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Thread: Counting beats and counting bars for the beginning DJ

  1. #1

    Counting beats and counting bars for the beginning DJ

    in this article, i will try to explain why a DJ needs to pay attention to beats and bars, what beats and bars are to begin with, and how to make transitions sound better by paying attention to the internal structure of the tracks. it's a long read, but it's a step by step guide, so should be easy to follow.

    non-djs may also find it interesting if they're curious about what building blocks trance tracks are made of.





    this is an aspect of DJ mixing that apparently many beginning DJs have problems with (especially in the software mixing world). the source of the problem is that many genres of EDM, including trance, techno and house, have a certain structure in their tracks. this structure is universal, any and all tracks adhere to it strictly. (there are rare exceptions, where a track jumps out of that structure at some point, but overall it still adheres to the structure.)

    and why does a dj want to care about this structure? the thing is that this structure isn't just a theoretical thing, but you can actually hear it. this structure tells the producer where a break starts, where a break ends, where to put repeats and loops of some parts of the track etc. once you figured it out, you can easily hear it, and you will be able to hear it in all tracks the same. when doing a transition, a dj wants to align both tracks to the same structure, so both tracks will have the same overall sounds at the same time, making for a nicer blend of tracks.

    don't worry if you don't understand what i'm talking about yet, you will (hopefully) when you finished reading this.




    let's get started by explaining what a beat is.

    load up a track in your favorite player, or vdj or whatever, and start playing it. listen up to the point where the bass kick (that's the strong "boom") hits for the first time. some tracks start with the bass kick right off the bat, others will have an intro part and will hit the bass kick a bit later.

    basically, the bass kick is one beat. every time you hear the "boom", it's one beat. note that even if the parts where the bass kick stops, such as in the break, the beat still goes on, even if you can't hear it. it goes on throughout the track, bass kick or not.

    now it's time to do some counting. start playing your track, and when it comes to the first bass kick, the first boom, the first beat, say out loud "one". it really has to be the very first beat in the track, if you missed it, don't just skip over it and put the "one" on the next one, instead start over until you get it. once you got the "one", keep listening, the next beat will come right after, and you say out loud "two" on this beat. so you got two beats down, let's continue this for two more beats, on which you say "three" and "four". you can stop counting after this.

    so, in other words, while you hear "boom boom boom boom" from the track, you will say out loud "one two three four", at exactly the same time, in exactly the same speed.

    you've just found yourself a bar. that's right, four beats makes up one bar. or in other words, "one two three four" is one bar, which is the same as saying "boom boom boom boom" is one bar.

    now keep listening to your track and keep counting. but don't continue counting up from four, don't continue up to five, instead repeat the 4 beats from the bar. so while you're listening to the track, you will be saying "one two three four one two three four one two three four one two three four" over and over again, always on the beats. by this, you're keeping in beat with the lowest level of the musical structure, known as 4/4 time signature, meaning there's 4 beats in a bar.





    now that we know what a bar is, we can move up to the next level of structure in a trance tracks. bars come in groups. in order to figure out where those groups are, we have to count the bars. and in order to count the bars, you can do the following.

    start playing your track once again and count the beats again. while going "one two three four one two three four ...", emphasize the "one". say it out louder, and say the "two three four" less loud. continue this for a while.

    the next step will be not saying the "two three four" at all any more. keep counting as before in your mind, but say out loud only the "one". continue this until you get a feel for where the "one" is. also listen carefully to the track, the "one" has a distinct sound, you should be able to recognize it even if you seek to a different part of the track and haven't been counting since the beginning. the "one" always sounds the same.

    so if you're doing it right, you will be saying out loud "one ... ... ... one ... ... ... one ... ... ... one ... .... ..." now. the "two three four" will still be there, but only in your mind, you won't be saying them now. try to get to a point where you're actually only paying attention to the "ones", completely ignoring the twos, threes and fours, not counting them in your mind either. so in other words, you will say "one", then three beats will pass by, then you will say "one" again and so on.

    now for the big challenge: instead of just saying "one" all the time, you need to count the "ones" now. so instead of going "one ... ... ... one ... ... ... one ... ... ... one ... .... ..." as before, you should go "one ... ... ... two ... ... ... three ... ... ..." and so on. in other words, you will say "one" on the first beat, then three beats will pass by, then you will say "two", then three more beats will pass by, then you will say "three" and so on.

    if you're having difficulties with this, try counting the beats like this: "ONE one two three TWO one two three THREE one two three" and so on.

    once you've figured this out, start playing your track again and do the counting. count the bars (NOT the beats) and count no further than eight. in other words, going by the beats, you should be counting like this: "1 x x x 2 x x x 3 x x x 4 x x x 5 x x x 6 x x x 7 x x x 8 x x x" and then STOP (with the "x" denoting a beat that passes by without you saying anything).

    if you got that far, you successfully counted through a group of 8 bars. in EDM, a group of 4 bars is called a "phrase", and in trance you will (almost) always have groups of 2 phrases (with the second being a repeat or variation of the first), giving you groups of 8 bars. this is the most basic building block of a trance track. it takes roughly 15 seconds for 8 bars to pass by (14.2 seconds at 135 bpm, 13.7 seconds at 140 bpm).

    now going back to the counting: play your track again and do the counting as before, but don't stop after 8. instead, at the point where you would move on to count the "9", start over at 1. if you're doing it right, your counting will be like this:
    "1 x x x 2 x x x 3 x x x 4 x x x 5 x x x 6 x x x 7 x x x 8 x x x 1 x x x 2 x x x 3 x x x 4 x x x 5 x x x 6 x x x 7 x x x 8 x x x 1 x x x 2 x x x 3 x x x 4 x x x 5 x x x 6 x x x 7 x x x 8 x x x 1 x x x 2 x x x 3 x x x 4 x x x 5 x x x 6 x x x 7 x x x 8 x x x ..." (if it's easier for you, you can also count "1 2 3" instead of "x x x", so you'd be going like "1 1 2 3 2 1 2 3 3 1 2 3 ...".)




    by now you're probably curious what good this is supposed to be. start over with the track again and start over with the counting too. pay close attention to the track and which number you're on. if you're doing it right, you will hear something in the track changing exactly every time you say "one", that is, at the beginning of each group of eight. maybe a hihat will come in, maybe some synths will come in, maybe the track hits the break, something like that. also, at the end of each group of eight, that is in the 8th bar or at the end of the 8th bar, always just before the next "one" hits, there is usually something like a small "break", with the bass kick stopping for a few beats. pay close attention while listening, you'll hear it. this is what you need to get a feel for, from that you will hear when the next group of 8 bars is starting just by listening to a track, even without counting anything.

    now how does this come into play with mixing? easy enough: when doing a transition, you need to make sure that the "1" bar of the incoming track will sit exactly where the "1" bar of the outgoing track is. imagine you're preparing for a transition and there's a guy sitting next to you, doing the "1 x x x 2 x x x 3 x x x ..." counting for the currently playing track. now you start playing the next track that you want to mix in, imagine there's another guy sitting there, doing the same counting for the new track. your goal is that both are counting the same numbers at the same time, that is both should be saying "1" at the same time, and "2" at the same time and so on. if you manage to do that, the transition will be much nicer sounding, and you will also be able to do things like cut the bass (which you will always do at the moment one group of 8 is ending and when the next one is starting) without it sounding weird.

    or in other words: the goal is that when listening to the finished set, or the finished transition, you can do the bar counting (1 to 8 and then starting over again) throughout the transitions, with the grouping being valid after the transition as well. try listening to some sets and counting the bars while listening, you will notice the difference. and yes, the groups of 8 is valid also throughout breaks. it will be harder to actually count the bars, as there are no beats to hear, but any break's length will still always be a multiple of 8 bars.

    hopefully i managed to confused the heck out of everyone who read this
    Last edited by dfx; Mar 23rd, 2009 at 21:40.
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  2. #2
    as i know some of this might be hard to understand for some people, i'll try to give some visual aid...

    vdj is a very common tool and this guide applies very much to vdj users. plus, it gives a nice visualization of beats and bars.




    a regular track loaded on in vdj looks like this:





    now, what exactly is a beat? i have highlight a single beat here, the very first beat of the track:





    every spike you can see is a beat, this is what you need to pay attention to, this is what you will be counting on too:



    note how vdj puts a little block under each spike. this is where vdj has recognized a beat.




    when listening and counting the beats, this is how you will be counting:





    now that we know that 4 beats is a bar, we can group together 4 beats into a bar:





    one bar directly follows the previous bar, so there's about 3 bars fitting into the vdj screen in the regular view:




    now when moving away from counting the beats, and counting the bars instead, you would count like this:


    note that you will say out loud the number of the bar always exactly on the first beat



    also note that vdj puts a bigger block under the first beat of each bar, and a smaller block under all the other beats. vdj tries to detect some of the structures of the track and tries to guess where the "one" is. however, vdj has a tendency to get this wrong. do NOT rely on where vdj puts the big block, instead listen only!

    here is a different track i loaded up in vdj, where vdj got the first beat wrong. the big block is not under the actual "one":




    on the right edge of the display you have three buttons, giving different zoom levels of the display. clicking on "3" zooms out, showing you much more of the track. vdj will also show the blocks under the spikes differently, only putting a block on where it thinks the "one" is (that is, only one block every 4 beats). but as i said before, it likes to get this wrong.

    in the final screenshot, i tried to highlight where the bars are in the zoomed-out view in vdj, i also put the numbering below:


    as you can see, there are two groups of 8 bars in the beginning, and suddenly when the 3rd group starts, the waveform looks slightly different (the bottom part), that's because as i explained above, parts of the track come and go always on the boundaries between those groups of 8. in this example, it's probably something like the bass kicking in after the first part of the intro, after the first two groups of 8 bars.
    Last edited by dfx; Mar 23rd, 2009 at 23:07.
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  3. #3
    AH.FM Addict marco18's Avatar
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    Very well explained! Maybe this is a useful addendum (for VDJ users):
    ---
    Maybe it's good to spend a very little time more than just composing a tracklist and start the mixing, by setting cuepoints in VDJ before the whole set is mixed... Thus load the tracklist and tracks one by one and determine the place where you want to mix the next in advance. Stop the playing desk at that particular point and hit button 2 or 3 (under hot cue) there. (Not 1 because when putting the track up it automatically starts then at cuepoint 1.)

    Just below the track title you then see a white flag occur and when playing you'll see the cue coming up, such that you know where to start the next one. Is only for remembering thus.

    VDJ helps in fact a little bit in determining the place where to start a next track... Look e.g. at the following image:



    You can mostly immediately deduce from the track structure (if it's mastered well) where the important points are. It's not always a guarantee (there are also exceptions but they're rather few... ) E.g. the track Steve Anderson - Neve [Instrumental Mix] which actually fits well behind this one (with some therefore necessary nasty looping tricks) has a different starting structure. This may confuse you in determining the cuepoint in this track, which is actually set here correctly.

    Maybe it's a good advice to have a very techy track as a second one in which happens almost nothing but is built up in the right structure as measure staff, with which you can easily deduce (by just hearing) if you've putted the cuepoints at the right points: Don't use the fader then but listen just what happens and if everything changes on the right moment for your feeling.
    :ah:

  4. #4
    Chillaxing DJ Config's Avatar
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    All cool and stuff, but i never count beats, imo counting beats is something for dj's who can't 'feel' their music... The only good way to make sure you start your track at the right time is by feeling when it should be played.

    If you really feel like doing it this way then this is a good tutorial indeed... but like i said i don't think dj's use this when they mix their sets..
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  5. #5
    AH.FM Addict marco18's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Config View Post
    All cool and stuff, but i never count beats, imo counting beats is something for dj's who can't 'feel' their music... The only good way to make sure you start your track at the right time is by feeling when it should be played.

    If you really feel like doing it this way then this is a good tutorial indeed... but like i said i don't think dj's use this when they mix their sets..
    Yes Config, that's right... I'm also not counting things when mixing. This all actually goes over to the automatic pilot/feeling after a bit experience. But I think DFX has brought this aspect of DJ'ing under words quite well!

    It's therefore also meant for 'the beginning DJ'.

    'one two three four, one two three four, one two three four, ...'
    :ah:

  6. #6
    @marco18: thanks for the addition. cuepoints in vdj are indeed a good way to start learning what it's all about. if you set a cuepoint at some point where one group of bars is ending and the next is starting, you will know where to kick off the next track when the cuepoint comes around (assuming you have the cuepoint for the next track set at the first beat of the track, which you should do anyway).

    Quote Originally Posted by Config View Post
    All cool and stuff, but i never count beats, imo counting beats is something for dj's who can't 'feel' their music... The only good way to make sure you start your track at the right time is by feeling when it should be played.

    If you really feel like doing it this way then this is a good tutorial indeed... but like i said i don't think dj's use this when they mix their sets..
    well doh, i don't count anything myself either, no dj with a bit of experience does. this guide is meant for beginning djs who don't have a feel for the music yet, who haven't figured this particular aspect of the music out yet, who may be attempting to improve their transitions and failing, not knowing why.
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  7. #7
    AH.FM Addict t4e's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Config View Post
    All cool and stuff, but i never count beats, imo counting beats is something for dj's who can't 'feel' their music... The only good way to make sure you start your track at the right time is by feeling when it should be played.

    If you really feel like doing it this way then this is a good tutorial indeed... but like i said i don't think dj's use this when they mix their sets..

    you say that now after you have been mixing for a while, and i am absolutely sure than none of the experienced DJ's count anymore, how did you do it when you first started, or what method you used?


    before learning to beatmatch one needs to understand the "architecture" of the sounds they are trying to mix together, is the same concept as first learning the alphabet before moving on to writing.

    once one grasps the concept of the beats, than can move on to training their hearing and stop counting, it becomes second nature.

    i personally found the visual capability of VDj very useful in understanding it all and practicing
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  8. #8
    AH.FM Addict t4e's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by marco18 View Post
    Very well explained! Maybe this is a useful addendum (for VDJ users):
    ---
    Maybe it's good to spend a very little time more than just composing a tracklist and start the mixing, by setting cuepoints in VDJ before the whole set is mixed... Thus load the tracklist and tracks one by one and determine the place where you want to mix the next in advance. Stop the playing desk at that particular point and hit button 2 or 3 (under hot cue) there. (Not 1 because when putting the track up it automatically starts then at cuepoint 1.)

    track doesn't start playing at CUE 1, it loads and every time you hit the PAUSE button it will move to the next cue, you also don't necessarily have to start any track at the very first beat, sometimes the intro is too long, so by listening 1st cue is for when you wanna start it, 2nd for when you actually will kick it in and 3rd will be the point where you start next one (i.e. 1st CUE)

    takes a bit of time to listen to them and set the cue points but is a very good way of learning (at least it was for me) and eventually your ears get trained too


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  9. #9
    AH.FM Addict marco18's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by t4e View Post
    track doesn't start playing at CUE 1, it loads and every time you hit the PAUSE button it will move to the next cue, you also don't necessarily have to start any track at the very first beat, sometimes the intro is too long, so by listening 1st cue is for when you wanna start it, 2nd for when you actually will kick it in and 3rd will be the point where you start next one (i.e. 1st CUE)

    takes a bit of time to listen to them and set the cue points but is a very good way of learning (at least it was for me) and eventually your ears get trained too

    Yeah, that's right I wrote the thing between brackets a bit sloppy... It doesn't start playing when you throw the track on the desk, but it automatically pauses there... I wrote it to point out that people better not set the 'outgoing cue' under number 1 and then just click play there out of the blue when trying to mix the full track

    But as it actually only are very handy remember-points, I always use 3 for outgoing and set 2 only for points where I have to pay a bit more attention in a transition (fading away, using some weird effect, etc.). As I'm a little bit lazy and I always want to start a track at the first beat, and to get things synced immediately or... even before the track starts I mostly put point 1 around 2.5 "beats" of time before the first one. Then there's time enough to sync it carefully in advance and I don't have to draw on the wheel for that purpose, lol

    But this is just some personal idea how to handle VDJ to get a nice result in the end. Everyone develops his/hers own skills which grow in time that the program is used.

    But this is maybe a bit too VDJ- and cuepoint- specific for the thread...
    :ah:

  10. #10
    Chillaxing DJ Config's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by t4e View Post
    you say that now after you have been mixing for a while, and i am absolutely sure than none of the experienced DJ's count anymore, how did you do it when you first started, or what method you used?


    before learning to beatmatch one needs to understand the "architecture" of the sounds they are trying to mix together, is the same concept as first learning the alphabet before moving on to writing.

    once one grasps the concept of the beats, than can move on to training their hearing and stop counting, it becomes second nature.

    i personally found the visual capability of VDj very useful in understanding it all and practicing
    The only thing i 'counted' on wa my feeling in music, right from scratch..
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  11. #11
    Quote Originally Posted by Config View Post
    The only thing i 'counted' on wa my feeling in music, right from scratch..
    well, it seems not everyone is as gifted as you are
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  12. #12
    AH.FM Addict piccoli's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by dfx View Post
    well, it seems not everyone is as gifted as you are


    now you made me laugh dfx

  13. #13
    Chillaxing DJ Config's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by dfx View Post
    well, it seems not everyone is as gifted as you are
    yeah.. seems like it..

    buy i honestly never had the urge to count beats.. i'm sure you certainly won't play worse by counting beats, but i think it slows you down on the way to a better 'feeling' for deejaying, since you count more on mathematics than on the music itself.
    Last edited by Config; Mar 25th, 2009 at 00:34.
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  14. #14
    Quote Originally Posted by Config View Post
    buy i honestly never had the urge to count beats.. i'm sure you certainly won't play worse by counting beats, but i think it slows you down on the way to a better 'feeling' for deejaying, since you count more on mathematics than on the music itself.
    i agree when the dj is playing on cdjs or vinyl. i never counted anything myself either, i only discovered the fact that there's a structure in the music and that it's actually possible to count the bars like that after already having developed the feel for the music. when mixing on hardware, you're forced to listen very closely to the music, especially while doing the transitions, because you need to beatmatch and catch the beats going off. by that you automatically develop the feel for the music.

    but that may never happen when mixing on software. you only need to listen closely for a few seconds (if at all, some trust the sync button alone and never bother for more), so i think a more "theoretical" approach to this might help. after all, the more you get into software with mixing, the more theoretical it gets - when you mix on ableton, there's no feeling involved any more at all.
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  15. #15
    Chillaxing DJ Config's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by dfx View Post
    i agree when the dj is playing on cdjs or vinyl. i never counted anything myself either, i only discovered the fact that there's a structure in the music and that it's actually possible to count the bars like that after already having developed the feel for the music. when mixing on hardware, you're forced to listen very closely to the music, especially while doing the transitions, because you need to beatmatch and catch the beats going off. by that you automatically develop the feel for the music.

    but that may never happen when mixing on software. you only need to listen closely for a few seconds (if at all, some trust the sync button alone and never bother for more), so i think a more "theoretical" approach to this might help. after all, the more you get into software with mixing, the more theoretical it gets - when you mix on ableton, there's no feeling involved any more at all.
    true true
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