How To Craft A DJ Mix: 10 Tips For Success
When setting out to craft a great DJ mix, there’s no reason to do it off the cuff without thinking about a few key elements first: Who will listen? How will it be structured? How will you mix it? Today, guest contributor Chris Alker brings ten poignant tips for DJs crafting a new mix – with a number of great examples to listen to.
Working from the booth surrounded by sea of party people, a good DJ steers the energy of a room by playing right songs at the right time. If he hits a groove that creates a stir, he will follow it to its logical conclusion. If the dancers are looking tired, he may cool it off and play a downtempo track to encourage people to grab a drink. Such is the nature of playing to a live audience.
On the contrary, making a DJ mix for a demo, podcast, radio show, or for that special someone you want to impress, is a different animal altogether. There is no immediate feedback loop and you have a lot more time to prepare, but before you hit record, here are ten helpful tips to keep in mind:
1. Mix A DJ Set Live Or In Ableton?
The answer is simple, purpose. If your mix is going to be used to get a gig, mix it live. You want the mix to represent what you can do live. If you spend hours in Ableton making insane filter envelopes and delays that you can’t recreate with a mixer on the fly, you will be misrepresenting yourself and possible kill your chances at a future gig. If you are making a mix for a podcast or sale, using the computer to control every aspect of the mix is ideal for producing the most polished product.
Sometimes recording live sets is the best way to promote a great party. Mister Sunday’s Eamon Harkin records live party sets by combining the sounds of a live mic near the dancefloor and the master feed from the mixer to give an accurate feeling of how it will sound should you attend. Here is 4-hours from the latest party at Industry City:
2. Know Your DJ Set’s Audience
The mix you make to get a DJ gig at a nightclub will no doubt be entirely different than the mix you make for a dinner party of your closest friends. Knowing your audience is a helpful tool for narrowing track selection, determining the appropriate length, and energy level. For example, if the mix is for an aerobics class, you will want something high energy (130bpm+), with seamless transitions, and an upbeat feel for people looking to burn calories and have fun while doing it. If it’s yoga, think downtempo breaks (90-110bpm), with melody and ambient flourishes that reflect the slow focused pace of the workout.
Psychemagic’s “Canyon Haze” DJ mix is a super mellow psychedelic set that is great for post party wind down, but not something are likely to hear on a Saturday night dancefloor:
3. Diagram Your Set’s Direction
A helpful tool dance music producers swear by is creating a diagram that illustrates the energy levels they are looking to reach throughout the course of the song. Applying the energy diagram to a mix can be just as helpful.
The most common include:
- The Ramp: a steady rise from slow BPM to high with matching energy
- The Mountain: a rise to a peak halfway through the mix and a symmetrical descent
- The Wave: a series of peaks and valleys where you bring the listener up and down throughout the course of the mix.
France’s Joakim embraces the “wave” diagram in his innovative DJ sets with tracks moving between euphoria and frantic energy and back again for the duration. His mix for DJhistory.com is a good example.
4. Track Selection & Order
Track selection is largely a product of personal taste and your target audience, whereas track order is determined by the energy levels you hope to achieve. Choose tracks you love that represent the direction of your music collection you want to display, not necessarily the most popular tracks on the Beatport Top 100.
Don’t be afraid to mix old tracks and new; there is nothing like connecting the dots.
DJ Rupture is notorious for weaving together an eclectic mix of sounds on three turntables for mind bending sets:
Stereotypically, dance music DJs favor beatmatching, Hip Hop DJs cutting, and radio DJs fading. While you can make an excellent mix with any single transition type, using a combination of transitions can both help some tracks fit together that may not otherwise, and/or create variety in your set. If your mix has a mixed bag of genres, change it up transition-wise. If you are playing a single genre, like Drum n’ Bass, seamless beat matching all the way through is the way to go.
West coast-based turntablist and producer DJ Anubus uses a variety of transitions, effects, and impeccable timing in his latest “The Dude Mix”:
6. Mix In Key
Despite being of the same genre and BPM, some tracks simply don’t fit together. While a some DJs have an innate sense about tracks that complement one another, others will find it frustrating without a good explanation. To musicians, the answer is often found in the track’s key. Mixing from one track to the next that is in the same or complimentary key. In his early DJTT article (2007!) “Are you mixing ‘in key’?”, Ean Golden explains that mixing in key is “[…] blending 2 songs that have very similar notes and when mixed they feel like a long lost friends that have finally found each other.”
Unless you are looking to create discord, pun intended, mixing in key will improve the musicality of your set.
Mixed In Key is an impressive piece of software you can use to update your music library’s ID3 tags with the musical keys of each track. These keys will then serve as a reference for playing tracks in the same or complimentary key via harmoic
7. Phrasing In Your DJ Mix
When to start mixing in the next track and the length of the transition between tracks is really a case-by-case situation. A common error is to line up two tracks at the same BPM, but, despite dropping in on the one, start the track too early or too late creating an unintentional lull in the energy. Knowing how one track ends and the next begins will be key to creating the right composition where the structure of one track compliments the next. This is good phrasing.
For example, if one track builds up to a big drop at the peak of the song, you want to create space before the next drop in the next track. If the next track you choose drops too early, you could burn out your listener.
If you are using records you will need to review all your tracks before you begin. With Traktor or Serato, you can mirror the track playing onto the deck playing in your headphones and preview the end to help you choose the next track on the fly.
A master of the Tech House genre, international DJ, Derek Marin’s DJs sets are seamlessly phrased. Take a listen to his mix for Musicis4lovers.com here:
8. Looping, Filters, EQing, & Effects
Some feel that altering the songs with any creative combination of the above tools will destroy the purity of the tracks, while others will do everything in their power to bend the music to their will. The bottom line is that only by your own unique manipulation and mixing technique do you separate yourself from another DJ mixing the same tracks.
Take a moment to watch a viral video of Techno pioneer Derrick May known for his heavy fader popping, EQing, and quick overlays. His style is aggressive and instantly recognizable. Just take a listen to this live mix of his from Tokyo. The crowd response is palpable:
9. Length Of Your DJ Mix
There really is set no rule here, but an hour DJ mix is industry standard. Unless you are making a live recording of an entire club night, or have been given a specific length by a podcaster, an hour will allow you enough time showcase your favorite songs of the moment and create structure their order with a clear direction.
10. Packaging & Distribution
It may seem insignificant to the music, but enticing someone to listen to your mix is just as important. This means the right name, the right artwork, and distributing it in a way that will get play by those who will enjoy it. Keep the artwork in line with the spirit of the music. If it’s a dark Techno mix you probably won’t include butterflies or puppy dogs in the artwork.
The same goes for the name. Think ‘Dark Matter’ or ‘Night Drive’, not ‘Cotton Candy’ or ‘Fist Bumpz’. It can also be fun to let someone else make the artwork as a visual interpretation of your work. The DJ mix series by the club Fabric in London has some great cover art that makes anyone curious as to the accompanying audio.
As for distribution, go digital. An online media sharing site like Mixcloud.com, MIxcrate.com, or House-mixes.com come to mind – here’s an article on great non-Soundcloud places to host your mixes!
Alternatively there are tons of websites and/or blog catering to the music you are into. Don’t sell yourself short and assume your mix won’t get hosted if you are not a big name DJ. Shoot a succinct email with a basic description of your mix, artwork, and a link for listening and let them decide. You may just get your 15 seconds.
Have a key thing you think about when crafting mixes that we missed here? Leave a comment with an example mix and we’ll add the best ones to the article!