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From the cheapest to the most expensive digital set-up, beatmatching is a great leveller - get it right, and you'll sound great, get it wrong, and it's 'trainwreck central'. Here we offer complete newbie digital DJs some tips on how to start on your journey to great beatmixes every time.
It's the holy grail of DJing and it's one of the most common questions beginner DJs come to us with: "How can I mix correctly?", "How do I beatmix?" "How can I learn mixing like the pros?" Really, what these DJs are asking about is not "mixing" but "beatmixing". The truth is that beatmixing (having two tunes playing at the same speed so you can move smoothly from one to the other) is not the be all and end all of DJing (tune selection, reading the crowd, volume/EQ, timing and so on are hugely important too - and unlike beatmixing, these apply to all DJ sets). But when you're sat there with one tune ending and another ready to start, wanting to know how to make that transition sound as smooth as possible is understandably likely to be high on your list - even more so when you're a beginner and maybe don't have a crowd in front of you to teach you that - actually - other stuff is just as important.
So while this post can't teach you exactly how to beatmatch (that'd take a course. not an article), it can point you in the right direction so you're at least not simply doing "random stuff" as that first tune ends to try and get the next one to sound great! Anyone coming to digital DJing from vinyl or CDs will already know a lot of this, but these are the things beginners ask us all the time - so if that's you, consider this a crash course in the basics.
- Make sure both tunes are suitable for beatmixing - For beatmixing, you want tunes with a steady beat, and a long enough section at the start and finish for you to have time to perform a beatmix, because a smooth beatmix typically has both tunes running together for at least a short while. Go for "club" or "extended" mixes, and choose the types of tunes you hear other DJs beatmixing: House, trance, techno etc all works well
- Make sure you have both tunes at the same speed - For you to play one tune over another and it not to sound awful, those tunes definitely need to be at the same speed, otherwise the beats could never "line up" for more than a second or two; one would always pull away from the other. While traditionally DJs learn manual ways of doing this, this is one of the functions of the "sync" button - it alters the tempo of the tunes so they are playing at exactly the same speed for you
- Make sure both tunes have their kick drums lined up - the kick drum is the "thud, thud, thud" drum that dominates the music (so called because in a drum kit, it is the one the drummer plays with a kick of the foot). The tunes being at the same speed isn't going to help you if the kick drums aren't lined up; you'll still hear a cacophony of out-of-time beats. This is another purpose of the "sync" button, as in most software this function can be set to not only get the tunes at the same speed, but also line up the nearest kick drums to each other. It is also what the "nudge" function of your jogwheels is for (to "nudge" one beat forwards or backwards a bit so those kicks line up). You can try using either to correct this error. Also visually check whether this is so using the peaks on the parallel waveforms (most DJ software) or the "phase meter" (Traktor)
- Make sure both tunes are at a similar volumes - Most DJ software has "autogain" that does this for you, and for starting out, make sure it's switched on. Use the meters on your screen on DJ controller to check, too, and take some time to understand how the volume controls work on a mixer. Make sure the EQ controls (low, mid, high) are set to "12 o'clock" (ie "flat") as a rule, only tweaking when necessary. And understand how your crossfader works; the crossfader simply lets you move from one tune to another, but the rest of the volume controls determine the volume and EQ of each of those tunes in the first place
- Switch those kick drums! - As the "kick drum" contains the most volume, a good trick is to have only one kick drum playing loud at once. An easy way to ensure this is to turn the "bass" or "low" EQ down on the incoming tune and leave it at 12 o'clock on the other; you can
"switch" at a good point (see "Count to four, then eight" below") to "swap" bass drums, which also has the effect of moving the audience's ears from the outgoing tune to the incoming one
- Use your headphones to "line up" your next tune - Your headphones are there to let you hear the next tune before anyone else does - use them! There will be a button on each of your DJ controller's channels that will play that channel through your headphones but not the main system. Use it! That's why you see DJs with "one ear on, one ear off" on their headphones; they're using them to hear one song through the first ear, and the main speakers through the second, to get a sense of what it's going to sound like when they throw that fader open and let the crowd hear the two tunes together.
- Count to four, then to eight. - Dance music is constructed in sets of four bears; four beats is called a "bar". Typically, a whole "section" of a song will be eight "bars" long. Your ultimate aim is to start your new tune playing at the start of an eight-bar section, over a full-eight bar section of the outgoing tune. That means big sections of musical information will "line up", giving you a better chance of long, smooth beatmixes. Your friends here are the hotcue buttons that let you put a "cue point" at a certain place in your track, allowing you to easily jump back to it (you'd put a cue point at the start of an eight-bar section, which for simplicity's sake you'll often simply guess to be the first kick drum of the whole song), and your ears and brain (for spotting the start of the bar, and even better, the start of an eight-bar section, of your outgoing tune). Hint: Big musical things happen at the start of these "phrases"; if something starts or stops in the song, that's your clue you've guessed correctly)
Really, there are no "rules"
There's no rule that says tunes have to sound good together. The trick is in knowing what elements are present "in the mix" for both of your tunes, and being able to judge whether those elements complement each other. That takes time and experience. For instance, you don't usually want too much "musical information" clashing in your mix - best that one tune has just the drums, maybe, and the other one has the melodies (bass, vocals etc). There are also questions of musical key, energy level, style/genre, the exact point you choose to mix and so on. Nobody said this would be easy, and you're just at the start of your journey. An eternal tips is to always record your DJ mixes and listen back - it's the single best way to learn.
Respect what's going on "underneath". but do't be ruled by it
Understand too that digital DJ software and controllers are giving you props to help you, but the basics are still important, and sync buttons, waveforms, BPM analysis, key compatibility systems etc are great, but it's important over time to learn what's going on "under the bonnet", so you can gain a true, full understanding of how it all works (and be able to DJ on any gear not just digital stuff). But at the same time, don't let anyone tell you you're "cheating", or you're not "doing it right" by using digital's tricks and aids; the best way to learn about DJing is to do it - any way you can! It's about music, after all, not techniques, and some of the technically simple DJs are also some of the best. Never lose sight of the music, as it's what's brought you here in the first place. The gear just helps you to do what's in your head, to the best of your abilities. Doing makes you right.
And last of all, please remember to have fun and celebrate your little wins - one thing your DJing won't be for many years to come is consistent. Enjoy what sounds great, don't be too hard on yourself when it all goes wrong, and learn, learn, learn. Little and often with a smile on your face will get you there faster than getting disillusioned and beating yourself up all the time when it doesn't work out the way you wanted. It's a bit like cooking: chefs get good because it's one of those things that practically begs you to do it each and every day, whether or not your last meal turned out well. Do the same with your DJing and you'll get there, I promise. and hopefully you'll have a lot of fun while you do, as well.
What do you struggle with most learning to mix? What tips helped you when you started? What would you like the most help with? Please share your thoughts and ask questions below.