Quick Tip: Harmonic Mixing on Pioneer CDJs

Pioneer’s CDJs are some of the most prevalent pieces of DJ hardware found in current DJ booths, and mixing harmonically has become a critical element of crafting a great set for many DJs. Today, Chris Brackley goes through a few of the best ways to mix in key on Pioneer’s CDJ units – including a little-known trick on newer CDJs where they’ll use a stoplight system to let you know if an upcoming track is compatible with the playing one. Watch the full thing and read more in today’s article.

There’s no question that harmonic mixing, and the use of key analysis software and keylock to assist DJs in that technique, has become a much bigger part of the mainstream DJ landscape in recent years. Now, it may be that you are blessed with perfect pitch, or have sufficient musical training to be able to identify harmonic mixes solely by ear. If so, more power to you. But whereas back in the vinyl days, figures like Sasha were legendary for their ability to blend tracks, not only in tempo, but also in beautiful harmonic ways, today’s spinners have numerous tools to help even the most tone-deaf DJ have a good shot at pulling of a series of nicely in-key mixes.

With the exception of Serato DJ, all the major software platforms now include key analysis as standard, and with third-party solutions like Mixed In Key and Keyfinder available too, it’s easier than ever for a digital DJ to get on board with the concept. Pioneer’s Rekordbox (RB) software is amongst those that includes that feature, but I’ve been looking at a few ways to make it more accessible for DJs coming from other platforms, or who haven’t learnt the ‘proper’ key notation, and are more used to Camelot or Open Key notation.

The Rekordbox Way

By enabling key analysis in the preferences of the the desktop Rekordbox software, users will find the musical key of their tracks displayed in the key field of their collection. When those tracks are played back using RB enabled Pioneer hardware, that key info is displayed on the players, and can be used as a method of sorting.

The CDJ-2000 Nexus and CDJ-900 Nexus take things a step further, by featuring a ‘traffic light’ system, which is very effective, if slightly mis-named, as the colours amber and red don’t get look-in. What this means, though, is that, as you scroll through your music on the CDJ screen, the key displayed is highlighted in green, on tracks which are in a compatible key to that playing on a linked deck.

It’s a simple system, and works very nicely. However, as a bit of further reading will demonstrate, the best choice might not always be a track in a directly compatible key. As the guys at Mixed In Key point out, there are plenty of other options – for energy boosting, or reduction, for example.

Can’t Learn, Won’t Learn

You can make Mixed In Key’s Camelot Notation also work with the stoplight system

I’ll freely admit it here – I’ve got zero clue about which tracks will go with a certain key when notated ‘properly’. For example, I couldn’t tell you in a million years which keys will be harmonically compatible with say, a track in F Minor. I’ve always been a DJ, not a producer, and since I started using key analysis, and stopped relying solely on my ears to choose compatible tracks, I’ve used Mixed In Key’s own Camelot notation. I won’t go into detail here, but the Camelot wheel, of MIK’s own invention, makes choosing the right key at the right time absolutely straightforward, and not just for directly compatible keys.

So, after doing some reading on the Pioneer forums, I came across the fact that not only will the new CDJs display keys in Camelot notation, but the traffic light system will still work too. Fantastic news for me.

That opens up a couple of options – use Rekordbox to analyse key, then manually convert the tags in your library to the Camelot notation manually. (Quick tip – sort by key, then highlight all tracks in each key, one key at a time, and do them in batches).

The analysis built into RB is very good, and scored very well in our last comparative round-up of key analysis software. But many DJs I come across use Rekordbox sometimes, but spend much of their time using other digital DJ solutions. So is there a better way to do it?

The Cross-Platform Answer

If you are using Traktor, Serato DJ, MixVibes, VirtualDJ, or any other software as your primary platform, it makes sense to go with an option that will be as widely compatible as possible.

In 2014, there are two great choices which satisfy that requirement. Firstly, Mixed In Key, which, to give them due credit, was really the software which popularised the whole idea of key analysis. It’s still a superb option today – great analysis, flexible options, and works with tons of formats. The ‘always online’ stipulation still irks a little (it’s the kind of thing you don’t notice, until you’re backstage at a gig with no wifi, trying to analyse a new track), but overall it works brilliantly, and is compatible with pretty much all the DJ software out there. Plus they deserve massive kudos for actually inventing the Camelot system which I rely so much upon.

Keyfinder is a small, one-man project, and really is pretty incredible for the low, low price of… free. It’s not officially compatible with MIK’s proprietary Camelot Code system, but you can switch the results manually, as with swapping them in Rekordbox. You’ll want to use either proper key notation, or Camelot codes, for your Rekordbox library, because…

Open Key and Traktor

As I demonstrate in the video, I have tested the CDJ traffic light system with Traktor’s key analysis, and the Open Key notation, and sadly it does not play nicely. The keys are displayed, sure, but the handy green indicator for compatible keys just doesn’t work.

It must be said, though, that Traktor’s key analysis did not come out very well in our roundup anyway, so if you’re looking for solution to work with both Traktor and Rekordbox, I’d really suggest checking out Mixed In Key, or Keyfinder, and jumping onto the Camelot key system. It’s a great setup.

One More Thing: Preceding Zeros For Ultimate Ordering

Rekordbox, the CDJs themselves, and some other software, has issues with the lack of a ‘preceding zero’ in the Camelot notation. For example, if you sort tracks by key on a CDJ-2000 Nexus, the list will go:

  • 1A
  • 10A
  • 11A
  • 12A
  • 2A
  • 3A etc.

This is not the end of the world, but it is a hassle, so I’d suggest you go in and add that preceding zero, so your list looks more like this:

  • 01A
  • 02A
  • 03A
  • 04A
  • 05A etc.

That means when ordering by key, the number order is respected by the software and hardware. Not a massive deal, but makes like a little simpler.

The way you work with key analysis and CDJs depends very much on your knowledge of musical theory, your personal setup, and taste. These have been some ways I’ve made it work for me, but please let us know your own techniques in the comments, too.
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Comments (44)
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  • Harris Chee

    I manually change the chords to camelot system keys..u can do it in the info tab..but i reckon pioneer shud change the key from musical chords to some system…its kinda hard to have the circl of fifths in ur head… Just my opinion..

  • Clean Blog

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  • Darryl Rees

    Hey thanks for the video, I use both rekordbox and serato DJ and when I change the key number from 1A to 01A in rekordbox it changes the key number in serato DJ. Is there a way to prevent this changing in serato DJ because the key colour is not recognised as 01A one 1A, 2A, 3A etc. Thanks in advance.

  • DJMilosz

    a big issue is that not all software gives you the same results meaning that some of it mus bs incorrect. in around 60-70% of tracks Beatport and MiK will not give the same key, many times rekorbox indicates even a third different key. this is where you must your ear: choose a track where you are sure what the key is and then mix the other track into it. by switching basslines you should be in most cases easily able to tell whether it’s the same key or not 🙂

  • Andrew Brook

    If your using CDJ 2000 Nxs why deviate from the built in key detection and harmonic suggestions on the decks. Much easier that converting everything. There’s also an App called Harmonic Mix which simplifys the next key choice energy boost etc in a very simple tool.

  • Craig Forrest

    hi guys, playing for the first time on the nexus next week at a club. Tracks have been processed in mixed in key first and now in rekordbox all is well. Can i ask does the traffic light system work for just tracks in same key and plus 1/2 or is does it match further keys eg. let’s say your in 1A, will it suggest 2A, 3A, 8A, 5A &10A which are all compatable? or will it just select 2a & 3a. Also in rekordbox when clicking the match tracks button does this then transfer over to the cdjs so when your track is plating you have a list of your own matched tracks? Thanks in advance

  • tony

    I have both CDJ900 and CDJ900NXS. On the older 900, when I go to USB > key it shows up A7 B7 etc etc as per the overwritten keys. This matches rekordbox software on the laptop, where I highlighted the keys and replaced them with the codes from the camelot wheel. When I access the music on the 900NXS and go to USB > key it shows all the musical keys (not camelot codes). I can’t see an easy way to view the keys on the tracks so you can sort by camelot key code on the NXS.. the old 900 is fine. Any ideas?

  • Ad77

    I’ve use MIK for 5 years now. It’s good for harmonic mixing and good to remember other keys which are non harmonic that go well with each other. Be careful mixing your entire set in key or gradual key changes, your DJ set can sound boring. These are some different examples of keys that go well together from MIK…
    11A goes with 7A.
    10A goes with 6A.
    4A goes with 1A.
    All these you will notice they won’t loose energy and your sets will sound more fun.

  • Denis Krotov

    You, guys, forgot about MixMeister, it’s old, but also finds keys, and does it very quick and correct

    • BoldFaceType

      One again everybody forgets to mention that MixVibes Cross is the only dj software that is fully compatible with Rekordbox. That means you can transfer everything you do in Cross to RB with a single click. Works every time. MV Cross uses KeyFinder which is second only to MIK in accuracy. Cross also makes beat-grids, and placing hot-cues and loops accurate and easy, because their keyboard shortcuts are much more comprehensive than RB. All that information: cues, grid-adjustments, loops, and especially camelot notation, gets transferred flawlessly to RB with a single click. If you’re using pioneer gear and RB, MixVibes Cross is worth having just to prep your tracks.

  • troublestarter

    every time i read about the Camelot wheel, my blood boils.

    whilst the camelot wheel is a neat idea, i don’t think its the kind of thing that should be copyrightable, it’s just the circle of fifths translated into an easy to remember notation. its not patentable precisely because not a real innovation, an elegant idea yes, something that needs the protection of the law, no.

    if you don’t know anything about music, print out the circle of fifths and stick it on the wall next to you decks, you’ll have it memorized in a week.

    sure keep a trademark on the name “camelot wheel”, if that boosts you ego, but don’t go around pretending you invented the circle of fifths. you could even insist that software and hardware that uses it displays the camelot logo, but the veiled threat of lawsuits is despicable. especially against open source projects.

    • Phatscout

      Dude the Camelot wheel is just a really quick way to glance over shit during a mix. Honestly, I know your going to say I’m “dum” because I’d prefer looking at my library to mix a 8A track to a 9A track rather than from A Minor to D Minor, but it’s just quicker DURING THE CONTEXT OF A MIX to think about the numbers rather than the keys.

      Yes, I do believe anyone really worth their salt needs to learn about musical keys, and it is BS that the Camelot Wheel is just a MIK trademark but hey, its a quick to use notation.

      • vogelmann

        In fact, Mark Davis at Camelot Sound is the originator of the Camelot system, not Mixed in Key.

        • Mark Davis

          Indeed! I designed the Easymix System (aka “Camelot Wheel”) in 1991, and transferred the copyright to MIK.

          • SC

            Thanks! It’s been brilliant for me over the years.

  • zzzuperfly

    It’s pretty depressing that neither the traktor nor the pioneer crew knows how you sort a list properly.I have been at mik to get me tools to add that zero.

    • Marco Hooghuis

      Not just them, Microsoft is guilty as well.

  • Cameron Daboll

    I don’t think this works with the latest version of MIK and Rekordbox. It’s a known issue that when you load the tracks to your CDJs (900nxs in my case) the key, even though Camelot system in my rekordbox collection, still shows as traditional keys on the CDJ. If there’s a way around here, it would be great to learn.

    • Camel Tow

      Thank you for bringing this up! I’m curious myself.

    • Mojaxx

      At what point did you analyse with MIK – before, or after, adding your tracks to RB?

      I analysed all mine prior to adding them to my RB library, and as you can see from the video, my Camelot codes show up just fine with my CDJ2KNs – that’s with RB 3.1 and MIK 6.

      It sounds like maybe RB’s database isn’t respecting the overwritten keys… Strange.

      • Camel Tow

        I analyze my tracks in MIK, then add them to iTunes, rename them correctly, and then drag them to RB. Is the MIK playlist something you create, or does it somehow automatically show up for you?

        • Mojaxx

          It all just shows up for me automatically.

          I read those threads from the Pioneer forum, so I get what’s happening, but I’m afraid I’ve not experienced the issue so I don’t really have any other suggestions. Sorry!

    • Cameron Daboll

      I always analyze keys before adding to RB with MIK. Once I analyze the track, I import to RB (with key detection off). If the keys don’t come in on the import, a right click and reload tags usually solves it. They all come in with the Camelot system, only an issue when you load it to the CDJ.

    • b

      i have cdj 900 nxs to, but i came from traktor..i still want to use traktor occasionally, so what i do is this : when i buy new music, i have mik analyze it…then i import into traktor for prep work (grids,cues,loops,edit tag etc) then i use rekordbuddy to sync to rekordbox. you can set your prefs so that miks key notation is visible in rekordbox on the cdjs. it works like a charm for me!

  • Robert Wulfman

    If you’re like me and you’re primarily a Traktor DJ and your files are already tagged with the open key notation, when you get to rekordbox simply change the m to A and the d to B. This won’t actually match up with the camelot notation but it’s rare that you will ever really need it to and you can always convert from open key to camelot by either moving down 5 or by going across the wheel and up one.

  • killmedj

    Nice one brother!

  • Richard Weston

    Yet another great article from my favorite blogging site! I used MIK for ages to mix harmonically. For some reason, the last 6 months I have stopped analyzing or looking at keys when mixing, maybe my ears have finally got used to what sounds good harmonically due to the many years of having the Camelot notation at my disposal or maybe I just don’t realize how bad it sounds haha.

    Sorry to be pedantic but MixedInKey didn’t invent the Camelot system. They own the rights to it but a guy called Mark Davis (https://www.linkedin.com/pub/mark-davis/52/9b6/637) invented it!

    • Mojaxx

      I was not aware of that fact, I’ll get that changed when the guys in San Fran wake up!

      Having used Traktor’s key analysis so much over the last year, I’ve actually trained myself to kind of ignore it; so often I would load a track and just think “this isn’t working”. But I kept using it to analyse, as it removed one step from my library admin.

      Now I’ve gone back to MIK, as I’m more multi-platform again, I’m reminded how useful key analysis can be when it’s actually mostly correct… 😉

      • Richard Weston

        Simply put; it’s amazing and a key tool!

      • Oddie O'Phyle

        been thinking of buying MIK too, key analysis software has really been a time saver. i remember the old days when putting together a 1hr set would take 4-6 hours of prep.

    • Mark Davis

      Thanks for the correction, Richard! I invented the “Camelot Wheel” as the Camelot Easymix System in 1991, and now offer a 75,000 record musician-keyed database at camelotsound.com. I sold the rights to the “Camelot Wheel” to MIK a few years.

      • tony corless

        I was just going to mention the same,how you doing Mark? long time no speak,still got 2 massive copies of your database here .Hope you are well.

        • Mark Davis

          Aloha! If you would like free trial access to our online database, please email camelot@gte.net