Your Questions: Am I Relying On Key Mixing Too Much?

Software such as Mixed In Key has popularised harmonic mixing for DJs, but it's not the only way to slice and dice your music for your DJ sets.

Software such as Mixed In Key has popularised harmonic mixing for DJs, but it’s not the only way to slice and dice your music for your DJ sets.

Digital DJ Tips reader David writes: “I’m confused! I’ve spent the past few months researching the art of digital DJing, having followed your Learn To DJ Free email course and purchased the How To Digital DJ Fast video learning. I have also catalogued a lot of my collection using Mixed in Key, and have worked on small mixes using djay.”

“I have a lot of chilled Ibiza-style tunes and was thinking of moving through a set from say a Crazy P tune (Sweet Feeling) taking in some old skool soul (George Benson, Soul II Soul) and then moving onto some funkier Fred Falke/Louis la Roche, then slowing down towards the end of the set. I guess I need to get the structure of the set sorted in my head! But in particular, I think I’m focusing too much on getting the key changes right, whilst wanting to get some specific tunes in… am I over complicating it? Should I just let the music do the talking?”

Digital DJ Tips says:

I am presuming you’re talking about performing this in public. If so, your crowd are your first helpers. Watching their cues and following what you think the room want should come first, clever mixes a definite second. But with the kind of chilled set you’re speaking of, maybe your DJing is in a bar or lounge where it’s harder to get that kind of feedback, and so then it can be tempting to look for the “perfect mix” rather than the “perfect next song” – and frankly, it’s not such a big deal to DJ this way sometimes in these situations.

However, while mixing in key (or rather sorting your tracks by key) initially will suggest sone interesting match-ups that just might work, and so make your DJing more interesting, things can quickly get stale if you’re getting “addicted” to hearing key mixes and shying away from mixing non-harmonically matched material.

I’d say to remember a bar is a place where people are constantly coming and going, so whatever your “formula” it should follow a cycle, not a beginning-middle-end. Past that I’d recommend you experiment sorting by genre and BPM as well as by key, and don’t be scared to have chunks of your set where you ignore key mixing entirely. As long as you mix sympathetically (ie no clashing harmonies), this type of DJing is fine.

Over to you: Do you DJ similar styles of music to David? Do you mix in key, and if so, do you do it all or only part of the time? How do you slice and dice your collection to keep your sets fresh? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Comments

  1. I have to confess that I rely quite heavily on keys to make my mixes but in my opinion this gives me a really good chance to play song my audience wouldn’t normally appreciate. Let me explain with a real world situation I had just about 2 weeks ago, I was playing for a crowd I know well, I know what songs they wanted to hear (however I find these terrible and don’t really want to play them), so I started of by playing some allround accepted music here (for example daft punk, chemical brothers) which is also a good starter for this crowd, then using keys to mix everything very smooth I worked my way to the music I really really really wanted to play and guess what, the crowd that normally doesn’t appreciate these songs was going insane just because they didn’t even noticed the genre had changed and that they were actually listening to songs they don’t like. In the end most of them had a great night and maybe learned some new songs which they normally would never listen but now find themselves liking them anyway. I think I could never pull this trick off without the smooth transitions possible by harmonic mixing.

  2. Mike Blades says:

    using in key mixing is GOOD, if your mixing melodies over each other. But i find that you dont always do that, and so you should go for the BEST song you can play next, instead of a few tracks that key mix. and remember you DONT have to beat match EVERY song you mix. let one fade out and bring in the next one, completly differnet key and tempo if you like. EXPERIMENT

    • I agree..I find that if I’m trying to match a melody then harmonic mixing is the way to go because the transition is a lot smoother and “pleasing” to the ear.

      If I’m doing a drop or matching a beat then harmonic mixing isn’t so much of an issue.

      From a personal point of view when set planning (trance & progressive)…I’ll choose the tracks I really want to play then “fill in the gaps” as it were with tracks that compliment them well and have a few back ups just incase I need to switch genres.

    • That’s a good comment Mike. A DJ can get creative with EQ/Filter/Volume and create a breakdown in a song, bringing it completely down to silence, then bring in another track that is a different BPM and key and they probably won’t even know the difference. If done well I bet this could work great.

  3. James Robinson says:

    I have a similar dilemma. However, after purchasing a pa and playing some pretty dodgy student gigs where I was playing music off ipods for fear of my proper gear getting stolen, I was obviously limited with the amount of mixing that I was doing. Because of this I had to concentrate on the tracks I was playing rather than how clever what I was doing was. My early forays into djing were heavily key based, to the point that I was basing track choices entirely on having the same chord structures and modulations, which sounded great to me, and was technically very clever, but it wasn’t necessarily what the people want to hear. So, my tip is to keep looking for clever transitions with matching keys, (perhaps some which change the tonality of the original song completely, as this makes you look really clever!) but not to base or structure sets around it. When you find a perfect key transition between two songs, make a mental note of it and drop it when the two songs are to the taste of the audience you are playing to. this way you can showcase your skills, and make it more memorable as the songs are ones which the audience is familiar with. Otherwise, the likelihood is, that the audience won’t even notice. also, I would avoid planning sets completely, 3 and a half minutes (depending on the song) is a long time to make a choice for the next track, so see how the audience reacts. Remember, the set that you do should not primarily be structured as ‘a history of dance music’, or ‘a showcase of your eclectic taste’, but as a mix of songs that the people like to dance to :) good luck

  4. Keep Kalm says:

    This is where prelistening and knowing your tracks is vital. What I do is i think about what tracks might go in there best and have a quick prelisten with the current track to compare. If it doesn’t seem right i think about another track that might go with it. If I can’t think of any other track I sort by key and find a track that will suit my current track.
    Listen to your tracks every day! Learn them inside and out! That way you will pretty much know what track will go on next, leaving more time for drinking/fist pumping/jesus posing/flirting with the hotties.

  5. im really glad you asked this question because i bought MİK about 2 months ago and found myself trapped by it thinking that it would give me the kind of lift my mixes needed, however many of my best mixes happened without mixed in key. To be honest it has revealed some great combinations that maybe i wouldnt have discovered without the software. But as with all new tools, use it wisely and dont rely on it. Your ears and the crowd are the best tools djs have.

  6. Another thing that’s suuper useful with Mixed In Key is to have harmonic jumps. Such as up or down by 2 (8A – 10A up a tone I find this increases/decreases energy) or up or down by 7 (1A – 8A – semitone/similar results). Try it out. I’ve found it makes my sets more harmonically interesting as well as being useful for jumping from one bunch of tracks, say at 8A, to another, say at 10A.

    • +1

    • Kevin, MD-Jay says:

      Great point. Most people seem to get their tunes keyed, look at the wheel, and just go. If you take a couple hours and read the book “Beyond Beatmatching”, their are many ways to jump all over the wheel. Even if there is a track you feel you need to get out soon. Some practice and you can figure out how to jump all over the place. Maybe playing a minute or two one track just to make that harmonic leap to the one you know is gonna kill.

  7. After I first discovered harmonic mixing, it was the only thing I used.

    Ending up with nice harmonies but probably quite some genre and tempo clashes.

    With most things the learning stages are to get to know the new stuff, to be enthusiastic for it, to over-use it and finally to use it more wisely.

    Nowadays, keys became helpers in choosing canidate next songs, like BPM and genre are, too. I freed myself from being a slave to any of them and instead use them to less to tell me but instead to warn me :)

    More practically let me describe a mix and how I used the keys.

    It was created based on an sunset/dinner/beach bar chillout set. Initially, I selected the songs based on my gut feeling, checking only regarding “does this key fit?”. You can see below that it stays quite long on two very close keys (4A, 5A) as I wanted to keep the mood constant for a longer time.

    The recorded version added the three first songs and the crossover “Intro” with spoken words to mask the bpm jump.
    In cases when the keys where more distant, I tried to mix with beats-only parts in one of the two songs to avoid the clashes (unless I liked them like the last 8A -> 4A jump).

    You can listen at the full mix here: https://soundcloud.com/vzk/jazzy-bang-mixtape. (feedback welcome, too)

    Tracklist:
    ———-
    96 / 7A (D Minor): PC Synergy – Drift
    95 / (not analyzed): Fused – Twisted
    95 / Issa Bagayogo – Saye Mogo Bana
    n/a (spoken) / 8A (A Minor): ODESZA – Intro from Summer’s Gone
    120 / 2A (E-Flat Minor): Doumbia – Yankaw (Bassino Dub Mix)
    121 / 4A (F Minor): Fauna Flash feat Deidra Jones – Ten (Kyoto Jazz Massive Remix)
    120 / 4A (F Minor): Incognito – Get Into My Groove (Jazzanova Re-Groove Mix)
    123 / 4A (F Minor): [re:jazz] – Style
    125 / 4A (F Minor): [re:jazz] – People Hold On (Alternate A Capella Take)
    125 / 5A (C Minor): MJ Cole feat Nova Caspar & Jay Dee – Sincere (Jazzanova Sincerely Yours Remix)
    125 / 8A (A Minor): Patchworks – Summertime
    125 / 8A (A Minor): [re:jazz] – Written In The Stars (Atjazz Remix)
    123 / 4A (F Minor): Acid Paul & Nancy – iBang (Original Mix)
    120 / 8A (A Minor): Elvis Presley – Suspicious Minds(Viva Elvis MIX)

  8. Alot of the time when playing live it has to be… play the correct tune for the moment,here is a link to article I wrote some time ago which might help. http://www.djtechtools.com/2010/03/23/to-key-or-not-to-key/

  9. DJ Forced Hand says:

    I’m not sure why I keep bringing the metaphor back to storytelling, but it seems to hold water every time I do…

    I think Harmonic Mixing is great, I use it a lot, I bought Mixed-In-Key and I use Keys in Traktor. Now that I’ve said all that, I don’t always Beatmatch nor Harmonic Mix. As I said, I’ve equated mixing to telling a story or reading a poem so I’m going to use Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” to help me explain. There are times that you want to seamlessly transition from one concept to another with the same speed and tone such as when Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum talking about something and they take over each others sentences (even though they may slightly alter the speed and tone of what is said). There are times you want to crash songs together (to the beat), using the same beat but different tones or vice-versa such as the Mad Hatter’s Tea party, or even the the conversation between Alice and the Catapillar inquiring “Who are You?” There are times you want one speaker to finish and the other begin with after a respectful moment Such as the White Queen or White Rabbit with Alice (I consider fade-ins part of the my finger is up indicating “I’d respectfully like to say something” and fade outs are part of the “it’s your turn, I’m just rambling” transition period) Lastly, there are times that you want to introduce a strong new direction i.e. the Jabberwocky or the Queen saying “Off with her head!” even in the middle of something else which is going on at the time… it’s rude and it’s supposed to be. Powerful moments should be given that moment and left to solo, with no bleed-over from other tracks, they are strong and that’s what people want.

    I assume “My style” has been derived from two sources: Theater and Music… I dare say “Opera.”

    I honestly agree with the old school DJs and Jazz musicians that playing is all about “Flow” (and interrupting the flow) and sometimes it’s not what you play, it’s what you don’t play that has meaning.

    On the same hand I see each track as an actor in a play having their conversations and interactions. When I allow these songs to take on their own personalities and interact with each other, I feel I do them justice.

    I am the conductor or director of this experience and from what I’ve seen of my crowds, they seem to really like it a lot more than people who play “Bangers” all night, but then again, I do seem to have a crowd that *gets* what I’m doing.

    I have used this “Operatic” technique for several years and it works wonderfully.

  10. I use it all the time. Yet, nobody said you had to use it all the time. Like I mentioned in previous posts, it’s just a blue print. Just like someone mentioned before on this blog, the key is learning the songs.

  11. I’ve noticed, going through my old mix playlists before I had mixed in key, that I naturally did that anyways. Using key detection just saves me the time of listening to a track and deciding it didn’t fit because of the key and also provides a challenge if you have a well organized library, like grabbing an in-key acapella or a song of a different genre but in the same key/bpm range to mix in.

  12. i choose a track and than i make it fit to the previous by using the “key”-knob…
    all harmonic and no limitations by this circle-stuff ;)
    only key & eq, no fx!

    check out if you want:

    http://www.soundcloud.com/powch

  13. Knowing the song structure, keys and energy level is crucial for me in to prepare sets. I also use Beatunes for that and I find it interesting that BeaTunes sometimes finds different details than MixedinKey. One important value of Harmonic mixing is that it also allows 3 or 4 tracks to be combined. Every year I knock myself out with that style in an annual “best of ….” mix. For 2012 I made with more than 140 tracks in less than 70 minutes…sick really… That is only possible or even bearable if it done on the basis of harmonics.

    You can check out that playlist at https://soundcloud.com/pierre-de-la-mer/best-beats-of-2012

    However, to put things in perspective, for live DJ-ing, I agree that reading a crowd works better than reading your playlists.

    • Jam-Master Jake says:

      I’ve found the same thing. beaTunes tends to get the keys right for me more than Mixed-In-Key does (which is usually wrong about 40% of the time, even if it’s just a minor issue, 8A when it meant 8B, for example)…but I prefer using MIK. I use beaTunes for helping me clean up issues in my library.

  14. I went to school for film and while film and DJing are two completely different world ill never forget the hierarchy of rules for editing – it covers everything from motion matching up to the emotion of a scene. I liken those rules to DJ technique as well. One thing ill never do is match a key just because it matches. If another song is better for the emotion, rhythm, and timing of a moment, but clashes the key or doesn’t work as well in-key as another track I’m going with emotion over technique.

    Most creative fields will always say “know the rules before you break them”.

    That’s pretty much my motto when it comes to how I mix.

    • DJ Forced Hand says:

      I agree Scoop. I also went to Art School for Film and Television Production: Computer Arts- 3D Animation and I think they teach you to create compositions using any medium quite effectively there. Please read my post and see if you think your style is similar.

    • there’s no rules to break only guidelines :P

  15. To be honest, Harmonic Mixing software and the philosophy in general is not the fix all for mixing that I thought it would be or perhaps I am just a naive DJ. Using Mixed in Key, trying out Beatunes, loading tracks in Algoriddm dJay and Virtual DJ software (which have key detection) I’ve have seen different keys for the same tracks depending on the software used. As Tony above mentioned in his DJTT article: Key detection software misses the key up to 40% of the time. Mixing what moves a crowd or what sounds good to me seems to work better, and yes sometimes is harmonically mixed by chance. Harmonic Mixing software makes suggestions on what “May” mix well together… stress the word MAY….That said, if I am putting together a Mashup, I rely on Harmonic Mixing Software to determine whether the tracks will mix / mash together.

  16. I used Mixed in Key for my latest set, i jumped from songs like 8A to 10A, Some songs really worked well when jumping from 9A to 10B which is a slightly different key, but it worked for my song choice. I mixed up some uplifting trance.

    Let me know what you guys think! cheers and enjoy :)

    https://soundcloud.com/dj-joe83/dj-joe-uplifting-sessions-vol

    • Well it’s all based on primitive cerebral concepts. Essentially moving up in key is related to more positive emotion, also major and minor keys are also related to positive/negative, but at the end of the day what works best is knowing your crowd. A cerebrally sounding negative song doesn’t mean a blanket negative response amongst an entire crowd for the same reason they some people think cloudy days are beautiful.

      Keys work best with a good instinct.

  17. Its a good tool but you need to know how to put records together without it. I used it since i started mixing. I recently decided to put together a mix with some new tracks i just downloaded from beatport without keying and i did alot of mixes that sounded really good… when i checked later…alot of the mixes were in key but some of the best sounding one were not… now i would never have put these mixes together if i had them all key’d.

    Plus let just say ure at a friends house with the same set up as you and your asked to do a mix….what u gonna say… oo your tracks arent key’d i cant mix?

    It the same way that you still need to be able to beatmatch even thou there is a sync button…..cau if you follow a dj in a club… and cant mix into his record i dont think your going to be rebooked..

    Yes technology has made it alot easyier but you still got to know the basics cau one day it will come back to sting you

    Happy Mixing

  18. Gotta say, I’ve never ONCE thought about key when mixing.

  19. I confronted that kind of problem. =)
    I read about mixing in keys here (thank you Phil and to all guys workin on this amazing project) and I start to organise my library by keys, then I tried to mix in keys and… damn!
    I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t make the structure of my set, couldn’t puzzle tracks in my head it pissed me off. But after a while I got it:”Everywhere have to be a balance”.
    I stop to think about keys and start to mix what I feel ( you always have eq, don’t ya?;) ) and add a little parts mixed in keys. Think about it like it’s a spice to your mix =)

  20. David, aka DJ Doyve says:

    After posing my question, I found that whilst mixed in key and cataloging by BPM offers a safety net, the best mixes I put together were where the songs did the talking. I now spend my time listening to great music rather than exclude certain tunes because they may not match, as mentioned there are enough tools and techniques to ensure my songs transition well. Thanks for all your feedback guys, I really appreciate it!

  21. Bishabosha says:

    Im not sure really what I do.

    When I make custom mixes for demos, I just listen really hard to my tracks and just guess what sounds similar, or what might lead up to a drop etc, it isn’t beatmatching because often they dont match, and mostly they aren’t the same key, but somehow, it works.

  22. DJ ThirtySeven says:

    I generally mix in key, but if I wanna throw in a track that doesn’t go with the flow, I usually cut at the break or somewhere that sounds good, depending on the song

  23. Harmonic mixing is a great tool to have in your DJ toolbox, but remember there are many others way to mix tracks as well. Mixing different rhythmical patterns with no melodic component does not need to be mixed in key but can make your sets more interesting allowing you to change to a track and take your music to places that you could not do if you only mix harmonically. I can remember being in clubs when the DJ would turn off the turntable let the track wind down, kill the lights, then launch something that was a different tempo, key and genre and with the right track it could be the highlight of the night.
    So use harmonic mixing as one of your skills but don’t become a slave to it or you risk becoming one dimensional.

  24. Kevin, MD-Jay says:

    As I said above, people need to actually read the book the Mixed In Key guys wrote. You can’t just work you’re way around the wheel like a clock. You can jump all over the place if you know how to use it right. And sometimes, things just don’t sound right, others it sounds great. Hell, there are a few keys that aren’t even on the wheel. Looking at a diagram of an actual circle of fifths wheel will help as well as reading just a little about music theory and tones. I’m a dork though, I always read the directions.

  25. I find that mixing in key not only makes my mixes sound better but it makes my song selection faster. Mixing in key limits the amount of songs I can play next, this would sound terrible to some people, but I find that in most art forms a limitations inspire creativity. I use Serato to DJ and often when “in the mix” I will have my library sorted by key (and genre) if I have a song marked 11A or F sharp minor playing on deck A I know my Deck B selection needs to be 11B, 12A, or 10A. It cuts my library down to a little more then 1/4th of its original size and helps me to not stare at my computer for seemingly hours looking for the perfect next song. I’m not locked in to anything if I’m mixing and if I know a song will be perfect throw it in even if it’s not in key, keys to me are a good starting point if your mixing without a set playlist.

  26. so, the more you try all the tools at your disposal the more you realize that there is no formula.
    here is how i DJ / Harmonic Mix:
    i take it a song at the time, actually my hardest song is my intro song, but i often plan it… after that my secret is…. Take it a song at the time :)
    if i am playing a Top 40 remix and the mood is good, people is dancing i might keep the key unless i have a better song regardless of BPM, Genre, KEY etc… if i have a song that is better for that specific moment in that specific venue that is what i playing.
    if the mood is not right and people is not dancing then i might look into a key change unless i have a better song regardless of BPM, Genre, KEY etc… get it?

    play the right song at the right time and you are a good DJ in the eyes of your crowd.
    play the song that mixes the best and the cleanest and to that 2% of people in that venue that might understand what you did you are a good DJ.

    The choice is yours!

  27. you dont have to be a slave to the camelot key system.. i know it says you can mix in to the key 1 to the right or the left (or major/minor) but i find that some of my older mixes that sounded good but i did not worry about the key are different.. for instance one may mix a 12A with a 3A or even a 6A.
    from this discovery i have been going either 1 right or left of where i started or 3 right or 6 right.
    This gives me a much broader selection for my next track. im sure there are probably other workable combinations from the key but these need to be discovered by your self imo.

    i would advize doing like i did “check some of your old mixes that you know sound good and see what they come out as on the chart”

    Stepping up more on the key does seem to produce more energy from your mix.

    they key thing is incredibly usefull as it helps narrow down the tracks that you need to cue for your next selection, but you still have to decide if it sounds good.

    i have a slight advanage id imagine as i only play drum and bass/jungle which means the people who want to hear it will 90% of the time want to hear the same thing i do..
    Some people may not like the dark and dirty bass lines with high energy as i do, but with drum and bass/jungle having such a varied set of sub genras its easy enoug to take it down a notch or bring it up. use bassier clean sounding tunes and then bringing in the dirty bass lines every sooften and you can do all that without really loosing to much energy.

    so i think that having tracks sorted by key is a good thing. but more importaint is having them sorted by sub genra or atleast the energy you believe they provide. i do however believe that you need to limit how many sub sections you split your music in to. I personaly go for.
    a set up which would leave all my drum and bass / jungle tracks split up in to 24×3
    24 key folders with 3 energy/feel folders in each..

    I believe every one should organize their tracks in a manner that works for them.
    the way i have mine “still actually organizing them” is the best way for me.
    i know some use colours to organize their tracks.

    But i think the main thing to remember is experiment and see what works. and you can always remember things you find out like +1 +3 or +6 works on the key for most of my tracks. and always decide your self if it sounds good or not. dont just believe that the program will do all the work for you. because if your actually doing live remixes and not just fading in and out you cannot trust a thing the application says. if i were to just hit synk and play 2 tracks at the same time even though they were in key 80% of the time it would sount like a box of springs falling down the stairs. there is just way to much going on in drum and bass/jungle for the program to actually correctly identify when the beats are in synk.

  28. DJ Vintage says:

    You can go up two as wel … or go one up and out (i.e. 1A to 2B) for some interesting melodic effects.

    Because tracks are in key, doesn’t mean they’ll go together and sometimes tracks that aren’t in key can make for a nice mix. I agree it ‘s a real danger becoming hooked on the keys and not experiment anymore.

    One of the ways I find to counter that is when you get in new tracks is to listen to them and ask yourself “what would this mix into well”. I make a shortlist of a few tracks I think it should go well with and without looking at keys, just try the mix. Then I listen and decide, Now when I am playing one of the tracks, I have a few alternatives that work in the back of my head.

    Greetinx.

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