The Ultimate Guide To Mixing House Music

Phil Morse | Founder & Tutor
November 18, 2021

Click here to download your free “house rules” poster

For those of us who got into this whole hobby marvelling at how DJs can seamlessly blend together a whole night’s-worth of music without dropping a beat, being able to beatmix house music well is an important goal.

While today’s sync functions mean that with digital music, it is so much easier than it was “back in the day” using vinyl and even CDJs, these modern functions are never going to do much more than match the beats for you.

And while that may sound great at first, you’ll soon realise that simply lining up the track you want to play next, hitting sync, hitting “play” where you hope it may sound good, and going for it, simply doesn’t sound good.

And that’s for good reason – because even the most advanced DJ system cannot do any of the things I’m going to outline in this article for you – things that good house DJs do instinctively, but that you have to learn.

Contents

  1. Mix phrases, not beats or bars
  2. Be careful when mixing anything other than drums
  3. Pick the right places in your tracks to mix
  4. Use keymixing – but don’t be a slave to it
  5. Always know which track is dominating the mix
  6. Be aware of tension and release
  7. “Complement and emphasise” in your DJing

Why are these things so hard to learn?

In the past, as DJs spent months and years nailing the mechanics of beatmixing manually, they also had time to figure out slowly most of the things I’m about to share.

But today, when it’s perfectly possible to line two beats up within minutes of unboxing a DJ controller, new DJs aren’t afforded that time – hence they get frustrated because they know it sounds wrong, but have no idea why. Hence the need for a “crash course” in what makes a great house mix, which you’ll find in this article.

Why is mixing so important?

Especially with house and its derivatives, mixing is important because the music is made to be mixed. Tracks are designed to slot into DJ sets where that insistent “thud, thud, thud” bass beat is a given.

House tracks are constructed around pretty strict numbers of beats, bars and measures, too, meaning not only does a DJ have to mix to keep dancers dancing and the vibe of the night going, but they have to understand those rules. This is partly what keeps the illusion of “one long track” going on the dancefloor.

So when it comes to house music, maybe above all other genres, mixing is paramount.

Read this next: 8 Reasons Why Mixing Is Important For DJs

Get the poster

We’ve made a downloadable, printable poster that outlines the seven rules we’re about to share with you. Download it, print it out, and pin it near your decks.

Click here to download your free “House Rules” poster

It’ll remind you when you’re mixing of the most important things you need to be thinking about, and help you to “internalise” them. It also looks cool!

7 Rules For Mixing House Music

1. Mix phrases, not beats or bars


Start tapping along to any house record. Do you notice how every four beats, there’s a more “dominant” beat? If you count “one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four” to the beats, you’ll soon figure out that the “one” beat (or “downbeat”) is special, and find yourself counting “ONE, two, three, four, ONE, two, three, four”, naturally.

These “one beats” mark the start of musical “bars” or “measures”, and house music has four kick drum beats to every bar (hence the phrase “four to the floor”). Hint: the first kick drum of any track is almost always a “one” beat – if you’re trying to get the hang of this, starting your counting from there usually works.

But the patterns go further than that. In house music, things tend to happen (drums arriving and leaving, melodies or basslines being introduced or removed, vocals starting and finishing, you name it) after four bars, or multiples of four bars (eight bars is particularly common). Even if the “things” don’t arrive or leave right on that point (vocals notoriously often start a bit early or late), they still respect the underlying pattern.

Your job, then, as a beatmixing house DJ is not just to hit “sync” and start your new track playing anywhere over the old one, but to make sure those sets of four or eight bars – also known as “phrases” – line up.

If you do this, things will be arriving and leaving in both tracks at the same points, making for a coherent mix. If you don’t, it’ll always sound odd, and usually messy too.

Start mixing house music creatively, just like a pro: House Mixing Mastery

2. Be careful when mixing anything other than drums


When you’re mixing two tracks together, as long as they both only have drums playing, they’ll usually sound OK. That’s because drums don’t really contain musical “information” – melodies and so on. Another way of looking at it is that two sets of drums playing together won’t usually make the overall audio too “busy”.

But as soon as there are other musical elements present, you need to be careful. If one track has only drums, you’re usually still fine – but as soon as both tracks contain something more (melodies, basslines, vocals), the potential for the mix to sound messy grows fast. While sometimes these things can sound great, often they won’t – and in the case of two vocals playing at once, I am sure you can guess that this is a complete no-no.

The easiest way to avoid these issues is to only mix drums over drums, but that can get boring. The next easiest way to do it is to make sure when you’re mixing two tracks that one of them is, at the point you’re mixing the two, just drums.

It’s absolutely fine to practise your transitions to make this happen. As you learn your tracks, you’ll figure out the best places to transition (more on this shortly), and some DJs like to use cue points in their DJ systems to mark “mix out” points to use as memory joggers.

Read this next: How Pro DJs Know Where To Transition (Plus A BIG Cheat)

3. Pick the right places in your tracks to mix


It’s not enough to do that, though. The reason for this is that tracks have a “narrative” – they tell a story. They have a beginning, a middle and an end, in other words. Usually, your job as a DJ is to let a track “tell its story” before you mix another one in. If you disrupt this flow, your mixing will seem out of place, too noticeable, and again, odd.

In other words, just because you’ve located a part where one track is just drums and where you feel that technically a mix is possible, doesn’t mean that’s the right place to perform your mix.

The classic way to get this right is to mix the intro of one track over the outro of the other track, but it’s not the only way. Many tracks have a pattern (intro, verse, chorus, breakdown, drop, for instance) that simply repeats – and so it can be OK to mix another track in once that pattern has happened once.

But just try not to interrupt what a track is doing for no reason – if you’ve chosen to play it, let it do its thing before mixing it out.

Get the poster

We’ve made a downloadable, printable poster that outlines the seven rules we’re sharing with you here. Download it, print it out, and pin it near your decks.

Click here to download your free “House Rules” poster

It’ll remind you when you’re mixing of the most important things you need to be thinking about, and help you to “internalise” them. It also looks cool!

4. Use keymixing – but don’t be a slave to it


Keymixing is where you know the musical keys of your tracks, and you choose tracks to play together that are in the same or a compatible musical key. Done right, it can sound superb – as if the tracks were made to be played together. That’s because the chords and notes all work together.

One big thing that keymixing does is allow you to wilfully break elements of the rule about being careful when mixing anything other than drums. For instance, when two tracks are in compatible keys, you could have one track with vocals and melody, another with drums and bassline, and it could sound incredible, with all elements complementing each other as if it were one track. Many “live mashups” by DJs work along these lines.

Read this next: Fuzzy Keymixing: The Easy New Way To Mix Anything Into Anything

By all means experiment with keymixing – as we say, it can sound amazing – but do not become a slave to it, for two reasons.

Firstly, it’s a “tool, not a rule” – your job as a DJ is ultimately to pick the right track, for the people in front of you, right now, not to find compatible keymixes! If something suitable for the moment works in key, great, but if not, that’s fine too.

Secondly, often keymixing is simply unnecessary. One mistake DJs who discover keymixing often make is to try and perform every mix in key, even if there is no “overlapping musical information”. If the melody, bassline and vocals in a transition are all in one track, and the mix is over by the time the new track’s melody/bassline/vocals arrive, the two sets of “musical information” are never playing together anyway, so there’s absolutely no need to even think twice about the key.

In some genres, sometimes, having these things match may just be desirable nonetheless (I’m thinking highly melodic trance, as an example), but honestly, mainly when crowds hear a nice key shift between two tracks as part of a well-executed beatmix, they usually love it – it’s a breath of fresh air, not an error on the part of the DJ.

5. Always know which track is dominating the mix


Here at Digital DJ Tips, we call this the “One and Only Dominator” rule. It works like this: At any given time, one of the two tracks you’re transitioning between is the “dominator” – the track that if you removed it from the mix, would leave what was left sounding weak.

Try it: When practising transitions, try deliberately removing one track, then the other – you’ll soon see the track that is, at that point in your transition, the most important for the overall output.

Of course, your job is to transition smoothly from one track to another, and you’re going to be using all types of tricks – volume, EQ, what’s actually going on in the tracks – to achieve this. But at any given time, one of your tracks is still the “one and only dominator”.

Watch this next: Use The “One And Only Dominator Rule For Better DJ Mixes

If you don’t know which one this is, you’re effectively out of control of your mix, and things can end badly when, for instance, the outgoing track ends and you misread how much your dancefloor was relying on it, due to the incoming track having not really started properly, or having not been given enough volume or EQ in your mix.

There are a few ways to get this right. Instinct and experience definitely help, but just switching between the two tracks in your headphones to compare them does too .

A time-honoured way of switching the emphasis from one track to the other is to “swap the bass” – mix in the incoming track with its bass EQ down, then on a suitable “one beat”, turn the bass off on the outgoing track while simultaneously turning it on for the incoming track. Assuming that by that point there is some bass present (hopefully a kick drum) on the incoming track, this will reliably shift the emphasis from one to the other.

6. Be aware of tension and release


Tension and release is at the heart of most music, house included.

Examples of tension: Verses. Build-ups before drops. Discord. Unfamiliarity.

Examples of release: Chorus. Drops. Harmony. Familiarity.

But even whole songs can, relatively, imply “tension” (tough house tracks with no breakdowns) or release (vocal tracks that are all melody and never really build up much energy).

If you were to play a DJ set that was all the build-ups from all your records, can you see how that would be all tension, no release? Or if you were to play all laidback melodic vocal, all saccharine moments, can you see how that might fail to build energy on the dancefloor by not having enough tension?

One useful way to look at a DJ’s job is that you should be providing contrasts, as it is these contrasts, these “rollercoaster ups and downs” that provide the thrills in your DJ sets.

Of course, most music is designed to contain both tension and release: A vocal house track may start with a verse (it’s tension, because it’s building to something), move to a chorus (it’s release, because it “resolves” the verse, possibly both melodically and lyrically, and it’s also the bit everyone knows), then have a breakdown/build (tension, because it’s obviously building to something), then finally the drop (release – it’s what everyone’s been waiting for).

One way of not disrupting this flow is to follow rule 3 – pick the right places in your tracks to mix. But also, over the course of a whole DJ set you should structure the night so that overall it’s building to a peak (tension), before “giving it to them” (release), towards the end.

Once you start thinking of music in terms of tension and release, you’ll find it helps not only your “where to mix” choices, but your song choices track-by-track, and your music programming choices across your whole sets.

7. “Complement and emphasise” in your DJing


Get all the above right and you’ll be well on the way to performing impressive, coherent house sets. These final two concepts, though, can help you to both “glue” your sets together, and showboat in a way your audience will love. Let’s look at them individually.

When we speak of complementing your tracks in your mixing, we mean “doing stuff that’s already there”. To give an example: If you’re playing filtered house – the type where the producers are using filters to slowly bring elements in and out of the tracks – then you can complement those tracks by doing the same as you blend those tracks together.

In this instance, instead of using the EQ controls to help you in transitions, you could bring in tracks with your filter, making them slowly appear in the same way the producers are doing in the tracks themselves. This has the effect of “hiding” your mixing from the audience, as they are less sure if what they’re hearing is part of the track, or what you’re doing.

Emphasising what’s going on in your tracks is a different but related skill. Here, you’re doing the opposite of trying to hide your mixing – you’re drawing attention to it.

Ever seen those DJs who drop foghorn samples over everything? Annoying, right? These people are drawing attention to themselves by doing something inappropriate, that doesn’t emphasise anything about the music they’re playing, as it’s completely out of context (assuming the music they’re playing doesn’t contain loads of foghorns, of course).

In house music, it’s great to identify things that are already happening, and add more of the same at that precise moment. So back to the filter example: If a track has a long breakdown, where a vocal is slowly filtered in by the producer, you could also apply a filter to that same section, slowly filtering in the already filtered vocal, just even more. Now, people who know the track will think you’re playing a remix of it with a more dramatic build-up – you’re emphasising what’s already there.

I’m only using filters as an example here. Echoes, delays, reverb, chopping up samples – any and all things producers do, you can also – either to complement what the producers have already done in parts of the tracks where they’re not happening, or to emphasise them where they are.

Finally…

House music is perhaps the easiest music to mix, because the music is made for DJs to mix with, and because the kick drums make it easy to hear when it’s broadly right and when it isn’t. But if you want to mix it well, it’s essential you add to the basics by learning the rules here.

Don’t forget to download and print out your free poster, which will help you to remember these rules once you’ve pinned it up near your gear.

Taking this further

One of the best ways to actually practise and learn this stuff is to have a DJ show you, on the decks, and then to do it yourself until you have the instinctive understanding necessary for these concepts to sink in.

Free Mixing Lesson: The Outro Loop Roll Transition

In our House Mixing Mastery course, we spend a whole module working through all of these concepts, and giving you tools to make them second nature. If you’re serious about learning to mix house music like the pros, it’s an amazing shortcut that will save you months or years of trying to figure these things out, and wondering if you’ve got them right.

Click here to learn more about House Mixing Mastery

As ever, if you have any questions, comments or feedback, or would like to add your own “rules”, we’d love to hear from you – let us know in the comments below.

Last updated 18 November, 2021

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