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.