One of the big debates in recent years has been whether it’s still relevant for DJs to know how to beatmatch by ear. With the dominance of digital controllers and the ease of auto beatmatching, this traditional skill is seen by some as no longer needed.
Even if you agree it’s not needed it’s still something worth exploring as a new DJ. In this guide, we’ll go over what beatmatching is and why you should still learn how to do it. We’ll also give you a step by step guide on how you can master this fundamental skill.
What Is Beatmatching?
One of the main tasks a DJ does is to facilitate the smooth transition from one song to another. This keeps a crowd entertained and the energy of the night moving along. However, it wasn’t always this way. Francis Grasso is credited as paving the way for modern DJs by developing the beatmatching technique that is fundamental to DJs today.
All music has a rhythm or tempo. In electronic music, it is usually characterised by the familiar “boom boom boom” of the kick drum. From this core element, a BPM (beats per minute) is determined for the song. These beats will then be grouped into bars. Usually, it’s in groups of 4. These bars are then grouped in phrases. A lot of electronic music uses this structure. One of the parts of learning how to beatmatch is been able to recognise beats, bars and phrases within the music. Here is a short video that goes over the basics.
Most DJ equipment will have a tempo fader located on the hardware. Even the super budget Hercules DJ controller has a tempo fader. It’s generally a vertical fader. This fader can be used to increase and decrease the tempo (or BPM) of the song playing. Using this fader you can match the beats of two songs for a cleaner transition. When moving the tempo fader you are stretching or compressing the song. By doing this you can also alter the Key of the song. Speed up a song and you’ll hear that familiar chipmunk sound. Slow it down and the sound turns deeper.
Modern DJ software has functions to auto-match the BPM of two songs and is often activated via a Sync button. Whether to use technology to auto sync your beats is a contentious issue. Some traditional DJs see it as cheating. Others see it as just another tool that is available to DJs thanks to technology.
DJ software can also lock the Key so when you increase or decrease the tempo the Key of the song is unaffected.
The process of beatmatching used to be 100% manual. To this day many DJs don’t use the Sync button and prefer to beatmatch by ear. Developing the skill to do this is challenging and can be time-consuming. However, it is a fundamental skill of a DJ.
Why You Should Learn Beatmatching
With access to software which can handle this challenging task, you may be asking why you should bother learning this in the first place. There are many reasons why this skill is still relevant.
While software tends to be fairly accurate at calculating BPM and then matching it with another song it doesn’t always get it right. Several genres of electronic music can be difficult for the algorithm to analyse. In some cases, even traditional 4 beats per bar songs can be analysed poorly resulting in the beatgrid not been placed correctly. In this scenario hitting the Sync button will not match the two songs. Having the ability to fix these mistakes on the fly is a big reason why many DJs still need to know how to beatmatch by ear.
If you know how to beatmatch by ear you can confidently play on any DJ equipment. Having this confidence can expand your options when purchasing DJ equipment. It also allows you to showcase your skills on any equipment you come across. If the opportunity comes up to play at a real club you need to be ready for the equipment you may have to use.
The ability to beatmatch by ear also forces you to forge a deeper understanding and connection with your music. This allows you to see some of your favourite songs in a new way. It expands your musical knowledge. The deeper you understand a song the easier it will be to use it creatively in your DJ sets.
For many DJs, it’s also more fun to beatmatch by ear. Hitting a button and knowing the songs are automatically synced is not as rewarding as achieving the same result using your own skills. It keeps you more focused and engaged with your DJ equipment.
Having the skill to beatmatch by ear can also make it easier for you to layer acapellas in your mixes. Acapellas do not have a beat that software can analyse. It also allows you to switch genres easier. You can layer a chillout track with the banging beat of a house track if you know how to beatmatch by ear.
There is also a certain element of ‘legitimacy’ that comes with knowing how to beatmatch by ear. It calls back to the roots of DJing. It pays homage and respect to the DJs that learnt how to beatmatch records before technology made it as simple as a push of a button. You want to be able to play anywhere and be able to proudly declare that you’re a DJ. Knowing how to beatmatch by ear will give you that confidence.
How To Practise Beatmatching
Now you know what beatmatching is as well as why it’s important to learn how to beatmatch by ear. Let’s get into how to learn and practise this skill.
Step 1 – Select Your Two Songs
Pick two songs that you want to beatmatch. Pick songs that have a basic intro and a basic outro without too many elements. As a beginner, it’s important to keep things simple. Too many distracting elements will make your initial attempts too challenging.
Step 2 – Setup Your Tracks
Set Track 1 to play via your main out. This is what the crowd will be hearing. Set a Cue Point on your second track at the start of a phrase. You want this section to be basic so usually, the start of the song will be fine for practice. You also want it to be a natural starting point for a potential transition.
Step 3 – Play Track 1 & Prepare Track 2
Now begin playing track 1 via the main out. At the start of a phrase begin playing track 2 in your headphones. There are a lot of arguments between closed back vs open back headphones but for beatmatching, I suggest you stick with closed back for ideal isolation. Do not have track 2 go through your main out. You only want to be listening to track 2 in one ear so adjust your headphones so one ear can listen to the sound coming from the main out. Depending on your hardware you may be able to do the above process fully in your headphones. This can be either by having a track playing in each ear or by adjusting the cue mix level for your headphones.
Step 4 – Focus on an Element
At this stage you have both tracks playing and both were started at the start of a phrase. Now focus on an element from track 1. Usually, a hi-hat or a clap is a good reference point. Short sharp sounds will be the easiest to recognise. Listen to how that sound layers on top of what you are hearing in your headphones. If the two tracks are at a different BPM you’ll begin to notice that the sound begins to go more and more out of time with the second track.
Step 5 – Make Adjustments
Pay attention to how long it takes for it to go out of time. If it takes a while for it to sound out of time the adjustments needed will be small. If it goes out of time quickly the change will need to be more drastic. Adjust the tempo slider up if the song needs to increase in speed to match track 1. Adjust the tempo slider down if the track needs to slow down. Stop the second track and launch it from the cue point again at the next phrase or mix point to see how things are lining up now.
Step 6 – Repeat
Repeat step 5 until it takes a long time for the sounds to be out of time with each other. Depending on the length of your transition you may still need to make adjustments during the mix.
Step 7 – Start the mix
Now that the tracks are beatmatched you can begin mixing. Go back to your cue point and launch at the start of a phrase. Timing is important here. Two tracks can have the same BPM but if you are slow to release they will sound out of time. Often you can nudge a track forward or back with the jog wheels. You can now begin your transition. If you find that the tracks begin to go out of time with each other you can make minor adjustments to the tempo while in the mix. Where possible adjust the track that is softer in volume to minimise the listener hearing the change. Try to keep any adjustments as minimal as possible when both tracks are live.
Repeat the above process several times. Remember this is practice so feel free to experiment. You may find the volume in your headphones is too loud or soft. You may have selected tracks which have a section which is too short to make the adjustments. If this is the case select different tracks to practise with.
Tips For Beatmatching
As you begin practising beatmatching you may find it more difficult than you anticipated. These extra tips may help ease you in and make that initial learning curve a bit smoother.
Try to start your learning process with simple tracks. Tracks with clear elements you can use as reference points. Tracks which have little in the way of major changes are also beneficial. Consistent beats throughout the majority of the track will give you the most amount of time to beatmatch. If a track has a long breakdown with no beats its less time for you to beatmatch.
Loops are also helpful when you begin beatmatching. Having the track playing in your headphones looped can keep you at the exact segment you plan on mixing in. The consistency in sound will also make beatmatching easier. When you’re learning it’s also fine to loop your first track. This can get you familiar with the actions needed to beatmatch without worrying about phrase changes.
Begin with tracks in the same genre. Trying to beatmatch funky house with trance is difficult as a beginner. You want to gradually build your confidence. Get the basics right before tackling these more challenging beatmatches.
The biggest tip I can offer is to practise and practise often. Beatmatching is a skill that anyone can learn with enough practice. It may take weeks or even months to get it right. Don’t get discouraged and keep at it. Eventually, with enough practice, it will all ‘click’.
Key Equipment Features for Beatmatching
If you do want to learn how to beatmatch by ear these equipment tips will help you. When beatmatching by ear the tempo fader is the most important part of your DJ equipment. There are two main components to the fader. The resolution and the length of the fader.
The resolution of your fader is very important. This defines how much of a tempo change will take place when moving the fader. A higher resolution allows you to make finer adjustments to the tempo. You want to avoid moving the tempo fader a small distance only to have the tempo change dramatically. The majority of modern DJ equipment has a decent resolution so it’s mainly older equipment you need to be wary of.
The best way to test this is to make sure your software is displaying BPM and move the fader as little as possible and see how much the tempo has changed. If you can make fine adjustments down to a 10th of a beat you’ll be able to more accurately beatmatch tracks by ear. You may need to play with the software settings to adjust the tempo faders to a narrow range. Ideally 6-8%. This means that moving the fader all the way up will only alter the tempo up 6-8% from the original tempo. Check your software documentation to find where you can make this change.
The physical length of the fader is also important. The longer the fader the more detailed your adjustments can be. Aim to buy the best beginner DJ controller you can afford. Many compact budget controllers have small tempo faders which can make beatmatching by ear more difficult. If you’re committed to learning to beatmatch by ear try to get a controller with a long tempo fader. Anything around the 100mm mark will be excellent. Don’t be discouraged if the controller you own or plan on buying has short faders. You can still learn with shorter faders. It will be more challenging but not impossible.
Don’t Give Up!
Beatmatching is a skill. The art of mixing is far more detailed than just the ability to match beats. The software may be able to match beats but it can’t read a crowd, build detailed journeys or layer creative twists to a set. Knowing when to mix in a track is another detailed skill that takes time to master. As a beginner feel free to use Sync to keep you motivated and enjoying mixing. It will allow you to focus on all the other elements that go into mixing.
If you want to up your skills keep working on your beatmatching by ear skills in the background. Stay persistent and keep practising. The satisfaction you’ll get from learning this skill will boost your confidence as a DJ. Set aside some time to learn the skill of beatmatching. Even if it’s an hour a week. You may end up still using Sync once you learn to beatmatch and that’s totally fine. At least you’ll be prepared and confident in the knowledge that if all else fails you can do it the traditional way.