I just found this article on my old hard drive and thought it might be interesting to publish it at last. I wrote it way back in 2001 before the formation of sp00 when Ariel and I were learning how to mix together live and avoid stepping on each other’s beats. It seems like most of the advice is still relevant today.
Rules for Live Mixing of Beatgadgets
I am no expert on the live mix, but I am no beginner either. Here is a set of rules that I have found useful over the past few years as a performing electronic musician. As always, rules are made to be broken, but perhaps these will help people take a detour from audio chaos and find a comfortable mix with other electronic musicians.
1. If you can’t beatmatch to it, don’t. Sometimes, you just want to play a track that doesn’t have the same BPM as what your bud’s playing, and speeding yours up just makes it sound like video game music. Sometimes, it’s ok to just let their track fade out instead of desparately trying to line up your jazzy trip hop with their rigid trance beats.
2. Listen, interact, and communicate. Let other people’s beats affect yours. Let your beats affect theirs. Bounce ideas off of each other.
3. Don’t “oversample”. Let vocal bits enhance the music, but don’t bury it. Space out your vocal samples, and use them strategically.
4. When you’re trying to make a recording of your session, watch the meters! I can’t overemphasize this. Too many great sessions have been fatally mauled by severe hard clipping. Keep your dBs hovering around zero and adjust your amp and deck accordingly. Make sure you match your inputs properly.
5. Transitioning from a swing beat to even time and vice versa rarely works. It all depends on the drumbeat, but be careful of sputtering kickdrums and awkward backbeats when you do this.
6. Take turns being the leader, or conductor, if you will. Electronic music devices often have slightly different interpretations of the same BPM, and if everyone keeps drifting, your mix will turn into mush. Have one person set the standard and let everyone else match it. Ari and I have had a moderate amount of success with the following rule of thumb: whoever’s fading in sets the standard, and whoever’s fading out must keep the sync. With more than two musicians, this becomes more complex.
7. If you’re playing with microphones, make sure you turn the mic track off when you’re done with it. Feedback can creep up on you very slowly, and it usually happens when you get up to go to the bathroom.
8. Teach people how to use your PA and mixer. This should really be #1.
9. Ambience is great for state of mind. Find cool lights and make your stage look interesting. You don’t need a laser light show, just a chill mood. Radio Shack may be your answer.
10. Don’t be afraid to add a little “dirt”. Electronic instruments tend to sound sterile and overprocessed unless you make the explicit effort of adding imperfections (This meme courtesy of Tom Dearing, AKA Reverberation Sound System).
11. Don’t rely on drum loops.
12. Don’t ignore drum loops, either.
13. Don’t be afraid to ask one of your buds for a BPM. Why waste time trying to find their BPM by ear when a little verbal communication will do the trick?
14. Experiment. Always. Don’t worry too much about mistakes. This is live music. Live electronic borders on jazz to me. It’s improv. Let the ideas flow.
15. Always look busy. Even if it takes a bit of theatrics, you need to show people that you are creating the music, not just “hitting play”. As an extreme example, think about Crystal Method, playing most of their set off of a DAT recording. Does the crowd care? No, because they’re jumping around and twisting knobs and playing their keyboards upside down in midair. As a less extreme example, watch DJ Spooky spin sometime. Does he ever, ever stop moving?
That’s all for now. Happy mixing!