Pitch Control

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Online DJ Tips

Introducing Pitch Control

This is an essential control for a DJ, so you have to make sure it does the business. We’re not talking about a 33/45 RPM switch here – you need a knob or slider that adjusts pitch by a minimum of +/- 8%.

Although some people may prefer to use a rotary knob control, this is generally a feature of consumer models – the typical DJ deck has a pitch control slider on the right, which runs along most of that edge of the unit. The longer the slider is, the better – this means that you can hone in on more precise settings and your pitch and beat matching will be that much easier and more accurate.

A deck with 8% pitch control means that you can adjust the pitch (speed) the record plays back at by up to eight percent. The greater the pitch control percentage, the more radically you can alter the speed at which the platter is spinning. If you have the luxury of choosing, then a deck with a higher percentage pitch control would be the one to go for.

Pitch Control Explained

In case you are not familiar with this concept, I will explain it in a bit more detail. Pitch control actually adjusts the speed of the platter rather than the pitch itself. Because the pitch of a sound is directly related to its frequency (measured in Hertz, or number of vibrations per second), lowering the frequency will also lower the pitch.

This is what ‘pitch control’ does – it slows down (or speeds up) the platter rotation by a certain amount. This reduces (or increases) the number of times the record will spin past the needle in one second (i.e. the frequency) and therefore the pitch will drop (or rise).

When using pitch control to reduce the pitch of a track, however, it is important to remember that this also causes the tempo (beats per minute, BPM) of the track to drop also. On the other hand, if you want to increase the BPM count of your track, you can do so by giving the pitch control a bit of a boost in the + direction.

Pitch Control In Practise

Once you’ve gotten the hang of starting your cued record exactly on the downbeat, then it’s time to start to work on your pitch control technique. To be honest, after a few hours of practise, you’ll probably be pretty good at releasing the record on time. To get to the next level, you’ll need to master the use of the pitch control slider as a means of tempo or beat matching. This will take a bit longer, and you can literally spend years learning all the tricks of this particular trade…

A good DJ must have an excellent sense of timing, a decent attention span, intense concentration and the ability to listen to two separate tracks at the same time.

Not only this, but you must be able to compare the two tracks, line them up, identify when and where to make the crossover, and determine how to bring them into sync quickly if they stray, using whatever technique is most appropriate for the current situation.

And the best way to learn all this is by – you guessed it – practise.

Shifting Pitch and Tempo

So let’s have a go at some pitch shifting. Your mixer should be still set with both channel faders up and the crossfader in the middle. Still no need to use your headphones for cue listening, as both decks are coming through your stereo system at the same volume.

To demonstrate the effect of a beat mismatch, set the pitch control of deck two to somewhere around the plus 2-5% mark. This will speed up the rotation of the platter by the specified percentage.

Now, go back to deck one and find the cue beat, just like you’ve been doing (from the previous section). Do not change the pitch control on deck one. As usual, release the cued record on the beat that’s being played on deck two. Now, the two tracks should sound pretty much in sync for the first few bars, but as more time passes the beats on deck two will start to fall before the beats on deck one. If you leave it for long enough, the beats will go completely out of sync – and if you leave it even longer, they’ll probably come back into sync for a while again (if the track is long enough, that is).

Using Pitch Control For Beat Matching

This is how you can get the two records back in sync. Once the records are playing, you hold the cued record and release it on the beat as you would normally do. Then you must quickly adjust the pitch control so that it’s at the same setting as deck two.

This is cheating really, as you normally won’t know what pitch control setting to put your cued deck at, but it’s OK to start out with a simple example just to get the idea of what’s going on.

So if you’ve adjusted the pitch correctly, the two records should continue playing in time with one another. However, chances are that even though you thought you’d set both to a pitch of 3%, there may be slight differences between the two decks – deck one might be at 2.9% and deck two might be at 3.2%. It can be very hard to match the tempi exactly, so the better the quality of your deck’s pitch control, the more joy you’ll have with getting this one right. Unless your deck has a digital pitch control that displays the exact degree of pitch change, you are probably going to be judging the setting visually and using an analog slider to adjust it. As you get more used to the response of your decks’ pitch controls, you’ll find your accuracy improves greatly.

So how do you spot tempo drift, and how can you tell if your cued record is spinning faster or slower than the live disc?

How To Identify Tempo Drift

Tempo drift itself is easy enough to spot; within a few bars the same beats on both records start falling at different times – things start happening earlier on one of the decks. The trick then is to determine whether your cued record is too fast or too slow.

If these things are happening earlier on your cued record (that is, a particular beat or sound appears first on your cued record and then, slightly later, on the live record) this means that your cued record is moving too fast, and you need to slow it down a bit – reduce the pitch control setting slightly and try to sync them again.

If the beats on the live record start sneaking in front of your cued record, then you know that the cued disc is moving too slow – you can try to remedy this by giving the pitch control a tiny boost.

The amount you need to change the pitch by will depend on how severe the loss of sync is; if the two tracks move out of sync very quickly, then you will need to apply a large pitch change to compensate. If the loss of sync happens very gradually, then you only need a tiny change in pitch to keep them together. As always, this is something that you can only really learn by doing – nobody can tell you how much to change the pitch, you just have to develop an instinct for it which connects you to your decks and the music they are playing.

Pitch Control Techniques

When you begin to learn the skills of tempo changing, it usually starts out as pretty much a trial-and-error process. If you hear your tracks drifting, you can presume that your cued record is too slow and speed it up slightly. Now, you’ve either made the tracks go more into sync or more out of sync. If the sync is worse than before, you know that you should have slowed down your cued record the first time. If the sync is better than before (but not quite right) then you know that you were going in the right direction, but it needs just a little bit more speed. If, on the other hand, you just happened to get the two tracks perfectly in sync first time, well done – now go back and do it again.

What you’re aiming for is the final pitch setting – this is what you need to remember. If you’ve overshot your pitch, you can slow the record down a lot by radically reducing the pitch (just to bring the two tracks into sync quickly), and then bring the pitch back up as quick as you can to your target area.

If you did this at the right time and hit the right target, the two tracks should be running side by side. If they’re not, use the pitch control to bring them back into sync and then quickly move it to a position just above or below your previous target pitch. You can repeat this process several times until you get it just right.

Make Sure The Pitch Is Playable

You’ll have to do this a lot as a DJ, and sometimes you’ll have to do it very quickly without a chance of a second shot. So if you can do it with your eyes closed and your hands behind your back, then you can probably say you’ve got the hang of it. Otherwise you’d best keep on practising…

If you’ve bought cheap decks, this is about the time you’ll start wishing you hadn’t. Cheap (particularly belt drive) decks tend to not have a very stable mechanism, which can lead to pitch and tempo fluctuations during a track. You can compensate for these sometimes by using the pitch control, but really you want to be working with a solid set of decks that don’t throw random variables at you like this.

Beware Of Warped Vinyl

Some records may also cause tempo changes, either as part of the music itself, because of a warped disc (which is usually easy to spot, as the needle will be heaving up and down like it’s on a rollercoaster), or due to a flawed vinyl pressing. You need to be aware of these, so obviously you should be as familiar with your record collection as possible, and be aware that such problems could crop up if you’re using someone else’s collection that you’ve never played before.

Also, you do need to be comfortable when handling vinyl; previous generations were very careful with vinyl, as they felt it was an extremely delicate medium, and they only ever touched it at the edges, put it on and left it alone. In fact, vinyl is extremely durable and you can handle it all you like – but a needle hopping across the grooves is a sure-fire way to ruin a good record, so be careful not to let that happen. However, when you’re Djing, you’ll be touching the records a lot, and different DJs tend to control the disc by touching different parts of it. Touching the label is very common, but some DJs use the face too (particularly when doing some very involved scratching), and if you have very tough fingers you can even use the spinning edges.

Continuing the Pitch Battle

Once you’ve gotten the hang of doing the exercise in the previous section, you’ll need to start varying it a bit. Try doing it without looking at the pitch setting on deck two; this will be more like the sort of scenario you might encounter during a gig. Of course, you’ll have to set the pitch yourself before you start, so you’ll obviously have some idea of how much you’ve changed the pitch, and in which direction, but if you don’t look at exactly where the slider is then it makes it slightly harder.

Try doing some very small pitch changes (1 or 2%) and follow that with some large ones (6-8%). This might help offset some of the tedium that you’re bound to experience when practising the same thing over and over again. Generally speaking, small differences in pitch are harder to work with straight off the bat than large differences, so if you’re having trouble figuring out the one or two percent tests then maybe you should take a break with some larger ones.

Remember that you need to figure out what pitch setting to set on your cued deck so that it matches the tempo of the live deck.

Pitch Control – Step-by-Step

  1. Release the cued record on the beat with the live record.
  2. Listen to see if they start to drift out of sync.
  3. If you can hear your cued record beats come earlier than the live ones, reduce the pitch slightly.
  4. If you can hear the live record beats come earlier than the cued ones, increase the pitch slightly.
  5. This is your new target pitch; if you like you can use the pitch control to bring the records into sync again, and quickly return the slider to the new target pitch setting.

If the records are now in sync, you’ve done your job. If they’re not, repeat steps three to five again until you’ve gotten it bang on.