This space — my corner of Medium, is typically reserved for thoughts about web development and other computer science and technology topics. Today, however, we discuss another passion of mine: electronic music.
Specifically, we are going to talk about the art of DJing.
Leading a live, mesmerized crowd through a musical journey — aka DJing — is to me a form of art; something that uniquely talented folks can master with practice.
For a long time, I’ve recorded and shared sets of electronic music that I’ve mixed. My threshold for “success” was met by playing pleasing tracks, transitioning smoothly between tracks, and maintaining a general positive “flow” throughout the set.
This weekend, I had a musical experience that altered that definition of success. I’ve learned that, as a DJ, I wasn’t being sufficiently ambitious.
I had the great fortune this weekend to see one of those uniquely talented artists who has certainly mastered the artform of DJing: Eric Prydz.
Though I have seen Eric play several times before, this weekend was particularly profound because of the seriousness I’ve recently been applying to my hobbyist take on DJing. And because one of the sets I experienced, Sunday night in the industrial Factory93 setting in Los Angeles, was one of Prydz’s all-time best. In my opinion and among those who know his music well.
I’ve always taken great pride in the fact that I record my sets live. I select tracks on the fly. Nothing is pre-recorded. My sets are actual DJ sets.
This weekend, I learned — or more precisely, had reiterated to me — that a good set isn’t just about stringing along tracks that the crowd (or, in my case, listeners) wants to hear. The Prydz magic that I naively hope to emulate at my own level of competence is only partly constituted by track selection and equally as dependent on what I call musical “layering”.
I DJ using a Traktor Kontrol S5 controller and the Traktor Pro software.
I typically play off two decks, with the third and forth used for track selection. While decks one and two play through my external speakers, I preview tracks I might select later in the mix by playing decks three and four to my headphones only.
Using decks three and four in this manner shortchanges my sets’ potential.
My new strategy is to have decks three and four constantly spinning with music in the key of the master deck, synced to that deck’s tempo. Those decks will be looping through vocals or harmonies that I like, providing me an option to “layer” these sounds on top of the master deck as I choose. These “background” tracks can also be “brought forward” while I transition tracks on deck one to deck two, and vice versa. I’ll also be able to apply filters to the master deck that blend harmoniously with the sounds coming from the background decks.
This tweak in style may not seem significant, but it really changes fundamentally the way I mix music. Currently, I spend a lot of energy selecting as quickly as I can the best, and best fitting, tracks. Going forward, I’m going to stress less about which tracks to play, relying on the belief that my catalog is well curated, and instead just ensure that the three (or four) that are spinning at any given time are in the same key, sound good together, and remain synced.
The artistry will be in the transitions, the teasing of anticipated melodies that I can pull “forward” from the background decks, and other stylistic flourishes.
Thus, the strategy shifts from being one about track selection and more about the way the tracks are played. I feel like this will allow me more flexibility to tell the set’s story, and lead listeners on a musical adventure, rather than just provide them a bland series of tracks.
The next step in my DJing evolution is to remix tracks. This will really empower me to tease out exactly the sound and vibe I desire. But I have no experience with music production and want to get better at mixing first. This is all just a hobby for me, so its priority lags work and relationship commitments.
A long time ago, I mixed with four decks in the way described here. But I took a break from Djing for a while and lost this perishable skill. Given the inspiration experienced this weekend (thank you Prydz!), I look to return to that strategy. And, when successful, upload and share my next, best mix. And when I do, I’ll update this post and provide the link here.
Thanks for reading! And enjoy the music.