5. Control The Energy Level
Energy Level Mixing
We've never seen this technique described online, and since it's new to so many people, we're happy to share it with you here.
Hi-hats are often used in music to build intensity. You can think of the entire high end of the spectrum as the area with the most energy to make people dance. To test this in action, play any song you want, and cut the high frequencies with the EQ knob on your mixer. In almost every situation, the energy seems to get sucked out of the room.
The more hi-hats in a song, the more danceable it tends to become. Other sonic elements like big riffs, white noise (the elongated shhhh sound, akin to static) and other percussive sounds typically contribute to this energy. Conga slaps, for example, are almost exclusively in the high-frequency spectrum, which is what makes them stand out so infectiously.
The real question is how to use this information. It's pretty subjective, but for the sake of making our point, let's imagine that all the music in the world can be plotted on a "dance energy" scale of 1 to 10. If you listen to classical music, the energy level is around 1 or 2. Lounge music is 2 or 3. House music starts around 4, while Afrojack-style tracks can get as high as 9 or 10. If the song makes people jump up and down like Daft Punk's "One More Time," it's typically a 10.
Think about the music you play in your own DJ sets. Where does it fall? For our personal collection, the answer is somewhere between 5 and 8. When we play an opening set, we'll start with lower energy music in the range of level 4 to 5. During peak time, we'd play at level 8 or 9.
Again, this isn't an exact science, so you can create your own scale. Maybe you play minimal German techno--level 4 to most people, but let's say to you, it's level 9. You can choose your own numbers, but try to keep it fair. As a DJ, it helps to be brutally honest when you analyze how any track you play compares to the rest of your music collection, because you're not just playing music for yourself.
Here's an example of a song that starts in Level 2 or 3, and goes up to 4:
And here's an example of a Level 9 song:
When you mix with energy level in mind, it's wise to change intensity just one step at a time. As a general rule, mixing from a lower level to a higher level will liven up your dance floor, but it's a good idea to hold the throttle back a little, rather than crank it up all in one shot. If you're mixing a level 4 song, you can go into level 5, but level 9 might be too much of a jolt for your audience.
In many ways, energy level mixing is a lot like harmonic mixing. Just as the Camelot Wheel assigns a key value to tracks that are harmonically compatible, your energy level values can also inform your choices for your DJ set. And when you combine energy level mixing with harmonic mixing, you're elevating your own DJing skills into new territory.
So let's say you're playing a level 6 track in the key of 5A. You can mix into a level 7 track in 5A to get a lift in energy that also sounds musical. When you have that kind of control over your set, your dance floor will groove harder.
By the way, with practice, this technique will help you when you transition between different genres. If you're playing house music at 126 BPM and transition into hip-hop at 99 BPM, the energy of the floor will drop if you're not careful. So when you're about to play a slow track, make sure it has a higher energy level, and you can make the transition smoothly without losing your dance floor.
Echo and Delay
We've talked about how hi-hats and white noise can add energy to your music. You can also use your mixer's echo and delay effects to increase the current energy level of whatever you're playing.
Imagine that your current song is at level 5. If you want the crowd to get a bit more hyped-up during the second part of the track, then set your mixer's effect setting to echo, and choose a beat-synchronized value like 1/2. This effect will double the intensity of the hi-hat. You can use the beat-sync knob to fade the value up and down--so for example, if you choose 1/4, it will be four times more intense. Every time you use this effect, the perceived energy level of your song can increase by 1 or 2 points.
In general, you'll get good results when you use echo or delay, but don't go over the top. We've found that if you stick to using effects only once for every 15 songs you play, and keep the effect strength at no more than 25 percent, the change gets noticed for its uniqueness and taste, without just sounding like a gimmick. We recommend watching the dance floor when you do it too--this way you have visual cues from your audience to tell you when to stop. And lastly: this is strictly a "live performance" tip. It only comes across on a big sound system, so we don't recommend doing it for your podcasts or radio shows.
When to Chill Out
Some of the best works of art are appreciated as much for their contrast as their content. In music, professional musicians often refer to the importance of knowing when not to play, and the same holds true for DJing. Using breakdowns, we as DJs can create contrast in our performances, giving our audience a chance to chill out and appreciate a carefully crafted mix.
Well-placed breakdowns can be the difference between an average night and a great night. The key is to stay attuned to the dance floor. If dancers look tired, this could be your cue to highlight the contrast between a driving beat and a breakdown. An elongated breakdown gives everyone some down time, but it also creates anticipation for what's coming. When the beat finally kicks in again, the change shifts the focus back to you, ensuring that you have your audience's full attention.
There's a subtle art to pulling this off effectively. Most popular dance music is dense with sound and very light on space, so it's smart to be open to reaching across to other genres--ambient techno or even old-school drum 'n bass and dubstep, for instance--as an option for grabbing and dropping atmospheric breakdowns. Of course, with artists like Swedish House Mafia, you'll find some songs that provide ready-made space.
When you combine this approach with harmonic mixing, you'll do even better. A long melodic breakdown in a minor key will sound dark, but a long breakdown with a happy melody in a major key can really lift the crowd when the beat comes back in--especially if you step up the energy level on top of it. Always be ready to experiment, and you might surprise yourself.
Timbaland is a prime example of a producer who fully understands the concept of space. In Nelly Furtado's "Say It Right," Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River," and the Pussycat Dolls' "Wait a Minute," all of which he co-produced, his bass lines are not pounding every beat, but they still manage to control the song. He uses an artful and economic layering of sounds to create syncopated melodies that grab the listener with catchy hooks and well-timed breaks. He doesn't need to fill in every single beat; by leaving something out, he lets our brains fill in the gaps.
Listen to a clip of Timbaland's beat from "Say It Right" and compare it to a house beat by Swedish House Mafia. The house beat is in 4/4 time with a relentless drive, but Timbaland's beat is airy and loose, with a syncopated feeling that you rarely get in most house or electronic music.
Silence can be powerful, even if it's only for a fraction of a second. If the entire club goes quiet because you're in the middle of a beautiful breakdown, it's okay. It means that you're in control of your set, but you're also making it clear that your first concern is for your audience, and that's a good thing.
Before we move on, here's a short list of some great DJ performances that illustrate how you can maintain a solid level of energy throughout your set:
Sasha, Global Underground 13
Sasha and John Digweed, Northern Exposure trilogy
Tamas Horvath's 15-minute entry in Mixed In Key's 2009 DJ Contest
Paul Oakenfold, Tranceport