The Definitive Guide To Making a Mixtape – Part 2

Phil Morse | Founder & Tutor
Read time: 7 mins
Last updated 21 February, 2024

Today we get your tunes in order as we move closer to the actual recording… Photo: Lee Jordan

All this week, Digital DJ Tips is dedicated to helping you to make better mixtapes. Yesterday we showed you how to assemble a fantastic shortlist of tunes for your mix. Today we’ll look at how to plan your mix. Wednesday will be all about actually recording it, before we master and burn it on Thursday. Finally, on Friday we’ll help you with ideas about how to get your mix out there to the people.

We encourage you to follow this course with your own music and if you can, spend the coming weekend trying to record a mix – especially if you’ve never done so. We’d love to hear your experiences and share your thoughts, so please comment on these articles and feel free to join in our discussions over on the Digital DJ Tips Facebook Page.

2. How to organise the tunes for your mixtape

So now having followed yesterday’s tutorial, we’ve got a folder or iTunes playlist full of possible tunes. The next thing to do is to organise the tunes for your mix, and the first stage of that is simply to start listening to them – closely.

Add them to your iPod and wear your headphones for a whole day. (I am currently sat in an airport waiting for a flight that’s delayed 4 hours. I have my headphones on and am doing some great listening for my next Sunset Rocks mixtape as I write this…)

Other ways: Hit “shuffle” on your iTunes mixtape playlist and and blast your selection around the house. Burn the tunes to CD and play them in the car. However you do it, just try to spend as much time as you can listening to them. This is obviously to familiarise yourself more with them, but also to suggest possible mixes between the tunes that you may not have thought of before.

At this point, it’s a good idea to start writing things down. Things like “X may mix well with Y”, or “A, B & C should be together – similar bass”, or “Start with Z?” and so on. You can make notes like this on your phone if it has a notes facility, or email them to yourself if you’re at work, or even add them to the “comments” section of the individual files if you’re near your computer when you have a dash of inspiration.

Don’t worry if you don’t have any big ideas here – the notes are just another way of helping you to familiarise yourself with your shortlist, and you’ll be edging closer to your final selection and tune order by the very act of listening to this set of tunes all together.

Organising tunes for a mixtape
That new mix CD is a day closer. How organised are your tunes?

The sound of the crowd

Planning a mix shares a lot in common with planning (or “programming”) a live DJ set – but with one big difference: No crowd. Just you and a blank sheet, so to speak. Replacing this interactive element is one of the crucial things you have to do when planning your mix, and the best way to do this is simply to use what you know from your live sets.

You will have mixes that you already know work, for instance. You may have two tunes you always like to mix together that get a certain crowd reaction. You may have a handful of records that always get played when you’re ready to fill the dancefloor, or ready to change the mood. You probably know the records you like to start or end a set with. These “real life” mixes are invaluable and you should try and incorporate them in your mixtapes.

However, just because you haven’t performed a mix live doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it on your mixtape – far from it. Look out for records by the same producer or artist that fit well together. search for tunes that share the same bassline, or tunes that shouldn’t really match but do (say, a 10-year-old track and a brand new one). There are always tunes that share some clever, less obvious links (the sound of a clock ticking, similar words, that kind of thing…).

Mixing harmonically

Also, if you are mixing harmonically (using Mixed in Key (US$58) or something similar), now is the time to look for key matches. I believe it is unnecessary to try and harmonically match a whole mix, as so many things are more important than key – but whether you want to incorporate the odd harmonic mix or do indeed want the whole thing to carry a musical key or set of keys throughout, now is the time to include this in your planning.

Remember, we’re not particularly trying to find great mixes here, just tunes that we think ought to work together. If you know they mix well or have a mix you always do, great, but that’s not the point quite yet. At this stage, we want the set to start making some kind of sense as a whole.

Whether at the gym or at the shops, take your MP3 player with you and keep that shortlist of tunes going round your head. Photo: Titanas

Also at this stage, you’ll start having second thoughts about some of the tunes you threw in at the beginning. They may suddenly sound out of place – too fast or too slow, obviously in a clashing style to everything else – whatever. This is usual, and now is the time to retire them from your shortlist, which will help you to focus more on the tunes you do have.

Groupings help you to shape your DJ mix

OK, let’s say you’re down to 25 tunes at this point. You may at this stage have, for instance, 4 or 5 in a certain style that you may want to end the mix with: Two warm-up tunes you always like to start with. A couple of anthems you want to use but keep apart. An old/new combination to add some spice towards the end of the mix. And so on…

By thinking of these groups of tunes as building blocks, you’ll find your 25 may have just turned into, say, 10 “building blocks” – far easier to handle. Still some tunes that don’t “fit in”? Keep looking for ways they do. If they don’t, maybe they’re not right for the mix. Be critical: Keep assessing and pruning.

Now start to think more about the order you want these blocks to go in – there’s more help on this blog over at the How To Organise Your Tunes While DJing two-part post – and start writing these down. Slowly but surely, a firm outline of your mix is coming together. It may be twice as long as you need, but that’s fine, because next we are going to start working out what really mixes and what doesn’t.

Think of the mixtape as a whole

Before we go any further, let’s talk about the types of mix you can do between individual tunes. Obviously every musical style is different, but that doesn’t matter: The crucial point here is the same: you’re making a mixtape, not showing off your mixing! Of course you want smooth mixes, and smart, clever mixes are great, but mixing is not as important as your tunes, and showing you know how to make 10 or 20 tunes into a well programmed mixtape, bigger than the sun of its parts, is what’s important.

No, what we’re looking for here are appropriate mixes.

Indie or chill-out, hip hop or techno… write it down and start grouping your tunes. Photo: Allaboutgeorge

Keeping the mixing appropriate

If you’re mixing 3 or 4 tunes that are really similar, you may choose to use the same type of mix 3 or 4 times. For instance, if they’re smooth house, you may go for long, drawn-out mixes. If they’re choppy Daft Punk-style tunes, you could do 3 or 4 short, choppy mixes (even just straight from one to the other in one go) – whatever. The point is that you’re trying to emulate the styles of your music in how you mix the tunes, make the transitions clean and functional and ensuring they complementing the tunes, rather than jar with them.

You’ve already done your homework!

Remember, we’ve already identified the any great mixes you do in your live sets because we included them in our tune couplings and groups, and you will of course use these in your mixtape, but the job now is to join up all of the building blocks both internally (if need be) and with each other.

The point I’m trying to get across is you can have mixes that are technically everything from a 1/10 to a 10/10, but as long as those mixes are executed competently, your mixtape will live or die on the quality of your tunes and the order you put them in, notr how many 10/10 mixes you squeeze in. It’s worth repeating: Simple, effective mixing with great tune selection is what you are going for.

Don’t rush this part, it’s crucial

The part of the process we’re currently discussing is the most crucial and the hardest. You’ll abandon some of your couplings or groupings because you can’t make them fit in. You may even go off and get records that weren’t even on your shortlist.

But the process itself is what counts, and it is moving you inexorably towards having the actual 10, 15 or 20 tunes you’ll be using on your mix proper, in the right order. You may well choose to run through the whole thing and record it to listen back, and if you do, don’t keep stopping when you make a mistake – finish the mix and listen back and you’ll learn stuff and move quicker towards being read to have a proper take of the mix.

Write it down
Writing down your tunes before you record is a surefire way of getting that mix right in less takes. Photo: Pastaboy Sleeps

Write it ALL down, in detail

If you haven’t been writing your mixes, groupings and ideas down yet, do it now. I like to write the tunes down in the order I think I am going to play them in, and then to the right of that, write how I am going to mix each tune into the next.

So for instance, to the right of the second and third tunes in my list I may write “8 bars after vocal, start from kick drum, bring in after 16 bars with bass down, bass up after 16 bars”. Basically I’ll write whatever I need to make sure I can repeat the mix. Find your own way of indicating when you want to mix your tunes (however you do it, it will involve a lot of counting), but try to write it down.

If the two-record mix I am scribbling down notes for is a mix I do anyway when out and about, it’s just documenting what I already know, But if it is something I’m experimenting with there and then, it helps me to write down what I do when I find a great mix. You should work on every single mix on your mixtape this way, until you’ve written down and can repeat all of the mixes from paper.

It can be tedious, and it takes concentration, but this is the best way I know to build a fluent, tight and high quality mix that will stand the test of time and make you feel proud when you here it months or even years later.

Give yourself a pat on the back!

We’ve covered a lot today. We’ve gone from having an disorganised pile of tunes to having a mix that truly exists – on paper, at least.

And while you may not in reality choose to write down absolutely everything, and you may deviate from this plan when you actually record your mix, this level of planning means that you stand a better chance of recording something close to what you’re aiming at in 10 takes rather than being no closer after 100 attempts…

That’s where we’ll take up again tomorrow – the most exciting stage: recording your mix. See you then!

Check out the other parts in this series:

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

Click here for your free DJ Gear and software guide