5 Easy Steps To DJing With Live Musicians

saxnbeats

Do you ever wish you had the opportunity to DJ with live musicians? To get your crowd just as excited as when attending a live concert? Do you ever wish that your DJ sets had the extra dynamics and improvisational qualities that live musicians can bring?

Because make no mistake: Adding live musicians to your set changes your crowd’s club experience massively. It creates an atmosphere similar to that provided by a cohesive band, they type of band that instinctively play off of each other. Your audience is dancing to your tight beats and at the same time watching an engaging performance by these musicians.

And while there is no one formula for creating chemistry between musicians and DJs, there are techniques you can use to successfully incorporate live musicians into your DJ sets.This simple guide is designed to help you.

1. Understanding the set-up

The overall goal of this guide is to help you create a energising vibe and experience for your audience by adding live elements to your sets. You’ll achieve this by hiring musicians to play with you. Some musicians will be stationary, and others will be roaming around the club playing their instruments.

The majority of clubs or club rooms have a capacity of say 150 to 300 people, so you do not always need to mic your musicians to the club sound system, especially if they are walking around the dancefloor. Clubs with 400+ capacity do require mic’ing to the sound system, using wireless microphone systems and extra gear. While beyond the scope of this article, it’s not so hard to do this. Don’t let it put you off.

Here’s an example of one of our DJ/musician live sets in 2009: percussionist, sax player, flute player and two DJs.

 


2. Choosing the right musicians

So what kind of musicians should you look for? Well that’s the fun part. If you are predominately playing electronic dance music, you’ll need instrumentalists who are mobile and do not require an extensive set up. Horn players (trumpet, saxophone or flute), percussionists (congas, bongos and timbale) and keyboardists (jazz or soul keyboardists) are suitable for club venues.

Jazz club

Jazz clubs are a good place to search for likely musicians to accompany your DJ sets. Pic: Waldru

Why those three instruments types? Most of the tracks you play already contain drums, bass, vocals, synthesisers and some effects. Adding extra live instruments on top would be complementary to the overall sound, without overdoing it. Two to three musicians should be more than enough; adding more will complicate things.

The best way to find musicians is to go see them play where they gig, such as at jazz clubs or live venues. Great attributes to look for include stage presence, solid technique and improvisation. Approach them during their set breaks or after the night is over. Make sure you commend their performance and ask them politely if they are willing to collaborate with a DJ live in a club. Don’t discuss rates yet (we’ll cover that below). Exchange information and follow up with them the following week.

You can also find local musicians on Craigslist, however make sure they have YouTube videos of their gigs or live performances. Don’t waste your time with amateurs; only look for experienced ones because their ears will be quicker at picking up notes and rhythm timing.

3. Holding the rehearsal

I suggest rehearsing at least once before the live gig. Rehearsing at the club at an earlier hour is ideal. If that’s not available to you, rehearse in your room or a friend’s basement a day or two before.

It is your responsibility to lead and orchestrate all the “band” members. Here’s how (assuming you hired only a saxophonist and a percussionist):

  1. Make sure you know the song key of your tracks (http://www.mixedinkey.com/VIP.aspx?VIP=DD is good for this)
  2. Start with tracks with minimal vocals and lead synths (dubs are perfect for this)
  3. Call out the song key to the saxophonist (if he’s experienced, you won’t need to do). Give him/her some time to get accustomed to the style of music, especially the rhythm. Ask him to improvise with riffs and short stabs. The goal is to have him comfortably playing a short solo on top of your track
  4. Try reducing the gain of the mid frequencies (10 o’clock) in the mixer and give room for the saxophonist to blend in
  5. Your percussionist should be complementing the rhythm by changing his hit patterns every two to three minutes
  6. Give hand cues or signs when you are about to mix in another track
  7. After rehearsing six to nine tracks, you should be in the “zone” with all members playing off of each other like one cohesive unit

When everyone is feeling happy with the rehearsal, it’s the perfect time to discuss rates – if you can get this far without doing so, of course! I usually pay myself 50% of the DJ budget and split the rest with the musicians. Why 50%? I was the one who got them the gig and handled the event promotion and marketing. Also, if the performance goes well, I might book them for more gigs, ensuring future gigging opportunities for the musicians.

If the DJ budget is low, it won’t be feasible to hire the musicians unless you pay them out of your own pocket. That’s not good business! (Of course, you can always find people who are willing to play for the love of it. Good luck with that, though…) If they want more money, convince them to play the first night for a lower rate (usually 40% or 50% less than their asking price). Otherwise, move on and look for other musicians.

At times, I’m able to increase the budget from the club, as long as the owners know it will attract more customers in the future. So make sure your first show is a hit and bigger budgets will follow.

4. Handling the gig

Sound check

Empty dancefloor, practice tunes cued, musicians ready… time for final preparations.

Make sure you have already cleared this gig with the club before moving forward. Arriving at least an hour early gives you enough time to set up, do a quick sound check and have your musicians get accustomed to the club environment.

Here’s a simple checklist to run through before getting started:

  1. Percussionist has enough space to play his instruments. People usually love to dance around them, so make sure there’s a decent space available, preferably close to the DJ booth or the dancefloor
  2. Your saxophonist must understand when to look for transition cues and to listen for key changes
  3. Musicians should be allowed to have one or two drinks during their performance. I like to keep it professional and never drink during the job. Drunk musicians are sloppy musicians. Provide them with water bottles and drink tickets before the night starts
  4. Pre-plan the area where your saxophonist will be walking around. You don’t want him roaming around the bar area. People are there to talk and order drinks, and he’ll be a distraction. He needs to be around the dancefloor or in-out of it
  5. Make sure the gain of your booth monitor is lower than normal. You want to listen to your percussionist and saxophonist during transitions
  6. Remember to turn your mids down for the saxophonist to blend in

Musicians are able to perform for or five songs in a row, afterwards they’ll be fatigued, especially horn players. So don’t expect them to play all night. Give them breaks every four or five tracks. It’s a great time to bring out some of your vocal or peak-time tracks (depending on the time of the night, of course).

5. Dealing with unexpected problems

You should handle every situation with a calm and collected manner. Never leave your booth for an issue outside of your reach! I usually have a friend of mine (usually my promoter) helping me keep an eye on the musicians. Here are common problems you’ll run into and how to resolve them quickly and peacefully:

  1. Saxophonist/trumpet player is off key and his timing is also off, to a point where he’s becoming a distraction – In this situation try to flag him over to the booth and ask him politely to take a break because he seems tired. Let him relax for a song or two, then make sure to tell him that the next track is in the key of (whatever the key of the song is) and put him back on
  2. Percussionist is competing with volume of track and he’s sounding loud and aggressive – Also politely flag over to the booth and ask him politely to tone it down and enjoy the rhythm of the track, instead of competing with it
  3. A drunk patron is harassing your musicians to a point where they are unable to perform – Ask your friend to look for the club security and to take notice of that harassing patron
  4. One of your musicians is drunk and talking to people everywhere while they are not on break – Fire them immediately!

Conclusion

There are so many exciting ways to make your live set different and vibrant, but as I hope I’ve shown, one of them is definitely to hire experienced musicians to play with you. You will have a better experience, create more engagement and build a bigger fan base by having musicians in your DJ sets.

Keep in mind that it takes a few months for you to understand your band members and learn what tracks they play best with. If you aren’t getting a great performance from them in the first couple of gigs, just be patient. Your persistence will pay off.

• Mohamed Kamal aka Kimozaki is a DJ/producer turned entrepreneur from Washington DC. He founded audyolab.com in 2011 to help DJs become better producers.

Have you played with live musicians before? If so, who did you hire? Guitarists, bassists, keyboardists? And how did you manage to keep it all together? Please share your experiences in the comments.

Comments

  1. @BartyKutz says:

    great timing on this post. i’m about a month into a collaboration with a drummer.

    one question i have is how do you promote DJ + musicians, i’m having trouble finding a non-confusing way to promote it. it’s easier to get people to come out to see me DJ alone, but i think it can sound so much better with live drums.

  2. “Horn players (trumpet, saxophone or flute)”

    Just to clarify this bit: Horn players play French Horns. Brass players on the other hand play (mainly) Trumpets, French Horns, Trombones and Tubas. Both Saxophone and Flute are woodwinds.

    BTW, DJ AM and Travis Barker had one of the best DJ vs. Live instrument combination I’ve seen! Worth checking out.

    • True if you’re talking about classical musicians, although in Jazz, R&B and the genres related to these, the term “horn players” are referring to practically everyone with a wind instrument since at least the 1940’s (Earth Wind & Fire’s wind section consisted of sax, trumpet and trombone and called themselves “The Phenix Horns”, and Miles Davis did a classic 80-ies album called “The man with the horn”)
      Back to the article:
      this is exactly the kind of stuff me and my DJ colleague are about to get into since we’re horn players first, DJs secondly. Anyone had any experience with plugging the mics into the same sound card and laptop that you’re running traktor through? I’m thinking of running two armed tracks in ableton to handle the instruments at the same time as DJing.

  3. DJ Forced Hand says:

    The only time I’ve done this (I was ambushed with this when I get to the event), the musicians acted like they wanted to “show up” the recorded music. I played the songs they requested but they played louder than the playback volume each time I tried to get the volumes at the same level (and I made sure to reduce output in their range), they ad-libbed a very long time (which kinda’ made have to guess where I should be looping), wanted me to go back to a point in the song… while we were playing live… to a crowd (thankfully I had a cue point set near there) and when one of them decided to sing over the lyrics (with their own) they were off-beat and sloppy. I could see the potential with this style of music (like RUN DMC), but it’s so very easy for the live musicians to make everything fall apart… maybe this is how they live in their world, but a little planning, courtesy and respect would have helped here.

    I didn’t have the opportunity to fire these guys, but I should have fired myself from this project. Your steps would have been helpful had the band actually cared about other people. I found out later that the band wanted me to “try out” for their backing beatbox even though this was normally a DJ event and they were being featured as live entertainment.

    Has anyone else had these problems (dealing with live musicians)?

    • celtic-dj says:

      i hear you mate…tryed this 7 years ago with a drummer playing over club trance..we practiced a lot and it made me realize that its very hard to blend a musician in already perfect tracks , also a very good understanding of music and sound mastering is required…(a full drum set requires 5 mics and a sound technician ).
      the drummer naturally wants to show his stuff which can completely change a track…
      i gave up as my knowledge in sound and music was limited (and cash..)

      was inspired by this :

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVR1dgDecM4

      (Push Live – Universal Nation Live recorded @ Trance Energy 2001)

      thanks for the tips…hope to try this again…

  4. My friend DJ BMF had been doing this since the 90s. And it always worked.

  5. I’v seen it from the other side. I’v played drums when my friend was DJing and I must admit that it was fun… for very specific part of the crowd. Some people were fascinated to see live musician in the club (you know, you dont see that every night) but I’v got constant feeling that many of patrons were seeing me as a person who tainted their little kingdom of digital sounds with his big awful drumset ;) It’s sad to say, but playing live to the typical club music is really borring for the drummer. You can spice up things here or there, but most of time you must follow simple brain melting bass snare pattern. I’v also played once with a very skilled turntablist, and it was a lot more interesting, but it was more Jam Session style gig than a regular club night (and I’m sure it was more pleasurable for everyone)

  6. Schrottrocker says:

    I’ve seen this once, a DJ was performing with a sax player and a guitarist. At times the DJ just let a record play out while the musicians kept on playing freefrom as a duo; the DJ got back in and later on the 2 guys would take a break and let the DJ go on his own for a while till they jumped back in. Worked pretty well, but I guess this whole thing needs a lot time to get used to for everyone involved as it is uncommon for both DJ’s and musicians to perform together. I think a guitar player can add a lot as he can play solos as well as accompaniment and even all on his own. A sax player alone can’t do that, or well yes he can but a sax solo all on his own gets boring soon.

    Another time I’ve seen sth like this there was a DJ playing all night (and he was real good) and as kind of peak of the show he let a guy play along on a harmonica. Wasn’t too much of a good idea – the music was on full volume already so he turned up the mic for the harmonica guy to the top. Ever heard a harmonica with its shrieking frequencies through club speakers on full boost? Not good. The floor got a little less crowded at that point and it was packed before.

    Still, if it’s done right this can be great but by any means you need real good musicians, not just your best mate who started practising a year ago. They need to be good enough to listen to what you’re doing, they should have an ear for when you give them space to shine and when they better hand the focus back to you. The audience will enjoy things best if each of you guys takes the lead at some time.

  7. Good add!!!

  8. I’d love to see more comments on this post. :-/

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