10 Reasons Why You Should Still Know How To Beatmatch By Ear
In today’s digital age where even CDJs have a sync button, it’s becoming harder for veterans to explain to younger DJs the benefits of learning to beatmatch manually (by ear). While I do believe that, for better or for worse, beatmatching continues to quickly lose relevance in the DJ realm, that doesn’t mean that I suggest writing it off.
Update: What I Learned About DJs From My Beatmatching Post Going Viral
It’s no wonder that a lot of traditional DJs get their panties in a bunch about this subject, because it’s a skill they took weeks, months, or even years to master… and now “any Joe Schmoe” can press a button and have a computer do the hard work for them. Because of this, newer DJs often miss a lot of the subtle details and observations along the way.
In this post, we’ll go over some reasons why new DJs might still be interested in learning this skill. I’ll also go over some tips on how to learn, if you don’t already know. What you won’t find is a lengthy diatribe on how it’s your duty, that’s what real DJs do, and how the sync button is ruining DJing.
You can play on anything. Knowing how to beatmatch manually gives you options. Someone throwing a vinyl-only gig? Show up at a gig where there’s no room for your controller (but they provide a pair of standard CDJs)? Impromptu party at a friend’s house and want to use their gear? What if your controller breaks or your laptop goes “tango uniform” the day of your set? If you know how to mix the good ol’ fashioned way, none of these will be a problem to you.
It helps you learn about rhythm. Beatmatching manually causes you to rely on your ear. You are forced to truly listen to what it is that you’re doing, rather than allowing technology to fill the gaps. Your ear begins to zero in on auditory cues, such as a distinct snare or hi-hat. You start to notice how the percussion is structured… the syncopation and groove of the rhythm. This, in turn, helps aid you with things like switching up genres and subtle mixing.
BPM counters and software are good, but not perfect. I’m one of those DJs that doesn’t beat-grid his tracks when playing digitally. The only kind of prep work I do has to do with library management, and occasionally, a cue point or two. This affords me the opportunity to be “lazy” in that when I buy 20 tracks, it takes me 5-10 minutes to “prep” them rather than making an evening out of it.
It allows you to mix to, from, or with other DJs. If you are reliant on one particular setup and the ability to sync your tracks, you might as well throw out the idea of an impromptu tag-team set with a fellow DJ. While it’s true that there are ways to electronically sync multiple DJ setups, it adds unnecessary complication, doesn’t always work, and doesn’t allow for you to play alongside a vinyl DJ. It’s much easier (and more fun) to be able to just mix back and forth and not worry about what media formats are being used.
You can mix songs with tempo variations without having to modify the source track or use something like Ableton to warp it. Not just songs that have an intentional BPM change, but also songs that aren’t perfectly quantized (such as mixing funk records with live drummers).
The More Subjective Points
I separate these more obscure ideas from the practical uses above, because they do not help you do anything technical and might not matter to every DJ. But, they are points worth mentioning all the same. It’s up to you to decide which of these resonate with you.
It helps you know your roots. You might also call this “putting in your time”. Beatmatching is one of the foundational pillars of DJing, and it doesn’t hurt to learn your craft from the bottom up. Learning to do it the original way really allows you to appreciate DJing as a culture and to understand where this whole thing comes from. (Learning to walk before you run, learning to add and subtract before using a calculator… etc.)
It earns you respect amongst your peers. Let’s face it… whether or not it matters to you, there’s an instant level of respect (especially amongst other DJs) when you can prove that you’re not entirely reliant on technology to do your mixing for you.
For many, it’s more fun. There’s something sexy about spinning wax, and having to really put your focus on what you’re doing. Many people like digging through crates and pulling out that next killer tune, and many people enjoy watching it. You get a certain tactile and intimate feel that you don’t get as much with software DJing. Some people enjoy flipping through a CD book and get a similar sense of satisfaction by playing this way. Sync buttons can lead to boredom.
It can be more rewarding. When you play a set of 20 songs on a Traktor rig with the sync button engaged, you’re not pleasantly surprised when the tracks… well, all stay in sync. There’s a sense of accomplishment and reward to be had by actually doing the work yourself.
It helps maintain a human element. Somewhat like comparing a live drummer to a drum machine, there’s something more “human” about manual beatmatching (not in just the feel, but in the output). Manual beatmatching is one way to help give your sets a live feel… to let your audience know that you are more than a large iPod.*
* That being said, have a look at my earlier post titled Being a DJ is Easy for Richie Hawtin’s thoughts on that subject.
Tips For Learning
Beatmatching is the one “big” DJ technical skill that usually takes the most time for people to learn. It’s going to be frustrating… it takes perseverance. But it’s worth making the investment. Try it a little each day and you’ll be surprised how quickly you can pick it up.
You don’t have to have a pair of turntables to learn how to beatmatch (though, they are the most challenging). You can beatmatch manually using just about any all-in-one DJ controller by simply turning off your software’s “sync” function and turning your screen away, or on your CDJs by hiding any displays and BPM counters with a piece of tape.
When matching two tracks, it helps to push the cued track’s tempo (pitch fader) up significantly faster than the track that’s already playing. That way, there’s no question of which track is playing faster than the other (and which way you need to adjust the tempo)… you can pretty much guarantee that the “incoming” track is faster and you need to start slowing it down to compensate.
Phil Morse of the well-known and respected blog DigitalDJTips.com has a great online course called “How To Digital DJ Fast”. In it, Phil teaches you how to beatmatch (on a controller, using software) before even touching the “sync button”. I have gone through all ten videos of this course and can genuinely say that I highly recommend it for anyone who is either a brand new DJ, or a long-time DJ thinking about making the leap to digital. It is a paid course, but very affordable and worth the money if you don’t have a mentor to help you with this sort of thing.