Mixing – The Essential DJ Skill

DJ Friction
Creative Commons License photo credit: cowbite

Mixing is the most basic and vital part of being a DJ, and you will need to get this down so you can do it in your sleep (which sometimes may almost be literally required of you!).

Beat matching is the basis of a successful mix – and to get good at it you have to do it, a lot. You can read about theory and techniques all you like, but there’s no substitute for getting your hands in your own mix. It’s not easy – and even the simplest mixes might seem daunting at first. But if you start with simple tempo-matched four-to-the-floor tracks, with clearly defined bass drums, then you’ll find you’ll soon get the hang of it and begin to move onto more complicated segues.

Into the Mix

Once you have your decks and mixer set up and plugged into your amplifier (or just headphones, depending on how fussy your neighbours are) then you’re ready to try your first mix. Let’s presume that you have two copies of a 120BPM house single, with one on each turntable.

First of all, before you do anything else, make sure the pitch control on both decks is set to zero. Some decks let the slider/knob click into place at zero, which is handy for making sure your record is playing at exactly the default tempo – as you become more proficient, you may find that this feature is a little bit annoying, but for now we’ll ignore it. An indicator light may also come on to show you that your pitch control is balanced.

Why Good Decks Are Vital – Again

If you have different decks (which you should never have) or if you have low quality decks (which you should also never have) then there is a danger that the tempos might not be exactly locked even if the pitch control for both is set at zero. The reason for this is inconsistency in the rotation mechanism, as different decks might differ in absolute rotation speed by a tiny percentage; cheaper decks also suffer from timing accuracy variations. So, to keep things simple, buy identical decks of a decent quality.

Starting A New Mix

To start off, set your mixer so that your channel faders are both up and the crossfader is centered – this means that you will hear both records equally. The channel faders control the level of their respective decks, and the crossfader controls the percentage of the signal from each deck that it will pass on to the amplifier.

Now, start the first record up and put the needle down in the groove. Let it play for a bit, then put your finger down on the record and stop it moving. If you wind the record backwards, you should be able to bring the needle to the point of the first beat. If you have chosen a track that begins on the beat, then the first beat will be the point at which the song itself starts, and so should be easy to pinpoint – that’s the spot at which the first sound appears.

Finding The Right Beat

If you rock the vinyl back and forth over this first beat, you’ll get a feel for what the bass drum sounds like when played by hand. You need to position the needle right at the beginning of the thump; keep rocking back and forth over the beat until you know where it is. You’ll need to find beats in the middle of songs later on, but for now the first beat is the one you’re focusing on.

You can also keep the deck turned off (no spinning platter), place the needle in the run-in groove and wind forward to find the first beat – again, there is no ‘right’ way to do this, it’s just a matter of what you prefer.

Once you have found the first beat, turn off the platter (if you had it on) and leave the needle down on that deck right before the first bass drum, just where you found it. Now, go to the other deck and set the track playing. Get a feel for the beats, follow them by nodding with your head, or tapping your foot, whatever you like.

Get Ready To Match Your Tunes

Now, you know the two tracks are at an identical tempo (because they’re the same track) and you know that deck one is set up to run right on the beat, because you’ve just positioned the needle on the bass drum. Now, put your finger on the first record and start the deck playing – and keep your finger on the record so that it doesn’t move. If you have a decent deck and slipmat set up, the platter should now be spinning underneath your record, ready to kick your disc into action as soon as you release your finger.

So now you need to listen to the beat of the record on deck two that’s still playing away – boom/boom/boom. You have deck one ready on one of those booms – now you need to get into the rhythm, and get a feel for when you should release the first record. Just like when you were rocking the disc back and forth to feel the bass drum, you now need to listen to the record that’s playing and get ready to release the record under your hand at exactly the same moment as the live music goes boom. Basically, you want your new track to play along with the original track, exactly in time.

When you feel that you’ve got the beat in your head and your hands, you release the record under your finger so that it starts playing along.

Get Your Timing Right – Listen For Drift

If you released it at exactly the right moment, the two records should now be playing in unison, perfectly beat matched. However, chances are that you released it slightly early or slightly too late, which will create a beat echo effect. If the two records are not exactly in time, everyone will be able to hear it, and that’s exactly what you don’t want. This is one of the fundamental skills of the DJ, and you’ll need to practise for a really long time before you can get it on the button every time – and that’s exactly what you need if you want to do your job properly.

There’s no point in being able to do this simple task right 99 times out of a hundred, because the only thing people will remember is that one time you didn’t get it right.

Fixing A Bad Mix

If your disc wasn’t running at full speed on start up (maybe because your deck doesn’t have quite enough power to execute a full speed kick-in), then you might find that you need to compensate for that delay, either by releasing slightly early or by giving the disc an extra little ‘push’ when you let it go. This is something that you need to get a feel for, and almost certainly won’t get right first time, but with practise it can become second nature.

Once you’ve become comfortable with releasing the record at the right instant, you then need to become proficient at fixing any tiny deviations that might have crept in before anyone else hears them. Even if you do get 99 out of a hundred right, every now and then you might get distracted at the vital moment and need to make a correction to the speed of one or both your decks. If you don’t have time to go back and do it again, you’ll need to identify whether your cued disc is running early or late and compensate on the fly.

How To Slow Down A Runaway Disc

If you released your cued record too soon, then it will be slightly ahead of the record on the PA. You’ll have to slow it down slightly so that it gets back in sync; one way to do this is by lightly touching the record label area so that the extra friction causes it to spin at a marginally lower rate. Once it’s back on time, you can release it again and check to make sure you got it right.

Another method of doing this – which is probably the most reliable as it minimises the likelihood of the needle jumping – is to apply gentle pressure to the side of the deck plate (usually this is embossed with circles of various sizes, and you can use the bumpyness here to slow the rotation of the unit).

A third alternative for slowing down a runaway disc is to use the pitch control; if you bring the pitch down slightly, the spin and tempo of the disc will be reduced. Once you find the two tracks moving into sync again, bring the pitch control back to zero. This technique is a bit harder to get right, but with a bit of experience it can be a useful solution for solving tempo drift.

How To Speed Up A Slow Mix

Another scenario is, of course, that you released your cued record too late, so that it’s now playing catch-up with the record on air. As with the previous scenario, you can remedy this by speeding up your cued record until it returns to sync.

To give the record a little extra zip, you can push it along slightly with your finger on the label area. You just need to give it enough of a push to bring the beats in line; if you push too much then you’ll need to slow the disc down again until you have it where it should be. Some people prefer to use the centre spindle when speeding up a disc. The idea is the same however; just grab the metal axis and give it a little bit of extra encouragement.

Treat Your Mix With Care

The first few times you do this you might find that the pressure of your hand on the label or the axis actually slows down the record. If you then overcompensate and move the disc along too quickly, you may move way ahead of your cue point, or you could even aggravate the record to such an extent that the needle jumps the groove. Once you’ve done this, however, you’ll know what the limits are and you won’t do it again. Hopefully.

Of course, as with the previous scenario, you can also use the pitch control to speed up your record, and return it to normal once you’ve managed to synchronise the two. The key of course is to get the feel for your gear; once you know how your records respond to the deck, now your needle sits, how much pressure to apply to achieve a particular change, and how your pitch control affects play, then you’re well on the way to grasping the fundamentals of the DJ’s world.