Let’s face it, if you are going to become a DJ, you’re probably going to want to learn how to mix. In fact, it is expected that one of the basic attributes of any DJ is the ability to mix.
But what does it actually mean, what does it entail? Put in simple terms, mixing is the art of either combing two tracks together to make a new track, or, more commonly, seamlessly playing one song after another without the audience noticing any gaps between the two.
We will focus on the latter, as this is the most important skill a beginner DJ should learn, how to learn to DJ.
There are a few basic rules you need to understand to get started with mixing, or ‘beatmixing’;
Use two tracks that will mix well together
When you are learning, I would strongly recommend using tracks with a constant beat throughout. The most obvious genre for this is House, Club, or Dance music. They tend to have a regular beat from start to finish, or thereabouts.
Try to avoid anything with too much going on, something relatively straightforward. Although, if you can find an extended mix, rather than a ‘radio version’, it should give you more of an intro and outro and be longer in length to give you more time to practice.
Use tracks of similar speeds
Going with the Dance-type tracks, you will be looking at speeds of around 120-125 beats-per-minute, known as ‘BPM’. The object is to be playing the two songs at the same speed; so, either bringing the second track down to the speed of the first; or setting them both at a speed somewhere in the middle. While you can speed up or slow down tracks with your DJ decks/Controller/CDJs, you want to avoid trying to mix a song with, say 90 bpm with one of 140 bpm – it will just sound awful.
Many professional DJs will know how to synchronise two tracks manually, but in this digital age, most, if not all DJ equipment will feature a ‘Sync’ button that will basically do that job for you.
Learn to count to four
Before you learn how to mix, you will first need to learn how to count. It sounds basic, but once you are doing it naturally, it really is that simple. In music, there are four beats in a ‘bar’. In dance music, the beats are generally easily identifiable by the kick drum – the loud thud that tends to repeat throughout the song; boom, boom, boom, boom, or 1, 2, 3, 4….
Once you’ve got that, learn to count in groups of four;
1, 2, 3, 4;
2, 2, 3, 4;
3, 2, 3, 4;
4, 2, 3, 4….
That’s four bars consisting of four beats.
Listen to a track and start counting the bars through the song in this same way.
Once you have got that, start listening out for the number of bars in a verse or chorus. It might be 16 or 32 bars. These are also known as ‘phrases’, where significant changes happen in the song. In dance tracks, you can notice these more in the intro, a build-up to the ‘drop’ or where it changes from just music to where the vocals come in.
Learn your DJ equipment
- Sync button – As we mentioned earlier, the Sync button will set the second track to the same BPM as the first. With most DJ software, when both tracks are playing the sync button will often set the two tracks at a similar point in the bar, not just the beat.
- Tempo – The tempo slider controls the speed of the track. So, you can manually adjust the BPM of the incoming track to match the first. Most software will allow you to restrict the amount by which you can adjust this to avoid playing a track so fast that it sounds ridiculous!
- Cue button – This has a few purposes but when beat-mixing, you can set a ‘cue point’, which is the exact spot in the track that you want to start playing from, wherever you like. For example, you can set the cue point to the first kick drum beat in the song. Note that pressing the cue button does not usually start the track – you will have to press the Play/Pause button. What you can do, though, is press and hold the Cue Button, which will play the track as long as you are holding it, and then simultaneously press the Play/Pause button to continue playing the song from that cue point.
- Loop feature – When beat-mixing, using the ‘loop’ feature can be very useful when you are getting ready to bring the second track in. There are normally a few buttons you can utilise to set up the loop, so you can define the loop length; 4-bar, 8-bar, 16-bar, 32-bar loops. You can then use a certain point in the track to either make sure the second track starts in time with the first; or you can bring the loop in early, with the first track to bring elements of that song that can complement it.
- Faders – The faders are effectively volume controls for each deck or track. It is important when you are mixing two (or more) tracks that they are playing at the same or similar levels, though your software can often be set to do this automatically.
- Crossfader – The crossfader is the horizontal sliding control that gradually moves from one track to the other, or both if you wish. You will need this to bring your mix in.
- EQ – The Low, Mid and Hi can be controlled up or down individually on each deck/track, which can be very useful if, for example, you are playing a track with high levels of bass or kick drum as the current song – meaning you can bring down the level in one so the mix doesn’t sound too overwhelming or distorted.
- Headphones – Your DJ headphones are crucial in preparing the upcoming mix. While you don’t need to use headphones when you are first starting out, or when you are practising in your home (you can just use your speakers), you will need to learn how to play a track out to your ‘crowd’ while getting the next track ready to mix in your headphones. Your equipment should allow you to adjust the level of volume between the live output and the mix cue that just plays in your headphones.
Conclusion - How To Mix
Practice and Enjoy! – I can’t stress this point enough when you are learning new DJ skills, like how to mix; Practice your skills regularly whenever you have time set up your equipment somewhere you won’t disturb anyone and you won’t be disturbed, and enjoy playing some music, beat-mixing, scratching, whatever you fancy. As the saying goes: practise makes perfect!
A great tip I have is to record your mixes. Every so often, set aside 30 minutes or an hour, and either use the record feature in your software or just set your camera phone or camera to record your mix. When you go for a walk or a drive listen to your mix and think of what you did well and what you can improve on for the next time.
Listen to a live mix of your favourite DJ or a friend and see what they do that you can bring into your own mixes. A great place for this is MixCloud.
You will probably also find some useful forums and groups on social media to learn your craft and get hints and tips on how to learn how to DJ, but just remember everyone has an opinion – take them with a pinch of salt – there are no rules as such. As long as you are following the basic tips we have covered, after time you will know if what you are doing sounds good. Some people will claim things like; “proper’ DJs don’t use the Sync button” – well a lot do, and if it’s there and it works and makes your job easier, why not use it? Some will try to tell you what equipment you ‘have’ to use – there are no laws on this. Take some advice, get some ideas, but just use what you like.
As you improve, you can look at going live in an online mix – that way you can get feedback from a wider audience.