How do you approach a group jam?

My friends and I come together once a month to jam with our machines. We set up a few ‘stations’, so that everyone of us has some drums, a sampler, a mono synth for basslines, digitone for melodics, etc. These nights are a bit hit 'n mis. As long as we are playing our patterns back to back, like a dj, it’s fine. But when we improvise together, it can quickly decend into chaos. We are not trained musicians. I can play some chords and some scales and I know my way around a sampler, but the other guys have no musical background.

Lately i’ve been trying to streamline the process by defining some rules beforehand. What style we are going to play, tempo, key, etc. We also try to define roles beforehand, a bit like a band. Who does drums and bass, who does melody and who does mixing and effects. I usualy try to prepare some ‘bare’ patterns in advance, so we don’t lose momentum by spending too long selecting sounds.

This has got me wondering what approaches you take when jamming with multiple peope. And how do you avoid everything decending into a horrible mess of sounds? Resident Advisor recently did a piece on Sebastian Mullaert’s ‘Circle of Live’ project, where he invites a rotating cast of musicians to participate in a live jam. It seems to me that he’s the conductor of sorts. In the sense that he decides on the arrangement. The rest provides a lot of loops and lines to choose from?

So, how do you and your friends jam it out?

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I take my lead from the drummer. As well as being a drummer, he likes drummachines and synths.

He leads with drum programing and dictated the clock.
I add samples and program midi basslines on the fly.

He will play a few chords or arps from one of his synths as well.

As long as we know who’s the driver, the passengers will just follow.


I think just like you say, have each person be in charge of something like how it would be in a band - someone on drums, someone on melody, someone on bassline, ect, ect. Maybe have someone in charge of one shots & pick them out before hand if you want some sort of theme, like certain types of vocals or transition type sounds.

Do you want the jam to sound like an actual song? If so, maybe plan out an order of when someone adds their piece… maybe start with drums, then add melody, then add bassline… kind of plan out a type of structure… you could have someone in charge of the mixer & that person drops/mutes sounds in & out…

I think if you plan it out even just a little at the beginning of the session you can make it sound good & not so chaotic. Then as you guys play together more & more you will get better & better going by feel / going off of each other. You can also adjust things that didn’t work so well at each session. The only thing is, playing just once a month makes it hard to really gain the experience of playing together… so I guess it depends a lot to on what you guys are aiming for. Are you JUST having fun or do you want to eventually play live shows.

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We would love to play more, but unfortunately having young kids and busy jobs makes it difficult to get together more often. You’re absolutely right that practice makes perfect. I’m just interested to hear from more seasoned musicians how they approach a hardware jam.

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Our best practice: let the lead rotate. Define who is in focus, the others support, as with solos in usual bands.

It also helps a lot to use a DJ mixer where you can kill bands. Not in charge for kick or bass? Low end off.


This is good advice. Also, try picking a key and sticking to it as much as possible. This will reduce perceived chaos. I’d suggest using the time-tested jazz tradition of starting with a “head” ie, a composed theme where everyone knows their parts, then dropping into a more improvised space where one leads/solos and others follow. This doesn’t have to be literal soloing, but rather it’s understood that one musician’s sound takes the forefront for a time. Transitions in this section require lots of visual/body language cues or eye contact. The musicians need to have a willingness to “back off” in service of the overall sound of the piece. This restraint takes practice. Conclude by playing the head again, this time with some variation. This sequence will have things sounding like coherent songs in no time. :sunglasses:


making techno and accepting i don’t have melodic skills helped me a lot.

mk7 sure has a good point with the kill eq approach

BTW op where are you? I would like to join a jam


A way to communicate with each other while playing (body language / eye contact), great advice.

I don’t.

Public displays of my incompetence aren’t good for anyone.


Great point! Played with a lead guitarist who never stoped soloing. Even while singer dropped into verse, he just turned up the heat. Everyone having a piece and a job makes for a well oiled machine.

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But I can learn from your mistakes! And you mine!

I personally think one guy gets the mixer (with faders.) as the instrument, he controls all the other instruments volume & has send fx. Other players do drum, synth, pad , voice fx.

Just as you would do in your own abelton session - with the difference that one controls the mix.

At least that is what i think should be done, in my personal expierience we talk that we should listen to each other (and voluntarly turn down our instruments volume) , and then it ends in a mess on a regular basis.

(Using Avalon, Ipad, modular, Analog4 & NI Maschine.)

Also we agree on a key to play in.

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There’s nothing worse, lol!

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I‘d rather suggest the self-mixed approach (or both), people have to limit themselves. They should also restrict the amount of tracks in Maschine etc.

Otherwise they might crank up saturation etc. to hear themselves when the mixer guy turns them down.

The DJ mixer approach is also a way of communicating, you could also use a whiteboard, but might look strange on a stage (maybe a unique feature…).

I completely agree to the body language point above, and the key lock (e.g. G).

The ‚come back to a common theme‘ approach sounds also good, but I can‘t imagine coming back to something in a Techno session/set, works probably also for common next themes (if you like a prepared set list, I don‘t, prefer going with the flow).

Most important are to complement the others, simplify and practice at home. In electronic jams people tend to concentrate on their own complex technologies, more introverted. Oh my god, all those bugs, we even decided to not use Midi sync or midi cables to reduce complexity with laptops involved (and performed live without sync, but with the DJ mixer which saved the low end).

When traditionally jamming with guitarists etc., people look more around because they know their instruments inside out, and enjoy the vibe. That‘s how I like it :grin:

When I look at my own experience, I would underline two aspects:

  • Key locked or atonal music is easier. Or one is taking the lead on the melody and other follow by ear
  • Each one should try to be were the others aren’t. Treble vs. bass, drums vs. melody, arp vs drone, odd beat vs. even, beauty vs. noise, background vs foreground…
    It takes time to reach such an equilibrium. But doing this dynamically is what’s make playing in band such a beautiful experience!

I feel you. When you’re jamming with boxes, it tends be an eyes down affair. In our jam space, we are spaced out in a line, because the room is pretty small, so there’s not that much eye contact. Idealy you’d face each other, so you can vibe more off each other.

I’m actually thinking about organising a night in a similar vein as Sebastian Mullaert’s. Get a relatively big space. Put a big table in the middle and invite local electronic artists to bring some gear and jam. The DJ-mixer idea is great. Makes it easier to structure a live set.

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As above, set up so you have eye contact.
Assign one or two different instruments to each player.
Get the drummer or drum programmer to set the tempo, bass next, build from there. At each step, give the player time to find a part that feels and sounds good, don’t rush them. Better to spend 20m jamming on a cool bassline/rhythm than an average one.

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BTW op where are you? I would like to join a jam

Utrecht, the Netherlands. Join at your own peril :wink:

I always love the dynamic of skinner box… the live notes and live programming on the minimoog add a lot to it and truly shows mastery of a single synth in my opinion. But I think often you just need to learn to make space for each other in the songs, especially if you guys are mostly working patterns. Jamming with others is a skill and getting to that point takes a lot of practice. A good approach I think is once a basic beat is going add things slowly and take away stuff as often as you add it, learn to signal each other when you have a bigger idea cooked up.

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Y, i think too thats important, we sit in a row because its a small room, and thats contradictionary - i belive it would be better to place gear at the center, and then sit around that in a circle.
Maybe the mixer is in reach of everyone, so one grabs a knob and everybody sees that there is now a change.

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