Just Pressing Play? Deadmau5 and The Truth About EDM Live Performance vs DJing

The latest mini-controversy in the electronic music world kicked off when deadmau5 was interviewed for a recent cover story in Rolling Stone and sounded rather critical of some of his fellow EDM performers who (according to him) don’t do very much while performing live: “David Guetta has two iPods and a mixer and he just plays tracks – like, ‘Here’s one with Akon, check it out… Even Skrillex isn’t doing anything too technical. He has a laptop and a MIDI recorder, and he’s just playing his shit…” He even went on to include himself in this category, saying “…not to say I’m not a button-pusher. I’m just pushing a lot more buttons.”

Deadmau5 on the cover of Rolling Stone

deadmau5 is right of course: many EDM performers (especially at larger shows) do play a live set that is prerecorded and presequenced to some extent, whether they use computers or DJ with vinyl or CDs. This shouldn’t be shocking news to anyone though: after all, the whole genre of electronic dance music started with a DJ mixing a set of prerecorded tracks together one after another!

These days, instead of DJing some well-known EDM performers like deadmau5 are just ‘pressing play’ at the beginning of their set and playing back a (mostly) preconceived performance, perhaps changing some levels or adding some effects or filters during the show to give it some live feeling (as deadmau5 describes in his own case). Looking at it one way, a performer like deadmau5 is doing less than a DJ freely mixing tracks together, because the order and length of everything in the set has been decided in advance. On the other hand though, it is also possible for him to do MORE than a DJ can as far as actually changing the sound of the music while it is playing, because he has control over the individual parts of the music (drums, bass, synths, etc.) and he doesn’t have to worry about what’s coming next.

DMC champ, Dubspot Instructor, and electronic music producer/performer Shiftee

Of course, using prerecorded tracks in performance is not something that started with electronic dance music: many major pop and rock acts have been using live sequencing like this for years. Particularly at very large pop shows involving a big stage show with dancers, lights, video and pyrotechnics, it has long been common practice to run a computer offstage with most or all of the parts of the music playing out of a DAW like Digital Performer or Ableton Live. Certain parts from the master sequences (such as the live bass or guitar) will be muted in favor of having them played live by musicians on stage, while other recorded parts (such as backing vocals or percussion) will be played from the computer. The live drummer (if any) plays with a click track in headphones to keep time with the sequences.

Travis Barker

Travis Barker: “I love, love playing to a click…”

As deadmau5 mentions, this is done in part to keep music, video and lights in sync at huge shows. Also, many major artists don’t want to take a lot of chances with a live show, they just want everything to run smoothly and give their audience what they paid for. This is not limited only to the most ‘commercial’ artists, either; I wouldn’t expect that there is a lot of room for musical improvising in Amon Tobin’s solo ISAM show, for example (although I could be mistaken), but this is not what it’s about, it is a tightly-linked audio-visual piece:

Trailer for Amon Tobin’s ‘ISAM’ live show.

There is not necessarily anything wrong with this, there is room in electronic music for different types of performances and for different kinds of audiences. Of course it can be really enjoyable to hear a set of your favorite music performed together with a mindblowing visual show at a huge venue, even if you know how most of the music is going to go in advance. On the other hand, there are different pleasures to be had at a more improvisational show where you don’t know what is coming next and the DJ or live band is totally in tune with the energy and mood of the crowd and amplifying it with their track selections and performance.

Ean Golden is right that the feedback loop between performer and audience is the crucial thing here: the ability for the performer to feel the energy of the crowd and respond through their performance. This is what makes for the most legendary live performances, this felt connection between the people in the crowd, the action on stage, and the sounds that result.

However, this does not necessarily require a lot of fancy gear or a complex controller setup — the performer just needs to be able to manipulate SOME aspect of the performance in response to the audience. To a large extent, the audience doesn’t really care (or even notice) how the music is being made or what aspect of the sound the performer is controlling; what they DO care about and will notice is whether or not the performer is interacting with and responding to them somehow by changing up the energy and flow of the performance.

Even if all you are doing is mixing one track into the next DJ-style, if you are flexible in your track selection, creative with your mixing, and in tune with your audience you will be able to interact with their energy and take them on a memorable journey. Great DJs are expert at using selection and sequencing to shape a mood.

In fact, in some ways playing prerecorded music gives DJs more freedom to interact with the audience than a live band has, because they don’t have to concentrate on keeping all the parts of the music going from moment to moment and they don’t have to follow a predetermined set list. This is one of the keys to the power of a great DJ — thinking about the overall flow of the performance from a higher level and deciding what will be played next, over the course of an hour or over the entire night, rather than just concentrating on the song at hand.

So although deadmau5 got slammed for some of things he said recently, we shouldn’t be afraid to admit that he’s right — many if not most EDM performers use prerecorded music in their sets to some extent, there are very few electronic bands who actually trigger every note and sound ‘live’ (Mostly Robot comes to mind for example). This isn’t necessarily a problem though — the whole dance music scene traces back to listening to selections of prerecorded music together in a dark club or warehouse, often played by a DJ who no one knew or could even see. At its root dance music is really about the experience of hearing and feeling the music and seeing each other and dancing TOGETHER, not about watching a superstar performer.


Online conversation: Peter Kirn also had some thoughts on this topic at CDM, and Bassnectar weighs in with an interesting contribution on his blog as well.

Side note: ‘pressing play’ i.e. using prerecorded backing tracks in a live performance like this has long been a source of controversy in music, in fact people used to get much more agitated about this than they do now. Although it may seem a bit silly to us now after 2 decades of DJ culture, back in 1990 state lawmakers in New York and New Jersey were actually debating putting some legal controls on the use of recorded music in live concerts, because it was felt that audiences were being ripped off by the use of canned backing tracks.