How Pro DJs Know Where To Transition (Plus A BIG Cheat)

Phil Morse | Founder & Tutor
June 23, 2021

Get the free download: DJ Song Structure Guide Sheet

Knowing exactly where to switch from one song to the next would seem to be such a fundamental skill in DJing, it seems almost silly to be having the conversation.

But if you’ve ever watched a pro DJ instinctively blending tracks, holding the crowd exactly where they want them, playing just the right amount of each song, and thought, “How do they make it look so easy?”, you’ve already realised that there’s more to it than meets the eye.

In this article, you’ll learn exactly how to do this.

Get your free DJ Song Structure Guide Sheet

To know where in tracks to transition, you need to understand song structure. This free download covers vocal songs (pop, hip hop etc) and dance tracks (house, techno etc), and explains how they’re structured – a vital piece of the puzzle when it comes to learning how to do this essential part of DJing.

Click here to get your sheet

So here’s what many beginners end up doing:

  • Playing every song end-to-end (result: boring, flat DJ sets)
  • Trying to mix quickly between every song (result: messy sets that wear out the audience)

In this article, I’m going to blow the lid on how this is really done. You’ll learn:

Ready to finally figure out where the right place is to mix between your songs? Let’s get started…

How To Decide How Long To Play A Track For

So you’ve mixed in a song, you know what you want to play next, and now you’re asking yourself, “how long do I leave it before transitioning?”

While there’s no “right” answer to this, these five points will help you make the best choice.

1. What’s expected of you?

If you’re playing a rave, with 15 DJs each playing a five-minute set, and you’re one of them, it’s vastly different to playing for eight hours in a beach bar.

I’ve picked two extreme examples here, but you see what I mean. What is the “norm”, as far as the venue, the crowd, and the music genre or genres you are playing go?

This is something you can figure out ahead of your gig – so take the time to give it some thought.

2. What do you want to do with the energy in the room?

A rule of thumb is that the longer you play your tracks for, the less they’ll affect the energy in the room. Conversely, the less time you play your tracks for, the more likely the energy will change quickly (usually upwards), and the easier it is to hold the room at a higher energy level.

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That means you need to know what you’re trying to do with the energy in the room. What is your role in the event where you’re DJing? Is it to spend two hours warming up a venue as people arrive, or to finish off a wild night? Because the answer to questions like these will help to dictate the speed of your transitions.

Typically, warm up DJs will play more of the songs, and peak-time DJs will be more likely to keep the energy higher by playing lots of songs, but only the “best bits” of those songs.

3. How is the current track landing with the audience?

Later on we’ll talk about the importance of playing out regularly if you want this stuff to become second nature, because where you decide to mix in your track stems directly from the interplay between you and your audience. In short: If they don’t like it, you may want to try something else, sooner rather than later!

Don’t fall into the trap of panicking if you play a track and it clears the floor, though: You played it for a reason, and that reason is presumably because you felt some of your audience would like it. So give those who do like it enough time to get to the dancefloor and show their appreciation.

“Rotating the dancefloor” like this is a pro’s trick, so be somewhat patient before pulling the plug on a track you played for a reason.

4. Has the current track “got to the point” yet?

It wouldn’t make sense to mix out of a pop song before it’s even hit the chorus, right? Or a big vocal song before the vocalist has even sung a note? The fact is that songs have structures that mean when you play them, if you don’t let the song’s internal narrative play out, it’s a bit like interrupting someone who’s half-way through telling you something, or telling a joke without the punchline – pretty pointless. To give you some examples:

  • Many dance tracks have a “second half” which is similar to the “first half”. So once you’ve had the catchy first section, the breakdown, the build up, and the drop (the drop being the bit after the quiet breakdown/build-up where it all “goes off”), you’re probably free to mix out – the track’s just going to do the same thing again
  • Some pop tracks are so short nowadays that people know them off by heart, right to the end – so in the instance of playing these two-and-a-half minute radio songs, you’d need a good argument not to play them right to the end
  • Some well-known tracks have a part in them you simply HAVE to reach, as it’s a part everyone knows and waits for – for instance, in “Love Shack” by the B52s, the bit just past half-way through where the lyric says: “You’re what?… Tin roof, rusted!”. In these scenarios, any decisions you take about where to mix out are going to happen after that section

It’s vitally important that you understand how song structures work for different types of music, so get your free download: DJ Song Structure Worksheet.

5. Are YOU bored?

There are two types of DJ boredom, both with different outcomes as far as how much of each track you should play goes, so it’s a good idea to learn to spot which type of “bored” you are.

  • Boredom type 1: The track, it turns out, is boring – it’s boring you, and seems to be boring your audience, too. You know what you want to play next. In this instance, bearing in mind the lessons from the rest of the points above, you’d probably be wise to mix out of the current track
  • Boredom type 2: This is when you feel you should be “doing something”, not just standing there, so you think “Why don’t I mix the next track in?” But in truth, the track is going down fine! In this instance, instead of transitioning, either get over yourself, or do something to manipulate the playing track without transitioning yet

Hopefully by this stage, you’ve started to realise that these things should never be random, and that if you put the thought in, your DJing will improve by following some of these points.

But it’s one thing to know where you should be transitioning in tracks, another to actually do it. So now we’ll move on to looking at the practicalities.

How & Where To Safely Mix Out Of A Track

By this point you’ll have a much better sense of the right place to mix out of a track, and why. But before we move on to ways to get so good at this that you don’t even have to think about it, let’s talk about how you’re actually going to do it.

Because it’s one thing to know that a track isn’t working and it’s time to mix out of it, or conversely, that you’re going to leave a track playing to the end because that’s the right thing to do – it’s quite another to actually do the job.

I can’t teach you how to mix in an article – although if you’re interested in learning, there are three full modules in The Complete DJ Course dedicated to basic mixing, and our Pro Mixtape Formula and House Mixing Mastery courses will supercharge your skills.

What I can do though, is take some of the mystery out of it for you. Because the truth is, if you get the right tracks in the right order, nobody really cares about the mixing. Sure, it’s a great thing to have (and great fun for the DJ when you get it right), but as long as you can count to four and have a good sense of timing, you’ll be able to learn basic mixing pretty easily.

Here are four places to mix from one track to another – and again, I’m assuming you have a basic understanding of song structure here, which is explained in your free download with this tutorial. So if you haven’t already, click here to get your free DJ Song Structure Guide Sheet.

1. At the end

Yup. One track ends, start the next, Hardly rocket science, is it? Many tracks – especially modern pop music – are made to have abrupt beginnings and endings. This kind of mixing is perfectly fine.

2. On a “1” beat, at the joining of two track sections

As explained in the guide sheet, songs are made in sections (think verse, chorus, drop, intro, outro etc). We call the first beat of a “bar” of music ( a bar is four beats) a “1” beat or a “down” beat. And the first beat of a section of music is a special “1” beat, because it is a great place to stop the current track playing, and play another.

And the other track? You’ll start that playing from a section-starting “1” beat, too. By respecting the “song sections” in your tracks, your mixing will work, even though you’re not even really mixing, just jumping from one track to the next. At least, it won’t empty dancefloors – and that’s ultimately the aim here!

3. Anywhere obvious, with a big reverb or echo effect

This is one you hear DJs doing the world over. Beginners do it, pros like Jazzy Jeff do it. Why? Because it’s hugely effective and sounds great.

When it hits the part of a track where you want to switch to the next song (it will usually be a section end, but not always), just trigger a huge echo or reverb effect, and then stop the outgoing track. The echo or reverb effect gives the outgoing track a long audio “tail”, leaving you free to start the new track whenever you want (just do so before the beatless echo/reverb effect has faded out).

4. Anywhere you like, with a fade

Grab the fader of the song you want rid of, bring it down over the length of a few seconds so the song gets progressively quieter, and when you’ve reduced its volume by around two-thirds, start the next track playing, continuing to fade out the outgoing track so it disappears quickly after the new one has started.

Everyone understands what a fade means – it means, “enough of that, now time for this” – they are a staple on radio and at live events, and there’s nothing wrong with you doing it as a DJ, too. However, this works best when the change is going to be a big one, and you wouldn’t want to rely on such an intrusive way of moving from track to track too much.

Also, remember to respect that “1” beat whenever you can.

5. Anywhere suitable for beatmixing

As if you needed me to remind you, beatmixing is where you have two tracks at the same tempo (BPM) playing together, with their “1” beats lined up, so the song sections are in sync, too. Usually, as long as one of the two tracks you’re playing has only drums going on, you can beatmix them together and it’ll sound OK.

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So if you know it’s time to mix out of a track, you’re going to be looking for either a beats-only section on the track you’re mixing out from (many tracks have “outro” sections which are basically that), or alternatively, you’re going to want to make sure the track you’re mixing in has a beats-only start. The idea is that you get the mix finished before either track hits a section where there is more than just beats, eg a bassline, singing, melody.

(If you’re interested in learning about six transitions that you can use in 80% of your DJing, including some of these, look at this chapter in the online version of our book Rock The Dancefloor! – it contains videos of me demonstrating the techniques for you.)

How To Get These Skills Instinctively

So now that you can properly decide how long to play a track for (before moving to the next), and how to do it, I want to share with you three tips for getting up to speed fast in your own DJing, before dropping the “big secret” of how many DJs do this so effortlessly nowadays.

First it’s important you understand that there is no such thing as “instinctive” – it just looks that way from the outside. Referring back to our opening paragraph, every DJ who appears to be “instinctively blending tracks, holding the crowd exactly where they want them”, has done these three things. They are:

1. Know your music

You need to know your music the way a casual listener would know it – ie be familiar with it, have an opinion about it – but you also need to learn to “read” songs how a DJ or a music producer does.

That means understanding where things happen, and the structure underneath that – because all songs are built to a structure.

(Indeed, knowing the popular song structures is essential for making the right decisions about where to mix – which is why your free, downloadable handout with this article has a unique breakdown of the most common song structures for you to learn from – click here to grab your copy if you haven’t already.)

You don’t need to be a musician to be a good DJ, but you do need to develop an ear for what sounds good and what doesn’t sound good together, and be able to articulate why.

Using cues to jog your memory

Sneaky trick: You can use your DJ system or software’s “cue points” to mark parts of tracks that are good to mix in or out from.

Most DJs know you can use these hot cues to mark parts of tracks you want to move to when DJing, but equally, using them simply as markers can speed up your learning and remind you quickly about good places to transition between tracks.

2. Practise

If you divide your practice sessions into these three areas, you’ll improve quickly. They are:

  • Practise the technical skills of transitioning from track to track – Getting the timing right, the volumes of the tracks right, and so on. You may go back and practise the same thing over and over again
  • Practise the practical skills of delivering a set, start to finish – This is about rehearsing the “end product”. Playing a full set, mistakes and all. Getting from start to finish, come what may. Apart from getting you ready to play gigs, doing this lets you…
  • Record every set and listen back – This is the single best way to hear your own sets as everyone else hears them, and a great way to judge yourself objectively and spot areas to improve

3. DJ in public

You simply cannot learn the right place to transition in your tracks at home. It’s like trying to learn to pass the ball in sport, when you haven’t got any teammates to pass it to.

The best practice is playing in front of an audience, because at the end of the day, where you mix in any given track is decided in part by them.

So you have to play regularly in front of an audience (any size of audience) if you want to learn “instinctively” how this is done. You can’t get a feel for it unless you include this aspect.

The big secret…

So you’ve read this far, and you’re obviously serious about getting this right. You understand all the things you should be considering when figuring out if it’s time to make a transition, you have some technical skills to actually do it, and you’re up to speed on how to practise to get fluid at it.

And while it is perfectly possible to play dynamic, tight, floor-pleasing DJ sets with the versions of songs you hear on the radio or on your favourite streaming service, that’s not what most DJs do.

Instead, they use “DJ edits”.

What are DJ edits?

DJ edits are your friend – you can get short edits, intro edits, outro edits, VIP edits, clean edits, acapella-first edits, mashups – all designed to give you several easy-to-mix options of any given tune.

If you only want to play a tune for a short while, play the “short edit”.

If you want to play a pop tune that – in its original form – has no beat-only sections for easy mixing, play the DJ intro/outro edit instead.

If there’s a handy beats-only part of the track you’re currently playing, and you’d like to play the vocal of another track over the top of it before dropping that track fully into the mix, play the “acapella first edit”.

Often, modern DJs have several versions of many of the songs they like to play in their sets, that let them do all of these things and more. It makes the whole job of choosing when to mix between tracks much easier, because these versions are designed for DJs to mix with.

What is happening here is that the remixers are altering the song structures to make the tracks easier for DJs to use in a variety of places.

Understanding song structures

There’s no point paying for DJ edits if you aren’t clear about what has been altered, and to understand that, you need to understand song structures. That’s why we’ve produced this free “guide sheet” for you to download and keep:

Click here to get your free DJ Song Structure Guide Sheet

Where to get DJ edits

You can’t get these from the iTunes store, and you can’t stream these on Spotify. You have to go to a specialised DJ service called a DJ download pool.

Download pools are designed to give working DJs versions of songs they can easily use in their DJ sets. They usually focus on new music, and tend to be better for commercial tracks.

(If you think about it, most electronic/underground dance music is already pretty good to mix with, because it’s built that way in the first place – unlike more mainstream music).

The term “working DJ” tends to be applied pretty loosely nowadays – back in the days when similar services to these dished out pre-release vinyl to club DJs, the barriers to entry were considerably tighter! But now, as long as you can show you actually DJ (so a Facebook Page or a mix on Mixcloud should be sufficient “proof”), you can join.

DJ download pools charge a set monthly fee, which allows you to download as many tracks as you like – and importantly, as many versions of each track as you like. Here are three to look at:

  • DJcity – A very new DJ-friendly pool, and also the team behind the Beatsource LINK DJ music streaming service
  • BPM Supreme – Probably the most popular pool among Digital DJ Tips subscribers and students
  • ZipDJ – worth a look if you predominantly like house and electronic music, as it has a better selection of this type of music than some others

There are many other excellent pools though, and most have offers so you can try them for less than a full monthly subscription. If you want easy options for quick mixing between tracks and making your sets tighter (by not always playing every song to the end), DJ edits are definitely your friend.

Finally…

Knowing exactly where to transition, like knowing what to play next (the latter being the bigger of the two skills), is something you’ll learn over a lifetime as a DJ. But the steps in this article will definitely speed up your learning.

And while you don’t need to join one, you’ll be putting yourself at a permanent disadvantage if you don’t find a DJ download pool that works for you, especially if you play a mixture of genres.

When you hear DJs ”quick mixing”, chopping and changing between tunes, and wonder how they can so seamlessly and instinctively do that, then yes, skill and experience is involved – but the right tools will really help too.

So – whether or not you choose to join a download pool, now you know the secret to how it’s done.

Grab your free download of our DJ Song Structure Guide Sheet, get practising, keep playing in front of audiences as often as you can, and don’t forget to record your sets to listen back to.

From now on, you’re going to play tracks for just the right length of time in your DJ sets, and your audiences will love you all the more for it.

Last updated 23 July, 2021

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