Using Sync, Hot Cues And Loops
DJs using records on turntables had none of these things. But since DJ CD players and then digital DJ systems controlled by software have arrived on the scene, so have functions that make DJing easier and more creative, and these stand out as ones which have made a huge difference in the way modern DJs operate. They are simple, clever, and will give you much more control over your DJing than that afforded to somebody just using records. Better have a closer look at them, then…
Sync does all the manual beatmixing stuff for you. Press one button, and your beats snap together – and stay that way. Controllerism, finger drumming, four-deck mixing, live remixing, re-editing, cue juggling… these are all new DJing paradigms, skills, and techniques that have either been invented or come to the fore with the advent of digital DJing. Doing them relies heavily on automatic syncing of your tunes.
Gear and software equipped with sync analyses the tracks you load up. Then you tap the sync button and, armed with this analysis, your gear does all the things we already know about beatmixing for you. One, it tempo matches the tunes (getting them to the same speed by adjusting the speed of the new one to match the old one); two, it beatmatches them (lining their beats up); three, it holds those beats together as they play, saving you the need to monitor them closely should they slowly drift apart and need some manual correction.
In most systems, you get to choose how much of the above actually happens when you hit that button, and how. You may be able to have your system match the tempos but leave the beats bit to you. And you may be able to alter whether it attempts to line up just beats or tries to get the bars lined up too, or even whole phrases.
Take the time to understand exactly how your particular variant of sync works and be conscious of how your options are set, not least because it will help you should issues occur. What kind of issues? Well, your DJ software may guess the BPM wrong. A track may have a BPM that alters, which may throw things out of sync. Your system may get the BPM right, but guess where the beats or bars lie incorrectly. In these cases, blindly hitting the sync button will make things worse as your software thinks it’s offering you a solution, but it’s actually causing a problem.
luckily there are ways you can fix this stuff.
All systems have a tap function, where you can literally tap along to a song’s rhythm on a button. The system will work out the BPM of your taps and thus the real speed of the track. And most DJ systems also offer a ‘beatgridding’ function, too. This lets you check and correct the auto-generated beatgrid of the track, which is a grid of lines imposed over it marking where the beats lie, and also where the bars (and even sometimes whole musical phrases) sit. (This stuff happens when your system analyses each tune as you import your music.)
Checking and correcting the beatgrid will practically guarantee that sync can do its job right first time, every time, and so make it an essential part of your track preparation if you use sync extensively. Good beatgridding systems can even cope with the slight variations of tempo that inevitably happen when tracks were played with live drummers (i.e. not drum machines), making it possible to sync funk, disco, and rock tracks previously off-limits for DJs wanting to use sync.
Sync saves time, freeing you up to do other things, and as long as you understand what it’s doing for you (and what to do if it gets it wrong), it’s a great tool.
Back in the ‘Understanding Your Decks’ chapter, we learned that as well as the play/pause button on your equipment, every type of DJ deck (except record decks) also has a cue point button for setting a temporary point on the track you can easily return to. Hot cues are the same thing except there are more than one of them and they get remembered, so the next time you load the track up, your hot cues are still there, accessible to you by a set of extra buttons or pads on your equipment.
Because they are permanent, you can use them consistently to mark important places in your tracks, such as the first beat, or the place you always like to start mixing from, or the beginning of a breakdown, or even exact words in a vocal part. You can then get creative by using the hot cue buttons to jump from place to place in a track, effectively remixing it on the fly. Therefore you can use them simply to make it easier for you to DJ by marking important sections in your music, or to get truly creative and make something totally new out of a track through deft playing of the hot cues, a skill referred to as ‘cue juggling’.
On your particular DJ system, start by learning how to set these, how to delete them, and how to trigger them, and then try marking at least your favourite start point of each track with a hot cue. You’ll quickly find they become invaluable tools in helping you get music on to your decks and ready for mixing faster and more easily.
Looping refers to making a part of a track play over and over again. It first appeared with DJ CD players as ‘manual looping’ (you manually set the in and out points of your loop), but then quickly developed into ‘auto looping’. This means that – armed with a knowledge of where the beats lie in your track through pre-analysis – your DJ system can let you instantly command a perfect loop of a set length of, say, a beat, or a bar, or four bars of music. looping lets you bring elements under your control rather than being constrained by the timing of what happens in the tracks.
Being able to loop the intro of a track (before much happens) or the outro (so your track doesn’t end too quickly) can be a huge aid to transitioning. It can also be used more creatively, for instance to loop a short piece of a vocal or percussion to add flavour to a DJ mix – especially when you use the sync function to keep your loop tightly in time with your other tracks.
Just be sure not to use this feature too often as it does encourage long, drawn-out transitions where not much happens and thus can lead to boring sets. Instead, try being creative with it. Why not loop a small part of a well- known track, for instance, and play that over the previous track to tease your audience with what’s coming next before you’re ready to perform the proper mix between the two?
While sync, hot cues and loops help you to arrange your beats cleanly, easily and creatively, whether within each track or while mixing, there is a whole set of other functions that let you colour the actual sounds in your tracks themselves. That’s what the next chapter covers.