Finding the downbeat
The first beat of your record is usually a “downbeat,” or a heavy beat, compared to the one that follows it. If you listen to your records play, you will hear the beats, and you might also notice that every so often, there is a beat that is heavier or louder than the beats in between. There is a pattern here, and it is easier to hear in some records than in others. It’s probably easiest to hear in house music. You may have to listen for a while to be able to detect it. In fact, you may notice that every 8 beats, the beat is distinctly more powerful than the others, or perhaps there is a cymbal crash or other instrument added to the track. All of these “heavy” or “noticeable” beats are downbeats.
The easiest and most noticeable downbeats to find, and the best downbeats for you to work with as you learn, happen every 32 beats.
All electronic dance music (designed for dance floors) is arranged in 4 sets of 8 beats. Every 32 beats, after 4 sets of 8, something changes. Some records are more obvious about this structure than others, but they *all* have it unless the producer is playing tricks on you (which occasionally happens, but then that is the reason you must know all your records inside and out, backwards and forwards.)
A 32-beat cycle, starting with a big downbeat, is called a BLOCK. Here’s how to find the beginning of a block, and those magical first beats which your spinning will revolve around:
When you start the record, count from 8 to 1 starting at the very first beat of the track.
BIG DOWNBEAT-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. Little downbeat-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. Little downbeat-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. Little downbeat-7-6-5-4-3-2-1.
(Don’t worry if you don’t hear any difference between the big and little downbeats, just keep counting and listening)
BIG DOWNBEAT-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. Little downbeat-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. Little downbeat-7-6-4-5-3-2-1. Little downbeat-7-6-5-4-3-2-1.
Every 8 beats there is a downbeat, and every four sets of 8 beats (32 beats) there is a big downbeat. If you count from 8 to 1 four times and then don’t hear any significantly louder beat or change, it could be that your record has a very long (and boring) introduction. I promise you, the 32-beat structure is there. Start counting again from 8 to 1 four times with the next block, and eventually it will happen. Eventually you will notice this repeating pattern. Once you start hearing this structure (it is in all of your records), you are well on your way to great beatmatching. Listen for it! At first it takes a lot of effort, but after a while it becomes natural, and you can chat with your friends or answer the phone or take a bite of your sandwich and still know exactly when that block begins and ends. And that is your goal: not to count, but to just feel those changes in the music. Those changes will be your technical guide throughout your set.
That place where it begins, that first beat of a block, is where you will want to take action as you spin: releasing tracks, adding a new one, adding special effects, etc. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ll discuss all this in more detail in Phrasing and Special effects. For now, just learn to hear those blocks. Listen for them all the time, not only when you are practicing. I’ve had many students with me out clubbing and I notice they’ve stopped dancing or chatting and are listening to those beats. Invariably, they are delighted when they hear the pattern and start to really “get” what the DJ is doing!