How to Prepare a Live Festival Set
Discover the exact tools and structure behind building festival-ready sets for everything from small livestreams to huge venues.
As you read, notice how much of this also applies directly to livestreaming — so regardless of whether you’re actually able to play at a festival, you can stream the exact same set for your fans online! If you’re reading this during the pandemic, this will help you prepare for when venues start opening back up; every skill described in this article transfers to the online sphere, so you can start developing them immediately no matter where you are in the world!
Start with the right tools
The first step is to choose your gear — you won’t be using your original DAW session to perform, as you’ll be combining multiple songs into a single session. The biggest factor in this is how involved you want your set to be. Many producers will opt for dragging full songs into their DAW of choice, but if you prefer improvising and creating more unique performances, you can split your songs into stems and combine the beat from one with the melody from another and the sound design of another … you get the idea!
To create your set, use a software DJing tool like rekordbox to bring in all your tracks and manipulate them as you see fit. It works quite differently than a standard DAW — the track view is simple, and you have a huge media list at your disposal to drag in more songs as desired. Serato DJ Pro is another heavyweight in the industry, and is specifically designed for live performance rather than production. DJ software is plenty of fun, but hardware is where it really begins for a lot of DJs, with controllers from Denon, Pioneer, and tons of others. They’re designed to control most DJ applications, and some can be used entirely without a computer.
Unless you have a specific outcome in mind, simply using DJ software and dragging in song masters will be more than enough. As long as you’re using a program that allows you to pick which song you want at the exact time you want, add effects, and layer multiple songs on top of one another, you’ll be totally fine. Just know that options exist, especially if you’re into avant garde and experimental styles!
There’s also another very real possibility: the venue may also provide a DJ controller for you to use. Always ask about this first, because there’s a chance you won’t be using your own gear at all! If that’s the case, you might just be in charge of bringing your songs on a drive and performing with only what has been provided to you. If you have the opportunity, try out some of the more common ones like the XDJs so you’re prepared if you can’t use your setup of choice.
Structuring the set
Ultimately you want to give yourself as much flexibility as possible — when you’re on stage and inspiration strikes, you should be able to apply any performance techniques you want, on any song, without hesitation. This means you need to load up every song you might want, know where every file is, create a timeline of when you want to start each of them, etc. If you’re using software, you usually have complete control over this — if you’re using a DJ controller without software, the best you can do is plan everything out beforehand and practice until it’s second nature since you won’t have a session to reference while you perform. Either way, start off by choosing your songs.
If you write and produce your own songs, make those the focus of your festival set! It’s also a good idea to add in more recognizable tracks or edits you’ve made to give your audience something to grab onto. When you sprinkle in other songs in just the right places, you’ll make your performances more accessible and even frame your own songs as being more “pro” by association. Remixes are a great way to get the best of both worlds, showing your own unique take on a more famous artist’s music. However, make sure you look up the laws in your country regarding the use of copyrighted music — in some areas it’s the venue’s responsibility, while in others it’s the DJ’s. Consult with a professional to be completely safe, but you can find a short, helpful primer on the legal use of other artists’ songs in DJ TechTools’ article here.
When you’re designing your set, know that you’ll probably want to change a few things during the performance. You can think of every last detail, but if the audience is losing interest, you have to adjust your set or risk losing them! When you’re planning everything out, don’t just arrange everything in a linear order — create your “ideal” set, but give yourself options for increasing or decreasing the energy of the room as you need to keep everything within your control. You can do this by having plenty of song options to switch to as well, as well as using performance tools to structure the energy level in your set.
Performance tools for your arsenal
There are performance effects nearly every producer knows, and there’s no wrong with using what consistently works! For example: building suspense before a drop or song change by increasing the frequency on a high pass filter. Gradually removing the bass frequencies makes the audience feel less grounded, and it’s almost like being on a rollercoaster while it’s slowly climbing — isn’t the climb more terrifying than the drop? It’s the same with live sets.
Create anticipation with rising high pass filters and disable them right as you make a huge transition or go into the drop. You can even do this when you’re producing music; if you love writing festival-ready music, try out UJAM’s Beatmaker HYPE — with a single control, you can control a high pass filter, reverb and multiple other effects perfect for controlling the energy in EDM (especially if you love creating festival-ready music).
Then there’s the opposite but equally common effect — the low pass filter. If you want to slowly build energy and anticipation while keeping the beat going, this is the way to go. High frequencies create more energy in a song, so when you suck that out suddenly, you can steal back your audience’s attention and build to a strong drop. Be warned, though: the payoff has to be good! Make it a fantastic drop or dramatic switch to a new song that slaps. deadmau5 and Wolfgang Gartner demonstrate this masterfully in their song Channel 43:
Filters are the most simple tools to use, but depending on how involved you’re willing to get, there are plenty more to choose from, including:
- Pitch shifting. If you dramatically decrease the song’s pitch and speed at the same time, you can create a “tape stop” that simulates the effect of a magnetic tape reel winding.
- Bit reduction. A specific type of distortion that makes all audio sound like it’s being crushed in a retro video game; this is easy to overuse, so be sure to save it for just the right moments.
- Granulation. If you have any granular synthesis plugins, they’re especially useful for experimental music; it’s trickier to incorporate them into EDM, but still possible.
There are numerous performance tools you can use to add variety to your sets, but don’t be afraid to keep it simple (as long as you don’t overuse the tools at your disposal). The most important part is using the tools you do have to make the set more fun for your audience.
Responding to the audience
When you’re performing live, you have very different expectations placed upon you; you’re not just a producer, but an entertainer as well. Does your audience seem bored? Transition into a song with higher energy. Conversely, if they’re losing steam, give them a breather with a lighter song. Every great performance has peaks and valleys — you don’t want to be at 100% intensity the entire time, since by creating lower energy moments, you create opportunities for the intense moments to hit harder.
If you don’t love the spotlight, many of the principles in this article translate to livestreaming as well. The main difference is that the live festival audience is replaced with a Twitch / Twitter feed or something similar. If you want to go deeper into the process behind successful livestreams, check out our companion article on Tips For Livestreaming. In this case, people are making requests, adding comments and asking questions, all of which make it more difficult to keep your finger on the pulse. Fulfill requests if they come from multiple people, but remember that your fans are here for you — at the end of the day, they trust your decisions, including how you run your sets!
Whether you’re prepping for a festival once everything finally opens up or running a private livestream for your fans, you need to create a solid foundation for your set while still allowing room for quick changes. Sets are a collaboration between you and the audience — you should prepare as best you can, but your fans will throw you curveballs. That’s just part of the process!
The equipment you use is important, but you can achieve almost any set you want with a live performance DAW and a simple controller. Sometimes the venue will provide the equipment and you’ll have to adapt. As long as you control the energy and tone of the room, you’ll do a great job. Continually practice, and pretty soon you’ll find that you can adapt quickly and relax into the process. Enjoy it, and your fans will respond positively!