Deadmau5 Got It Right

A lot has been made over the past week or so since Deadmau5 made his “we all hit play” post. For the most part, he managed to tick off all of the old skool djs and clubbing purists in one fatal stroke. While I actually have to agree with all the criticism thrown back as a counter argument, it struck me odd that all of it missed Deadmau5’s point entirely.

Contrary to popular belief, he was not arguing that it doesn’t take skill to be a DJ beyond the ability to hit play or beatmatch. I think we all can agree that those are some of the most basic skills necessary to be a DJ. Deadmau5 points that out very clearly. What he did not get into at all was the debate of what makes a good DJ or even a great one. Everybody else decided that’s what they wanted to argue though.

Anybody who has ever seen the TV painter Bob Ross and his “happy trees” or the works of any of his fans and then gone to a “real” art museum can instantly see the difference between a natural talent and the ability to manipulate various tools to achieve a work of art. Always remember too that art is in the eye of the beholder. It’s always subjective and what is considered “good” by critics rarely lines up with what the average art consumer thinks is good. Movie reviews should be enough evidence in this regard.

Deadmau5’s post actually makes several points past that argument that put everyone on the defensive for no reason. I’ll try to break them down fairly quickly from here on, because I think he makes some important statements.

People are there for a good time. Period.

In the end, the bulk of the people who go to a club are there for an experience. They’re there to forget part of their lives for just a little while. They’re there to try new things. They’re there sometimes just to relive the past. These club goers are the ones footing the bills for these DJs and are also the reason that those of us who are more entrenched in the “old skool days” can still enjoy clubbing today. It’s their dime too and not just yours. If they don’t have fun, then the club fails, the DJ has failed and well… people go home unsatisfied. Honestly, that’s not cool.

In the end, the bulk of clubbers don’t care how you get the job done. They just want you to get the job done. The technical details of how things are done are either over their heads or not even an issue. They want to hear great music, mixed creatively and they want it to fit their exact mood now. Technology like Traktor and Ableton allows a DJ to do just that. And sometimes when the old way would have taken 4 copies of the same vinyl with one table’s stylist turned upside down and the record spinning on a roll of duct tape so that it plays the track in reverse over the other 3 copies, it’s hard to argue that the new technology isn’t just better, but that it makes sense to use it. Granted, what I just described would be fun to watch, but unless you’re in the booth… you will never see how it was done anyway. Besides if you’re on the floor dancing, you probably have other things on your mind… like having a good time.

You’ll never find me knocking skill though. Skill is king. It’s secondary to great timing, crowd watching and track selection though. You could do a 4 hour set with nothing but slam mixes and please the crowd just as much as well-planned smooth mixes as long as your track selection is dead on and in sync with what the crowd wants to hear.

Live PA’s are extremely complicated

Until you actually write EDM, you don’t really have an appreciation for how complicated it can be. Sure structurally it can be very simple, but in reality there are far too many dependencies and the potential for a show stopping error is extremely high. The last thing anyone wants to hear is the sound of a DJ accidentally hitting stop on his decks. Well with a Live PA, it’s likely that such a mistake could cause the performer to have to reboot something and then what should have been about 1-5 seconds of dead air becomes a minute or more.

Live PAs though are tough to pull off because in the studio, an artist can simply loop a 16 bar section for hours and tweak things. If they did that live, people would kill him. An average track might have between 16-32 tracks of audio running at the same time. Each track potentially could have a minimum of 4-6 knobs and a slider attached to it. That means that to do the same thing live, an artist might need to have access to a minimum of 64-128 knobs and 16-32 sliders to control each function live. By the way, that’s not even counting synths, samplers or effect units. Take that a step further and realize that the artist probably at most has just 2 hands. There’s no way any one artist could control a full studio environment in club environment despite all of the new streamlined midi controllers entering the market today. At some point, you simply run out of fingers and toes to twist knobs and slide sliders.

So, this leaves the artist with but one choice. The artist must break his tracks down into audio loops. This lessens the strain on his laptop, automates some tasks and helps to lock in some old fashioned quality control when it comes to his show. And despite what you thought you read, Deadmau5 did not say in his live performances that all he does his hit play.

If you want a good breakdown on what it takes to pull off a live pa, I suggest you start with something simple like Deeflash’s demonstration of his set up. Later, you should start looking into Richie Hawtin’s set up. Just syncing the light show that he has to his music is a technical nightmare. And speaking of the light show…

The experience demands more today than ever

When you get to the level of Deadmau5, Skrillex, Swedish House Mafia or anybody else who can pack out the largest clubs and arenas, something fundamentally changes in the expectations of the show. No longer is it some underground club event. It’s now a full-blown arena rock show. Maybe the pop-show is a better analogy. It’s not simply about the music; it’s about the whole experience. People enter the venue and expect to be transported to somewhere new. When this is the expectation, what happens on stage has to be completely in sync with what happens in the music and with the visuals playing throughout the venue.

Once this union happens, you lose your ability to change your set on the fly. It’s nearly impossible to do so. If you have a killer video that has to play while you are on a certain track, the guys in the light booth (or at least their computer) have to know this. You can’t take the time to call up the light crew and say “Hey, I’m going to drop that song now.” That would ruin the stage performance and is a distraction to you. You also can’t do that because more than likely the timing is going to be too tight for someone in the booth to start a lighting or video sequence at the exact moment that they need to if they in turn are talking to you.

The solution to this is exactly what Deadmau5 brings up. You send the lights an SMPTE feed and it all stays in sync. You can hate the pre-programmed set all you want. I kind of agree with you. The fact though is that unless you have unlimited funds, you won’t be following Deadmau5 or anyone else for that matter to every show they do. This then allows Deadmau5 to build a reliable live pa that will work for an entire tour. The only person who might get bored hearing the same thing over and over again is probably Deadmau5 and his support crew. And let’s not forget one thing, rock and pop acts have done this for decades now. This isn’t anything new outside of the fact that it’s now officially a part of our EDM culture.

So, that’s really it. Deadmau5 got it right. What happens in the studio cannot be recreated on the fly in a live show. The demand for a synchronized event experience is too high these days for it to be left totally up on the fly programming of music, lights and video. And lastly, the vast majority of the clubbers simply do not care about the technical issues involved in the show. They mostly are there for an experience, but most of all… to have fun. It’s our jobs as performers to deliver just that.