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The Lost Art of Beatmatching and Why it Counts

If you are new to mixing, you may have heard other deejays talk about “beatmatching” or “beat mixing.”  So what exactly is it?  Beat matching grew out of the 1960’s.  The purpose: to keep the dance floor moving while the deejay is changing songs.  The basic principle is simple.  For instance, on one turntable you have record that is playing at a tempo of 125 beats per minute (“Record A”) and everyone is moving to the beat on the floor.  Instead of breaking it up, you want to keep it going.  On your other turntable you load up your next record.  However, the next song you want to play is 123 beats per minute (“Record B”).  If you begin to blend both records together, you will notice that most of the elements of both songs are not playing at the same tempo.  Typically the kick drums and snares will begin to sound like a train wreck.  To avoid this disaster, you need to beatmatch–synchronizing records to the same tempo.

Illustration of two records playing at the same time at different tempos or BPMs.  Causing the infamous "train wreck" sound.  Record A is playing at 125 BPM while Record B is playing at 123 BPM.  The arrows point at the 4th beat of the second bar for each record.  If the tracks were beatmatched, these would line up.  In order for these to match, the Variable Pitch Control on Turntable B should be increased.

Illustration of two records playing at the same time at different tempos or BPMs. Causing the infamous “train wreck” sound. Record A is playing at 125 BPM while Record B is playing at 123 BPM. The arrows point at the 4th beat of the second bar for each record. If the tracks were beatmatched, these would line up. In order for these to match, the Variable Pitch Control on Turntable B should be increased.

Learning to beatmatch will improve your sets in several ways.  Not only will you gain more respect as a deejay but your mixes will feature greater dynamics during your transitions and you can fluctuate the tempo of your set throughout the night.  For example, I mix house music and if the club is not packed and no one is dancing, I start out at a slower tempo, usually no lower than 118 BPM.  Then I gradually work my sets up to 128 BPM.  Once the floor is packed and people are dancing, eventually they will get exhausted.  Sometimes I will peak them out at about 135 BPM.  After this, I might reset the floor and bring the mix immediately back down to 118 BPM.  This gives the dancers a chance to take a break, rotates the floor, and helps the bar sell more alcohol.  Obviously if you are headlining at an event you would not use this same formula.  My goal when headlining is to dominate the floor, keeping the tempo usually high, while creating smaller variations in the peaks and valleys of my set.  Even if you mix other genres of music that plays at a slower BPM such as hip hop, you should absolutely apply these principles.

In the early 1970’s, Technics released the SL-1200 turntable which soon became the industry standard for deejays across the world.  One of the SL-1200’s popular features is the accuracy of its Variable Pitch Control and direct drive motor.  A direct drive turntable uses a motor that directly rotates the platter.  Cheaper turntables use a motor, connected to a belt, that is attached to the spindle.  Belts are commonly used in older electronic devices, your car, and vacuum cleaners.  Obviously they expand, contract, become brittle, wear out, then snap.  Therefore, a direct drive mechanism alleviates that.  A turntable with a band inside can also complicate your ability to nudge the platter faster or slower.  And if you like to use turntables to scratch, band driven turntables are not favorable.   The accuracy of the 1200’s Variable Pitch Control allows you to adjust increase the record’s speed by +8% and decrease it by -8%.  The Variable Pitch Control is the most important feature required to beatmatch.  Yet I notice most newer deejays never touch the pitch control on their equipment.  Pioneer ‘s CDJs and most of the higher end consumer deejay controllers such as the Traktor Kontrol S4 include variable pitch controls.  Newer deejays skip learning this critical feature and mask their inability to actually mix by using Traktor’s or the CDJ Nexus system’s auto sync buttons.  This results in a boring mix where some deejays play for 2 hours straight leaving their tempo fixed at 128 BPMs.

The technique I use to beatmatch two vinyl records is simple to explain but do not be fooled, it takes a lot of practice and dedication to perfect the skill.  If you actually want to master this, it could take you several years.  I will cue up Record B to the first beat of the verse that I want it to start playing on.  Then, I release Record B, while listening to it Record B and Record A in my headphones only.  While Record B is playing, I make adjustments to the Variable Pitch Control–speeding up and slowing down Record B quickly until it falls into sync with Record A.  Then I let Record B play a bit to make sure that it’s tempo is playing precisely at 125 BPM.   One way to hear whether both records are playing at the same tempo is to pay particular attention to the snares.  Once I am certain of this, I will rewind or cue up Record B to the first kick drum of the verse I want to bring in on top of Record A.  Then I will wait for the right moment while Record A is playing, to release my hand from Record B (usually the beginning of a new verse, break, or outro).  At the moment I release Record B to play, I use my other hand to bring up the volume on the mixer (or crossfader) so that the dance floor can hear Record B and Record A playing simultaneously.  Then I listen carefully to make sure Record B is still playing at the same tempo as Record A.  If I hear that Record B is slightly out of sync, I like to nudge the turntable platter with my left pointer finger and use my right hand to make small adjustments to the Variable Pitch Control.  There are various methods used to make tempo corrections nearly unnoticeable while the record is live and remains in sync with Record A.  Some deejays will never touch the turntable platter and only make adjustments using the pitch control.  While other deejays will squeeze the turntable’s silver spindle shaft to slow the record down slightly.  Growing up and learning to mix in Chicago, the leading deejays would mix records as quickly as possible, a style known as hotmixing.  In order to quickly change records, I find it more time consuming to rely solely on the Variable Pitch Control.  This slows down your ability to mix more records.  Working the platter and spindle with a lot of hands on action is also common in mixing hip-hop.  In other genres of music, such as Trance, deejays relied less on changing records so quickly.  Trance deejays in the 90’s would typically let records play for more than 5 minutes.  Mixing Trance affords the deejay plenty of time  to adjust the Variable Pitch Control up and down until the records are synchronized without the need of nudging the platter.  Several Trance deejays I have encountered never even beatmatch.  They simply blend two records together during extended verses that have no kicks or snares in them.

I use my pointer finger to carefully nudge the turntable platter (indicated by the left arrow). This allows me to quickly sync one record with another.  Meanwhile I use my right hand to adjust the Variable Pitch Control (indicated by the right arrow).  In this instance, notice the pitch control is increased by approximately 2% faster than the standard 33RPM.

I use my pointer finger to carefully nudge the turntable platter (indicated by the left arrow). This allows me to quickly sync one record with another. Meanwhile I use my right hand to adjust the Variable Pitch Control (indicated by the right arrow). In this instance, notice the pitch control is increased by approximately 2% faster than the standard 33RPM.

Once you have two records playing together in nearly perfect sync, the final step is to sneak Record A out completely while Record B is playing.  Generally I will do this on the first beat of a new verse, The first verse or hook of Record B is a good point to cut out Record A.  Quickly kill the volume on Record A.  It makes the transition seamless because the audience’s attention is shifted towards the new song at that point.   After that, remove Record A from the platter, load up a new record, and repeat the process.    Keep in mind that this is a basic explanation.  If you want to make your transitions perfect, there are several other techniques and skills to apply while beatmatching. For example, using the correct amount of volume and working the EQ correctly (commonly overlooked by most deejays).  If you are starting out and believe that EQ and volume control is simple to work, let me be your red flag.  I would go into more detail but those subjects are involved enough to merit their own article.

Now that you understand what beatmatching is, why is it relevant anymore when a computer, Traktor, Serato, Ableton, Pioneer CDJ 2000’s, and/or any consumer grade deejay controller can automatically do it for you?  Using the traditional approach of beatmatching two records for several verses can and will color your mix with greater dynamics and progressions.  I notice that other deejays that rely solely on looping or other beat sync features lose a lot of details that make mixing incredible.  Also, deejays that loop their tracks typically are not familiar with basic song structure.  Keep in mind that most Western music for the past century is constructed in a particular format.  Generally most songs will have a significant change in percussion, vocals, and/or melody every 8 or 16 bars.  Most newer deejays simply use the computer to place Record B in a 4 or 8 bar loop.  Then they crossfade it into Record A.  Once they decide they are done with Record A, they sneak Record A out while releasing Record B from its loop, and allow the song to play out.  The mix might sound flawless but the subtleties of a song’s progression within a verse are completely lost.  And the beginner deejay’s transitions are typically not executed on the standard 8, 16, or 32 bars increments that music is structured around.

For an example of beatmatching in structured increments, take a listen to my recent mix Underground City – Los Angeles, Volume 1.   If you listen carefully and count the beats out, you will  recognize that I normally will make transitions in 8 or 16 bar increments.  By counting the beats, listen to the changes that occur every 32 beats.  The only time I will usually break from this structure is if I really love a new track but the producer did not apply a standard structure.  Usually the producer does this because he/she lacks experience.  It forces me to loop their patterns unnaturally and creates additional work.  I normally will not spin music that is not structured correctly because it is usually a sign that the artist lacks basic production skills.  If the structure is not correct, how can you trust that there is any quality behind the mastering.  Moreover, does an inexperienced producer check the kick and bassline for phasing issues?  Issues like that have killed some of my mixes in the 90’s, so I listen carefully to the track before spinning it, if the producer reveals any major mistakes, I normally will never spin it.

If you are not interested in beatmatching without auto-sync, you should at least be aware of how long you are allowing a loop to run on before you change it.  Audiences are subconsciously expecting a song to change within 8 or 16 bars increments.  This natural progression/regression is embedded in our music culture.  If you are looping your mix, consider that playing a song section for an abnormal amount of time (e.g. 5, 7, 9, or 11 bars) may have an unintended or undesirable effect on your audience.  For the past twenty years that I have discussed this with newer deejays, they commonly respond, “I’m more about what ‘feels’ right at the moment.”  Unless you are like Robness, one of my deejay partners, who also happens to be one of the best guitarists in Los Angeles, you are probably not in the position to say you just “feel it”.   This is where humility comes into play.  99% of people that are excellent musicians got that way through hard work and discipline.  If you want to be good, you must learn the basics of mixing and master those techniques.  Then break the rules, intentionally.

When you are performing, you can get away with breaking the song structure because most people are drunk, rolling, trying to get laid, or fending off creepy dudes.  Most of the audience’s attention is not deeply focused on your technical abilities.  However, there’s always going to be those certain few people–on any given night–that produce music, play instruments, or deejay better than you.  And they often times will pay close attention to your abilities.  These people are typically social influencers and their opinion about your abilities matters.  It’s important to use the turntables as an instrument and learn how to play them.  It will help you in the long run by keeping your mixes balanced and help you earn respect from more experienced deejays.  Beat sync features should not be discounted though.

They are useful because they save you time. You can shift your attention towards live remixing, applying effects, filters, and playing four or more songs simultaneously without getting lost.  Keep in mind if you do not know how to beatmatch and a venue you are playing at does not have auto sync features on the decks, your set is going to bomb.  In that situation, you should probably have a pre-recorded mix on a CD.  Secretly hand the CD to the mix engineer at the club.  They will usually have an extra CDJ under their console and can play it for you while you fake it on the decks.  This practice is all too common amongst mainstream celebrity deejays that achieved their fame solely because of a major record label’s talented marketing department.  The managers of these deejays realize that their client cannot mix and would never let them actually perform a live set.  They would destroy the show.  We have seen these deejays quickly rise to fame and fall twice as fast.  An excellent deejay has mastery over all the techniques, is able to read the audience, and shape the vibe instantly.  Something a pre-recorded mix cannot do.  Once you master beatmatching and you sync two records you might even feel euphoric.  That’s because you are creating harmony between several sounds and have mastered one technique on your instrument.  This rush of excitement will also enhance your stage presence and permeate onto the floor.  Do not be afraid if you make some errors while you are performing.  I have seen all of the very best deejays fall out of sync from time to time.  And when I hear it happen, I become more excited because I know for certain I am listening to a real artist.  If a deejay’s set is flawless that’s an indication that either he/she is cheating the techniques, using a pre-recorded mix, or that you do not have enough experience yet to detect where the deejay is making errors.  Let knowledge, practice, and experience help you improve.  And do not be discouraged when you fail.

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