Steal The Feel (Part 1)
A straightforward guide to producing Dance Mixes using budget equipment.
Paul White provides a practical guide to putting together your own dance mixes at home using basic, 4-track equipment.
Dance mixing wasn't invented — it evolved in dance clubs when the more creative DJs decided there was more to entertainment than simply putting on records. DJ mixing is essentially a live art form which uses sections of existing songs to build long and often intricate compositions while maintaining a contiguous dance beat. Tricks such as 'scratching' are used to create musical effects never intended in the original recording, while layering two different pieces of music in sync can produce something completely new. The basic techniques were pioneered on the dance floor, using little more than a couple of heavy-duty record turntables, a disco mixer and possibly an echo unit, but in the hands of a skilled mixer, these simple tools can be used — and frequently abused — to create the most amazing rhythmic compositions.
To put on a good live show requires an almost unimaginable level of skill, but most commercial dance mixes are now created in the recording studio, where the ability to indulge in precision scratching while standing on one hand on a revolving turntable is quite redundant!
Fortunately, even a modest home recording setup can be used to produce very professional results and a surprising number of chart dance mixes were recorded in privately-owned garage studios. However, copyright considerations do come into play when recording sections of other people's records for commercial release, so this is something to investigate and be aware of.
To do the job without struggling or compromising, you'll need a four-track recording system, such as a portastudio, plus a suitable abuse-resistant turntable (fitted with a cartridge that can withstand reverse tracking) and a mixer with a deck preamp built-in. The combination of Technics turntable (the 1200 and 1210 models are widely used) and Stanton cartridge still seems to corner this particular market, but if you don't need to use scratching effects, you could work with a CD player so long as it has a decent cue function. A delay or reverb effect is an advantage, and if you have access to a sampler, then the work will be a lot less difficult. A stereo sampler is an advantage for music work — most records are in stereo, after all — but then again many dance mixes are made in mono, so don't worry if you don't have the latest or greatest sampler. The main thing is that your sampler offers enough sample memory for your needs.
A talented mix DJ can perform all the tricks live and get them right pretty much all of the time — and if something doesn't go quite right once in a while, the chances are that it'll be overlooked in the heat of the moment. Recording might seem an easy option, but it's less forgiving because there's nothing to distract your attention; if you do miss the mistakes on the first hearing, you're bound to pick them up on the second or third.
The techniques described in this article are based around a four-track recording system where the four tracks are used as as two stereo pairs. More tracks give more flexibility, but you can do a lot with a portastudio or similar, especially if you have a sequencer and synchroniser (sync) unit to go with it. The only disadvantage of a sync unit is that you lose one tape track to your time code, so some of your music will have to be recorded in mono.
If you have more than four tracks or if you're not running a sequencer, the sections of music that you use are recorded alternately on tracks 1,2 and 3,4, which allows them to be overlapped, as shown in Figure 1. In reality, the process is not dissimilar to the live way of working, as the record decks and slip mats are still used to cue up the individual pieces of music — the main difference is that if a changeover is unsatisfactory, you can go back and do it again without having to start from scratch. Because you're not actually recording over the first piece of music you recorded, you can work on each transition as much as you like.
Headphones are invariably used to allow the live DJ to hear the new record as it is being cued up, allowing it to be manipulated by hand to get it in sync with the previous section. Once it is in sync, the live performer would fade from the old track to the new at an artistically suitable point, but in the studio, you can leave the fades until you come to do the final mix. Furthermore, you don't have to work with headphones if you don't want to. This allows you to concentrate on getting the timing absolutely right.
When you've recorded the opening piece of music, you can play it back while cueing up the second using a slip mat, then at the right moment, bring it into the mix and record it to tape. This provides an opportunity to correct any mistakes without having to go back to the beginning. Once you're comfortable with this way of working, you can start to get more sophisticated. For example, apart from any overlaps, you always have two empty tape tracks, so if your music is on tracks 1,2 at one point, then tracks 3,4 are free to use for something else — as long as you don't work too close to the point where the music starts again. This gives you a chance to drop in some bits of rhythm, acappellas, sound effects or whatever. The actual levels can be sorted out when it's time to mix the tape down to stereo.
When commercial mix records are made, the engineers make use of a lot of technology to help them get really tight, precise results. Instead of manually cueing records with a slip mat, they'll usually record the sections they want into a sampler, then trim the start and end points until they're left with only the section they want to use. This can be started instantly just by pressing a button, or by means of a MIDI sequencer. Triggering from a sequencer has the advantage that once the timing is right, it will be right every time. Samplers can also be used to fine-tune the bpm rate of the music by speeding it up or slowing it down, rather like the varispeed on a DJ's record deck. Using a sampler to alter the speed of the music will result in a change of pitch — unless the sampler is fitted with a time-stretch/compression facility. This is a sophisticated facility, found only on more up-market samplers, which permits tempo to be changed without altering pitch.
Music from the sampler is recorded onto pairs of tracks on a multitrack tape machine in exactly the same way as the process described for home recording. The only difference is that professionals tend to work with more tracks, allowing them to layer several parts in the mix. Some mix engineers also add synthesized bass lines and additional percussion, but there are lots of tricks, such as using a percussion section from one record over the top of a section taken from another record. The only proviso is that the timing holds together.
Just as many home recordists use sequencers sync'ed to tape, most professional studio systems make use of timecode to ensure that any parts being triggered via MIDI always stay in sync with the music recorded on tape.
In some cases, it may be sufficient to take sections from different records and then fade from one to another at the appropriate point, but it can be difficult to create a continuous feel as the rhythm section on one record gives way to that on another. A way around this is to add some rhythm of your own. One team of very successful mix artistes revealed that they always add another drum sound under the mix to hype up the beat and to give the compilation more consistency. Their new drum sounds came from a sampler, but you could use a drum machine instead.
Once you get the start points and bpms in sync, the music and drum machine pattern will probably stay together for several bars, but you're sure to notice some drift after that. The solution is to record the rhythm part over your music, a few bars at a time, or, alternatively, put the basic drum beat down first and then make the music match the rhythm. In practice, this is quite easy if you use a sampler to provide the sections of music, but if you're using turntables and slip mats, it will take a lot of skill and practice.
"Before starting on your mix, you'll need to compile a list of suitable records which, of necessity, have to be close enough in tempo that you can match them by using the varispeed controls at your disposal."
To make things more interesting, many exponents of the art create extended breaks by putting short rhythm breaks of, say, one or two bars' length into their sampler and then either looping them or triggering them several times in succession to create a much longer section. These are very useful for making transitions from one piece of music to another where the musical keys might clash badly. A popular trick is to overlay an acappella on top of a rhythm break to act as a musical bridge.
No matter how you approach dance mixing, everything has to be timed perfectly or it will sound sloppy. Bpms have to be matched with a high degree of precision, and even if you look up the right tempo, you'll find that's only accurate to the nearest whole beat per minute and you may have to fine-tune it with the varispeed control on your record deck or tape machine.
Recently recorded songs with drum machine or sequenced rhythm sections are generally easy to work with because their tempos are very stable, but even then a sloppy edit on the original record can throw the track noticeably out of time. If a song is perfectly in sync and then appears suddenly to move off the beat, the chances are it's a bad edit. The task is complicated when you are working with older material because human drummers tend to vary in tempo considerably, even good ones. It is often necessary to chop these songs into sections only a few bars long and then sync the entry of each short section. That's where a sampler really becomes essential — there comes a point when working on such short sections using a turntable and slip mat is virtually impossible and far too time consuming.
Before starting on your mix, you'll need to compile a list of suitable records which, of necessity, have to be close enough in tempo that you can match them by using the varispeed controls at your disposal. Lists of bpms can be found in specialist magazines such as DJ magazine, but in the absence of such information, you'll need to get hold of a stopwatch and work them out for yourself — by counting the beats for one minute! It helps if you can discipline yourself to catalogue any albums in your record collection which are worth sampling.
If you have to use the tape machine's varispeed controls to match the tempi, then the pitch will change too, which can sound dreadful when two musical passages overlap. The same is true if adjacent songs are in non-complementary keys or if they're recorded out of concert pitch. Some engineers will use the time-compression facilities on their samplers to change the tempo of a section without changing the pitch, but a change of anything more than 2-3% usually results in an audible deterioration in sound quality. It's easier to sidestep the issue entirely and link difficult songs with rhythmic sections, which may be loops taken from existing records or entirely new ones generated by a sequencer or drum machine. These may be further augmented with additional percussion, acappellas, brass riffs and suchlike. Special vinyl records for DJs, containing breakbeats and special effects for use in mixing, have been available for several years. Examples include Simon Harris's Breaks Beats & Scratches (now also available on CD) and currently, Time & Space's six Zero-G sample compilations on vinyl, each of which is colour-coded to allow DJs and mixers to cue sections visually as well as audibly. This type of sound resource can be useful in adding interest and dynamics to a mix. For those people using CDs rather than vinyl, numerous sample CDs are also available. Bear in mind, though, that the easier something is to sample, the more people are likely to sample it!
Though you can sort out any level changes between sections while mixing, it is better if you try to match the different sections as you record, otherwise you could find you run out of hands during the mix. Don't just go by the level meters on your recorder, though, because apparent loudness is related to more complex issues than the peak levels shown on the meters. Use your ears and it will be obvious if the energy drops or increases too much as you cross from one song into another. This is less of a problem if you have added an underlying drum track, but even so, you'll have to take care.
When fading from one section to the next, you'll need to practice to push one pair of faders up while you pull the next pair down. A dedicated DJ mixer with a crossfade function might be a little easier to use in this respect, though they're usually short on other facilities such as effects sends and equalisation. If you can improvise a system for mechanically linking adjacent faders (even a piece of pencil and some sticky tape), it will make controlling stereo signals much easier.
During the mix, you can add artificial reverb at strategic points, either as an obvious effect or to smooth the transition of one piece of music into another. However, don't add too much during the main music sections because the original records will already have been mixed with sufficient reverberation — putting on too much more will leave the mix sounding cluttered and lacking in power.
As a more creative effect, reverb can be used on percussion breaks or acappella vocal snatches and this will help disguise crossover points between sections; the reverb from the last beat of the first section will 'hang over' into the new section, making the transition more convincing.
The illusion of loudness in a good mix is created by the contrast between the loud beats and the quieter spaces between them, which is another reason not to overdo the reverb. If you fill all available spaces with reverb, the contrast is reduced and the music will actually sound quieter. On the other hand, a very short, bright reverb setting will actually reinforce the drum beats by making them appear slightly longer so the illusion of loudness is enhanced. So-called gated reverb is very useful in this respect but only on percussion sections — adding it to a mixed piece of music is rarely successful. The effect is achieved by a reverb setting that cuts off suddenly rather than decaying gracefully. What you hear when you select a gated preset on your effects unit is a short, aggressive burst of reverb following each loud beat, which maintains the contrast and makes the drums appear louder.
Echo or delay effects can be useful in smoothing over tricky joins and the best effects are achieved when the delay timing is adjusted so as to reinforce the tempo of the track or to create a counter-rhythm to it. Because echo effects are so obvious, they are best used sparingly to prevent them becoming boring. The same is true of other strong effects such as flanging, which can be dramatic in moderation.
There are no rules for the length of musical sections, links or cross-fades other than that they sound right, and likewise, the choice of effects is purely subjective. Dance mixing is very much an art, and though technology makes it easier for us to translate our ideas into reality, we still have to have the ideas in the first place.
In future issues of RM, we'll be looking at other aspects of this subject. Not all dance music is exclusively concerned with mixing existing records, and we'll be examining compositional styles and methods and the integration of new and older technology; older synths in particular have enjoyed a renaissance in the dance arena, and we'll be highlighting the use of these instruments in producing '90s dance music. Happy mixing...
"Dance mixing is very much an art, and though technology makes it easier for us to translate our ideas into reality, me still have to have the ideas in the first place."
Feature by Paul White
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