The very first step to learning how to DJ is to understand the basic theory behind music, this article aims to help you understand the fundamental theory and knowledge you need in order to start using the decks like a professional DJ.
Tempo is the speed at which a piece of music is moving. If you have ever clapped your hands or danced to a piece of music, you may have noticed your clapping or dancing moving to a specific rhythm, or at a specific speed. That speed is the tempo of the track, the higher the speed of the clapping/dancing, the faster the tempo.
It is also important to understand that ‘Tempo’ is measured in BPM (beats per minute). The lower the BPM of a piece of music, the slower the music will seem like it’s moving. The higher the BPM, the faster it will seem to move (just as described above). All modern pieces of DJ equipment from laptop controllers to high end Pioneer decks are capable of identifying and displaying the tempo (BPM) of a track.
The first step before making a transition between two tracks must be to make sure both tracks you have selected for mixing have the same tempo (BPM value). If they don’t, then one track will be moving faster than the other and you won’t be able to ‘sync’ them together for a smooth mix (more on this later).
So, how do you set the same BPM value if the two tracks are displaying a different BPM?
First identify where the BPM is displayed. On CDJs it is shown at the bottom right corner of the display with the letters ‘BPM’ next to it. (See fig 1 below).
If the two selected tracks are showing different BPM values, there will be a fader (typically known as a Pitch fader or Tempo fader) which you can adjust in order to change the BPM of a track (See Fig 2.0 for image of pitch fader).
Finally, if the two tracks you have selected have vastly different BPM values, and you have to move the pitch fader quite far to get them to match, just for now, select two different tracks with a similar inherent tempo (BPM). When mixing tracks with largely different inherent tempos (BPM values), it is better to use other mixing methods which don’t necessarily require you to match the BPM (we will leave these techniques for a more advanced lesson).
The next principle of music theory you must understand before you are capable of mixing two tracks seamlessly is beats, bars and phrases.
Part 2: Understanding Beats, Bars & Phrases
“Beats and Bars are how a piece of music is divided in musical terms.”
What are beats? (no, not the headphones!)
A beat is a musical time value. All tracks or songs play back at specific tempos (as described above). The way to determine the tempo is to calculate how many beats per minute a track contains. For example, let’s analyse a track with a duration of 3 minutes and a tempo of 120bpm and see if we can identify how many beats per minute it contains. A track with a tempo of 120bpm contains exactly 120 beats per minute. Therefore, if the track has a duration of 3 minutes, it would contain 360 beats in total.
In case you are still a bit confused, here is what we’ve calculated. The track has a tempo of 120 BPM, this means that it contains 120 beats per minute. Since the track is 3 minutes long, it means it contains 120 beats for every minute. This would equate to 360 beats.
This means that the track will be divided into 360 equal divisions (beats), with each new beat occurring every 500 milliseconds. This provides composers to place musical elements /sounds on those division points (beats) which ensures that the music will cohere to the tempo chosen.
Why is this important?
Well, it’s important because musicians and producers use this method of beat counting to identify where the beats and bars within a piece of music are located, then they place important musical elements at those locations.
For example, in electronic dance music, the Kick drum of a track (the low pitch thud that tends to feels like a punch to your chest) is almost always placed at the start of each beat. This means that whenever you hear a kick drum, a musical beat has occurred. This makes it easy for the listener to “feel” the rhythm of the track and therefore dance to it (or nod their head to it). While this isn’t the be all and end all of beats and you could learn a lot more about this topic if you studied music theory in depth, this is all you really need to understand in relation to DJing.
Finally, you might be wondering, how do composers/producers know where a beat occurs when they make a track? Well, the music creation programs (known as DAWs) used to produce music such as Logic Pro or Ableton Live display grid lines which strike through the entire music arrangement section, and these grid lines are divided equally and provide the producer with a visual representation of where the beats occur within the arrangement. Therefore, if the producer places his or her musical elements on the grid lines, the track will cohere to the chosen tempo (bpm).
Fig 1: Music programs such as Studio One 4 display where the beats and bars are located within a given tempo using grid lines.
By now you should understand that music is divided into equal time-lengths and the shortest time length you need concern yourself with are beats (at least as a DJ). The next step is understanding Bars and Phrases and how they are used to help keep a coherent structure within a track.
What is a bar?
Bars (also known as measures in more traditional musical terms) divide the music in the same way words divide a sentence. If a beat was a letter, then a bar is a word and a phrase would be a sentence. In other words, bars contain a certain number of beats that make up a small segment of a phrase.
What is a phrase?
Similar to a bar which contains a certain number of beats, a phrase is made up of a number of bars. Getting a little more theoretical, every time a new phrase occurs within in a track, something in the music changes. Whether it is as insignificant as a very quiet sound effect being played, or a completely new musical section (e.g. verse to chorus), a new phrase in the track has began.
Let’s look at how many beats make up a bar, and how many bars make up a phrase.
How many beats are in a bar?
- Quick Answer – Usually 4 beats per bar.
Long Answer – The real answer is that this actually depends on the Time Signature of the track, if the track has a time signature of 4/4, then it will contain 4 beats per bar. You might be thinking, what is time signature, i’ve never heard of this before! In reality, you don’t really need to understand what time signature is because luckily for you, most music you are ever likely to play sticks to the time signature of 4/4, which means there are 4 beats per bar. In fact all leading DJ software and music creation programs (DAWs) such as Rekordbox and Presonus Studio One display grid lines for the beats, and they also give an indication for where new bars begin. The following image is a screenshot of the waveform display from Rekordbox (the current industry standard DJ software).
- Notice the tiny red dots followed by 3 white dots, these represent the first beat of each bar followed by the remaining 3 beats in the bear.
The red markers (dots) indicate the first beat of every bar, the white markers (dots) indicate the remaining 3 beats of the bar, then another red marker displays the beginning of the next bar. If you add the first red marker and the remaining 3 white ones, they result in 4 beats within a bar, just like we spoke.
Earlier on I mentioned that in almost all popular music there are 4 beats in a bar. However I also mentioned that this depends on the Time Signature of the track. Therefore (while uncommon), you may come across a track that contains 5 beats per track which means that the time signature of the track would be 5/4. While this bit of information is unlikely going to be of any use to you for DJ purposes, if you want to learn more about music theory, I recommend you pick up a book called the ‘AB guide to music theory‘ which goes through all of this in a lot of detail.
Fig 3: Time signature symbol.
- The top number represents the number of beats that occur in a bar. The bottom number is the note value for each bar. Honestly speaking, you will probably never come across this symbol as a DJ unless you read music notation. If you want to learn more about time signatures, I recommend you read the book ‘AB guide to music theory‘ which goes into all of this in a lot of detail! But be warned, it won’t be very useful to you unless you plan on creating music or playing a real musical instrument!
Conventionally, a phrase is made up of 8 bars. Meaning, new phrase begins every 8 bars (32 beats) (therefore, in theory, form the first bar the track begins, a new phrase would occur on the first bar, the 9th bar, the 17th bar and so on). In most cases, it’s fairly easy to identify a new phrase because something will change in the track musically. This change could be as insignificant as a quiet new instrument being introduced, or as large as the entire arrangement changing.
Other indications that a new has phrase started:
- A vocal just started
- The track changed significantly
- The musical arrangement changed (e.g. Verse to Chorus)
- A large sound effect is played (e.g. Impact sound, crash symbol)
As I mentioned previously, the most common length of a phrase is 8 bars, however there are occasions where the length of a phrase may only be 2 bars long, 4 bars long, or even 16 bars long. This happens quite rarely, however it is important that you know how to identify when a new phrase begins.
How to identify a new phrase:
Count 8 bars from the beginning of the track, and most of the time you will reach a new phrase at the beginning of the 9th bar. So a new phrase would begin on bar 1, bar 9, bar 17 and so on (every 8 bars).
Assuming you lost your count and you are trying to figure out where the next phrase begins. Listen out for a change in the music. When the musical arrangement changes to a completely new section (such as going from a verse to a chorus, or build up to drop) a new phrase is introduced. Other more subtle indications are also valid. For example, when a crash symbol occurs, or when a new instrument is introduced (even if the musical part it plays is doesn’t seem too significant within the music).
If using a laptop or DJ deck with waveform displays, use your displays to identify changes in the music. Here are a few examples.
Fig 4: Points in the tracks where new phrases begin.
All of those points are placed at the beginning of new phrases. Notice the changes in waveform colour and size. These are good visual indications of a new phrase, coupled with what you hear and you can utilise both your audible and visual senses to identify a new phrase – Such as hearing a crash symbol, or a change in music and seeing something change in the waveform display.
You may or may not have heard of this magic word before, beatmatching (in case you’re wondering, I checked Wikipedia and beatmatching is in fact one word, not two). Beatmatching is the art form of matching the beats of two separate tracks so that they play at the exact same time. When this happens it masks the fact that there are two separate tracks playing at the same time due to the fact that the beats of each track (which is where the loud thumps, aka kick drums usually occur) are playing at the same time and occupying the same space in the speaker cones. In other words, the rhythms of both tracks are perfectly matched.
Before I teach you the steps to achieving this, it is ideal that you practice using analysed tracks. This means that you the DJ program displays the Grid and BPM of your tracks, otherwise it will be very difficult for you to achieve this. Therefore if you’re using DJ programs such as Rekordbox or Serato, make sure you load your tracks into the program and analyse them. If you are using stand alone CDJs that don’t require a laptop to be connected to them, make sure you have analysed your tracks via Rekordbox first (if you don’t know what i’m taking about, please read the section of titled Rekordbox before reading the Beatmatch section.
How to Beatmatch for beginners?
Step 1: Load one of the tracks that was included when you downloaded the e-book or a track of a similar genre (Minimal House / House) to Deck 1 and press play.
Step 2: Load a track on deck 2 and match the Tempo.
- Matching the tempo (BPM) of the tracks ensures that the bpm of both tracks is set to exactly the same, which means they will be playing back at the same speed. If you don’t do this then one track will be moving faster than the other and the beats will never match up.
Step 3: Set the cue point (starting marker) of the new track to the first beat.
- This ensures that when you press play on the new track, the track will begin playback at the start of the first phrase (beat 1 of bar 1 of phrase 1).
Step 4: Press play on Track 2.
- Start counting the bars of track 1 (Which should already be playing), and the moment you get to bar 9 (the beginning of the second phrase), press play on deck 2 to start playback on the second loaded track.
Step 5: Move that jog wheel! Clockwise = Speed up / Anticlockwise = Slow down
- Of course, even if you follow every step to the dot, the tracks might still be out of sync. This is because even though the tracks will be moving at the same speed (matched tempos), the beats of the new track might be slightly in front or behind the master track. Therefore, the new track might need some slight nudging to line up the beats perfectly.
Here’s an analogy to help you understand this better – Imagine each track is a car and the goal is to have both cars driving consistently side by side. Logically you would think that both cars would have to be driving at the same speed, and while that is the case, if one of the cars is slightly ahead or behind the other it would have to temporarily speed up o slow down in order to get back in line with the other car.
This is exactly what we are trying to achieve when nudging the jog wheel. When you press play on the new track, it’s possible you didn’t press play at the absolute perfect moment and even though the tracks are moving at the same tempo, one of the track is slightly in front or behind the other. Therefore you need to nudge the jog wheel clockwise if you need to temporarily speed up the track, or ridge it anti-clockwise in order to brake the track a little. Once more crucial tip is to make sure you only touch the side of the jog wheel, because if you touch the top of it, depending on the decks your own it may act as a real turn table and stop the track in it’s tracks.
Fig 5: The following image shows Soundflow tutor (Will Calv) nudging the Jog Wheel: Notice how the DJ is nudging it from the side and not from the top, this is because if the deck is on Vinyl mode and you touch the top of the jog wheel, it will act like a real turntable and stop the track in its tracks. This is not what we want, we simply want to temporarily slow it down or speed it up a little.
- Fig 6: Two tracks with matched tempos but out of sync beats (badly beatmatched) The DJ would need to nudge the jog wheel of one of the tracks until they look like
Fig 7:Tracks with matched tempos and perfectly in sync (perfectly beatmatched).
Here are two analogies to help you understand the process up to now:
Imagine there are two soldiers stomping their feet. They are stomping at the same speed (same number of storms per minute) however they aren’t stoping at the same time. One of the soldiers would have to speed up his or her stomping until both soldiers are stomping at the same time. Their stomps will now be in sync.
Imagine your goal is to have two cars driving side by side consistently. In order for this to be done, they must be driving at the exact same speed. If one car is driving even 1 mile faster than the other, it will overtake and they won’t be side by side anymore. The same rule applies to beatmatching, if one track has a higher BPM than the other (even by a tiny amount), eventually the beats will go out of sync and people will start discerning the rhythms of two individual tracks. Therefore, your first step will be to match the tempo (speed of cars). Furthermore, even if the cars are driving at the same speed, one car may be slightly in front of the other, and therefore would have to temporarily slow down or speed up in order to catch up. This would be the same as nudging the jog wheel left or right to temporarily slow down or speed up the track.
First you must pick two similar tracks and match their tempos (BPM values), then you need to figure out at which point to begin mixing form one track to the next. My first piece of advice is to count the phrases of the master track, and press play on Deck 2 the moment that a new phrase begins on the master track, the phrases of both tracks will be in sync and you’ll be on your way to a perfect mix (see the Phrase Section above for help on this). Then you can bring up the volume of Deck 2 was the beginning of the following phrase – This will make the mix sound quite natural to your audience because people will subconsciously be expecting something at the beginning of a new phrase. Finally, turn the volume of the outgoing track (previous master track) down at the beginning of the following phrase.
Step by Step
Load two tracks that are of similar style/genre and BPM. House music or tech house music is great for beginners as it commonly contains long drum intros, which can help you beatmatch track tracks.
Use the tempo fader to match the BPM of the tracks.
Press play on track 1/deck 1.
Start counting the phrases on track 1.
When a new phrase begins, press play on track 2 / deck 2
Listen to both tracks together through your headphones and use the Jog wheel to
temporarily adjust the speed of the new track in order to sync them up
After you’re done beatmatching, wait until the next phrase begins and turn the
volume up of track 2/deck 2
- As soon as another phrase begins turn the volume of track 1 / deck 1.
Rinse and Repeat.
Gold Mixing Tips
If you follow the steps i’ve outlined below, your mixes are more likely to sound good. Now, rules are made to be broken, but unless you know why you’re breaking them, it’s best not to.
Tip 1: Do not transition from one track to another halfway through a vocal verse. This will jar people and if anyone was enjoying singing along to the track that was playing, you will have ruined it for them completely!
Tip 2: Keep the energy levels fluent from track to track. For example, if you are about to transition to another track at the end of a buildup on the main track, make sure the new track starts on the drop. This is because the buildup of the previous track will have built up energy and tension which would have made people anticipate the drop, if the drop doesn’t come, it will feel very disappointing.
Tip 3: Do not play 2 vocals from 2 different tracks over each other.
Tip 4: You can play the vocal of one track over another track but only if you follow these rules:
• Make sure the tracks are mixed in key
• Make sure only one of the track contains vocals
Tip 5: If you are a beginner utilise those intros and outro’s! In most electronic music, you can download ‘club versions’ or ‘extended versions’ of your favourite tracks. If you use those versions, you can simply mix the intro of your next track over the outro of the master track.
Tip 6: Place memory cues at the beginning of each separate part in a track (more on this in theRekordbox sections of this book).
Timing your transitions so that you take the master track out when the verse or vocal of the new track begins is a sure way to make the mix sound good. Additionally, study the way tracks are structured by listening through your tracks and saving cue points at the beginning of phrases. This can help your mixing a lot as you’ll have a better idea of when to bring in the new track and when to fade out the outgoing track. Finally, try to keep the same structure that one track would have on its own, throughout your mix (drop to verse, intro to vocal, outro to breakdown). This way your mix will retain the structure that your audience is used to hearing when listening to music, and as a result will make your mixing sound more pleasing. Of course, when you get to a certain level of understanding, you can break all of these rules, but best to stick to them until they become second nature.
About Soundflow Music Academy
We offer one to one audio engineering, music production & DJ courses. Taught by experienced and accredited tutors in studios utilising only top of the range equipment such as Pioneer CDJ 2000nxs2 and DJM900nxs2. Our goal is to provide the best possible music production and DJ tuition, as well as incredible real world opportunities for our students such as club gigs, label releases, industry meet ups and more.
If you want to learn how to DJ from scratch or simply hone your skills, you can enrol on the Intro to DJ or Complete DJ course. If you want to learn how to produce music at the highest standard, you can enrol on our Intro to Music Production, Music Production & Sound Engineering or the Mixing & Mastering courses!
A Soundflow Music Academy publication,
Written by Nikos Argalias