If You Hate¬†DJ’ing With A Laptop (or How DJing With Ableton Is¬†Fun)
First of all, if it’s an image thing and you don’t feel cool doing it, who cares?¬† If what you’re playing sounds good and you bring up the vibe, then it doesn’t matter what you play off of.
¬†I don’t mean you need to pump your fists or launch birthday cakes into the audience to show it, either. ¬†Still there is a stigma attached to laptop DJ’ing –there are the purists who insist that you aren’t really doing anything if you’re not spinning vinyl.¬† I think this helps the purists separate themselves from the big anthem DJ’s because the latter almost always use computers and the former tend to appreciate more real, authentic, original music than what is floating around the top ten at Beatport.¬† So partly it’s a taste thing.
The Need To Entertain
However, the turntable purists have a point, that the typical laptop DJ can appear somewhat boring just hunched over like that.¬† That’s why we have DJ’s now acting like total clowns launching cakes into the crowd, because they feel the need to entertain.
I have a friend who DJ’s almost entirely early ’80s Disco, Boogie and R&B (or, as The Beat Electric calls this genre, ‘Lazer Soul’ ) and its all entirely vinyl.¬† He’s great at it, urging the crowd on by simply enjoying the music himself, dancing behind the booth and shouting out to the crowd or singing along with the track.¬† He’s not pumping his fist and launching cakes or spraying people with Faygo, he just coaxes the crowd to get into the pocket the way he is.
The Real Point Of DJing
That is the whole idea of what you are doing when you are DJ’ing –you coax the crowd the way you coax the songs to work together.
If you are just hitting play on a track and then mixing to the other arbitrarily without much thought, then you aren’t really into what you’re doing at all anyway.
If the point of DJ’ing is to coax the crowd to dance and that is your goal, then you as a laptop DJ are at an advantage.¬† Think about it –there are so many things you can do with software, so many ways to change up the game of DJ’ing, regardless of what genre you play.¬† You could essentially be remixing songs live, giving people new arrangements of tracks they’re familiar with, playing with their expectations in order to work the vibe up into a frenzy.
If You Just Hate Looking Into A Laptop While DJ’ing
If you are really concerned about looking like a fraud with a laptop, or you hate staring into the screen or just want to show people you can DJ the traditional vinyl way as well, then I recommend you buy the whole Serrato setup.¬† That makes sense if you are mixing between vinyl and digital audio files, and you want a seamless appearance and/or to give the impression that everything you’re playing is on vinyl.
If you don’t have the money right now to start a record collection and buy turntables and the Serrato kit on top of that, yet you have a chance to play out, then don’t let the laptop image hold you back.¬† Figure out how to make your set so good that people respect and enjoy what you do and don’t care that you’re on a laptop.¬† I have been tweaking a template in Ableton for some time now and am sharing it with you on here for free.¬† But first, hear me out, so you know what my method is.
The Advantages of Ableton
DJing with¬†Ableton, you have the advantage of being able to pre-beatmatch your songs.¬† This doesn’t need to feel like¬†cheating, because you are freeing your hands up to do other stuff.¬† I don’t think you need to do with a laptop what people do with vinyl.¬† It seems redundant.¬† Take advantage of the tools¬†you have.¬† If you aren’t having to line up songs based on their BPM and aren’t having to concentrate on beat matching when you DJ, think of all the other things you can do¬†with your mix to make it good. ¬†Do revolutionary stuff that changes the game.
I’m not talking about showmanship, I’m talking about expanding the definition of DJ’ing.¬† I mean doing what most DJ’s don’t think of or try to do because they only think within the conventions of DJ’ing.¬† Let’s consider how we can break those conventions and use the laptop more as an instrument.
Ideas On Ways To Break Convention With Mixes (DJing With Ableton)
1. Mixing Disparate Genres
I’m interested in how we can be revolutionary with mixing.¬† I don’t think it has to mean putting a bunch of effects on what you’re playing or putting a ‘drop’ in every three minutes.¬† That, too, is now a convention.¬† But there are always conventions to be broken. I think it’s up to you and your style, but one thing I don’t see anyone doing is mixing a variety of genres and era’s together. I think you could be revolutionary in making things fit together that otherwise wouldn’t be put together. You could be taking the crowd on an eclectic journey. Just so long as you aren’t tuning the audience out and being too self-indulgent. You will always have to pay attention to the crowd, but what the crowd wants isn’t a certain song -they want a vibe and they want spontaneous moments and surprises. The typical ‘drop’ is no longer surprising -because we’ve all heard it and are expecting it.¬† Unless what comes after the drop is totally surprising.
That’s just me, though.
2. Short Attention Span DJ’ing
When I fist got to Tokyo there was a Japanese DJ I saw named ‘Homecut’ and he came in with a crate or two of records, got up on stage and from the moment he started played maybe thirty seconds or less of a record before mixing into the next one. He was clearly influence by hip hop DJ competitions and yet he was just this cheerful, skinny dude up there smiling and bouncing while mixing things together and the crowd went nuts.¬† The played records he stacked naked like pancakes next to the right turntable as he had no time to put them away before cueing up the next record / breakbeat.
That’s truly impressive, and the fact that it was vinyl made it more so. Yet you could still create that same vibe, even if your songs are already matched up to a global bpm and ready to go. Sure, people may be less impressed because it’s a computer, but you will also grab them somewhere along the line by messing with their expectations, playing short clips of stuff and moving on. You’ll also keep it fun for yourself because you’ll be so busy cueing up the next song, it’ll look like you’re working hard, and people seem to like that.
3. Anything Goes, As Long As It Works
I think what separates a good mix from a bad one is how the songs go together.¬† Ideally it should be a journey, not a road with a bunch of sharp turns.¬† That said, if you listen to The Avalanches DJ sets or their album Since I Left You, you can get a pretty good idea of an ‘anything goes’ approach to mixing.¬† They are doing more than mixing different genres, they are layering samples of things old and new to create an experience.¬† The juxtaposition of some old tv show theme from the 60′s against a hip hop or house beat makes for an unexpected listening experience.¬† The art of The Avalanches is that they don’t overdo anything, they keep a party vibe intact the whole time.
Common Amateur DJ Mistakes
The mistake amateur DJs make is thinking that just matching BPMs of two cool songs will make for a good DJ set.
While I did just recommend two seemingly random, ADD approaches to DJ’ing, I don’t mean your set should be an atonal, jarring mess.¬† Something has to link the songs together, and more often than not that means matching music in a similar key.
When you listen to a mix and you can tell something is off, you’re not the only one.¬† The whole crowd can tell.¬† This is because we are all raised listening to music that follows rules that eventually feel pretty natural.¬† Musical scales exist for a reason.
When you go on Soundcloud and listen to a mix that just doesn’t quite work, it is likely that the two songs aren’t in complimentary keys.
The amateur DJ often goes for playing hits / shit they think is cool, back to back with no regard for the key a song is in and how it matches the next song.¬† That’s when you get a series of isolated songs that don’t make sense together and the vibe of the room is broken.
Songs go together in more ways than just beat matching.
Stay tuned for my next post in this series on DJ’ing with Ableton, where I’ll lay out the tools¬†methods I use when DJ’ing with Ableton, as well as a super helpful piece of software to help you get your songs flowing nicely into each other. ¬†For now, here is my Ableton Buddy DJ’ing Template: