An excellent way to add a live-performance angle to your DJ set is to invite an experienced musician to jam along with the songs you're spinning. Live musicians can not only add entirely new parts and sounds to your mix, giving your sets a distinct sound, but also help enhance the show. A live musician will bring another side to your stage presence without being such a big distraction that dancers will become stunned stargazers (as often happens with bands). With a bit of planning, incorporating a live musician can be a simple operation that pays big dividends.
PICKING THE PLAYER
Although almost any competent musician, no matter the instrument, can be live accompaniment, certain instruments are well-suited for jamming with DJs. Vocalists, both singers and rappers, are great for adding lyrics and impromptu utterances on the fly. Hand-percussion — such as bongos, congas and tablas — can add a tribal-house feel to your sets. Keyboard players with synthesizers and groove boxes can also bring a large assortment of exciting sounds and sequenced patterns to the table.
No rule says that different instruments wouldn't work, either — drums, theremins, electric guitars or violins are all potential accompaniments. But no matter the instrument, a musician must possess several crucial skills to jam successfully with a DJ. The ability to play by ear and improvise is paramount because DJs rarely have setlists, and sheet music is generally out of the question; the musician must be able to come up with parts on the spot while listening to a song, often for the first time. To pull off such a feat, musicians must not only be extremely well-versed on their instruments but also be able to play in pitch and in tempo. This often requires making tuning and tempo adjustments on the fly to match the tuning and tempo between songs and the changes caused by the DJ's pitch-slider moves. (Keep your pitch-slider moves to a minimum when the musician is playing, because big movements can cause a live performance to become suddenly out of tune with the song.)
CONNECTIONS AND BLENDS
To have cue and volume control of the musician's performance, you will need to connect his or her instrument's output to your DJ mixer. This will let you easily mix the live performance with your songs and mute problem spots (such as an out-of-tune performance) at the flip of a channel. Many DJ mixers have a dedicated microphone channel, and connecting a vocalist's mic to the associated ¼-inch or XLR input is a no-brainer. The outputs of most instruments will likely be ¼-inch, and because the line-level inputs of most DJ mixers are phono connections, you will need ¼-inch — to-phono cables. (Stay away from ¼-inch — to-phono adapters, as they are awkward hanging off the back of a mixer and can come loose easily.) If you are using a DJ mixer that has ¼-inch line inputs, choose these instead of the phono connections whenever possible to ensure the best fidelity. When connecting the instrument, be sure to use a channel's line input (sometimes also labeled CD), not the phono input (which isn't designed for line-level signals and will sound awful).
Making the musician's performances blend well with the tracks that you're spinning is the key to forging a seamless and professional-sounding mix. Employing a compressor to level out the dynamics of the live signal before it reaches your DJ mixer helps to give you a signal that's a breeze to blend. Send the instrument's outputs through a compressor set to a 5:1 ratio or higher with a threshold level that's sure to catch all the of the signal's peaks; then, connect the compressor's outputs to your mixer. Just about any decent pro-audio compressor (such as the dbx 1066) will do the job.
The auspicious use of reverb, delay and other effects is also an important technique for blending live performances into your mix. The key is to apply effects that sound similar to the effects being used in the current song. For example, if the song features a long delay and a large hall reverb, send the live performance through the same types of effects. If your DJ mixer has built-in effects, you can use these to process the live signal. Otherwise, insert a multi-effects processor between the compressor and your DJ mixer. Just about any good pro-audio multi-effects processor will work, but effects units designed specifically for DJs (such as the Alesis ModFX series of processors) make selecting presets and tweaking parameters a snap. Other types of effects are also handy for making a live signal blend in smoothly with a track.
When working with live performers, it's crucial that they can hear themselves and the music. If the DJ booth is open and facing any of the house speakers, hearing themselves and the music won't be a problem. However, if the DJ booth is enclosed or sitting well behind the house speakers, you'll need to set up a monitor system for the performer. This is easily handled by sending the main mix to a headphone amp (such as the Rolls MX44) or a powered monitor (such as the Mackie SRM350) set up exclusively for the performer. To ensure that the board's master balanced outs going to the house amps are not impeded, feed the monitor setup from any alternate main mix outputs (such as zone or unbalanced secondary main outs). The catch in this setup is that the performers will only be able to hear themselves over their monitors when their respective channel is enabled on your mixer. For private cueing, to hear themselves amplified even when they aren't in the house mix, they'll need their own submixer.
It might seem obvious, but if you're bringing a live musician onboard for the first time, it's wise to rehearse with him or her at least once before going public. Record the rehearsal so that you have a clear picture of what he or she brings to your set and if any improvements can be made. In fact, when you gig with live musicians, it's a great idea to make a habit of recording your sets, as you never know when a great remix might materialize.