Sunday, February 17, 2013

Basic Beat-Mixing for DJ's: CD Players

Are you interested in learning more about basic DJ’ing? Well, I just finished another video for my “Learn to DJ” series. This one isn’t for absolute beginners, but it will be good for people who have already decided that they want to be DJ’s, and who have decided that they want to learn to beat-mix their music on CD players or even on turntables.

This video specifically targets people who are interested in learning to beat-mix or beat-match music on CD players in the traditional style, rather than using computer software to assist you. The majority of the video also applies to people wanting to learn to beat-mix on turntables, although I have a separate short video coming in a few days that explains some extra considerations for turntable beat-mixing.

When a DJ gets ready to perform, they basically have two choices:
1. Perform using computer-assistance, ie. with software packages such as Ableton, Traktor, Serato, or Virtual DJ.
2. Perform using physical equipment, such as playing vinyl records on turntables, or playing CD’s or USB-based audio on CD players.

My Videos Page on my main website has tutorial videos about quite a few of these branches of DJ’ing, so bookmark it and check out some of the other videos.

Vinyl is a more traditional media than CD’s. People were DJ’ing on vinyl and cassettes in the 1970’s. Technics came out with the SL-1200 turntable in around 1972, and it became very popular among DJ’ing over the subsequent several decades. CD players started to come into use in the mid-1980’s. Surprisingly (for many of today’s younger DJ’s), cassettes were more popular than vinyl or CD’s in the late 1980’s.

I’ve heard that turntables originally had pitch adjustment controls due to inconsistencies in the pressings of records, to “fix” mistakes in some pressings. I don’t know if that’s actually true, but DJ’s quickly learned that the pitch controls allowed them to adjust tempos, to match the speeds of different songs to each other. DJ’s realized that most of the time, if people were going to walk off a dance floor, it was at the end of a song. Beat mixing was born in an attempt to keep people on the dance floor, by eliminating the periods when a song ended and tricking dancers into sticking around for another song.

CD players with pitch controls came out in the late 1990’s. The Pioneers CDJ-500 was released around 1997. A few years later, the CDJ-1000 was released, and that eventually became an industry standard. CDJ-1000’s can still be found in clubs all over the world. A few years ago, the CDJ-2000 was released, which is the model that I used in this video, although not too long ago it was replaced by the CDJ-2000 “Nexus” variation, which among other things, has a much better display panel, and also allows DJ’s to play songs wirelessly from a nearby smartphone.

A big question that people frequently ask me is to make a recommendation about whether a new DJ should learn on computer software or on traditional equipment. The answer to that depends on the person. Mixing on a laptop allows you to bring more music, and the versatility of having software to assist you is helpful. If you don’t have to worry as much about beat-mixing, you can focus more on programming and stage presence. And buying a laptop is generally cheaper than buying all the rest of the traditional DJ gear that you might want.

However, there are drawbacks to laptops. You have to make sure you have a decent machine that doesn’t crash, with enough storage space, lots of memory, and a fast enough hard drive that you don’t get lags in the music during your performance. Some fans and purists look down upon laptop DJ’s because they have less versatility and skill than DJ’s that mix on vinyl or CD’s. And one thing that I think is really important to remember is that DJ’ing on a laptop isn’t nearly as fun!

But of course, CD’s and vinyl have drawbacks. For instance, you have to learn to mix. It’s not easy. Some people pick up the basics in a single evening, and others need a couple weeks to get comfortable with simple mixes. But after that, you still need months of practice to really get good at smooth-sounding mixes. The equipment is also fairly expensive, and not everyone can afford to have a full DJ setup in their own house or apartment. Also, a problem that many beginning DJ’s don’t think about is that after they get comfortable on their own equipment, they go to play at a club and they’re in a totally unfamiliar environment, perhaps with a completely different mixer and players and monitoring system, and it feels impossible to mix again. Until you start playing in top clubs that can afford high-end equipment, a DJ will have to get used to lots of different equipment configurations, and will have to get used to playing on different brands and models of equipment.

But the most important thing to remember about learning to beat mix on vinyl or CD’s is that it’s fun. So let’s learn.

There are two distinct styles of mixing CD’s (and vinyl). The first is what I call “radio style,” or a basic fade-in/fade-out approach. As one song starts to end, you start a second song on the other player, so the two songs overlap. In this style, you probably make no effort whatsoever to sync tempos, although with some songs, you might try to time the first beat of the new song to hit at a very specific time.

Beat Mixing (also referred to as Beat Matching) is the other approach, where you take songs with similar tempos and sync them so they sound like a continuous track. Beat mixing is the predominant style in clubs, parties, and at electronic festivals. It works with a lot of different styles of music, such as hip hop, house, techno, trance, breakbeats, dubstep, drum ‘n’ bass, electro, and mainstream pop/dance. Within some of those styles, there are massive numbers of sub-genres. For example, with house music, you’ll common find DJ’s segmented into deep house, tech-house, disco house, vocal house, progressive house, tribal house, and probably thirty or forty other subtle variations that I could list.

It’s probably useful for you to understand the distinctions between the various main styles, if you don’t already. Of course, that could take weeks to learn, but it’s kind of fun. A good resource that I’ll recommend you check out eventually is Ishkur’s Guide To Electronic Music. It’s tongue-in-cheek most of the time, but still contains a massive amount of useful information, and even experienced DJ’s and EDM fans can spend hours flipping through descriptions of various styles and listening to samples.

It’s also good to understand tempo ranges. It’s best to mix tracks within a fairly tight range. For example, no matter what your typical tempo is for a style, it can often be pretty challenging to beat-mix a track with another track that has a tempo difference of more than 10% from the preceding track. In fact, I’d say that a range of around 5% on either side of an “average” tempo for a genre is typically easiest. Of course, it helps if you know the typical tempos for various genres. Let me list a few:

      Hip Hop – 60bpm to 105bpm
      House – 115bpm to 135bpm
      Techno – 125bpm to 145bpm
      Trance – 130bpm to 145bpm
      Dubstep – 135bpm to 145bpm
      Drum ‘n’ Bass – 150bpm to 180bpm
      Electro – 125bpm to 135bpm
      Mainstream Pop/Dance – 118bpm to 132bpm

These are all my opinion only, and you’ll sometimes find tracks outside these ranges. But I feel fairly confident that 95%+ of the music in each genre lays within the ranges that I listed above. You’ll notice that Hip Hop has the biggest range. I actually think it’s by far the hardest type of music to mix because of that. You really have to know your music, and to go from a song in the lower part of that range to one in the upper, you probably need to play several other songs in between, gradually ramping the tempo up to where it needs to be.

Before I can demonstrate beat mixing on the equipment, it’s important to look at it from a theoretical point-of-view. There are two things that you need to understand about the speed of a record: the tempo, and what I loosely call the acceleration. If you know how a pitch control works, you’re probably really confused right now. There’s only one thing that you can adjust – the tempo! But you have to realize that you’re introducing another dimension into the equation when you start DJ’ing, and that’s the dimension of “time.” To change from one tempo to another takes time. It might seem almost instantaneous, if you move a pitch fader quickly, but it’s still a finite amount of time.

Let me use two airplanes that are trying to fly beside each other as an analogy, and let’s assume that one of the two (which I’ll call Plane “B”) is flying “behind” the other in its parallel flight path. What does Plane B need to do to start flying beside Plane A? Well, it needs to make not one but TWO speed adjustments. First, it needs to change its speed so it is flying faster. But before long, Plane B will catch up to Plane A, and unfortunately, if you don’t make a second adjustment, it will quickly get ahead of Plane A. So merely speeding up Plane B didn’t synchronize the two planes. The pilot had to speed up to catch up AND then make a second speed (tempo) adjustment in the opposite direction to slow down to the same speed as Plane A. A DJ has to make a similar pair of adjustments to match a lagging beat (Plane B) to the beat that’s going out to the dance floor (Plane A). But the DJ may have an additional challenge – he or she might not know exactly how fast Plane A is going, which means you don’t know exactly how much to slow back down to stay beside Plane A. Sounds confusing? Yes, it is.

I just illustrated the most common way for experienced DJ’s to beat-mix. There is a second way. Let’s say that you’re flying Plane B and you’re a little bit behind Plane A, but you realize that you’re flying at exactly the same speed, because you’re neither catching up nor falling further behind. This is good! This gives you information that you need – you now know exactly how fast Plane A is travelling. The corollary when DJ’ing is that if your incoming track is off-beat but it’s not falling further behind or catching up (it’s staying exactly off-beat), then at least you know what your final tempo on the new record needs to be once you’ve caught up. In this situation, you just need to catch up and then at the very instant you are caught up and beside Plane A (or the beats are synced with the two songs), you immediately cut back the speed on Plane B to what you have already learned is the correct speed (tempo).

For people beginning to learn to beat-mix, this is the way that they usually find easiest to learn, which is fine. They focus on trying to make sure that their incoming track is the right speed as the biggest priority, regardless of whether or not the songs are synced. Once you know that your two tempos are the same, you can quickly and temporary “pump” or “suppress” the beat to make it match that of the audible record. Of course, you can’t quite do that in aviation, so my analogy falls apart there. If an analogy was still possible, it would be like if Plane B was going the right speed but was behind Plane A, and a giant flyswatter gave it a smack and pushed it up beside plane A.

The problem that you’ll probably see with the first approach is that when you’re speeding up Plane B to catch up to Plane A, and then you suddenly have to guess at a slower speed to stay beside Plane A, you’ll probably guess too slowly, or too quickly. In that case, your plane either starts to slowly fall behind, or slowly get ahead. This is normal. You’ll think about things for a minute and try to figure out how quickly you’re falling behind or getting ahead, and then make a decision to make another pair of adjustments. You might have to do this several times. With each successive set of adjustments, you’ll hopefully get a better idea of what the proper speed needs to be, so you’ll get closer and closer to matching the speed of the first plane (or song). In scientific terms, when you’re trying to match the tempo of the first plane, you can think of that plane’s tempo and you’re trying to figure out what you need to do to make your speed revert to the mean. Sometimes you’ll undershoot, and sometimes you’ll overshoot, but with each adjustment you should be getting closer to knowing what to do to match the tempos perfectly.

It’s pretty hard to explain this stuff on paper. You should really watch the video, if you haven’t already. Hopefully it will make a bit more sense when I demonstrate rather than try to write it all out.

In this video, I was using a Pioneer DJM-600 mixer, and a pair of Pioneer CDJ-2000 CD players. These aren’t great pieces of equipment for teaching beat-mixing to beginners, for two reasons. First, beginners tend to be intimidated by all the buttons and knobs. Remember that most of them are just extra “fancy bells and whistles.” Don’t feel like you’re going to learn less if you’re learning on very simple equipment compared to these units. Simple is better, because you’ll focus more on actually figuring out how to sync the tempos of music (ie. beat-mixing) instead of focusing on the extra options on the mixer.

One additional problem with these units is that both the CD player and the mixer have displays which tell a DJ what the approximate tempo is. This is a terrible thing for beginners!! Don’t learn to rely on the BPM counters on your equipment when you’re learning to beat-mix. If you’re going to do that, you might as well just learn to play on a laptop. I highly, highly recommend that the first thing you do if you’re practicing on high-end equipment is to put a small piece of masking tape over every single BPM display! You need to be able to figure tempo differences out by ear. It’s frustrating, and it will take time before you’re comfortable with it, but you MUST figure this out on your own. I feel that relying on BPM counters is a terrible habit to get into. You’re only cheating yourself if you learn to DJ this way.

I didn’t use the cross fader in this video, and I explained why in the video. Basically, the cross fader is a useful asset, and is quite important in some styles. However, in terms of actual relative control during everything but a basic A to B mix, using the channel faders gives you a lot more flexibility.

You can improve your mixing skills by learning to use the EQ buttons while mixing, if that’s an option on your mixer. It usually is. Many mixers have three EQ buttons per channel (low frequencies, mids, and highs) but some low-end mixers might only have two, and other good mixers might have four or more. Rather than getting into this in detail, I’ll just say that when you’re mixing two tracks and they are not perfectly synchronized, it is usually the overlapping bass frequencies which sound most obviously out of sync, sort of like shoes in a dryer. So typically, if I’m mixing two tracks, I’ll bring the highs and mids of the incoming track up a bit so I can hear it better in the headphones and the dance floor can hear more clearly that a new track is coming in, and I’ll mix with very little bass in the incoming song until a point (usually on the first beat of any eight-group bar grouping). At that point, I’ll cut the bass from the outgoing song and bring in the bass of the incoming song.

You should also try to pay attention to the underlying rhythm structures of each song when you’re mixing. Synchronizing beats from one song to another is good, but it is much, much better if you can synchronize bars and sections too. Most types of dance music (drum & bass and break-beats are exceptions, and dubstep seems like an exception although it’s just half-time tempo signatures) are based on an eight-bar or sixteen-bar 4/4 time pattern. I can explain this better in the video, but essentially, if you’re working with a house/trance/techno track, listen for a point which seems like it’s intuitively the “beginning” of a section of the song. Often this is when a beat comes back in with significant other changes to the music, or after a breakdown. Treat that as beat one of bar one. Now start counting along with the beats in groups of four (each group is called a “bar” in music). You’ll essentially count the following pattern: 1 2 3 4, 2 2 3 4, 3 2 3 4, 4 2 3 4, 5 2 3 4, 6 2 3 4, 7 2 3 4, 8 2 3 4. The interesting thing is that when you get to the next beat, which would be the first beat of bar nine, you’ll often notice that the music changes. Neat, eh? Most good dancers and DJ’s already know about this phenomena, even if it’s intuitive and they don’t realize that they know it. A DJ will get to the point where they are always counting bars and beats in the back of their mind. It actually gets frustrating at times when you’re out relaxing at a club and you can’t stop yourself from counting beats, even though you wish you could forget about the counts and just enjoy the music.

In the video I also went into a brief explanation of Groove Riding, which is what many professional DJ’s end up doing because they’re extremely comfortable with beat-mixing. Basically, groove riding is using the same techniques that I’ve already described in order to figure out how to mix two tracks, but instead of ever matching tempos perfectly and then giving the CD or turntable platter a “push” or a “drag” to match it to the other song, the DJ does absolutely everything to sync the records without ever taking his/her hand off the pitch fader. I demonstrated this in the video.

In conclusion, if you want to get good at beat-mixing, you need to do three things: practice, practice, and practice. More importantly, don’t focus too much on the technical aspects at the expense of programming. Someone who mixes perfectly but plays bad music will be far less popular than someone who just does quick radio-style mixes but plays songs that the dance floor loves.

Last minute advice?

1. If you do get a gig in a venue where the dance floor will expect perfect mixing, be ready for it. Practice constantly before your show. Go into it assuming that you’ll have a few bad mixes, so you don’t get flustered when you make those mistakes, because once you start to get nervous or flustered, it’s really hard to recover. A calm DJ always does a better job.
2. Don’t play the same track twice in a night.
3. Don’t ever DJ when you’re drunk or stoned. If you want to become an above-average DJ, treat it as a profession, not just a party.
4. Check out some of the other tutorials on my Video Page, and follow me on Twitter to see updates about other videos that I’m about to put up on YouTube.

Here's the companion video, about beat-mixing on vinyl. But you should watch the CD beat-mixing video first.

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