Digital DJ

The Age Of The Digital DJ

One of the major barriers to getting into the DJ game is expense; first off, you need to spend quite a few quid on decks and a mixer, but that’s not much use if you don’t have any records to play.

Even if you do have an unlimited amount of money to spend on buying vinyl (and let’s face it, most of us don’t) it will still take quite a bit of time to actually find and buy the tracks you want.

So, especially if you already have a large collection of mp3s or CDs, it may be worthwhile looking into some alternative approaches to being a DJ.

Digital DJ – CD Decks

Nowadays you can get yourself CD-DJ decks, which are basically Compact Disc players with a round touch-sensitive pad area on top that controls the CD in a similar way to how you would manipulate your vinyl.

digital dj cd decks

These quickly be

came a very popular alternative to vinyl, as it is obviously far easier to carry a collection of compact discs to a gig, and CDs of all genres are readily available in any music store. The popularity of the CD DJ format also meant that the price of the actual CD decks dropped quite quickly to reasonably affordable levels.

In addition to this, the technology behind the CD decks has improved quite a lot, so that modern CD decks are very responsive and provide a level of control that is comparable to that of actual vinyl. Of course, it’s not quite the same, so it does take a bit of getting used to, but with a bit of practise you can do just about anything on a compact disc deck that you mi

ght do with your ‘old school’ hardware.

Digital DJ – Laptop and Software

The very easiest option for breaking into the DJ game is undoubtedly the laptop DJ route. There are a lot of software packages available now that will do the trick, ranging in price from free to not particularly expensive.

Digital DJ – Laptop, Software & Hardware Controller Interface

Another digital DJ option is to get a specially designed mp3 mixing controller. These are usually connected to the USB port of your

laptop, and feature two disc-shaped control pad similar to those found on CD-DJ decks. They also have faders for controlling levels and EQ, but the actual functionality is provided by software running on the computer, such as Native Instruments’ Traktor.

Digital DJ – Timecode Vinyl

digital dj final scratch

Although vinyl is the traditional method of DJing, new technologies are breaking down the boundaries between the old school vinyl DJ and the new digital DJs. You can now get yourself special ‘timecode’ imitation records that look and feel just like regular vinyl, but which can be used to control mp3 files as if you were playing them like a standard DJ.


Crossfading - Making The Mix

It’s probably a good idea to mention that once you have your two tracks beat matched and playing along nicely together, you still have to make the transition from one to the other using the mixer.

Roland DJ-2000
Creative Commons License photo credit: Wolftrouble

This is fairly straightforward, and you’ll probably get the hang of it very quickly – all you have to do is bring the crossfader from one side to the other. The trick to this is timing and smoothness – you’ve got to start the transition at the right time, and move the crossfader smoothly from deck one to deck two (or vice versa).

How quickly you move the fader across is important too – you’ll often want to bring in the cued record very slowly, and sometimes the overlap might be measured in minutes rather than just seconds. This is more likely if you’re playing very long dance/trance tracks, but part of being a DJ is knowing when to transition and how long your crossfade should be.

Generally speaking, your crossfades shouldn’t be too abrupt – there should be a discernable overlap, where you can hear elements of both tracks playing at once. Of course, as you become more confident, you’ll start breaking these basic guidelines on purpose – and so you should, if you feel it suits the mood of both the music and the crowd.

The Mixing-Desk Approach To Crossfades

The previous mixing technique (that is, using the crossfader) presumes that you have both channel faders at the same level, and you’re just transitioning between the two.

However, you can also mix by keeping the crossfader in the middle and using the two channel faders to change the levels directly. Depending on the distance between the channel faders, you might be able to move them both with one hand – but it’s probably a good idea to use both hands, and have one hand on each. This will give you greater control and is certainly much easier. When you get to the showing-off stage, then you can try it one-handed…

There is one golden rule when mixing like this:

ALWAYS fade up before you fade down.

That is, bring your cued record level up before you start bringing the live level down. You don’t have to bring the cued record up all the way, but make sure that you can hear it through the PA before you start reducing or killing the live channel.

Mixing this way is much more difficult than using the crossfader, because you need to keep the overall level of the music more or less constant through the transition - this is done automatically when you use a specialised crossfading slider.

Timing Your Crossover – Mix Placement

When you think about it, the single most important part of a successful mix is not to do with how you do it, but when you do it. Timing is critical, particularly if you’re excerpting a segment of a longer track into your set. Most tracks you’ll be mixing end-to-intro (outro/intro overlap), but even then the timing of your release is critical. This is why it helps to have a basic knowledge of the structure of the tracks you’ll be working with, and a broad understanding of song structures in general.

Timing Your Crossover – Song Structure

Each song can be broken down into bars, where a bar may be defined as the basic building block of the song. Many tracks have a central hook or riff, which lasts for one bar – this is the fundamental rhythmic cycle of the track. The most common structure is to have four beats per bar, and the most common tempo (speed) is 120 beats per minute.

If we make up a fairly typical (albeit simplistic) song structure, it might look like this:









Now, this is just an example of one possible structure – many tracks will have all of these sections in them, and many won’t. The order of the sections may be rearranged, although obviously the intro will always be at the beginning and the outro will always be at the end.

Intro/Outro Mixing

If you have two tracks that have intro and outro of equal length, then it really is a simple matter of cueing them up so that the intro of one track begins at the same time as the outro of the other. If you time it right, this creates a very smooth mix and everyone keeps dancing as if the two tunes were one.

Depending on what instruments are in the intro/outro, you may need to use your EQ to keep the overall balance of the mix intact. If the hi-hats of the intro are a bit tinny, you could bring the treble slider down or kill that frequency altogether. If there’s a bass part in the outro that doesn’t fit in, you could remove it or bring it down a bit.

Using EQ To Emphasise Your Crossfade

If you change the EQ settings for the crossover of the intro/outro, you can snap them all back to centre once the VERSE of the cued record kicks in. If you do this in sync with the crossfader, it can give the mix a great punch and really launch the new track with a bang.

If you want to add a bit of variety to your set, you can try mixing different sections of the songs across one another. As mentioned earlier, a big breakdown can be a good point to bring in a mix, but the downside is that you’ll lose whatever part of that track comes after the breakdown. However, if you feel that the track wasn’t working the crowd anyway, you can use it as a get-out and bring in a new track that might suit the mood better.

Basically, good mix placement will be determined by the reactions of the crowd – once you get the hang of reading your audience, the atmosphere of the venue should be your guide to timing your crossovers and track selection. The more you get into the vibe of the gig, the better your set will become.

Beat Mixing

Bringing Up The BPM For Beat Mixing

Right, so far we’ve been practising with two copies of the same track, or at least with two tracks that are at the same tempo. We’ve artificially created tempo variations by changing the pitch of one track and then matched the two up again by changing the pitch of the other track. But what happens when you start out with two tracks that are at different tempi in the first place?

knob twiddler
Creative Commons License photo credit: mugley

Well, now it’s time to pick a different track to practise with. If you can still stomach it, you can keep the same track you’ve been working on up until now, and choose another track with a different tempo to mix it with. If you’re sick to death of your original track, you can pick two completely new records and work from there. Let’s keep it simple though – don’t go for anything too crazy. Make sure both tracks have a clearly defined bass drum beat, as this will help you learn more quickly. Avoid anything that has tempo changes in the song itself, as this will only confuse the issue more; again, standard house or techno will probably be a safe bet.

For the moment, let’s assume that you have one record that’s at 120 BPM and another that’s 125 BPM (remember that BPM stands for beats per minute, and for a DJ this is how we measure the tempo of a track). If you play these two records together at their natural speeds, they will run out of sync pretty quickly. However, by using the pitch control tricks we’ve been practising already, we can change the tempo of one (or both) of these records so that they line up nicely for us.

Play It By Ear, Not By The Numbers

For vinyl, you don’t actually need to know that a track is running at 121.43 BPM – you can just listen to it and know instinctively what needs to be done to get it running in time with another record. Well, once you have practised enough, that is…anyway, the point here is that because your pitch control is probably analog, you’ll have to use your ear and touch-familiarity with your deck to get it to the right position anyway, so knowing the exact BPM isn’t a whole lot of use in practical terms. It just gives you an idea of roughly where you should be putting the slider, but the exact position will still be up to your fingers…

One thing you should watch out for is pairing two records that have vastly different tempi – remember that your deck can probably only change pitch by 8%, so the most variation in tempo you can produce is actually 16%. In fact, to achieve this amount of change you would have to bring one record up by 8% and the other down by 8%, which is not something that you would want to do except on very special occasions!

Back On the Beat

Right, so we have a record that’s got a BPM of 120. Put that on deck one with the pitch control set to zero and let it play. Now, put your 125 BPM record (or whatever it is) on deck two and find the start beat.

Remember the process – it’s exactly the same as what you were doing before. What you want is to position the needle just before the first downbeat, so you can release it on the beat of the live record. If the two records are running at the same tempo, they will then both play along in sync.

In this case, however, we know that the second record (the cued record) has a higher BPM than the live record. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that this means the cued record will start racing ahead of the live record - to be exact, after a minute of play the cued record will be five beats ahead of the live record. This is not what we want, so now we have two options – either increase the speed of the live record or decrease the speed of the cued record.

Bringing Your Records Into Sync

If you increase the speed of the live record, you’ll probably freak out some of the dancers on the floor, so it’s probably best to slow down the cued record a bit. Messing with the pitch control of the live record can be done, but it requires great timing and skill if you don’t want to sound like a drunken amateur. This is definitely not something we want to be delving into at this stage, so we’ll just leave that be for the moment!

Anyway, even if you didn’t know that your cued disc was at a higher tempo before you put it on, it should become obvious very quickly that it is. The next thing to do is to bring the pitch control down, sync the cued record to the beat of the live record again and see if you’ve gotten it right.

This is exactly the same process as before; if you’ve overcompensated and made the cued record too slow, you’ll need to bump up the pitch control slightly. If you do this and find that the cued record is now running too fast, you’ll have to reduce the pitch again. If you find that you’re constantly knocking around the sweet spot but always overshooting, you just need to find a way of making finer adjustments to your pitch slider.

Some Tips For Getting Your Tempo Right

A lot depends on how sensitive or loose the slider is; you might be able to make fine adjustments by tapping it lightly. Another possibility is to place your finger on its side just beside the fader, then rotate your finger slightly so that it gives the fader just the tiniest of pushes. Again, you’ll need to experiment to find a technique that works for you. If you find you can control pitch perfectly well on your friend’s decks but can never get it right at home, then maybe you should consider getting some new decks – but usually a bit of experimentation and practise will put things right.

Once you’ve managed to sync up the 125BPM track to the 120BPM track, the next thing you need to do is have a go at doing it the other way around. Set the 125BPM track playing, and use the 120BPM track as your cue record this time. From what you’ve learned already, you’ll know that now you have to speed up your cued record if it’s going to have a chance of keeping pace with the 125BPM one.

The process is exactly the same – the only difference is that your first pitch adjustment will be up instead of down. After that, you’re trying to pinpoint the right pitch to bring the two into sync.

Am I Going Too Fast Or Too Slow?

Remember, if you find you really can’t tell if your cued record is playing faster or slower than the live record, you can take some time out from trying to sync the two and just listen to what the cued record sounds like when it’s playing faster than the other.

Then, when you’ve listened to the sound for a bit, bring the pitch control down so that the cued record is playing slower than the live one. Listen to the sounds again and see if you can spot the difference. Repeat this process several times, bringing the pitch control above and below the sync spot as many times as you can before you start losing concentration completely. After a while, you should start to recognise the particular sonic qualities that appear when your cued record is slower or faster than the disc on air.

This isn’t easy, so don’t worry too much if you can’t get it spot on at this stage. It takes quite a bit of first-hand experience before you can get two records with different tempi into sync straight away, and this is probably the most difficult of the basic DJ skills to master. If you keep plugging away at it, things will get easier and you’ll find yourself making the right adjustments almost instinctively.

You’ll know you’ve got the hang of it if you can bring your cued record into sync with the live record by only using the pitch control, and then instantly setting the pitch control so that it stays in sync.

This means that you can beat match two records without lifting the needle from the vinyl – and this is definitely a sign of a quality DJ in the making.

Beat Matching

But what exactly is beat matching?

Well, just like it says on the tin, the purpose of beat matching is to get your two tracks moving to the same beat. The tempo of any musical composition can be described in beats per minute – that is, the number of primary rhythmic elements that occur within one minute. For more information about musical structure, beats and tempo, have a look at the music theory section.

The trick with beat matching is to get your tracks to the same tempo, and then to synchronise them. The most common tempo is 4/4 (common time) 120BPM – four beats per bar, one hundred and twenty beats per minute. The more mathematically inclined amongst you might already have calculated that this results in 30 bars per minute, but such details are usually not necessary for simple beat matching.

Match The Tempo, Then The Beats

If you have two tracks that are both running at 120 BPM, then there is no need to mess about with the tempo of either one – all you need to do is synch them up. This means that you can easily crossfade from one to the other without causing any change in beat – which in turn means that the people on the dancefloor won’t be thrown out of step, get confused and decide to leave.

Bearing this in mind, the best way to lean to beat match is by using two records that have the same tempo. If you’re not sure what tempo a particular track is at, the safest way to guarantee an identical tempo for your two records is to buy two copies of the same record. Unless something very strange is going on, this should guarantee that your tracks have the exact same BPM count.

Watch Out For Beat Drifting

It’s important to remember that tracks with an almost identical BPM count will sound in sync for a while, but then as time goes on they will stray further and further out of sync. If you are doing a quick crossfade, you might get away with a rough beat match between a 120 and a 125 BPM track, but remember that unless your tracks are matched exactly then they will start to drift. As your beat matching expertise grows, you’ll learn to identify when you don’t quite have the tempos locked and be able to rectify or compensate for this.

Keep One Ear On The Bass

The easiest guide to the tempo of a track is the bass drum. If a track has a clear bass drum thump-thump-thump for you to lock on to, it should be very easy to match that beat to the next track. House music is generally great for this, as the beats are quite easy to get a fix on and they don’t tend to change very much, apart from disappearing in the breakdown.

So, if you’re picking some tune to get started with, a house standard might be a better bet than some Aphex Twin drill’n’bass. A lot of Paul van Dyk’s stuff features clearly-defined bass drum patterns, and so this might also be a good choice for beginning your mixing career. Any track with a typical dance bassdrum/hi-hat alternating on the beat and downbeat should be perfect for this.

About Dj Online

Online DJ Tips is here mainly to help people get started as DJs - if you don’t know anything about DJing, it’s good to have somewhere that can provide some advice and guidance. As I develop the site, I hope to cover some more advanced techniques too, so that as you grow your career you can still get some good info here.

This site can give you some valuable pointers and help you get off on the right foot, but how much you get out of it depends on how much you put in. If you want to succeed as a DJ, you’ll need to put in hours and hours of practise before doing your first gig – and hours and hours of practise every day after that too. If you find you’re spending more time Djing than sleeping, then you’re probably on the right track (but do remember to get some shut-eye every now and again too).