Take a Spin
Breaking Down the Art of Beatmatching
There’s a reason DJs are called spin doctors: a good one keeps the groove healthy. And just like the medical field, deejaying has seen a number of technological advancements bring the field closer to the modern man’s purview. Today all a host needs to tend the beat and its head-bobbing denizens is a smartphone, a Bluetooth speaker, and a bare minimum sense of taste.
But above selecting a series of songs to reflect a certain mood or vibe is deejaying’s more professional task: the art of combining songs together into one seamless mix. At the heart of this skill is a technique known as beatmatching.
When he invented the technique (also called mixing and blending) in the late 1960s, New York DJ Francis Grasso used a metronome to measure the tempo of two album tracks in order to pair up their meters and downbeats and blend them into something greater than the sum of their parts. Today, advanced DJ equipment and software offer the promise of instant song syncing — another common term for beatmatching — with the push of a button, eliminating the first set of skills required — in some ways. While an older guard of DJs sees these features as cheapening the art of mixing, they blow the basic art of DJing’s gate off its hinges for beginners. And though they bring the skill that much closer to the masses, mastering the art is still extremely difficult. Here’s how to get started.
Additional contribution by Chris Wright.
1Get your setup and gear in order. An ideal deejaying setup allows for multiple audio outputs so that a DJ can “pre-listen” to how two tracks sound blended together before sharing the mix over speakers to the audience. Usually one audio output is directed to speakers, while the other pre-listening output is connected to a set of headphones. That’s why you’ll commonly see DJs listening to the headphone using one ear while leaving the other open to hear what’s playing to the crowd. Once they’ve confirmed the mix is right, they’ll then move fader from the far left or right to the center so that everyone hears both tracks playing simultaneously.
Every physical DJ mixer offers this pre-listening capability. DJ software can offer the same capabilities without a physical mixer with the help of audio accessories or a sound card with multiple audio outputs. Consult your product and or software manual to see the products and setups they recommend.
Virtual DJ 8: Mac / Windows
Ableton Live 9: Mac / Windows
2Understand the theory. When most of us think of rhythm or even “groove” more casually as a concept, what we’re really referring to from a music theory standpoint is meter. Meter dictates the way individual beats are stressed based on how many notes are in a measure of music and how they’re grouped. In other words, which beats should be accented, or played stronger or louder than others.
While songs don’t have to share the exact same meter in order to be mixed together, they should at least share some portion of their meter in common. This is why certain genres like electronic music — and to a lesser degree, hip-hop — are the genres preferred by beatmatching DJs. Songs in these genres tend to share similar meters that are consistent throughout the entire track, making them easier to blend into one another. The “oontz oontz oontz” of most electronic dance music is a nod to their steady 4/4 backbeat (or common time, also called the four on the floor beat) which is very easy to work with from a beatmatching standpoint. Other genres like rock, on the other hand, are quite hard to beatmatch because the tempo of each song can very wildly and the rhythm is generally less rigid. (Just imagining trying to beatmatch a band that shifts among complex time signatures in a single song is enough to give a DJ a headache.)
3Choose your songs, sync, and find your cue point. Picking two songs to beatmatch is more than just pairing meters. Especially when you’re just starting, it makes sense to pick two songs you know well; the other main variable to consider is BPM, or beats per minute — the tempo or speed of the music. Obviously the two songs must be at the same tempo to be beatmatched. Similar BPM in this case should be anything that’s within a +5 or -5 BMP range, but ideally even closer. While songs that are outside of this range can be beatmatched together, adjusting the BPM of a song to match by a wider margin than that can distort its sound (even with pitch correction activated), making it seem “off” to those who know it well.
Once you’ve selected your songs and synced their BPMs (done with a simple push of a button on most mixing software), consider the literal place to start: the cue point. This is a specific point in a song where you’d like the mix to begin. It’s important that a cue point is set on the first beat of a bar of music at a minimum (the downbeat). Ideally they should also be set so that the same beat continues on and doesn’t break down (i.e. change) for at least 20 to 30 seconds. Points like this are often at the beginning of a song, but not always at the very beginning. Many audio recordings for example can have a brief period of silence between when a song is first played and when the first sound is played.
4Start the first song. Once your cue point is set, starting playing your first song and ensure the fader on your mixer is pushed all the way to that channel. You should hear only this song coming out of the speaker.
5Start the second song. Once you’ve got a feel for the current live song over the speakers, go ahead and start playing the second song you want to mix in (ideally on the downbeat of the song already playing) and listen to it through the headphones. Leave the fader on the mixer alone.
Listen to this track in the headphones in relation to the track being played over the speakers. Do they sound in sync, with the emphasized or louder portions of their beats falling at the exact same time? Give it a few more seconds. Do they still sound in sync? If so you’ve successfully beatmatched them. Now it’s time to move the fader over so that the audience hears the mix. Based on your own taste and judgment, you’ll then have to make the call on when it’s time to move the fader over to the other side so that only the song you mixed in is now playing. Doing a full DJ set? Then start the process over again.
6Fixing a failed beatmatch. If it’s not lining up, you’ll know. Most modern DJ playing equipment displays the BPMs of both tracks and can match them with a button press. Make sure both of your tracks share the same BPM. Things still sound strange? Chances are the meters of your songs aren’t matching. In this case, go back to your cue point and try starting the song when a different downbeat hits in the track that’s already playing. In the typical 4/4 structure of dance music, you could try this three additional times until you’ve found the right match. Pay attention to the visual representations of each song’s beat offered by most software and modern DJ hardware. Beats are represented as spikes in the sound wave and working to make sure those spikes fall on top of each other when mixing two tracks together is another way to help find the right match.
7Experiment. Even with perfect beatmatching, some songs just won’t sound good when mashed together. While advanced DJs in some cases leverage effects, scratching and other techniques to better blend tracks together in these situations, the truth is that mixing music can’t be boiled down to a formula. Creating playlists and sets that work well together is where the science stops and the art begins. You’ll have to use your ears and judgements to determine what works well. The best way to do that is to listen to tons of songs until you find the right matches. Once you’re comfortable with basic beatmatching, discovering how to grow your skills and style all boils down to experimentation.