HIM: Glossary

I have tried to write the How I Mix series in a manner both DJs and listeners can understand, but there does come a point where explaining every bit of terminology in detail weighs things down. I’ve decided to dedicate this article to some fairly standard mixing concepts and concepts found in music theory. Every time a term is referenced in future HIM articles I will link it back to this page and keep the glossary itself in alphabetical order. This glossary will also expand and evolve as I use more terms and determine better explanations for existing ones.

  • Beat matching: using either your personal sense of timing or software to take two songs and set them to the same beat.
  • BPM, beats per minute: Fairly self-explanatory. Much like heart rate this refers to how many regular significant points in the music occur per minute. I say significant points because it may or may not be based directly on the drum pattern; if nothing else count the number of times you’re nodding your head or tapping your foot to the rhythm.
  • Measure: Most music tends to be based on patterns or groups of notes called measures; this is a basic building block of a song. (More detail in the definition for time signature)
  • Phrase: Measures grouped together that have an overall repetition and signal some sort of change in the music. (More detail in the definition for time signature)
  • Phrase matching: Lining two songs up both on beat AND on phrase, which means the changes in the songs are also lock step.
  • Time signature*: This a term from what’s typically thought of as more “classic” music theory. Most music tends to be based on patterns or groups of notes called measures, and the time signature refers to the number of beats in one of those measures vs the number of measures grouped together as a larger unit of the song. The easiest example of this is of course the most common time signature in western music: 4/4. Four beats in every measure, 4 measures (typically) in every phrase. You can apply 4/4 to almost every song you listen to these days, from 2pac to Led Zeppelin. Count to four on beat four times and there will usually be some sort of change in the music. If it’s more than 4 then it (typically) is a power of 4; this is more common in electronic music as repetition is kind of the point for a lot of danceable, non-lyrical music.

* This is a very simplified version of the term, for all of the nitty-gritty I recommend Wikipedia.

How I Mix – Introduction

Writing is a bit of a passion of mine. I tend to enjoy writing fiction the most, but sharing ideas and concepts that are near and dear to my heart are also very meaningful to me. After watching some really well done Laidback Luke video posts I remarked offhand to several people that it might be interesting to write a series that focused on my specific mixing techniques and decision making process. Reception of the idea was positive, so here we are. I wanted to introduce some concepts and explain the format in this article before getting down into some of the nitty-gritty aspects of DJing.

There are of course a thousand ways to perform in this industry, and unlike a lot of pros or YouTube commenters I don’t really have any issue with any of them. It’s not necessarily how I would do things and I absolutely believe some decisions are sub-optimal or more prone to error, but at the end of the day you should always do you. About the only thing I frown on is the utter dismissal of other techniques and a refusal to at least try to understand another person’s methods. I tend to raise an eyebrow at clinging to methods that are provably not working for a person, but it’s still their choice that should be respected.*

The point of the above is that these articles are simply my opinion. I’m describing how I mix to explain how I get the sound I get and to hopefully present some alternate views that are thought provoking. These will also be my opinions at the time of writing; I am constantly seeking new methods and tips myself and updating exactly how I do what I do with any ideas I think are good. I’ll try to make a point of mentioning when my opinion has changed from a previous article, but I can also guarantee I’m going to forget what I’ve written about in the past.

It’s also worth mentioning that most of what I write about isn’t going to be novel or different; in many areas I come down on one side of a well known debate and I’m just explaining why I chose that side. There is no flash of amazing brilliance to share, and I won’t claim to be unique in any of these opinions. These are my perspectives, and the hope is that by explaining why I choose the things I do it can act as useful information for other performers – even if the only opinion they end up with is “his methods are great examples of how not to do things.”

I have used many methods to mix music ranging from the classic pair of Technique 1200s to an iPad with a specialized Numark controller. (While the immediate reaction of many DJs was to laugh at the iPad it was surprisingly flexible and easy to use – especially if you’re already using iTunes as your music library.) My current rig involves Traktor and an S8 and assuming NI doesn’t abandon the software I don’t see myself switching any time soon. I would LOVE to expand my home station to have my current setup plus a decent Serato controller plus a pair of XDJ 1000s, but that’s an expensive project. I do also eventually plan to add a touchscreen monitor to the mix, but I doubt that will ever be more than a showy alternative to my S8.

I mention all of this because a lot of my preferred methods play to some of Traktor’s unique strengths – and in some cases also require the S8. That shouldn’t necessarily be all that surprising, but I thought it was worth mentioning. Stay tuned for specifics!

*There’s a caveat of course: the attitude of the person in question. If they’re using methods I consider sub-optimal and being a dick or trying to lord their skills over other people I don’t hesitate to unsheathe my claws and start shredding. I also have no issue rubbing the nose of a person like that with a superior performance.

MAM: Future Bass

General Info
Parent: Trapstep
Children: None (Yet)

Ahh, this is a fun one. It wouldn’t be far off the mark to call this the Happy Hardcore of bass music. The tempo isn’t necessarily all that different from other trap sub-genres, but BOY does it dial up the sugar-coating.  (Sometimes literally; one artist – Slushii – puts a neon slushie-style drink on every piece of cover art.) It shares many characteristics of Future Trap with some very key differences: this sub-genre is simply happy. Sky-high chipmunk vocals, soaring melodies in the upper register, and that near-universal buzzy pad sound that feels feathered as it pulses in and out. Future Bass also tends to stutter and jitter more than any other bass music genre, making it a delicate thing to wield at a club or party dedicated to dancing.

I like it, though. It’s a modern broken-beat sort of sound that could easily play in a coffee shop on a Sunday morning and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s already playing in car commercials. I’ve never really been certain why the name ended up being Future Bass, but it’s used widely enough at this point that it’s not really worth making an alternative. It’s enough for me that it’s in a separate sub-genre; one of the ways I determine a need for a different categorization is if there’s a large sub-section of music that’s allllllllmost like something else but would cause people to look up in utter surprise if you dropped it out of nowhere.

For better or for worse the overall happiness means this is also the most commercially palatable part of trap, although more often than not it’ll lure a new listener to all forms of bass music in the end. This is also one of those sub-genres with a gold standard: if you like Slumberjack or Marshmello then you’re a fan of Future Bass.

Samples: JuicyJames – 933 | Muto – Through the Fog | Slushii, Marshmello – Twinbow | Super Square – Push

MAM: Future Trap

General Info
Parent: Trapstep
Children: None (Yet)

Future Trap is what most people are actually thinking of when they hear the word “trap.” It’s the more popular, aggressive, and clubby cousin of the Trapstep sound with song construction running up to high degrees of complexity and a sound palette of almost anything used in electronic music as a whole. Most of the inherited rules of Trap Rap get completely tossed out the window, but the songs never lose that certain something that rattles your teeth and makes you nod your head in a way only trap-based music can. The songs are almost always faster by default or tend to be played faster, which gives rise to the increased club use and visibility in that scene. (If someone asks me to play “trap” and the crowd averages younger than 30 I will immediately reach for Future Trap.)

Naturally this is the top-end of bass music’s energy level, it makes for great peak time material.  It pays to build in and out of it, however – it can be jarring to drop without warning or without matching the general tone. There are certainly songs that hit a grey area between Trapstep and Future Trap, but by and large you can group them confidently. Future Trap tends to have a great deal more swing, the bass lines jump and buzz loudly, and the trap-style rhythms can easily lack the trademark massive sine-wave bass as they stutter all over the place. It’s also fairly easy to separate from Future Bass as it just doesn’t have that trademark saccharine, although Future Trap can absolutely be upbeat. The future isn’t ALL dirt and sadness, after all.

If you find yourself feeling like large chunks of Future Trap sound similar to various forms of dubstep, congratulations! Most dubstep musicians fled to Future Trap after the great dubstep crash of the mid-2010s. While there are certainly a series of things you can use to tell them apart, a lot of the time it’s as simple as asking how important the wobble is to the song as whole. If it’s the main point and most of the song gets out of the way of the wobble – it’s some form of dubstep. If the wobble has integrated itself as a piece of a greater whole and not stolen center stage – it’s Future Trap. If the wobble note structure has been applied to a distinctly higher pitched non-wobble bass then it’s DEFINITELY Future Trap. (I’ve included a Future Trap song by Skrillex to illustrate my point.)

While I’m not crazy about dubstep in general, I do love what it’s contributed to other sub-genres – and its contributions to Future Trap are part of the very reason I love Future Trap.

Samples: Retrohanz – No Regrets | Skrillex – Beats Knockin | Ahee – The Real Thing | T-Mass & Enthic – Can You Feel It | Eptic – Cosmic

MAM: Trapstep

General Info
Parent: Trap Rap
Children: Future Trap, Future Bass

Trapstep is an interesting one; it actually exemplifies what I meant in the Trap Rap article about the sharper codification of the sound of second wave trap. Trapstep is sometimes called “Trap Music” because it focuses on the musical content and forgoes formal rapping, but the differences do go much deeper. The fairly low-level rules of Trap Rap loosen, the rapping is dropped, and as a consequence the overall song and sound complexity increases to make up the difference.  Only to a point though – this is still an aggressive, primal genre at its core. The songs are more likely to vary wildly in tempo mid-song, and it’s common to hear singing, crowd-hyping chants, and exhortations to clap booties and drop it down low.

It’s relative easy to spot where Trap Rap ends and Trapstep begins, you can get halfway through the sorting process just by examining the base tempo. While the genre can reach down to the 60-70bpm of Trap Rap it averages closer to 100bpm and sometimes soars to the 120+bpm range that Future Trap and Future Bass tend to sit in. It’s more serious than Future Bass and doesn’t sound anywhere near the level of dubstep that Future Trap has. Let’s go with…it’s more “subtle” than Future Trap? That works.  The samples I’ve chosen this time represent more of the breadth of what Trapstep can cover vs an expression of the purest core concepts.

At the most reductive level Trapstep can represent a good baseline for the mood of your set. It’s the bass music equivalent of Funky House, Uplifting Trance, or BounceTek; it’s the meat and potatoes that handle the heavy lifting. If you’re starting at either high or low energy and want to move around it’s the middle ground that bridges things together. It’s flexible enough that both hip hop fans and dance music fans will recognize it as trap-style music, and if you pay careful attention to the song construction you can transparently peak in and out of a more purist hip hop set with the right surrounding textures.

My favorite aspect is that  it tends to have the double heartbeat bass drum that leads hips into a twerk-style rhythm; that’s catnip for a dance floor. There are always at least two breakdown and heavy drop sections so you’ve got a nice window to either fall into and/or out of the track if you want to and enough possible hot cue points to run a circuit of mashups. It’s worth staying on your toes, however – the cleanest mix points are almost always only 15-20 seconds out from the end of a track.

Samples: Hardwell – Badam | DMZ – Attuku | UnicornDie – For a Day | Nextro – Aliens


MAM: Trap Rap

General Info
Parent: Dirty South
Children: Trapstep, Global Trap

Depending on who you talk to – and I myself yield to the most common hip hop historian opinion – the actual honest-to-god trap sound has been around since the early-90s. “First wave” trap included artists such as Master P, Goodie Mob, and Ghetto Mafia; the music was characterized by a low 808 bass, a pondering, slow tempo, double-time or triple-time hi-hats, and a wide use of instruments to create an ominous atmosphere. The rap lyrics tended to be bleak and gritty as well; the term “trap” itself started as a reference for where drug deals took place and the dealing itself – it was the quickest way to make real money and that’s a hard thing to give up. The songs often painted a deep and haunting picture of how hard street life could be and the measures one might do to survive, and it was the south’s largest contribution to the general darkening of hip hop in the 90s. For better or worse it can be placed next to the east coast’s hardcore hip hop and the west coast’s gangsta rap in that time period.

As you may have noticed, “first wave trap” covers a fairly wide range of southern hip hop at the time, so it’s not entirely uncommon to consider it more of a stylistic choice rather than an actual sub-genre. The second wave of trap in the early 2000s saw a standardization in common song characteristics, and from THAT we move into the formation of an actual sub-genre. I have decided to formally call this Trap Rap to both represent the modern sound and delineate out the older hip hop that’s just sort of “trap style.” The term trap by itself becomes a general bucket containing multiple sub-genres sharing general sounds and patterns, similar to “bass music” or “psy.”

Trap Rap zeroes in a bit tighter to a very particular style of drum with additional sub-bass, fairly standardized slow tempo ranges, and an easily recognizable tone to the single melody and perhaps extremely low-key counter melody. Toss something vast sounding such as horns with heavy reverb, start spitting good game, and you’re dropping some great Trap Rap. In many ways the tracks in this sub-genre are the very purest and distilled forms of what trap has always been an expression of; the somber side of life when you have very few means to an end.

Samples: Dustin Dynasty Nelson – Stackin | Infernal Dice – I’m in the Game | TWRK – Hands on It

Music According to MEA

Welcome to an ongoing series I am going to call “Music According to MEA,” where I will be discussing various sub-genres of electronic music (in no particular order) and their relationships to each other. Some genres can be described in a paragraph while others may require pages, although most will fall closer to three or four paragraphs. I will provide various samples (30 seconds or less to respect copyright law) that hopefully illustrate my points and there will be text listings of a given sub-genre’s parents or children as everything evolves from something and evolves into something else. Some of you may have seen Ishkur’s Guide to Electronic Music and will recognize this format; why fix what isn’t broken?

I will in fact point back to his guide quite a bit in places because the latest complete version covers a great deal of ground up to the time when it was published around the early 2000s. Also – I agree with him in many areas and it’s not worth retreading ground he’s written in a far wittier fashion than I can. He built the guide with research from the scene we both spent years in and unsurprisingly we drew many similar conclusions independently. I will note where I disagree with him, although that’s rare. In most cases I simply believe some of his sub-genres could be better divided or more precisely named.

He’s been working on a third version off and on for years but I don’t know that it’s really an attainable goal, mostly because electronic music follows its own version of Moore’s Law – the list of sub-genres practically doubles in size every few years. My articles will also never cover the entire breadth of electronic music for precisely the same reason, although I will have the sole advantage of simply writing texts, snipping small non-looped samples, and not bothering at all to try and put them on any kind of timeline. I may provide a basic map at some point, but even that is fairly easy to bang together quickly compared to the awesome but more time-consuming interface of Ishkur’s guide.

So why am I doing this? There are several reasons. I’m attempting to impose better order on my unwieldy library and thought it might be interesting to share my thought process. I think classifications are fun to debate, and it’s a very handy thing to hammer out when recommending things to someone unfamiliar with electronic music in general or someone with limited points of reference. I have been asked over and over, “I like artist/song [x], how can I find more like that?” Being able to give someone a specific sub-genre or bucket name saves them some time and also helps them reach their goal without having to wade through things that do NOT fit what they’re looking for. Finally – this is one of the secrets to my success as a DJ. Part of my ability to weave a mood through a set of almost any material is due to my classification system. The overlaps and blended edges lead to a very clear pathway on pushing a mix through desired path, and it makes guiding a set through mood changes that much more straightforward.

Before diving into anything specific I thought it would be prudent to lay down some basic points so that I’m not constantly elaborating on the same underlying ideas:

  • Naturally this is all opinion. Root genre and bucket classifications are fairly easy to demonstrate and agree on, but getting down into sub-genres can seem pretty subjective to most people. It doesn’t feel like that to me, but that’s in part because the whole thing is codified in my head. I do feel confident that the samples I provide and the points I make on the various sub-genres will easily demonstrate the difference in any two similar categories I’m presenting, but there can always be (and almost always will be) some debate about the creation of two separate categories in the first place.
  • I use some unfamiliar terminology. I’ll define those later below.
  • There will always be songs that are very debatable. One of the interesting aspects of electronic music is that it’s effortless to mix any number of sub-genres together, and this leads to some truly fascinating results. A song can meet criteria in two or more sub-genres, and while most of the time the percentages lean in one direction or another there are cases where the blending is mixed enough that it’s splitting hairs to choose which sub-genre to call it. This is how music typically evolves; songs that float in between grow in number and start developing their own commonalities into a distinct sound.
  • Very little of this is forever written in stone, and I will update articles from time to time if I have new information or if I’m presented with compelling counterpoints. Also I’m pedantic and obsessive enough that I will immediately fix spelling or grammatical errors.
  • I will be ignoring timelines. In my opinion once a sub-genre codifies it can retroactively absorb music written years ago. I’m pedantic, but not that pedantic.
  • I will be capitalizing genres and sub-genres when I am referring to them as an entity – but only when they’re an entity. When I say techno I’m referring to the vague concept of techno as a bucket, and when I say Techno I am referring to the classification with rules that contains a finite amount of music that can be named. General conversation will read normally but I wanted to make it clear when I’m talking about a node on the 3D mesh diagram that is electronic music.

So what are some of the personal terms I’ve mentioned? A few have already come up.

  • Genre: this refers to the central root. There are seven (and only seven) genres in electronic music: House, Trance, Techno, Breakbeat, Jungle, Hardcore, and Downtempo. Every single sound, song, beat (or lack of a beat) can be classified in one of those seven, no exceptions. Even when a sound or sub-genre has additional roots in a non-electronic genre the electronic component can always be traced back to the seven.
  • Texture: this is my musical equivalent of “mouthfeel.” It can feel like a maddeningly vague term that represents feelings that are hard to communicate, but in reality I think it’s easily shareable. Texture refers to some of the primal non-emotional responses to a given sound. (Naturally the term mood covers the emotional side.) Characteristics such as rough, smooth, atmospheric, or energetic can be rolled up under the general category of texture. There’s certainly room for interpretation, but even when someone has a different opinion on texture it’s possible to see their perspective.
  • Bucket: I hate the term sub-sub-genre (or worse, daisy-chaining genre terms together into a hyphenated mess. There’s the classic joke of “vegetarian Norwegian black metal” that’s good for a laugh but just requires too much peeling to figure out what someone might mean. More than a few sub-genres share enough sound commonalities that they get regularly gathered up in a more general reference. The term “east coast hip hop” covers a range of sub-genres across different time periods, but it also helps narrow what you’re talking about; there are certain things all east coast hip hop shares, and it’s very different from west coast hip hop. As you can probably guess at this point buckets are not capitalized.
  • Rules: this is a verbal shortcut that sacrifices precision for a quick metaphor. When I say a sub-genre has rules I don’t exactly mean that a song must absolutely meet the characteristics of [x], [y], and [z] to be considered one sub-genre or another, rather that there are some baseline conventions and expectations that usually get met in some fashion by a song in a sub-genre. In many ways I think this concept helps communicate the overlap that exists in many places as a song might possess all of the proper rules of two similar sub-genres. Rules can also have exceptions, and at the end of the day they can be broken here and there – but by and large they are elements typically present in a sub-genre.

One final note: I love to debate and I welcome all civil comments and debate; note the word civil. I’ve mellowed as I’ve aged, and these days I find there’s very little I want to argue about in passionate terms with shouting and hand waving. Discussions are stimulating, arguments just make me tired. I am always reluctant to delete or ban but I will do so in a heartbeat if there’s verbal abuse toward me or any other commenters – and trust me, I have heard some serious verbal abuse over sub-genre classifications. Music has a fandom like anything else, and that always brings a percentage of righteous warriors. I’m not sure anyone will even read these things, but hey – better to write these specifications now anyway.

Now that that’s out of the way, on with the show!