We’ve all been there – learning how to DJ can be overwhelming and frustrating. The job you love can sometimes result in broken headphones and hair-pulling. Still, I’d never give up mixing, because there’s no greater feeling than perfectly combining two tracks.
This article will give you DJ tips to make your mix stand out from the rest. By the end of this read, it should be clear to you when to mix in a new song, what to wait for, how to be sure that you’ve beatmatched the tracks, and so on.
What You’ll Learn
The art of mixing can be best executed with turntables or CDJs. If you have a DJ controller, that’s fine, but I will not teach you how to press the sync button. I will focus more on the manipulation of the two tracks in order to match the beat on both and create your own jam.
We’ll also see how mixing software can help you with this. I’m a Serato DJ Pro user, but most DJing software works the same, so the tips I’ll give should be applicable to the program you’re using. Hopefully, this educational article will help you discover a new mixing style!
Find The Right Mixing Track
First off, you will need to choose a song to mix with your master track. You cannot just take a random song from your library and throw it in the mix. Could you imagine how mixing Biggie’s “Big Poppa” and the Scorpions’ “Wind of Changes” would sound? Horrible, that’s how. You need to combine songs that have the same key. Luckily, every DJ software can tell you which songs go well with each other.
You may have already heard of harmonic mixing. The term is quite self-explanatory, but to make it clearer, harmonic mixing means combining songs that are musically compatible, so that mixing them will provide smooth transitions and a flow that makes sense to the listeners.
Usually, key recognition is used for so-called harmonic mixing. Every DJ software has a key detector that you can launch in order to get a list of tracks that are in the same key as your first song, i.e. the song currently playing in the master output.
Stick To The Music Genres You Know
Try mixing songs with different keys and backgrounds, and you’ve got a mess on your hands. I know there are plenty of tacky DJ jams that take a techno track and then mix reggae with it… and it just doesn’t work. Although you may think that experimenting can pay off, unless done with great care, it just won’t be appealing to the audience.
Instead, make sure that you stick to the genres you know and love. If you’re a techno head, mix techno songs because they have the same tempo and similar timing (introduction of new instruments, bridge, etc. happen at the same place in the song). This will save you from the avoidable pitfalls of DJing.
Having said that, I do encourage you to experiment with different genres, but in a careful and organized way. For instance, you can sample an instrument from one song, a vocal from a second song, and throw them in the mix only when it feels right!
When To Drop The Second Track
There is a whole line of work behind preparing a new track to mix in with the master track. The process includes several steps:
- EQ section (adjusting frequencies);
- Counting beats, bars, and ideally, phrases;
- Presenting the mix to the audience.
The art of beatmatching is the first thing you have to learn if you want to create a good DJ mix that people will want to listen to. The whole philosophy behind mixing is to have two songs playing at the same tempo.
For example, if you have one song playing on the first deck at 128 BPM (beats per minute), you want your second song to match that tempo. How you’re going to do that depends on the DJ equipment you’re using.
If you are mixing on turntables or CDJs, you will use the pitch fader to hit the right BPM, but you can also use the slip mat to put the beat in the right place. Of course, using DJ software will offer you lots of versatile controls to do this.
Mixing on vinyl is much trickier than using DJ software, but it’s also more appreciated. A DJ beatmatching on vinyl doesn’t need to worry about other forms of mixing. Today, you have DJ software that will do the job for you with the sync button, but I always recommend that you train your ear first, so you’ll at least know what the DJ software is doing for you.
Headphones are important gear when beatmatching two tracks as they’ll help you decide where to cue your next track. They’re also crucial in the process of fine-tuning the transition. You can launch your mix through the master output once you’re finished beatmatching.
Always make sure that the fader controlling the channel volume reserved for your second song is down. Otherwise, the whole crowd will hear the song that you are preparing in the second deck, and it won’t sound pretty. They say a good DJ is at least 20 minutes ahead of the party, so make sure you are as well!
In order to feel the song better, try fading out the first channel a bit, so you can hear the beats coming with the second song clearer. Once you’ve matched the master track tempo with the cued track, listen carefully. If everything’s running smoothly, you have your mixed song – but you’re not done just yet.
Work The EQ Section
So far, you’ve beatmatched the songs, meaning the tempo of the songs (beats per minute) is identical on both decks.
The next step is figuring out which elements of the song you’re going to use in your DJ mix. To do that, you have to know your frequencies: the lows, the mids, and the highs.
Low is also called bass because the bass notes travel at low frequencies. Mid is usually called mid, and you would usually have your vocals here. High is also referred to as treble.
You now have to decide which segment you’re going to use from the master track, and what you will add from the new track. Both tracks have all three frequencies, but it’s for you to decide which bassline, vocals (mids), or highs you will use for the mix.
Most of the time, you’ll be dealing with the lows (the bass), especially if you’re mixing electronic dance music. Imagine that you’re mixing a song that has a very soft kick drum with a track carrying a super punchy bass drum. How should you approach this? Obviously, you cannot merge both basses into one, as the sounds they provide are not compatible at all.
One thing’s for sure, if you leave the whole EQ section at 12 o’clock, that’s definitely not going to mix well. So, you can either cut out the bassline from the master track, or you can lose the lows from the new track.
DJs love to surprise their audience, so most of them would cut the lows on the incoming track, have lots of baselines, and leave the channel 1 EQ knobs as they are originally. Now, for the element of surprise, after a while, they will slowly switch the baselines, and the hard bass will pump up the mood on the dance floor.
Songs also need their mids and highs to be adjusted. If you are mixing any type of electronic dance music, especially house music, you will work with mids and highs more often. These tracks often have some whistle sounds, which are highs, some horn-like instruments, which are mids, and so on.
Your job isn’t finished after beatmathcing and working the EQ section. You have your mixed tracks, the BPMs are matched perfectly, but you still need to trigger (start) the second song at the perfect time. In other words, its first beat must join the mix smoothly and match the already-playing beat.
If you mess this up, you’ll get what I like to call the horse track effect, with one beat constantly rushing in front of the other. That will also mess up the vocals and other instruments… which will sound simply awful.
The trick to getting this right is to learn a bit more about beats and bars.
Where To Start?
The best way to start feeling the beat is to understand the song’s structure a bit more, i.e. learn how to count the beats in a song. Beats are important because they create the rhythm, and they give you a clear signal when to include another instrument, vocals, or any other element you may have had in mind.
Beat counting is not as complicated as you might think. It’s all about simple math and basic listening skills. Let’s break it down:
Recall some of your music classes. Do you remember the graphs on the music paper that we had to write notes on? A fancier word for those graphs is staff; it has 5 lines that you can write musical notes into. These horizontal lines are divided using vertical lines (bar lines), and each box that’s left behind is called a bar.
On the leftmost side of the staff, you have a clef, which indicates with which octave the composition begins (basically the pitch). Almost every song that you’ll use in your mixes will have the 4/4 time signature, meaning that the bar can fit 4 beats. So, you have four beats, 1, 2, 3, 4, and that’s one bar.
After one bar is completed, the next one follows with 4 “new” beats, and it continues looping. You count the beats just like you would count apples. You go: “1, 2, 3, 4,” and then you replace every other first beat in a bar with the following number. For example:
one – two – three – four
two – two – three – four
three – two – three – four
four – two – three – four
A lot of popular house, techno, hip hop, and even rock songs go like that. It’s the same beat. The only difference might be the tempo, which is where we get to the notes.
For instance, a quarter note equals one beat. Think of it this way: based on the time signature, every single bar is measured as a whole unit. In our case, in the 4/4 time signature, each bar is a full unit of one, and the notes inside each bar are various fractions of that full measure. That means that our 4/4 time signature can fit 4 quarter-notes. But that also means that it can fit 8 eighth notes, because if we follow the logic, an eighth-note equals half a beat. This will double the speed (tempo) of the track.
If you have the chance, download a music-creating program, like Ableton. You can get a 90-day free trial just to take a look at one song and analyze it. Understanding bars will open a whole new world to you, and it’s also something you can’t be a DJ without.
If you peek into a song’s structure, you’ll notice that it’s just dozens of 4/4 time signature layers, each representing a different part of the song. On top, you have your raw beat, just counting (1, 2, 3, 4). Beneath it, you could have 8 bars of guitar, beneath that the vocals, and so on. You get the point.
Usually, something exciting will happen at 32 beats (8 bars). The chorus will start or a saxophone will play for 8 bars. If it’s hip hop, you’ll notice that a rapper’s verse goes on for 16 bars. A chorus usually takes 8 bars. These are great times for you to mix the two songs.
You have your beats, you have your bars – it’s time to learn your phrases. As you proceed with DJing, you will start feeling these layers of bars going on and on, forming a phrase. A song comprises many instruments, all joined together in layers, to form a musical composition.
For example, you have a layer of a simple drum beat stretching for 8 bars, another layer of a piano going for another 8 bars, and finally, you have some clapping sounds going for 4 bars. That’s called phrasing. A song fitting this description would be said to consist of three phrases.
Being able to count the bars in a phrase takes some time to learn. In the beginning, you start off by beatmatching. Then, you take it a step further by matching whole bars. Once you get to the point of matching whole phrases, you’ll know that you’re on the right path!
Ready, Set, Mix!
So, you’re done with your beatmatching and the equalizers are in position. Now count the beats, and when the moment comes, join the two songs into one track. You’ll know you’ve done a good job if the audience doesn’t have any idea that it’s a mix of two songs!
Now you can slowly pull down the channel fader and let the crowd enjoy the dance floor. Of course, it’s far from over, since you have a whole night ahead of you! Hit the browser and pick the next song for your DJ set. You will be repeating this process a lot.
Mixing In DJ Software
Mixing in software doesn’t save you from all the above-mentioned steps for creating a good-quality mix on your DJ set. Your library is full of different songs and you need to spot the ones that will mix properly. That being said, your browser knob will save you tons of time for this particular procedure.
So while you’ll still need to go through all stages of the process, your DJ software will make everything easier. DJ software will provide you with tools such as:
- Detecting the key a song is in;
- A sync button for the beatmatching.
Theoretically, you only need a laptop with DJ software to mix tracks. For practice, you can download the free versions of programs like Virtual DJ or Serato DJ Lite. Although it won’t give you the best sound, it’s a good place to start learning.
Using Software On The Side
After DJing for a while, you’ll know your music library by heart, so you won’t need to browse through songs all the time. However, sometimes you’ll want to treat the audience with a new mix, and that’s where your software will come in handy.
If you’re using turntables or CDJs, you usually know which track will come next in your mix. However, if you want to introduce a new song, you can quickly move to your DJ program and check if that new song is in the key that complements the ongoing song.
Remember, this is your set! Maybe you’re in the zone, but your job is a lot more than counting beats and looking for matching keys. There are plenty of ways to mix two great songs together without needing software to guide you.
Borrowing samples from different tracks is common in the industry. If you listen to rap, you know what I’m talking about. This genre has exploited every good sample and has created a new art form out of sampling.
Other genres use samples as well, but rap is especially famous for it, so I’ll give you an example while we’re at it. Can you think of a rap song that uses a sample from a different song, some ’70s, ’80s song? Like, let’s say, Cypress Hill’s “Hits from the Bong”?
This song uses samples from “Son of a Preacher Man”, a song by English pop singer Dusty Springfield. If you’ve heard these songs before, you might not have realized that both of them use the same sample. These two songs, for example, would be a cool mix that would surely spice up the atmosphere!
“Hits from the Bong” has sped up the tempo of Springfield’s “Preacher Man”. That’s why it’s a good idea to keep Preacher as the master song and then hit the crowd with Cypress Hill’s hit song.
Before you do this, make sure that you have the tempos adjusted. You don’t want the energetic Cypress Hill entrance to fall on a slow, easy-going Dusty Springfield.
Use The Effects Section
DJ mixing can get as creative as you want it to be. Knowing how to smoothly transition from the first song to the second is an important skill all by itself. If you know how to perfectly match the tempo of the tracks, work the EQ, and when to drop the next song, then you truly are a good DJ.
However, to become visible in a crowd of DJs, you have to play a bit more with the bars, use effects, and create unique transitions.
For example, imagine that you have a song with a cool vocal recorded on the first bar. If you have the vocals of some guy screaming “Party people!”, or “Go!”, or whatever, you should take advantage of that. You could loop that vocal a couple of times, and that would be a great entrance of the second song – a powerful transition.
On the other hand, spinning the master track backward, right before pulling the fader down, is a great way to end a song. So, whatever you do, try to always figure out the best way to make your transitions more exciting and smoother.
Another cool skill that you could develop is word matching. Just think of all the songs you know and how many of them use the same words? Not the same lyrics, of course, but the same vocabulary, like love, party, babe, baby, kiss me, summer, the list goes on.
I’m sure you can think of two tracks that have the same word at the right positions. A perfect scenario would be transitioning from a song that ends on a certain word to a song that begins with that same word, or has a chorus that begins with it. Even if you can’t think of such a combination, you could make it happen by using simple effects on your DJ controller or software. People love DJs who know how to communicate with the audience. If you can make a transition that will put smiles on their faces – you’re doing well!
DJ mixing is a form of art that you must practice over and over again to get good at. DJs spend hours behind their equipment, rehearsing mixing on their controllers, mixers, or whatever they have.
Thanks to the programs offered these days, you can mix without needing a trained musical ear or years of experience. The software usually does everything for you regarding beatmatching or finding the perfect song to mix.
The goal of every DJ is to treat their audience with quality music and powerful transitions, which you can only accomplish by working hard and being professional. In order to reach that level, you must learn to beatmatch, count the beats, understand the frequencies, and get creative from time to time. In the beginning, you’ll be happy just to match the tempos on the tracks, so don’t worry if you don’t meet all these criteria from the get-go.
We can also conclude that DJing requires at least basic equipment, and preferably gadgets with decent quality. You can love music all you want, but if you don’t have a good pair of turntables, CDJs, and a controller, I doubt that you will execute your mixes well.
Headphones are also very important. If your headphones don’t have good enough isolation, it’s gonna be hard for you to focus on the song that’s playing only in your head.
It’s gonna take a while for your brain to distinguish between two simultaneous songs without struggling, so it’ll take time before you can listen to both tracks at the same time. You would normally do this by listening to one song through the master output, and the second one using one headphone earpad.
However, if you like DJing, then mixing is definitely something you should try. Anyone can learn it if they are dedicated and passionate enough. All you have to do is practice and constantly look for ways to improve yourself and your work!
Mixing In a New Song: FAQ
Is It Hard to Mix Tracks?
Mixing songs is not hard at all. To mix two tracks, you would need to know the basics regarding EQing, beatmatching, and beat counting. However, if you have mixing software, it will ease a lot of the mixing process.
Can I Mix Tracks for Free?
Can I Mix Music on My Phone?
Yes. There are dozens of DJ apps that will allow you to use your phone for mixing, regardless of whether you use iOS or Android. Some more popular DJ apps are djay Pro, Music Maker Jam, and DJ Studio 5. However, mixing on your phone might be a little bit harder than using actual DJ equipment.