How To Mix Vinyl Records
DJ, promoter and label boss Will Bradbury has created a dedicated guide on how to DJ with vinyl records - from song selection to how cuing works and the basics of beat matching vinyl.
Like many, when I first got the itch to DJ, I started out on a little plasticy DJ controller connected to a laptop. My music was organized in playlists, the software sorted them in a list by BPM and I was aided by an on-screen grid showing the waveform of each track. After this, I stepped up to playing on CDJs, where you are similarly helped out with their in-built analyser.
But as someone who had been buying records for a few years, as well as a blow to my ego clanging whilst having a mix with some friends who were playing on vinyl, I decided it was time to put the slabs of wax on my shelves to some use and avoid future embarrassment in such company. I saved up and bought a pair of second hand Technics, started saving up for more dance 12”s and spent a bit of time figuring out how to start mixing vinyl.
Why bother playing records?
It is a fair question - there are many arguments against it: costs, likelihood of your mix going wrong, fewer clubs having turntables instead of CDJs and the labour involved lugging them around to gigs.. So what are the pros?
I recently wrote about Why 50% Of Artists Prefer Vinyl Releases. In this article The Carvery’s mastering engineer Frank Merritt explains the superior sound quality of the vinyl format over digital:
‘Most records are cut from high resolution Wav files, normally 24bit, 44.1Khz or above. Streaming is about a 20th of the sized of that file.’
So unless you are carrying around a usb full of uncompressed files, there will be a noticeable difference in sound quality, especially on a large, fine-tuned sound system.
Aside from this, the other obvious reason to learn to mix vinyl is to get to play tracks that are released on vinyl only labels - perhaps you’re a big fan of Perlon, Giegling or Sex Tags and can’t find the digis anywhere. There’s also a huge history of (often somewhat dodgy) disco or tech-house with uncleared samples on them only available on obscure white labels.
Another big reason people may not admit to is because of its cool factor - I remember Bambounou joking about ending up at ‘those kinds of afterparties where everyone is a real DJ and playing just vinyl.’ Or perhaps you’ve seen Eris Drew scratching and you’re thinking, damn that’s fucking cool, how do I do that?
The final predominant reason is preference - depending on what you play and your DJing style, you may actually prefer playing records, finding that it forces you to focus more. Whatever the case, I do believe that learning to mix vinyl improves your DJing skills even when it comes to playing on CDJs, as it teaches you to rely more on what you’re hearing, rather than what you’re seeing.
The Vinyl DJ Setup
For anyone who has already learnt how to DJ, a vinyl setup it should be pretty familiar. Most of you will be know how a mixer works and the basics of DJing from playing on CDJs or a controller. The only difference is that you're replacing your CDJ decks with vinyl turntables.
Your Step-By-Step Guide To Mixing Vinyl
1. Track Selection
It’s really important to know your records. When starting out it’s probably easiest to start with two tracks of the same genre - ideally which aren’t too syncopated, have similar beat patterns and which don't contain any big surprises like tempo jumps or lengthy ambient breaks.
Find the ‘1’ (first beat) of the track you’re going to bring in. Drop the needle at the start of the groove containing the track you want - when you hear the kick, place your hand on the record and drag it back to that beat. Gently rotating the record back and forward over that point should give you a ‘duff’ (kick) and then ‘duff’ in reverse through the headphones. Don’t be scared to place your hand on top of the grooves of the record - provided you aren’t scratching at it with your nails, this won’t damage it.
Hopefully you’ve picked a friendly track where there is a kick at the start and the phrasing begins on the first beat too. Otherwise you might have to do a bit more work and listen through the record a bit to figure out where the first beat of the first full phrase is, counting ‘1, 2, 3, 4’. If you’re mixing House music, the usual giveaway is the snare on 2 and 4. Moreover, many more DJ-friendly tracks are designed for mixing in such a way where there will be a clear divide between sections - an intro which is great for mixing in, building into the main bulk of the track, and an outro with elements thinning out for mixing out of.
This is your main job and the thing that takes the most practice. However, again, if you've already learnt how to beatmatch on CDJs, the process should be fairly familiar.
Start by working out whether the track you’re bringing in is faster or slower than what’s playing - you shouldn’t have to wait too long to get a sense of which is, and the two will fairly quickly go out of sync unless they happen to be at the same tempo already.
Once you’ve figured that out, make an adjustment to the tempo slider, which is normally on the right hand side of the turntable marked as pitch shift - this is because speeding up the rotation of the turntable increases the pitch of the track, whereas slowing down decreases its pitch. Without going into too much detail about the physics here, think about the sound waves hitting your eardrum - if at twice the speed that they were originally recorded at, the vibrations hit our ear twice as many times per second. Think about the sound of your washing machine spinning faster, creating that rising woosh sound.
Having made an adjustment to the slider, cue up the record again and see if you’re any closer. Hopefully you’ve got it closer and they go out of sync more slowly - but it's likely you’ll have either over- or under-shot and require another readjustment. So repeat this process until you hear the two tracks are fairly close to the same speed.
When you’ve managed to get them fairly close, you’ll have to start making more minor adjustments to the slider. You can also help keep them in sync manually by slowing down the turntable by lightly brushing your finger against the ridged side of the turntable to ‘brake’, or speeding the record up by lightly pushing it forward clockwise, or twisting the spindle poking through the centre of the record. Once you’re happy you’ve got them aligned, it's time to do your thing and mix the track in.
Once you’re comfortable with the basics, you may want to start challenging yourself: go a bit beyond your comfort zone, playing styles you don’t normally and blending these. Try playing at different tempos and tracks which aren’t so straightforward 4/4 tracks. If you normally play house and techno, give hip hop or D&B a go and learn to cut with some crossfader action. If you really want to have some fun you could get scratching - though do note you’ll want to have the correct styli for these to avoid wearing out or damaging your records.
Over time, you’ll get a feel for how much you'll need to nudge the tempo slider to get the two tracks beatmatched and this process gets much easier. Similarly, you will gain confidence in the tactile elements involved - cueing up the record and manually speeding up and slowing down.
Don’t get disheartened if it doesn’t click right away, this will come with practice and remember, given the nature of playing ‘analogue’, you may never (or not have time) to get them 100% perfectly in sync, which is why it's important to keep listening and keep adjusting as you go.
You will naturally develop your own style and approach to playing - Jeff Mills famously mixes entirely in headphones, 4 decks at a time. This of course very much dictates the music he plays and how he blends them.
Your genre will also somewhat influence the vinyl mixing exercises you need to practice. For example, if you're a Hip Hop DJ and you're really keen to learn how to scratch, you'll be looking much more closely at how to use the crossfader than someone like me who mostly plays Techno and has very little business cutting.