After giving your all in a live performance without turntables or even a CD player as backup, it's hard to know how to respond when a fan comes up after the show and says, “You guys are great DJs.” I used to try to explain what was happening onstage and disseminate a little information about live electronic-music performance, but this approach got old fast. Most fans don't want to hear about sequencers, MIDI cables and synchronization, especially after a couple of drinks and a great show. Nowadays, I just respond with, “Thanks, glad you enjoyed the show.”
This story is a perfect illustration of the bothersome dichotomy that exists when performing live electronic music. On one hand, you want the audience to understand the genius of what you're doing onstage. On the other hand, a room full of people staring transfixed at the stage and following your every move instead of dancing with wild abandon to your beats can be annoying. Fortunately, you can put on a good show that covers all the bases, giving audiences exciting visual stimuli while enhancing their urge to get down.
LIGHT UP THE STAGE
There are moments during every performance when you're busy tweaking the knobs on a MIDI controller or your head is stuck in a laptop. When you bring synths and computers onstage, this comes with the territory. A great way to keep things visually interesting, even when you're standing still and not focused on the crowd, is to invest in a few of your own stage lights. These aren't meant to replace the club's lighting system, just merely to enhance what already exists. In cases when a club has few lights and no lighting operator (which is often the case), a couple of automated effect lights or gobos (a light with interchangeable colored gels) and an inexpensive strobe can make a huge difference in your stage presentation.
Fortunately, many cool, multicolored lights are available for less than $200. Some of these even feature sound-activated control, so they can put on an automated light show in time with your beats all by themselves — no operator needed. For example, Chauvet offers the Line Dancer, which features 144 beams of crisscrossing, rotating lights and an onboard sound-activated controller for less than $150. American DJ and Odyssey also offer similar products in this price range. American DJ has a line of ministrobes, one of which, the DJ SF-2, retails for $16.
Gobos and strobes can get pretty hot, so you'll want to keep them up and out of the way of your gear and anything flammable. For this purpose, you can purchase tripods that can be fitted with multiple crossbars designed specifically for attaching the lights using metal clamps. A 9-foot American DJ metal tripod with a single crossbar will run you about $80. Standard-issue lighting clamps are about $9 each.
And what goes better with dancing beams of colored lights than fog? That's right, for about $100, you, too, can have your own personal fog machine. For example, the Odyssey Fogzone 800 retails for $99. It outputs 2,500 cubic feet per minute with blast times as long as two minutes, and the fog-juice tank holds 0.8 liters. (Fog machines make fog from fog juice.) A gallon of fog juice runs from $25 to $40, depending on the brand, and scents (such as strawberry or hemp) can be added for about $5 dollars extra per gallon. Just make sure that the fog isn't cascading over your gear, as it is moist and rather acrid to breathe.
DRESS TO IMPRESS
There is no reason why all of the lights onstage need to be anchored to a tripod; consider wearing a few lights yourself. This feat can be accomplished using EL wire, an electro-luminescent wire that glows brightly but never gets hot. EL wire is not a glow stick and requires an actual power source, such as a watch battery, to illuminate. Using a small power sequencer, you can make one or more strands of EL wire blink for a wearable light show. You can make all sorts of things out of EL wire, from jewelry to body wraps to sculptures. EL wire toys and jewelry are available all over the Web. If you plan to make your own EL wire creations, you should know that the original EL wire patent holder, LyTec, warns against the health risks of using imitation products. Cadmium, a heavy metal, is used as a stabilizing agent in EL wire, and Lytec claims that imitation products may contain dangerously high levels of this cancer-causing material.
Not to be left out of the light show, the gear in your rack can also be illuminated with a colorful, pulsating light. The Racklight company manufactures 19-inch rackmountable neon-colored light bars that produce no heat, making them completely safe for your gear, even after hours of use. My favorite model is the Chameleon, which can be set to cycle through several different colors. One Racklight will run you about $60.
JUMP UP, JUMP AROUND
Enthusiasm is infectious. If you look like you are having a good time onstage, the audience will pick up on that and enjoy the show that much more. Jump around, hoot and holler, exaggerate your knob tweaking and instrument playing with extra movements and wild gesticulations. Plug in a microphone to your mixer and hype the crowd with exclamations like, “Are you here to party or what?” or some other phrase that would seem appropriate. If you have the resources to build a keyboard stand that you can bend and move as you play (without having your keyboard fall off), such as the one used by Charlie Clouser of Nine Inch Nails or that which BT used when he toured with his live band in 2000, a contraption such as this is also a wonderful performance tool.
Between sweeping colored lights, flashing strobes, scented fog and glowing neon accessories, you're sure to dazzle audiences. No matter what club you're playing, items such as these will help set the mood for an evening of revelry. Remember to keep up an enthusiastic impression no matter what: Just because your computer crashed and you're rebooting doesn't mean that you should stop bopping your head to the beat. And did I mention that when you're not using the lights for a show, they're killer in the bedroom?