UPDATE: This article is from 2011, so apologies in advance for any ridiculously outdated information. That said, most of the information here is quite general and should apply to playing gigs with DJs. Also, please feel free to leave a comment or reach out via the contact page if there are any broken (ancient) video links.
Having gone through Part 1 of this 2-part series, we’ve covered what types of DJ music work with the sax, and how to get those DJ-plus-sax gigs, we can move on to…
Getting the Proper Gear for a DJ-plus-Sax Gig
An important thing to know when approaching one of these gigs is that you are pretty much on your own when it comes to supplying the proper equipment.
First and Foremost: The Microphone
Since you’re going to be playing with a loud sound system, a microphone is not optional. More specifically, you’re going to need a horn mic/sax mic that clips on to the bell of your horn.
Do not, and I repeat, do NOT show up with your regular non-horn-specific mic such as the popular Shure SM57 or SM58.
First off, who wants to deal with setting up a mic stand in a potentially crowded club?
But much, much, much more importantly, the feedback caused by such a mic will stop the whole dance floor (and maybe even your entire zip code) in its tracks. Remember, you’re not dealing with a traditional stage with proper speaker placement and monitoring. You’re quite likely to be standing either inside the DJ booth with a large DJ monitor blaring right next to you. Or worse yet, you could find yourself forced to stand in front of the speaker stacks themselves.
Thankfully, I’ve had amazing success with the AKG C419 – which has been discontinued and reincarnated as the AKG C519. This mic is pretty much feedback-proof. In fact, I once had a gig in a Miami mega-club where I was positioned directly in from of a 20-foot wall of massive speakers. Normally, this would spell feedback tsunami, but there was not even a squeak of feedback thanks to the truly incredible unidirectional powers of this AKG microphone.
Here’s the list of everything you’ll need to bring to your DJ-plus-Sax gigs.
UPDATE: By the time you read this, the links below may have changed or disappeared, so if this is the case, just do a Google search for the model number, or find something that matches the description.
- Your sax mic: I recommend the AKG C519 for around $250.
- Phantom power for your sax mic: Necessary because most sax mics will be condenser mics. I’ve used the Rolls PB23 to perfect results as well.
- An extension cord for your phantom power: Self-explanatory, but a must. Grab one here if you like.
- An XLR cable (male to female) for your sax mic: Assuming that you’re not using a wireless mic, I’d get at least 10 feet. Pick one up here if you need, since the cable on your sax mic will almost definitely not be long enough for many gigs.
- An XLR female to 1/4-inch male adaptor: In most cases, your XLR cable will plug directly into the DJ mixer. However, a good number of mixers will only have a 1/4-inch microphone input, so you’ll definitely want one of those. You can get one of these little gems here.
What to ask before you show up for your gig
The promoter or DJ or whoever booked you should be able to get you answers to the following questions:
- “Is the DJ Mixer going to have a working mic input with either an XLR or 1/4-inch input?”
- “Is there going to be a spare power outlet that I can plug into?” (for phantom power)
- NOT 100% necessary but very nice to have: “Does the DJ mixer that I’ll be plugging into have effects that can be applied to the sax mic?” (Any one of the ever-popular Pioneer DJM-series mixers will work amazingly well for this.)
Assuming that the answer to at least the first two of those questions is yes, we can move on to the next step…
How to get everything set up once you show up at your gig
- Find the DJ or sound guy, and ask him to plug your mic into the DJ mixer. Make sure that the sax mic volume on the DJ mixer is turned all the way down while you’re plugging in.
- Plug your sax mic cable into your phantom power unit.
- Using your extension cord if necessary, plug your phantom power into the nearest power outlet.
- If possible, have someone stand in the middle of the dancefloor who will signal you as to whether to turn the microphone volume up or down as you begin playing.
- Start playing your horn with the microphone volume on the mixer still turned all the way down, and with your right hand, start edging the mic volume up little by little. Have your buddy on the dancefloor indicate to you when you’ve got your volume set nicely.
- Waiting until the DJ is between mixes, quickly ask them if they can set a little bit of delay/echo on the microphone input. There are other effects that can be used as well, but I’ve found that a little bit of delay really makes the sax sound like it’s a part of the original recorded track.
How to play along with the DJ
Of course, this is the most rewarding and exciting part of the gig, and since we’re talking about art here the best policy is always to play from your heart and forget the rules while you’re up there doing your thing. However, there are some basic guidelines you should consider for the best results.
Since DJs are constantly modifying the tempo of all of the tracks they play in order to seamlessly crossfade one song into the next, then you can bet your bottom dollar that you’re not going to be playing along at A440. At the beginning of each track, plug one of your ears and play a few very quiet notes just to get a basic idea of what key you’re in and whether or not you’re in tune. Then adjust your mouthpiece accordingly.
Make yourself part of the track.
- Instead of blindly blurting out Coltrane licks and funky honks, listen to the flow of 8-bar phrases and feel for the most intuitive places that the sax would enter had it been part of the original recording. For example, if the song has funky staccato elements, then respond to that in some way, either by playing stacatto phrases yourself, or playing long legato phrases to counterbalance. Even though you’re playing along with a recording, make sure that whatever you play is based on what’s happening in the bigger musical picture just as you would if you were playing with a live band.
- Don’t cover up the important parts of the track. Don’t step on the vocals but play in-between the vocal phrases. If there’s an instrumental solo in the track, lay low until the solo is over. If there’s a breakdown where the drums drop out, consider dropping out as well to add to the drama. Maybe come back in as the breakdown starts to build into the climax and re-entry of the drums.
- Establish eye contact with the DJ. In this setting, the DJ is serving as the “conductor” by determining when a song starts, when it ends, and possibly even augmenting the music using sound effects and record scratching. By establishing eye contact, the DJ can signal you when to play and when to lay out based on what’s about to happen in the track.
- Don’t just play your horn, but play the audience. In addition to using your ears, use your eyes to see which musical approaches are getting the most response on the dancefloor. Sometimes Maceo Parker-like funky percussive staccato riffs will get people dancing harder, other times it’s playing a repetitive pattern until the crowd gets wrapped up in your swirling vortex and goes nuts. And altissimo just about always goes over like gangbusters as long as it’s used in the right places, such as the climax of a solo.
- When possible, take advantage of the DJ mixer’s effects capabilities. As mentioned previously in the series, many mixers such as any of the mixers that are part of the Pioneer DJM series will have the ability to apply effects to the mic input. Often times I’ve had the DJ add some delay to my mic and I had folks come up to me afterwards who couldn’t tell if the sax was part of the recorded track, or me playing the sax live.
By now we’ve learned what types of DJ-based music work well with the sax, where to find these DJ-plus-sax gigs, how to be handle the technical aspects of these gigs, as well as a musical overview of best practices for jamming over a recorded track. By now I hope that I’ve also whetted your appetite to try your hand at this as-yet mostly un-tapped world of music.
Truth is that sax players jamming with DJs is nothing new. Trouble is, in 99% of the cases, those sax players, kinda…suck. I have yet to hear someone truly awesome in this particular musical setting. Because of this, I sadly have no example of awesome DJ-plus-sax playing to offer you.
And there lies the great opportunity to make music history. Imagine Michael Brecker or Kenny Garrett jamming over a funky house groove at a club – what beautiful chaos that would be indeed!
The best I can offer you at this point is a recording of yours truly playing sax over a house music remix that I produced years ago with my musical compadre Gabriel D Vine as part of our group, Monkey Bars. Take a listen and perhaps this will inspire you (maybe to close your browser window, but I digress…).[audio: LiveItUp_rmx_saxsolo.mp3]
So does playing sax over a DJ at a club sound like something you’d like to do? Have you already done it? Do you have some examples of great sax playing with a DJ that you can point us to?