Skrillex performs at the 2014 Bonnaroo festival
Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Steve Aoki, Skrillex, Avicii: How Do DJs Incorporate Visuals Into Their Sets?
Beyond the beats, DJs are entertaining audiences with light shows and pyrotechnics that accompany their well-choreographed set lists. How do some of today’s premier electronic dance music artists learn their recipes for delivering cutting-edge visuals to enhance their live shows?
Let's go straight to the sources.
Avicii's ight show is a collaboration between him and his team: “For my show visuals, my crew and I came up with the idea to create each set of visuals based on classical and contemporary stories. Before the tour, we went over the new album tracks with the new visuals, color palettes, and other effects and programmed the show together. We thought the approach of basing the shows visuals on stories was unique, fresh, and a great way to make a connection between the new album and the show,” he says.
Figuring out what will be going on around them while they perform, English progressive trance group, Above & Beyond think about creating moments that enhance the emotion in each of their songs. “We listen to songs and try different visual things, discuss how they feel, and then do it at a show. Things are always evolving, every show we do we learn something new. We are huge fans of contrast: musical, visual, emotional, so we try to really exaggerate this in all the ways we can. We sometimes build simulators of the stage production to get more time to rehearse and experiment, especially if we know we’re going to have limited time during setup,” the group explains.
Australia’s Hermitude has found that providing their audience, even those far away in the nosebleed section, with a view of what is happening on stage allows for a fully immersive concert experience: "We try to give the audience a complete view of our live setup using GoPro cameras on all our instruments. We then mix those camera angles with visuals created especially for our show. Together it's a journey through unique landscapes and us pounding out beats and synths on our instruments!” the band tells us.
When it comes to bringing his set to life, Morgan Page uses his light show and LED screen graphics to visually serve his songs. “[The graphics] need to add depth to the music that enhances the experience. It can't just be a pretty screensaver,” he explains. Prior to hitting the road for a lengthy tour, the DJ/producer has several meetings with his team where they kick around ideas about his stage setup. “The question I'm always asking is ‘Does this elevate the show?’ If you saw me playing a massive stage at Coachella and couldn't hear the music, would you know it's me?" he challenges them. And as far as actually matching the song with images, Page says he brainstorms ideas based on metaphors and keywords in the song, without being too "on those nose" if possible. “But sometimes simple is best,” he states.
Page prides himself on staying one step ahead of his EDM colleagues in terms of what he’s doing on stage. His secret to pulling this off? Exploring trends outside of the dance music genre. “Everyone is stuck in their own comfy bubble, and you need to poke your head out and explore other worlds, like film and gaming,” he tells us. For instance, he is currently experimenting with virtual reality for his next tour. “One thing I'm working on is creating more of a narrative arc over the course of the night, so you can tell a cohesive story in those 90 or 120 minutes,” he adds.
Cory FitzGerald, from Seven Design Works, shares his experience working with Skrillex to translate the DJ/producer’s music into visuals: “The Skrillex team is very aware of the dynamic changes in the show. We try to coordinate as much as possible with the use of video, lighting, lasers and effects so that we can feature specific looks at different moments during the show. A lot of times, shows can get ‘muddy’ with the use of too many things at once, and each element starts to lose its impact so we really focus on working with each department to balance that out and highlight those moments. As the set list changes from night to night and throughout each show itself, the team of operators works like a band of musicians themselves, feeling the music and flow and communicating with each other during the show to change those movements and keep the dynamics working along with the changes in the music. “
Alex Metric's philosophy is to stick with what is working. “I’ve had the same visuals for a long time now but they really work,” he explains. “I’ve never had someone that does the visuals for me while I’m playing. That’s certainly something that I’d love to move towards and do in the future but at the moment I have a loop of my visuals that run while I’m DJing. I’ve used them for three years now and I’m still surprised – people are saying ‘Man your visuals are so good.’ Well if it’s not broken, I’m in no rush to change it,” Metric adds. On his current tour with Zedd, the DJ’s set is enhanced with a giant LED wall, which displays images behind him. “I think I’ve got a really strong logo, which an awesome designer called Rich Robinson made. I like to keep it simple. That’s my sort of visual aesthetic is simplicity, not cluttered, to the point. So there is not some big concept behind my visuals, it’s just something simple that works and that has worked for a while,” he explains.
Jeff Montalvo, who performs under the moniker Seven Lions, works with an art director to create his stage theatrics. “Daniel Jung, he oversees a lot of this kind of content and helps me visually once I pick a theme for the visuals. We also have a great VJ, Ian Alvarez.” In terms of the process of pairing images to music, Montalvo says it’s all about trial and error: “For some songs we use clips from their corresponding music video, my videos are very fantasy themed and use a lot of [visual effects] so they also work really great live. The rest is a joint effort between my art director, VJ, and I to find available content that works with the themes and/or color palette of a particular song. With album and single covers, my old manager had a friend who did concept artwork for video games so he was helping us at first, now we just commission artwork from artists we really like. Generally I sit down with my art director and come up with a concept and then he will flesh out the idea and send specifics to the artist.”
And lastly, superstar DJ Steve Aoki’s goal is to connect his audiences emotionally to his songs. “There is a mood board that is created for each song defined by a few significant themes all based around how the song relates to the audience. Since the visuals are created to be more of a guide to how the song emotionally affects your senses, it’s imperative that the patterns, the colors being used, the imagery and whether there is a lyrical guide or not, all have to fit with that particular track,” he explains. “Sometimes we intersplice the music video of the track to give that familiarity, sometimes we add the lyrical guide when it’s a sing a long moment, other times we focus more on the arrangement of colors to set a tone, a mood. Every song has its own journey."