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Dedicated to Podium_princess_slammin_vinyl

The No1 Female Hardcore DJ

2003.04.30 |




Beat Mixing

What is a dj if he can't skratch?

(What is an m.c. if he can't rap? What is a beat without a live clap? Well I can do it all baby just like that.)

Chances are they're a house dj! But, jokes aside, if you want to get anywhere playing dance music you're going to have to learn how to beat mix to a fairly good standard (doesn't hold some dj's back though!). Beat mixing is possible because dance music has a computer generated rhythm. O.k. some beats may come from samples which have come from live drums, but the overall pattern is sequenced on a bit of hardware. This means it should be perfectly regular (yes, it should be).

"So what?" you may think. Because of this regular rhythm each track will have a specific number of Beats Per Minute (BPM). e.g. House / Garage is normally around the 130bpm mark, Hardcore / Drum and Bass around 170bpm and Trance / Techno somewhere in between. Also the fact that it has a specific bpm means these beats are probably arranged in some sort of order. Listen to a choon and you'll probably notice some sort of structure. Dance music is based around a 4 beat structure. That means there are 4 beats in every bar.

Bars are placed in groups of 4 (i.e. sixteen beat sections) and these sections are placed in groups of 4 to make a 64 beat phrase.

Now I'm writing this guide from the basics up, so if you think you've earned the title MIXMASTER already, it's probably best if you scroll down a bit until you find something remotely useful. New sections are normally underlined. If there is terminology that you don't understand you may well have to skip back to a bit where I've explained it. If you still don't get it, well, tough.


If we go back to what I just said about BPM, you should probably be thinking...."Mmm, what if I get two tracks at exactly the same BPM, surely then I could put them over the top of each other. No-one would notice because the structure is the same!". Ahh, good thinking Batman.

But unfortunately, we live in an imperfect world. It's very unlikely that you'll find two different tracks with exactly the same BPM. So......get yourself two copies of the same record (genius idea!?). Pitch controls are not perfect either, so it's probably best if you set your controls to 0% adjustment so there definitely is no difference in BPM. Now see if you can get the two copies running at exactly the same point in each track. Put the crossfader in the middle to get an equal level of both. You did it? Excellent. Did it sound the same as one copy by itself? "Not quite" I hear you say? What you experienced is a flanging effect which you get when you put two copies of the same thing over each other and coupled with the amount of delay you can get a weird 'going through a tunnel type sound'. Anyway the next step is to put the two same tracks over one another but at different points. "But where?". This is the time where having listened intently to other dj's mixing will pay off large. Where do they drop the next track in? The obvious place is when the beats come back in after a breakdown, or when the beats drop at the start of a breakdown. "But what if there are no breakdowns?". This is where having good natural timing will be a great asset (i.e. if you already play an instrument or are just dodgy like that!). Just put a choon on and really listen to every beat. Count out loud from the start of the track if you need to! You should notice that subtle changes in the track happen after 16 beats (4 bars) from the start of a phrase. Slightly bigger changes will normally happen around 32 beats (halfway through a phrase). Generally, my advice would be to drop the next choon in at the start of a phrase or halfway through it. This keeps the overall structure flowing nicely. But don't take my word for it! Try it out for yourself with the two copies of the same record you are using.

After a while structure should come naturally to you. You should be able to just know where you are in a phrase by just sub-conciously picking out the changes and accents at the start of new bars etc. Test yourself by randomly placing the stylus down on a track and seeing how long it takes you to work out where you are in the current phrase. Also make sure you are good at sussing out timing when there are no beats. This will give you valuable extra cueing up time.

Cueing up? What's that all about? In reference to beat mixing it basically means doing whatever you have to do to the next track to get it sorted for your next mix. More specifically it can mean getting the track to the place where you want it to start from.

By this point I'm assuming you understand structure pretty well and know where it's safe to drop the next track in. O.k. on we go....

You're now getting bored of cutting between the same track and want to use another track. Right. Put a different choon on and try dropping it in at the right point. Bam.. It's in... and... clomp... clomp... clomp... Hey, that doesn't sound so great. What's wrong? Well as I said earlier, different tracks aren't made with the same BPM, so they're not going to sit too well over each other. They'll fall out of time quickly and sound awful. "Aahh. Pitch control. I knew it was there for a reason!".

By using the gift of pitch control, you'll be able to change the speed of a track to approximately match that of the one playing so that you can lay them over one another. But there is obviously a limit. Technics 1200/1210's have a pitch control of +/- 8%. A lot of other decks have +/- 10%. Using the latter to keep the maths simple, you should be able to work out that a 130bpm garage choon can be adjusted by upto 13bpm either side (so down to 117 bpm or upto 143bpm). Common sense should now tell you that a garage choon is not going to be able to mix into a drum 'n' bass choon and a house choon isn't gonna go into a happy hardcore choon.

But how do you know where to put the pitch control? This is where we come to the root of beat mixing. Basically you use trial and error. However, you have to develop one skill that once you have mastered you will earn the title Lord of the Beats. You need to be able to tell if a track is in sync with the one that is playing. The normal set-up for this is having the track you are cueing up in your headphones in one ear, and the other ear exposed to the speakers (i.e. the other deck that is playing!). Some of my mates who have never dj'ed can do this instinctively (normally the accomplished musicians), whereas others are left confused and floundered. It's a skill I found developed with a lot of practice. Luckily, I could do it right from the start, but nowhere nearly as sharply as I can now. You should eventually reach the point where it's annoying because you are always focusing on the tightness of mixes rather than just enjoying them for what they are (something I call irreversible dj syndrome!).

How can I learn to do this? Well, there really is no substitute for loads of practice. But I've tried to think of a few points to give you a helping nudge in the right direction.

1) Listen to the beat matching of other dj's. Make sure they're actually done on turntables though, as a lot of mainstream mix albums are done on computer hard disk recording systems, where the mixes are sequenced by a computer so are perfectly in time. Try and pick out where the next track comes in (it may or may not be obvious). Then try and follow where the beats of the incoming track are sitting over the track that is playing. If a mix starts slipping, try to determine if the incoming track is falling behind or going too fast. This skill is essential in keeping your own mixes nicely together. If the dj is a tight beat mixer is shouldn't be that noticeable, but since it's done on turntables there will be a slip somewhere. You may well not be able to notice it that much at the moment, but once you get to a good level of beat mixing you definitely will!

2) Again use two copies of the same record, get them in sync at 0% pitch adjustment. Then nudge the pitch control on one of the decks a tiny bit (in either direction). Listen to the track slip and then try to correct the mix manually (i.e. with your hand!). If it needs speeding up give it a push somewhere near the label of the record, if it needs slowing down just apply a little pressure to the edge of the platter for a split second. It may be pretty hard to tell which track is which, but if you get confused just put the crossfader to one side, put the other deck in your headphones and try to sort it out that way.

3) If you monitor with one ear in the headphones and the other exposed to the speaker, when you think they are in time, slip your headphones off and listen to the mix of the two tracks via your output speakers. One ear monitoring can be misleading (for reasons I'll cover later).

By this point I'm assuming that when you listen to other dj's mixes you can tell if a track is ahead or behind the other that is playing.

Now this is where it starts to get interesting. Get two different tracks (preferably ones you know well). Obviously they'll have to be mixable (i.e. their BPM's within the pitch control range). Start one up and cue the other track in your headphones. The faster you get the next track running the better. Cue it back and forth at the point you want it to start (for 95% of records this will be the first beat). Drop it in at the start of the next available phrase (or half phrase). You may need to practice just doing this. It sounds stupid when you can do it, but it does take a little bit of work to get it right.

As soon as you've dropped it in, it'll start to mess up, but don't panic! Listen to see whether the track you just started is slipping behind or going ahead of the one that is playing. Then move the pitch control accordingly (i.e. if it slips behind, speed it up / if it goes ahead, slow it down). But just doing this isn't going to remedy the problem. You need to repeatedly get the tracks in time manually, listen to see what happens, then move the pitch control accordingly.

If the next track is quite a lot faster or slower, then to start with it'll slip really quickly. The key is to spot what it happening straight away and give the pitch control a big ol' push and then get the tracks back in time manually.

So, here a few steps to follow each time you cue up:

  • Drop the track in at the start of a phrase / half phrase

  • Quickly move the pitch control to roughly the place you think depending on how quickly it slips (the more you practice the better you'll get at this). At the same time keep the tracks together manually with large pushes or drags.

  • Once you're in roughly the right area you'll have to fine tune the pitch (which can take up most of your time), here's how I do it.

  • Get the tracks together manually and then let them play.

  • Listen

  • Move the pitch control a little in whatever direction is necessary.

  • Get the tracks together (again) manually and then let them play.

  • Listen

  • Move the pitch etc. etc. etc.

  • repeat ad infinitum

The reason you have to keep getting them back in time with your hands is that if you move the pitch control to speed up / slow down the track you are going to mix in to re-sync them, you are just undoing any work you've just done to pitch the next track correctly (and that's pretty stupid!).

What you are doing in this process is using trial and error to zero in on the right pitch. To start with this process can take you a while, but practice makes perfect! Now eventually you'll find that you have got the pitch control to a certain point, which I call the biting point. This is where the track you are cueing up will slip in a certain direction (let's say forward), and a tiny nudge (we're talking the smallest movement you can get) will mean the track is pitched so that is slips behind. So you're on the borderline between the track slipping forward and slipping behind.

Now obviously you don't have to get it to the biting point each time. You can just get the pitch pretty close and manually keep it in time. My advice would be to always get it to the biting point if time permits. It means you have the best control over your mix possible and gives you the oppurtunity to do longer, more impressive mixes and to spend more attention on your crossfader technique or eq settings.

Now you know what you're doing we'll go onto more advanced issues (whatever that means!).


Dodgy things to look out for:

  1. Some tracks are simply badly produced (what a great excuse!) and can drop very very slightly out of time naturally (particulary common when tracks breakdown or when the beats kick back in). It's just tough. Normally it won't be a big slip, so just give it a manual push back in time. Problems can occur when it causes you to doubt yourself and change the pitch though!

  2. Tracks which have an extra bar or couple of beats at certain places. This is usually before beats come back in after a drum roll. It's usually just an extra bar to keep the crowd on their toes! I've got tracks where the phrase ends prematurely or just stops through the outro for a couple of bars.

  3. Tracks where the first beat of the track is not actually at the start of a phrase, hence thowing you off the scent completely.

  4. Tracks that change tempo (hehe that's a proper challenge!!)

  5. One ear monitoring- Sometimes the track you are cueing up can sound in time but when you begin to bring it in it's slightly out. This can be due to a couple of reasons.

  • Delay in sounds from the speaker to your ear (remember sound travels at 330 m/s)

  • Fat kicks misleading you as to when the actual beat is (many say to base your syncing on treble sounds instead if you can, as they're more reliable.)


Once you've got your beat-mixing skills finely tuned, you might want to spice your mixes up and make them sound slicker by the use of EQ. You're really only limited by your imagination (and how powerful your EQ's are). Typical things to try are to cut the bass and treble to leave a vocal and layer that over something. Also subtle use of the bass EQ can really make transitions between two tracks very slick (e.g. as you are mixing your next track in you drop the bass of the track that is playing, relying on the kicks of the incoming track to support both tracks). Really it's down to experimentation and with that comes a natural instinct to do certain things in a given situation. So stop reading this and go practice!!

That's about as much as i can think of right now......good luck and happy mixing.


Rownald & Garreth...