One of the questions I’m asked most often by other DJs, novices and veterans alike, is how do I mix vinyl records so seamlessly? In a time when most DJs learn using all the visual cues, and technical aids, found in software like Serato or Rekordbox, mixing using only one’s ears can be daunting. Today I’m going to try to explain how to start learning to mix using actual vinyl records, i.e. not control vinyl, although everything I say is also applicable to mixing using other formats.
Before you start:
Before you start learning how to beatmatch and mix vinyl records, there are a few things you need to have ready. For starters, you will need a pair of turntables and a mixer. You will also need a collection of vinyl records, and a pair of headphones. Ideally, you should invest in a good quality pair of headphones that are designed for DJing, as they will help you to hear the music more clearly and accurately. Earbuds or Airpods aren’t going to cut it here.
You should also make sure that your turntables are set up correctly. This includes ensuring that they are level, that the tonearms are correctly balanced, and that the needles are in good condition. You should also make sure that your mixer is set up correctly, with all cables plugged into the correct inputs, your input and output levels are dialed in, and that your headphones are connected to the mixer.
Eventually, you should make sure that you have a good understanding of music theory and the structure of songs. This will help you to understand how different tracks fit together, and how to create seamless transitions between them. I’ll go into more detail about music theory and phrasing in a future article, but in the meantime you may want to read up on the topic. For now, however, we’re going to focus on mastering the technical side of mixing, which is beatmatching, and worry later about the artistic side, though both ore of equal importance.
Beatmatching is the process of syncing the tempo and beats of two tracks so that they play in time with each other. This is a fundamental skill that all DJs need to master in order to create smooth and seamless transitions between tracks, and it’s what the software does for you when you use digital files and turn on sync.
To beatmatch two tracks, you will need to listen to both tracks at the same time, and adjust the tempo of one track so that it matches the tempo of the other track. This is done by adjusting the pitch control on your turntable or mixer.
To start, you should select two tracks that have a similar tempo and beats per minute (BPM). This will make it easier to beatmatch them. Once you have selected your tracks, you should cue up the first track on your turntable, and start it playing.
Next, you should cue up the second track on your other turntable, and start it playing as well. Listen to both tracks carefully, and try to identify the beat of each track. You can do this by counting the beats in your head or tapping your foot to the rhythm.
Once you have identified the beat of each track, you should adjust the pitch control on your second turntable to match the tempo of the first track. This can take some practice, as you will need to adjust the pitch control by small increments until the two tracks are in sync.
Cueing is the process of preparing a track to be played, and it involves using your headphones to listen to a track before you start playing it. This allows you to find the right starting point for the track, and to make sure that it is in sync with the track that is currently playing.
To cue a track, you should select the track that you want to play next, and cue it up on your turntable. This means that you should position the needle at the point where you want the track to start playing. Make sure your mixer is set to play that song through the cue, which means you’ll hear it in your headphones, but it won’t play through the house speakers, so the audience won’t hear it.
Mixing Two Songs Together
Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to beatmatch with vinyl records:
1. Start by selecting two tracks that have a similar tempo and beats per minute (BPM). This will make it easier to beatmatch them. Over time you can practice mixing songs that aren’t as close in tempo, but when you start, use songs of similar speed.
2. Once you have selected your tracks, cue up the first track on your turntable and start it playing. Make sure that the volume is turned up, and the song is playing through the speakers. This is what your audience will hear.
3. Cue up the second track on your other turntable, and start it playing as well. Make sure that the crossfader is all the way to the other side, so you don’t hear this song playing through the speakers.
4. Put on your headphones and make sure your mixer is set so that the track that is not playing through the speakers is playing through the cue. Different mixers do this differently, so consult the manual if you can’t figure out how to do this. Once it is playing through the cue, you can adjust the balance between cue and master to listen to both tracks at the same time. Adjust the balance on your mixer so that you can hear both tracks equally.
5. Listen carefully to the beat of each track. You can do this by counting the beats in your head or tapping your foot to the rhythm. Focus on the bass drum or the snare drum, as these are the most prominent elements in most tracks. Focus on one track, then the other, and get comfortable isolating each song in your head as you hear both. This will take some practice. Don’t worry about mixing yet, just try to focus on one song while ignoring the other, then switch and focus on the other song, while ignoring the first one.
6. When you are ready to start mixing, bring the needle on the second song back to the beginning of the record, and find a downbeat. If you don’t know what a downbeat is, read this older article I wrote that explains it in detail. Listen to record 1 playing in the headphones, and release record 2 on a downbeat of record 1. At least for a moment, the songs should play in sync, until the tempo difference causes them to slowly drift out of sync.
7. Identify in which direction record 2 (the one the audience cannot hear) is drifting. One way to do this is listen to the snare drums. If you start hearing the snares of record 1 before the snares of record 2, then record 2 is playing at slower tempo. If you hear the snares of record 2 first, it’s faster. You can verify this by either pushing record 2 gently ahead, to help it catch up, or by gently dragging it with your fingers, to slow it down. If you do it correctly, you will temporarily bring the records into sync. After a moment they will start to drift again. It will take some time to develop a light enough touch to do this accurately, so don’t worry if you push too hard or drag too much. In time, it will become second nature, I promise!
8. Once you have ascertained if record 2 is slower or faster than record 2, adjust the pitch control on your second turntable in the appropriate direction, in an attempt to match the tempo of the first track. This can take some practice, as you will need to adjust the pitch control by small increments until the two tracks are in sync. After each adjustment, listen again. Is it still drifting? In what direction? Sometimes you can adjust too much, and will need to nudge the pitch in the other direction. By doing this over and over you will slowly fine-tune the pitch until they are in perfect sync.
9. When the two tracks are in sync, you should hear no drift, and the snares should play on top of each other. The beats are now aligned.
10. Once the two tracks are beatmatched, you can start to mix them together. Use the fader on your mixer to gradually bring in the second track, while slowly lowering the volume of the first track. Try to create a smooth and seamless transition between the two tracks, and make sure that the beats remain in sync.
In a future article, we’ll discuss when and where you should perform the transition described in step 10, but for now just practice getting the beats aligned, and smoothly fading from record 1 into record 2. You can also use EQ and effects to enhance the mix, but for now, make sure that the beats remain in sync at all times. Practice mixing different tracks together until you can easily line up the tempos of any two records. Only then are you ready to worry about phrasing and other enhancements to a mix.
Remember, beatmatching with vinyl records takes a lot of time and practice to master, but with patience and dedication, you can become a skilled DJ and create amazing mixes that sound just as good as what can be done using software and the sync function. Good luck!