Even though we now have total command of the sync button, manual beatmatching is still a pretty important part of being a DJ. If you wanted to get serious about photography, you might start with an iPhone app, but pretty soon you’d have to study the principles of lighting, composition and editing before you could expect anyone to hire you. Same goes for a career in DJing, and beatmatching is one way to show your client that you’ve learned a skill worth paying for. Even if you don’t have a vinyl setup, learning to understand the mechanics is a progressive decision that all in-demand DJs make at some point.
Beatmatching is being able to bring in a track at the same tempo as the one that’s playing without relying on the software to sync it up for you. And while you can’t compare it to playing an instrument, beatmatching is as much of a skill that requires practice, ear training and familiarity with non-graphical DJ equipment like turntables. Sure, hitting the sync button and letting the software do the work for you is an easy way go about DJing. But the world really does not need any more amateur DJs who might be able to operate cool equipment but fail to grasp the underlying principles. You wouldn’t want to be in a plane with a pilot who never studied aviation, would you? Learn how to DJ properly and think about your audience.
When you learn how to beatmatch, a few things happen to your mixes. Your transitions are longer because a person will always require more time to calculate the crossfade than a computer. Software can recognize and lock the tempos far quicker than a human ear, but that doesn’t mean that faster is better. Dancers don’t always want only 4 bars or 10 seconds notice before the next track drops. Longer transitions generally work better than shorter ones. You’re able to prime your audience with the next track and avoid abrupt mixes that your audience didn’t see coming. Don’t be afraid to take your time! Drop the next track in a good 2 or even 3 minutes before you start your mix and experiment with the overlap. You can always retrigger it from the start or a cue point if there’s too much happening. However long your current mix length, double it and see what happens.
As a result, it’s becoming more feasible and common for career DJs to enter into collaborations with instrumentalists. Playing with instrumentalists has some complexity. A single saxophone player, for example, might easily be able to play along at the tempo of the track. But DJs who enter existing band situations as the electronic rhythm section are sometimes forced to have to drop in to an existing tempo instead of controlling it. There’s no ready software for a syncing with bunch of actual musicians! The controller needs to be able to adjust their timing to the musical rhythm, and then keep listening to alter it if the music gets faster or slower. Fusing electronic with live music may be one of the more in-demand forms of electronic music in the future, and having the chops to make micro-adjustments to your groove on the fly isn’t just musically more pleasing, it opens doors to performing in groups.
John Bartmann is an award-winning music producer and DJ.