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.
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):
- Make sure you know the song key of your tracks (https://mixedinkey.com/?c=DD is good for this)
- Start with tracks with minimal vocals and lead synths (dubs are perfect for this)
- 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
- Try reducing the gain of the mid frequencies (10 o’clock) in the mixer and give room for the saxophonist to blend in
- Your percussionist should be complementing the rhythm by changing his hit patterns every two to three minutes
- Give hand cues or signs when you are about to mix in another track
- 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
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:
- 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
- Your saxophonist must understand when to look for transition cues and to listen for key changes
- 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
- 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
- Make sure the gain of your booth monitor is lower than normal. You want to listen to your percussionist and saxophonist during transitions
- 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:
- 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
- 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
- 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
- One of your musicians is drunk and talking to people everywhere while they are not on break – Fire them immediately!
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.
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.