Acapellas have always been one of the first tools DJs turn to when they want to do something more creative than just playing one tune after another. Playing the vocal of one song over the music of another gives you something instantly “new”, and if the tracks you are using are recent, you may well even be doing something nobody has done before.
One of the big challenges you have when DJing with acapellas is getting them properly in time with the music you’re playing them over the top of. The reason for this, of course, lies in the very definition of “acapella” – it is a vocal without the accompanying music, and therefore without the accompanying beat.
Read this next: How To DJ With Acapellas
How on earth are you meant to “beatmix” with a piece of music that has no beat for you to use? One answer is to “beatgrid” it, just like you can “beatgrid” any other track. A beatgrid is literally that – a grid placed over the track by your DJ software that shows your DJ system where the “beats” are, so when you press the sync button, everything lines up nicely.
If an acapella originally came from a song, that song almost certainly followed a rhythm, so the “beat” is still in effect there – you just can’t hear it. As long as you can tell your DJ software where it should be, you’re good to go.
The old school advantage
If you learned to DJ on vinyl and to beatmix manually, you’ll probably be smiling wryly to yourself at this point, because you probably don’t struggle with beatmixing acapellas. Having learned to speed up and slow down music on the fly in your DJing, you’ve probably got used to getting the timing right with acapellas too – throwing them into the mix and correcting as you go along.
But even if this is something you can do without, it’s still a good idea to beatgrid your acapellas. Do so and you’ll be able to use auto-loop functions accurately for great sounding loops of words or phrases in bigger acapellas. Also, the effects in your DJ set-up that rely on rhythm – echoes and delays – will all sound much tighter with the correct beatgrid applied to the acapella.
The challenge of acapellas
One of the challenges to beatgridding acapellas is that vocals notoriously play fast and loose with the “rules” of counting and timing in music.
Imagine a producer making a track. They start in their DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) with a blank grid of beats, bars, and song sections, then add drums, basslines, melodies and so on based around those beats, bars and sections. By and large they will follow strict rules, with everything usually arriving and leaving the mix right on the first beat of a musical section.
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Now, imagine that our producer gets a vocalist in to record a vocal part. Yes, the vocalist will broadly know where the verses and choruses are, but will be allowed to an extent to “freestyle” over the rules-based backing track. That’s what gives a lot of songs their individuality and colour.
Therefore vocals often come in early or late, and so while it is a fair bet that the first kick drum of a song marks the first beat of the first meaningful bar and section of the track, no such promises can be made for the first note sung on an acapella.
How To Do It
Luckily, it is not as hard to beatgrid acapellas as you might think. Here’s how to do it:
Step 1: Try the auto method
- Let your software analyse the acapella first – Nowadays, DJ software often gets the BPM right. If it gets it wrong, it will possibly be obviously double or half what it should be, and correcting that is easy (there’s normally a button for that in the software)
- See if it has got the phrasing right – you may be lucky. Getting the phrasing right means that the software has put the first bar marker of the beatgrid (the one marker in every four that shows the start of each four-beat musical bar) in the right place, too. You can test this by using sync to test the acapella over a suitable instrumental backing track. If all sounds in time, you’re good!
If the above didn’t work, if you don’t trust the BPM reading or even with the BPM looking the same things just aren’t sounding right, you need to move on to the next steps.
Read this next: 10 Tips For Perfect Beatgridding
Step 2: Check and fix the acapella’s BPM
Getting the acapella’s BPM right is always the first step towards getting the beatgrid right.
- Load the acapella onto one deck, and the correctly beatgridded original song it came from on the other – You should own the original song of any track you also own an acapella of, for both ethical and creative reasons, so simply load them up together, preferably on a software waveform view that places them parallel to each other (this makes the following steps a bit easier visually)
- Compare the BPMs of both tracks, making sure the pitch controls on both decks are set to 0 – It’s likely the BPMs will be the same (see point 1 above), but if they’re not, type in the correct BPM for the acapella by changing it in your software. You do this by copying across the BPM value from the original track into the BPM value column or field for your acapella
- Now test the acapella again – In this instance, seeing you have the original track loaded anyway, you can hit “sync” and see if the acapella starts at the right time over the original track’s vocal. If it does, ie the vocals line up, you’re good (and you’ll probably be happily playing with the two together, cutting the original track in and out underneath the acapella – great fun!)
Get the course: Acapella Mixing Masterclass
If the above didn’t work, what’s happening is that the acapella is playing at the right speed, but it’s too early or late, ie the “phrasing” is out. This is very normal: As I said earlier, vocals often come in early or late. Luckily, with the original track loaded, it is easy to fix this.
Step 3: Correct the acapella’s timing by altering the beatgrid
We’re going to “manually” get the acapella in the right place, then tell the software where that is.
- Temporarily turn off any sync or quantise features on your software – We are going to go “freestyle” with our acapella to find out where it should “sit” on its grid
- Get the acapella playing over the original track, in the correct place – An easy way of doing this is to put a cue marker temporarily on a very obvious word on the acapella, usually the first word of the first verse, and then play the original track, starting the acapella playing over it at the right point using the cue marker. Use your jogwheel or nudge controls to adjust the acapella so it is exactly in time with the acapella on the original track
- Stop both tracks playing at exactly the same time – just hit the “play/pause” buttons of the decks, making sure they’re set to stop immediately, as we want to keep the tracks lined up together exactly as they are
- Correct the beatgrid of the acapella – Looking at the beatgrids of both tracks, you’ll see that the acapella’s beatgrid, while it has the same spacing between each line of the grid as the original track’s (because it is set to the same BPM), doesn’t “line up” with the beatgrid of the original track – even through we know the tracks are perfectly in time. So using your beatgrid’s “grid shift” setting, shift the acapella’s whole grid forward or back so both the beat and bar markers line up, then lock or save the grid there
That’s it! Now the acapella is perfectly beatgridded, and using the “sync” button should give you perfect results when using that acapella in your DJing, just as it does when syncing two tracks that have beats – it’s like the acapella has a beat of its own, but you just can’t hear it.
Dealing with vocals that start “early”
Vocals may indeed start on that first bar marker, but just as easily they may start a bit before or after it.
If they start on or after it, DJing with them is comparatively easy – you hit “play” on a synced acapella at the start of a musical bar, and the vocal starts where it should.
But what if the vocal starts half a beat, a beat, two beats (or whatever) early? In this instance, if you’re using sync, you have two choices:
- You can start the acapella playing at the start of the vocal – This works if you “know” in your head where the vocal should come in over your backing track, so you sync the tracks initially, then start the acapella playing “manually” at the right point (probably having marked the start of the vocal with a cue point). In doing so you’ll notice the beat and bar lines will also line up, although you may want to tap “sync” after you’ve started the acapella playing to tighten things up
- You can start the acapella playing a full bar early – As you approach the place in the instrumental backing track where you want the acapella to play, you start the acapella playing over the backing track from the last bar marker on the acapella before the vocal starts, and a bar “early” on the backing track. Then the acapella comes in that slight bit early as it should, but you respect the structure of the backing track overall
Get the course: Acapella Mixing Masterclass
This article contains the single best shortcut we know to understanding, preparing and DJing with acapellas – simply “copying” over the beatgrid info from the original track.
However, those with enough experience don’t really need to do this. By tapping your foot, singing the acapella, and simply mixing it in where you know it should go, adjusting the BPM along the way, skilled DJs can very quickly figure out the BPM and phrasing of any acapella, quickly adding a beatgrid from scratch.
How do you get that experience? By learning to manually beatmix. It’s one of the fundamental skills of DJing, and you should learn to do it at some point. Don’t let it stop you DJing, don’t let it stop you playing parties, don’t let it stop you having fun – but do take the time to slowly teach yourself this skill. It’s something that will serve you well forever once you figure it out.
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