In my Mixed in Key Review - Part 1, I looked at the theory behind mixing in key and how Mixed in Key (US$58) can help DJs to take advantage of harmonic mixing to play better sets. In this part I'm going to put it all to the test by DJing at a proper gig for the first time using the Mixed in Key / Camelot wheel system.
I've got only one rule: every mix has to be harmonically matched using my new-found musical data. I'm about to show you all the mistakes so you don't have to make them yourself!
Getting ready to play
The gig was at a beach bar here in my home town (Estepona, Spain). The bar, called Palm Beach, is a great venue - a big wooden shack right on the beach with a spacious interior and parasols and sun loungers all the way down to the Mediterranean, which laps just a few yards from the front of the bar. It has a nice big sound system and screens for the weekend sports (without the volume, naturally), plus good food and a wonderful drinks and cocktail menu.
The place attracts everyone, from sun worshippers to families out for the early evening paseo, to hippies, to youngsters starting their evenings out. It is popular with many nationalities - Spanish, Dutch (it's Dutch owned), English, Germans and whoever else happens wander past as the evening progresses. It's a great place to play a DJ set as the sun sinks behind the Andalusian mountains, and it's one of the venues I've been using for my Sunset Rocks sundowner parties this year.
I rolled up nice and early at 4pm, with a Vestax VCI-300 and Serato ITCH in tow. My set would be till 9.30pm - long after the sun had set. My tunes would be a mixture of deep house, Balearic, dubstep, soul, hip hop, tango and whatever else fitted. I would play happy beach music until twilight, then chill-out as the sun set, then build up a more driving night-time sound towards the end. A load of genres, a load of BPMs - and a great test for mixing in key.
Whoops! No key information
First problem: No key information showing in the DJ software library, even though Mixed in Key had scanned all my MP3 for tonight's set. I hadn't realised that I'd need to rescan the tags in Serato ITCH (pretty obvious with hindsight) and as I'd never done this before and didn't even know that you could indeed rescan ID3 tags, I ended up re-analysing all the tunes.
With 350-odd in my set it took a good half hour. (Only later did I see on the "Files" menu there was a "Rescan ID3 tags " button that would have done it in about 90 seconds!) Lucky I was early...
Starting the set
So finally, I was all keyed up and ready to go. Starting at around 90 BPM, The Roots "Right On" segued well into the Fugees "Ready or Not" (2A into 3A). My first same-to-same mix was the Williams cover version of the old Tangerine Dream tune "Love on a Real Train" (that Chicane "borrowed" for "Offshore") mixed into the Tangoterje edit of Chris Rea's "On the Beach" - and wooah! That was fun! As soon as the guitar riff from the latter hit my headphones, I buzzed with anticipation at doing the mix for real, and it fitted like a hand in a glove. I was hooked already.
Searching for the key information
It was within the first 20 minutes that I realised it would have been really good to have the key information displayed on the virtual decks as well as in the library. I kept forgetting what key the current track was in, so had to refer back to the library until I got into the habit of remembering it.
Turns out that some DJ software will display the information right there in the decks for you; Traktor can display it, and Serato ITCH can from version 1.7 which was actually released today.
(While on the subject of DJ software, it turns out that Virtual DJ already determines the keys of songs in a similar way to Mixed in Key,
but it uses the "real" keys - ie Gm, F, C#m etc, so you have to either have a Camelot wheel to hand or know your traditional keys off by heart. A shame.and if you click on the key information, Am, F, G# etc, it toggles into Camelot notation too - excellent.)
Top one, nice one, get sorted
I also realised that I had a conundrum on my hands - do I sort the tunes by BPM (as I normally do) or by key? I ended up switching between the two often. What would have been nice in my DJ software would have been some way to sort within the sorted results - once by key and then by BPM. That way, you'd have all the 1A's arranged from slowest to quickest, then the 1B's, then the 2A's etc. Maybe there is a way to do this, but I couldn't find it. I tried clicking one column then the next with Shift, Cmd etc held on, but nothin seemed to work.
There are more songs in some keys than in others
As the set progressed, I noticed that some keys are more popular than others. That meant that it was harder to mix in certain areas of the Camelot wheel, as the choice of tunes was less. (Also, I learned that most of my songs are in a minor key. Is than normal or do I go for that kind of tune, I wonder?)
Switching musical genre became ridiculously easy
Nicholas Jaar's "Nico's Feelin' Good" - a spacious mid-tempo house number - mixed perfectly into The XX's take on Womack & Womack's "Teardrops", allowing a great genre change thanks to the key matching. I got from AC's re-edit of Michael Mcdonald's "I Keep Forgettin'" into Alice Russell's cover of "Seven Nation Army" flawlessly, switching from downtempo Balearic to full-on reggae in the process. I was really, really liking this.
Don't let the trainspotter get the better of you
One thing that you end up doing is simply looking for tunes that are in key and trying to mix them for the hell of it. This actually suits my "anything goes" DJ style to an extent, but I can see how sometimes it could be a bit much and how you could come unstuck.
Also, you end up getting annoyed when you can't find a good tune in the same or a related key, so addictive is it once you get the taste. I hate staring at the screen when DJing, and I found myself doing a bit too much of that because of having to take the key into account too.
Stretched to breaking point
As mentioned in the first part of this review, it is important to key-lock the decks so the material is time-stretched, or your key information will be useless away from zero pitch, and this introduced issues sometimes. Time-stretching is a funny one: Some songs are really tolerant of it, but others sound rubbish plus or minus even a BPM or two.
You have to trust your ears here, and you end up riding the pitch faders back towards zero to improve the audio quality quite often. Admittedly playing a straight-up house set I guess this wouldn't be so much of an issue. Later, much later. Alicia Keys' "Empire State of Mind Part II" and Estelle's "Come Over" blend so well people look up and show their appreciation. It's all going swimmingly. But just when I'm really convinced this is the future... I run out of key mixes to do.
Seems like even a 350-tune set list is not enough for a 4.5 hour set if you're applying tight key matching rules! So as we hit the last hour and tunes by Hot Chip, Two Door Cinema Club and Vampire Weekend fly by, I've thrown the Mixed in Key info out of the window and I'm DJing by tune selection alone.
Did anyone actually notice?
One of the bar managers was in on my "secret", and said that it was noticeable to him how much better the music blended than normally. However, my sun-loving partner just yawned when I told her my new software was rocking it for me. Guess not everyone listens closely enough to hear the difference! Overall, though, having the key information that Mixed in Key gives you was a good thing. You instantly spot matches and make the most of them. You attempt more adventurous mixes. You definitely have more fun.
Things will never be the same again...
I believe that from here on in, I will always make sure this information is available to me when DJing - it's just too easy to pull off stupendously good mixes seemingly effortlessly.
As with most things, it doesn't work perfectly, and there is a learning curve, but next to having this information built in to your DJ software (like Virtual DJ has), Mixed in Key is the best way to get the harmonic information into your DJ software.
Doing so to enables you to play smoother, more professional and more impressive DJ sets: I just proved it by playing practically a whole night with barely a hiccup - and having a hell of a lot of fun doing so.