How did DJing pioneers make perfect mixes, blending one song seamlessly into another, without the technology we have today? One word: beatmatching. Yes, you probably have software and an easy-to-push sync button that can do this for you, but beatmatching is a skill that will teach you a lot not only about DJing but also about music. Plus, it’ll give you some cred in the business.
Is knowing how to beatmatch absolutely 100% something you have to master before you can start DJing? No. You can DJ on modern equipment without it but it is something that you should learn if you’re serious about the craft. Let’s take a look at what exactly beatmatching is, how to do it, and some tips to help get there.
What Is Beatmatching?
Beatmatching is seamlessly blending the end of one song into another so that the music doesn’t stop. How do you do it? By matching the beat of the end of one song with the beginning of another. There’s no place where beatmatching is more important than in a club or rave. You do not want the music to stop between songs and it’s best to keep the beat and tempo if the music the same during transitions.
This doesn’t just magically happen. In fact, figuring out how to beatmatch is one of the most important skills for a DJ to develop. Yes, your equipment can do it for you but you should learn how to do it anyway. Here are a few reasons why:
- Equipment can be unreliable. Anything can happen and if you’re relying on your equipment to beatmatch for you, what will you do if it messes up? It’s not like you can just say to the crowd, “Sorry, I have to reboot my program, just give me a few seconds to get it back up.”
- You can play on any kind of equipment. Whether you have to borrow equipment or you’re unexpectedly asked to fill in, if you know how to beatmatch, you can play on anything, no problem.
- It helps you learn more about music. Why? Because you really have to listen. You start to pick up on signals and clues to how the much is building and how the beat is changing. You learn to count beats and match tempos and pitch which gives you a better understanding of how everything fits together. If nothing else, this will really help you make some awesome mixes.
- It helps you understand how far DJing has come. It’s one of the basic building blocks of DJing and really gives you an idea of how this whole thing started. Think about it like this. You learn how to add and subtract using a pencil and paper before someone hands you a calculator. It’s important to learn the basics of why something works instead of just pushing a button to get the answer.
- It gives you a bit of cred. There are people in the DJing world who don’t think there’s anything wrong with just using the sync button on modern equipment to beatmatch for you. I don’t know if “wrong” is the word I’d use but implying that DJing is simply knowing when to push a button makes it seem like there isn’t a lot of skill involved in DJing, which isn’t the case. Learning how to beatmatch is one of the foundations of DJing. It makes you a little more legitimate because you’re really honing your craft.
- It’s fun. Really, it gets you involved in a way that sync buttons just can’t. It’s almost like it makes you a bigger part of the music which makes the whole experience very rewarding. It’s certainly more fun to watch, honestly, people are probably going to be impressed.
A Little Bit of History
Believe it or not, beatmatching has been around since the late 1960s, way before any of the fancy high-tech equipment we have today. It was invented by Francis Grasso. He was using a metronome to keep a steady beat and while trying to find records that matched the same tempo. Later, someone built him a mixer so he could listen to what was in his headphones independently of what was coming out of the speakers and this skill was applied to music. Beatmatching and DJ mixing were never the same again.
How to Beatmatch
Whether it helps you learn more about music structure or helps you have more fun, beatmatching will make you a better DJ in one way or another. While it might seem a bit overwhelming at first, it’s something that anyone can do. Not sure where to begin? Here’s a helpful guide to get you started.
- Learn a bit about the musical theory behind the beat. Understanding meter and rhythm are important to deconstructing a song but don’t be too hard on yourself if it doesn’t click right away. Sometimes, you can’t really understand how everything fits together until you’re actually listening to the music and learning the hands-on part so don’t stress if the theory doesn’t make sense right away.
The first thing to understand is meter. Meter is a pretty complicated part of composing and playing music but here’s the takeaway: it’s how the notes in a song are syncopated and stressed. Basically, it’s how you count the beats and what beats stand out.
The most common meter is 4/4. That’s 4 beats per measure with the quarter note getting one beat. If you know how to read music, this is pretty clear when you look at it. If you don’t, no worries. The biggest thing to understand here is the “beats per measure” bit which is the top number. The bottom number lets you know which note gets the beat. While learning about different notes (quarter note, eighth note, etc) can help you pick up on cues that could help you down the line, it’s not necessary for beatmatching.
If this seems a bit overwhelming, maybe this will help. There are different kinds of music that are typically written in a certain meter. For example, a waltz is in ¾ time. Listen to any waltz and you should be able to count along to the underlying beat, “1, 2, 3… 1, 2, 3… 1, 2, 3… ”
Most modern dance music is in 4/4 time, meaning you should be able to pick up and count a beat of, “1, 2, 3, 4… 1, 2, 3, 4…” When you have 2 songs that each use 4/4 time, it’s pretty easy to match up the beats even when the tempo is different. One might be significantly faster than the other but you’ll still have that same underlying beat driving them. You can match a 4/4 song with a 3/4 song, too, but when you’re first learning how to beatmatch, focus on two songs in 4/4 time. It’s much easier.
Still confused? By comparing the meter of a waltz (1, 2, 3…. 1, 2 3… ) to that of a typical dance song (1, 2, 3, 4… 1, 2, 3, 4…), you should be able to hear the difference. Try listening to a waltz then listening to a typical dance song. You’ll be able to feel the difference in the movement and the rhythms.
(Note that I said “most” dance music. Certainly, when you’re learning how to beatmatch, 4/4 time is the easiest to use, but there are songs that are in 5/4 or 2/4 or any other time, too. Don’t worry about those for the moment.)
- You’re ready for the hands-on part. Remember, it’s fine to move onto this part even if you don’t quite get how meter works. Honestly, sometimes you really won’t be able to understand it until you start messing around with the music anyway.
I also want to stop here to say this. Beatmatching isn’t so much a talent as it is a skill, meaning you can learn it. Yes, some people understand it right away and it comes quickly and naturally, just like any skill. That said if it takes you a while to master, don’t give up! You just have to keep practicing. This might sound trite but it’s kind of like riding a bike. Some people get it right away, others have to practice a little more. But once you get it, you get it.
Again, when you’re first starting out, it’s easier to use songs in 4/4 time. Most dance songs are so that’s the best place to start. Stay away from rock and recordings of live music, for now, they don’t have the same identifiable driving beat as dance songs do.
Pick songs you know well. Anything with a good “thump thump thump thump” driving beat that you can easily identify is perfect. Listen to each one closely individually at first until you know them both inside and out.
Once you’re comfortable with that, choose one to be song A and one for song B. Obviously, you’ll be matching the end of A with the beginning of B. Let track A play through your speakers while B plays in your headphones. Position your headphones so that only one ear is covered because you have to be able to hear both songs, A from your speakers and B in your headphones.
Let A play while you listen to track B. Try to find a sound in track B that you can easily pick up on, a sound effect or particular instrument (cymbals or snares work great) that plays once or twice per bar. Sometimes it’s easier if it’s on the first beat. Once you’ve isolated it, that beat is your cue point.
Next, listen to A and try to identify a beat that matches. This is why it can be a little easier to start with the first beat in a bar but, really, anything that you can confidently identify works.
Once you have picked out the beats in both B and A, you know what you need to match. Start B in your headphones at the cue point and sync it with the beat you identified in A. Remember, B is only in your headphones at this point so you’re the only one hearing B. Don’t worry if you make a mistake, just listen and keep trying until you get it. Also, it’s easiest to focus on only the beat of B. Ignore the other instruments or vocals, focus only on that “thump thump thump thump” beat.
The beat from B is probably not going to match the A beat perfectly unless the songs are the exact same tempo, which is a bit unlikely. You’ll soon hear that A is either getting ahead of B or it’s lagging behind. It might not be noticeable at first but as the songs play, it will become obvious which one is faster. At first, it might sound like everything is lined up, then you’ll hear a bit of dissonance, then it’ll just sound like a mish-mash of noise. If you lose the A or B beat you’re focusing on or start to get confused, stop and start again. You have to figure out which song is faster so you can make the right adjustments.
Use the wheel to get the isolated beats to line up. If you’re focusing on the first beat, tap forward or backward to change the position of the B track over the A track so they line up. Make small changes and listen carefully. Keep making little adjustments until you get it right.
While the wheel gets the tracks in the right position, you have to adjust the pitch to get the beats to line up. If not, you’ll just have to keep starting over and the tracks will get away from each other again. This is where the pitch comes in. The pitch slider speeds up or slows down the music. If B is faster, try slowing it down in small increments. If it’s slower, speed it up. Don’t make quick, drastic changes. Start with slow increases or decreases and take the time to listen.
Once you have everything lined up, you’re ready to mix. It’s important to note that, once B is live, you still have to keep monitoring to make sure everything stays lined up. Make adjustments to the quieter track if needed so it’s not as obvious. This isn’t the kind of thing where you can be like, “Oh, I got it!” then go on autopilot. You always have to be listening and ready to make adjustments.
- Practice, practice, practice. As you try this with more and more songs, you’ll gain more confidence and everything will eventually click. You’ll be able to listen to the whole B track and not just the isolated beats which will help you figure out the best song to transition to next. To be good at this, you have to be able to make the right adjustments quickly and accurately. The only way to do that is with practice.
- Try different things to see what works… and what doesn’t. You might be able to match every song perfectly but that’s only a part of DJing. Just because they sync up doesn’t mean that all songs go together. While beatmatching itself is a skill, there is a lot of talent involved in creating the right mix. Chances are you already have this talent if you’re pursuing DJing in the first place, but keep experimenting to get even better.
- Beatmatching isn’t easy but, remember, it’s a skill, not a talent. You’re not trying to play the piano by ear or to sing an aria or something that requires you to have been born with the talent to do it. Are there DJs that have a natural talent for beatmatching? Absolutely. Some DJs will be able to pick it up much faster than others. Just don’t lose sight of the idea that this is something anyone can learn with enough practice.
- If you’re having trouble or you feel like you need some additional support, one thing you can try is using the visual indicators on your software to help you see where the beats are falling. Some people are visual learners and the combination of hearing and seeing the beat is beneficial. Once you get it, though, go back to trying to do it just by listening. Once it clicks, you shouldn’t need to see it anymore.
- Record your beatmatches and take the time to listen to them as soon as you’re done. You’ll be able to pick up on when you were a little fast or slow and get a clearer idea of what you need to work on.
- If you want to start with something even more basic, try using a track you know well and beatmatching to a drum machine. Remember, Francis Grasso pioneered this whole thing using a simple metronome, you can do the same. Set the drum machine for a steady, reliable 4/4 beat that’s totally isolated. Once you get the hang of that, try swapping in another track.
- Don’t just practice when you’re standing at your equipment. Try to identify the driving beat any time you listen to music. In the car, while you’re listening at the gym, even when you hear that awful piped in stuff at the grocery store. Any time music is playing, try to pick up on the beat. This is a great way to train your ears and you might even learn about other timestamps, too.
- Know your music. Know it inside and out. If you know a song well, those natural cues will just pop out at you. Not only will this improve your skills, it will also help you make better mixes as you’ll pick up on the songs that go well together.
Worth the Effort
Not every DJ will agree that learning how to beatmatch is important but there are a lot of good things that come from learning how to do it. On a practical level, it gives you an option if something happens to your equipment and assures you can play on any equipment, anywhere, with anyone.
If you’re passionate about music, it’s a great way to expand your knowledge. Once you learn how to pick up the beat, you’ll find that you start doing it all the time, whether you’re DJing or not. Learning the basics of the meter and pitch really help you appreciate the complexity of what you’re doing and will make you a better DJ in the end. Not to mention, it give you a bit an appreciation for how pioneering DJs started and makes the whole experience a little more fun.
Remember, beatmatching isn’t as much a talent as it is a skill. That means you can learn it and get better and better if you practice. It doesn’t always come easily, but if you keep at it, it will eventually click.