A wealth of fresh faces and amazing talent is stepping into DJ booths around the globe on a daily basis. This influx of record-spinning rock stars has catapulted the art of the DJ to new heights. Now more than ever, if you really want to stand out from the crowd, you need more than just great beat-matching skills and solid selection chops. The other qualities that you need to be able to dazzle crowds and impress critics are a knack for exciting live performances and breaking new music, especially your own. An ideal way to bring such elements to your set is by adding choice pieces of studio gear — such as an effects unit, a sampler or a groove box — to your DJ rig. Fortunately, the market has plenty of cool new gear featuring innovative performance controls that are perfect for the job.
When deciding which type of gear will work best for you, there are several things to consider, including ease of use, connections and portability. Each piece of gear has its own unique learning curve and set of pros and cons, and not every unit will be a good match for your personality and performance style. Effects units are usually the easiest devices to hook up and learn, samplers present several additional challenges, and groove boxes are generally the trickiest units to smoothly integrate into your set. In this article, I will take you through the key steps to selecting the right hardware for yourself and explain how to seamlessly incorporate it into your DJ routine.
Several amazing DJ mixers are available that include onboard effects and sampling (such as the Tascam X-9). If every DJ booth that you stepped into had such a mixer, you would be set for real-time effects and sampling at every gig. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case, and even if the house mixer does have these features, you may not be familiar with the mixer itself. Obviously, experimenting with effects and sampling during a set, on an unfamiliar board, is risky business.
As a solution, some DJs have taken to traveling with their own mixers, swapping out the house mixer for their preferred board before their sets. This is a good idea but not always practical. For example, the house mixer might be custom-mounted directly into a desk in the DJ booth, making it all but impossible to replace. And even if the house mixer is easily interchanged with your own, keep in mind that you will need to arrive well before the club opens its doors in order to install your mixer. Most clubs have only one DJ setup that is continuously in use from the time the music starts until closing, meaning that every DJ who plays that evening will be using, and possibly abusing, your precious mixer — not a pretty thought. So unless you are a superstar DJ with a support crew that can handle all of these technical issues, you might as well forget about using your own mixer for every gig.
However, sometimes, you will need a submixer, a board that brings more inputs into the house mixer. For example, most house mixers provide at least four simultaneous inputs, but all or most of these inputs might be in use, and your system may require more inputs than are available. By connecting the main outputs of your submixer into one channel on the house mixer and then plugging the outputs of your gear into the submixer, you can feed more sources to the house mix. In some cases, a small, inexpensive line mixer (such as the Behringer Eurorack UB1202) will do the job. But if you need to be able to headphone-cue the individual sources coming into your submixer, you will need to use a DJ mixer because line mixers don't feature DJ-style headphone-cue systems.
Make sure to bring all of the necessary cables with you for connecting your submixer to the house mixer. A channel's line input on most house mixers will be phono and occasionally ¼-inch. Don't get the phono turntable jacks confused with the phono line jacks (sometimes also labeled CD input); although they look identical, they are completely different types of inputs. If ¼-inch jacks are available, use those instead of the phono jacks because they generally provide a higher-fidelity connection. Feed the house mixer your submixer's main outputs, which may be either phono, XLR or ¼-inch. If the house mixer's line inputs are phono, use the phono outs from your submixer. If the house mixer features ¼-inch line inputs, then use either the submixer's ¼-inch outputs and so forth. Depending on your submixer's output level (which should be set to its normal peak operating level), you may need to adjust the input channel's trim on the house mixer. Set the channel's input level as you would for any other source: mostly yellow on the output meters, with just occasional peaks. (Don't overdrive the input channel, or everything coming from your submixer will sound awful.)
As mentioned, effects units are a snap to use relative to samplers and groove boxes. Examples of cool effects units with innovative performance controls include the Korg KP2 Kaoss Pad and the Alesis AirFX. Both units allow you to manipulate multiple effect parameters in real time and put on a good show while you're tweaking. (The KP2 features a touch pad, and the AirFX has a light-beam controller.) Both units also feature onboard synth sounds and great factory presets for dialing up mind-bending effects right out of the box; the KP2 even boasts six seconds of sampling time.
Connecting an effects unit can be a simple procedure or may require some elaborate cabling, depending on the model of house mixer. In the ideal scenario, a house mixer will have a built-in effects send and return loop. In this case, connecting your effects unit is a no-brainer, as all the connections will likely be ¼-inch or phono, and the mixer's effects send (out from the mixer) and return (input back to the mixer) jacks should all be clearly labeled. But not all mixers feature a send and return loop; some only have an effects send whereas others make no accommodations for external effects. If there is an effects send but no return, you will need to bring the effects unit's output back through either a channel on the house mixer or your submixer. If there is not an effects send, a zone (or tape) output can work as long as the channel, through which the effects are being returned, can be removed from the zone (or tape) mix — otherwise, you're in for a serious feedback loop.
As a last resort, if you just can't do without your effects gizmo, but there is neither an effects send nor a suitable zone (or tape) output, it is possible to route the house mixer's main outs directly through your effects unit. But be careful: This setup can severely degrade the house mix if not done properly. For example, the house mixer's main outputs are probably XLR, and the effects unit's ins and outs may be phono. Converting the balanced XLR outputs to unbalanced phono and then back again is bad news. On the other hand, if your effects unit features XLR connectors (like with the TC Electronic FireworX), then it's possible to pass the mixer's main out directly through the effects unit with no change in signal quality. Just remember that to make these connections, you'll need to arrive at the club well before the music starts, because even with your effects unit left in bypass mode, the entire evening's lineup will be playing through your hardware — cross your fingers that its power supply doesn't die in the middle of somebody's set.
If you have invested in an effects unit with a fun controller interface, make sure to position it in such a way that the audience can see you work your magic. Dramatic gesticulations and enthusiastic head bopping while you're tweaking real-time effect parameters can really help to liven up a set. (The AirFX is particularly well-suited for putting on display because it can be mounted on a microphone stand, allowing you to get it up above all of the other tabletop DJ gear.)
There are two schools of sampling, though they are not mutually exclusive and actually work well together. Triggering one-shot samples — such as cymbals, synth stabs and vocal expletives — over a track to add excitement to your set is one method. Using samples in this fashion requires little explanation: Simply find a sample, cue it to an appropriate level (through a mixer channel) and trigger the sample in time with your beat — mission accomplished. Just about any sampler that can load and store samples, from an old Ensoniq ASR-X to a new Korg ESX-1, will work. Even a rackmount sampler like the Akai S2000, when paired with a MIDI controller (you must have some way to trigger the sounds), will get the job done. A sampler that features onboard effects (such as those just mentioned) is more desirable than one that doesn't, because a taste of reverb and filtering can really help to make a sample sound like it belongs in a song.
The technique of sampling a groove that you're spinning, looping the sample and then mixing out of the source material and into the loop as a way to extend your beats is the other school of sampling. For example, you've beat-matched two records that sound amazing together, but there's a break coming up in about 32 bars that you know will cause a train wreck. The solution is to sample and loop eight bars of your mix; then, without missing a beat, quickly fade from the records into the looped sample. Now, your amazing mix will play endlessly, giving you ample time to cue up your next selection. Learning to pull this operation off seamlessly can require hours of practice, but it is an extremely useful mixing skill.
DJ mixers with a well-designed onboard sampler can make sampling and looping your own grooves a snap. However, if the club's house mixer doesn't have that feature, the next best thing is having a DJ-friendly tabletop sampler (such as the Red Sound Cycloops or the Roland SP-303) in your back pocket. To sample your own grooves, you will need to feed the sampler a stereo output from the mixer. This can be a zone, or tape, output as long as the channel through which the sampler is being returned can be removed from the zone (or tape) mix. (The Cycloops is actually designed to take its input directly from the DJ mixer's headphone output, passing the headphone mix along to its own headphone jack — a nice design feature.) The sampler's output must be returned to a channel on your DJ mixer because you will need to headphone-cue your sampled loops for beat matching and segues.
GROOVE-BOX GRAB BAG
Groove boxes are pretty familiar commodities these days, from Roland's classic MC-303 and MC-505 machines to Korg's contemporary Electribe series. Packed with drum and synthesizer presets, tempo-synchronized effects and powerful sequencing, the sheer variety of sounds and performances that you can squeeze out of these boxes is astounding. But best of all, most groove boxes feature lots of big knobs and buttons and generally some type of cool controller (such as a light beam or a ribbon), making them perfect for live performance.
You can employ one groove box, or several, to add homespun beats, musical phrases or even entire songs to your set. They're also handy for composing parts on the fly that you can then mix with the songs that you're playing. Traditionally, a song on a deck and a part coming from the groove box are synchronized by beat matching while using the groove box's tempo control for gross adjustment and then the turntable's (or DJ CD deck's) pitch slider for fine tuning. However, thanks to innovative gear manufacturers, there are alternate methods. For example, the Electribe units feature a tap-tempo key that allows you to tap along with a beat to set the groove box's master tempo — extremely convenient. If your groove box (or other MIDI sequencer) doesn't have a tap-tempo feature, the Red Sound Micro Sync provides an external tap-tempo key. Its tempo can then be sent to your groove box via MIDI. A few units can convert an incoming audio signal (such as a zone output from your mixer) to MIDI tempo information (as long as the incoming audio has a clearly defined beat), including the Micro Sync and Korg's most recent Electribe units, the ESX-1 and EMX-1.
Connecting a groove box can be as simple as plugging the unit's stereo out into an open channel of the house mixer. However, if your groove box has multiple outputs or you are using more than one sound module, you will need several inputs. For this situation, you will want to employ a submixer. The ability to headphone-cue your groove-box parts (for beat matching and key) is always essential, so a DJ mixer is recommended over a standard line mixer.
If your system comprises tabletop units (groove boxes, effects, a submixer and so forth), chances are, you'll need extra tabletop space to arrange your gear in the DJ booth. For ease of use and portability, nothing beats a sturdy X-stand (such as those made by Ultimate Support) topped with a wood shelf. (The prefabricated finished shelves available at most hardware stores work wonders.) The X-stand system is particularly nice because it can be adjusted to a variety of heights, letting you set up your equipment at a level that's equal to the house mixer and turntables.
Keep in mind that the more compact your system is, the easier it will be to haul around and the more pleasant it will be to commute to and set up for a gig. For example, a groove box, a tabletop effects unit and a submixer can fit neatly into a lightweight DJ coffin (such as the SKB 5817DJ). Stuff some extra foam padding into the case so that everything fits snuggly, connect all of the gear to the submixer and mount a power strip in the case. Then, when you arrive at your gig, all that's left is to plug in the power strip to an AC outlet and your submixer's main outputs into the house mixer — it doesn't get much easier.
Even with your entire system self-contained in a single case, always make sure that you travel with plenty of extra cables and adapters to be ready for any situation — from a faulty cable to weird inputs on the house mixer. Also, pack an extra power strip and a small clip-on gooseneck light to ensure that you can see what you're doing in low-light situations. DJ booths can be dark, and you don't want to make any mistakes when you're plugging in to the back of the house mixer, especially if another DJ is on deck while you're setting up.
Carefully choose the gear that you want to incorporate into your sound, avoiding units that you are not completely familiar with and that may cause technical problems. Remember that the key to introducing an effects unit, a sampler or a groove box into your sound is not how many of these units you can get running at the same time, but what you can bring to the mix with just one unit. Working external gear into your set needs to be as fun and natural as beat-matching your two favorite records, and this will take practice. These units can add another dimension to your mixes, but they must also bring an additional level of excitement and showmanship to your sets.
LEAVE THE LAPTOP AT HOME
Rather than deal with dedicated hardware units, you might have considered taking a laptop to your gigs instead. Certainly, one software program (such as Ableton Live) running on a powerful laptop can provide real-time effects, sampling and lots of extra grooves to throw into your mix. Unfortunately, laptops are often poorly suited for the rigors of the road and the demands of a performing DJ because they are delicate and often temperamental. They are also expensive to repair (or replace) if damaged and require peripherals (such as an audio interface and a USB MIDI controller) that can be inconvenient to set up in a cramped DJ booth. Hardware units, on the other hand, are much more robust, generally more dependable, less expensive to repair or replace altogether and usually require much less table space. Don't get me wrong: I'm not suggesting that computers have no business in the DJ booth, but if you're looking for a piece of gear that you can depend on night after night, from one DJ booth to the next, a dedicated hardware unit — such as one of the models discussed in this article — is the wiser choice.