FAN BASS: PUSHING BUTTONS OR PUSHING BOUNDARIES
Lorin reopens the Fan Bass vault and answers a classic question about performing and DJing that has been the subject of much recent internet hype waffle:
QUESTION: Hey Lorin – I’ve always wondered, and I think I speak for a lot of people when I ask this, but what exactly do you do on stage when you’re performing live? A lot of people argue that electronic music is nothing more than a DJ pushing buttons and that it takes “no skill.” I always tell them it is much more than that – obviously it takes skill to produce everything that you have, and I feel like your shows do in fact involve much more than just pressing play and pretending to mess with knobs, but could you please elaborate on how you actually do perform? I think that a lot of people are also curious. Keep spreading the word brotha!!! – kidonwheels
This is a long answer. And yet I feel I am leaving a lot out. It is a complex issue, and I considered posting a 1,438 part tweet but this seemed like a better approach, so here are my thoughts on it:
Personally, i have a really technical style of DJing, and a very aggressive/interactive approach to playing a set: i like to get my hands dirty, take risks, and steer people on a powerful journey. I am constantly pushing myself beyond my comfort zone, expanding the boundaries of how to make people freak out and lose their minds. I work 20+ hours every week of the year on new content, new effects and new techniques. I view DJing as an art, and quite frankly as an honor, to perform for a captive audience in a world of short attention spans and overstimulation. During a set I work nonstop, frantically combining unlimited loops & sounds & samples & effects into customized “live remixes” . I also get the fuck down, I let myself dance and enjoy the music the same way I do when I am at home working in the studio: i LOVE music, and I have been producing, remixing, sampling, synthesizing, creating, and DJing for over 15 years. Most people love music, I think. But a lot of today’s DJs are getting by with the bare minimum, and there is a lot of confusion about what is really going on. Are DJs just “pressing play”? What does that mean? Is it bad?
To really understand the hot topic of “button pushing” let’s get clear about several things:
1. What is the definition of a “DJ”?
2. The difference between “mixing” and “selecting”
3. What is happening up on stage during a DJ set?
4. What is “live” VS a “live experience”?
5. What is all the fuss about?
The verb to “DJ” means you are playing music; broadcasting it for someone else to enjoy. That’s it. It doesn’t mean you are curing cancer, it doesn’t mean you are playing guitar in a rock band. However, just like the verb “running” there are a million ways to do it. You can run a race, you can run in place, you can run to escape danger, you can run towards someone you love, you can run for fun, you can fake-run, you can run on a treadmill, you can run up stairs, you can modify your run and skip or sprint or gallop or moonwalk. There are a million ways to run, and a million reasons for running. Same with DJing. There are a million ways to DJ (a small sound system at a house party, a playback set on the radio, a simple showcase of music you wrote for a special occasion, a seamless mix of your favorite songs, etc). What matters to me is the experience of those in attendance, how delighted/moved/stimulated/pleasured they are. That said, I am a fanatic when it comes to pushing the limits of creativity, and always throwing more “ingredients” into the pot.
2. Mixing vs Selecting
Before you have any songs to mix, you have to select which songs to play. Specifically in the heat of each moment, you can choose to play any song in the universe, but what is the PERFECT SONG for each specific circumstance? There is no right answer but the proof is in how the audience responds. Some people have such meticulously developed sonic preferences and style, that the act of selecting the right songs and the perfect order/sequence of songs truly is an authentic form of art. There is an acute sensitivity required to balance out the different personalities within a crowd (the larger the crowd, the more conflicting the tastes & preferences) from balancing the masculine & the feminine, the hard & the soft, the ugly & the beautiful. And that’s where mixing comes in: how do you mix from one song to the next? Is it a fluid, inaudible transition (almost trance inducing because you cease to notice that time is passing or that songs are changing from one to the next)? Or is it flashy and jarring and high impact (like in traditional hip hop mixing where each mix is a performance, and there is a big wow factor at play)?
People can mix percussively (matching beats) or melodically (matching melodies) or sometimes they mix various components of songs (a beat from one song, vocals from a different song, etc). And of course, the spectrum of “mixing” is so broad, it is impossible to define every possibility or approach. Sometimes the best thing you can do is just let a song PLAY, and not pollute it with a bunch of additions or interference. And sometimes the opposite is true: a mix can be so interactive that you are juggling multiple components, and physically producing a live sequence on the fly; in essence creating new live music. You can sample sounds that already exist (pre-recorded) or you can produce noises and sounds in the moment. Combining everything into a seamless mix thus becomes excruciatingly involved and complex.
3. What is happening?
On stage, a person might be “mixing” a seamless set (a “continuous mix”) of songs (pre-recorded songs on a CD, a record, an mp3, etc) or they might be standing up there faking it (in essence playing “air guitar” or sonically lip synching) or they might be in between mixes (just enjoying the music and the moment) or waiting to make the next move, or they might be focused on showcasing a song and less focused on technique. The most basic form of DJing i can imagine is playing one song at a time, and stopping in between each track to announce or credit the song (like on the radio). It is still a mix, but it is not continuous. There is a great level of detail within a continuous mix, meaning there is a vast spectrum of interactivity, from doing the bare minimum, to really pushing boundaries and even making true art. On stage you could have 4 different “DJs” all standing in front of a lighting rig with their hands in the air, pretending to mix; or you could have one human being working relentlessly to mix a perfect seamless musical journey; or you could have a technical genius performing technical acrobatics like scratching or cutting, etc. And sometimes a song hits so perfectly, all i want to do is dance or just feel the bass rattling my body, and the audience can feel when you are enjoying yourself. It is important to let yourself go, be natural, and have fun.
4. What is “live”?
In today’s digital world, almost anything can be virtually synthesized or bootlegged or reproduced. Piracy is a huge problem for the music industry and the movie industry, but what cannot be mass-pirated is the EXPERIENCE of being in a room with hundreds of other humans. This experience is enriched by being in the same room as an artist you enjoy, as well as being treated to state of the art production, lighting, video, multimedia (Music + People + Big Sound System = Fun). Everyone knows the difference between listening to a song on a great stereo system, vs on crappy laptop speakers. And it only gets better when there is a massive, perfectly tuned concert-grade sound system, which broadcasts the music in the way it was intended to be heard and felt. At the end of the day, this live experience is more important than what is happening on stage. I have seen DJs completely fake their mixes, but the audience doesn’t know or doesn’t care, and is having the time of their life. And personally I have been working my ass off at times, blowing my own mind with how complex and technical my mix is, and all the while nobody can even see my hands or notice what I am doing. I may mix live, and interact with my music and my set to the full potential of what is possible with today’s technology, but the most exciting thing about “live” is all the different personalities and nervous systems gathered together in one unified group, and how all these separate individuals react, interact, and interplay.
*There is of course a difference between DJing (playing back songs in a continuous mix, no matter how complex or creative or interactive) and “live performance” where an artist or band is actually sequencing, playing live synths, incorporating live musicians, etc…it is a huge grey area, and there’s not enough time/words to address this topic currently. The point of this post is that even if an artist chooses to “DJ” and not “perform live” there is still a massive spectrum of how talented, interactive, creative, and technical he or she can be on stage. Personally I think of my sets as live remixes, triggering unlimited loops and layers and songs, and parts and segments and clips into a crazy, customized sequence; it’s more live than a typical DJ set (on the 1’s and 2’s) but I am not “playing music live” on a guitar or a clarinet or anything.
5. If you expect someone to do something in one exactly specific way only, you will probably be let down sooner or later. Any live guitarist you love is being heavily assisted onstage by guitar techs or stage managers or mixing engineers, etc. They might be plucking the strings live, but those strings are sending a signal through all kinds of “digital” processing, and if their string breaks they are probably being handed a brand new pre-tuned guitar so as not to miss a beat. Is this cheating? No. There is no cheating. Unless you claim to do one thing, and act like you are doing it, but are really not doing it (like lip-synching). This is where the issue of “button pushers” arises for EDM. When people are just “pressing play” on a turntable or a CDJ and then pretending to do things for the next 3-5 minutes while that song plays, then there is a discrepancy. There are many technical ways to produce a continuous mix, and if you are miming along to a pre-recorded mix or if you are doing fake-movements that don’t produce any actual sound, then you are being fake. If you put a ton of energy into producing music you produce, and then when onstage you simply want to play tracks for other people to enjoy, that’s fine! The problem is when you pretend to do something you aren’t really doing. People crave authenticity, and in EDM today, they are beginning to demand it.
There is a huge difference between producing/remixing/creating music in the studio, and playing it live for other people to enjoy… I can discuss that topic another time, but for now i would say the key is to enjoy yourself, be authentic, and be creative. It is an honor to be on a stage performing for other people! It is a thrill to contribute to their enjoyment and I don’t think it’s necessarily worth hating on anyone’s particular approach. I don’t wish to come off as negative by calling any one out, but at the same time I work so hard, so nonstop, and I don’t like to see my work or my art belittled by other people who try to do the same thing, but don’t put in the real work. Like I said, the goal is to give people a good time, and that’s what I focus on. But I am a mega-geek, so I like to nerd the fuck out.
I know people want me to get technical about my setup, and I will put together a tutorial. In the meantime, I walked through how I approach a certain mix on this interview I did for NPR.