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DJ Set Vs Live Set: What’s The Difference?




With the explosion in popularity of electronic dance music over the past 10 years, music fans worldwide have created a thriving scene, visiting festivals, local clubs, and even huge sports arenas to see their favorite DJs and artists.

If you’re new to the electronic music scene, some of the terms used to advertise these events can be a little confusing. For example, the terms ‘DJ set’ or ‘live set’ is common in many event advertising campaigns.

So, what’s the difference, and what does a live set vs DJ set actually mean?

In short, the difference between a DJ set and a live set is DJs mix pre-recorded music to make a DJ set, and live sets are where musicians create live electronic music through the use of a laptop, MIDI controllers, and effects.

Let’s delve into a little bit more detail.

What Does DJ Set Mean?

A Live DJ Set

A DJ set is where the DJ uses pre-recorded music on vinyl, CDs, mp3, or WAV formatted music and mixes two or more tracks at the same time, creating a seamless and continuous flow of music.

This is also known as beatmatching and is the craft that any successful DJ must master.

What Is A DJ Set’s Length?

DJ sets range in time from an hour to well over 8 hours in some cases, although a typical DJ set / DJ sets length is 1-2 hours.

Some famous DJs from different electronic music genres include:

  • Martin Garrix (EDM)
  • Steve Aoki (EDM)
  • Calvin Harris (EDM, House, Electro House)
  • David Guetta (EDM, House, Dance)
  • Fatboy Slim (House, Electronica, Acid)
  • Eric Prydz (House, Techno, Progressive House)
  • Tiësto (Trance, Progressive Trance)
  • Kerri Chandler (House, Deep House)
  • Adam Beyer (Techno)
  • Sven Väth (Techno, House, Ambient)

Check out Disclosure performing their set at Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia. It’s awesome!

What Is A Live Set?

A live set is where a musician creates electronic music live using a combination of software and hardware, such as a laptop computer, MIDI controllers, and electronic instruments.

They will also use effects pedals and devices such as reverb and delay to create fluid movement and transitions throughout their performance.

Live sets are simply live performances using electronic musical instruments like drum machines, sequencers, and synthesizers.

They may also include traditional instruments like drums, strings, brass, or even vocal performances depending on the genre of electronic music.

Usually, these live sets last for a set period of time, from 30 minutes up to several hours. Due to the nature of live sets being far more complicated to compose and perform, a typical live set duration is 1 hour.

Here’s a great example of a b2b live set by Einmusik and Jonas Saalbach. They use a combination of drum machines, synthesizers, MIDI controllers, and effects. It’s all going on!

DJ Set Vs Live Set: What’s The Difference?

One of the easiest ways to distinguish between a live set and a DJ set is by checking out what the performer uses to create the music. If they’re playing records or using CDJs and a traditional DJ mixer, then your shoulder-deep in a DJ set.

If you wade to the front of the stage to see your favorite artist with their eyes glued to a laptop screen whilst using a bunch of drum machines, synthesizers, and other things with knobs and dials, then you’re likely in the midst of a live set.

Does A Live Set Sound Different From A DJ Set?

OK, so the gear they use is always a clear giveaway as to whether it’s a DJ set or a live set, but what about the sound? Does a live set sound different from a DJ set?

Remember, it’s all about the sound, and live sets are unparalleled by their range of creativity that the artist can unlock.

Artists who perform live sets will often have banks of sounds that they use to define their signature styles, such as kicks, bass sounds, synth sounds, hi-hats, and banks of other sounds that are unique to their style and genre of music.

Live sets are not fixed by any traditional song structures, so live sets can be used to channel the crowd’s energy into the direction of the set, giving each live set a completely unique feel.

This allows live sets to be fluid in their approach to how electronic music is being made and could be described as ‘jamming’ in a traditional musical sense.

Whilst live sets have the upper hand at creativity, a lot more can go wrong as a result.

DJ sets often sound better because they are using pre-recorded tracks. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy gig being a DJ because they have a lot to keep track of and electronic music is all about timing.

Why Are DJ Sets More Popular Than Live Sets?

A Popular DJ Set

DJ sets are much more common than live sets, which is due to a number of reasons. Most significant is that there are simply more traditionally trained DJs who stick to what they know and focus on their own profession, and not producing.

They rely on spinning pre-released tracks from other artists, and many do it with great success, accompanied by an enormous amount of fame.

Another main reason that live sets are less common is due to the amount of equipment needed to perform a live set. Musical equipment is expensive to buy and also very expensive to transport to gigs and festivals.

Many artists do not perform live sets unless they can transport their equipment themselves or the event has a big enough budget to transport their expensive gear safely. One lost synth, and the show is likely canceled.

Live sets are also typically more complicated to set up compared to DJ sets and require an experienced sound technician to set up all the equipment and perform sound checks before the event commences.

This adds extra cost to the venue or club and also adds more time needed between performers.

Live sets are also far more challenging and riskier to perform. There are a lot of things that can go wrong compared to DJing, where you traditionally use two decks and a USB-stick loaded with pre-recorded tracks.

This also means DJ sets are more reliable and lead to fewer cancellations due to technical issues.

What Do DJs Do Live?

A Live DJ Set

This isn’t to say that DJs don’t perform live. But what do DJs do live?

There is always a live performance element in the art of DJing, and this is often referred to as the ‘flow’ of a set.

The flow is that magical moment where the crowd and the DJ’s talents align, and the audience is captivated by the euphoria of the music. Did someone say throw your hands up in the air?!

Many experienced DJs work tirelessly and rehearse every element and transition of their set before performing, perfecting their set down to the last beat.

Other DJs rely on the energy of the crowd and their musical experience to develop their set as the night progresses. This gives a DJ set meaning and adds to the atmosphere!

Ah Yes, Ah Yes! – 3 Deck Mixing

Highly acclaimed and favored as one of the best DJs of all time, Carl Cox’s DJ career spans over 4 decades, and he became famous for using 3 decks or sometimes even 4 decks to mix tracks.

Carl’s pioneering spirit and experimentation opened doors for younger DJs to experiment with what was possible, and this has been carried forward with the creation of hybrid DJ live sets.

Hybrid DJ Live Sets

Much as the name suggests, hybrid DJ live sets consist of artists using both aspects of DJ sets and live sets combined to perform music.

A typical hybrid setup will consist of 2 decks for mixing pre-recorded tracks, plus a range of MIDI instruments, such as sequencers, drum machines, or modular synthesizers.

Most common in Techno music, hybrid DJs have the ability to mix and loop elements of pre-recorded tracks, whilst adding their own sounds on top, like a kick drum, a ride, or other elements.

This will give their overall set a more fluid and gelled sound and also allows for flexibility in releasing energy based on the crowd.

Some famous Techno DJs who use a hybrid DJ setup include Ritchie Hawtin, Dubfire, Nicole Moudaber, KiNK, and Paco Osuna.

DJ, Live, And Hybrid Set Equipment

A DJ Performing With DJ Equipment

DJ Set: Setup And Equipment

  • A traditional setup for a DJ is 2x vinyl turntables and a 2-channel DJ mixer that allows for the music to be ‘mixed’ from one channel to another, creating the seamless flow of music through beatmatching.
  • A more complex DJ setup will include 2x turntables for records, 2 CDJs, a DJ mixer with 4 channels, and maybe even some effects controllers such as reverb or delay pedals used to enhance transitions between songs.
  • A more modern DJ setup includes using a laptop and DJ software such as Traktor or Rekordbox, plus a DJ controller or MIDI controller to mix the tracks from one channel to another. Using a laptop allows for multiple decks to be played simultaneously and allows for syncing, meaning the computer beatmatches tracks automatically.

Live Set: Setup And Equipment

Live set equipment ranges from a simple setup with 2 channels to extremely complicated setups with a full mixing desk controlling multiple channels, MIDI instruments, and multiple effects pedals.

A standout live set performer is Four Tet, and a rough breakdown of the equipment he uses for his live performances includes:

  • Red Sound SoundBITE Auto-Loop Module XL
  • Boss SP-303 Dr. Sample
  • RME Fireface UCX USB 2.0 Audio Interface
  • Korg Volca Beats Analogue Rhythm Machine
  • Arturia Drumbrute Analog Drum Machine
  • Korg Electribe ER-1 Rhythm Synthesizer
  • Novation Launchpad MINI
  • Traktor Audio interface (soundcard)

Hybrid Set: Setup And Equipment

As a hybrid set is a combination of a DJ set and a live set, the equipment is also a combination of the above and varies from one artist to another.

Here’s the list of equipment used by KiNK in his famous hybrid DJ sets:

  • Roland AIRA TR-8
  • 2x Pioneer XDJ-1000s
  • Modular Synths such as the MFB-KRAFTZWERG Semi-Modular Analog Synthesizer

All DJs and electronic music artists will also use headphones as they are a crucial queuing and reference tool to playing sounds for the audience.

What’s The Verdict?

No matter what your favorite genre may be, electronic music fans are now spoiled for choice.

There’s a huge list of DJs and live set performers who regularly appear on the international festival circuit and love nothing more than captivating the audience with their carefully crafted selection of music.

These days as technology becomes more sophisticated, the role of the DJ and live performer has merged.

One thing that has become paramount to any successful DJ set or live set is the artist’s ability to connect with the crowd and provide a musical journey that will be remembered forever!


DJ set Vs live set: Which do you prefer? Leave a comment below.

Mike's the guy behind Audio Captain. He's a qualified sound engineer and self-confessed music nut who's passionate about electronic dance music. When he's not writing about music, you'll find him in the gym or working on his next EDM track in Logic Pro.