The Definitive Guide To Making a Mixtape – Part 1

Phil Morse | Founder & Tutor
Read time: 5 mins
Last updated 28 March, 2018

How to make a mixtape
From blueprint to your fans – making a great mixtape is easy when you know how.

All this week, Digital DJ Tips is dedicated to showing you how to make a mixtape. Today we’ll consider how to assemble a shortlist of tunes for your mix. Tomorrow we’ll look at how to plan your mix. Wednesday will be all about actually recording your mix, before we master and burn it to CD on Thursday. Finally, on Friday we’ll help you to get your mix out there to the people.

Of course, no two DJs are the same, no two reasons for making a mix are exactly the same, and hopefully your music style is different enough from that of other DJs too. Otherwise, why bother? So we don’t expect you’ll follow everything in this guide. Nor do we think this is the only, or the best, way to produce a mix. But…

…if you follow what you read here this week and combine it with your own thoughts and ideas on making your mixtape, hopefully by Friday you’ll be better prepared to spend the whole weekend getting a mix recorded and out there. And if you follow this course all week and then record a killer mix at the weekend – well, we’d love to hear it!

Who this course is aimed at

This series assumes you are a digital DJ who knows how to mix tunes together with your chosen equipment, and who has played a few gigs – or if not, is used to mixing tunes for parties, or at least your friends and family! It won’t teach you how to use your gear or how to mix two record together. It will show you how to use these skills to make a great mixtape.

So with all that said, let’s begin – today, with the important task of choosing your tunes.

1. How to choose the tunes for your mixtape

Your choice of tunes will depend upon what your mix is for, so it’s worth being clear from the beginning about this. Is it to promote a certain club night or event? If so, your tune selection will be determined by what is played at that night or event.

For instance, if you’re doing a “best of” CD to give to the clientele of your night, you’re going to have to make sure that you include the tunes they’re expecting to hear on the CD, or they’ll be confused when they get it home and find it’s 80 minutes of your warm-up music, that gets played before they arrive every week. But at the same time, you can’t pack a mix CD with all the anthems from the club, as no mix CD sounds good full of peak-time records with no thought to progression and balance.

How to make a mixtape
What music will you include to make your mix CD stand out from the wannabes’?

Is the mix to promote you as a DJ? If so, your choice of tunes will be determined by the kind of DJ you’re trying to be and who you need to impress with the mix once you’ve done it. For instance, if the mix is to wow an agency or club promoter, your tunes have to be good enough and distinctive enough to mark your CD out from the rest of the wannabes; packing it with the Beatport Top 10 will immediately make you sound like 90% of other DJ. Promoters get scores of “mixtapes”, and yours has to stand out.

Finding new tunes for your mix

You’ll make you mix more appealing by including at least some tunes that other DJs aren’t. As nowadays most tunes are available to most DJs, you need to go the extra mile here; scan the music blogs, spend a lot of time in the online stores listing through DJ charts and new releases and so on. The new streaming music services such as Spotify, Rhapsody and Rdio are a great place to follow your tastes too, as is following interesting people on Facebook and watching the feed for the music they’re listening to.

Review the tunes you already play

Go in to your DJ software and scan the records you’ve been playing over the past few weeks, or since you last did a mixtape. Nearly all software has a “history” section to let you do this. If not, sort the tunes by date order and look back through then that way. The reason we go into your DJ software and not your music library is that these are tunes you’ve actually DJed with, not just bought or downloaded.

How to make a mixtape
Review the tunes you have played at recent gigs, using your DJ software’s History function

You’re looking for records that you love, but that everyone else isn’t playing. (Don’t be too hung up on style here – if you’re picking from tunes you’ve bought for DJing and you’ve played out at gigs or parties, you’re already in the ball park.) You’re also looking for tunes that you know mix well together already. The “club proven” tunes you select at this stage will be those that are the “bread and butter” of your current DJ set, and that will form the backbone of your mixtape.

Start pulling the tunes into a playlist or folder so you can keep them in one place.

Add in the tunes you will soon be playing in your DJ sets

Now head to your music library software (that’d be iTunes for most people) and add to the above a handful of yet-to-break tunes you haven’t really played “out” very much but believe will become big for you. In this instance, the newer the better; your mix will be played for many months (hopefully) by those who get a copy of it, so some stuff that is still 100% relevant in a few months’ time is useful to have in the mix. Don’t miss any tunes you bought or downloaded that are lurking in the furthest corners of your digital record collection. Try sorting by tag or genre to see if that pulls up any you’ve overlooked.

Don’t forget the commercial tunes

Next, add in any “big” tunes you want to use in your mix that you didn’t add in the two music sweeps above. There’s nothing wrong with having one or two obvious or popular records in your selection – well chosen, they’re a valid part of a DJ mixtape.

The best of the rest

And finally, have a quick scan through as much of the rest of your collection as you can to find stuff that for whatever reason appeals to you for this mix; maybe it’s tunes that suit the style of some of those you’ve already picked; maybe it’s tunes with some kind of connection (same voice, instrument, producer…).

Whatever the connection, a few old tunes is a good thing to have on your shortlist. After all, if today a tune still sounds good after a few years, chances are it still will in a few years’ time when your mix is played somewhere!

How to make a mixtape
Exploring every avenue for assembling the music for your mixtape will ensure it is as compelling as you can possibly make it.

Things to remember when choosing

As you do the above, remember that we’re not worrying about making the mix at this stage; just trying to get a pile of possible tunes together. Don’t get hung up on thoughts that “this won’t go with that”; just get maybe 30 or 40 records together that show promise. I often have 50 or more at this stage, and that’s great.

Try and make sure the tunes you pick are genuinely records that make your hairs stand up on end, that make you want to punch the air, that make you want to open the car window or force everyone in the room to shut up and listen. I’ll say it in another way: Your tunes need to be good enough and distinctive enough to mark you out as a DJ worth listening to.

This means no music is off bounds; don’t be scared other DJs or your friends will laugh at you for including a pop track or an old 80s song or whatever else is on your mind. It’s the tunes you’re not sure about including that often get remembered the most. Taking risks and being bold is important when you’re trying to get noticed as a DJ via your mixtapes.

Today we considered how to assemble a shortlist of tunes for your mix. Tomorrow we’ll look at how to plan your mix.

Check out the other parts in this series:

How do you choose tunes for your mixes? What do you do to try and ensure your selection is as original as possible? Are you struggling to get enough records together to make your next mixtape? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.

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

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