The Definitive Guide To Making a Mixtape – Part 3

Recording a mixtape

From TDK to USB, the basics of making a mixtape are the same.
Photo: Lucius Kwok

All this week, Digital DJ Tips is dedicated to helping you to make better mixtapes. On Monday we showed you how to assemble a fantastic shortlist of tunes for your mix. Yesterday we looked at how to plan your mix. Today will be all about actually recording it, before we master and burn it tomorrow. Finally, on Friday we’ll help you with ideas about how to get your mix out there to the people.

You’ve given us some excellent feedback so far on the Digital DJ Tips Facebook Page, and we’d love you to comment at the end of the article too. This is meant to be a practical guide, so get those digital decks dusted off and have a go – why not try and get a mix done by the end of the weekend?

3. Recording your mixtape

In the old days, you used to power up your 2 decks and mixer and hit record on a minidisc or CD-RW (or cassette, way back) and mix away. And that’s exactly how I am going to propose you do your mixtape now, except of course using your digital gear. I think it’s important to do your mixtape on whatever equipment you normally DJ on, and in the same way.

That way you are more likely to get something out the other end without pulling all of your hair out in the meantime, and also it is the most genuine way of committing what you do to live to tape. If you DJ on Ableton, well that’s fine – do your mixtape on Ableton. If you DJ, then that’s what you should record your mixtape on.

Stick with what you know

Mixtapes are, for me, no place to start trying things you don’t do in “real” DJing – they should be a reflection of your live DJ style, not a deviation from it. The fact that all that work has gone into planning and documenting this mix before you started means it is already special. Stick to what you know, and do it as well as you can.

Do Not Disturb

Make sure nobody will interrupt you as you craft your mixtape.

So whatever you use to DJ on, get it all set up. Have your mix plan somewhere very handy and close by (see yesterday’s article on planning your mix). Turn your mobile off (not on silent and not next to the kit where it can interfere). Tell your housemates, girlfriend, boyfriend, family or neighbours that you’re not to be disturbed. Make sure you’ve eaten and are alert and ready. In short, get “in the zone”. Because what you’re about to do might take some time…

A word on levels…

DJing live, you can often get away with murder level-wise. But take a badly EQed mix CD, play it on a low-powered stereo and you’ll really hear those tracks that are too quiet or loud, or whose kick drums sound weedy compared to the others. For those of you for whom this is second nature, I apologise, but for everyone else, here’s a three-part crash course on getting your levels right:

  1. On the first track, set the bass, mid and treble so that it sounds “right” in your headphones. They should be pretty much as 12 o’clock for most tunes. Now, adjust the Gain control (sometimes called “Trim”, nearly always a rotary) for that channel until at the loudest section, it’s just clipping the first red LED every now and then. This makes the level of the track as it comes IN to your mixer correct.
  2. When you actually play the track, as long as the crossfader is balanced between both channels and the vertical faders are in the same place (three-quarters of the way up is a good setting), the tune will be there or thereabouts the same volume as the current one.
  3. Never let any level meter go more than 1 into the red. Flicking into and out of the first red is great. We can always make the mix louder, later. Your task here is to make it even with no sudden, unwanted changes in volume.
  4. Bear in mind that when you are altering the EQ for a track for effect, the levels will alter accordingly. That’s why when we set the gain, we set the EQ to “neutral” (ie to where we perceive the track to sound “normal”), so when we’re riding the EQs etc later on, we can be sure that once returned to normal, so will the track volume – ready for the next track to mix in, and so on.

Time to go!

Nearly all DJ software (at least, in the paid-for full versions) lets you record directly onto hard disc, and assuming you’re using a DJ controller that controls the mixing controls on your DJ software, that’s what you should do. If you can’t for any reason (no space on hard disk, PC not powerful enough, using a DVS system, got an external mixer etc) you may want to record straight back into the PC you’re mixing on, onto CR-RW or any other medium you have – even onto another PC. If so, get this set up and ready.

VU meter

Analogue or digital, that red bit means the same thing: Danger of distortion.

There’s no need to try and start the recording and the music at the same time – just start recording and begin playing in your own time. We can edit later on.

Work through your mix, following your own instructions on yesterday’s plan. Stay fluid, and don’t be too rigid, but if you discover new things as you go along (by mistake or deliberately), change your plan accordingly. That way, if the mix goes wrong, you are improving it as you go along. And relax! You’ve done this a million times before. Try and forget you’re recording it.

Dealing with errors

OK, let’s be realistic now. Chances are, you’ll mess up pretty quickly. So when you do, work out why. Pilot error? Badly written instructions? Just doesn’t sound as good as when you planned it? Whatever the error is, put it down to experience, make any necessary adjustments, and start the mix again.

(As you get better at editing your mixes, it is possible to use audio editing software to correct errors and to save you keep starting again on your mixes, but if you’re not sure how to do this, or feel it would be cheating, just do it this way and keep trying again! At least when you’re finished you’ll be able to proudly tell people the mix was done “completely live, in one take”.)

Practise makes perfect

Finally – and it can take a few days of trying – you’ll get a perfect take. Well done! You should feel justifiably proud of yourself. Roll a fat one, open a beer, or just run around the room punching the air (that’s me), but whatever you do, make sure you keep the file safe on your computer.

You can listen back to it there and then, or better still, go and do something else and listen back to it a bit later. Taking a break from it will allow you to assess your mix and the overall quality more objectively.

So – assuming you still like it the next day, congratulations! You now have a mix that’s good enough for us to master and burn tomorrow. See you then…

Check out the other parts in this series:

What are your experiences with recording mixes? Can you do it on one go, or are you a “lock yourself away for a week” kind of DJ? Let us know!

Comments

  1. You know, unless you’re using a mixer that’s controlling your DJ software, you really DO NOT want to use the built-in record function.

    For controllers, this is usually fine. But a lot of us are using sound cards connected to mixers, and odds are that the built in record will not record your actions, unless you’re on something super-nice.

    I myself run a master output right back into my MacBook’s Audio In.

  2. That’s a great point, and one I will go back and edit the article to make clear. Thanks!

  3. If you’re recording using Traktor’s inbuilt recording system, take the input level on the recording unit down to about -2 or -3 dB. Traktor’s gain levels are quite good, and it can run into the red on the recording unit quite quickly

  4. Great stuff. I personally am a fan of editing. Usually my issues hit me either when I have a rarity where a blend comes apart or doesn’t go as well as I would like, or even the track I’m bringing in might have been a good idea in the beginning, but now I think it’s not good for the mix.

    What I’ll do is stop my recording program, put in a cue mark or something to remind me that I am making an edit there. I’ll go and take the track I had currently playing and back it up to a point where I can find it on the waveforms later. I’ll press record, let a few seconds pass, then start up the “current” record and then try again.

    Some might think this is cheating, but I have been recording mixes all the way back since 1992. I used to use a cassette deck because I didn’t have access to audio recording like now. I’ll tell you, when you keep restarting a mix over and over, you’ll eventually get tired of going back and redoing something 10-20 times. Even worse is when it’s the last track on your set and something goes wrong. Do you really want to go back and do it all over?

    I’ll also mention sometimes when I kept doing total re-takes that eventually I’d start making mistakes in places I normally didn’t. It’s only because I’m getting tired, bored, and stressed about finishing the mix.

    When you record a mix to put online or give out, this is something people might listen to over and over. In a club you can mess up a little, and no one will notice. You can mess up bigger and yet if you pull yourself back together for the remainder of the set, everyone will forget. Have mess-ups on a recorded mix and people will hear them over and over and over.

    Many times you will be always to press record, play perfectly, and not ever have to go back and “redo” something…but sometimes you have those days. Everyone is calling you on the phone, you have pressures to do other things, you just want everyone to leave you alone for the next few hours, you have other things on your mind, etc. Lord knows when I find myself stressed and can’t seem to relax and flow, I’ll stop recording, put it away, and come back another time. Other times I’ll simply do what I have to in order to finish the mix.

    In a live setting it can be different, and small mistakes are quickly forgiven. I am not saying one shouldn’t strive to be perfect in this, but I’ve learned from experience that you’ll suddenly be spending 6-7 hours getting that measly 1-hour mix done if you don’t take advantage of audio editing.

    Just strive to make as few mistakes as possible. ;)

  5. I agree – however you do it (editing or perseverance) you HAVE to get it right. It’s like the difference between the spoken word and the written word.

  6. I just started recording mixes (1 down so far!) and it’s good to heard others have the same issues as I do. I am not alone.

  7. Great articles!

    Its clear everyone has got its own approach on how to make your ‘tapes’. for example, I personally never edit. If I make a mistake its a good reminder of the things not to do the next time. Besides extensive correcting would be the same as digitally lining the songs up and editing progressions. My personal opinion of course.

    One thing I would want to add as extra hint:

    In these articles a very extensive preparation is described, but sometimes you get great results without too much preparation. Over preparing can get you too focused on that one single progression or a rigid track list.

    In some cases I pick a genre, a huge collection of tracks, the first song and start from there. Choosing the next song mainly on the key and tempo, determining progressions on waveform and the predictability of the music. This gives a very spontaneous and sometimes very surprising results. And as a bonus its a great relaxed mixing experience.

    Just my 2cents!

    • Very true! I see it as the difference between speaking and writing – if you write something, for all to “see” for ever more, you really want to get it right. But each to their own as you say!

  8. I mix on 2 numark v7s and a X5. I plug the booth output of my mixer to my input on my laptop. I tried using audacity to record and can’t seem to get it working. any special configs I seem to be missing out? is it the good software for recording?

    Thanks!

    • It’s tricky to set this up and it depends on your OS, your laptop and drivers. Best I can recommend is you Google it… or just hit “Record” in ITCH for the easy way of doing it!

      • the record button on itch does not work because it is mixed externally…itch does not recognise which channel is playing in the ”main” it probably does work with the numark ns7 but not quite the same thing with the v7s…

        thanks anyways! will try to get it working and get mixtapes going soon!

  9. I have read the article about Master Gain in Traktor, saying I should have it at -10db. However, when i have it here, and with my volume fader at full, it still only reaches halfway on the sound output, not near to clipping. Should I increase the master gain, or just leave it like this, as when listening to the recorded tracks, they seem quiet.

  10. About using the built in record function with sound card and external mixer.
    (DJ Spacecamp & others) i have recorded mixes with the built in recording in Traktor 2 with great results. You should connect the record out on the mixer to 2 inputs on your sound card (preferably 2 with gain knobs), and then you go into preferences in traktor2 and make so that the line ins are going into the recorder.
    (I dont remember exactly how it was now when i am writing but i made it work in 3 minutes the first time i tried by just looking around in preferences, the channels with signals etc)

  11. Nyasha Mushati says:

    I use the in built record on the traktor pro 2 on my NI S2 but I can’t seem to find the mixes afterwards. What am I doing wrong? Or am I not even recording at all? I press the record icon on the software but I can’t figure out how to stop the recording and how to find the mixes… Please help… Thanks.

  12. Traktor has been great for me when recording, but I usually have problems keeping the volume and EQ levels the same thought. I’ll definitely use this advice. Thanks.

    Meanwhile, i am in a slight predicament. I have found an AWESOME transition with mixed in key software, but I can find anything to mix out of the second song. I’ve been working on this for weeks.

    It’s Benny benassi’s satisfaction to start, and then I found a way to transition into “freak out” by le chic. But once in that second song, i can mix or transition out of it!! I don’t know what to do. I’ve tried everything. Any suggestions?

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