How To Mix With Vinyl
How To Mix With Vinyl
DJ and producer, Buster Bennett has created this ten-step guide for DJs who want to learn how to mix with vinyl. Mixing or DJing with vinyl records is both a pleasure and a challenge. If you want to improve your DJ skills, hearing, dexterity and beatmatching then you should learn how to mix with vinyl. Start with this guide and if you'd like to learn how to mix vinyl in person contact us for information about vinyl mixing lessons.
Perhaps you're a new DJ who wants to learn how to DJ the old school way, or maybe you're a digital DJ who wants to learn it all! Either way, learning how to mix with vinyl is top on many DJs to-do lists. Of course, nowadays it's not an essential skill and the vast majority of DJs don't mix with vinyl at their DJ gigs anymore but it's still an incredible art form, hobby and way of DJing.
As a DJ academy teaching thousands of DJs how to mix on a huge range of equipment we can't say enough about how rewarding learning how to mix on vinyl is for beginners and pros alike. It's certainly something that all DJs should aspire to learn.
Step-by-step - How to Mix With Vinyl
Many people have a high regard for vinyl DJs because they know it's much harder to learn how to mix with vinyl than with digital players. This is namely because with digital players you can use beat sync and quantise technology. They also have screens that show you the BPM and the waveforms. This lessens the need for manual beatmatching or pitch adjustments.
Mixing with vinyl means you can't rely on a computer and instead have to learn how to truly beatmatch yourself and how to keep the beatmatch in sync during your transition.
There is of course the exception of DVS (Digital Vinyl Systems) - For the purpose of this guide we are talking about traditional vinyl mixing without DVS.
In order to learn how to mix vinyl correctly you have to start by understanding the vinyl records, turntable technology and then teach yourself how to beatmatch without the aid of a computer. This skill is called pitch-shifting and is one of the cornerstones of mixing with vinyl.
1. Vinyl Records
Before you even attempt to mix with vinyl you need to know about different types of vinyl record. You'll want to know what type of vinyl records to buy, where to buy them, how to store and how to handle them. This way, you can start looking after your collection like a professional vinyl DJ and avoid any damage.
Records come in all shapes, sizes and colours. The most common sizes you will find are 7 inch, 10 inch and 12 inch. Commonly in black, but they can also come in other colours.
They are made from PVC (Poly-Vinyl Chloride) which is a common type of plastic. The music is actually pressed onto the vinyl during the manufacturing process allowing records to be mass-produced.
The stylus (needle) of your record player (turntable) will then move through the groove pressed into the record and then send an electrical signal through your soundsystem. Your speakers will then accurately reproduce the sound, thus you hear the music.
There are four main types of modern vinyl records. Firstly, we have the long-play format record. This is typically known as an album or LP. Most of the time LPs will be the larger 12 inch records so there is more space for music to be stored. The bigger the vinyl record the more music we can press onto it.
LPs or vinyl albums are popular with consumers and collectors alike, but are not the best format for DJs. When you squeeze more tracks onto the disc it means the groove sits tightly and this means it's harder to read the waveform on the disc. It's also harder to judge how much time you have left on the track when glancing quickly at the turntable. Another reason is that when you're switching records quickly it can be harder to find the track you want on an album compared to a single or EP.
7 inch singles were popular with consumers in the 50s and 60s. They were also the most sensible option for juke boxes, meaning that DJs will need an adapter to fit them onto a modern turntable. Notice that large hole in the middle of the 7 inch on our example above? This is where the adapter would sit. As they are very small it makes it a bit harder for a DJ to handle though it is common for DJs who play pop and rock, and especially vintage music, to use this format.
10 inch singles are just slightly larger and a popular format for consumers nowadays to buy as singles. This allows for a bigger sleeve than a seven inch record which means more room for artwork and it means the product will occupy more valuable real estate on record shop shelves. Being smaller than the 12 inch can make it cheaper to produce so it's a happy medium for many labels.
The 12 inch single reigns supreme for DJs. It's the most DJ-friendly format. Singles (or EPs) normally just have one or two tracks on either side. Having less music pressed onto the record means the DJ can clearly see the groove, cue the record easily and find the track they want to play with little fuss. Singles are also cheaper than albums and many DJs want to buy music on a track-by-track basis for DJing. It's unlikely you would DJ all the different tracks from an album, so buying one would often be a waste.
If you're a DJ playing modern music, we recommend that you start collecting 12 inch singles or EPs. The 10 inch singles are also good.
You may also come across rarer types including old 78s (Shellac records) that pre-date modern PVC records, dubplates, picture discs and even flexi-discs.
Where to buy vinyl records
There are many places where you can buy vinyl records from charity shops, record stores and online market places.
How to store and handle your records
Organisation is key when storing your music and looking after them. It's easy to damage vinyl records if you don't store and handle them correctly. A scratch to the surface can ruin the playability of the record, not to mention the value. When handling the vinyl try not to touch the surface of the record but rather use the sides of the disc. Make sure your hands are clean to avoid greasy finger prints.
Store your records in a dry place that is not subject to damp or mould. Neither should it be in direct sunlight or near a heat source as the records can melt. The best way to store them is horizontally but many collectors will store them upright in a vertical position for ease of access, display and sorting purposes. Either way, don't store them on a slant as they can easily warp.
Now you have some vinyl records you of course need some turntables! Turntables are not the same as the kind of record players you often see in shops like Urban Outfitters. Turntables not only play the music but allow you to change the pitch, and thus beatmatch. If you want to learn how to mix vinyl you will need a DJ turntable.
The most popular turntables for DJs in all history are the Technic 1210s. These monumental titans of turntablism and DJ culture have forever been enshrined within the music industry. You simply can't talk about mixing vinyl without mentioning them!
Known for their exceptional build quality and high fidelity they are the most iconic turntable of the 20th century. Fast forward to the 21st century and many other brands like Pioneer have started manufacturing turntables that are equally as reliable. In our studios we have many versions of the Technics alongside the Pioneer PLX 1000 turntables, which are essentially very similar.
The Anatomy of a Turntable
1. Adapter - This adapter allows you to place records that have the larger hole onto the turntable, namely 45s.
2. Platter - This is the spinning plate that the slip mat and record sit upon. The sides of the platter are dotted to provide frictitious surface to help the user control the speed of the platter.
3. Slipmat - The slipmat acts as the lubrication between the vinyl record and the platter. Protecting the record but also allowing to to glide.
4. Shell/Cartridge Stand - Use this stand to hold and store the stylus's protective shell or a spare cartridge.
5. Counterweight - Allows you to adjust the balance of the tone arm (make the needle end lighter or heavier.)
6. Arm-height Adjustment Ring - Allows you to lift or lower that end of the tone arm to change the angle it rests at.
7. Anti-Skating - This allows you to adjust the tone arm to prevent the needle skating across the record/groove.
8. Tone Arm Clip - Allows you to lock the tone arm in place when not in use.
9. Cueing Lever - Allows you to lift and drop the tone arm to help cue the record. You can also do this by hand.
10. Pitch Control - Allows you to increase or decrease the tempo by up to eight percent. Some other turntables allow more range.
11. Tempo Reset - When pressed will reset and lock the tempo to 0%.
12. Headshell - Holds the cartridge and stylus in place and connects it to the tone arm.
13. Cartridge & Stylus (needle) - Connected together, these parts will read the groove and convert it into an electrical signal.
14. Stylus Illuminator - This light helps you see the stylus and groove in low light conditions.
15. Speed Selector Buttons - Choose 33 RPM (Revolutions Per Minute) or 45 depending on the record pressing.
16. Start/Stop - Press this button to start or stop the platter.
17. Calibration Check - Use this infographic and the dots on the side of the platter to check the calibration of your pitch.
18. On/Off - Turn this knob to turn the turntable on and off.
3. DJ Setup
The common DJ setup to learn how to mix vinyl with would include two turntables, a mixer, headphones and speakers. The DJ mixer is the central hub that connects everything together. You will plugs your turntables into the mixer, the mixer into the speakers and your headphones will also connect to the mixer. It's like one giant soundcard.
The mixer will allow the DJ to layer the music, adjust the frequencies and often add special effects. Overall, it's where the magic happens, letting the DJ decide how they want to mix and blend the tracks together. The DJ mixer the central layering tool that allows us to be creative!
As a DJ, you should learn all about various types of DJ mixers, in-depth. Click here if you want professional lessons. For the purpose of this guide we will keep it simple and show you the common DJ set up but we recommend you do further research on the topic. Make sure you know how to learn how to use a DJ mixer and how to setup your own DJ equipment.
Once you have learnt how to control a turntable, cue your records, pitch-shift and beatmatch your records you'll need to learn the finer art form of mixing.
4. Track Selection
Before you start learning how to mix with vinyl you should consider which tracks are easiest to work with. Avoid using tracks and rhythms which are too difficult. You need to learn how to walk before you run. The best advice is to take it in baby steps with simple repetitive music.
Start with easy records. Get your hands on a few Tech House records and ones that are quite repetitive with a 4x4 rhythm. You'll want to find tracks that start with a kick drum loop and have minimal vocals or no vocals. The best records to learn how to mix vinyl with will have a very long intro common with a club-edit.
Try and avoid tracks that change tempo or have life musicians, anything with a live band will be very difficult to beatmatch so avoid older music, at least for now.
DJs learning how to mix on vinyl will often buy two copies of each record. It's optional, but useful for some learners.
Make sure you buy 12 inch singles rather than LPs or smaller records like 45s or 10 inch records. Just make your life easier because learning how to mix with vinyl can be a challenge. Try and get club edits rather than short radio edits. You want a lot of time to perfect the beatmatch.
Later in your learning process you can introduce shorter versions, like radio edits, more vocal edits, more complex rhythms with faster or slower BPMs. As your vinyl mixing accuracy improves make sure you are constantly pushing your limits.
Now you've got some records try and build a simple set with at least 12 records of a similar BPM and keep the tracks simple. Once you rehearse this set you can then develop more complex ones.
Start with two records that are the same BPM and set them to 0%.
Cueing involves the process of finding the first beat of the track, getting it primed ready and then releasing it at the correct time. It's easier if you use the first kick drum of the track but it is possible to start on any phrase.
Those of you who have taken our normal digital DJ course will be very familiar with this concept but instead of pushing a record or pushing the wheel you'll simply be pressing play at the right moment.
You can't see individual beats on a vinyl record so it's not as easy as digital DJing where you can simply visually identify where the first beat is by looking at the waveform.
To find the first beat on a vinyl record you start by placing the needle just before the start of the groove on the outside of the record. Be careful not to accidentally place it too close to the edge, as it could fall off and hit the bumps on the side of the platter which is damaging to the stylus.
Once you've placed the needle in the correct position you can then hit play. The platter will start to spin. Put your hand in the eleven or twelve-o-clock position and hover your fingers over the record. When you hear the sound of the first beat simply lower your fingertips and stop the record spinning. It should glide over the slipmat without the speed of the platter changing.
You then need to pull your hand back to around the nine-o-clock or six-o-clock positions. You should then hear the beat play in reverse. Now you should move your hand forward until you hear the start of the beat.
Now you've found the beat simply move your hand forward and backward over the beginning part of the beat to create the signature baby scratch sound. You are now cued and ready to release.
Wait for the right moment before you release. Listen to the first record (Record A) and wait for a phrase (first beat of a section of music, normally eight bars (32 beats) with House music or 16 beats with Hip-Hop) Release on the first beat of the phrase.
Being human, you most likely didn't get this exactly right. That's normal. You can now adjust the beat sync using the platter.
6. Platter Touches
Start with two records that are the same BPM and set them to 0%.
Once you've cued up your record and released it at the right time you'll want to make minor adjustments with the platter, record or spindle to perfectly align the beats.
When observing other vinyl DJs you'll see many different techniques when it comes to making adjustments to the beatmatch. The main techniques are as follows, master these to become a pro when mixing with vinyl.
Nudge Faster - If you want to nudge the beat forward (faster) simply use your finger and draw a circle on the label around the spindle in a clockwise direction. Add a smooth and controlled amount of momentum to speed up the record.
Drag Slower - If you want to slow the record down you can either add drag on the side of the platter where the bumps are or add drag by placing your finger on the label. When used in a gentle and controlled manner both of these ways of adjusting will help slow the record down.
Micro Adjustments - If you want to make a micro adjustment to perfect the beatmatch the nudges above might be too heavy. Instead, try tightly gripping the spindle itself to slow down or twisting it clockwise to speed up. These adjustments will make a small difference but allow you to fine tune the beatmatch.
Big Adjustments - If you want a big spin forward try brushing the platter clockwise or more aggressively twisting the spindle while also making contact with the label. These two ways of nudges can be a bit extreme but useful when the record is only playing through headphones and not aloud.
Remember, you can actually mix perfectly without ever touching the platter - An alternative to the platter is to use the pitch to make micro adjustments faster or slower, like you would a jog wheel. Just remember you'll need to settle back on the correct tempo after making an adjustment to avoid losing the beatmatch.
7. Pitch-Shifting Theory
If you want to know how to mix vinyl you need to learn how to use the pitch to find the BPM.
Now you have perfected the cueing and adjustment techniques you can take things up a gear and learn how to pitch-shift. Before you attempt to beatmatch without a BPM counter we recommend that you first fully understand pitch-shifting on paper.
When a DJ can't see the BPM because they are not using any kind of computer or screen, they must determine the tempo (BPM) and beat alignment themselves purely by ear. However, it's not a god-given skill and luckily anyone with a logical mind can learn this skill.
Think of it as a game of elimination or like the game 'Hotter, Colder.' Often the easiest way to find the BPM is to eliminate where it's not.
Now, think of your pitch as a search area. You can test to see if one area contains the correct tempo by trial and error.
If you start on 0% tempo (the middle of the pitch-shift) and play your song over the first you can quickly hear if it is beatmatching consistently or not. If not, then you have eliminated the zero position. That is not where the correct tempo match is.
The next step is to move it up or down the pitch, it doesn't matter at this stage which direction you choose. Move it and see what happens. Did it get better or did it get worse?
If it got worse you have eliminated that area and the correct tempo must be somewhere on the other side of zero. Move in the correct direction and wait for the beatmatch to sync. Now if the beatmatch synced momentarily and then went out of sync you simply went too far and must have gone past the BPM position you are looking for. At least you've now eliminated another position.
Get back on track by now moving the other direction on the pitch and then see if you hear the beat sync. Repeat these steps until you get closer and closer. You'll want to repeat the first steps and keep eliminating positions in your search area until you happen across the right tempo where the beats stay in sync.
Just remember, you can't really eliminate an area if you don't first have the beats in sync. This is why you need to move away from where you think the BPM is, get in sync and then quickly snap back to see if that position will hold the beat sync consistently or not.
This is very difficult to convey in writing. I would much prefer to teach this theory and practice in person so please do consider taking lessons with me either online or in the studio. Click here to contact me.
8. Pitch-shifting Exercises
Now you understand that pitch-shifting involves using the pitch control to determine the correct tempo and synchronise the beatmatch you'll need to practice. The best way to learn the skill is with the kind of expert guidance our tutors at LSA offer our students. Our in-person DJ lessons are the fastest way to learn how to mix with vinyl in the shortest space of time.
If you're on your own, we recommend that you first find a warm-up exercise that will help train your ear. When you first start out this will be difficult but you will soon start improving the more time and practice you put into it.
One of the first warm-ups you should do is to buy two of the same records. Now, set the pitch to 0% so you know they are both the tempo. Play them at the same time and synchronise the the beats. Now practice your platter adjustments by deliberately pushing them out of sync and then work to correct it. Every time you do this your hearing will improve. You'll notice the small details more and more and you'll also improve your dexterity when it comes to handling the vinyl and turntable.
Now try the same exercise but with the pitch. Avoid the temptation to touch the platter, just try and fix everything with the pitch alone. Remember the basic theory, if you move in a direction and it gets worse, go the other way!
Now you've warmed up try changing the BPM (tempo) of the other track to somewhere other than zero. You can then try to determine the BPM by pitch-shifting and also get the beats in sync by using your platter touches.
Practice makes perfect! Put in the hours and you will soon know how to mix with vinyl.
Once you have finally made some progress with pitch-shifting and beatmatching you can actually attempt to mix the songs. First play one track aloud (Track A) with the channel fader up and get the second track ready in the headphones (Track B).
Once you have beatmatched them together you can introduce the new track (Track B) slowly with either the cross-fader or the channel faders. Use the EQs on the mixer to blend the tracks together and balance the overall frequencies in the mix.
The most common way to do this is by first removing the LOW EQ on track B before you bring it into the mix. Once it's in the mix swap the LOWs between track A and B. If you're doing this successfully you can then experiment with the MID and HI EQs.
Try and make the beatmatch and transition from A to B as smooth as possible. Once you've mastered smooth transitions you should look at other create ways to get from A to B.
I recommend that you record your mixes as much as possible so you can listen back to them and judge the accuracy of the mix and where you can improve your vinyl mixing.
- It should be a pleasure not a punishment! Learning new skills can be a challenge and frustrating at time. When you've reached a dead end just simply step back, have a break and try again another day. Every record you spin will improve your skills, even the ones you can't beatmatch. It's only a matter of time before you master how to mix with vinyl. Trust in the process and keep practicing.
- If you can travel to London you can join me for in-person lessons and I can show you how to mix with vinyl.
- Sometimes, learning how to DJ with digital players first is easier. I often find when I teach people how to DJ with digital decks first and vinyl second they learn both skills quicker. This is because digital DJing is instantly gratifying and gives you the enthusiasm to learn more, as there are instant rewards. Like the saying goes, it's easier to learn to walk before you try to run.
- Remember, make sure the records you are practicing with are easy! Start with the easy repetitive ones (Tech House is good) and then progress to harder styles of music.
- Remember, some tracks are simply not made for beatmatching. If there is a live band don't bother trying to beatmatch it unless you are super advanced and can ride the pitch while the tempo changes.
To be totally honest I didn't want to write this guide because the best way to learn how to mix with vinyl is with in-person lessons. However, I understand that many of my readers can't travel to see me in London so I have written this guide to help people all around the world learn how to mix with vinyl. It's not a complete guide but a short introduction to the subject, enough for you to experiment with on your own.
If you can make it LSA I highly recommend you do!