The Definitive Guide To Making a Mixtape – Part 3

dj mixes how to making a mixtape recording a mix series tutorial
Last modified December 17, 2014

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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!

Learn how to make perfect mixtapes just like the pros every time, with the Pro Mixtape Formula video training course – find out more.