Like 50 years ago, the essence of a DJ’s job is to play recorded tracks for the folks on the dancefloor. The traits that separate real good DJs from the rest remain the same, too: their musical taste, the ability to read the dancefloor and to create that special atmosphere with their music.
That said, a modern club DJ is expected to possess certain technical skills to properly present their performance. Those skills are called “technical” because they can be explained in great detail and are universally applicable. Examples of such technical skills include mixing or its prerequisite, beatmatching.
The trick is that there’s no hard border between the art – where the DJ’s creativity takes hold – and the technique because the creativity also lies in how you apply those technical skills of yours. In any case, the technique needs to be mastered first, which is what we’ll be doing here.
If you have ever heard a DJ set, you couldn’t help but notice how smoothly each track transitions into the next one – without gaps or changes in tempo.
Why not simply put on one record after another, as they do it on the radio? The thing is, the DJ doesn’t want the dancers to hear a track end because that may cause them to come to their senses and realize that they’re actually a bit tired and it’s time to go back to their cocktail. With one track blending into another and another and another, you continue dancing into the next song without even noticing it. It’s too late to go anywhere now!
Dancefloor psychology aside, let’s talk about how the DJ actually makes a transition from one track to another. As people on the floor are dancing to a record, the DJ is busy preparing the next tune on the other deck. Using pitch control, they adjust the track’s tempo to match that of the currently playing tune. When record 1 approaches its ending, the DJ starts record 2 and makes sure that the two tracks’ beats are aligned. Then they gradually increase record 2’s volume so the dancefloor can now hear both tunes playing in sync. As they’re bringing track 2 in, the DJ is turning down the volume of track 1 bit by bit. After a while, it’s only record 2 that’s left playing on the floor. The blend is complete.
Here’s how a transition like this sounds in real life:
Hear how the track smoothly blends into the next one?
The pros make transitions between individual records almost unnoticeable so they sound like one continuous track. This is called mixing, and the behind-the-scenes prerequisite where the DJ matches the tempo of a track to that of the currently playing one is called beatmatching. Mixing is one of the most important DJing skills; it provides beautiful packaging for the DJ’s musical taste and the selection of tracks played.
Beatmatching is a prerequisite for most mixing styles. It’s the part where the DJ matches the tempo of the next track to that of the tune that’s currently playing on the dancefloor. Beatmatching is done by ear, and it’s a skill that needs to be learned. If two tracks aren’t beatmatched, their beats will fall out of sync during the blend. Instead of sitting beautifully on top of each other, they will sound like a train wreck, which will mess up your mixing in a blink of an eye.
Now is the time to dispel the biggest myth about beatmatching. As opposed to mixing, which has a good deal of creativity to it (when to drop the next track? how long to make the transition? how to make the songs go together really well?), beatmatching is a purely technical skill that even a monkey can be taught. In that sense, beatmatching is like being able to walk for a basketball player. It’s hard to play basketball if you can’t walk, but walking is not what made Michael Jordan famous. Similarly, the genius of great DJs isn’t in how quickly or how precisely they can beatmatch.
Why then is beatmatching so much talked about, especially among beginner DJs? The thing is, learning to beat match by ear takes weeks or even months. It’s the first real challenge that will put your desire and motivation to become a DJ to a test. The good news is that, just like walking, beatmatching can be mastered by anyone: your mom, granddad, your neighbor and even her dog (OK, maybe except for the dog.)
So no more excuses, you can learn how to beatmatch! Let’s go?
Next up: A Few Words on BPM Counters
A BPM counter is a device (many mixers and digital decks have one built-in) that automatically measures the tempo of a track. Ever since BPM counters became widespread, beginner DJs started asking one and the same question: “Why bother learning beatmatching by ear if my Pioneer CDJ-1000/Traktor/mixer has the record’s tempo readily available on the display?” In this article, I’ll try to explain my point of view.
To start with, not all clubs are equipped with BPM counter-enabled decks or a mixer. What’s more, the reality is such that you’ll probably begin your career by spinning at a not-so-glamorous spot like a cafe or a pub. Such venues, of course, are not inclined to spend loads of money on DJ equipment, and so “a couple of basic CD players plus a two-channel mixer” kind of setup is often expected.
Imagine this. Andy (DJ Supa Kool) buys his first decks and a mixer and quickly finds out that beatmatching isn’t learned in a day. After a while, he gives up on it and grows to rely on his decks’ BPM counters instead. So far, so good. In a few months, Andy records a killer mixtape and sends it out to clubs. An excited club manager calls Andy and invites him over.
Andy comes to the club early, unpacks his CDs, headphones… and then comes the shock. There are no BPM counters on the club’s decks! DJ Supa Kool’s career is back to square one after the very first (messy) blend. With his tail between his legs, Andy is sent back to his bedroom to learn the skill that just can’t be avoided: beatmatching by ear.
Automatic BPM counters may make mistakes, especially if you’re spinning genres with complicated rhythmic patterns such as drum’n’bass. Moreover, the minimum precision of many counters is only 1 BPM, and that’s a huge 0.78% at 130 BPM. Even at half that difference, two tracks’ beats will grow noticeably out of sync within 10 to 20 seconds.
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t entrust my reputation to such an unreliable solution.
“What? You just crushed the very idea of BPM counters, and now you’re saying that the pros use them?” Yes – but not in a way newbies do.
I glance over the BPM counter at the very beginning of the beatmatching process, to get a quick feeling as to how far apart the tracks’ tempos are. I even allow myself to move the pitch to get the same BPM value as that of the currently playing track. But after that, I still do all the fine-tuning by ear! So using a BPM counter simply saves me a couple of seconds.
To wrap it up, a BPM counter is nothing more than a useful tool that lets you save time and double-check yourself. But be warned! To overly rely on a BPM counter is akin to participating in a swimming race not knowing how to swim and relying on a life jacket. If you’re serious about DJing, you’ll have to face learning to beatmatch by ear. No worries, though: I’m here to help you.
So, you’re not afraid to devote a few stweeks of your life to learning beatmatching. Great! The most important thing is to not give up. If you persevere and practice, practice, practice, the progress will be very quick. I promise!
A couple of things to point out from the outset. First, this beatmatching tutorial assumes that you’re using vinyl turntables. If CDs are your thing, not to worry, just keep the article on CD beatmatching handy as you’re going through the lessons. It will tell you how things are done on a CD deck.
Second, in order to learn to beatmatch, you’ll need two copies of the same record, so take care of that in advance. We’ll be working with the same track on each of them. It’s important to choose a tune with a clear and simple drum pattern: boom, boom, boom, boom.
The first thing we’re going to learn is cueing up a record and then starting it. (“Cueing up” means placing the needle at the first beat of the track.) For this, you’ll only need one turntable, so let it be the one to the right. We’ll be practicing in headphones so as to not drive your family crazy… not yet, that is. To that end, close all channel faders on your mixer by moving them all the way down, and press the Cue Mix button for the deck’s channel to send it to your headphones.
Put the record on the platter and start the turntable with the Start/Stop button. The pitch should be at zero. Now let’s make sure that the correct speed of platter’s rotation (33 or 45 RPM) is chosen. Put the needle anywhere on the record and listen for a couple of seconds. If the tune sounds chipmunked, or if a female singer sounds like Barry White, then the speed needs to be switched. Use the turntable’s 33/45 RPM buttons for that.
Note: The two sides of a record may be recorded at different RPMs. The side’s RPM is sometimes printed on the central label, but the party will be over and the dancers will be gone by the time you’ll find it. The trial way is the fastest.
What we need to do now is find the very first beat of the track.
Put the needle to just before the beginning of the track. (By the way, DJs don’t use the cueing lever, so make sure it’s lowered and learn to place the needle gently by hand.) The turntable is on and the platter is rotating. Of course, you can simply wait for the track to begin, but there’s no time to waste, right? So let’s “fast forward” to the beginning of the tune.
To do this, stop the record by touching the label or the dark ring around it with your middle finger. The platter will continue to rotate underneath but the record will come to a standstill (you’re using slipmats, right?)
Now “fast forward” the record by rotating it with your finger until you hear the beginning of the track. If you spin the record too fast, you may end up going past the first beat and will have to “rewind” a little bit. That’s OK. By the way, some DJs put the needle on the record after the beginning of the track and go back to find the first beat. It’s up to you.
After you’ve found the first beat (it’s hard to miss it), get your finger off the record and quickly catch the record by touching and holding it at the outer edge. Holding the record this way allows you to “grope” the first beat and let go of the record more precisely. Get familiar with the position of the beat by moving the record back and forth over it. Hey, you’re already scratching!
Tip: You won’t always need to start the record immediately after you’ve cued it up. If that’s the case, you can “save” the cue point and get back to it later. While holding the record, press the deck’s Start/Stop button with your other hand. The platter will stop and you’ll be able to let go of the record with the needle staying right before the first beat. Now go get some coffee and sign a couple of autographs. After you’re back, pick up where you left off by simply starting the turntable while holding the record the same way as before.
And now the fun part! As you’re moving the record back and forth over the first beat, almost feeling it with your fingers, try letting it go after you pass the beat. Don’t just take away your hand, but actually give the record a tiny push so it starts rotating with the platter right away. All right! You’ve just started the track right at the first beat!
Here’s how I do it:
Practice a few times to get familiar with how the record feels under your hand. Play around with “saving” the beat’s position and getting back to it later. Try to handle the record gently so the needle doesn’t jump. Pay attention to starting the record at the right speed so there are no noticeable speed-ups or slowdowns after the start.
Now that you’ve learned how to cue up and start the record, let’s make some use out of the deck to your left, too. Put your second copy of the record on that turntable and make sure its pitch is set to zero. Open the corresponding channel fader on the mixer so the record is playing through the speakers. As before, the turntable to the right can only be heard in the headphones, via Cue Mix. To keep things simple, let’s call the turntables to the left and to the right A and B respectively.
This lesson’s objective is to show you how to start record B so that its beats are lined up perfectly with the A’s in the speakers. Since both turntables have their pitch at zero and we’re playing the same track on them, we don’t need to worry about adjusting B’s tempo for now. At this point, all we need is to start record B in time with the dancefloor’s beat and make sure that the tracks’ beats are aligned.
Put your headphones on one ear with the other one staying exposed to the speakers. I prefer listening to the dancefloor with my left ear, but that’s entirely up to you. First, concentrate on the sound coming from the headphones to find B’s first beat (you’ve learned that in the first lesson). Now, switch your attention to the dancefloor and start B on the beat with A, to one of its drum kicks. One, two, three, four, go!
Tip: You’ll make things easier for yourself if you get used to starting the track not just on the A’s beat, but to the first beat of a bar, or, better yet, a phrase. That way, major changes in the flow of both tracks will be taking place simultaneously, which will be helpful in synchronizing them. Check out the article on dance track structure for more info on bars and phrases.
After you’ve started record B, one of these three scenarios applies:
Scenario 1: You’ve started the record exactly to the beat and now you can hear “boom, boom, boom” coming from your headphones and speakers in perfect alignment. The beats of the track in the headphones sit on top of the dancefloor’s ones, like here:
Congratulations! Pat yourself on the back and try again.
Scenario 2: You’ve started the record a moment too late, and now the B’s beats are lagging behind the A’s. Instead of the perfect “boom, boom, boom”, what you hear is “boo-boom, boo-boom, boo-boom”, with “boo“ coming from the speakers, and “boom” from the headphones! You need to speed B up a little bit so that it catches up with A. Here’s how you do it:
Which of these two methods you use is a matter of personal taste. The point is that you’re speeding up the record just enough for it to catch up with the one on the dancefloor. Listen to how it sounds in real life:
In the beginning, the track in the headphones (i.e. in the right speaker) lags behind the dancefloor. About halfway through the sample, I speed it up a bit so it catches up and begins to sound in sync.
But it’s not always that easy! When correcting the lag, you may accidentally speed up the record so much that its beats will actually get ahead of the other record’s ones. It’s a pain in the butt, I know! Read on about what you can do to fix that:
Scenario 3: You’ve started the track a tad too early, and now its beats come slightly ahead of the dancefloor’s. That’s “boo-boom, boo-boom, boo-boom” all over again, except that “boo” is now in your headphones and “boom” is in the speakers. You need to slow the record down a bit. One way to do it is to gently touch the platter’s outer edge (where the strobe dots are) until B’s beats get in sync with the A’s.
Here’s how I do it:
Watch out so you don’t overcorrect and slow the record down too much. If you do, though, see scenario 2.
Practice until you learn to cope with any of the scenarios above and are able to confidently correct any starting errors and bring the tracks in sync. The most important thing here (they say it’s also the most difficult one in beatmatching) is to be able to tell which record is ahead of the other. Bad news: This skill only comes with practice. Good news: There will come a day when you won’t even have to think about it. Practice, practice, and then practice some more!
Hint: If the records grew further apart after you’ve made a correction, great! Now you know that you were mistaken as to which record was lagging. Not a problem, simply correct in the opposite direction and pretend nothing happened. I do it all the time!
Unfortunately, in real life, the tempos of the tracks you’re trying to synchronize will most often be different. So even if you’ve started a record precisely on the beat with the one in the speakers, their beats will eventually start to grow apart because of the different tempos. That will make continuous corrections necessary.
In this lesson, we’ll be learning to handle just that.
Set the pitch of track A – the one that’s playing on the dancefloor – to about +0.5%. Now you know that the record heard on the floor is a little bit faster than the same record in your headphones (which is coming from deck B to your right, pitch set to 0.0%). Cue up track B as usual and start it on the beat with A. Ensure that the tracks’ beats are in sync as you learned in beatmatching lesson 2.
In a few seconds, you’ll hear that the track in your headphones is lagging behind the one on the dancefloor. Fix this lag by giving B a tiny push, and then, after the lag returns, do it again… and again and again. Then start over and try once more. Your goal is to get used to keeping the tracks’ beats in sync when their BPM is different. The more you practice, the tighter you’ll be able to keep the tracks in alignment, even though their tempo is different.
Tip: Most dance tracks have fragments where the kick drum disappears (breakdowns, see the article on track structure). If you hit a breakdown, don’t worry. Try to feel the rhythm through other instruments like the hi-hats or elements of the track’s melody.
After you’ve practiced with the lagging, try the other way around. Move A’s pitch slider to about -0.5%. Now you’ll have to continuously slow B down in order to keep the beats aligned. And, of course, you’re bound to overcorrect from time to time. Then you can either wait for the tracks to get back in sync by themselves (due to the difference in tempos), or recollect that our goal is to keep the tracks tightly synchronized and speed up the temporarily lagging B right away.
Go ahead and experiment! Practice dealing with record B being faster than A and vice versa. Try various pitch positions, too. In addition to +/-0.5%, try +/-1.0%, +/-1.5% and so on. Take note of how fast the tracks are growing apart at each of those tempo differences. That will come useful later, when you’ll actually get to matching B’s tempo to A’s. But that’s a story for another lesson.
Now that you can cue up a record, know how to correct any starting errors and have practiced “the game of catch-up,” you are finally ready to try and match a record’s tempo to the one playing on the dancefloor.
Without looking at the pitch slider of deck A to your left, move it up half an inch or so from zero. Don’t cheat; you shouldn’t know what A’s exact pitch value is! Now the record playing in the speakers has a higher BPM than track B in your headphones (whose pitch stays at zero). Your goal is to adjust B’s pitch so that its BPM equals to A’s – and do it solely by ear. Since we’re working with two copies of the same record, this means that if you are successful, B’s pitch slider will end up in the same position as A’s.
Important: If your CD decks or the mixer have a built-in BPM counter, I strongly suggest that you turn it off while you’re learning beatmatching. If that’s not possible, tape a piece of paper on top of the BPM section on the display so you’re not tempted to look at it. Our goal is to learn to beatmatch by ear without having to rely on the equipment.
Back to the decks now. After you’ve started track B to A’s beat and corrected any errors, you’ll quickly notice that the record starts lagging behind. That’s right, this lag needs to be fixed, just like you did it in the previous lesson. But today, we’ll take the next step: After you’ve fixed the lag by giving the record a tiny push, increase B’s pitch so as to make it play a bit faster, too. By how much should you increase the pitch? The more the faster the records drift apart, i.e. the bigger the difference between their tempos is.
After you’ve done that, one of these three scenarios applies (don’t you just love those scenarios?):
Scenario 1: You’re a beatmatching guru and the tracks have now been staying in sync for quite a while without a noticeable drift. Good job! Check yourself by comparing the two decks’ pitch values. If they are indeed the same, congratulate yourself and try again. Just move the pitch slider on deck A in any direction (just don’t peep at it!) and then start over.
Note: How long is “quite a while”? Generally speaking, if the tracks start to grow slightly apart after 20 to 30 seconds, that’s OK. The perfect match where the records’ beats stay aligned for minutes is hard to attain and is actually not necessary. Beatmatching is not a “set it and forget it” kind of thing. When you make a transition from one track to another, you’re bound to have to make adjustments from time to time. “But what if the galloping gets noticed by the dancefloor?” Well, by the time you get to play an actual party, you’ll inevitably get so good that you’ll be noticing any misalignments way before the dancers hear them. Thus, when beatmatching, your goal is to only ensure those 20 to 30 “driftless” seconds between corrections so you have enough time to be taking care of the actual transition.
Scenario 2: Record B started lagging behind the dancefloor’s A again, but this time, the drift is slower. Good, you’re moving in the right direction. Correct for the lag once again and increase the pitch a bit more. Don’t be afraid to move the slider too far, though. Why? See below:
Scenario 3: You moved the pitch too far and now the track in your headphones is drifting ahead of the one on the dancefloor. It’s just great because the correct speed is now somewhere between the 1st (too slow) and 2nd (too fast) pitch values. Slow B down a little bit to bring the beats back in sync and then move the pitch slider to the middle of that range. Now, if the track is back to lagging behind A, the correct speed is between this 3rd (too slow) and the 2nd (too fast) pitch values. If the track is still too fast, then it’s between the 1st (too slow) and the 3rd (too fast) ones. Makes sense? In math, it’s called “binary search.”
What you’re thus doing is narrowing down the pitch range that contains the correct speed for track B. In the end, you’ll be moving the pitch back and forth literally a hairbreadth. At that point, the tracks will already be playing in sync for “quite a while.” Awesome! See scenario 1.
Try to find the correct pitch position before the track playing in the speakers ends. Don’t worry if at first you can’t. Just put the needle back to track A’s beginning and continue with the beatmatching. It’s OK while you’re learning.
By the way, the beats of the tracks may drift so far apart during beatmatching that you won’t be able to tell which one is faster or slower any longer. This happens a lot in the beginning. No problem, cue up record B again and simply start over.
Tip: As you’ve already noticed, manipulating the pitch when beatmatching requires constant visual tracking of the pitch slider’s position. Some vinyl turntables and most CD decks show the value of the pitch on the display, but not all of them do. What’s worse, the shape of the slider is such that its center mark is lifted above the deck’s surface. This makes tracking the pitch position difficult when looking at the slider from an angle. So instead of looking at the mark, track the slider’s position by its edge, which is much closer to the pitch scale (see photo).
What you’re learning to do right now is as close as it gets to the real thing. The next step is beatmatching different tracks. But for now, practice using two copies of the same record until you get real good and can adjust the pitch quickly and confidently.
You’ve now been working on your beatmatching to the point where you can hear your practice track in your sleep. On the other hand, you can now confidently match the tempo of a record to its copy and are ready to try doing this with two different tunes. Good! Today, you’ll play your very first DJ set.
Put a fresh record (yay!) on turntable A whose channel has been routed to the dancefloor speakers all this time. You can set the deck's pitch to zero. Deck B to your right still has a worn out copy of your old practice record on it. I know how sick of it you are by this time, but the wait is almost over.
What you need to do now is match B’s tempo to the new track playing on the floor. You already have all the necessary skills. Start track B to the other tune’s beat and begin to adjust its pitch just like you did when practicing with two copies of the same record. At first, it’ll be a bit harder for you to get the pitch right with two different tracks, and here’s why:
After you’ve found the correct pitch position for B, get ready. As track A gets close to its ending, cue B up once again, start it to A’s beat and correct any errors. Then, using the channel faders on your mixer, fade over from A to B. To do this, gradually bring B up so that both tracks are playing together in the speakers, and then bring A down slowly.
Note: This was your first transition from one track to another. You’ve probably noticed that, despite their beats being aligned, the tracks still didn’t sound quite right together: one track was louder than the other, the records sounded all jumbled up or simply weren’t perfectly in tune. Smooth, unnoticeable blends are something we’ll be working on when learning to mix.
All right, so now it’s track B that’s playing on the dancefloor. Put another record from your record box on deck A and start over. Now you’re matching the tempo of a new record to the old familiar one on the dancefloor. After the transition, you’ll be working with two totally fresh tracks.
Congratulations on your first DJ set! Practice this way until you can comfortably beatmatch any two tracks, and do it well before the record on the dancefloor comes to an end. After you’ve reached that point, you’ll be ready to move on to learning the art of mixing.
The key difference between CDs and vinyl is that with CDs, you can’t “touch the sound” so to speak. Instead, you have to rely on the buttons, jog wheel and other controls of a CD deck. But first things first.
Note: A lot of today’s professional CD players have the “vinyl emulation” feature that makes the jog wheel act in many ways like a record on a turntable. I’ll devote a separate article to that feature, but for now, let’s talk about the basics of CD DJing common to most devices (“CDJ mode”, as they call it at Pioneer).
After you put a CD into the player, it will start playing from track 1. Skip to the desired track using the skip buttons. While a track is playing, you can fast-forward or rewind using the search buttons. Nothing unusual so far.
Once you hear the first beat of the song, quickly hit the Play/Pause button. That will pause the deck and make it loop a split second of sound after the current point of the track (“stutter” mode). In this mode, the jog wheel allows you to search the tune frame by frame (1/75th of a second). Using the wheel, slowly rewind to find the point just before the first beat. To be able to return to this point later, press the Cue button. In “stutter” mode, it saves the current track position in memory. The button’s light will start blinking, signaling that the cue point has been saved.
Here’s what CD cueing sounds like, from starting the track to finding the point to pressing the Cue button:
After you’ve saved the cue point, you’re ready to start the track. To do this, simply hit Play/Pause again. The track will start from its current position, i.e. exactly on its first beat.
Note: Despite all professional CD decks boasting the “instant start” feature, in reality, there’s always a miniscule delay between you pressing the Play/Pause button and the track beginning to play. Moreover, the length of the delay varies from one model to another. Thus you’ll have to get used to how your particular CD player starts, and set the cue point on the previous step accordingly.
When beatmatching, you often need to slow the track down or speed it up briefly in order to bring its beats in sync with the other record. In CD DJ parlance, it’s called “pitch bending.”
There are two main ways to pitch bend on CD decks. The first one is to use the jog wheel. Rotating the jog clockwise speeds the track up, and rotating it counterclockwise slows the track down. The second way is to use the Pitch bend buttons, which are present on some players. Pressing a Pitch bend button speeds up or slows down the track while you’re holding it. (In reality, you give the jog wheel just tiny pushes or press the Pitch bend buttons in very brief touches.)
There’s another surprise waiting for you here. The sensitivity of the jog wheel as well as the Pitch bend buttons may vary considerably from one player model to another. Thus the way you used to pitch bend in your bedroom may not work as expected in the club because your adjustments may end up being too big or too small on another deck. Know what decks you’ll be dealing with, or, better yet, come to the club early to familiarize yourself with them.
On CD decks, you adjust the pitch just like you’d do it on a vinyl turntable. The added bonus is that you can see the pitch percentage on the deck’s display, which often shows it with 0.01% accuracy.
After you’ve beatmatched the track, press the Cue button again. In the playback mode, this button will bring you back to the previously saved cue point (which was on the first beat, right?) and pause the player. You’re all set for starting the blend!
You always have to bear in mind the peculiarities of a particular piece of equipment if you’re spinning CDs. However, with the Pioneer decks having become the de-facto club standard, practicing on a pair of their players is a more or less sure bet. Hey, Pioneer, where’s my check for the endorsement?!