Remember Francis Grasso, the godfather of beatmatching who introduced a sense of musicality to the art of DJing? Well, to save time and streamline his mixing process, Grasso came up with another technique that became a secret weapon for many top DJs in the analog age. To put it simply, Grasso taught himself how to read records.
“If you look at a [vinyl] album carefully,” he explained, “you can see which parts of it are vocal and which parts are musical, so you’ve already got a head start. The dark black grooves are instrumental sections and the lighter black is the vocal.”6
Nowadays, whether you prefer CDs, vinyl, digital DJ setups or even MP3 DJ gadgets, the only thing that matters is how you use what you’ve got. The gear and the medium may be different, but the demands of today’s audiences are the same: They want to be thrilled by what they’re hearing. In this chapter, we’ll explain how you can create more exciting buildups and transitions in your set by visualizing the structure of the songs you’re mixing.
Most popular dance music follows a basic structure that’s easy to learn. If you understand a song’s structure–the way its sections have been arranged to create the total work–then you’re getting closer to understanding how a song can connect, emotionally, with its listener. That’s powerful information for a DJ to have.
Ideally, a well-crafted song structure will create an immediate experience for you as a listener, telling a story with a sense of anticipation that builds toward an emotional release, burning the song into your memory. The song’s different parts–verse, chorus and bridge–are all arranged and repeated to help tell this story and make the song more memorable. Once you can visualize a song’s structure, as a DJ you have the elements at your fingertips to create a seamless transition between songs without losing a crowd’s energy.
Here is how a typical song is structured:
Intro: An intro is typically a multiple of 16 beats in length, and often introduces a new instrument or sound every 32 beats. Some intros open with drums and gradually add layers of instruments. A buildup or other aural cue lets you know it’s over.
Verse: In songs with lyrics, each verse is usually different from the next. The verse sets up the theme of the song and builds a natural progression to the chorus.
Chorus: This contains the main message or theme of the song. It’s built around a melodic “hook” and is the most catchy and energetic part of the song.
Breakdown: This is a transition from the end of the chorus to the beginning of the next part of the song. Dance tracks tend not to include percussion during the breakdown.
Verse 2: Most songs contain a second verse with different lyrics.
Chorus 2: Usually, the second chorus repeats the first chorus.
Bridge: This is an optional transitional section near the end of a song, most often in pop music. A bridge will occur only once, and musically and lyrically it’s different from the rest of the song.
Chorus 3: Some tracks will repeat the chorus a third time.
Outro: This is the closing segment, where the song fades or breaks down to simple beats. It’s most likely the same length as the intro.7
If you understand these structural elements and how they relate to each other, you’ll know exactly where you are at any point in a particular track. As a DJ, knowing when the tune is playing a verse, a chorus, or a breakdown–even if the song has no lyrics–can help you create seamless, professional mixes. In turn, this knowledge will help you get creative with your mix. (For example, at the right moment, you can drop in the chorus of a harmonically compatible song, which is one of the basic elements of a mashup. We’ll get into more of this in Chapter 7.)
Most dance music tracks open with what’s often called a “four-on-the-floor” rhythm, with the kick drum bumping out a steady boom boom boom boom. Each boom is a beat. It sounds obvious, but when you nod your head or tap your foot, you’re really just keeping time with the beat.
You’re probably very familiar with this concept already, but it’s worth mentioning because it sneaks up in different ways. When you look at a DJ mixer, for example, and see a value like “1/16” on an effects knob, it means the effect is designed to modulate or repeat every 1/16th of a beat. A value of “4” indicates four beats, or more simply, a bar. Slow flange effects will often modulate every 16 or 32 beats.
A phrase is a segment of music, whether a melody or a rhythm, that has a complete musical sense of its own. Put more simply, it has a natural sense of structural completeness –a beginning, a middle and an end. For example, you might hear a synth melody that repeats multiple times. Each repetition is probably a phrase; it usually consists of 32 or 64 beats (8 or 16 bars), but it can be shorter. It’s like a sentence, where each beat is like a word.
Each phrase begins with a unique element, like a cymbal crash or the start of a melody. From a listener’s standpoint, this is a cue that the songwriter or producer has left for you to discover, so you know where you are in the track.
Once you get used to thinking about beats and phrases, and their place in song structure, you’ll notice that almost all the popular music in the world follows the formula we’ve described above. It just feels comfortable and natural. And once you can identify end-of-phrase markers instinctively, you won’t need to count out beats and phrases; instead, you’ll feel it when the music is about to change.
It’s one thing to hear music; it’s another thing entirely to listen to it. This means focusing your attention so you can begin to absorb a song’s melody and structure. “Our brain relies on triggers,” writes club DJ John Steventon, “such as the end-of-phrase markers, vocals or even just looking at the different heights of the waveform to help you remember the structure [of a song].”8
What he means is that a song contains multiple cues that help you determine where you are. Once you familiarize yourself with these cues, you’ll start to access them subconsciously. The key is to listen to the song’s structure with an active ear, and to pin down such elements as the melody, the hook, and the start of a new phrase. By training yourself to pay attention to each element and what comes next, eventually you’ll be able to navigate your way through the different sections of a song instinctively.
As Francis Grasso discovered back in the early days of vinyl, you can actually see a song’s waveform on the record itself. The darker parts of the vinyl mean there’s not as much information cut into the groove, so it’s likely not to contain a beat.9 Heavy bass requires cutting deeper grooves in the vinyl, and that’s usually where the beats are.
Today’s digital waveforms are much easier to read; in fact, it’s a pretty intuitive process. As you might expect, the narrow portions denote a quiet section of the song, while the tall portions are louder and typically contain drums. These distinctions add a level of detail that helps you see when a beat is about to kick in, even if it’s not audible yet.
How can you use this knowledge to your advantage? Think about the effect of the contrast between the quiet and loud sections of a song like Daft Punk’s “One More Time.” The abrupt change from a gentle melody to a pumping beat creates an emotion that translates into energy. And that’s what makes a crowd want to jump up and down.
Let’s take a look at the song’s waveform:
Track name: “One More Time”
Artist: Daft Punk
Tempo: 123 BPM
Key: B minor/E minor/G major
CDJs and most DJ software programs have a way to visualize an audio wave just like the image above. Notice the skinny blue area at the beginning of the waveform. The track starts out with a 64-beat intro in the key of B minor. After the first two phrases (about 30 seconds in), you hear the familiar “one more time” vocal, and a drumbeat begins. 32 beats later, another drum is added; after another 32 beats, vocals are added. The pink waveform indicates the breakdown, as well as a key change to E minor and then to G major. The track finishes with two 32-beat repeats of the chorus.
Let’s compare “One More Time” to “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas:
Track name: “I Gotta Feeling”
Artist: Black Eyed Peas
Tempo: 128 BPM
Key: C major/G major
Produced by David Guetta, the song begins with a synthesized guitar intro. Eight bars in, will.i.am sings the vocal “I gotta feeling,” which signals the beginning of the next phrase. A hi-hat comes in and continues for two phrases (64 beats), but the heavy drumbeat doesn’t begin until 1:00 into the track. Note the abrupt change in the waveform. By visualizing the music like this, you can anticipate when changes in a song are going to happen.
Now let’s compare these tracks to “Smooth Criminal” by Michael Jackson:
Track name: “Smooth Criminal”
Artist: Michael Jackson
Tempo: 118 BPM
Key: F minor
Although this song was produced in 1988, the basic structural elements are similar to tracks being produced today. After a brief intro, you hear Michael Jackson’s patented Oooh! followed by eight bars of the basic rhythm and melody. After another eight bars (32 beats), Michael’s vocals begin.
Music production hasn’t changed much since the 1980s. Even though these songs come from radically different genres and time periods, they have similar sonic qualities. That’s what makes it possible to mix them.
By looking at the audio wave of a DJ set, you can tell a lot about how it sounds. Let’s examine Kaskade’s “BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix,” which he recorded for the BBC in London. Hosted by Pete Tong, the Essential Mix is a legendary weekly radio show on BBC Radio One. Since its start in the early 1990s, the show has championed dance music worldwide, and has featured big names like Erick Morillo, Richie Hawtin, Boys Noize, Paul van Dyk, Avicii, deadmau5, Laidback Luke, Daft Punk, Tiësto, Eric Prydz, Armin Van Buuren, Mark Knight, David Guetta, Martin Solveig, Above & Beyond and many more.
Kaskade’s mix was nominated by the BBC as one of the best in 2011. Here’s a waveform showing the peaks and valleys in his mix:
Notice that the audio is not consistently loud; there are constant breaks. If Kaskade played high-energy beats for two hours straight, the waveform would be a solid block.
Compare Kaskade’s set to the waveform of a chill set:
There’s much more space between peaks. You can tell just by looking at the waveform of the set that it was more relaxed than Kaskade’s Essential Mix.
Let’s look at one more example. The Swedish House Mafia made history in December 2011 by becoming the first DJs to headline Madison Square Garden in New York City. Here’s the waveform of their live set:
Does this look like it was a high-energy DJ set or a chillout mix? Without knowing anything about the artist, you can see that the mix has few valleys, leaving no doubt that this was a banging set. And what else would you expect at Madison Square Garden?
If we go back to Daft Punk’s “One More Time” and use Mixed In Key to analyze it, here’s what we get:
We can see that the tempo is 123 BPM, and according to the Camelot Wheel, the primary key is 10A (B minor), and the key changes to 9A/9B (E minor/G major) during the breakdown. The dynamic spacing (the relationship between loud and quiet sections) of this track differs radically from the live set waveforms we just analyzed.
Let’s compare it to “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys:
This is in the Camelot key of 2B, and the tempo is 86 BPM–much slower than the dance/house beat of “One More Time.” But the differences really emerge in the waveform; because the breakdown is less essential in hip-hop, there’s often little change in dynamics, so the track is mostly peaks.
These are just some of the issues you need to take into account when preparing your DJ set. Thinking about music visually–and training your ear to recognize a verse, a chorus, a breakdown or a bridge–will help you to improve the richness and complexity of your mixes. When you can get to a point where you’re mixing harmonically and controlling the dynamics of your set, then you’re bringing real energy to your audience.Next: Control The Energy Level