Not just another wedding band - Live variety music & entertainment in Maryland, Virginia, & Washington DC

Band vs DJ
The case for hiring a live band

By Steve Kimbell - Oracle Band  sound engineer, trumpet player...and DJ!!!

Band versus DJ articles. You've read them before. There are probably as many articles on the debate between hiring a band versus hiring a DJ as there are wedding related internet sites. All of them state that they are trying to represent both aspects of the debate fairly.

The problem is, at least from this writer's perspective, (and most other true musician's), they appear to have ALL been written by either a DJ, or by someone that doesn't have a clue as to what live bands these days are capable of.

So, in this article, instead of attempting to provide a "fair & balanced" view of the band versus DJ debate, I'd like to take some time to discuss the benefits of hiring a live band, and to refute some of the alleged "benefits" of hiring a DJ over a live band.

While some of the points I cover here might not be true for ALL bands, I know that Oracle in particular holds true to ALL of the points I make here. IS our site, after all, right?  Most other professional bands are equally capable.

So...let's take a look at what's being said...OK?

Variety of Music

This was taken from an actual DJ's website:

Castle Point DJ's have THOUSANDS of songs available with a very wide variety of music types, bands usually know how to play less than 100 and the variety is usually limited. Remember, you want ALL your guests, young and old, to have a good time. The larger the guest list, the more variety needed in the music. Live bands are usually limited to what they can play well.

Let's see. During the course of a typical four hour function approximately 50-65 songs will be played. Are you really prepared to wade through a list of THOUSANDS of songs to pick the one's you like?

We all know that a typical CD released these days will have maybe one or two hits on it along with 12 other "throw away" songs that nobody has ever heard or would want to hear. What's the use of having thousands of JUNK songs?

Oracle has a songlist of over 500 well established, well known songs, in styles ranging from oldies to Top 40 dance, from classic rock to country, from swing & big band to R&B & Motown. 

As for "The larger the guest list, the more variety needed in the music", I beg to differ. Most good variety bands these days can cover styles ranging from the big band era through today. Indeed, if you have TOO much variety there is no sense of direction to the music, no continuity. Remember that there is a big difference in "variety" (meaning the styles of music played), and "quantity", (that is, the sheer number of songs available in the repertoire).

DJs obviously have a big edge on quantity, but not necessarily on variety.

The mark of a good party, at least from a musical point of view, is to keep the dance floor busy. If you are playing such a variety that you're going from a classic rock song to a polka to a hip hop tune, you may well end up having a dance floor with only one or two people on it at any given time, and may NEVER have a packed floor. (Notice I said "may" never...just to keep things honest).

Bands Are Too Expensive

A friend of mine is a DJ that does a lot of weddings as well as Bar / Bat Mitzvahs. A typical Saturday rate for him runs over $1000! One guy!!! Let's take a look at this.

What does he do to prepare his music? He heads for Best Buy for the latest "Now That's What I Call Music Volume 332", and heads off to the gig. Some of these guys simply hit the internet and download the songs from their favorite MP3 file sharing site!!!...they have all the latest hits for free. Remind me again...what exactly are you paying them for?

Oracle charges $2800 for four hours of music. This includes custom music that I spin between sets with a DJ rig that we carry. You get the band AND a DJ all rolled up into one package!

I'm not saying that every DJ charges over $1000. You may well find DJs that charge in the $300 range and have a good repertoire. 

If budget is paramount, then yes, a DJ is probably a good place to cut some costs. However, remember that it is the personality of your entertainer(s) that is equally important. 

Don't cut the budget so much that you end up with a guy that knows nothing of weddings, can't dress appropriately, and tells off-color jokes right before the first dance.

You should also remember that musicians love to perform. (Well...the good ones anyway). The vast majority of musicians are not in this business strictly for the money. 

There are plenty of jobs out there that pay better, (especially DJs)! Student musicians (and I mean college age students primarily) will often play for significantly less than what you see advertised. The problem of course is finding them. Check your local college music department and see if the Director of Music might have some recommendations, especially if your tastes run towards jazz of classical music for ceremonies.

With a DJ the music is heard the way everyone remembers it...the original versions

I love this one. Yes, it's true that Frank Sinatra sounds exactly like himself when you play a CD. Unfortunately, the majority of "Ole Blue Eyes'" recordings were made back in the late 50s and early 60s. In case you haven't checked, that was over a half century ago. Believe it or not, technology has improved a bit since then.

Wouldn't it be nice to have Ole Blue Eyes sound like he was right there in the room with you? maybe it's not really Frank, but our guitar player Mike. But still, the difference in the sound quality makes some of Sinatra's classics sound new again, whereas a CD of one of his songs recorded 50 years ago SOUNDS LIKE IT'S 50 YEARS OLD! When a DJ is mixing a variety of songs, from the 50s to today, believe me, you WILL hear and you WILL notice these differences.

Live bands like Oracle maintain a consistent sound throughout their performances, so young and old alike can hear their music the way it was originally performed, yet with all the excitement and clarity that one expects of today's modern soundsystems.

Another point that needs to be made here. Many of today's songs contain some objectionable lyrics in what might be an otherwise acceptable song. A live band has the opportunity to "clean up" a song without having to resort to the old "bleep" sound. Wouldn't it be nice to hear your favorite songs yet not worry about grandma being offended? Live bands can change a word, a phrase, or skip or rewrite a whole verse if that's what's needed.

It is also possible to customize a song to fit the occasion. For example, in the song "Wonderful Tonight" by Eric Clapton, we will often substitute the bride's name in the song, so it comes out "Oh Susan, you look wonderful tonight". There are dozens of songs that lend themselves to this treatment, allowing a live group to tailor the songs to the audience, making it a more personalized, family affair.

Our reception is in a small room, and a band won't be quiet enough

I love this one too. Every single Bridal Show we showcase at had at least one DJ that thinks that his music needs to be heard throughout the entire room. Oracle sets up in our 8'x10' booth, and yet our neighbors in the booths on either side of us have no problem hearing.  

Bridal-Show-floor.jpg (148792 bytes)Check out the photo on the left to see what I mean. Click on it for an enlarged view.  The folks in the booths on either side of us (and, for that matter, directly across from us), had no difficulty speaking with their prospective clients even though they are right next to us.

Now, don't get me wrong. There are a lot of bands that simply cannot play quietly enough for some rooms. Put a bar band into a historic mansion with no carpeting and you're likely going to be holding your ears and running for cover.

However, with the right technology and/or the right musicians, there is no reason a band can't play at a level that is perfectly acceptable to everyone.

I attended a wedding recently in a room that seated around 75 people. The DJ, hired from one of the largest DJ companies in the Washington DC area, arrived late, and once he got things up and running proceeded to force everyone to shout to the person across the table from them...DURING DINNER! While his choice of music was appropriate, the volume and more importantly the tone of his speakers had everybody rolling their eyes. Despite numerous requests to turn down the music he never got the volume to where it allowed normal conversation.

Part of the problem here was not just the volume (although he was clearly running things too loud), but also the TONE. Piercing highs, a nasal sounding midrange, and a muddy bass sound all contributed to he problems...something a decent equalizer could have taken care of easily. Unfortunately, at least half of all the DJs I've met have no clue how to properly use the technology that is available to them.

Anyway, the point I'm making here is that a good band with the right equipment can play just as quietly as a DJ and still sound good, (if not better).

Technical Stuff -  
The right gear and the right training to use it

I'm probably going to irritate a lot of DJs with this section, so let me state for the record that I am generalizing here, and that there are exceptions to every point I make here. I'll try to be as forgiving as I can, but some of these points just have to be made.

How many ads have you seen where the DJ company claims that every one of their DJs carries a complete backup system in case there is a problem? We've got a BUNCH of them in the DC area, and I'll bet you'll find these claims in your area as well.

You know, I've been a professional musician for 35 years, and I have NEVER been in a situation where I needed a backup system. One has to wonder what kind of gear these DJ companies purchase if they are so concerned about their system they feel the need to carry a complete, redundant system with them.

Sure, you carry spare cords, spare light bulbs that burn out, spare fuses in case something pops, and an assortment of other miscellaneous items, but a complete system?

Alas, much of this stems from the fact that many DJs don't know their gear very well, and don't have the background in audio engineering and system troubleshooting to cope with a problem when it arises. Additionally, most of the DJ gear that I've seen is beat to death and receives little or no preventive maintenance. Moving a system around on the road is hard on equipment, and periodic maintenance is a must, and far too many DJ companies simply run a system until it dies and then replace it. In the meantime, the sound quality steadily goes downhill until the component finally dies.

Here's another one of those statements that will probably upset a lot of professional DJs. Most bands carry and use much better equipment that DJs. 

Sorry's just a fact of life. Yes, some DJs carry excellent gear, but the vast majority don't even use an equalizer in their system, and wouldn't know how to tune a system properly even if they DID have one. Believe me, there's much more to equalizing a system than giving the EQ a smiley face, (which is what veteran sound engineers call a rookie looks something like this:

While all of this might sound a little dry and technical, well, it is. However, it is this technical stuff that makes a PA system sound good, whether you're playing CDs through it or a full band. 

Most musicians have been working with professional gear most of their lives, and unfortunately it's been my experience that far too many DJs carry the equivalent of a home stereo with them, and those that do carry pro gear often don't have the expertise to use it properly.

This technical knowledge is also necessary to avoid the problem like I experienced at the wedding story I related earlier. Had this DJ tuned his system better, he could have made the music easier to talk over yet still be able to enjoy it. Musicians learn early on how frequencies mix and blend with each other, which frequencies contribute to clarity, and which ones make your system sound like an AM radio.

Even something as simple as the way the speakers are aimed has a lot to do with the sound in the room. Fully 70% of all DJs I've seen point their speakers parallel to each other, directly at the opposite wall of a room...that is, straight out from the DJs position. Yet another 10% aim the left side speakers out to the left side of the room, and the right side speakers out to the right side of the room.

Both of these methods are GENERALLY a very poor way of focusing the sound. While there are exceptions, the best way to have speakers aimed is to have the right side speaker aimed left across the dance floor towards the left side of the room, and the left side speaker aimed to the right across the dance floor towards the right side of the room. This crossing pattern tends to focus the music on the dance floor and prevents any one speaker from overpowering people sitting near it. Different angles are needed depending on the shape and size of the room of course, but this is just an example of how musicians and DJs differ in their approach to the technical side of things.

Back to the disclaimer. Yes, I know there are plenty of DJs that know all of this stuff. I also acknowledge that there are plenty of musicians out there that don't. However, typically, when you have 3 to 9 musicians in a band, there will be at least ONE of them that understands the basics of acoustics and audio engineering, and will know how to get the best sound from their system. The DJ, on the other hand, either knows it, or he/she doesn't.

A DJ is more reliable in that there is only one person to worry about instead of 4 or 5

I've heard this one a lot. I could never quite figure out how the logic goes on this though, and why it keeps getting brought up.

Illness, traffic jams, family emergencies, automobile accidents...these things happen to everyone. DJs are not immune to them any more than bands are. However, if the DJ gets caught in a traffic jam, the music definitely won't start until he arrives. Everything is dependent on the one person.

Wedding DJYes, DJ companies abound that state that they have a team of backups in case someone can't make it. long will it take a backup to get there if the problem is a traffic jam?

With a band, you have 3-10 people coming. Yes...somebody might get hung up in traffic, but at least some of the members will be there and can get music playing on time, even if it's an acoustic guitar and sax. Every professional band has backup players that can step in should an emergency (illness, injury, family emergency) occur. When you're looking at a band with more people, the impact is significantly lessened.

There's another aspect of the reliability factor that should also be addressed. Many of the good DJs these days perform multiple gigs on Saturdays and Sundays. What happens if the DJ's afternoon gig requests overtime? Does he have to say "sorry, I've got another gig", or does he play and tell the folks at the second gig (when he's late arriving) "sorry, my first gig ran overtime".

Bands seldom book more than one performance a day. The length of time it takes to set up and break down the band's gear usually means there just isn't enough time. Yes, there are bands that do two (or more) gigs in a day, but it is nowhere near as common as it is with DJs. Oracle does MAYBE one double gig a year, and always with sufficient time between performances and with a contractual guarantee of no overtime at the first performance.

A band will need to take breaks, so there will be pauses in the action.

I've seen this one in almost every "band versus DJ" article ever written. It's probably the most insulting and bogus anti-band issue ever brought up.

A typical wedding reception runs about four hours. The first hour is usually cocktails, followed by dinner, then two hours of dancing.

Most bands have in their contract that they get 15-20 minutes off for each hour performing. Yes, there are bands that restrict themselves to the "45 on 15 off" rule. These bands, however, are few and far between these days. A professional band like Oracle will know that a wedding has a definite flow to it, and can tailor their sets around the itinerary.

For instance, a band will generally play the cocktail set with easy, laid back music while folks socialize. Grandma and grandpa may want to come out and do a little cha-cha during the course of the cocktail hour, and the music is often a little more their speed and the dance floor less crowded.

The bride and groom are typically the last to arrive, along with the rest of the wedding party, as they have been out getting some pictures taken. When they arrive there is a natural break in the cocktail music as they are introduced. Following the introductions the couple often does their first dance, and then perhaps the parent dances. Sometimes these are done after dinner. In any event, the dances are usually followed by a toast and grace before dinner, another logical place for a break, with one band member (that would be me in our case) sticking around to pass the microphone around and make necessary announcements.

Once dinner is served, most people could care less whether there's a band or a DJ up there as all they want to do is eat and talk.

Each and every band I know has a CD  or MP3 player with appropriate dinner music on it. If you're partial to specific songs that might not be appropriate for dancing, the band can easily burn a custom CD just for the occasion. Most DJs I know have a dinner music CD ready to go at all times. There's not much point worrying about mixing songs if nobody's listening anyway. The music is just to drown out the clatter of the dishes.

What's really happening during dinner is that the band is combining a couple of its breaks to allow them to play longer dance sets later.

So...the band plays a cocktail set, and puts on a CD for dinner. The DJ spins a cocktail set, and puts on a CD for dinner. So far there's no break in the action, and nobody is getting shortchanged. Here's where the fallacy really kicks in.

There are two hours left. However, there are still at least two significant events that take place...the cake cutting and the bouquet / garter toss. They take place usually about 45 minutes into the dancing. Hey...imagine that! Another natural point for a quick break. Some bands will play backing music for these events, and some just do what the DJ does and plays canned music while the rest of the band breaks. Regardless, within 10 minutes the cake is cut, the bouquet tossed, and the band is back and ready to play the rest of the night!

Could someone point out where in this timeline is all the "down time" the DJs tell us about? With Oracle we usually get asked to spin a couple of songs that the band may not perform, right after the bouquet is tossed. The music continues uninterrupted. No break in the action, and the client gets almost two full hours of live, uninterrupted dance music. They also get the excitement and spontaneity of a live dance band rocking the dance floor, which is, in my opinion, the key difference in a band and a DJ.

There isn't enough space for a live band

If you're talking about an 12-15 piece band, that might be true. There are some facilities that just are not large enough for a huge band with horns and the like.

This does NOT mean that you can't have a live band for your wedding reception. Some of the smaller groups have an excellent sound (and in Oracle's case a better sound than some large groups), and can fit easily into the space typically allotted to a DJ. Technology is a wonderful thing, and we take the fullest advantage of it to make Oracle sound like a much larger band. Also, remember that a DJ often has an 8' table flanked by speakers on either side, plus another table either behind him or to the side. Bands don't need tables, so a 3-5 piece band can usually fit into the space occupied by a DJ.

Bands will typically occupy as much space as they are allotted. Everyone likes some elbow room. So, if you see a band at a club with an enormous stage, and they appear to take up the whole stage area, remember that in most cases everything can be significantly condensed to take up less room.

Most of the larger bands will be able to give you specific dimensions that they need to perform. However, medium sized groups like Oracle will be able to work with you to "make it fit".

Other Issues to Consider

Up to now we've pretty much focused on the bogus information the DJs have been saying to promote their services. At this point, let's consider some other positive reasons for hiring a band over a DJ that the DJs fail to mention in their articles.

Auditioning your entertainment

How the heck do you audition a DJ? I suppose it's possible to crash someone else's wedding to see them live, but on the other hand, would you want someone crashing YOUR wedding to check out your entertainment?

Many people go on the recommendations from friends and family. Word of mouth is always pretty safe, assuming your tastes are similar.

Unfortunately, these days the majority of DJs, at least in the US, work through some sort of agency. In many cases the DJ you request might not be the DJ you get. It's very important to make sure that if you want to go with a DJ that you get assurances IN WRITING that the DJ you select is the DJ that will be at your wedding. Beware of the old "bait & switch" technique.  It is alive and well with many of the larger DJ companies.

Fortunately, with bands there are often actual live public performances that you can come out and attend. Whether it's a club, restaurant, a fund raiser, or concert in the park, most bands maintain some sort of public performing schedule that allows prospective clients to come out to see and hear them perform. Oracle maintains an extensive public performance schedule where you, your family, and all your friends can come out to hear the band live, dance, have a few drinks, and party along with us.  You can literally take the band for a test drive.

Videos are also a popular way of auditioning entertainment. Some DJs have made videos of some of their wedding performances to use as an audition. Unfortunately there usually aren't enough of them to be able to properly compare one DJ to another.

Many bands also use videos. These have been in use for many years, and have become quite sophisticated. However, a word of caution here. Many bands these days are going into a recording studio, recording their music, then going to a fancy video studio and lip syncing their music. While this gives you a very MTV like video, it really doesn't give you much of an idea what the band will look and sound like at your reception.

The bottom line is, an actual performance is definitely the best way to go, and in lieu of this, a video or audio CD (in the case of a band) of a live performance.

The WOW factor

This is what the whole Band vs DJ debate really drills down to.  Four, five, six or more live musicians performing on stage are going to have a more exciting, interesting, and dynamic impact than a DJ spinning CDs. You can feel the emotion of the vocalist, you can see it in his or her face, you can hear it in their voices.

A live band will make folks take notice. I say this in a good way of course. The good bands know that the bride and groom are the focus of attention, and know that it's their job to help facilitate a great party. They're able to read and interact with the crowd as well as any DJ to see what music is being well received and what might not be. However, it's the "wow factor" of having dynamic, interactive, live musicians that is instrumental (no pun intended) in making for a truly memorable party.

Once again, my apologies if I have offended any DJs out there. There's no disrespect intended. The cartoons shown on this page are presented "tongue-in-cheek", and should not be interpreted as a slight on the vast majority of qualified, professional DJs out there.  It's just that after years of seeing some really seriously biased articles published on some of the biggest wedding websites on the net that purport to be unbiased, I thought it was time to sort of put the record straight.

Thanks for taking the time to read. I hope you'll consider live music for your reception. If you're in the Maryland, Virginia, or Washington DC area I hope you'll consider Oracle for your function.

and criticisms are welcome.  I personally read and respond to each and every e-mail.

Steve Kimbell has been working with bands in the Washington DC area for over 30 years. He is past president of the Association of Wedding Professionals, and has written and lectured extensively on weddings, music, wedding planning, website marketing, and ethics within the bridal service industry.

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