From Amateur to Professional


Wow! time does fly.

This time I had plans to create a tutorial on using EQs, but I’ve decided to continue on from the previous tutorial on energy levels. Over the course of this year I have had many enquiries relating to transition points, mixing on vocals, finding beats, and so on. After learning to beatmatch, the next step and equally as important is to time the mix perfectly.

What is meant by phrasing?

As always, definitions can differ across the DJ community. When I talk about phrasing, I mean 3 things:

  1. Both tracks are beatmatched
  2. Both tracks are aligned so beat 1 of bar 1 for track A will coincide with beat 1 of bar 1 of track B for any given phrase. The exception here is if there is an anomaly in the track such as an extra bar being brought in. As long as when the cued track is being introduced, the phrases of both tracks start at the same time … we’re good to go.
  3. The phrases are aligned in such a way that the cued track is introduced to the audience when it makes sense. This is the topic of discussion for today.

What is the formula that will help with phrasing?

It’s interesting how many times people will ask me for exact rules to follow to create that magical mix. I always respond in the same way … “there is no special formula that can be applied to all mixes”. Every track is different and every transition will therefore be different. In the last tutorial I showed you a method of analyzing waveforms with RekordBox in order to find transitional markers. The purpose of the tutorial wasn’t to create a set of rules to follow, but to make you understand that you need to analyze the tracks and see what is happening with them.

Sometimes it will make sense to blend vocals together, sometimes it will make sense to completely switch off the live track, sometimes it will make sense to keep both bases on full, sometimes it will make sense to do something totally different.

Once you have understood the concepts of the previous tutorials on this site, you have enough knowledge to experiment and figure out where to phrase a transition. Some fine tuning is still required with EQs and that is something I will touch on next time. For now, the important thing to consider is that you must be able to listen to tracks and ‘feel’ if they are right for each other and ‘feel’ where a transition should happen. If you’re not feeling the music and have no idea of how you want a mix to sound, start listening to mixes by other DJs and get an idea of how they do things. You may find a style that feels perfect.

Stop over-analyzing

This is something I say to a lot of people who ask me detailed questions. Again, just go with the flow, trust your instinct and feel the music. I even get questions asked like “What is a beat? Are vocals beats?”. If you need to ask questions like this then you must put a lot more time into studying music theory. Having said that, if there is no natural feel for the music you’re playing and just getting a sense of how things should be aligned, maybe you want to ask yourself if this is something to continue on doing. A DJ who knows how to play the crowd is a DJ who acts on instinct … this automatic sense must exist.

A guide to phrasing

Every DJ will have their own methods and techniques. Following is what I do when I’m preparing for a mix:

  • I create an idea in my head for the type of mix I’d like: the genre, bpm, for what audience/purpose, whether there’s a theme such as a tribute to an artist.
  • I will sit down with headphones on and create a list of tracks I would like to include in the mix.
  • I use RekordBox to create a playlist from those tracks. This is something that can take a whole day to do even for a mix of 20 tracks. I use good-quality headphones so I can get lost in the music and hear all the details to help me decide whether the tracks will work together. I can just sense what will work well together based on tempo, key, vocals, melodies.
  • Once I have my playlist, I will go through it again and identify transition markers (see previous video on energy levels) and still make sure it sounds like the mix will work.
  • I burn 2 CDs including my tracks. This is because I’m using the CDJ1k which requires CDs.
  • Time to experiment with transitions on the decks. If I was right, the transitions end up working as long as the correct EQing is used.

When choosing tracks that work well together, some people may want to use the Camelot Wheel to help with key analysis … for me it isn’t required as a lot of the time tracks work well even if they aren’t related on the Camelot Wheel. It also highly depends on where the tracks are being mixed … sometimes a certain key works fine when blending into beats but not when blending into vocals. Also, if there is a big pitch change during beatmatching, you have 2 keys available already by either having Master Tempo enabled or disabled.

Another thing to consider when finding tracks that transition well is the overall structure of the mix. You could create a list of tracks that blend in well with each other but in the bigger picture the mix doesn’t work. Every set must take the user on a journey. If you always have very big changes, a high energy track, then low, then high, then low, it is very confusing to the listener. What I like to do is start off slow, and get into the main part of the mix in a few tracks, then keep the energy going (by track selection and correct phrasing) and finally die it down for the final track or 2. If the theme of the mix is a happy bouncy bouncy feeling, keep to the theme. If the theme is a dark melodic vibe, keep to the theme.

In the video I will describe this process in more detail.

Challenge of the month

At the moment I am working on creating a mix dedicated to Armin van Buuren. Using the steps in the previous list, I first sat down with headphones and had a quick listen to a lot of his tracks (just skimming through them, listening mainly at the beginning and end for transition markers). I then shortlisted the tracks that I thought worked well for the mix.

I have added 40 Armin tracks to this YouTube playlist for you to go through. All of the tracks that I include in my final mix will come from this list.

At some point this month I will be creating and uploading the mix. In the meantime, why not listen through the tracks and see if you can come up with a playlist you think will work well in a mix. If you would like to share your thoughts, feel free to post your playlist in the forum or on the YouTube comments. To make this harder, rather than just thinking about track order, try and work out when/where transitions can happen. Who knows, maybe you will think of an awesome set that hasn’t crossed my mind :)

When I upload the mix it will be available on the MixCloud widget on the right, labelled “Armin and Friends”.

Until next time….

Keep practicing and listening to mixes by other DJs to get a better concept of transition timing and what works. Next time we can dabble into using EQs.