Creating a Professional DJ Mix Part 1

The business card of every DJ is the mix. Mixes started being passed around on cassette in the 80’s as a way for hip hop DJs to listen to their sets in an effort to get better. Soon, these tapes were passed around music communities and were coveted by fans for their ability to capture the feeling of a live DJ performance. Not long after, DJs of every genre were making mixes to promote their craft and gain new listeners.

I started my DJ career in 1997. When I started, I was able to go to my local record shop, Platinum Records in Seattle, and purchase mixtapes of my favorite DJs. From Frankie Bones to DJ Dan, I listened to these recordings over and over, getting to know every mix very intimately. I would memorize the timing of when songs were dropped into a mix, just like they were lyrics to my favorite song. I began analyzing and dissecting mixes to see what parts made musical sense, versus mixes that featured sloppy transitions, which lost my attention.

After amassing a small record collection and analyzing over 100 mixes, I felt it was time to start making my own mix. I borrowed a Tascam DAT recorder from a local radio station and started recording. Making my first mix was a painstaking process, which involved memorizing the exact moment I wanted to throw each record in at. The goal was to make transitions that built on each other, creating a feeling that the mix was taking you on a journey.

That painstaking process that I put myself through became the basis of how I craft each and every one of my DJ mixes today. I want each transition of each mix to sound deliberate and to make musical sense. For the last nine years, I have built a client base of DJs who come to me for assistance on how to take their craft to the next level by way of a studio DJ mix. In this article, I will be discussing the process and the software I use to do these mixes.

Preparation is Essential

Mix 1.1I use Mixed In Key, Traktor Pro, and Ableton Live 9 for this process.

The first step I take in preparation is using Mixed In Key. Mixed In Key is a piece of software which analyses your music and tells you the key and tempo. After analysis, it then embeds the data in the ID3 tag for use with other programs. To analyze, you simply need to drop your songs into the browser and click “Analyze.” It has other uses, and Pezzner has a clever trick he uses MIK for when he’s remixing.

Once my songs are analyzed, I then start the process of figuring out which song combinations work best. Mixed In Key uses what is known as the Camelot Wheel (a glorified Circle of Fifths) for determining what musical keys are compatible. A song in the key of A-Flat Minor would be listed as 1A on the Camelot Wheel. If you look at the wheel, you will see that the neighboring keys are 12A (D-Flat Minor) & 2A (E-Flat Minor). Mix 1.2This means that these two keys have a good chance of working together if mixed.

After the Mixed In Key analysis, I then import my music library into Traktor. Traktor also has a system similar to the Mixed In Key, doing an analysis of the key and tempo, but I choose to use the Camelot Wheel out of habit. So, if you don’t already have Mixed In Key, you could probably skip buying it, if you use Traktor.

The Selection and Tagging Process

Once my songs are loaded and analyzed in Traktor, I can then start auditioning them against each other to see which combinations work best. I have found that the ability to quickly audition songs is one of Traktor’s greatest features. I usually load a song I like into the deck, and start auditioning it with others in the same key, or those one step away on the scale.

Once the timing of the mix is figured out, I add cue points to the song in Traktor so I can remember where to start the next song I am mixing. I find that doing the pre-work of assigning cue-points can make for some really rewarding results when using them live. In Traktor you can assign up to 8 cue-points per song, and each point can be set to Cue, Fade, or Loop.

Next, we’ll cover how the mix is created in Ableton, by using the preparation we just detailed.

Check back tomorrow for Pro Tip: Creating a Professional DJ Mix Part 2

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