DJ/rupture on the Minesweeper Suite

One of Minesweeper Suite’s most difficult mixes was the first one.
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It sounds relaxed; the mix is so subtle not everybody notices it. The CD begins with Mahmoud Fadl’s Nubian drumming and airy vocals, which slowly morph into a dub-hop tune by J-Boogie. When I beat-matched the records — adjusted their playback speed until the tempos matched and blended seamlessly — they also became perfectly pitched to each other. A Holy Grail of DJing: the mixtape blend where different tunes actually harmonize. It sounded great. But the problem lay in the beats: Fadl’s human drumming versus the computer-precise regularity of J-Boogie’s mellow backbeats.

From techno to hip-hop to reggae, the vast majority of the records DJs spin contain music made using computers, samplers, and drum machines — so the beat holds perfectly steady at a fixed bpm. This consistency makes intricate beat-matching and beat-juggling possible. Trying to blend together two non-quantized beats can be tricky indeed. Fadl varied his tempo to bring out song dynamics, so even when I got them in time, the Fadl record would quickly drift out of sync with J-Boogie’s regular bpm. The solution was to memorize Fadl’s subtle shifts. I learned every tiny pause and acceleration in his song. I got to the point where I was “playing” the pitch-adjust of the J-Boogie vinyl so it never lost sync with the Fadl’s flow.

Technically, the studio setup for Minesweeper Suite was relatively simple — three turntables and a mixer, a sluggish old laptop, flimsy first-generation USB soundcard, and a stereo line in. For years I’d made mixtapes directly to cassette. I’d practice for hours and try to nail each tape side in error-free 30-minute chunks. So recording direct from turntables and mixer into a PC running SoundForge was a technological leap for me.

Nowadays there’s a lot of laptop DJ software — including Ableton Live, which allows you to quantize acoustic beats so you can blend a Johnny Cash ramble with, say, house — but I don’t touch any of it. You don’t have to be an analog junkie to recognize that vinyl’s immediacy and raw physicality makes for a world of possibilities that software can’t match.

The second half of Minesweeper Suite gets dense with drum and bass, hip-hop, and reggae mashups, noise, and R&B a cappellas holding it all in place. One of the techniques I use to blend together two different beats and an a cappella at the same time is to have a flexible reference beat. With two turntables mixing, you use the beat on one turntable as a steady reference while adjusting the beat on the other deck. With three turntables, there is one reference beat and two variable beats. In other words, the opportunity for a horrible “trainwreck” mix is much higher. So as I move through a mix, I shift the reference beat around, adjusting one record against another, then suddenly focusing on a different beat as the reference and manipulating the others so they go in time with it. When three sound sources play at once, the out-of-time drift can happen anywhere.

So making all these different beats combine without chaos requires technical precision, but more than anything else, my style of mixing requires space. If I’m layering three records at once, no single tune can be too full, or the mix will overload into murkiness. Heavy-handed EQing can help, but it’s a drastic solution. The hottest tracks can often stand on their own, so I’m always searching for beats with space. Of course, sometimes I wanted apocalyptic walls of sound. So I’d cut in records from groups like noise-jazz trio Borbetomagus into an already-crowded mix, and watch the overtones explode.

When I used sounds that didn’t need to be synced on beat — like, say the Armenian duduk flute — I made sure to match the pitch before dropping it in the mix. A little roughneck musicality can go a long way toward making a mix gel.

The turntables I used were Technics 1200s. No surprise there. Some DJs go under the hood and adjust their 1200s so that the pitchbend range becomes greater than the standard +/- 8%. This allows you to beat-match a wider span of tempos: Every DJ has had the experience where a perfect mix is almost possible, but one record goes a little too fast. . . . I would have happily tweaked my decks for +10 or 12 pitchbend, but that leaves you with banging blends at home that wouldn’t work on the clubs’ non-adjusted 1200s.

These days my mixer of choice is the Pioneer DJM-600: flexible on-board FX, massive amounts of levels-in-the-red overhead, assignable crossfaders with various curves, the whole deal. I’ve gone through a handful of cartridges over the year, but Minesweeper Suite was mixed on my favs, the functional-rather-than-fancy Stanton 680s.

For years I monitored my mixes by sending a weak line-level signal through the mono mic input of a battered boombox.

Minesweeper Suite was no exception.

If a mix sounds good over a junky stereo, high-end studio monitors, and the car, then it’s unstoppable.