Beginners’ Guide: The 1-2-3 of Mixing In Key

Mixed in Key

Using simple software and this clever little visual aid, any DJ can easily mix in key.

You may have heard "mixing in key", or "harmonic mixing", mentioned by DJs. You may even be dimly aware of what it means - that it's about making sure tunes match musically in order to mix them more smoothly.

But if you've never done this before, you may think it's hard to do, or that if you're not able to play a musical instrument, you'll not be able to work out all the stuff with scales and notes that's necessary to achieve this type of mix. Luckily, nothing could be further from the truth, and today, we'll show you how you too can use harmonic mixing in your sets.

To start using harmonic mixing, you need to achieve these three steps:

1. Tag your songs with their musical key

To mix in key, you need to know the key of your tunes! There are several ways you can do this. If you use Virtual DJ, you're in luck: The software will work out the musical key for you and display it in the track information box. If you don't, you need to have some software work it out for you. Software like Rapid Evolution 3, BeaTunes and Mixed in Key will do this for you - Rapid Evolution 3 is free, but many professionals swear by Mixed in Key (see below for why).

Depending on your DJ software, you may decide to have your chosen program tag the key information in a custom key field of the MP3 tag, in the comment field, or in the filename. The important thing is that you work out a way of getting the key information into your MP3's meta data or even its file name , so you can display it when you're browsing your tunes.

2. Get the Camelot Wheel and understand how to use it

This is the big secret. Use Google Images to search for "Camelot Wheel" (get a large version) and download your own copy (hint: set it as your laptop background wallpaper so you can minimise your DJ software to quickly refer to it when playing).

Camelot wheel

Key mixing is made easier for DJs with the Camelot wheel.

This shows you every musical key there is. All of your tunes will have been tagged with one of those keys by your software of choice or when analysed by Virtual DJ.

Whether your software used standard notation (C major, D minor etc), or Mixed in Key-style notation (12B, 6A etc), you can use the wheel just the same, as it covers both systems. (In Virtual DJ, you can click on the key onscreen and it will switch between these two notations.)

Here's how it works: You find the key of the tune you're currently playing on the wheel, and you can mix any tune into it that is the same key, or an adjacent key on the wheel. So you can move left or right one segment, or in or out one segment (you can't move diagonally). These mixes will sound great, because the keys are the same or related.

3. Apply it to your mixing

Now you've tagged your tunes and you understand how to use the Camelot Wheel, here's some practical tips to help you apply your new-found knowledge to your mixing:

  1. Switch your software's keylock feature on - As we discussed last week in our keylock introduction, harmonic mixing relies on this feature, which holds the key steady when you've beatmatched your tunes
  2. Choose tunes that are close in BPM - Keylock sounds best on tunes it doesn't have to work too hard on, which are always those close to the BPM of your current tune
  3. Work around the wheel to play through your collection - If you order your collection by key, you can easily work through your setlist mixing adjacent keys as you go
  4. Use your ears! - Nothing in digital DJing is a magic fix for not using your ears. Sometimes key detection software gets it wrong; sometimes keylock distorts tunes beyond what you'll deem to be acceptable; sometimes tunes sound great in totally unrelated keys; and just because tunes are in the same, key, it doesn't mean mixing them together will sound any good! So always listen critically and don't rely blindly (should that be deafly?) on key detection software

Bonus power tip

As you can see from your Camelot Wheel, there are two ways of expressing musical notation. You may have noticed that with the "letters and numbers" notation system, adjacent segments also have adjacent numbers or letters. So 11A is adjacent to (and will always mix into) 10A and 12A; and any B will always mix into any A and vice versa, as long as they share the same number.

This notation system is native to Mixed in Key, which is one reason why that software is such a popular choice as a key detection program.

Using this system, you don't even have to have the Camelot Wheel to perform harmonic mixes, as it's so simple to remember the method. Just always mix up or down a number, or from an A to a B or vice versa with the same numbers.

So that's it - your quick 1-2-3 of harmonic mixing. If you're not already experimenting with key mixing, do it - it's one of the great leaps forward for digital DJing and done properly, it can really improve how your DJing sounds.

Do you mix in key? Do you have any power tips to share with the rest of our readers for better harmonic mixing? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

 

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Comments

  1. Does the free “home” version of Virtual DJ include tagging songs with the key or is that a paid feature? I’d like to try out without spending any money first (as a high school student my budget is just about $0).

    I tried looking up Rapid Evolution but I’d prefer an easier solution as I use something else to manage my ID3 tags. Looks like (based on brief forum browsing) users have to manage ID3 tags with RE to add it automatically… but I may be mistaken

    • Phil Morse says:

      It analyses your songs and tells you the key when you’re mixing them in Virtual DJ, but it doesn’t actually tag them I don’t think.

      • when you drag a song onto the deck it displays the key above the wave form (for the standard skin) its right in the middle under remaining time. Also in the effects section you can manual alter the key with the key knob

      • in the setting you can chose to have the change the ID tag so it has the key at the either the beginning or the end. Also in the settings you can have it add it to the ID tag on MP3’s under the “key” box, then in traktor (other dj software has this also, im just not familiar with it) you add a “key” column to your library list and it shows up there.

    • DJ Slipmix says:

      I have the freebie virtual DJ..To find the keys easily, right click on the title bars in your main window (Under the turntables wheree you drag & drop the songs from) at the bottom of the submenu, it should say “Order”. Left click that, and you can display the keys and anything else you want. You can switch the order of the display as well (Genre, filename, name, key etc.. There are instructions you can download for the program too for free, takes a bit of googling, but you’ll find it. I hope that helps you Josh…

      • DJ Slipmix says:

        I forgot to mention…Instead of scanning the whole music file, select the first track missing info (after categorizing your music), hold shift as you select the last track. they should all be highlighted in green. Right click, then hit “Scan for BPM. Saves time from scanning your whole music file. You should be set!

  2. Dj-icandy says:

    very useful info,i have heard about this before but not as in depth as this, thanks digidjtips you guys are doing s great job

  3. If knowing the theory behind harmonic mixes improves anyone’s sets, it’s probably because they were tone deaf or did not have an ear for music to start with.

    Any non tone deaf person should be able to tell if something is badly out of tune or not.

    Another reason not to rely on key detection software is that it only gets it right about 40% of the time. Most times it gets a similar or just plain wrong key.

    • I think most people are able to HEAR if the keys clash, but many are not able to tell which key a tune is in.

      I’ve run my whole collection through MixedInKey. What did it do for me?

      1.) I can have a quick overview of songs which i MIGHT be able to mix harmonicly.
      2.) I’ve learned about the theory behind harmonic mixing.

      Before using MIK I did hear when songs clashed, but I never really knew why.

      • Just be careful not to let tags by some software influence too much the choices on your mixing.

        You got me confused on point two though, how did tagging your library taught you about the theory of harmonic mixing?

        Do you know why they clash now? (And the answer is not “because they are more than one number apart”.)

        • It helped to get me started on the theory and so I’ve digged into it a lot more.

          I still use my ears to decide whatever it sounds good or not. And yes, MIK isn’t highly accurate in its results, but it helps to get a rough guideline and mixing stuff i’ve never thought about mixing before. ;)

    • dennis parrott says:

      if you DJ from a large library (1000’s of songs) as we mobile DJs do, MIK and harmonic mixing can come in handy to help you prevent audio train wrecks.

      if you avoid huge shifts in key or BPM you can move the set along some vector toward a goal. ask my wife how many times i say stuff like “oooh lousy transition. bad dj no cookie!” while we’re out and about.

      if you tag your songs using MIK you can use that info to avoid jarring the dance floor.

      as to getting the wrong key less than half of the time, i’d say that you may be dealing in old information. it seems to me that anyone that was saying that was adamant about it years back. key detection is a lot like sports officiating, say umpiring a baseball game. if the pitchers are CONSISTENTLY getting a certain pitch called a ball or a strike, they generally don’t care as they just need to know. i see key detection the same way. i don’t care if the track is really A minor or G flat so long as it consistently calls things the same way so that when I am mixing i am assured that i can go from one track into the next without an issue caused by incompatible keys.

      while it is possible for me to tell if things are badly out of tune it would really suck rocks if that mix that is out of tune is wafting out of my PA to the crowd. that is why i have started using MIK to tag my songs — i can’t remember the keys that 1000’s of songs are written in and i don’t want crap like that curdling the dance floor because i hit the wrong button. (well, i don’t ever hit the wrong button…but you know what i mean!! LOL)

      DJ technology makes some things easier, makes others possible, but doesn’t do diddley to replace things like common sense and experience. some things can be automated, some things shouldn’t be automated and we are not able to automate a good and talented DJ (yet) although some of the tech does make it so that untalented DJs can squeak by…

      dennis

      • I’ve tried tagging different melody parts of the same track and getting different results. Try that for yourself. It’s not constant either.

        Indeed, it might work as a reference when using many songs. I just advise against relying on it when deciding to do or not do a particular mix.

  4. Gravekeepr says:

    I used mix in key a bit back when I was first starting. Sometimes it worked, most times it didn’t. I find it’s better just to practice a bunch and learn what a good mix sounds like and what a mix with clashing keys sounds like. Eventually you will just know if a harmonic mix will work or not. Plus, this way you can be more creative with your song choice and not pigeon hole yourself into doing mixes just because the software tells you they are in key.

    • Exactly. No theory needed to know if a mix sounds good or bad, only some critical listening. Forcing your ear to be trained is way more important than letting software subconsciously force decisions for you.

      The theory can be important when composing your own music. But that includes way more that a dumbed down circle of fifths.

  5. I use these as a guide to all my gigs, regardless of genre. Notice, I say “guide”. I don’t follow it fully. Also, Virtual DJ sometimes gets the notes wrong. Still, I recommend this method to any digital dj.

    • Phil Morse says:

      Agreed. It’s another way of getting a quick idea of what might mix next. You can then try it out in your headphones and see if a) the key matching is right and b) whether you’d want to mix the two together in the first place.

  6. Epiphenomenon says:

    Very relevant: The new version of Beatport (it’s invite only unless you can snag a key, pun intended) includes keys for tracks alongside other information. Not sure where they get this information. If it’s from the producers, there will be no guesswork involved in harmonic mixing anymore.

  7. I’ve been using Mixed in Key for a while now and it’s definitely an incredibly useful application. But there’s always a but.

    I used to always make connections between songs I was randomly listening to, telling myself these songs would go great together if I mix these parts together and things like that. What Mixed in Key did to me was kill my creativity a little bit because I ended up relying on it too much. I stopped thinking if songs went well together and just started looking at the keys to know if the songs had compatible keys.

    This is by far the best advice I can give you about Mixed in Key: don’t overdo it. It’s a great tool and it has a lot of incredible uses, but if you rely on it too much you might miss the point.

    • Phil Morse says:

      If anyone is interested in Mixed in KEy, remember we’ve done a full review of it including a live roadtest at a real gig: Mixed in Key review

    • I agree. MIK (or the Key Detection feature in VDJ) is a great tool, but if over used it can leave sets sounding a bit lifeless and safe. It can be useful if there are specific tracks you want to include in the mix, and you need a “ladder” to get from one to another cleanly.. :)

  8. Key mixing is a great tool, just remember its about playing the right music at the right time and mixing by key is not always an option but key clashes and vocals on top of vocals are unacceptable!
    Have a look at this article that I wrote for dj techtools last year

    http://www.djtechtools.com/2010/03/23/to-key-or-not-to-key/

    • Good example of “theory” without critical listening, vocals on top of vocals.

      So basically any song with backing vocals is an unacceptable song? Choirs and Gregorian chants are just plain wrong music? Polyphony? Counterpoint?

      Someone told you vocals on top of vocals were bad and you just went with it as if it was a rule.

      Dissonant notes were also unacceptable and then along came Stravinsky redefining what was dissonant or not.

      Nothing is unacceptable. It’s art, not engineering.

      • What I am refering to is 2 different tracks with full vocal ie 2 songs.
        Having 2 different singers singing 2 different songs at exactly the same time is not going to sound good and you wont convince me otherwise.
        We are talking full vocals here not just a bit of a sample or backing vocals.
        If you dont belive me try it at your next gig and watch the confused look on the faces of the people on the dancefloor!
        Song structure and mix placement has got probably more to do with maths than art

        • I’ve played two different vocals at the same time already. And I’ve received compliments on just that. Because just like you, most people weren’t expecting it to sound good.

          A lot of things in music can be traced to math (like consonance), but the imperative will always be the aesthetic result, not the scientific one.

    • Phil Morse says:

      Fred, to say “someone told you vocals on top of vocals were bad and you just went with it as if it was a rule” is a bit presumptious – this is a beginners’ article and 9 out of 10 beginners would be best advised to avoid paying vocals over vocals as rule, despite the fact that in the hands of experts, anything can sound good.

      Tony, Fred is an accomplished “artist” and all he’s saying is that in art, everything is within bounds, and rules are there to be broken! Something I am sure you can agree with too.

      Let’s keep it friendly, folks, and remember we don’t have the full picture of each other on here, so let’s be constructive and polite please, whatever. :)

      • I don’t mean anything I said as an attack Phil. I hope no one felt offended. Indeed I don’t know Tony but I always respect different opinions. My words are intent as an alert to readers and beginners.

        The truth is that I also heard a lot of such things like “don’t put vocals on top of vocals”, “don’t mix this with that”, even that “as a DJ you shouldn’t mix more than one genre”, etc., back in the day. I just wanted to share my experience, and that such things are a trap.

        It limits and hinders expression. Anyone should find for themselves what sounds and what does not sound good. Otherwise everyone will sound like the next guy.

        • Phil Morse says:

          I know you Fred and I know nothing was further from your mind, and I know Tony too and know he was just trying to help beginners avoid getting confused – it was just a bit of misunderstanding about each other’s motives. You’re both valuable contributors round here :)

  9. Howitzer says:

    A couple of tips ive picked up along my harmonic mixing adventures:

    +/-7 on your current key number can boost / chill the mix energy.

    when mixing A-B add +4

    +/-2 can boost/chill the energy too.

    MIK is a great tool, I swear by it. But above all else, use your ears.

    • Absolutely agree howitzer-if you listen to my mixes on soundcloud(www.soundcloud.com/djrosko)-at the top of my page are mixes done with MIK using +1/-1, a/b, +/- 2 and +/- 7. Down toward the bottom-all the mixes are done by ear-I will say-MIK has made my mixes faster and definetly more harmonic but there are times when I don’t strictly use it. I highly recommend MIK as a tool for DJ’s learn harmonics-it opens up the door to musical theory and learning more about YOUR musical tastes. I have barely any “b” songs- and a third of my library is in “7A” followed by 5A and 12A which are all keys to mix between quite nicely… You can download my mixes free off of my soundcloud. Enjoy
      Rosko

      • why do you upload your mixes on Soundcloud ? Why not on mixcloud?
        As far as I know, soundcloud is for musicians, composers, EDM producers.

  10. If you can’t sit down with a guitar/piano/whatever instrument that you play and figure out the key to a song then you shouldn’t even bother trying to mix in key. If you don’t know how to drive, don’t worry about buying nice rims!

    • Phil Morse says:

      An inquisitive mind and an ear for music is what’s needed over musical training though – you can always go and teach yourself piano scales later.

  11. This is exactly the article I needed to build my set list. Thank you so much! Big ups to DDJT for always insightful and informative articles. I love this site.

  12. C#M & CM

    witch one is major and minor ?

    great article

    • They’re both major. C-sharp Major and C Major. Minor is represented by a lower case “m”. C#m would be C-sharp minor and Cm would be C minor.

  13. I’m surprised no one mentioned key shifting features which exist in software like traktor. Sometimes two tracks which badly key clash but would otherwise sound perfect together can me tuned into an acceptable level of harmony with just a little nudge on the key shift knob one direction or the other. This works because often the most dissonant key note combinations are just slightly off of the most resonant. An example of this is 1 + 11 (or C + B). It sounds really bad but a little nudge in the right direction will put them at the same key. Like everything else, use in moderation. The mode the key is modified the more the sound is degraded, sounding digitized and losing warmth.

    • Phil Morse says:

      That’s a good point, and you’ve now mentioned it :)

    • The key one half-step/semitone below or above any other key will have only two common tones, in 7 different notes (heptatonic scales, major and the three minors (natural, harmonic, and melodic), have 8 notes in which the first is repeated an octave above).

      If you match these by increasing or decreasing one half-step, they will have the exact same tones (they’ll be in the same key).

      On the other hand, the most compatible keys will be 7 half-steps (perfect fifth), and 5 half-steps (perfect fourth) apart. These keys will have 6 out of 7 different tones in common. Being that the perfect fourth apart key will have one more flat than the original key, and the perfect fifth apart key will have one more sharp.

      Knowing this and looking at the circle of fifths, you can see that with a -2 to +2 semitone change, you will invariably get either the exact, or the closest compatible key of any other.

      • Thanks a lot, you obviously know your theory.

      • AnotherDJ says:

        Using “key lock” has it’s drawbacks also.

        Harmonic mixing in itself should be aimed for but as I’ve been entering the digital era I’ve discovered that being addicted to “key lock” or “master tempo” is not my cup of tea.

        My reasoning for this is as follows; All digital key lock algorithms today decreases the quality of said song if the song is pitched +/- .1% from its original tempo and that is not something to thrive for to attain a harmonic mix.

        I’m an old school dj used to playing vinyls and the way I managed harmonic mixing without “key lock” was to remember that roughly +/-6% pitch change changes the key to the next note.

        I use my ears to match keys, with key lock disabled, this might be inconvenient and is preventing me from mixing some cominations in key but it sounds better than any of the key lock algorithms…

  14. Remember also, never EVER mix software for finding key as algorithms differ slightly.
    If your collection was mapped by MIK then only use that, same goes for VDJ or whatever…

    Yeah yeah software can’t match the human earball mark one, and software often gets it slightly wrong, but if you stick to one method or programme it will get ALL your collection “slightly wrong” and that will be good enough for using for harmonic mixing.

    Again use your ears and don’t fall in to the trap of constant harmonic mixing cramp your creativity If you know instinctively that a certain Choona is gonna drop right in the mix despite the numerical key being out, id trust instinct 100%

  15. Did anybody notice that Virtual DJ 7 analyzes all the songs to be in a minor key even though some are major? So you still have to use your ear to figure out whether it’s actually minor or major, and if it’s major it’s in the relative major (ie. move 3 half-steps up, key E minor would be G major, Fsharp minor would be A major, etc.)

    • Phil Morse says:

      It actually says that somewhere in the VDJ manual, something about “heavily favouring minor keys”. Most dance music is in a minor key anyway, which I guess is why they do it.

      • Phil,

        Ive got virtual DJ le version and it shows the key of the track(Cm, c#m etc), but doesnt show the camelot numeric key system (8a, 9a etc). Do you know if Virtual DJ Pro shows the numeric system as it would be a lot easier if it did?

        Cheers

        Rich

  16. CosmicRift says:

    I hate to sound uneducated but, legitimate question. What are sharps considered?

    • sharps are just a half set up from the base note. ie an A# is a half step higher than the base note A. but it is also equal to Bb (B flat) because it is a half step down from the base note of B.

      if you want a really easy example to hear the differences the black notes on a keyboard are the sharps and flats. (or check out this vid http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-pWsrAUefg)

      hope this helped

  17. I use VDJ and Mixed in key. So in my own tests with my ear the VDJ is better. You can use the wheel with VDJ. But is not so good as Mixed in Key in this case.

  18. Great work Phil. I’ve tried mixing a melody (not sure if that’s the correct term) with a vocal from another song and it sounded ok but not quite “right.” This’ll definitely help me with my future trials.

  19. I have a reasonable ear for music, have been playing vinyl for 20 years. Thought I would experiment with the harmonic mixing on my Virtual DJ.

    Having scanned lots of different genres I find that the Camelots are all A values and no B.

    I have a lot of music ranging from Lovers Rock to Gabber Techno and some soulful and rock music in the middle (call me DJ Every Ting!)

    I am using VDJ LE 5.2.2 with a Hercules console.

    Is it normal/correct to get all A values and no B?

    • Addition:

      Phil Morse comments on the VDJ manual – thanks, just checked that out. Still miffed as to why I get NO B values at all though!!

      I may go as far as to knock up a few major loops on Reason to see what it does with them.

      Have sent a support ticket so will feed back what I find out.

  20. Will ”perfect pitch” be able get around this Mix In Key? Just wondering since i do have it and am able to hear the root note of a track.

  21. DJ Koko Testa says:

    Whats the best Virtual DJ Software to use if you dont have a turntable yet but can connect and play with a mixer using two channels….

  22. Schrottrocker says:

    Once you got into key mixing, don’t shy away from experimenting. You don’t need to restrict yourself to the basic moves on the wheel (like 8A -> 9A and 8A -> 8B etc.). Try diagonal moves (8A -> 9B), skip a field (8A -> 10A), skip diagonally (8A -> 10B), and so forth. Explore what transitions work better and which don’t. By the time, you will get an ear for good and bad key transitions without looking at numbers and letters, the same way you got an ear for matching BPM’s without checking BPM numbers of every single track.

    • A this stage it’s also worth revisiting the theory behind it, and looking at the “real” keys behind the codes. That way you can engineer deliberate key changes, somethig the best trance DJs do to great effect.

      • Phil, this sounds really interesting. Please could you elaborate a little? I often prefer to look at the ‘real’ key of a track rather than the camelot wheel numbers, but then struggle to know which keys will mix harmonically.

  23. why is the wheel called the Camelot Wheel here? anywhere else it would be called the Circle of Fifths. Shouldn’t DJs be encouraged to learn Music Theory?

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