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.
JM has played open-air gigs, shared the stage with the likes of ATB and had mix albums released commercially. He has been teaching DJing since 2008.
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