How To Beatmatch

In this guide we look at how to beatmatch by ear (without sync!), how to beatmatch on CDJs and vinyl, and some beatmatching techniques, covering everything from the basics to some more advanced tips and tricks.

What is Beatmatching?

Beatmatching is the art of getting two tracks to play at the same tempo, or BPM (beats per minute). Most house or techno tracks range between 110-150 BPM, drum and bass around 140-180 BPM (or half: 70-90 BPM).

When two tracks are beatmatched, the kick drum and other percussive elements of the track will be aligned, so you won’t hear any clanging, and the first beat of each bar should also be in sync.

How to count BPM

Most DJs rely on DJ software such as rekordbox to analyse the BPM of their digital tracks.

If you need to work out the BPM of a track on vinyl or if digital analysis fails you, there are several free smartphone apps that will help you identify the BPM of a track, such as BPM Tap or SimpleBPMDetector.

Once you can beatmatch by ear, you don’t necessarily need to know the BPM of your tracks.

How to pick tracks with a similar BPM

Beatmatching is easier if you start with tracks that have a similar BPM. If you stick to one genre and era in your set, often the tracks will already be in a similar BPM-range. You can also make use of the sort function on your CDJ or DJ software, or use intelligent playlists to make sure that you are selecting tracks within the same range of 5 BPM points, for example.

You can also learn some advanced mixing techniques that will help you transition between tracks that have very different BPMs.

Why should DJs learn how to beatmatch?

Modern digital DJ technology is quite advanced, making it entirely possible to DJ without beatmatching by ear. That’s why many new DJs are asking themselves – Do I really need to learn to beatmatch the old-fashioned way?

The simple answer is no, you don’t absolutely have to. However, there are many benefits to mastering manual beatmatching. Here are three of them:

  • Flexibility: knowing how to beatmatch allows you to play on any kind of DJ set up. Not all venues have the latest equipment, or space for your controller. You might want to play at your friend’s place, where there’s only an ancient pair of CDJ-400. You might want to B2B with other types of DJs who play vinyl or have digital tracks that haven’t been properly analysed, which will create problems if you are relying on the beat sync button.

  • Feel the music: Beatmatching forces you to really listen to the music and better understand its rhythm, which also improves your mixing and means you’ll probably have more fun!

  • Save preparation time: Although learning to beatmatch is an initial time investment, in the long run it will save you time spent preparing – if you use sync, it’s essential to analyse your tracks in rekordbox and check the BPM and beat grid. Tracks with tempo changes or tracks that aren’t perfectly quantized also cause complications. Perhaps you got some new tracks the day of a gig and didn’t find time to analyse them – if you know how to beatmatch without sync, this won’t be a problem!

What do you need to learn how to beatmatch?

To start beatmatching, you don’t need anything special – just a pair of DJ headphones and your usual DJ set up. If you’re using CDJs, one common trick is to cover the BPM on the screen with a sticker. If you use a controller, turn your laptop screen away or don’t look at it. Of course, make sure to turn off sync first.

What are the basics of beatmatching?

Once both your tracks are at the same tempo, the next step is to make sure the beats are properly aligned, in other words, the first beat of each bar is in time with both tracks. Commonly this is done by ear, using headphones. Modern CDJs, standalone controllers, and DJ software also show you the waveform of the track, providing a visual cue to help with beatmatching.

  1. Select your track: Make sure the two tracks you want to mix are roughly within the same BPM range. If they are more than +/-10 BPM, one track might sound too fast or slow (there are of course exceptions to this!). Sometimes you can beatmatch with double or half tempo (e.g., 80 and 160 BPM – this is common in drum & bass).

  2. BPM matching: If you use CDJs or a controller, use the tempo slider to match the BPM of the new track to the old one. For vinyl DJs, this process requires a little more listening and practice – more on this later!

  3. Set your cue point: The cue point is the beat you will start with as you mix in the new track. You can simply use the first beat of the track, but if you want to mix in at a later point, cue at the beginning of a pattern so your mixing is in phrase. To make beatmatching easier, find the first beat with a kick drum and skip over any intros without a clear 4/4 beat.

  4. Adjust: Once both tracks are playing together, listen and check if they are aligned. Start by nudging the jog wheel (or record) in one direction and see if it sounds better or worse. If it sounds worse, drag back in the other direction. Once both are aligned, listen to see if they start to drift apart again. If so, fine-tune the tempo (Even if the tracks’ BPMs match, tiny adjustments can still be necessary, especially if you make long DJ transitions).

Beatmatching techniques

  • Nudging: Nudging means gently pushing the jog wheel of a CDJ or controller, momentarily speeding the track up. If both tracks are already at the same tempo, but the beats are not aligned, then you can beatmatch just by nudging and dragging. If your two tracks are not in tempo, adjust the tempo by using the pitch fader as explained above.

  • Dragging: Dragging is similar to nudging, but in the other direction. By gently dragging the jog wheel backwards, you can slow down the track. If you’re playing vinyl, merely gently touching the side of the platter should be enough. If you need to drag continuously to keep the tracks in time, you will need to slow the incoming track down.

  • Pitch riding: Pitch riding is a more advanced technique used by some vinyl DJs, which involves beatmatching without touching the platter, but instead ‘nudging’ the record by moving the pitch fader quickly down and back up again. Although this method is quite tricky, it has the advantage of avoiding the risk of accidentally causing the needle to jump.

How To Beatmatch By Ear

Cue your incoming track: If you cue accurately, choosing a clear down beat at the beginning of a phrase, this makes beatmatching easier.

  1. Listen: If you cued well, the first few beats might be in time, but often they won’t be. Start by nudging and trying to align the beats. Listen and focus on the percussion, like the kick drum and hi-hat. Try to hear which kick drum comes first, and thus which track is faster. It’s not always easy, but with practice, you will train your ear. While practicing listening, try out different headphone volumes – louder isn’t always better! You can try different headphone configurations: use the cue with one ear on and one ear off, put both ears on and use the cue/mix knob to add the mix, set both channels to cue, or even use the split cue if your mixer has one. These options give slightly different listening experiences – some might sound a bit weird at first, but it’s worth trying them out to find your personal preference!

  2. Align the beats: If you can already hear if your incoming track is behind or ahead of the current track, great! Adjust accordingly by nudging or dragging. If you can hear that the tracks are out of sync but can’t tell in which direction, start by nudging and listening to see if it sounds better or worse. One tip is to rotate the jog wheel a quarter turn. If the blend sounds worse, rotate a quarter turn back to return to where you started, then try a quarter turn in the other direction. If the tracks are so far apart that this doesn’t help and you’re feeling confused, stop and cue the track again. If your tracks happen to be at the same tempo, then all you need to do is align the beats and your job is done! If the tempo is different, the tracks will drift apart again, which means you need to adjust the tempo.

  3. Adjust the tempo: Try to listen to how quickly the two tracks drift out of time. If it happens within the space of a few beats, you need to adjust the pitch by a lot, maybe a few BPM points. If it takes several bars for the tracks to come out of sync, then you only need a slight adjustment.

  4. Start your transition, but never stop listening: Even once your tracks are beatmatched, it’s possible that they might come slightly out of sync again, so keep listening carefully and nudge or drag them back in time if necessary.

How To Beatmatch Using Automatic Sync

If you are still learning to beatmatch by ear, but you’d also like to practice some mixing techniques, you can use sync to help you in the interim. The best DJ controllers, DJ softwares, and most of the newer CDJs have a sync button. There are a couple of points to remember when using sync:

  1. Check your master: Make sure the deck where the current track is playing is set to ‘master’, so that the BPM of the incoming track syncs to the BPM of the current one, rather than the other way round.

  2. Listen and adjust: Not all tracks will be perfectly analysed, and the beatmatching could be slightly off, so you might have to make small adjustments with the jog wheel to get the blend sounding good. If you’re using a controller, you can use the waveform as a visual cue to help you work out which direction to go.

Are professional DJs using sync?

Yes, some do! There are many different methods or styles of DJing. Some DJs choose to use sync or a controller because of the flexibility it gives them, or because it enables them to focus more on effects, faster mixing, or audience engagement. However, most professional DJs can also beatmatch by ear, so while learning how to DJ, it’s recommended to develop your beatmatching skills at least as a backup.

How To Beatmatch Vinyl

Learning how to mix vinyl involves beatmatching vinyl records. In theory, this is similar to the methods described above but more difficult. Here are a couple of differences:

  • Smaller BPM range: Due to their analog nature, turntables have a smaller pitch range than digital equipment. A standard Technics 1210 turntable has a pitch range of +/- 8%. Other turntables have slightly different ranges, and some modern ones, such as the Technics 1210 MK7, even allow you to double the pitch range.

  • Cueing: Cueing requires more listening, as you can’t see the wave form. If you look at the record closely, you might see the breaks, which helps you cue at the drop, but you still have to rely on your ears. Locate the kick drum or whichever first beat you can identify by moving the record backwards and forwards. Once you have it, wait for the beginning of a phrase and let the record go in time.

  • Adjust carefully: With vinyl, the same principles of nudging and dragging apply, but finding the right touch and pressure will take practice and could vary depending on the turntable. If you aren’t gentle enough, the needle might skip, and you’ll have to cue the record all over again.

Beatmatching with just a laptop

If you want to practice beatmatching, but only have access to a laptop, you can still do so with your DJ software of choice. Most of the best DJ softwares for beginners will have pitch bend buttons and the option to turn off sync. Use keyboard shortcuts to help nudge or drag more easily. This can at least let you practice cueing tracks and aligning them, thereby helping you train your ears.

Tips to improve your beat matching

  • Get good headphones and good monitor speakers. Good quality audio equipment will help you hear the percussive elements of your tracks, such as a crisp hi-hat or a punchy kick drum, which will make it easier to beatmatch by ear.

  • One trick is to deliberately pitch your incoming track down or up a lot, so you start already knowing that the track is slower or faster. If you already know which direction to go in, beatmatching is much easier and you can concentrate more on the fine tuning.

  • Practice on old CDJs if you have the chance. The more basic the equipment is, the more you will be forced to improve your skills. Then, playing on newer equipment will be a breeze! Plus, a second-hand pair of CDJ 350s or 850s can be a more affordable option for your home setup when compared with XDJs or upmarket standalone controllers.

A DJ using a Pioneer CDJ 2000 NXS2 set up for beginners in a Pirate Studios DJ room

Hopefully you now understand some of the theory of beatmatching. Now all that remains is to practice! There’s no easy way around it – manual beatmatching is a skill that takes time to learn. Try practicing in different contexts, like at your local professional DJ studios before testing your skills at a gig. Once you’ve mastered beatmatching, the sense of achievement will be worth it!

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