August 14, 2013 - 8 comments

Digital DJing: The Countdown Method for Traktor cue points

Traktor's cue points are a handy way for DJs to jump around and keep track of different events within a track. For example, the guys at DJ Tech Tools use cue points to highlight the first beat, the best start point, and vocal cues (as well as trigger points for sample loops).

Myself, I use cue points in a more traditional, yet universal manner. I've been using a technique I call the Countdown Method for about a year now. Basically, cues are used in reverse sequence (as in 3-2-1 go!) to coordinate mix-in and mix-out points.

This method offers many advantages. It's intuitive because you're counting down to something happening. It's consistent which makes it easy to plan and reproduce mixes, enabling you to focus on audio quality instead of timing. Not only does it help you make producer-quality mixes, it also makes it easier to focus on the "juicy center" of each track. Finally, using organized cue points is simply part of the natural evolution of mixing, similar to how sequencers helped musicians reduce time spent on practicing and rehearsals.

Here's the quick summary:

  • cues 3, 2, 1 are for mix-in
  • cues 7, 6, 5 are for mix-out
  • cues 3, 2, 1 reflect volume (silent, audible, full)
  • cues 4 and 8 are free for other uses
  • cue 1 is the start of the key phrase
  • cue 5 is the end
  • make the first cue a Load marker
  • make cue 5 a Fade-Out (red flag) marker for hard exits / cuts

The Basics

The basics of the Countdown Method are very similar to how DJs usually mix, so:

  • Cue 3: start the song from here so it can be synced, but no volume
  • Cue 2: turn up the volume so song can be heard in the mix
  • Cue 1: play song at full volume

Likewise, exit cues are arranged to indicate the transition to the next song:

  • Cue 7: start cue 3 of next song
  • Cue 6: matches cue 2, both songs can be heard
  • Cue 5: matches cue 1, stop this song

In general, cue 1 is the start of the first verse of the song (i.e. the "juicy center"). Cue 2 will usually be one or two phrases (32-64 beats) of melody prior to the first verse. Cue 3 will be one phrase prior to cue 2. I place cue 3 a full phrase ahead mostly because the beginning and ending of phrases are pretty instinctive - the music and your muscles will naturally tell you when they happen.

Similarly, cue 5 is when the song should stop. Cue 6 will be a point in the track where the melody cuts out, but the beats are playing, which is a natural time to introduce the new melody. Cue 6 is usually the first cue placed, then cue 5 is placed a couple of phrases after. Last, you want to place cue 7 in the same amount of time (usually a phrase) before cue 6 as you had between cue 3 and cue 2. Cue 7 will almost always sound like it's too early, like a plane getting close to the ground well before the runway. That's ok. Once you try it a couple of times, you'll be naturally comfortable with it.

For this method to work, you always use 3-2-1 and 7-6-5. By being consistent, you'll always know cue 1 means start and cue 5 means end. There's no ambiguity. You can always come back to the track and know the essential parts, not to mention the best/safest section to mix.

Let's take a look at some examples from some mixes I'm working on.

In this first image, you can see the start of the track has 3-2-1 countdown leading in and the end has 7-6-5 for the exit:

In / Out cue points

The next track (to be mixed in) has 3-2-1 cue points that match the 7-6-5 above:

In cue points

So when I do this mix, I'll start playing the next track at cue 3 when the first track gets to cue 7. When I pass cue 6 & cue 2, I'll adjust the volume of each track so both can be heard evenly. When I get to cue 5 / cue 1, I'll drop out the volume of the first track and raise the volume of the second track to full. (That's an over simplification of what I'll really do for this mix, but it drives home the point.)

For new DJs, mixing 7-6-5 into 3-2-1 is a really easy way to plan and execute transitions, especially if you're using an S4 controller. Add these cues to each track in your mix and it should be easy to reproduce every time.

Notice that we don't use cues 4 and 8. Since you don't really need four whole steps for every mix, we can leave cues 4 and 8 free for other uses. For example, in my post on prep mixes I used cue 4 as a temp marker.

One last tip: in the examples above, you can see I make the first cue point a Load marker. This is essential since it makes Traktor moves your track to the right playing position as soon as you load it into the channel. It's a vital way to make a track be ready to go.

Advanced Technique

For advanced DJs, we still think in 3-2-1 but we don't need to use all three cues every single time. Some mixes work best if you just drop cue 1 at full volume with no mix in. Since Traktor stays in sync, a fast drop is ridiculously easy to pull off.

3-2-1 means the same thing as before -  we just cut it down to the essentials. As such, the yellow Load marker identifies the drop point and the cue number will tell you the volume of the drop. So:

  • Load 3: safe drop - start quiet because the track is complex or needs a unique volume ramp
  • Load 2: soft drop - start at mid volume so you can hear the tune when it starts
  • Load 1: hard drop - play the track at full volume as soon as it starts

Example: Load 3 safe drop (the audio clashes too much, so I'll fade up later):

Load 3

Example: Load 2 soft drop (will hear both tracks playing):

Load 2

Example: Load 1 hard drop (song plays at full volume right away):

Load 1


In the load 1 & load 3 examples you'll also notice I'm using cue 4. In these cases, cue 4 acts as a "pay attention" marker. For load 1, I already used cue 1 for the full volume drop, so cue 4 is the point for ending the previous track, and naturally happens to be the starting point of the first verse of my track.

If you don't need the whole 3-2-1 to mix in, you likewise don't need the whole 7-6-5 to mix out. In most cases, I generally just use 6-5: cue 6 is the start of the mix out and cue 5 is the end. A normal (blue) cue 5 means a basic fade out at this point (a soft exit):

Safe Exit

A hard exit happens when it's essential that the song be completely off at this point. To indicate a hard exit, change cue 5 to a red Fade-Out flag. The red flag makes it very clear you have to STOP NOW. (Most DJs don't use Traktor's auto-mix feature, so it should be fine to use the this flag for this purpose. Just be sure you don't have auto-mix enabled in the Settings.)

For example, in this track I need to cut away 4 beats early:

Hard Exit

to allow the early vocal in the next track to play clearly (a hard drop):

Hard Drop

Next, you'll notice I used cue 8 in the exit and cue 4 in the mix in. These "pay attention" markers are there to let me know something unusual is happening here. In this case, I'm cutting 4 beats earlier than the end of the phrase. You should keep in mind another benefit of the extra cue points (4 and 8): they're helpful for preventing mis-queues later on when playing the track freestyle.

Speaking of freestyling, once you're used to using these cue points, it's pretty easy to use your cue points to quickly review your track when freestyling. You'll already know the start of the first verse, good windows for mixing in and out, and also any nasty surprises at the end. And if you're using an S4 you can now quickly jump to and try-out different start points using the cue keys.

The Countdown Method also moves you closer to producer-quality mixing. A lot of this seems like overkill but I find it essential, particularly when I'm working on a mix I want to release to Soundcloud or Beatport. Even with all these markers, there is still a lot of nuance I need to remember. Further, in each mix there's usually one or more transitions that don't conform to this pattern. I record live, so every little piece I can have covered in advance makes it that much easier to focus on the harder bits and still get a producer-quality mix.

Another big benefit is faster, tighter mixes. In most of my examples here, you'll notice I'm only playing the "juicy center" of each track which lasts less than 2 minutes. These cue points makes it's much easier to avoid "long mix syndrome" and "oh god again?" moments that generally happen in manual vinyl and CD mixes. It takes a TON of practice to do something this tight over and over with vinyl. DJs had to maintain  multiple copies of each record (in cases of nicks), properly balanced needles, paper tab markers, etc. These cue points are effectively the paper sticker tabs you see turntablists use.

So that's the basics. Once you see it, it's pretty obvious. The Countdown Method is an easy way to stay organized and be able to reproduce mixes.

Coming soon: creating production-quality mixes, plus I'll do a walk through (show screens) of one of my new mixes.

Don't forget to check out my mixes on Soundcloud & Beatport and follow me on Twitter.







Published by: radley in Digital DJing


February 6, 2015 at 9:16 pm

Thanks a lot for this wonderful tip, probably one of the more useful yet simple tip I have encountered. Will defiantly be going back through my collection to make use of this super awesome strategy!

October 8, 2014 at 5:38 am

I had a similar strategy but the problem is remembering what the cue points mean, having that “what did I intend here?” moment mid mix. Good advice to introduce some rules!

August 22, 2014 at 12:59 pm

This was freaking amazing! I recently bought the Traktor S4 and I have been struggling with cue points and getting my mixes flowing properly. I used to mix using Ableton by just manually changing the highs, mids and lows then just pressing play so it was kind of a big leap to start mixing live. Reading your blog posts has helped me understand mixing to a whole new level! Thank you for sharing your knowledge! I really appreciate it and I would love to have you as a guestmixer on my podcast!

January 14, 2014 at 11:27 am

Wow, I’ve been struggling (my mixes aren’t awful, but my cue’s just weren’t doing it for me…) with setting up cue points in a way that made sense for me… you just blew my mind, I love this style and its what I was trying to do with not a lot of success so I always returned to basic 8-16 measure cue’s. This site just became priceless to me! Thank you for sharing all your hard work, most DJ’s aren’t willing to let this information go free or at all and I really do appreciate your willingness to share. Can’t wait to get home to redo a set I was just putting together last night (Progressive & Trance), I have a slow building style, less initial energy than yours, but this will still help me build it the way I wanted in the first place. The Titan breakdown also helped immensely.

September 1, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Thanks for sharing

August 20, 2013 at 1:14 am

Cool, one of the few nontrivial tutorials about the cue points topic! You could also turn cue 6 into a loop point, in case the fade out window is too short. If Traktor would offer labled cue points one would not have to waste precious hotcue slots for cue 3,2,7 and 6, but simply keep them stored as one of the 32 general cue slots..

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