What Are EDM DJs Actually Doing During Live Shows?

At the risk of sounding like an old fart, I typically like it when bands have instruments. Something about bringing a Mac Book Air and an iPod on stage doesn’t seem quite as appealing to me. But as someone who has never had to be on the other side of that live performance, I’m not always fully aware of everything that goes on back there. Therefore, I decided to research the subject.

So, What Are Electronic Music Artists Doing During Live Shows? Some just hit play and let the music do its thing, occasionally using the mic to hype up the crowd. Some will use a combination of Ableton and other software to make music realtime. Others may create unique experiences using analog synthesizers and other unusual devices. 

Here is a video shot from the DJs point of view showing exactly what it takes to pull off a seamless transition live.

A Statement From Deadmau5 on Live Electronic Music

Deadmau5, who is one of the biggest names in Electronic Dance Music (EDM), released a Tumblr post that was titled “We All Hit Play.” During this time, he stated that anyone with one hour of training with Ableton, a live music platform, could do what he is doing.

He does not say that DJs and EDM musicians are without skill. Deadmau5 affirms that people in this sect are skilled in the studio, but they do almost nothing live. He made this post in response to live electronic musicians who claim to be doing great things in live environments.

Deadmau5 provides us with an interesting perspective on this matter. It is especially impressive, given that he is part of the EDM movement. While we aren’t going to take this moment to give you a list of lazy musicians, he does have a point with some people who overhype what they do.

However, this brings up an appealing thought on those who have intricate setups. They bring in old synths and create music as the live show progresses. Below, we will get into electronic musicians that make the difference.

The List of Unique Electronic Musicians

Below is a table listing out the unique electronic musicians we could find.

Band What Makes Them Unique?
Celldweller They have a solid sound, live guitar, and drums depending on the song.
Ei Wada They use CBT monitors to produce a unique experience and sound.
Empire of the Sun Use a combination of live drums and unusual costumes to enhance their performance.
Big Gigantic They sometimes bring a saxophone to their live performances.
Modestep A band that sounds like someone mashed an alternative rock band into an EDM group.

If you don’t like EDM, you may not like many of the bands we have put on this list. Regardless, each of the groups brings a unique experience to their live performances. All of them put more effort than the “just press play” crowd.

What Are Different Ways Electronic Artists Can Engage Their Audience?

Now that we have a list of unique players in the electronic music arena, we can use that knowledge. So, how do you avoid being a button presser? Below, we get into a couple of examples.

Unique Costumes and Sets

While it may not be the first choice for some, you can choose to wear a unique costume and adopt a persona to stick out. For the best example of how this can work, take a look at Daft Punk.

You don’t have to like their music to know that they are going for a certain kind of aesthetic. The 80s retro look is something Daft Punk has been developing for a long time. You don’t go to a Daft Punk concert for the music; you go there for the experience.

Use Live Instruments

As we can see through earlier examples, bands like Empire of the Sun and Big Gigantic are both big fans of bringing instruments to their shows. Because of this, they can combine the synthetic noises of programmed music with the rawness of live music.

You don’t have to look too hard to see this in action. Celldweller is another pretty famous example, as they bring a few options with them. While all of these are typically heavily modified, they still create a unique sound with this combination.

Bring Retro Gear

Through the addition of old synthesizers, mixers, and other types of audio equipment, you can bring another unique kind of sound to your performance. It brings up the “they don’t make them like they used to” aesthetic.

Some people stack multiple synths next to each other, switching between them to get the sound they want. You could probably even find a way to bring a kid’s Casio keyboard into the mix if you wish.

Use Weird Devices

When regular instruments don’t work, it might be time to get weird. The example I would like to share with you is a couple of people using a Game Boy sound chip to make their music.

While the sound quality is a bit off on this, it likely sounds a bit better in person. Also, if using a Game Boy to make music isn’t unique, I don’t know what is.

Technically speaking, you can draw a sound chip from almost anything. While it requires a good deal of technical knowledge, it may be worth it in the end.

What Software Do You Need For a Live EDM Show?

If you aspire to become an electronic artist yourself, you are going to need to have a good setup. One of the first things you will need to consider will be software. We will list out some potential software options below.

Ableton 10 Live

We have mentioned this software briefly in one of our other articles, Ableton Live typically one of the best options you can get for audio mixing. It is incredibly good at playing pre-recorded items.

Ableton also has many built-in instruments, allowing you to make musing using their programs. So it isn’t just an addition to your current software, it can be a full suite as needed.

PCDJ Dex 3

This program is for classic DJs, specifically the ones that typically show up to weddings. Regardless, the audio mixing platform still provides you with a powerful tool to fade tracks over each other.

If you are so inclined, there is also a karaoke setup, which would make for an incredibly extraordinary live performance.

FL Studio

While FL Studio is primarily for creating studio tracks, you can still use it to make music on the fly. It is a powerful tool for creating any track you need. It also has robust audio mixing capabilities.

Logic Pro

Logic Pro is another music program that is best for producing studio music. Like GarageBand, it is software that is primarily on the Mac. If you have a PC, you aren’t going to get this.

What Hardware Do You Need For a Live EDM Show?

Next, we will be getting into what hardware you need to look for if you want to become a live electronic music producer.

PC vs. Mac Computers

This debate expands well beyond the music area, but it takes an interesting spin when it comes to music production. Both are great for different reasons.

Why Are Macs Great For Music Production?

A decade ago, Macs controlled the world when it came to music production. They had GarageBand, which is an incredibly popular sound production tool. On the PC, you had to hunt down the software that you want.

Macs are great for those who crave power and simplicity. You don’t have to worry quite as much on performance, as there is a small number of Macs available. Those that are currently available can handle any program you install on it. Just be prepared to invest several thousand.

Why Are PCs Great For Music Production?

PCs have classically fallen behind when it comes to music production. However, it has been many years since GarageBand has come out, and PC has some significant competitors which we’ve listed above.

Also, many of those competitors are reasonably priced and come with many audio plugins. These allow you to have a variety of free sounds. Also, the cost of these things tends to be much lower. Just make sure you have a PC that can handle the software you buy.


Most EDM artists like to hook themselves up to headphones. It allows them to listen for any imperfections of the music while it is playing. It also allows them for great control should they want to inject some improv.

Good headphones will tend to be noise canceling. You will want to look for quality, so keep an eye out on establish bands that include SkullCandy or Bose.

Audio Interface

Audio interfaces allow you to easily mix multiple pieces of audio that can come from a microphone, laptop, and other potential sources. Pay attention to the number of inputs on these, as getting something with too little plugins will result in you being unprepared for live performances.

Also, be sure that your audio interface has some way to connect to your computer. Typically, these can come with USB connections.


A microphone will typically in your audio interface or your laptop. You will want something high-quality enough not to make you sound garbled. You will also want to be sure that it is resistant to feedback issues.

Beat Pads / Drum Controller

If you have seen a live EDM performance, you’ve likely seen a DJ slapping their fingers against a brightly colored surface. These surfaces are known as beat pads. These devices allow you to control the samples played through a different set of buttons. It also means less time in front of a laptop

These are incredibly useful for programming music on the fly, which is a feature of some skilled electronic artists. These aren’t an absolute need for people starting, as they tend to cost a lot of money.


While it doesn’t apply to everyone, there are some EDM artists you could quickly call button pushers. Even famous musicians like Deadmau5 would agree that these people take too much credit. If your live performance would be the same without you, you aren’t much of a performer.

Live DJs can create an experience through a variety of means. Pumping up a crowd during tracks requires some degree of talent. Some bring live instruments to the performance.

Regardless of how you do it, you will need to be sure that you have your hardware and software ready. Many talented artists in the world contribute significantly to the studio and live performances. There is talent in this branch of music, regardless of what some people may think.

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