Should Digital DJs Be Bothered About Mixing in Key?

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Last updated 2 December, 2017

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Mixed in Key
Tools and software help you to mix in key, but is it really worth the trouble?

Mixing in key used to be a happy case of trial and error. In the old days, DJs would find tracks that just “went” well together musically, and basically remember them, repeating the trick whenever they could. (For the uninitiated, mixing in key simply means mixing two records that are recorded in the same or a related musical scale.) Dropping an acapella over an instrumental in the same key was indeed good fun, and sometimes you’d find bass lines that matched perfectly. Otherwise, it was just a case of knowing your tunes and picking good mix points, regardless of musical key

Digital came along and mashed it all up
As soon as digital came along, it was possible not only to mix in key but to alter the key of tunes too. By digitally matching keys, it was easier to make tracks fit together musically. You still needed a good musical ear, but you could come up with some pretty professional sounding blends.

Of course, mashups and the like rely on producers being able to digitally match tracks, but my point is, is this all really relevant to DJs? I mean, really? With Mixed in Key (US$58) or the key-detecting algorithm in Virtual DJ (to give two modern examples) it is possible to match songs that will mix together even more easily than ever.

Does key mixing bring anything to the party?
But DJs should really be doing this stuff by ear, no? Isn’t DJing about immediacy, throwing on a tune that matches the mood, mixing up known and unknown, modern and classic, confounding expectations? My concern is that DJs will try to key match whole sets, thinking that that is what people want. In my experience, people want to know when the tune changes. It’s about building a mood as much as it’s about blending tunes to perfection. If all your tunes are so similar that getting them in key takes away the only difference, is that a good thing?

I became a DJ because I loved the immediacy of throwing tunes on and getting a reaction. Digital DJing is great because it allows you to do so faster than ever. Search, load, mix, done. In seconds. In my book, anything that takes away from this is not going to necessarily add very much to the DJ experience or, more importantly, to the experience of those who’ve come out to have a drink, hear a few of their favourite tunes and maybe have a dance.

Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it?
Still, I’ve yet to try Mixed in Key, and I do intend to. Who knows, I may see something in it I can’t imagine at this point. But if I were a young DJ wondering what new skills to work on, I certainly wouldn’t worry about jumping on this bandwagon. “What’s the best record to play next?” should always trump: “Is the next record in the same or a related key?”

Learn more: The Mixed in Key website.

Have you dabbled in mixing in-key? Do you have some cherished mixes where everything sits together just-so musically? Or do you think it’s all overrated? Let us know your thoughts below.

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