Gigs - Why Keyboardists Should DJ

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there was a music scene that consisted entirely of DJs who’s biggest claim to fame was that they had rare vinyl and could beat-match records.
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By Francis Preve

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A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there was a music scene that consisted entirely of DJs who’s biggest claim to fame was that they had rare vinyl and could beat-match records. It didn’t matter whether they could find middle C or explain lowpass filtering, they had music you couldn’t find anywhere and could play it skillfully. Often, they’d release tracks that were produced by some local keyboard whiz kid and claim these tracks as their own. Now that everyone can buy any track online, no matter how obscure, then use computer-assisted beat-matching tools, the playing field is level—or rather, it’s one on which keyboardists and trained musicians have a distinct advantage.

Why should you care? Back when I was strictly a programmer and producer with some well-received remixes under my belt, I asked Josh Gabriel what I needed to do to take my career to the next level. He said, “You need to DJ. That’s the only way you’ll reach a wider audience and improve your production.” To be honest, I ignored his advice for a year. But once I started DJing, doors flew open. No longer was I just the geeky guy with a roomful of synths. I was now the mastermind behind the decks, taking audiences on a new musical journey each weekend and loving every minute of it. With electronic music experiencing its biggest comeback since the mid-’80s synth pop wave, the time to jump into DJing has never been better.

What Kind of DJ?

Now that you’ve decided to be a DJ, the big question is “What kind?” There are three main types: mobile, resident, and artist.

A mobile DJ plays weddings, corporate parties, bar mitzvahs—all those events known to keyboardists as “casuals.” Before you turn your nose up at this type of work, the top DJs in this field make hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars per gig spinning “Celebration” and “Baby Got Back” for well-fed inebriates.

In general, a resident DJ works the local mainstream club and plays the big Billboard hits mixed with the more commercial side of hip-hop. This is a trifle cooler than weddings, but you’ll still have to contend with playing music you may or may not like and dealing with drunks who get astonishingly rude if you don’t play their requests, not to mention club owners who’ll gladly throw you under the bus if you don’t consistently pack the dance floor. You’ll also need the latest pop hits at your fingertips for every show, so regular homework is involved.

Avid TorqFinally, there’s the artist DJ. If you’re making electronic dance music, this approach makes the most sense. Financially, you’ll make a fraction of what the previous two types make when you’re starting out, but you’ll also be positioning yourself for greater success over the long term. What’s more, it’s infinitely less demanding than running around playing live shows in a cover band. If you’re up for a challenge, you can really set yourself apart from the pack by incorporating keyboarding via a small controller like a Korg NanoKey or Akai LPK25—or a full-size synth if you’re so inclined. Again, this is a long-term play, but for many, it’s the natural evolution of the keyboardist/producer.

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We’ll assume you’ve opted to skip learning CD decks and to rely instead on soft ware tools. Laptop-based DJs have countless options. If you want to “keep it real” with a classic approach, quite a few options rely on a turntable interface. Native Instruments Traktor and Serato are gold standards (arguably, the electronica culture leans Traktor and hiphop leans Serato), but Avid Torq (shown) has a devout following as well. The caveat is that you’ll have to start thinking like an old school DJ, albeit one with computer-assisted beat matching and sound sculpting tools.

Ableton LiveThe de facto standard soft ware for keyboardists-turned-DJs is Ableton Live. It lets you mix and match multiple tracks, vocal parts, loops, and even soft synths you may want to play in real time, so that your performance is far more complex than just “two turntables and a microphone.” In addition, you can integrate pretty much any controller on the market. Knobs, faders, keys, buttons, pads . . . everything is fair game.

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Controllers and Audio Interfaces

Speaking of controllers, there are countless options available, ranging from Akai’s APC40 to Korg’s Nano line of USB controllers. The APC40 will get you there in style, with some caveats. First, the APC is physically one of the largest controllers on the market and doesn’t include an integrated audio interface. Since so many DJ booths are rather small, squeezing an APC into a space that often already includes a pair of CD players and a mixer can be a claustrophobic proposition.

At the opposite end of the size spectrum, Korg’s NanoKontrol and NanoKey have been a part of my touring rig since their introduction. They fit in any gig bag, take up minimal space, and if one breaks, you can get a replacement for around 50 bucks at any Guitar Center and most Best Buy stores. The faders on the NanoKontrol have a very short throw, so you’ll need a steady hand when mixing.

Between those two size extremes, there’s a lot of really great gear from Novation (the Launchpad), M-Audio, and others, so it’s really a matter of doing some research to find what works best for your DJ style and wallet. The same range of possibilities applies to audio interfaces. There are options for pretty much any budget and rig size, so again, research is key. That said, I’ve been using my Native Instruments Traktor Audio 2 with Ableton Live for two years now, without a single hiccup. If anything happened to it, I’d buy another for a hundred bucks.

Organizing Your Tracks

Keeping your DJ “crate” organized is the key to smooth performances. With DJ soft ware, the process works pretty much the same way as in iTunes, with custom tags and folders being the core approach. With Ableton Live, there’s more to consider, so I’ll describe my system and you can modify it to suit your needs.

As an artist, I’m constantly shopping for new, innovative tracks on the cutting edge of the techno, minimal, and progressive styles, with a bit of electro thrown in for good measure. I’ve often said that dance music is “fashion you can hear,” and since fashion changes quickly, it’s critical to keep everything organized by when it was released.

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Accordingly, I create a new Ableton Live set every quarter and fill it up with tracks that were released that season. Then, I label the set (“Q1_2011” for example) and save it. Within each set, I color code each track. Red tracks are maximum-energy crowd pleasers, yellow tracks are mediumenergy fillers, and purple tracks are vibey, chill-oriented pieces for the very beginning of the night and when the party is winding down.

In addition to color-coding, I create dummy channels to hold the tracks I want at my fingertips at all times. These channels are labeled according to the intros and outros of the tracks they contain, since some tracks begin or end with full musical arrangements and others begin or end with just drums. If you’re playing a track that ends with full music or a bass line, it’s handy to know this in advance to avoid messy clashing of musical keys.

The channels are labeled as follows: Drum In/Drum Out (short for intro and outro, not input and output), Drum In/Music Out, Music In/ Drum Out, and Music In/Music Out. I wish that all producers would craft their tracks with Drum In/Drum Out, because those are by far the easiest to mix, but until that happens, I have to use this system. If you’ve opted to use Torq or Traktor, you can easily add abbreviations like DIDO and DIMO to your track names for easy reference.

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Finally, I collect and save all of the tracks for each set so that it’s self-contained, then I store them all in a single folder on my hard drive. This way, when I want to go back and play a classic track, I can use Live’s file browser to find the material quickly and drag it into the set I’m spinning.

Segue Basics

Regardless of what platform you’ve selected, there are some universal tricks for clean segues (transitions) between tracks. For one, always make sure you know when the music and/or bass (as opposed to just the drums) begins and ends. One of the most ugly mistakes a DJ can make is having clashing key signatures or bass lines during a segue. You can sometimes get around a bass line clash by using a highpass filter or heavy low-cut EQ on the track you’re bringing in, but that’s a Band-Aid, not a cure. The only real solution is to make sure that the tracks don’t clash in the first place. Th is is why drum intros and outros are so important in dance music.

A product called Mixed In Key actually does a solid job of scanning and detecting the key of each track in your crate, then renaming the title of the track to include the key. When you’re mixing with key in mind—a skill that keyboard players coming to the DJ game already have—musical magic happens that wins respect from other DJs as well as the audience.

Another cool trick for Ableton users is to create some custom drum grooves (using MIDI clips and Live’s Drum Racks feature) to play over awkward transitions, creating a seamless vibe that makes you stand out from the pack.

Demos and Networking

Back in the day, you’d burn a CD and send it out. Thanks to the Internet, once you’ve got the tools and have had some time to rehearse your new craft , you can create a 30- to 60-minute demo and post it to You can then direct promoters, club owners, and other potential clients there.

To build a fan base, post a monthly (or even weekly) downloadable mix or podcast on your Facebook page. If you regularly give your fans a free mix for workouts or commutes, they’re more likely to come out and hear you spin live. Bands do the same thing with recorded live shows or new tracks, and this strategy helps you build your brand as a DJ very quickly.

Don’t forget the in-person side of social networking. Find out which clubs are playing the music that’s closest to your style and start going out. Don’t go up to the owner and diss the current DJ—that’s the biggest mistake a newbie can make. Be part of the scene, make friends, and get a feel for the crowd. Then and only then, slip a few people a business card with your SoundCloud URL and say you’re looking for gigs. Subtle and smooth is the ticket—noone wants to be accosted with pushy pitches to play their venue.

So get your act together and put your best foot forward, tastefully. The rest will happen naturally. And if anyone says “You can’t call yourself a disc jockey—you use a laptop,” hit ’em back with this gem: “It stands for drive jockey.”