Grab a Partner: Working with DJs

Occasionally I’m asked why I collaborate with DJs when I do a dance remix project. In fact, the question usually comes out like this: “Why do you work with DJs? You’re already a keyboardist and a producer. What the heck does the DJ do when you’re remixing a track?

The answer is as varied as the collaborations themselves. Some DJs have experience with grooveboxes and wave editors. Other DJs have an encyclopedic knowledge of music and beats. Consider how much time you spend learning about filters, sequencers, and the latest effects plug-ins. Well, professional DJs spend the same amount of time honing their craft, perfecting segues, checking out new tracks, and spinning live sets.

While I love doing remixes on my own, there’s a lot of knowledge that these cats bring to the table, and we all know that more knowledge is a good thing, right? So this month, we’ll be covering the various ways that you can collaborate with DJs to break new ground with your sound.

THE COLLEGE OF MUSICAL KNOWLEDGE

One of the indicators that a DJ is worth his or her salt is the depth of their musical knowledge. If they’re obsessed with having the latest tracks before everyone else and they can rattle off a litany of every significant hit and underground white label record – organized by genre, label and year – then you know you’ve struck gold.

Why’s this important? Well, for one thing, someone with this degree of meticulous attention can turn you on to tons of new tracks that are likely inspire and move you. For another, they can listen to your mixes and make recommendations based on what the current trends are. Like it or not, remixes are to music what fashion is to clothing. If you’re doing something that’s sooooo last month, a good DJ will steer you in the right direction.

What’s more, because of their practical experience in clubs, they know what the crowds like. Accordingly, they can tell you what kind of response your track will get, and what labels will be most receptive to your sound. In a way, knowing a successful and knowledgeable DJ is almost like having a virtual A&R veep around.

ARRANGEMENTS

Arranging a dance mix is very different from writing a three-minute pop song. Often, newbie remixers miscalculate how long the various segments of a remix should be, with introductions that are too short and breakdowns that aren’t long enough. One of the keys to dance floor success is to build momentum with your arrangement.

Because their livelihoods depend on it, good DJs instinctively understand the elements of a good remix arrangement. They know how to hype up a crowd with the right type of breakdown, and how to bring the choruses back at the right time for maximum impact. For example, Licious, one of the DJs I’ve been working with for the past year or so, has helped me develop some techniques for constructing killer intros that are easy for novice DJs to mix into, yet are also interesting enough to keep the crowd’s attention as they evolve. One very simple formula he uses is to start with drums or percussion only, introducing new elements every eight measures. Then he waits at least 24 bars before bringing in the bass or rhythmic synth parts.

MASTERING

Club sound systems often sound radically different than your home studio monitors. It can be hard to get a handle on how to deal with the low end, much less the overall EQ and dynamics of your mix. If you’ve partnered with a DJ who has a residency at a local club, they’ll often let you try out your mixes on the club system before the crowd arrives Better still, your DJ can mix your tune into another song, so you can hear your track in relationship to an established hit. This ear-opening courtesy has saved my butt on more than one occasion. Until I heard them on the club system, I would’ve sworn those mixes were club-ready. While the track plays at the club, grab some paper and take notes. Sometimes there are many subtle adjustments that you’ll want to make, and your notes will ensure that you remember them all.

THE MIX MAN COMETH

Gabriel & Dresden are quickly becoming one of the hottest progressive remixing teams around, reworking tracks from top artists like Annie Lennox and Britney Spears. In a recent discussion with Josh, the keyboard-playing and programming half of the duo, explained how working with Dave Dresden raises his mixes to new heights.

“With over 30 remixes under our collective belt,” says Josh, “I can tell you without a doubt that working with Dave has changed the way I make – and think about – music, for the better. Dave’s 17 years of buying music and DJing gives him a perspective that is unique. His ear is tuned to what will work on the dance floor as well as what will still be remembered when the lights turn on.

“I’ll admit that it took me a while to get used to the idea of working with someone who wasn’t a Logic wizard or a synth-programming god, but now that we’ve done so much together, the lines between the technical and creative roles have blurred. We communicate on a musical level, and whatever needs to be done on the computer to make that happen, I just do it. I view him as an equal even though I’m working the gear. It’s sometimes hard for us super-technical geeks to let a bull/DJ into our china shop/studio, but I couldn’t recommend it more. It will seriously change the way you do things in ways you couldn’t predict.” Coming from a source as successful as Josh, this is sound advice to consider.

Techno Tools: Jammin’ with DJs

DJs are starting to be recognized by traditional musicians as artists in their own right. After all, being a DJ does require musical skills. The DJ has to match beats precisely to create seamless transitions between tunes, be a wizard at crossfading between songs and loops, read a crowd’s mood to program the right grooves and songs, and, of course, do that scratching thing. But where does all this leave guitar players? With a nice hole to fill, that’s where!

I recently performed at the Battery Park Festival in Cologne, Germany, playing guitar over sequenced loops. I’ve found that E-Bow, distortion, and feedback work particularly well over dance beats, and I’ve also discovered a few other ways to get the most out of guitar/dance music collaborations.

Let the DJ control your level. Typically, the guitarist will play more or less continuously, and the DJ will bring the guitar in and out of the mix as needed. A direct setup is optimum–given the intense noise levels at the average dance club, miking your amp isn’t really an option.

Voice your EQ properly. Dance music has lots of low end (kick drum and bass) and high end (hi-hat, shaker, etc.). Boosting 1kHz by 6dB to 8dB lets the guitar “speak” and cut through the mix without cranking up the volume.

Be sensitive to transitions. A sustained, distorted chord that swells in and out–or a singing high note with lots of whammy action–can help smooth transitions between songs and loops. As DJs use headphones to cue up one turntable while another turntable is playing, you may want to use a “Y” connector to tap your phones into the DJ’s headphone output. Hearing what the DJ hears will alert you to upcoming key or style changes.

Sync delays to the tempo. Dance music typically hovers in the 120 bpm to 145 bpm zone. This translates to quarter-note echo times of 500ms to 413ms, respectively. If you’re not sure of a song’s bpm, start with a 450ms delay and add just enough feedback for a couple of repeats. (The more feedback you use, the more important it is to nail a precise delay time, otherwise each successive echo will sound more off the beat.)

There’s a whole world of dance music out there, and guitar has only begun to be integrated with it. Check out a dance club, get to know some DJs, and play a few jam sessions to see if you click. You might have a lot of fun–as well as open up a new live-performance option.