Many beginner DJs ask the common question of what cue points are for and how to use them. Cue points are an indispensable tool in a DJs arsenal. They can help speed up the process of mixing and track selection. It’s another small thing DJs can do to be better prepared for their time on the decks. In this guide, we’ll go over what cue points are and some suggestions on the best way to use them.
Why You Should Set Cue Points
Cue points are markers that you can set within your DJ software. The cue points highlight a specific part of a track. Depending on your DJ gear you can often jump to preset cue points with a hit of a button. A good DJ controller will have performance pads that correlate to those cue points. Some have 4 while others may have 8.
Setting cue points when adding a track to your music library gives you a lot of benefits. By going through the track you can set cue points at key moments in the track for easy future reference. By listening to the track and setting relevant cue points it will make you more connected with the track. It will also give you a greater understanding of the structure of the track.
As your collection grows it becomes increasingly difficult to remember the key parts of the tracks in your collection. By taking the time to set cue points when first adding the tracks you can speed up track reviewing when you’re on the decks. This will make the process of determining the best track to follow your currently playing track much quicker.
Most DJs when first acquiring a track will take the time to have a good listen to it. It’s in this time where setting cue points is a natural next step. You’re already listening to the track so you might as well mark it with some useful cue points.
The next question becomes where to actually set them. Let’s dive into the most common spots to set cue points along with some other tips.
Setting Cue Points (Part 1)
This section will cover the best parts at the start of a track to set cue points. The goal of initial cue points is to establish good spots to begin mixing in a track as well as mark the first major changes in the track.
Generally, you’ll want a cue point set at the very beginning of a track or the first beat. Be mindful that you may want to set the first cue point after any intro section. The first beat will often be the most useful. This cue point can be used as a starting point when beatmatching.
In electronic music there generally tends to be an initial part of the track that builds towards the first drop. Setting a cue point at this first drop is also useful. It will give you an instant visual understanding for when you should have completed your mix by. This indicator will make you prepared for a section of the track where it changes dramatically from the beginning phrases. It will also allow you to see the amount of time from the first beat to the first drop which can help you plan your transition.
You can also set a cue point at a certain number of bars or phrases before this first drop if you plan on shorter mixes. For example, you could set a cue point 16 or 32 beats back from the drop. You can then use this cue point as the section for you to loop when beatmatching and blending. This allows for shorter transitions.
In all cases always place a cue point at the start of a bar or phrase. Matching bars and phrase structure is critical for smooth mixing. You can learn more about song structure in this handy guide.
Setting Cue Points (Part 2)
In this next section, we’ll cover the middle part of a track and any cue points which may be useful.
Usually, once a track is mixed in the bulk of the track will play until it comes time to mix in the next track. It’s because of this that you may not need many cue points during this section. There can still be a couple of useful additions though.
A common cue point to set is the start of any vocal components in the track. Marking this with a cue point allows you to be prepared for the vocal. This can prevent playing two vocals over the top of each other. This vocal cue point can also be useful if you want to bring the vocal back into the mix. Setting a cue point at the start of the vocal will allow this to happen from a natural starting point.
You may also want to consider adding a cue point for any breaks in the track. The dynamic changes in breaks can lead to creative options when layering your transitions. This becomes more useful if you are mixing multiple channels. Setting a cue point here will save you time finding that break.
There may be a section in the middle of the track which may also serve as a useful loop. It might be a vocal or a unique element that lends itself to looping. Once again marking this with a cue point can help jog your memory and save you time locating it.
Setting Cue Points (Part 3)
Now it’s time to tackle the cue points that can be useful at the end of a track.
The main cue points you want to set here are the primary mix out sections. These are the parts of a track where it’s best to start mixing in the new track. You may want to set several cue points here at various stages of the track unwinding. This will give you multiple reference points to start your transition. Having these cue points set will also warn you as the track begins to unwind that you should start mixing in your next track.
Another useful cue point to set is for any section towards the end of the track which can be looped. This loop will give you more time to mix in your next track. If you find yourself running out of time when mixing this cue point can be an instant saviour for a loop that can buy you precious seconds. This loop can also prevent the song from ending abruptly before your next song has gained a proper foothold in the listener’s ear.
Using Cue Points For Mixing
As you can see the cue points are all designed to help you make decisions when on the decks. Randomly skimming through a song is less efficient compared to reviewing the cue points you have set. In a short amount of time, you’ll know the main mix in points, primary drops, vocal starts, breaks and mix out positions. The more time saved reviewing the more time you’ll have to craft the perfect transition.
You can also use these cue points to enhance your mixes. You can jump through sections of a track on the fly and effectively cut out long boring sections of a track. Be careful when doing this as timing is crucial. Always stick to making any cue jumps to set phrase lengths. Be mindful of any drastic changes as well. You want the cue jump to sound natural. It shouldn’t sound like you jumping through the track.
Cue juggling is another fun creative mixing tool up your sleeve. You can set multiple cue points within a phrase and jump between them. This allows you to make mashups on the fly. It can be used for both vocal and instrumental elements of a track. Be sure to practise this before attempting it live in a mix. Poor cue juggling can result in a jumbled sounding mess. If you master this skill you can set yourself apart from other DJs.
Cue points are also very useful when layering multiple channels. You can combine the instrumental effects from one track with the vocal from another track all while your main track is still playing. Once again these are advanced techniques that you’ll need to practise. Without cue points, it becomes near impossible to achieve these creative and innovative mixes.
Auto Cue Points
If you’re still not sure where to set cue points or feel you don’t have the time there is an automated option available.
MixedInKey is a popular DJ tool that analyses song structure and provides information on the tracks key components. It also has the ability to auto-assign some cue points. This can save you a lot of time when first adding tracks to your collection.
While a great tool, it isn’t without its faults. As with all programs designed around an algorithm it may not match up to where you would set cue points. Think of it the same way as using the Sync button for auto beatmatching. It will get it right most of the time but nothing compares to doing it yourself.
If you feel you don’t have the time feel free to use the tool. However, I would recommend you spend that little extra time setting them yourself. If you are using the tool check the set cue points afterwards to make sure you are happy with the placement.
It’s Worth It
Whether you decide on using a program like MixedInKey or you do it manually it’s definitely worth setting cue points. Take the time to get to know the track and set useful cue points. Make it a habit to make sure new tracks are analysed and cue points added before using them in your mixes. It will make your time on the decks more enjoyable. It will also speed up key parts of your mixing routine. Even better it will open you up to a world of creative mixing options.