we may see a real live performance only among non-dance genres of electronic music — it looks more like a classic musical concert rather than a party. 

Binkbeats Live @ Le Guess Who Festival

So, in dance music, there is a popular belief that the difference between live and DJ sets is in the music you play: if it’s your own music, it’s live, if someone’s else music — DJ set. But here is the problem: many producers these days have their tracks pre-mixed into a single continuous mix, so the only thing they have to do on the stage it’s click on the “Play” button in Ableton. And they call “live” sets! Shame, but true. While formally this is a live set (because they’re playing their own music), there is absolutely no “live” component, which brings us to such confusion in terminology.

On the other hand, we have DJs. The skilled ones working like a computer: they “read” and analyze the crowd to guide it through the musical journey. Some DJs even playing several tracks simultaneously and doing a so-called “remixes on-the-fly” — thanks to modern software and advanced hardware, they can focus less on mixing and more on creativity. Either way, such DJs are playing much more “live” sets in terms of real live performance on the stage than musicians with their fake live sets.

Live @ Bülach, Switzerland
Live @ Moscow, Russia

With all of this, I came up to the following: doesn’t matter whose music you’re play, but how you play — that what determine the different between live and DJ sets in my opinion.

2015   Advice   DJing and performance
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