Beatmixing Part 2: The Three Elements Of A Good Beatmix
DJs often use the phrases ‘beatmatching’ and ‘beatmixing’ interchangeably, and that’s fine, but I find it useful to be a bit more precise in our wording. Let’s call a beatmix the overall technique, of which beatmatching is one of the three elements you need to get right for your beatmix to work. The other two are phrase matching (lining up your musical phrases, which we talked about in the previous chapter) and tempo matching, which is where we’ll start.
Beatmixing, as we now know, is partly about lining up two tracks so their beats line up together, neither track playing faster than the other. In order for this to work, the speed, or BPM, or tempo of each track must match. Tempo matching, then, is the very first thing that has to happen for a beatmix to work.
Ever since the introduction of DJ CD players, modern DJ equipment has had BPM counters built in. These show you the BPM of each track. By adjusting the pitch control (it’s usually a fader, but it can be a knob), a DJ can alter the speed of a track and thus alter the BPM readout. The game is to get the speeds of the two sources you want to beatmix so that they’re the same before attempting the mix.
Dance music can range from 80BPM for the slowest hip hop jams right up past 120 (house) to 180 (drum & bass), but it is always best to beatmix tunes whose BPMs are pretty close anyway, and a good rule of thumb is plus or minus 4%. So for house, that means looking for tunes around 5BPM either side of the one you’re currently playing to beatmix with. (By the way, BPM readouts didn’t always exist, and still don’t on most record decks – vinyl DJs often count BPMs with a stopwatch and attach stickers to their tunes showing the BPM to help them to plan their beatmixes, or simply do it by feel.)
It’s not enough, though, to have the speeds set the same. Once they are, it is then necessary for the beats themselves to line up correctly. You need the ‘thud, thud, thud’ of the main drums that are driving your songs forward to line up too.
Imagine you’re playing a house track with four main beats per bar, and you have another track at exactly the same speed, but playing a bit ahead of the first one – now you’ll have an unholy mess. Instead of the four beats in each bar playing at exactly the same time as each other, and effectively merging into one beat, they are all audible individually, so you can hear eight beats where there should only be four. With beatmixing, we’re trying to move from track to track without the audience noticing, but clearly if we introduce an extra set of beats out of nowhere that isn’t in line with the existing beats, it’s going to be instantly noticeable and simply sound wrong (remember that train-wrecking I mentioned earlier?). So as well as our songs being tempo matched, they need to be beatmatched.
The whole of the previous chapter was about how the tracks you love are constructed in mathematically predictable musical phrases, so you already know what this requirement is all about. If you’ve jumped to here without reading the previous chapter, you’ve skipped a vital part – go and catch up before going any further.
Remember the counting system from the previous chapter – the ‘one, two, three, four, two, two, three four…’ method of counting blocks of typically four or eight bars in a track? In practical terms, phrase matching means that as well as the beats being the same speed and lined up, the sets of ‘one, two, three, four, two, two, three, four…’ in each track are lined up, too. The easiest way to do this when beatmixing is to have your incoming track ready to go on a one beat at the start of the phrase where you want to begin playing it, and start playing it when the outgoing track reaches a one beat too, so the phrases are lined up nicely. We call that first beat at the start of a phrase the ‘one beat’, or the ‘downbeat’.
How to perform a beatmix
Hopefully you’re starting to see how it fits together now. You just have to get the BPM counters showing the same speed (tempo) and start the second track playing over the first, making sure the downbeats are lined up, and that one track isn’t slightly ahead of or behind the other, so you don’t accidentally double up the number of main beats audible instead of having them neatly laid over the top of each other.
But it’s not quite so simple. As not all DJ systems have BPM readouts, and not all tracks have a reliable constant BPM (you’re usually good with electronic music, but anything played by a real drummer is going to vary a bit – think funk, disco, rock and so on), even when you think you have your BPMs set right, they may slip apart over time. That’s why it is important to know how to beatmix manually – get two tracks playing at the same speed and know how to keep them there without the need for automatic BPM counters and other beatmixing tools. It’s one of those skills, like riding a bike, that comes in the end and won’t leave you once it does, but to get there you do need to keep at it.
Here’s how to do it. Practising using simple house music with a strong beat is good, and using two copies of the same track helps, too. extra points for covering your BPM readouts!
- With the first track playing, have the second ready with your cue point on a one beat, its speed set at any old rough guess, or simply middle, on the pitch fader. The best one beat is often the very first beat of the track
- When you reach a one beat on the first track, start the second track playing (you do this so you can only hear it in your headphones when performing, but it’s fine to do it all in the loudspeakers when practising, i.e. with both tracks playing out loud)
- Unless you’re lucky, the new track will either be too slow or too fast, and you’ll hear it pull away from or fall behind the main track. Use your cue button to get it back to the one beat or the start, adjust the pitch control up or down a bit, and try again.
- Go back to 2 and repeat until the tracks are taking a while to pull apart, which means their BPMs are getting close
- At this stage, instead of going back to the beginning to make your adjustments, you can nudge the incoming track using the platter or jogwheel. This means using your hand on the platter, jogwheel or vinyl to speed it up or slow it down momentarily when you hear the beats slipping apart in order to line them up again. Once they’re lined up, you make a small adjustment to the pitch control to get even closer to the real matching BPM. eventually, you’ll have it spot on so the tracks stay perfectly lined up for as long as you need to perform a smooth mix between them using the mixer. In a real DJ set, you’d have done all of this preparation in your headphones, and you’d then go right back to the start and do it live over the speakers
Practise, practise, practise…
If the above sounds a little tricky, I won’t dress it up: it is. At first, you don’t think you’ll ever get it. You certainly feel that it won’t ever be possible to do it fast enough. But you will, and you can. Practised DJs learn how to skip steps three and four, starting a track playing and, by a deft few nudges and tempo control adjustments, getting two tunes lined up manually in a few seconds.
It really doesn’t matter what gear or system you’re using, either. Obviously, turn off or don’t use any auto sync functions. look for functions called ‘snap’ or ‘quantise’ if you’re using DJ software, and avoid or turn those off too. And on CDJs and DJ software, as I said, you can cover up the BPM counters to force you to work out by ear which track is playing the faster of the two in your mixes (use Post- it notes on your CD displays or laptop screen to hide the BPMs).
If you’re struggling, just remember what I said at the beginning of the previous chapter: beatmixing is a single technique for smoothly moving from one song to the next. It’s not even appropriate in a lot of circumstances, and it needn’t hold you back from performing live and enjoying your DJing. Indeed, in the next chapter, we move on to actual real-life DJ transitions… and only two of the five I’m about to show you use beatmixing at all.