Eli5 – What is a DJ like Tiesto actually doing when performing a live show?


I don’t really know much about the process of remixing a song but I can imagine it is a process that is like editing a video – layering tracks, adding beats, etc. They are clearly not doing that kind of editing live so they are basically playing something that’s already had some amount of that already done.

So what are they doing live besides maybe mixing between songs?

I just don’t understand what all the knob fiddling is about.

In: 285

The knobs could be panning between sounds or tracks, filter sweeps, adding or taking away frequencies in the eq, boasts to certain tracks, live looping, triggering parts of the song, depends a lot on the artist set up. A dj can be doing a lot with knob fiddles or just pretending they are doing something. Depends on the act

Yes, they are mostly mixing between songs. Doing that well and smoothly requires a certain degree of skill and experience. But the real skill of a DJ isn’t mixing, it’s song selection. Knowing exactly what song to play next based on the crowd and the flow of the set so far. Guys like Tiesto rose to fame in the 90’s/00’s based on their song selection ability rather than their technical mixing ability.

As for the knob fiddling, here’s a good firsthand overview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nBlgwO8Fd-E&list=PL-IaIfDYdsAkuIDGKc78TP7aFI9kULp2N&index=3

In order to get a basic understanding, imagine a DJ standing in front of actual turntables. They start playing a song, and it has a downbeat (imagine if you’re bobbing your head to a groovy song, when you bob down, that’s the downbeat). As that song nears it’s end, the DJ doesn’t want dead air, so they choose a song that has the same beat. They put the record on the other turntable, and listen to it with their headphones. They listen and slow down/speed up the second song until the beat lines up perfectly, then fade the volume of the first song down while fading the second up. That way you’re listening to a new song, but the transition was so seamless, your head bobbing hasn’t stopped, or even been noticeably altered.

A skilled DJ can fade back and forth between two or more songs, do things like slip the hook from one song into the place where the hook would have been in a different song, and all sorts of other tomfoolery. The more sources of songs, samples, and sounds, the more knobs they need for volume, tempo and effects.

Then imagine someone mixing the sound for a live band. They have a slider for how loud the drums are in the house speakers, how loud the vocals are in the speakers playing back to the band. The DJ needs these too, so they can alter what they are hearing and what the house is hearing separately.

The music is composed of multiple elements each with their own instruments and sound. Some of them are looping elements to create rhythm and some are triggered manually to add highlight or voice to the music. When you are mixing a song you are adjusting the values between these different tracks, starting and stopping the tracks at the right points, modulating the tracks in various ways, etc. And when a DJ is performing he is doing this live in front of the audience. Even if he is performing an already finished piece he can still be a bit creative with it live on stage and follow the mood of the audience. Maybe it fits a bit better to extend one part of the track a bit more, maybe the timing of the dropp can be a bit sooner with the current audience, maybe the buildup can happen over a longer time, perhaps it would fit better to go back to another part of the track and improvise an ending instead of the planned ending since this audience responded better to the first part rather then the one used for the end, etc. They can change and modify whatever they need and create new elements or remove old ones as they see fit. Sometimes you even get to hear music that is yet to be released as it is a work in progress, the DJ might be trying it out for the audience to see how they respond. There is a lot of things which can be done differently in a live performance then a recorded one.

That being said it is fairly easy for a DJ to just put on a prepared playlist and just do nothing for the rest of the night. It can be hard for most of the audience to notice when this is done. And most DJs do play prerecorded tracks for part of the night so they can get some rest in between their performances, but the music can not stop.

Follow-up question: as someone who has enjoyed going to live concerts in other music genres, how does going to an EDM concert compare? Does seeing a DJ live substantially change or improve your appreciation for the artist? Do musical skill and personality shine through the same way it can for other musicians? Is the overall vibe closer to a rock concert or a big club?

Each track has a low, mid and high knob which are used when mixing tunes together, also on a lot of mixers they have effects like flanger, filter or delay and they too use knobs to change the sound of the track.

A lot of EDM DJ’s, not Tiesto, when playing festivals, cause their tracks are timed with the lightening etc… literally play a recorded set and bob about

The answer to this will entirely depend on the DJ.

Some are realistically doing very little on stage – curating a playlist as they go perhaps and keeping the nights music flowing (which honestly is a talent all of its own), but they are not doing much from a technical music standpoint.

Other will be more involved – doing more of the manual work and tweaking the sound rather than leaving it to software, doing more with how and when to fade track and playing around with things like filters and mixing between tracks on the fly and so on.
It would be best to think of this as a modern equivalent to early DJs with two turntables and a mixer. The software can automate a lot, but it also adds a lot of extra control to those who want it.

Past that you get into the world of the guys who are playing music live – combining things like prepared records with drum loops, instruments like samplers and keyboards, audio processing/effects gear and more to build, play and edit music on the fly.

To quote Deadmau5 “I get paid to show up to a gig and hit play” which is him joking about how people assume DJs do nothing but show up and hit play on a playlist.

Of course artists like him are also musicians and producers that make their own music, but the nature of EDM is that tracks are rarely played ‘live’ but instead pre-recorded which causes a lot of live musicians to look down on them unfairly. Pop musicians very often don’t play live either with much or all of the set being pre-recorded.

In addition to being the guy that owns the gear and manages the crew to set it all up etc…

A DJs skills are having a encyclopedic knowing of different tracks, ordering them properly so that there’s a flow to the concert, and mixing them so that they flow together properly. In a sense they are a conductor for the dance party and there job to make sure the crowd are enjoying the music.

Bad DJs are the ones that just play random songs with bad volume discrepancies between them.

Boyinaband made a pretty hilarious video about it.


Not much tbh as most of them already planned

I’m huge fan of Armin and Above&Beyond, most of their sets already set (duh). Sometimes they adjust the sound here and there to match the crowd, if they want more of that particular part you don’t simply press repeat right?

And the actual thing they do is smoothen the switching between tracks (as they has different bpm so it doesn’t sound abrupt). If you ever watch their live sets, you can hardly notice the switching between them. It’s so smooth and doesn’t break the dancing mood

Some DJs do things energetically just to live up the mood, you can’t simply dance to DJs that only sits there and push the play button

But the most important thing is that they produce those tracks, and making a good music with their own style is a talent of its own. Many people ridicule this kind of thing and refuse to acknowledge music if it’s not actual band playing on stage or metal

I’m not a musician or anyone with experience, and I believe they got much more in stage than what I tried to explain

DJs usually just mix between songs. The goal is basically to make the transitions between songs smooth and almost unnoticeable. They do this by fading the audio as well as using the EQ to bring in certain elements (bassline, vocals, etc.) at different times to make the transition seamless.

Some DJs are a lot better than others though. A lot of the mainstream ones don’t actually do much and just [jump around a bunch while letting a song play](https://youtu.be/Nh9C7nQHmII), while others will have [3-4 songs going at once](https://youtu.be/HRAIgLE1JYQ) (different elements from each) while queuing up a 4th, basically creating a remix live.

Depends on the DJ – there are some that are mixing and creating the beats live. More common is the DJ that has a set list that is synched with lights, and they only make small adjustments and can possibly layer additional sounds on top of the existing beats as they see fit, but the core beat is relatively fixed.

And I’ve been to shows where the DJ will bust out an electric guitar to play along with the beats (so will walk away from the decks to play an instrument). And others where the DJ has an electronic percussive set that goes along with the tracks and so “plays” their own percussive set along with the tracks.

Depending on the lighting setup, some DJs also do their mixes live (and sometimes still with vinyl), with a general prepared set list but a record crate that lets them go ‘off script’ if they feel like it.

they are mostly doing nothing. Any high end DJ has a show that is pre-prepared and synched with the lights, displays, and other effects. literally just hit play and hype people up

their work mostly comes from actually making the songs they play and then creating a setlist that flows well and setting up the effects

random DJs at a club are prob actually mixing tracks then and there ,. So they basically fade one track into the other so theres no obvious cutoff where the music just stops or beat changes drastically. knobs and sliders affect the tempo and volume of the tracks so they can match them

I think a lot , LOT, of the club/show djs have it all prerecorded and are just up the putting on a show…which isn’t a bad thing, its how they share their final product, its still their work.


(not all them)


Its like lip syncing but not in a way that anyone would care…or call out.

Often sets can be pre-recorded so that pyro, or other things thats part of the show, will have correct timing. And as mentioned, a good DJ is a good DJ bcuz of their song selection.

Seen quite a few good explanations here. Definitely important to note the genre of music being played as well as the vibe of the venue.

Someone previously stated something similar but genres like trance and house tend to be long mixes where the dj’s job is basically to find an ebb and flow throughout the night so people enjoy themselves without burning out, primarily making the mixes sound smooth so there isn’t any silence at all the whole set.

A really good example of a more technical DJ is someone like DJ EZ, who’s pretty popular in ‘bassline’ music circles in the UK (but also pretty popular in general as he’s been in the industry for a pretty long time now). I can’t really explain fully what he’s doing in the clip, (I’d watch from about 1:30 onwards: https://youtu.be/yZW_U2yCB90 ) but the mix between the two songs is way more in this instance than just mixing the bass, volume etc. He’s doing stuff like live looping, messing around with the EQ, messing around with the speed of the next track and playing it like a sampler before he drops it in. Obviously this is just one example, sort of his trademark and it’s definitely something he’d practice by himself, but I wouldn’t see that as any different from practising songs as part of a band.

Also, regardless of genre, DJs will always have a few songs they know go well together so will tend to get those pre-prepared way ahead of time because they’ll know it’ll get the crowd enjoying themselves, but most of the time a good DJ playing in a smaller venue where their performance isn’t tied to the lighting or screens or whatever will mix on the fly according to the vibe.

Old school Tech 12 Vinal DJ 2001 here.

Old school turn tables you needed to spend about 30 seconds getting the next track the same speed as the current one. then you wait… for the right push off time… then you get 45 seconds of the dj actually being impirtant and exciting cutting bass, trebs, mids, adding sound effects then the next song comes in … then he can go away for a few min till he needs to time uo his next track.

The art is in knowing how to read the room, they have to determine if the crowd is mostly on K, X or Coke, or all of the above, then they press play and flail

It’s all bollocks. In the seventies the music was so good there was no need to fiddle with it. We had live bands too. In the pub. They could play because they rehearsed and practiced. The DJ just selected top tunes to keep people on the floor.
Seems to me these superstar DJs rely far too heavily on the entire audience being loved up on E.

A great DJ isn’t just fiddling knobs to look cool (although they do that too). By reading and understand the mood of the crowd you can dial up or down the emotional content of the music, making drops bigger or smaller, emphasizing vocals or deep bass, etc.

It’s why I prefer to listen to a full DJ mix with carefully chosen, mixed, and played songs over simply listening to a playlist.

Some times they are actually mixing tracks live. Often they are pretending. Moving knobs that won’t do anything as the track is already mixed.