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In a previous article I explained some of the waveform basics that every DJ should know. In this article, I’m going to go a bit more in-depth with how you can integrate your knowledge of waveforms into your mixing style.

One thing that might become immediately apparent after spending some time with waveforms is that they are not all created equally. The phenomenon know as the ‘loudness wars’ has resulted in a lot of heavy compression and limiting being used in the mastering phase of track production. This process reduces the dynamic range of the song, resulting in a track that on the surface appears to have more ‘power’ and will stay at a consistent volume throughout.

In the waveform terms we previously discussed, this process results in less variation in the height of the crests and troughs. In addition, the peaks of these crests and troughs will be close to their maximum height (without distorting). You can see examples of a heavily compressed/limited track as well as an ‘average’ track below. Clearly, there are some differences…

Note that when you hear a heavily compressed/limited track it might appear to have more power simply because the ‘loud’ parts are more consistent throughout the track. In reality, this reduction of dynamics actually makes the track less powerful because there is less separation of the musical elements, resulting in a dynamic ‘blurring’ of sorts. This ‘blurring’ works well for radio, streaming, and listening on earbuds, but when played on a properly set up club system it will seem less ‘punchy’.

So how can you use this information when you’re mixing?

When you are loading a new track into one of your decks (Serato, Traktor) or getting ready to trigger a new clip (Live) you will immediately be able to visually compare it’s waveform with the waveform of the playing track. If there are obvious differences in the waveform you should be able to make some preliminary adjustments to your settings (i.e. the volume). This could apply to either a full section of a track that has been mastered differently than your playing track, but also for various elemental sections of a track. For example, if you are going to mix into a verse or chorus of a track that has been heavily compressed/limited you might want to turn down the initial volume to make a smoother transition because it will appear to be very loud. Conversely, if you want to mix into a less busy hi-hat only section you might have to turn up the initial volume for it to cut through the mix.

Normally, you would be doing this in your headphones and by looking at the VU meter on your mixer, but you can use the visual technique to help you when you need it. Also, instead of using the volume faders to mix in/out, you could use your basic EQ controls. In the example of a highly compressed track, you could kill the lows, mids, or highs to make some room for the mix. Killing the low end is usually a good way to cut through because when you have two sings playing the full spectrum, the result can often be quite muddy.

One thing that I find to be helpful is to set your track volume faders at about -6 dB. Depending on the hardware setup, the effects and plugins you are using, and the PA system, you might have several different gain stages that will affect the overall output. If you are running a heavily compressed/limited song through a mixer track set at 0 db, then have various effects on it, which then gets sent to a PA system with limiter safeguards, the resulting sound will probably sound very squashed. By running your mixer tracks at a lower volume you allow room for various gain stages to work on the song without it constantly hitting the limiter ceiling. This is especially true for Ableton Live users that create effects racks for all of their tracks.

One part of the debate between vinyl and digital is the issue of dynamic range. Songs on vinyl records often sound cleaner and more ‘punchy’ because they have not been heavily compressed/limited in the mastering phase. In the two images above, you could think of the ‘average’ track as an average waveform that a vinyl record would produce and compare it to the same track heavily mastered as a digital release.

The issue of digital file size and the audio quality also comes into play as part of this discussion. Lower quality audio files have less audio information in them, so when they are heavily compressed/limited the results sound significantly worse than a more dynamic song of the same quality. You should always use the highest quality audio files available. 320 kbps + or bust!

If you want to learn more about DJing and gear we highly recommend you check out our online DJ School here at Spin-Academy.

Art and science collide! If you use any digital DJ software or DAW you have probably worked with waveforms. But what are they exactly?

We’ll start at the beginning…

Sound is a sequence of waves of pressure that travel through a compressible medium (like air and water). These pressure waves can be created from almost anything, from the vibrations of human vocal chords to the in-and-out movement of a speaker cone. There are a few different ways that sound can be visually represented, but one of the most common is the linear waveform.

As we can see from the picture above, there are several distinct parts of a waveform, but two of the most important for DJs are the amplitude and wavelength. The amplitude is basically the height of the waveform and represents how loud the sound is. The wavelength is the distance between two crests (or troughs) of the wave and represents the pitch of the sound. Longer wavelengths represent low frequencies and short wavelengths represent high frequencies.

The photo above is a representation of one single basic sinusoidal wave, but almost all sounds we hear are made up of many different waves. A complete song can be thought of as an intricate mosaic of waves, covering most of the audible spectrum (about 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz).

If you want to learn more details about the science of sound waves, you can check out the Wikipedia article on sound here.

The picture above is a waveform of a complete song. While you won’t be able to separate out the individual waveforms from this picture, you can still see a lot of information (if you know what to look for).

The spectrum in this section above is fairly narrow without any large transients (a high amplitude, short duration sound at the beginning of waveform events). This low-amplitude, consistent waveform is a representation of a medium-loud harmonic sound.

This next spectrum still has the narrow waveform in the middle, but is dotted with larger transients. These large amplitude sections are louder than the middle section and represent drum kick and snare sounds. Since low frequencies have longer wavelengths, you can actually see which of these hits are the kicks and which are the snares (given that kicks have lower pitch than snares). In the kick waveforms you can actually see most of the crests and troughs (like the first in the sequence), while wavelength of the snare waveforms is much smaller so you cannot differentiate between individual crests and troughs (like in the third hit of the sequence). If you were to zoom in to the waveform more you would be able to see more detail, but as a DJ you probably won’t be looking at waveforms at much more of smaller scale than this.

In this picture, you can see that the kick and snare hits are still present, but the space in between them has filled out more. This means that there is more sonic content, which (in our context) means that there is a drum line and harmonic line occurring simultaneously (like a verse or chorus).

The information above is really just a primer on some of the basics that you will need to know as a DJ. The more you work with waveforms and the more you read about them, the better you will understand them. Every piece of digital DJ software handles and displays waveforms in a different way, but the basics will remain the same. In Traktor, the display is fairly basic, but you do have some options to customize what yo see. The Serato waveform display is slightly more complex, separating the low, mid, and high frequencies into red, green, and blue colors. Some people find this visual separation of the frequency spectrum very useful, while others find it distracting (it’s really a matter of personal preference). In Ableton Live (which I used for the examples above), you have quite a bit of waveform detail and an in-depth adaptable grid system. You may have noticed the green squares above the waveform at certain points; these are warp markers. Live analyzes each waveform and places these ‘pins‘ in the waveform at certain points (like the downbeats) so that you can change the tempo and pitch independently.

Regardless of how you DJ, you should try to learn as much about waveforms and how to interact with them in your software of choice. You shouldn’t rely on the visuals in your software to mix, but it can be a great aid when you’re in a bind or trying something new.

 

If you want to learn more about DJing and gear we highly recommend you check out our online DJ School here at Spin-Academy.

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