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Mixing In Key: When And How To Change Track Key In DJ Software

Mixing in key is one of the best ways to create a smooth mix that resonates from track to track, increasing or decreasing energy in a way that makes sense to the ears of your audience. But did you know that you’re able to manually adjust the key of a track in some DJ software to match it to the playing track? Read on to learn when this is possible and how to make it work with key detected tracks.

A QUICK INTRODUCTION TO KEYLOCK

Keylocking in modern DJ software (and on some turntables, like the Stanton STR8.150 at right) allows DJs to alter the tempo of a song without effecting the pitch – preventing tracks from becoming higher or lower pitched just because you want to mix them with another record. This makes more drastic beatmatching possible between songs that aren’t close in tempo, without turning your track into a slowed-down monster or high-speed chipmunk track.

Keylocking works by resampling the playing track at a different speed and readjusting the pitch to an equivalent offset to bring it back to “normal”. The issue becomes that at more drastic adjustments in tempo, the keylocking algorithm is really put to the test, and the track begins to degrade in playback quality. Try it now – throw on a track with a solid melody, make sure keylocking is engaged, and listen to what it sounds like at +/-50%. Sounds like those garbled old pirated tracks from Napster that were horribly resampled, right?

But in this article, we’re going to talk about the other thing that many audio engines are capable of, keylocking’s often-ignored cousin:

A QUICK INTRODUCTION TO PITCH SHIFTING

Pitch-shifting isn’t just for rappers and Skrillex vocals, it’s actually a useful tool that allows DJs to alter the key of a song. While this process in traditional vinyl format was un-connectable from the speed at which a track played, some DJ softwares use their audio engine to allow DJs to incrementally adjust the key without altering the tempo.

Because tempo-locked pitch shifting works in the same way that keylock does (resampling the audio), you can’t get away with altering it too dramatically from the original key value – but it’s generally reasonable to move up or down a key, giving you a number of new options to use while mixing in key.

If you’re not already familiar with the basic rules of mixing on the Camelot Wheel / Openkey Wheel / circle of fifths (pictured above), the idea is that songs mix best when they have “compatible” keys – which are generally regarded to be up or down one hour position on the same circle, or to the alternate circle on the same hour position. You can also boost the energy of a mix by increasing +2 hour positions on the wheel (more information on the theory here at Harmonic-Mixing.com – but be sure to read our caveat at the end of this article about using your ears!).

So if the track you want to mix won’t fit into the normal mixing-in-key rules, you can try altering the pitch of the track using your software’s pitch shifting abilities. Read the three sections below to learn how:

CHANGING TRACK KEY IN TRAKTOR

Traktor has a pretty visible key knob sitting right in the middle of the internal mixer (at right). Right click the knob and you’ll be given a dropdown that allows for finer or more corse control of the parameter – but at a default setting a single press of the +/- buttons adjust the knob 1 semitone. On both the Camelot and Openkey wheels, this is equivalent to an increase or decrease of 7 on the wheel.

Traktor Knob Adjustment Tips: When you’re adjusting knobs in Traktor using the mouse, it’s easy to get frustrated, especially with a laptop trackpad.

  • If you want more precision when using the mouse, hold down shift while adjusting any any knob and it will slow down the rate the knob moves, allowing you to make more precisie adjustments.
  • Double click any knob to rapidly return back to the zero value.
  • Hold control, click and hold on a knob, and release control to enter a knob takeover mode – allowing you to jump between the current setting and any other when you click the mouse.

CHANGING TRACK KEY IN VIRTUAL DJ

Virtual DJ, despite often getting unfairly looked down upon by DJs who use other softwares, is actually one of the best softwares for key mixing for a number of reasons:

  • Built-in key detection
  • Dynamic key tag displays that change when key adjustment is made
  • Recognizes and changes between Camelot key + musical key
  • Key adjustment is locked

Because of the above feature set, changing the key of a track in Virtual DJ is remarkably easy – just rotate the key knob in the Effects section, and it will actually alter the key tag info displayed (as shown in the GIF on the right). Just like in Traktor, each notch on the knob is 1 semitone, or 7 positions on the circle of fifths.

CHANGING TRACK KEY IN SERATO / SERATO DJ

Surprisingly, Serato’s products do not have the ability to change the pitch of a track independently of the tempo. Serato continues to show its devotion to DVS roots even in the controller-centric Serato DJ! At the time of writing (things could change!), enabling key lock in any Serato program locks the key at 0%.

You can disable key lock and change the pitch of the song by adjusting the pitch fader, but you’ll then be unable to change the tempo.

USE YOUR EARS!

As with nearly every article we ever write on mixing in key, it’s critical that we put this warning: your ears are often the best tools for the job! Don’t ever limit yourself by just mixing in key if something else sounds good and certainly don’t mix in a track that sounds awful but has a matching Camelot Key tag. If you think it sounds bad, so will someone in your audience.

You should always use pitch shifting / key adjustment carefully – using it on well-known songs will have your audience asking “What’s wrong with this track?”, and dramatically changing the key more than two semitones starts to degrade the audio signal. Check your mix in your headphones when you’re experimenting with altering a track’s key before you bring it into the mix, every time!

Do you find yourself altering the pitch of a track your trying to mix in regularly? Let us know your tactics in the comments. 

  • Wannes De Ridder (The Knight)

    I never prepare anything in advance. I have some go-to tracks, some playlists from an important mix I recorded and that’s mainly how I mix. Never used keys and I don’t think I will ever use them… Although it can be really useful when mixing genres like house, techno, … I play urban, pop and a little DnB and it’s just impossible to match keys all the time.
    I almost never match keys, but it sound great (not all the time ofcourse).

  • Jason Muse

    With the Serato DJ 1.8 update (Along with the Pitch N Time ad on), Serato finally does have some pretty sophiscated things you can do with key changes. Would be great if you could update this blog post in light of that!

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  • Henry Vina

    it is posible to mix arround the well without repiting key and mixing 5 key away using the 24 key ?

  • Anthonie Gonzalez

    Would anyone know why when i click Run.bat i get a window that tells me ” there is no application set to open document RUN.bat” ? thank you!

  • Jeremy

    I want to change the Key in virtual DJ without using my mouse, Is there a key i could press to change it, move it up and down etc

  • Emoutikon

    With keylock ‘on’ in Traktor, even without changing key, it still negatively affects the overall sonic quality of the track, so I still choose not to use it. For samples in the remix decks it’s ok. Harmonic mixing is still the way to go. Great for Techno with those long mixes 😉

    • Farbklang

      Depends totally on the track and how much you change the tempo. If you change the tempo by less than 3,5% or so, most tracks will still sound completely alright, while others will sound completely awful. For those that sound awful, I just add a little hint in the comments like “!KEY!”

  • Hinochino

    I used to take a lot of attention on key to make my set lists, or decisions during a performance.
    At first was good, and produce great results, long smooth mixes etc… But at
    long term, I commence to feel my creativity limited, and even that I wasn’t
    training my ears properly, on the melody aspect, due to the info that Camelot Wheel
    gave me.

    Since I
    realized that, I only use Camelot Wheel (when it’s necessary) on the
    preparation phase of a set, for example to ensure long mixes on songs that I
    want to give more emphasis on the melodic aspect, create mash-ups, etc… But on
    live, always the ear.

    This way to
    go gave me great feel of freedom when mixing, and still produce great results
    (sometimes unexpected), and obviously sometimes not so good. But for me,
    forgetting more about keys, and doing all more intuitive, take me to more “chill”
    moments, and be more empathic with who are listening.

    This is only my personal experience with this tool, but I thought that it deserved to
    put here.

  • DjLiquitATL

    I just purchased mixed in key just cause BUT I have way too many songs in my library so until I condense it down it is useless to me… I have always used my ear…I have a classical (violin) background so it’s not hard for me to tell if it sounds “harmonic” or not

  • Patrick Ijsselstein

    to quote one of my great inspirators, Robert Henke; “Sometimes wrong can be just right” use your ears and your imagination is my advice. Also a cool trick is to slow down (or speed up) track one (in tempo and pitch, turntable style), right to the point where the key of track one matches the second track.

  • Alexandre De Joncaire Narten

    Great article but thought I’d like to add the fact that I’ve found that you can also match mathematical divisions. For example 5A and 10A or 2A and 4A or 2A and 6A go well together. I haven’t check this for all cases but in my experience it works so far.

    Hope this helps for creating original harmonic mixes 😀

  • DJ RootBwoy

    Great article! When I switched from the Camelot Wheel system to Traktor’s Open Key system I didn’t knew exactly what the notations meant.

    Could you make a future article with more details about which keys are compatible? Cause I noticed not only the +1/0/-1 works fine, sometimes dividing the open key by 2 or 3 works nice (like going from 12m to 6m, or from 12m to 4m)

  • Paul Cassella

    I’ve never thought about mixing in key i’ll have to try that

  • dion mavath

    Great article, some of the best i’ve read regarding Key

  • bobby

    learn some music theory

  • Volker

    Found this the other day via digital dj tips, you can DL a printable chart of the keys: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=8jCJtIHXOj0

  • “Mixed In Key” has saved me so much time getting my tunes to harmonicly mix. For years i was grouping my vinyl records in key using my ears… i.e find 2 records that are in key, then find a 3rd record that mixes with record 2 , you should find it also mixes with the 1st record. But playing a whole set in one key leaves the crowed static even though your mixes are all in key and in time ! How many dj’s start there set playing there best tunes in the key of … Guess what ??? yep .. 1A right through to 12A. Don’t get me wrong, Mixed In Key is a great tool but try to keep some spontaneity in your mixes. For example …. Wait for the tune you’re playing to get to the last 8 / 4 bars, Hopefully the melody has stopped by now and just the beats remain. Then simply set a 1 or 2 bar loop… you’re now free to mix what ever you like to the looped beat on deck A (if you can’t wait for deck A to get to the end where its just beats, set a cue point and jump to that section when ever you like ! Remember its beat gridded digital files NOT linear vinyl !

  • Anonymous

    i have always mixed different keys by ear… but this was overall a good read 😀

  • I use Keylock a lot but… I find that a whole set of camelot up&down is quite boring, that’s why they invented the ‘bridge’ in modern pop songs. Contrast is good: Too much and it lacks unity, too little and it’s looses your attention.

    And you gotta use your ears. Most of the time these key values are off. I use my key knob as if I was tuning my guitar, going up and down until it sounds right.

    Key mixing is definitely one area where your ears know more than the software.

  • Orge

    I generally only pitch +/- 1 semtone in traktor, as 2 seems too noticeable. Rather than clicking around the screen etc, I use a single button on my controller to cycle through the 3 possibilities for that deck (0,+1,-1). This requires the use of a modifier to track the current setting. I also reset the pitch when loading a new track.

  • DJ Ashhh

    There is a small factual mistake in the text. In default mode, the +/- boutons around the key know increase/decrease the key by 2 semitones indeed. This corresponds to a fourteen key jump on the camelot/open key wheel. This often generates significant alteration of the sound. If you want to jump in steps of 7 keys only on those wheels, you have to set the +/- buttons on the “Fine” resolution (right-click on the button and set to “Fine”). This is the setup I use when I DJay.

    • DJ Ashhh

      Traktor counts in units of semi-tones. +1 means one semitone up.

      • DJ Ashhh

        So when you use the “Fine” mode of the +/- buttons, the key knob turns by +/- 1.0, which means 1 semitone, which means 7 keys around the Camelot wheel.

  • lauti

    Is it only me that prefers to mix without keylock? I like to hear when I push or pull my record to match the phase. besides, for scratching, it kinda messes it up when you do scratches like cutting or simple releases, cause it doesnt sound as they should (cause theres som acceleration involved)

    • DjLiquitATL

      I prefer it off most the time just b/c I came from vinyl…it doesn’t sound right when you have the “digital” scratch with keylock. However, if I want to mix a track that is much slower at a faster tempop then keylock is a must…i.e…live remixes (vocals)

  • DJ S2

    i’m glad you added the last paragraph – that’s really the “key” (pun intended)

  • gowstpop

    Would love to see a key chart for traktor 2.6.2 from 1d to 1m ect.

    • to convert from camelot to open key move up 5 positions and to do it the other way move down 5 positions. in camelot notation A minor is on 8 but in open key it is on 1.

      • Didu Tasev

        Also, check out Ferdinand’s key change wheel

  • ChaZ

    Finally some idea regarding Key, used to wonder to which Lock does it belong.

  • Great article dan, Crazy to see the VDJ has such a strong feature set in this aspect. love the info, cheers!

    • Dan White

      VDJ’s key-related features have been this way for years now – still waiting on NI and Serato to make moves in this area. It’s possible that NI could make their key tags dynamic since there is now key detection built-in to track analysis!

      • Rekord Box has a built in “mixed in key” but who wants to use that ?
        Crapy CDJ 2000 NEXUS with only 3 cue points and poorly constructed plastic body. Not me !

  • awesome article. the camelot sysem is the way to to go.

    • Dan White

      Indeed – just remember to use it as a guideline, not as a rule 🙂

      • DJ S2

        +1

      • without a doubt. we are still human 🙂

  • KIO

    When I’m mixing my Chill Out library, these tracks have a wide range of BPM (ranging from 60 to 120) and the way the songs phrases are build also differs much more than when I mix from my Electro library. Personally I find that a mix sounds much more awful when I mix two tracks with non-matching phrases, but matching harmonies then when I mix two tracks with non-matching harmonies, but matching phrases. What do other DJ’s choose to prevail, harmonies or phrases?

    KIO

    • Well the point of the article is that now you can use your preferred phrase matching, then adjust the key/pitch to match. Best of both worlds.

      • KIO

        Well, the point of any article on this website is that every DJ should use Traktor. I don’t, I use ITCH/Serato DJ and do not intend to change. And as the article says Serato cannot change the key of a song. Therefore my original question still stands.

        • Roger-4bit

          Neither prevail. Phasing and harmonic mixing can be used in different situations. Hard rules don’t work, you have to adjust what you do based on the particular songs you are working with. As you’ve seen, the tricks you learned to work with your Electro sets don’t necessarily translate to your Downtempo set. Just like what works for my Downtempo sets might not work with the Downtemp tracks you are working with. You’re ears will let you know went you get it right though.

  • Jack

    Ableton?

    • MellonHead

      unless using a max4live device to emulate dj software, key adjustment is done on the sample edit panel for each clip. knob is marked “Transpose.” adjusts key and tempo for unwarped tracks, or just key if in any warp mode other than repitch.

      • If you’ve got the CPU for it, you could also build an effect rack that uses something like Waves Pitch VST to achieve the effect.

      • Tyler

        Pretty much comes down to going to the mouse to adjust the transpose unless you’ve got it MIDI mapped but I never liked how that worked.. it will only adjust the currently selected clip so it’s easy to accidentally adjust the pitch of something that you weren’t try to mess with

  • Marquee Mark

    whoa did not know that Virtual DJ key detected and auto updated, will have to give that a shot. also digging the advanced knob adjustment tips in traktor, will come in handy

    • Dan White

      Actually discovered the Traktor knob tips while writing this article – the control-click takeover is a really awesome easter egg!

      • That control click takeover tip is amazing.. never knew it existed.