When Deadmau5 published his 2012 blog entry called “We All Hit Play,” he unleashed a firestorm of controversy in the electronic dance music world. His overall assertion was that regardless of the musicianship and production skills required to create great EDM tracks in the studio, performing those tracks at shows little more than playback, and thus requires very little talent. Veteran DJs cried foul. Insiders snickered. But keyboardists understood. Why? Because many of us have been using sequencers live since the early ’80s—and some trailblazers of electronic music used them well before that. Plus, we already know how to listen for keys and tempos, and have an inherent since of what makes a beat, bass groove, or synth riff danceable, funky, and engaging.
DJing can be a lucrative and fun gig for keyboardists, whether you’re doing creative things with other artists’ tracks, performing your own, or as most big electronic DJs do these days, both. In this special section, we’ll examine how to make your sets maximally musical—all with your inner muso respecting you in the morning!
1. Pad Controllers
Add a flashy controller to your rig, preferably one with lots of LEDs. This is the closest cousin to standard DJ style, but if you approach it from the perspective of a musician, you can really add a lot of spice to your sets without raising the “accident factor.” Take Austin-base boutique manufacturer Livid’s Base controller, for example. It has eight touch faders, eight touch “knobs,” and 32 pressure-sensitive pads. Since all of these controls feature customizable RGB LEDs, it looks like Christmas on Coruscant—making for an extremely visual performance.
More familiar controllers on the mass market (and thus more likely to be available for trying out in a music store) include Novation’s compact and affordable Launchpad S (reviewed Feb. ’14) and for those who want an extension of Ableton Live that becomes a musical instrument in its own right, Ableton’s own Push controller (reviewed Jan. ’14). Many DJs might consider Push too large and heavy for carrying in a backpack to a cramped DJ both, but schlep-accustomed keyboardists likely won’t blink.
The secret with any controller such as these is not to simply approach it as a bunch of volume sliders and drum pads. With a controller this flexible, you can assign two groups of three or four faders each to a single channel and its effects. For example, in my rig, I have my first four faders assigned to highpass filter, lowpass filter, echo, and volume. In this manner, I can create absolutely seamless blends between tracks or loops and add a touch of my own production flair to each segue. But that’s just how I do it. Another producer could use those same faders for bit-crushing, buffer/stutter tools, even macros that sweep the parameters of several effects at once. The trick is to avoid the pitfall of thinking strictly in terms of volume or EQ and giving each fader your own unique touch as an artist.
Then there are the pads. As keyboardists, we’re fairly well conditioned to think of these as drum triggers, because until a few years ago, that’s all they ever were. Nowadays, every pad can be anything from a toggle button to a MIDI note to an effect switch, in addition to standard drum pad fare. What’s more, certain controllers with pressure sensitive pads can be used to dynamically raise/lower the value of a continuous controller or effect level, kind of like aftertouch.
Top Pad Controllers
•Keith McMillen QuNeo
•M-Audio Trigger Finger Pro
•Novation Launchpad S
•Akai APC Mini
2. Grooveboxes and Drum Machines
Another time-honored way to get interactive with your performances is to add a groovebox or drum machine and sync it to your software. Granted, this will work most effectively with software such as Native Instruments Traktor and Ableton Live, as opposed to old-school DJ apps like Serato Scratch. For adding impact to a performance, this is a very cool option for two reasons. First off, hardware is more playable and features lots of real-time controls out of the box. Secondly, thanks products like Korg’s Volca series (reviewed Mar. ’14) and Akai’s new Rhythm Wolf, you can add real analog substance to a digital set.
If you decide to add a groovebox to your rig, there are a few things to keep in mind. The most important is how to sync the groovebox to your DJ software. In the case of a product like Roland’s new Aira TR-8 (reviewed May ’14), just set a few preferences, plug in a USB cable, and you’re good to go—and it’s also your computer audio interface. Elektron’s new Analog Rytm offers USB MIDI sync, as does Dave Smith and Roger Linn’s near-legendary Tempest. With Korg’s Volca series you can choose between analog sync or a five-pin MIDI connection. And of course, there are hundreds of old MIDI drum machines out there, both new and used. You just need to add a USB-to-MIDI interface to your gig bag (and at this point, maybe a portable hub, too).
Once you’ve got the groovebox synced, it’s just a matter of plugging it into one of your DJ mixer channels and bringing it in at key moments in a gig. What’s a key moment? Well, imagine starting a show by building a groove on a drum machine in real time from scratch, then switching over to your laptop and bringing in a slamming opening track, rhythmically synced. We’re talking real drama here. If you really want to go whole-hog with your groovebox, Dave Smith and Roger Linn’s award-winning Tempest (which does come at a premium price) is an absolute monster for this type of performance.
Top Groovebox Picks
•Dave Smith Instruments Tempest
•Korg Volca Beats
•Elektron Analog RYTM
•Akai Rhythm Wolf
3. Add an iPad
The ubiquitous iPad is another easy and powerful way to add impact to a DJ set. Deadmau5 and Moguai have used them live as touchscreen controllers for external gear, thanks to apps like Lemur (far left) and TouchOSC, which allow the above-mentioned controllerist approach (albeit without the pleasure of truly tactile response). So that’s one way to quickly integrate an iPad into your live performances.
However, with the vast array of iOS synths and grooveboxes, as well as exotic sync options like Korg’s WIST protocol for the ultra-ambitious, there are almost as many musical options for iOS users as there are for standard Macs and PCs. Best of all, the iOS tools are invariably less expensive than their computer-based counterparts, so you can grab an iPad and load it up with tons of synths, then experiment until you find one that fits your personal style—all without breaking the bank.
The coolest thing about integrating an iPad synth into your performances is the fact that so many of them include Korg Kaoss-style interfaces (including Korg’s own iKaossilator app) so if you spend some time analyzing the key of your favorite tracks, then create presets for your iPad synths that constrain the interface to those keys and the proper scales, you can just whiz your finger around the touchscreen to play synth riffs, knowing that you’re going to rock solid. This makes it easier to keep the DJ side of your performance under control, especially if you’re picking and mixing the majority of your tracks on the fly.
With all of that in mind, the iPad approach is probably the most practical way to add either fine-tuned control or synthesis to your performances. Stay away from the iPad Mini for these purposes, as it’s just too small for your fingers to be precise enough. Spring for the full-sized iPad air or even the immediately previous fourth-gen model. You won’t regret it.
Top iPad Synths
•Moog Music Animoog
•Wizdom Music MorphWiz and SampleWiz
•Liine Lemur (controller app)
•TouchOSC (controller app)
•See our iPad DJ app roundup on page 46 and Korg Gadget review on page 64.
4. Soft Synths
Thanks to an abundance of extremely portable USB keyboard controllers—like the Korg NanoKey 2, Keith McMillen QuNexus, and let’s face it, countless others—it’s possible to add soft synths to your approach with a minimum of fuss. In Ableton Live, it’s a simple matter of setting up an additional channel/track that contains one or more soft synths, then simply activate record on that channel while your DJing your set.
With Traktor and Serato, it’s a wee bit more complex and requires a bit of at-home testing to make sure your CPU can handle the load of two robust, independent music programs at the same time. Why? Because since neither of those DJ apps support plug-ins, so the only synths that you can use in conjunction with them are those that have standalone operation. Fortunately, the many of the most popular mainstream soft synths do (in some cases, you have to select it during installation). Arturia and Native Instruments offer standalone versions of all of their soft synths. Korg’s Legacy collection also includes standalone versions of their biggest vintage hits. Rob Papen offers a free app called RP-Dock that serves as a wrapper for his line of soft synths, as well.
Of all five approaches, this is the most cumbersome as there are several factors involved for making things run smoothly. First off, you need to check and double-check that both apps can consistently access your audio interface while simultaneously operating and leave your CPU usage within tolerable limits. This includes trying out high-polyphony loads and lots of EQ and effects, while also searching your library for new tracks in real time. Yes, it’s a fair amount of “road testing,” but it’s the only way to ensure there are no hiccups in your performances.
There’s another caveat: Full-fledged soft samplers (think Native Instruments Kontakt or MOTU MachFive) are dangerous in this context because bandwidth demands can shoot way up depending on the samples you use. Imagine having two stereo audio files buffering from your hard drive, while simultaneously streaming multiple notes of polyphony (say, legato piano with sustain) from the same hard drive, which perhaps has some fragmentation from lots of use. With anything less than a 7,200rpm drive, you’re asking for trouble. While an SSD may be fast enough for this type of work, you’ll need one that’s capacious enough to accommodate both your DJ collection and your sample libraries, with room to grow. Several soft samplers can alternately load all instrument data into RAM (if you have enough), but that’s yet another time-consuming step, and setup and turnaround times between EDM acts in a dance club are notoriously tight.
It’s also worth noting that some mini keyboard controllers come bundled with a few “lite” soft synths. For example, Korg’s compact MicroKey 25 comes with a virtual M1le and a bunch of Applied Acoustics goodies. Novation also includes several synths with their controllers, including the BassStation and V-Station. It’s definitely worth shopping around for a solid starter combo in this area.
One last word when performing with soft synths: Never overlook the untapped potential of the Keytar.
Top Mini Controller Picks for Soft Synths
•Keith McMillen QuNexus
•Korg NanoKey2 and MicroKey
•Novation Launchkey Mini
5. Hardware Synths
Well, duh. After all, the simplest approach is to bring a keyboard synth in addition to your laptop, audio interface and controller. At the very least, you’ll be able to play it if your computer crashes. It also requires the minimum amount of maintenance and management of all five options we’ve examined.
The trick again is to find a portable instrument that suits your sound and fits in your gig bag. If you’re an analog head, the Arturia MicroBrute is definitely the way to go. If you want club-friendly flashing lights and modern amenities, the Korg Kaossilator Pro and Roland TB-3 are great picks. And for ultimate hipster cred, consider the possibilities of more exotic gear like Yamaha’s Tenori-On or Teenage Engineering’s OP-1.
The bottom line with all of these options is to really go beyond just beat-matching two tracks by other artists. That era, as we currently know it, is about to end. It’s time to blaze new trails in the world of live performance.
Top Compact Hardware Synths for DJing
•Korg MicroKorg, Kaossilator 2, Volca Keys