Are You Stuck In The Tempo Trap?

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changing tempo how to
Last updated 18 August, 2014

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How to change tempo in a DJ set
Want to mix from 78 BPM to 137 BPM? Find out how as we discuss ways to move around the tempo ranges when DJing.

Beatmixing has brought with it something that has been quietly boring dancefloors since the first 4/4 beats were electronically created – the tempo trap.

Stuck in a groove at 126 BPM or wherever, many DJs the world over default to hitting “sync” and mixing track into track into track, never altering that tempo, often never altering the genre, and so never adding that extra spark of excitement to their sets that well-timed changes of tempo can bring. If this is you, we forgive you! But it may be time you learned how to escape the tempo trap…

Why play at different tempos?

Tempo changes can be obvious and extreme, or so subtle that nobody on the dancefloor even notices them – but however you do them, there are some solid reasons why you should.

  • A track’s energy level is not directly related to its BPM – Just because a track has a lower BPM, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have energy, or isn’t danceable-to. Overlook tracks at different BPMs and you may be overlooking the perfect track to play next
  • Tracks sound better close to the tempo they were recorded at – If you’ve stuck on say 126 BPM, but you’re using tracks from 120 to 135 BPM, those at the extremities of this range won’t sound so hot at 126. You’d be better off playing them closer to the BPM they were intended to be played at. (You may think keylocking would save you here, but often it makes tracks sound unacceptably stuttery or dull. Even if you are using keylock, best to play a track as close to its original BPM as possible)
  • Learning to alter BPMs makes you a better DJ – DJing is not just about beatmatching. In fact, it’s not really about that at all. Being able to move quickly around the tempo ranges adds a whole different range of mixing and programming skills to your arsenal
  • Crowds like it – A well executed tempo change can give the dancefloor time to breathe and recover its energy, can add excitement, can smoothly introduce a new genre, can indicate a change in the entertainment, and can even just demonstrate that tonight isn’t going to be all about X type of music played at Y tempo – great for relieving boredom on a dancefloor that’s maybe up until that point been fed a restricted range of tunes for a bit too long

Changing tempo while beatmatching

All of these methods involve altering the tempo before you try and mix into the next tune.

  • Use tunes with tempo changes built in – Some music has big changes in tempo as part of the song. It might have a slow start/end and a fast middle, or it may have a half-speed break, or it may be a salsa track that picks up for the middle instrumental. When you have these kinds of tunes in your box (especially if the crowd knows them and thus is familiar with the tempo change), they can be a great way to get someone else to change the tempo for you
  • Change the tempo gradually throughout a song to match the next – If you are playing a song at 130 BPM and you wish to play the next one at 120 BPM, gradually (like 1 BPM every 30 seconds, in small steps) alter the tempo of the first song from 130 to 125, and match it to the second. This way they’ve “shared” the difference in tempo – 5 BPM each. This is better than just syncing the second song to 130 BPM, because it is then sped up quote considerably. It’s OK to continually alter the tempo of your sets this way to gradually match tunes across a small to medium-sized BPM range
  • Use keylock to alter the tempo fast – Say you want to flip from a 115 BPM nu-disco record into a hip hop tune at 85 BPM. You could, at a big part towards the end of the nu-disco record (say the last chorus), slow the tempo from 115 to 85 BPM noticeably, say over 10 seconds, but keylock it, so the pitch remains the same. Then, as soon as the chorus is over, beatmatch in the hip-hop tune. The keylock will probably make the nu-disco record sound a bit ropey, but you’re immediately mixing something else in, and the crowd are listening to the tempo change, not the sound quality, so you’ll get away with it
  • Use the double/half speed trick – This is an extreme mix, more suited to lounges, bars and the radio than a dancefloor, because unless done really well it is likely to clear the floor, due to the drastic nature of the technique. Basically, you take a tune at a high BPM (say 156 – drum and bass tune, for instance) and mix it into a tune exactly half the BPM (so 78 BPM – a hip hop, chillout etc. tune). Of course, you can do it the other way – from slow to fast – too. Some DJ software will even spot that you’re trying to do this and sync the tunes, although other software will alter the speed of one of the tunes to 100% that of the other, which is obviously no good (this is a good example of why it’s good to be able to beatmatch manually)
  • Mix into a percussion loop, speed that loop down/up to the new required tempo, then mix into your next tune – With this technique, and advanced version of using keylock to alter the tempo fast, you have a distinctive keylooked percussion loop (bongos, tom toms for instance), you beatmatch it to the outgoing tune, then when you’re only playing the percussion loop at the end of tune one, you noticeably change the percussion loop to the new tempo, then mix the new tune in

Changing tempo without beatmatching

If you’re prepared to abandon the beatmatch, and bring in a bit of the kind of DJing habitually done by wedding, radio, rock etc. DJs, you can perform even more confident, crowd-pleasing tempo changes. While you could mix a whole night using the methods above, this method might be suitable for the occasions where you really want to make a point – in an EDM set, one or two times a set would be a good rule of thumb.

What you do is find something else other than the BPM to link the tunes, and just cut from one to the other, in one go: no beatmatching required, safe in the knowledge that your linking element will make the mix sound smooth. For instance, if you have two records with distorted guitar power chords in them, they may be so distinctive and similar sounding, that cutting quickly from one to the next – even though their BPMs might be a long way apart – will sound great.

Alternatively, the linking element could be a very high female vocal, or the tunes could use the same sampled riff or breakbeat, or they could have exactly the same words in them, or they could even be two versions of the same song – the point is, you’re looking for a link that isn’t simply the tempo.

Drop it at the start of the break
Another easy way to cut from one tempo to the other is to drop a new record at a break. Go from 140 BPM to 115 BPM by cutting the 115 BPM record in at the start of a three-minute break, and by the time the beat comes back in, the crowd will basically have forgotten the speed of the previous rhythm.

This is a good way of going from house to drum and bass, for instance, because when the faster drum and bass rhythm kicks in, it sounds slick and smooth, but still lifts the energy level in an unexpected way for the crowd.

It’s about programming, not mixing

The takeaway here is that DJs should always be thinking about the best record to play next, rather than worrying about how to mix it in, rather than falling into the trap of looking for something that’s easy to mix and making too many music choices that way.

By trying out all of these techniques and more which I’m sure you’ll work out for yourselves, you’re broadening your ability to do this as a DJ – and that is a very good thing.

Do you conspicuously change the tempo in your DJ sets? Do you think beatmatching at the same tempo all night is tedious, or fine? What else do you do to add a bit of variety to your DJ mixes? Let us know in the comments!