How to DJ 101: Learn to Master the Art of Beats

Technics TurntableMusicians as a group, and especially DJs, are true multitaskers. You see, while a DJ drops a beat or a track, he is cueing up a new segment to transition into. The seamless transition doesn’t happen by a simple X-fader (cross fader). There are several tricks involved to make a good mix, not to mention all the practice hours to tune up these mixing skills. Let’s narrow down the mixing process:

1) Listen to the beat, count the beats

The old schoolers know that I am talking about the BPM (beats per minute) that we once had to calculate by ear, on the fly. The beat is your best friend, but can also be your worst enemy if you don’t obey the rules of beat matching (please read further where I explain why). The BPM “detection” feature has been added to most modern mixers and CD players where the count simply shows up on a display – automatically. Industry standard (since 2001) is typically a pair of Pioneer CDJs such as a CDJ-900 coupled with any of their DJM-serie DJ Mixers, such as the DJM-400 Pro DJ Mixer. You want both songs to have the same BPM (well, there are ways to do it otherwise, but I am not going to cover that right now). There are many ways to achieve this step, but usually it requires a combination of decreases/increase of the BPM. Most house music songs range between 120-126 BPM; anything above 130 BPM is in my opinion not house music. Remember that house music in its early days (back in the 80’s) was produced under 120 BPM.

2) Prepare appropriate effects for your track

You might want to add some Pitch Echo and filter the resonance. An effects box will do the job. Once again, Pioneer is dominant with their EFX-series, followed by KORG and their KAOSS Pads such as the Kaossilator Dynamic Phrase Synthesizer. Pioneer hasn’t made noteworthy improvements on the EFX-500 and EFX-1000 DJ Effector over the years, while KORG has been showing more innovation with X-Y touchpads combined with powerful sound generators. Nevertheless… phaser, delay, echo, ring pitch, resonance, cutoff and filter are effects that DJs commonly use, and so should you.

3) Estimate where the transition will be played, and cue the track

The CUE is the most important part of the transition process. It initiates the mix by the beat you choose. Usually, you want to cue the song on the first beat of the playing track. If you mess this up and the track plays out of time, you have two choices, and both depend on whether you were doing the cue as a preview in your headphones, or if it was played through the master output. If your track was played…

…as a preview in your headphones, then fear not…

You will simply just punch in the cue one more time by first stopping the track and starting over. Using the cue will become second nature. It is the most used button on your CD player! This procedure is usually what you will do when you start learning, and it’s simply a part of the learning process. You WILL mess this up many many times. Needless to say, but as a beginner, you will spend a lot of time practicing with headphones, so this will be the only option if your beat match didn’t sound right, unless you listen in your headphones and play the master output through a pair of monitors, which leads us to…

…if it was played through the main (master) output…

…your audience will most likely hear both tracks, unless the volume of the new track is low enough for them to not distinguish the beats. The trick is to beat match while the track is playing. On the CDJ CD player, there is an emulated vinyl platform called jog wheel, and it has an outer part similar to a rim, that you can rotate. You will need to adjust this along with the music, and this will slow or speed up the tempo depending on the direction of the rotation. Of course, this step applies to the bedroom DJ that has taken the big leap to spin some tunes on their friends’ house warming party and want to remain their cool by coping with the situation like a Pro…

4) Adjust the volumes

So far, your new track is beat matched, and it is ready to be transitioned. (I am going to skip the techniques involving low-, mid- and high-frequency cutoff). Let’s say that the volume of your primary track is 100%, and the secondary (new) track is set to 20%. Common sense says that you would start decreasing the primary track while you increase the new track. Here come the essential DJ skills, where things are not as simple as they appear. Your skill and decision from the 1st and 3rd bullet points (beat count and transition timing, respectively) will be crucial on the outcome of this step. Those steps were the preparation for this step. So doing a bad job there will result in a bad result here. Input equals output.

Q: I followed all your steps; the BPM on my tracks are matching and the end-point for the transition is good. But why doesn’t the transition sound good?

So what is the trick for a smooth DJ transition that sounds good?

Read my article about DJ Transition Techniques that includes a tutorial with free case study samples and a little explanation of musical time signatures such as the quadruple (4/4 beat).