Two Great Ways To Play Better Pop DJ Sets

Brice Sarver
Read time: 5 mins
Last updated 6 April, 2018

Pop music
If you’re a pop DJ, the time has never been better to learn to mix properly and deliver DJ sets that combine the best of EDM with today’s chart music.

Mainstream radio is inundated with tracks from artists who used to be almost exclusively grounded in Europe’s club scene. Nowadays David Guetta, LMFAO, Martin Solveig, Swedish House Mafia, and Benny Benassi make regular radio appearances globally. Even pop/club and rap artists are teaming up with electronic producers, expanding their musical repertoires to include four-on-the-floor beats, developed synths, and chord progressions characteristic of techno, house, and trance.

This is all good news for the pop / dance digital DJ! Read on for a detailed look at two cool ways to enhance your DJing style while incorporating modern pop music into your sets.

The birth of digital pop DJing

First, though, a little history. Until a few years ago, top 40 tracks were difficult to DJ – they came in a range of tempos and often lacked DJ-friendly intros and outros. Even worse, they spanned different genres with different beat structures. If you didn’t have a club remix (or extended version you made yourself), most of the DJ’s job consisted of track selection followed by crossfading. Since this requires no technical skill, it wasn’t uncommon to see so-called DJs playing off of iTunes or WinAmp in bars and clubs.

In my opinion, digital DJ culture is still recovering from this interim period: lots of digital music, only a handful of software choices, and a lack of hardware controllers, stigmatising DJing who didn’t use vinyl or CDs.

Mashups mashed things up, but only for the talented
Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs), such as Live, Logic, and ProTools, provided a convenient solution. Many aspiring producers realised that software emulation of a recording studio produced professional results at a fraction of the cost.

Girl Talk
Girl Talk: Making mashups look easy – but nonetheless, it takes real talent.

The internet made mastered, studio-quality instrumentals and accapellas accessible to a wider audience, and soon digital versions of mashups (tracks composed of elements from two or more different tracks) began to appear. Mashup DJs can be incredibly popular – just look at Girl Talk – but there is a large gap between professional and novice productions.

Modern pop now demands proper mixing
But recently, things shifted again. If you use pop tracks in your sets, you might have noticed that tempos have been creeping up as of late. Around 124 to 130 BPM used to be reserved for house, progressive house, and some techno, yet many Top 40 club tracks currently fall within this range. This means you really ouught to be using this pop music to produce properly mixed and innovative DJ sets…

No surprise here; electronic dance music has exploded, and popular artists realise that they need to appeal to the masses to stay popular. You may be surprised to see that some rap and hip-hop beats are taking on a more “electronic” feel. All of this is great for the DJ, as it allows one to sync and beatmatch tracks more easily.

You also have more tracks available to play throughout the set, as the tempo of the tracks may not need to be adjusted more than, say, 4% at most between tracks. But this also means you really ought to be using this pop music to produce properly mixed and innovative DJ sets.

Two ways to play better pop sets

So here are my two great ways you can DJ with modern, dancefloor-friendly pop music, while still retaining the skills and techniques of solid beatmatching DJing:

1. Learn how to create “instant extended versions” for beatmatching

While many Top 40 tracks that are structured like electronic productions do not have extended versions, it’s easy to make your own on the fly. Many have a short beat or beat-and-bass introduction that lasts for a few bars. You can utilise looping features to grab these elements, then liberally apply EQ to isolate the frequencies that you want.

S4 filters
You got filters? Now’s the time to really start using them!

For example, say that the track starts out with a downbeat, a hint of bass, and a hat on the off-beat. Turn down the high and mid frequencies all the way, and turn down the low end slightly. You can now begin to bring the track in following traditional DJ techniques. When track progression is required, the high and mid frequencies can be brought into the mix as desired.

For a more dynamic effect, try using a pass filter to cut the range you want (high, low, or band pass), then modulate the filter and the EQ simultaneously. All of this is taking place while a loop is running, and the track can be brought in completely at any point simply by hitting “Loop Out”.

2. Mix the past with the present using samples

As many readers of this blog are aware, sample decks can take creativity to a new level. Because many popular tracks fall within the tempo range of older dance anthems, it’s easy to use these to give your set a “taste” of older tracks while a modern track is playing. This requires careful EQing and a bit of knowledge of music theory.

Ideally, you will want to select two tracks that are in the same key or in complementary keys. (Check the link at the end of this post for more stuff about mixing in key.) These samples can be thrown into the mix during a quieter part in a song for dynamic effect.

For electronic DJs, capturing beats and basslines this way can provide a much-needed boost during a breakdown, even more so when the track sampled is one that everybody is sure to know (think Darude’s Sandstorm, Tiesto’s Traffic or Fedde Le Grand’s Put Your Hands Up). Use those sample decks to modify tracks on the fly; they can be used for more than one-shot samples or cue juggling!

The Ableton effect
To take this to a more advanced level, try creating tracks or samples in Ableton Live and then routing them to a free channel on your mixer. You will know the global tempo of your track, so it can easily be mixed into tracks playing on the other channels, regardless of the source. You will want to have any tracks or samples that you analysed and gridded prior to playing, as this process can be time consuming and difficult to do when you’re not DJing, let alone in the middle of a live set.

Take samples or loops from other Top 40 tracks and set them up in a logical fashion in Live’s grid view. As long as you modify the global tempo to match whatever track is playing at the time, you will have a great deal of samples available for use that will be in sync at the push of a button.

To conclude…

Using these techniques is a great way to keep the energy going on the dancefloor. When well executed, these techniques allow a set to keep its modern appeal while adding in hints of older, tried-and-true tracks that are sure to be crowd pleasers.

Modern pop music almost makes it too easy to mix and match in this way, which done properly can really life a crossover set to great new heights.

Are you finding it easier to construct creative DJ sets now that electronic dance music and pop are closer together than ever? How are you mixing and matching styles in a creative way in your DJ sets? We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

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