One of the hottest trends for clubs and festivals is incorporating drum machines and synths into DJ sets. Tastefully approached, adding live elements to recorded tracks is a great way to stand apart from the pack.
That said, I’ve seen some sets that just didn’t work because the DJ hadn’t thought the approach through. For one thing, the tracks in a set are already full-on productions, often without much room for added parts. Another pitfall lies in attempting to be rhythmic with these live elements. Dance music is so tightly sequenced that unless you have Prince’s keyboard chops or zero latency on your arpeggiator, the new parts just won’t align.
Based on my experiences performing with a Roland System-8 with DJ/guitarist Cloudchord, I’ve discovered two key approaches to seamlessly blend additional instruments with recorded tracks.
LESS IS ALWAYS MORE
Fig. 1. When playing pad elements over prerecorded tracks, use a bell-shaped envelope—an instantaneous attack and sustain with longer delay in between, and a long release to finish it off (demonstrated here using the Roland System-8).
If you’re a Brian Eno fan, you’ll immediately understand this approach: Be ambient. By staying in the background, you allow the track you’re playing to remain the focus, while you add a certain something that enhances the overall sound.
Start by creating a soft pad with a bell envelope—instant attack, long decay, zero sustain and long release (see Figure 1). Keep the filter cutoff muted if you’re using a saw or square wave, or use a single sine wave with no filtering. Then drench the whole thing in reverb so that whatever you play is simply a cloud of soft tones.
As for the notes, it is important to fully understand the key of each track you’re playing over, then figure out a pentatonic (5-note) scale that fits with it. Using the right pentatonic scale as you play over a track will keep you from making obvious mistakes. Fortunately, Beatport and other dance music sites now include the key of every song they sell, so it’s easy to get that info. From there, Google “pentatonic scale” and learn the essentials.
WHAT’S THAT NOISE?
A lot of dance music—notably techno and some tech house—is largely atonal, with very few elements in a specific key. Alternately, a lot of big-room melodic tracks are so dense that there is simply no space for added musical elements.
That’s where noise comes in. By using filtered noise bursts with reverb (the above bell-shaped envelope works well in this context), you can accent different sections of a techno track and blend right in. Just be sure to use them sparingly, so it doesn’t become tiresome for the audience.
Fig. 2. An envelope with a short attack and decay, full-on sustain, and a minimal release level works well when placing noise bursts over an EDM track.
For big-room EDM, consider subtly doubling the dramatic white noise whooshes that set up the inevitable big drops. Here, you’ll want to use a gate-like amp envelope—instant attack and decay, maximum sustain and a slightly longer release (see Figure 2).
From there, set your mixer to white noise only and the filter cutoff to minimum. Then, when the big rise comes, raise the cutoff frequency in tandem with the music. If you can add a long, tempo-synced stereo delay to your synth, it will blend even more smoothly.
Boom, you’ve just added impact without getting in the way.