Beatmixing Part 1: Timing
When I was a kid, I bought a paperback book called The DJ’s Handbook – From Scratch To Stardom by Roy Sheppard. Predating DJ CD players, never mind digital DJing, it taught things like how to build cassette decks and kit-assembled turntables into carpeted coffin cases, how to conduct dancefloor drinking games, and the best way to deal with hecklers. But tucked among those essential skills was this:
If a DJ is very skilled he can play or ‘run’ both records simultaneously for some time before fading one of them out. Performed properly it is difficult if not impossible to tell where one record ends and another begins, but bad mixes are noticed very easily.
The glamour of those fifty words in a 200-page book lodged itself instantly in my mind, and of course this kind of DJing has become a core skill in the decades that have followed. I certainly wouldn’t blame you if you’ve turned to this chapter right on picking up this book.
But if you’re still not sure what it means, beatmixing describes having your tracks playing at the same BPM (beats per minute), otherwise known as speed or tempo, blending them smoothly together, their rhythms tightly locked. It’s a great technique to help with playing smooth, accomplished DJ sets. DJs often feel they’re going to be judged on their ability to do it, and it’s true that people certainly spot bad beatmixing pretty quickly (‘This DJ keeps train-crashing!’).
A word of warning, though: the truth is that if you want to play DJ sets that fill dancefloors, get you booked again, and let you play the music you want to play, you need to put beatmixing in its rightful place. It is a single technique for smoothly moving from one song to the next that works in some circumstances and doesn’t in others. That said, DJs can either beatmix or they can’t, and like the teenage me, I’m sure you want to be one of those who can. Just don’t let beatmixing rule your DJing – remember that the right music, in the right order, for the people in front of you right now will always trump any specific technique.
What’s this about timing?
I mention timing in the chapter title not to remind you to play the next record at the right time of night (that’d be programming), or because I want to talk about where in the playing track you start to move to the next track (which is more part of your DJing style, and will depend on the type of music you’re playing among other things). No, timing refers to knowing how to maintain the flow of the music when beatmixing, so that elements of the two tracks you’re lining up obey basic musical rules.
Without the right timing, beatmixing counts for nothing.
Practically all music that any DJ will ever want to beatmix with obeys certain musical rules. One of those is that there are four beats in a bar. (You may hear a ‘bar’ called a ‘measure’, but the words mean the same thing.) Try this: put a dance tune on and start counting out loud ‘One, two, three, four’ repeatedly over the ‘thud, thud, thud, thud’ of the bass (or kick) drum. emphasise the one as you do. You’ll soon see that dance music is arranged in groups of four beats – bars. These four-beat bars are the basic building blocks of pretty much all tracks, a truth acknowledged in the phrase ‘four to the floor’ to describe dance music. If you’re beatmixing and you line up your beats but not your bars, it’s going to sound awful.
However, while lining up your ones, twos, threes and fours is certainly a good first step, music is built around bigger patterns than that. Track intros, verses, choruses, breakdowns, bridges and drops – in other words, every part of every track, from start to finish, is built around groups of bars, which we will call musical phrases.
A pop song may go intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, outro. (The ‘bridge’ is the linking bit with a different melody before the final chorus.) A dance track may not really have choruses, but may have a single phrase that repeats over and over again building up to a breakdown (drum-less section) and riser (same bit but with tension-building elements coming in) followed by the hallowed drop (where it all goes crazy). Different genres, different arrangements – but they are all built around groups of bars, and the thing to remember is that these are nearly always groups of four or eight, often referred to by DJs as ‘phrases’. This single fact is the key to unlocking accomplished beatmixing.
I am about to share with you two things that will teach you all you need to know about this musical side of beatmixing. Neither of these will ever leave you, but many DJs don’t work out this stuff:
Count in phrases, and always be counting
When you’re beatmixing two tracks, if you can line up phrases in your tracks, and not just beats and bars, you’ll be way ahead of the pack. That’s why DJs are always counting beats and bars. We don’t always do it out loud, but we do it. And in order to count phrases, not just bars, successfully, we don’t go ‘One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four’, either. Try this instead: to count a four-bar phrase, count, ‘One, two, three, four, two, two, three, four, three, two, three, four, four, two, three, four’. Then, return to ‘One, two, three, four’. (You don’t need me to tell you how to count an eight-bar phrase, right?)
You’ll notice that the one beat, or downbeat, is where stuff happens – a verse starts, a chorus starts, the drop starts, elements leave the track, a vocal begins, a new synth line or percussive element arrives or an old one leaves, and so on. All songs are built around these structures – your job when mixing is to be counting along.
Map a few songs out on paper
Nothing will help you understand how the music you love is structured into musical phrases like mapping it out on paper, and doing this will clear the clouds on why some beatmixes work and some don’t as your DJing progresses. Take a piece of squared paper and turn it width-ways, and let each square represent four or eight bars. Now, counting through a track and pausing when you need to, from the start, write into the sets of four or eight bars what each part of the track is.
Don’t worry about whether your choice of words is right – you may write ‘intro’, ‘intro with beat’, ‘intro with louder beat’, ‘vocal bit’, ‘vocal bit again’, ‘no beat section’, ‘drop’ – the wording really doesn’t matter. The point is that you learn to break a whole track down into four or eight bar sections or phrases. As you map out a handful of tracks, you’ll start to get a feel for how pretty much all music – at least, all music you’re likely to want to DJ with – is constructed from exactly these types of building blocks, or phrases, of bars.
Once you can count along in this way with a playing track, the next part of your job as a beatmixing DJ is to start another track playing over the top of the current one so that its musical phrases (its ‘one, two, three, four, two, two, three, four…’) line up with the current track. The next chapter will show you exactly what’s needed to get that right.