In this tutorial, you’ll learn to assemble the “perfect” DJ mix using your personal computer — no turntables required! There is a science behind the art, and using a few basic techniques you’ll soon learn to mix like the pros.
Whether you’re an aspiring DJ or a veteran on the decks, putting together a mix takes time and thought. And like a lot of things in life, a great DJ mix is 90% preparation and 10% execution. This tutorial won’t spend a whole lot of time talking about how to mix – the execution – and will instead focus on teaching you to prepare your mix.
It’s pretty obvious that song selection is a big part of what makes a DJ mix stand out from the crowd. You probably already have a favorite genre or style in mind, and might even have the perfect songs already selected for your mix. Ideally, you should pick out about 50 or 60 song candidates. Although all of them won’t necessarily make it to final mix, it’s important to have a sufficient pool of song candidates available since some will be abandoned along the way. Most importantly, however, is to pick great songs — your favorites — and leave the mediocre ones out.
Since the mix will be produced on your PC, the candidate list should include only tracks that are available to you in a high quality format. For MP3 enthusiasts, VBR encoded or CBR encoded at 192 kilobit and above provide the best results. Audio purists may prefer to use tracks stored in a lossless format like FLAC or an uncompressed format like WAV or AIFF. Whichever you prefer, make sure it sounds good. Remember, no amount of equalization, compression, or other audio trickery will fix a bad audio file. Trying to include a track of substandard quality in the DJ mix will make the whole thing sound amateur.
Once the song list is finished, organize it in BPM order. Use a tool like Mixmeister’s free BPM detector utility to calculate this information. AnalogX also has a neat utility called TapTempo which will let you tap a tempo on your keyboard to calculate a BPM. And of course if you’re feeling especially old school, you can bust out the kitchen timer or stopwatch and count the beats manually.
This new tempo ordered list will be used to guide song order for the mix. Gradually increasing the overall tempo during the mix helps to create a sense of tension, excitement, release, and overall progression — all essential to an interesting DJ mix. You’re not tied into exact BPM order, but your goal will be to avoid drastic jumps in tempo during the mix unless there is some intentional effect or purpose to the jump.
If you’re feeling especially ambitious, make note of each song’s key signature. If you have a background in music theory or play an instrument, you know that certain harmonic keys naturally compliment other keys. By arranging songs in a harmonically appropriate order, you will avoid tonal dissonance during song transitions. If you’re interested in learning how this all works, I suggest picking up Jordan Roseman’s upcoming book, Audio Mashup Construction Kit, as he has an entire chapter explaining harmonic and key relationships. The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Music Theory is another great book, although it’s more aimed at musicians and not DJs. It’s no easy feat to master, but even an introductory exposure to the topic will help raise your DJ skills to the next level.
Learning to recognize a song’s key signature is a skill that will take patience and time to master. If you lack either of these qualities, programs like Rapid Evolution, Mixed In Key, Mixmeister, and ToNaRT all attempt to provide a best guess. Note that I said guess, as most of these tools have a pretty bad success rate. There are also online community maintained databases like MixShare that can be used to look up a song’s key and BPM in a pinch. However, I have my own doubts about the accuracy of these databases, as they tend to be polluted with a lot of inaccurate key information. If you don’t mind forking over a bit of cash, Camelot Sound will sell you a database of key and BPM information at a fairly reasonable rate. The accuracy of Camelot’s database is probably going to be pretty good, as it is maintained by a trained musician who possesses the requisite expertise. (I, however, cannot personally attest to this as I do not own a copy.) Although each of the aforementioned tools have their own unique pros and cons, using one (or more) of them is better than no harmonic mixing effort at all.
Once you’ve determined the key of each track, you can roughly sort your track list by key compatibility. Songs that share the same harmonic key are likely to sound good mixed together. Similarly, songs that have a relative minor/major, perfect fourth, or perfect fifth relationship will also sound good together. And yes, I’m perfectly aware that I’ve just dropped a lot of music nerd babble on you. Until you really take some time to read up on music theory and key relationships, you can use a key compatibility chart to figure out what keys will mix well with each other.
Sorted by BPM and key compatibility, you now have a track list that you can use as the foundation for your mix. Think about what song near the top of the list would make a good set starter. Ask yourself, “If I were out on the dance floor or had just popped the CD into the car stereo, what song would immediately capture and hold my interest?” Start to group nearby songs into an order that expresses an emotion or tells a story. Get creative with the song order, but avoid any drastic reordering that would disrupt the tempo or harmonic key ordering flow of the list. Most importantly, use the BPM and harmonic key ordering techniques described in this tutorial as a guide and not gospel.
In the next tutorial, I’ll discuss how to blend your perfect mix together. With a bit of practice, you’ll soon be producing your own mixes that rival the production quality of Hed Kandi and Ministry of Sound CDs that line Virgin Megastore shelves around the world.