This is 101 DJ
Learn Basic Skills four DJs
There are a number of basic skills to consider when learning how to become a DJ: mixing, EQing, phrasing, beatmatching, and prep. We’re going to cover them briefly, here.
You’ll quickly learn that this is a major point of contention in the DJ community.
The reason is that technology has, arguably, made this skill obsolete. All the major DJ software packages, and latest industry-standard Pioneer gear, has built-in “sync” functionality.
The purpose of beatmatching is to get the two tracks you’re mixing to play at the same tempo (the speed at which the song is playing) and phase (the beats from both tracks playing in-time with each other).
Think about it like two cars driving next to each other on the highway.
- Tempo is the same as the speed, such as 60 MPH.
- Phase is having the two cars directly next to each other.
So, why learn beatmatching when there is such a thing as a sync button? Well, firstly it gives you the ability to beat-mix on pretty much anything out there. Turntables and some CDJs require you to do this manually.
But most importantly, it helps to develop and tune your ears so that you know what to listen for (when tracks drift out of time, phase, etc.)
Even when I’m using DJ software and allowing it to sync my tracks, I use my ears to adjust the phase appropriately… since I know how it sounds from beatmatching.
I’m the kind of DJ who doesn’t like spending hours prepping and beat-gridding his tracks, but I’ve never felt the need to because I can do all of these things manually.
The overall point is that learning to beatmatch will make you a better mix DJ, whether you’re digital or not. That being said, many mobile and radio DJs feel no urge to beatmatch at all.
You can always come back to this later, but I think learning to beatmatch early is a great idea. Also consider Beatmatching by ear.
Ten Reasons You should Learn To Beatmatch By Ear
In today’s digital age, it’s becoming harder for veterans to explain to younger DJs the benefits of learning to beatmatch manually (by ear). While I do believe that, for better or for worse, beatmatching continues to quickly lose relevance in the DJ realm, that doesn’t mean that I suggest writing it off.
Due to the polarizing nature of this article after tens of thousands of views, and the controversy surrounding the topic, we have addressed this post on episode 26 of my weekly show: The Passionate DJ Podcast. You may listen to that episode here:
The Passionate DJ Podcast
Episode 26: Is Beat Matching Still Relevant?
It’s no wonder that a lot of traditional DJs get their panties in a bunch about this subject, because it’s a skill they took weeks, months, or even years to master… and now “any Joe Schmoe” can press a button and have a computer do the hard work for them. Because of this, newer DJs often miss a lot of the subtle details and observations along the way.
In this post, we’ll go over some reasons why new DJs might still be interested in learning this skill. I’ll also go over some tips on how to learn, if you don’t already know.
What you won’t find is a lengthy diatribe on how it’s your duty, that’s what real DJs do, and how the sync button is ruining DJing.
1. You Can Play On Anything
Knowing how to beatmatch manually gives you options. Someone throwing a vinyl-only gig? Show up at a gig where there’s no room for your controller (but they provide a pair of standard CDJs)? Impromptu party at a friend’s house and want to use their gear? What if your controller breaks or your laptop goes belly-up on the day of your set? If you know how to mix the good ol’ fashioned way, none of these will be a problem to you.
2. It Helps You Learn About Rhythm
Beatmatching manually causes you to rely on your ear. You are forced to truly listen to what it is that you’re doing, rather than allowing technology to fill the gaps. Your ear begins to zero in on auditory cues, such as a distinct snare or hi-hat. You start to notice how the percussion is structured… the syncopation and groove of the rhythm. This, in turn, helps aid you with things like switching up genres and subtle mixing.
3. The Tech is Good, But Not Perfect
I’m one of those DJs that doesn’t beat-grid his tracks when playing digitally. The only kind of prep work I do has to do with library management, and occasionally, a cue point or two. This affords me the opportunity to be “lazy” in that when I buy 20 tracks, it takes me 5-10 minutes to “prep” them rather than making an evening out of it.
4. It Allows You to Work With Other DJs
If you are reliant on one particular setup and the ability to sync your tracks, you might as well throw out the idea of an impromptu tag-team set with a fellow DJ. While it’s true that there are ways to electronically sync multiple DJ setups, it adds unnecessary complication, doesn’t always work, and doesn’t allow for you to play alongside a vinyl DJ. It’s much easier (and more fun) to be able to just mix back and forth and not worry about what media formats are being used.
5. You Can Mix Songs With Tempo Variations
…without having to modify the source track or use something like Ableton to warp it. Not just songs that have an intentional BPM change, but also songs that aren’t perfectly quantized (such as mixing funk records with live drummers).
I separate these more obscure ideas from the practical uses above, because they do not help you do anything technical and might not matter to every DJ. But, they are points worth mentioning all the same. It’s up to you to decide which of these resonate with you.
1. It Helps You Know Your Roots
You might also call this “putting in your time”. Beatmatching is one of the foundational pillars of DJing, and it doesn’t hurt to learn your craft from the bottom up. Learning to do it the original way really allows you to appreciate DJing as a culture and to understand where this whole thing comes from. (Learning to walk before you run, learning to add and subtract before using a calculator… etc.)
2. Peer Respect
Let’s face it… whether or not it matters to you, there’s an instant level of respect (especially amongst other DJs) when you can prove that you’re not entirely reliant on technology to do your mixing for you.
3. For Many, It’s More Fun
There’s something sexy about spinning wax, and having to really put your focus on what you’re doing. Many people like digging through crates and pulling out that next killer tune, and many people enjoy watching it. You get a certain tactile and intimate feel that you don’t get as much with software DJing. Some people enjoy flipping through a CD book and get a similar sense of satisfaction by playing this way. Sync buttons can lead to boredom.
4. It Can Be More Rewarding
When you play a set of 20 songs on a Traktor rig with the sync button engaged, you’re not pleasantly surprised when the tracks… well, all stay in sync. There’s a sense of accomplishment and reward to be had by actually doing the work yourself.
5. It Helps Maintain a Human Element
Somewhat like comparing a live drummer to a drum machine, there’s something more “human” about manual beat matching (not in just the feel, but in the output). Manual beat matching is one way to help give your sets a live feel… to let your audience know that you are more than a large iPod.
Tips For Learning
- Beatmatching is the one “big” DJ technical skill that usually takes the most time for people to learn. It’s going to be frustrating… it takes perseverance. But it’s worth making the investment. Try it a little each day and you’ll be surprised how quickly you can pick it up.
- You don’t have to have a pair of turntables to learn how to beatmatch (though, they are the most challenging). You can beatmatch manually using just about modern “deck controller by simply turning off your software’s Sync function and turning your screen away, or on your CDJs by hiding any displays and BPM counters with a piece of tape.
- When matching two tracks, it helps to push the cued track’s tempo (pitch fader) up significantly faster than the track that’s already playing. That way, there’s no question of which track is playing faster than the other (and which way you need to adjust the tempo)… you can pretty much guarantee that the “incoming” track is faster and you need to start slowing it down to compensate.
- Practice, practice, practice. The concepts aren’t hard to understand, but the process can take weeks, months, or years to master.(https://passionatedj.com/10-reasons-why-you-should-still-know-how-to-beatmatch-by-ear/)
Beatmatching is accomplished using a pitch fader (to adjust tempo). You use a jog wheel, pitch-bend button, or the physical manipulation of a record to adjust phase.
That’s phrasing, with an “r”… not phasing.
This one will make sense to anyone who has ever played a musical instrument. A song’s structure is based on beats and bars (measures), which make up the song’s phrases.
Phrasing simply means to mix your tracks together at points in the songs which make sense.
Almost all music that you will be DJing is in 4/4 time, whether you play electronic dance music, hip-hop, funk, or top 40. What this technically means is that there are four beats in a measure (bar), and that the quarter note gets one beat.
In contrast, 6/8 time means that there are 6 beats in a measure, and the eighth note gets one beat. The takeaway is that you need to learn how to count to four, as most “DJ-able” music is 4/4.
Why You Must Understand Phrasing
Even though most of our audience is made up of advanced or intermediate DJs, we get a lot of aspiring talent on the site every month who are hungry to learn. The fundamentals never get stale, so we will be rolling out a new “how to DJ” article every month for those that are just joining the ranks. Phrasing is one of the most important musical fundamentals out there, so let’s get started there.
Ever wonder how your favorite DJs are able to craft a seamless mix where the tracks seems to start/end at just the right time? It’s not luck, but understanding the concept of good phrasing. Most Western music, especially electronic and pop music, is built using phrases of 16 and 32 counts. As you learn how to DJ, you’ll start to see that all forms of music follow a familiar structure. By recognizing this structure, you can take two totally different songs and make them sound as if they were designed to fit together.
If you’re looking for more intermediate tips on how to DJ, I’d recommend checking out the following articles first:
Every song introduces audible change to the music that clue in the audience to the start/end of a phrase. Most people are affected by this sub consciously but you can learn how to read those clues like a pro. Normally these changes would be a new instrument, a drum fill, or crash and it typically occurs every 32 counts. Before the days of DJ software, the only way to find the start/end of a phrase was to listen to the track and pay attention to these clues.
With DJ software we have a visual overview of the entire track thanks to the waveform. This makes it really easy to recognize the start/end of phrases such as breakdowns and buildups as pictured above. There are a couple other things in Traktor that we can use to find the start/end of phrases and part of the phrase we’re in. The first one is enabling “Beats” in the deck header. You can do this through Traktor’s Preferences:
The second thing we’ll do is set the “Bars Per Phase” to “8 Bars”:
Now that we’ve made these changes, you will see 3 numbers being displayed in you deck header:
These numbers indicate the phrase, bar, and beat (phrase . bar . beat). There are 4 beats in a bar, so the bar will increase by 1 every 4 beats. Since we set our “Bars per Phrase” to 8 bars, the phrase will increase by 1 every 8 bars. As discussed earlier, audible changes typically occur every 32 beats. Using this counter, you’re likely to hear an audible change every time the phrase increases by 1. This makes it really easy to stay on top of the tracks structure even while you’re browsing for the next track or if you’re distracted by someone making a request. Now that we can quickly identify the phrases of the track, we can create a seamless mix by lining up our tracks so that the phrases are in sync. (http://djtechtools.com/2014/11/16/how-to-dj-101-why-you-must-understand-phrasing/)
A typical DJ mixer (as well as mixing software) contains a few types of volume control.
Firstly, each channel should have a gain or trim knob, which allows you to adjust the level of the signal (by watching your meters). Then, each channel has a line fader (unless it’s a rotary mixer, in which case you will have a knob).
The line fader adjusts how much signal you’re sending to your main output, which also has its own overall volume control. Then, of course, there’s the crossfader which allows you to fade between one channel and another.
If you’re just learning how to mix and you don’t have any hardware yet, you can still control these things in software. Some programs, such as Traktor Pro, have an “auto-gain” feature. It gets you in the ballpark of where you want to be so that your levels match up when mixing one song into another.
Volume control is often a subject of debate. Traditionally, while watching meters… green is good, red is bad, yellow is pushing it.
Unfortunately, many companies adjusted the way their mixers work in such a way that it caters to bad habits. Since amateur DJs sometimes tend to slam everything “in the red”, company’s adjusted their products to compensate.
In addition, DJ software has its own gain structure. This can make things quite confusing.
Read your manual to better determine where you should be maxing out your signal.
When in doubt, staying in the green is just fine. If you need more volume, boost it on the amp/PA/house end… don’t distort your signal before it even gets there.
The Critical Difference Between Gain and Volume
Image via Shutterstock
Let’s say you’re at a show or rehearsal and you turn to your amp, or perhaps your mixer, and you need to make something louder. You’ll more than likely be confronted by a set of knobs or maybe even a fader that might have any of the following labels: gain, trim, level, volume, master, or a similar moniker. So which one are you supposed to reach for and when?
The difference between gain and volume, in particular, confuses many people. As is my usual goal, I’ll hopefully help to clear things up a little for those of you who may not fully understand what each knob accomplishes.
In general and in its simplest form (I say that because sometimes these terms get somewhat misapplied in miscellaneous circumstances), gain is the parameter for the amount that some sort of amplifier circuit is going to increase the amplitude of an input signal (amplifier, amplitude… I think I see where this is going). Usually when you’re adjusting gain, you’re manipulating some sort of preamp and how it’s going to handle the incoming signal. Typically, gain is the control for what comes “in” to a piece of gear.
Volume level, or loudness, is typically manipulated by a knob or fader of some sort, and this affects the output headed from that channel of the mixer to whatever bus you’ve assigned it to, whether that’s a group, an aux send, or the master bus. In the case of your guitar or bass amp, it’s affecting the power amp level. Typically, volume is the control for what comes “out” of a piece of gear.
Relating the two
A simple and relatively visual way to think of these from a mixing perspective is that your gain is going to be your sensitivity. Need a mic to be more “sensitive”? Turn the gain up. That being said, this is usually a “set and forget” setting. If you’re mixing via the gain knob, you’re doing it wrong, save for making on-the-fly adjustments in the live environment. Your balancing and level control should be done via the faders or knobs assigned to that function.
Another reason to not ride your gain control is that as you increase the gain, your noise floor will increase with it. This is the audible noise of a signal, usually self noise of components in the signal chain. Ideally this noise floor will be below the threshold of hearing, but as you bring your gain up, this floor comes with it. When relating to amp settings, your gain or drive is going to control how hard that signal is hitting your preamp; this is where your “overdrive” will come from as you literally overdrive the preamp stage. This should be adjusted for tonal purposes, and then your level or volume control should be used to increase the level of the power amp to actually bring your signal to the volume desired. Again, doing this the other way around can bring unwanted noise into your signal.
What about gain staging?
Another term that gets kicked around is “gain staging.” What does it mean? Why is it important? Gain staging is, in its basic form, making sure that the level of signal at each part in your signal chain is adjusted or “gained” appropriately. This is more important today in the digital age than ever before. With analog setups, overdriving the input gain often (but not always) results in that ever-so-sought-after “saturation” of the sound. (This is actually a form of distortion, but a pleasing one.) Digital is a cruel and unkind mistress; when you run out of bits to store data, the result is brutal, anharmonic clipping. While analog can be more forgiving to some extent, the practice of proper gain staging is just as critical as ever. Not enough gain earlier on in the chain, and you’ll have issues with your noise floor as that noise is amplified further and further down the line. Too much, and you’ll soon be living life in the red. This is another reason that you shouldn’t “ride” gains, whether you’re recording or mixing live: as you change gain at one part in the chain, it creates a sort of butterfly effect as you go down the line. Adjustments in perceived volume should always be made via the fader or assigned level control. (http://blog.sonicbids.com/the-critical-difference-between-gain-and-volume)
Equalizing (EQing) is the act of boosting or dropping certain frequencies so that two tracks can blend together well. It is is an art in itself.
The majority of your “space” gets consumed by lower frequencies, especially in dance music. So, typically you won’t mix twoloud kick drums over one another, since they are simply too loud to combine.
A typical DJ mixer will have a three-band EQ (low, mid, and high…. or bass, midrange, and treble). Some mixers (such as higher-end Allen & Heath offerings) will include four bands: low, low-mid, mid-high, and high.
There is much to be said for proper equalization, both as a tool, and as a means of creative expression.
Equalization will not fix a bad mix, nor will it work miracles. We use it to surgically combine two or more audio signals, and to polish a well-chosen mixture into something worthy of an audience.(passionatedj.com/how-to-become-a-dj-ultimate-guide)
The 7 Commandments of Equalization
- Be as subtle as possible with parametric EQs. The less, the better. A boost or cut of 3dB is a good starting point. The only exception to this rule is when using top quality analogue gear/desks and their software replicas. In this case, the colouration of the EQ is desired and you can turn those knobs all the way to 11.
- Don’t rely on EQ to change a sound after recording. Get a good sound in the recording phase.
- Cut, instead of boosting, where possible. Boosting frequencies will raise the volume of the instrument/vocal and start eating up headroom. Using cuts also forces you to be more strategic with EQ moves. If you want something to sound warmer, cut the highs instead of boosting the lows.
- EQ for a reason. EQ with purpose. Have a small goal that you want to achieve with every EQ move. If it doesn’t need EQ, don’t use it for the sake of it.
- Don’t apply EQ in solo. The listener will never hear the track in solo, so never mix in solo. An instrument that sounds awful on it’s own might sound great in the mix.
- You can be drastic with filters. Don’t be afraid to cut everything below 200Hz on a guitar or cut everything above 5kHz on a bass. It will give more room for the other instruments. If the guitar sounds too weak on it’s own in a different section, automate the filter to bring the bottom end back in.
- Use lots of small EQ changes rather than a few big ones. In my experience a good mix is the culmination of a hundred or more small moves, not ten heavy moves. (music.tutsplus.com/tutorials/eq-for-beginners-part-2-how-to-eq-absolutely-anything–cms-25652)
Mastering these skills will take a lot of practice and practice might not make perfect but it will make help you to become better and more profitable. Or practice so that you might be good enough to help other beginners, and continue pursuing greatness. Stay Focus, Passionate and Enthusiastic, and stay tuned for Next Week For: Do You Want To Be A DJ: A Weekly Series: Chapter Eight will be “Preparing For My First GiG!!!”