Digital DJ Tips reader Jacques writes: “I am running into a major issue with the Camelot Wheel and key mixing, and I am hoping you can help. I am starting to get people in the crowd saying what I already know: My sets are putting them (and me!) to sleep! My tracks and mixing are flawless, but how can I revitalise my set and give it more energy? Is it possible to make something so harmonic it puts people to sleep? I play deep house, progressive, nu disco and tech house, by the way.”
Digital DJ Tips says:
Your issue is simply that you’re using key mixing as a rule, not a tool. Your number one question as a DJ should always be “what’s the best song to play next?” not “what can I mix that is in the same key?”. Sometimes flawless mixing is not what’s needed; the secret is to be able to choose the right tune, and the right mix, for right now. Mixing flawlessly and in key forever is, as you’ve identified, boring.
Before key mixing tools existed, your average DJ would occasionally mix one tune to another tune and discover that they were in the same key. These keymixes were as valuable as they were rare (after all, you’ve got a 1 in 16 chance, and that’s before you take tempo variance into account) and so the idea of mixing a whole set in key was – for most DJs – not even on the radar.
Now, powerful tools like Mixed In Key as well as recommendation tools (like that built in to Traktor DJ, for instance) plus the various “energy” rating systems allow us to slice and dice our music collections very quickly into groups of tunes that might sound good together… but it’s only a guide. It’s “blind”. It doesn’t know about the crowd in front of you, or how old or new the tunes are, or where you’re taking your DJ set tonight, or what the DJ before played, or how energised the crowd are, etc. etc. These tools are no holy grail to guarantee you’ll play an interesting DJ set. They’re giving you suggestions, nothing more.
It’s a bit like the gear change lights in a car. My car tells me what gear it thinks I should be in, but it doesn’t know if I’m about to slow down, or overtake, or hit a hill, or stop at a junction, or if the road surface is worsening, or if it just started raining, or if a police car is flashing me, or if I’m particularly enjoying driving today and wanting to stay in a lower gear for some fun acceleration… it’s just suggesting that all else being equal, I might want to think about being in 5th rather than 3rd. My call what I do with that information.
Same with key analysis. It’s just suggesting songs that might match musically. Whether emotionally and structurally they make sense in your DJ set is something only you can work out. It’s a skill of DJing that existed long before digital and will continue to be the most important question any DJ has to answer: Every time a tune is running out and it’s time to put another one on, there is alway one single tune in your collection that will match the situation best of all. Which is it?
Back to your specific query about whether it’s possible to “mix in key too much”; if you want to keep key mixing but do something special as well, one thing you could try for an instant “energy boost” is to move up a semitone or tone for the famous “key change” so beloved of pop music, and shows like X Factor. You can read more about it on the Mixed in Key site here: How to Energy Boost.
Have you run into the same problem as Jacques? How often do you rely on harmonic mixing to pick your next tune for you? Please share your thoughts on this subject in the comments.