It’s probably not something you think about or notice often until it happens but I’ll set the scene; You’re listening to one of your favorite songs. It has an up beat tempo with hard bass lines, Notorious B.I.G. – Mo Money Mo Problems for instance. The song ends and the next song starts to play?and it’s Mariah Carey ? Butterfly. Don’t get me wrong, I love Mariah but a better song choice after Mo Money Mo Problems would be Breakdown. The tempo and bass lines are similar and the content keeps that same edge.
The digital age has brought about the death of smooth song transitions. Random playlists on our MP3 players & computers, satellite radio, music stations on TV and internet streaming sites all contribute to the problem. They use computer algorithms to play songs based on popularity, what hasn’t played in the last 20 minutes or just some preprogrammed order. No computer program can analyze what sounds pleasant to the human ear or determine what song will sound best when played after the another. This isn’t as complex as wine pairing but you wouldn’t ruin a good steak by pairing it with a Pinot Grigio!
Thankfully we have people that are paid to do this. They are the ones that should know how to perform this simple technique with skill and precision. It is their job is after all to play music. They call themselves DJ’s and they work at radio stations, parties and clubs. In the radio setting, they have the highest possible audience but very little control. At parties they have smallest audience and no control at all. And at the club, they usually have a nice size audience, depending on the club, and the most control.
Control is the key to performing a good transition. Control allows you to freely choose the songs within your catalog that best compliment each others melodies. Of course you also need knowledge about how these songs sound and may sound together.
Radio DJ’s try to get around this by altering the tempo of the song and speeding up or down the song to match the next or previous song. This typically goes unnoticed by most listeners and accomplishes the goal but forces songs to go together that normally wouldn’t sound well together. The unexpected result is a warped version of the song that is 2 or 3 beats off from the original. If you play an instrument or can read music then you understand the issue here.
DJ’s at parties don’t usually use transitions due to the nature of the business. The organizer typically requests certain songs to be played or not played and breaks between songs are sometimes filled with comments from the DJ or others within the party. Heavily scripted and little room for randomness.
Now there’s the Club DJ. Their play lists are typically a hybrid of the Radio and Party DJ; a list of popular songs often with transitions using tempo control. There is one catch of course; have you ever noticed that they always play some song that clears the floor? Club owners don’t really want you to dance, they want you to spend money on drinks. And since you can’t drink as much while dancing, they purposely get DJ’s to play bad songs to send you to the bar. Profit from the cover charge is nothing compared to the profit of an over charged drink!
The shrinking (after a recent growth spurt) population of the Mix-Tape DJ understand the art of transitions. For them, clever use of the cross fader, scratching and sometimes vocals mask the change in tempo and base lines in songs. Thiers are often carefully thought out playlist to enhance and compliment the theme of the album. Radio DJ’s also use this approach but only during party mixes that occur during rush hour runs, lunch hour or prime-time Friday/Saturday nights but it only lasts about 20 minutes and you don’t get the full song.
So it might seem like you’re screwed doesn’t it? DJ’s just don’t put value in transitions like they used to. DJ’s may not put too much value in it but if you attend concerts you will notice that the artists do. Set lists are chosen very carefully to allow for wardrobe changes, set changes and you guessed it, song transitions.
Now if only the DJ’s could pay attention to the artists close enough to learn something other than the latest body-part-dance-song to play we might have some better sounding radio.