Review: Mixed In Key 5
Mixed In Key 5 (US$58) is the latest version of the market-leading key mixing program, which allows DJs to exploit this advanced and highly musical technique in the planning and playing of their DJ sets. Claiming such big names as David Guetta and Pete Tong as regular users, it is the most heavily marketed of the key detection systems currently available to DJs.
Adding a music player, key search engine, multi-key detection, better file compatibility (M4A and MP4 are added), and a claimed improvement in accuracy, Mixed In Key 5 also appears to be the most complete version of the software to date. Let’s put it through its paces.
An introduction to mixing in key
Mixing in key or “harmonic mixing” is one of the great musical leaps that digital DJing has put in the hands of just about anyone. Anyone, that is, who’s not tone deaf and who is prepared to put in just a bit of work to understand what it’s all about. This technique can make any DJ set sound many times better, helping it to flow, suggesting excellent musical pairing the DJ might not otherwise have thought of, and making impromptu “mash-ups” a cinch.
Once the realm of musicians-cum-DJs and a small number of other DJs who took the considerable time necessary to work out how to do it manually, now – thanks to products like Mixed In Key 5 – it is possible for all DJs to explore these techniques.
How it works
Mixed In Key’s big leap was to take the musical theory behind key mixing and make it accessible to DJs, by doing two things: Firstly, it detected the key of a tune automatically, and secondly it represented this in a way that the DJ could immediately use to try key-compatible mixes.
What is musical key?
All music has a key, and most Western music and practically all dance music is pretty simple – it will be in one of 12 keys and will be either “major” or “minor”. Music in the same key mixes well, and music in related keys mixes well too.
But the beauty of Mixed In Key and similar programs is you don’t need to understand any of this, because by following their system, you just look for tunes that the program tells you are likely to match, and mix away.
While mixing in key certainly doesn’t guarantee a good mix, and while such software doesn’t always get its analysis right, as long as you use your ears too, you can discover great mixes far faster than you would if you spent the time to “key” all your tunes manually (it’s possible – if you have a piano keyboard, some musical training, and about six months).
Mixed In Key has always been simple to use. It opens a small window into which you drag your tunes. You give it some basic information (where you want it to record the key information, ie in the “comments” tag, in the filename, in the “key” tag of the MP3; whether you want it to add tempo information too; what key notation you want it to use – its own “Camelot notation” is default and is one of its strengths, so you won’t want to change this), hit “start”, and off it goes.
The new version has dual core support so whizzes through your tunes faster than ever if you have a dual core processor, but nonetheless you’ll want to leave it running overnight for the average collection – mine is about 500 tunes and it still took an hour or two.
Quality of key detection
Mixed In Key’s makers have in the past stressed it is optimised for dance music, but also have rewritten the key detection algorithm for this version and are overall claiming it to be the most accurate ever.
You only get a sense of this after DJing with the results for a while, so I can’t give you a definitive answer as to how accurate it is, but I’d guess it is going to get things exactly right two-thirds to three-quarters of the time, which is ballpark what the best of these programs manage to achieve. That’s why your ears are important – if it sounds bad, trust them, not a computer algorithm! I noticed that the software has introduced a “none” result, for those nosebleed techno tracks with no discernible musicality in them at all! The manual states that these will “mix well with anything” – or nothing, I guess, depending upon your sensibilities!
However, Mixed In Key 5 adds a useful new feature that I haven’t seen in other key mixing programs, which is the ability to spot key changes in tracks. It does this by treating each track as segments rather than a whole. Look at the screengrab: You’ll see it reckons this tune changes key several times, although the overriding key is “5A”, and that’s the one recorded in the MP3’s tag.
Treat the extra info as advanced stuff, or look at a tune that doesn’t sound right and see what’s going on – good stuff if you’re an advanced user, that is only there if you need it. If you think the software’s got it wrong, you can at least look and see if there’s a clue why.
From the screengrab you can also see another feature – a built-in MP3 player that allows you to see the key info, and play music there and then.
Searching for key matches
The software now has a built-in search that allows you to click around the Camelot Wheel (its system for showing key) and see what tunes you have in certain keys in order to get suggestions for key mixes. It is even possible depending upon your software to drag a suggestion directly from here into your DJ program, while DJing.
I have smart crates set up with rules in my DJ program of choice (Serato ITCH) that sort out my music so I can instantly do this kind of browsing, but this is an excellent alternative, and its welcome to have it right there in the software.
Using with your DJ software
There’s a section called “Connect with DJ Software” which is really just step-by-step instructions for how to get the most out of Mixed In Key with the major software packages.
It’s a good addition because it’s not always immediately clear how the information Mixed In Key adds to your MP3s can best be utilised outside of the program, and there are tricks here, like how to get iTunes to update its tags so this information shows.
One of the strengths of the Mixed In Key’s approach is their clear explanations, and right in the program is a tutorial that concisely talks through what key mixing is and how to go about it using this system.
It’s necessarily dumbed down, but has links to more advanced resources over on Mixed In Key’s forum for the more musical, or those who just “get it” and want to advance to being power users.
Mixing in key has gone from being a novel add-on to pretty much essential in my own DJing – I always consider the musical key for every mix, even if I choose then not to act on it. There are plenty of programs out there that can help you (beaTunes has a great key mixing algorithm built in; Mixmeister and Virtual DJ have key mixing detection built right into the software) but Mixed In Key is one of the most popular, and for good reason.
By adding multiple key detection within the same tune, and giving users a media player and the ability to search by key right from within the software, and then tying this all up with clear tutorials both on how to use the system and on how to integrate it successfully with your choice of DJ software, Mixed In Key is now more than ever a great one-stop-shop for DJs wanting to introduce this technique into their skill set.
It is simple and well explained, and while there will always be arguments as to whose software is the most accurate, it’s certainly good enough. Just remember than Mixing in Key alone is not a failsafe, and does not make you a good DJ per se. You really must trust what your ears are telling you about mixes, and use your music knowledge, experience and intuition to pick the best record to play next depending upon the crowd and the flow, not solely upon what key it’s in.
Do you mix in key? Have you tried Mixed In Key or any of the other systems? Or do you think it’s a skill that needs to be treated carefully, and definitely shouldn’t fall into “non-musical hands”? Let us know your thoughts on Mixed In Key 5 and mixing in key in general in the comments.