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Five Basic DJ Transitions

Introduction

Here’s the dirty truth about how to DJ. If this were a book about an exciting new type of cuisine, this would be the secret sauce mix. If it were a book for wannabe bartenders about mixing cocktails, it’d be the five must-have ingredients and the trick to shaking properly. But it’s not: it’s about DJing, and the techniques in this chapter are truly the only ones you need to be able to play music continuously and professionally for people to dance to.

Of course, knowing a secret sauce or two doesn’t make you a world-class chef, just like mastering a few cocktails doesn’t turn you into The Savoy’s next cocktail mixologist. What follows won’t get you to the DMC World DJ Championships – but these DJ transitions are the building blocks for everything. Combined with good ingredients (your music), confidence in your tools (your DJ gear), and a clear idea about what you’re aiming for (filling that dancefloor at the next gig you’ve got in your diary), they will get you on the field of play.

Once you’ve mastered the five techniques here, you’ll be in the enviable position of not worrying about how you’re going to mix from one tune to the next (so you can worry about what matters: what to play next), and you’ll naturally start developing your style by adding your own flavours to these techniques. like cooking and cocktail making, once you know the basics, there are countless variations, and soon enough you’ll not only be able to come up with your own ideas, but you’ll better understand and appreciate what other DJs are doing too…and be able to borrow some of their techniques for your own DJ sets.

Transition #1: the Fade

As a DJ tool, the Fade remains one of the best ways to move from song to song in a DJ set. It is your ‘get out of jail’ card. Knowing how to fade and move on means you’ll never be stuck for a way to move to the next tune, and the confidence that gives you is priceless.

Manually fading a song out tells the audience the current track is ending and to expect something else imminently, and of course removes a lot of the volume from the outgoing tune so that the moment the incoming tune starts, it dominates. Done smoothly and confidently, the Fade puts control of where you switch from one tune to the next into your hands, and tells everyone you’re in command. Combined with good timing, it’s a perfectly acceptable way to move along in many types of DJ set.

How to do it

  1. Decide where you want to fade. At times, you will do this because you played the wrong song and want to move on apologetically (hey, it happens), but usually it’ll be because you feel you’ve played enough of something that hasn’t quite ended yet, which is common especially when you’re playing older music that everyone knows. A chorus is a good place to fade, or even better, a chorus that follows a chorus (a common way writers pad out their songs towards the end). If that second chorus is also introduced by a key change (that other classic ‘running out of ideas’ composition technique), all the better.
  2. Fade the song out quickly at first, then slowly. The wrong way to fade a song out is to make people ask, ‘Is this or isn’t this fading out?’ You’ve got to be bold and knock a good chunk of that volume out right away. Over the next ten to fifteen seconds, you can continue the Fade more gradually, now everyone’s clear what’s going on. If you start your fade just after the beginning of, say, an eight-bar musical phrase, you’ll want to be practically done with it by the end of that phrase so you can…
  3. Start the next track playing on a downbeat, lined up with the final downbeat on your outgoing track. Just as your old track is disappearing, hit play on your new track, crisply and cleanly lined up right on the first beat of a musical phrase. Doesn’t matter if it’s an actual beat or not, just ensure that you’re at the start of a phrase so you respect the flow of the tracks together.

Also, it doesn’t matter if the track is of a different BPM, or even a different genre, a fact that makes the Fade a great way to help you play more interesting sets that confidently cross genres and tempos.

Transition #2: the End-to-End

All you’ve got to do is listen to music radio for long enough to get a decent handle on the end-to-end. This simple mixing style is very much of today, with our modern fashion for short, choppy pop, dance and hip hop singles that start with a bang and end just as abruptly. This style of music doesn’t lend itself necessarily to anything more than a confident switch from one tune to the next. like anything simple, though, its mechanics are laid bare for all to see, and to get this one right requires more skill than you might imagine.

How to do it

  1. Know how the current song is going to end. Firstly, you need to be sure that there is indeed a nice clean ending there for you to work with. examining the waveform on your screen can help, but when push comes to shove, I’ve been known to load another copy of the current song on to a spare deck while the first one is playing to my audience and have a quick listen in my headphones to find out how it ends (ah, the joys of digital, where double copies of anything can be so simple). Once you’re sure about that…
  2. Choose a strong, impactful next song with an immediate starting point. No point boldly switching from the very end of one song into a whimpering slow-starting nothing kind of tune, no matter how great it is once it gets going. You need something that starts with a bang. (Notice how on radio there are often edited versions of songs that do precisely that, or the DJ starts the song playing where it gets going rather than where it really starts in its full meandering version. You might want to think about doing that, too.) When you’re asking your audience to deal with such a big, bold switch as this, it helps if they are likely to be accepting of the new song immediately, so recognisable is always good.
  3. Count the beats and bars as the outgoing song ends, and start the new song playing on a downbeat, making sure that your new song has its fader up so it’s audible, of course. It’s important to note that respecting the musical flow is the secret sauce that binds this kind of apparently random mix together and ultimately lets you get away with it. Counting your ‘one, two, three, four, two, two, three, four…’ beats and bars leading up to where you start the new song playing on both its and the outgoing tune’s downbeat is the key. If the outgoing tune stops in a truly random place (which is unlikely), meaning you can’t start the new tune at the beginning of a new four- or eight-bar phrase, at least start it on the first beat of a bar, counting in your head past the end of the tune and leaving a small amount of silence if you have to.

Transition #3: the Cut

Manchester, England, late 1980s. I was barely old enough to go clubbing, but nevertheless used to roll up at a club called Legend on Princess Street, a place known for its unbelievable light show, huge sound system, and the quality of its DJs. (It was the venue featured in the video for the song ‘Wrote For luck’ by Madchester band Happy Mondays, if you want to check it out on YouTube.)

This was just before the big UK acid house revolution of 1988, when the first wave of electronic dance music changed club culture forever, so nobody really knew what beatmixing was at the time. Yet the resident DJ was mixing flawlessly, everything from indie to hip hop to sixties psychedelia, most of it from 7-inch singles. His name was Dave Booth (one of the unsung heroes of my home city’s often celebrated club scene), and the techniques he’d use all night long to keep his floors packed were the two I’ve already covered, and the Cut.

Unlike the end-to-end and the Fade, both of which have signalled to your audience that something is about to happen before it actually does (the first because the song is ending, the second because it’s disappearing), the Cut is a momentary instant mix – a clean cut from one track to the next that relies for its power on three things: timing (as ever), your choice of where in both of your tracks to do it, and the actual tracks you’ve chosen in the first place. Get these things right and, like Dave Booth at legend all those decades ago and countless multi-genre, multi-tempo DJs since, you can quite happily mix all night with this and the other techniques you’ve learned so far.

How to do it

  1. Line your incoming track up on a one beat. You need to be able to start this track instantly at the millisecond of your choosing right at the start of a musical phrase, so pick your one beat (see ‘Beatmixing Part 1: Timing’ for more information about one beats) and get it ready.
  2. Start counting the beats, bars, and phrases on your outgoing track. You’re looking for a corresponding one beat where if the track you have lined up were to take over, it would all sound good. Typically, you’re looking for a part of the track towards the end where things are winding down, and the big verses, choruses, breakdowns, drops, hooks, etc. are being removed from the mix by the producer, so there’s a building sense that something else is coming at some point.
  3. On your chosen downbeat, start your new track playing, and immediately stop the outgoing one. You’re effectively switching from one song to the next while continuing the natural flow of beats, bars, and phrases, i.e. going from a ‘…three, two three, four, four, two, three four’ on your outgoing tune back to ‘one, two, three four…’, but the second the one hits, your old tune has gone and the new tune has taken over.

Exactly how you do the above will of course depend on your equipment. Dave used to use real vinyl and physically throw the new song in on time, but with modern gear, you simply hit the stop button on one deck while hitting the start button on the other – making sure the incoming tune is fully faded up in the mix, of course.

Transition #4: the Single Phrase Beatmix

And so we come back to beatmixing, a core DJ skill so important that, to many observers of the DJ scene, it – alongside scratching – is DJing. Master this and the following beatmixed transition, and everyone will be convinced of your DJing chops, including all other DJs. (If you find the beatmixing parts simply too hard, in the next chapter you’ll learn how you can use your gear’s ‘sync’ function, if it offers one, to make it much easier.)

As always, the key is in timing and programming as much as in the techniques themselves, but once you are sure you’ve picked the right tune to play next, and you’re sensing it’s time to make that switch with a nice beatmix, here are a couple of time-tested techniques, beloved of DJs the world over. We’ll start with the Single Phrase Beatmix, so called because you play both tunes together for one musical phrase, usually of four or eight bars.

How to do it

  1. Prepare the incoming tune for a beatmix (as per the Beatmixing chapters). Usually this will be somewhere near the start, at a section where there are just drums. line this tune up one musical phrase before the place you’d like to make it audible to your audience, giving you a bit of lead in.
  2. Start it playing in your headphones over the outgoing tune. Do this exactly as if you were doing the Cut, i.e. completely lined up with a one beat. Because the tempo of the incoming tune has been set to the same as the outgoing tune, as long as you started it at the right time (or used your DJ software’s sync feature if that’s how you DJ to ensure the same), the beats will be perfectly in time; if they’re not, you know how to correct this from the ‘Beatmixing’ chapter.
  3. After your one musical phrase lead in, make the new tune audible to your audience over the top of the outgoing one. That initial phrase where you listened to the new tune in your headphones only was for you to double check it was lined up and sounded good, so now it does, on this one beat, introduce it to your audience. Usually this is done by putting the crossfader to the middle, or if it’s already there (or you don’t use it or have one), bringing the tune’s channel line fader up so the music is playing through the speakers.
  4. Play the tunes together for a musical phrase. This will be for four, often eight, sometimes even sixteen bars, depending on the two tunes, but the point is to let your audience hear the thrill of two tunes perfectly lined up playing together for a meaningful musical length of time – a phrase being the minimum length that signifies this.
  5. Mix out the outgoing tune. Now it’s time to retire the old track, and so you’ll move the crossfader all the way across, or bring down its line fader, or whatever. You can do this in one go on the downbeat, or slowly fade it out; as long as it stays nicely lined up and there’s nothing clashing between the two tracks (usually discordant melodies, an eventuality you avoid by mixing where only drums dominate), frankly it’s down to you.

It’s easy to turn this into a double phrase beatmix or more by keeping those tunes playing together for longer. However, having two full bass drums thumping away together in your mix at the same time, and any accompanying basslines and other musical information that may be arriving or leaving the mix too, could sound muddy and messy. That’s where the next transition really comes into its own.

Transition #5: the Bassline Swap Beatmix

Ever seen a DJ jumping around in the booth, highly animated, yet with both hands firmly fixed to the mixer? On closer inspection, he or she appears to have the finger and thumb of each hand grasping a single knob… and at just the right moment, with one dual exaggerated twist of those two knobs, our hero propels the room into the next tune. Cue an amazing reaction from the crowd, etc. etc.

More than likely, what you witnessed the DJ doing right there was the Bassline Swap Beatmix. For certain types of music (think house, techno, trance, modern disco), this is the go-to mix that millions of DJs use night after night to play smooth, musically tight sets. And once you can do the Single Phrase Beatmix, it’s a simple step to do the Bassline Swap Beatmix.

This is the most advanced mix in this book, but it’s not such a leap from the Single Phrase Beatmix. It relies on the fact that the types of music I just mentioned tend to follow a formula, and part of that formula is: drums start, followed by drums plus bassline, followed soon enough by all the rest of the stuff (vocals, breakdowns, drops, and so on). likewise, such tunes usually end with the reverse happening; elements are removed from the production until there are just drums and a bassline left, with eventually even the bassline disappearing, leaving a phrase or two of drums alone to end the track.

If you were to beatmix two such tunes at a typical point (i.e. near the end of the first one and near the beginning of the second one), chances are that one of two things would happen. either the basslines would clash for a while, because you’ve overlaid the tunes at a point where the bassline hasn’t disappeared from the old tune before the bassline arrived in the new one, or they would be too spread apart, meaning the bassline would end on the outgoing tune while there was still just a drum intro playing on the incoming tune, with the bassline maybe a phrase or more away from appearing. The former could sound bad (especially if the tunes aren’t in the same or a compatible musical key), the latter tedious as there’d be a phrase or more of your beatmix with nothing but two sets of drums playing together.

The Bassline Swap fixes this, and puts control back into your hands so you’re not relying on those elements lining up correctly, or having to wait until the end of every tune to mix in the next one if you don’t want to. This technique lets you try more daring mixes while keeping them tight and sounding good.

How to do it

This is the Single Phrase Beatmix, with some key differences:

  1. Make the mix longer. You can do the Bassline Swap Beatmix over a single phrase as outlined above, but as it tends to sound tighter and better than the alternatives, you will sometimes want to have those two tunes playing together for more than a single musical phrase. So start your second tune earlier, and make sure there’s plenty of the outgoing tune left so it doesn’t run out as you’re performing this. On a five minute tune, you’re looking for around sixty to ninety seconds left.
  2. Start with the low EQ turned all the way down on the incoming tune. The low, lo, or bass eQ knob (see the next chapter for more on eQ) controls how much of the kick drum and bassline we hear, and turning this all the way down immediately takes the thump and power out of your incoming track, making it sound thin and weedy. Happily, assuming the first minute or so of the track is just drums or drums and bass, it also removes the majority of the musical information contained in the track, meaning there’s less chance of that musical information clashing with anything remaining in the outgoing track as it completes.
  3. Swap the basslines. At a point in the incoming track when the bassline has arrived, or at the point when you know it does arrive, turn its eQ back to normal (twelve o’clock), while simultaneously turning the low eQ of the outgoing track all the way down. Assuming the bassline is still playing on the outgoing track, this has the effect of swapping the bassline the audience hears from the outgoing track’s to the incoming track’s. As bass is where most of the power of any dance track is, you’re switching the audience’s attention firmly from one track to the other, but crucially at a time in your mix that suits you.

While I have called this the Bassline Swap Beatmix, many DJs use this technique in all their beatmixing anyway, whether or not they’re consciously trying to swap basslines, because having two kick drums pounding away together for extended periods is unnecessary. This method lets you stealthily introduce a new track into the mix, only letting it dominate (by moving its bassline up in the mix while removing the old track’s) when you’re ready. But it works best when you do as I’ve described and use it to keep the musical interest going by overlapping more of both tracks and controlling which bassline dominates. It gives you freedom to be more adventurous.

Don’t be afraid to experiment

All of the above give you starting points for your own mixing, and the variations you end up liking and preferring will often happen by accident, either by necessity (‘I’ve got to mix this tune in now or we’re in trouble!’), or by experimentation.

It is not always important, for instance, to have a beatmix running in your headphones before you mix it in to the main mix – modern technology and your growing experience will empower you to start a tune playing with the fader open so the audience hears it from the second it starts. On the Bassline Swap, you could have both bass eQs turned down for a bar, half a phrase, or longer to take all the power out of the whole mix deliberately before slamming in the incoming track’s bass on the next downbeat and bringing the energy back up.

Many tunes start or end not with drums, but with a beat-less section – some strings, a synth line, some vocals. Far from making them difficult to mix, these elements actually present an opportunity to the DJ who isn’t scared of experimenting, because as long as your phrase timing and tempos are correct, you can have the incoming or outgoing drums-only part of one track laid over this beat-less part of the other track, each part complementing the other. likewise, you’ll quickly find that for beatmixing, having just drums playing on one track, or even both, works better than trying to mix more melodic musical sections together, which will usually confuse the audience and sound messy.

Armed with these five transitions and a pile of music you love, go ahead and practise these mixes until you have done each one at least once or twice to your satisfaction. In the next few chapters, you’ll meet some extra features that can make mixing easier for you, and make your DJing more fun overall – and I’ll let you in on a huge secret for making sure that when you finally get to show your new skills off in public, everything you do sounds good.

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