The Art of the DJ Mix

The Art of the DJ Mix

We dig deep to look into The Art of the DJ Mix to move dance-floors and sway listeners.

Fail To Prepare, Prepare To Fail.

It seems that DJs are everywhere these days. With the market so overcrowded the question is, how do you stand out from the crowd?

We are sure you have heard this phrase before. Possibly back at school coming out of the mouths of stressed-out teachers desperately trying to persuade rooms of disengaged teenagers to do some revision. However, when it comes to preparing for a DJ mix, be it a live gig, podcast, radio show or promotional mix, the phrase really rings true. There really is no substitute for preparing well and nowadays the technology is there to assist you in making your set as slick as possible.

Whatever software you are using, be it Rekordbox, Serato or Traktor you will need to you have your playlists or crates set up in advance rather than fumbling aimlessly through two thousand tracks to find ‘that’ tune you know will drive the dancefloor wild.

Knowing your music well is critical and being familiar with the structure of outros, intros and breakdowns will help you navigate your way through a mix without running into choppy waters.

Make sure all your tracks are analysed in advance, then set up some hot cues and markers to allow you to jump to key points in the track if the energy on the floor is fading or if you want to loop sections to build momentum.

LSD Press Picture ©Bart Heemskerk

Read The Crowd And Know Your Audience.

Allow room for spontaneity and don’t follow a fixed plan. Now, that may seem like it totally contradicts what I just said but hear me out. Being well prepared is one thing, pre-programming an entire set is not only dull but also counterproductive as it allows you no space to react to the mood of the crowd. Reading the crowd is a skill in itself and takes time to master. Casting your eyes at the dance-floor rather than at your knobs (ahem) is a good start.

Remember dance music is supposed to be a shared experience and Djing is a holy communion between DJ and disciples (sorry atheists). Study crowd responses to certain genres and types of sound, and consider the size of the space because those epic big room bangers may well lose their scale and impact in a small basement space.

You may also wish to do some investigation prior to a gig to discover the crowd’s taste and consider the time of your slot, adjusting your set accordingly. If it’s a podcast, consider the typical listeners and audience whilst always remembering it is your opportunity to showcase the sounds you love. Finally, be prepared to improvise and go with the flow whilst having a key theme underpinning your choices.

Risk is good, allowing you to enter a flow state as you get a dopamine hit from making new connections between tracks, but too much risk (think cueing up that fourth deck when you have only ever played on two) can be catastrophic.

Know Your Equipment Well.

Sounds simple right? But getting to know your equipment inside out will reap huge rewards. Confidence is essential and when the nerves kick in you need to have that baseline of familiarity with your tools that brings you back into the zone.

If you are playing on unfamiliar equipment for a particular live gig then try to beg, borrow, steal or at least have a go on the equipment you will use.

Failing that, watch some YouTube videos and work out any quirks or differences compared to your own set-up. If you arrive early for a gig, spending some time getting to grips with the set-up as soon as you get there is a wise move.

For recording promotional mixes, having that in-depth knowledge of all the possibilities available on your own gear will allow you to take more risks and coax more energy from a set by manipulating the eq, effects or looping with confidence.

Sven Vath

Sven Väth

First Impressions Count (And Last Ones!)

Another well-worn phrase that holds true turns out when applied to DJing. Consider carefully which track will be your opener, as it is vital to make the impression you want (you may wish to have several options depending on the room’s energy level).

Opening tracks set the tone for your set, I have lost count of the times I have immediately known when a well-known DJ has stepped to the booth simply by the vibe of their opening selection.

It’s often useful to have the first few tracks of your set mapped out to set out your vision right from the off.

That being said if you are planning on banging out techno monsters and you have a sluggish half full dance-floor, you will need to adjust that vision and build the groove.

Tell your own story.

It’s a simple fact that there is only one you. DJing is simply an expression of who you are. Granted through the medium of other people’s music (which is a bit weird) but nevertheless the journey you take is always unique. It should build tension containing peaks and troughs, like any good narrative taking the listener to different places.

The way you combine certain tracks should be down to personal choice (not everyone can be DJ Bone or for that matter Sasha) and your taste is individual so make sure you dig deep into those crates of classics or explore your own Bandcamp path rather than relying on Beatport top tens from your favourite artists.

There is so much music out there frankly these days, that it is easy to just get lost in the sea of new promos. Instead, be prepared to look back as well as forward, whether it be classic Chicago house joints or Detroit techno bombs the choice really is yours.

As a side note, I recently heard Avalon Emerson dropping an old Mike Inc track from the nineties with a group of friends. Many of them were completely unfamiliar with the track and it was a good example of how a selector can bring new life to old underground tracks whilst peppering their set with a certain x factor.

So cast your net wide, the history of electronic dance music is vast and full of half-forgotten gems just waiting to be rediscovered.

Harmonic Mixing And Perfect Pairs.

Harmonic Mixing

Harmonic mixing and perfect pairs. We have all heard or experienced it. Two tracks thudding jarringly together, something just doesn’t sound right. That dissonant friction between the tracks is normally caused by a key clash and it can be particularly disturbing for the listener. Certainly not something we want on a radio or promo mix and it can be enough to send punters scrambling.

If you are looking to up-level your mixes and make them sound professional, then it’s time to start looking at key-matching tracks and harmonic mixing. When you load up tracks in Serato, Traktor or Rekordbox the programme analyses the key that the track is in.

Songs in the same or a related key will normally blend together much more harmoniously but this depends on their speed and the amount of melodic content. Really this is a case of trial and error, sifting through tracks to find perfect pairs and developing an ear for hearing those unwanted clashes when auditioning tracks in the headphones.

If you are playing music particularly heavy on harmonic content such as melodic house, you may decide to invest in Mixed in Key software which adds another layer of melodic matching via the Camelot system. This breaks down keys and scales into a simplified number system and is used by many industry professionals to enhance the fluidity of their sets.

Make Your Transitions.

Another point to consider in achieving a feeling of fluidity throughout your set is understanding when and where to transition. Again, this depends on the genre, but you need to be familiar with the outros and intros of your tracks as these should be the sections which will fuse more successfully and make the mix coherent without losing energy.

Cutting in tracks mid-way through can work well for more minimal genres such as techno (see the chopping styles of early pioneers such as Jeff Mills or Dave Clarke) but you need the skills to pull this off without it sounding like a car crash.

More often than not the transitioning should happen towards the end of a track and you need to decide whether to ramp things up or wind them down which leads me to my next point…

Energy Levels.

Want to make sure your set has momentum. A pro tip is to label your tracks with energy levels in your software. This will help make selecting the next track easier depending on the impact you want on the dance-floor.

If you mix in a lighter groove with less rhythmic content after a techno banger you may get that sensation where the floor just seems to fall away from the mix and all the energy is sucked out.

On some occasions you might want this step down in energy, to offer the dancefloor or listener some relief from the intensity of a set, so knowing the energy levels of tracks is a great guidepost for informing track selections.

You may wish to gradually ramp up the BPMS as you build for a headliner or hit a peak mid-set before dropping down the energy for the finale. Shaping your mix with energy levels will keep listeners engaged and the floor under one groove.

Less Is More.

There is always a temptation when starting out to get a bit heavy-handed with the effects and faders. When putting together a mix, less is most definitely more. Being overly enthusiastic with effects can lead to a messy or muddy-sounding mix.

There is certainly a time to experiment but if you are putting together a promotional or radio mix then unnecessary showmanship and trickery can get you into problems resulting in an unprofessional-sounding mix. This leads me to…

No Red Lights, Please.

We all know what red lights are for and it’s definitely not to signal that you are smashing your mix. Unless you mean smashing the audio signal into a distorted mess. Red means stop, so stop. I am sure you already know this. Just don’t get tempted to red light even if it’s not quite as loud as you hoped for in all those rehearsals you mapped out in your imagination.

If You Want To Be A Pro, Act Like A Pro.

Got a gig. Turn up early, be polite, test out the equipment, don’t drink too much and act like a professional. Got a radio slot or promotional mix to complete. Deliver it on time, get a second opinion on the mix before you send it off and be prepared to let go of perfection (it doesn’t exist). Act like a pro if you want to be treated like one.

Leave Space For The Headliner.

One final note. Unless you are Adam Beyer the chances are you may not be headlining your own festival yet so leave some room for the headline act. You may be warming up for another artist, so plan your set appropriately and forget grandstanding whilst wheeling out your biggest bangers. It won’t win you (important) friends.

Warming up the dancefloor effectively with interesting musical selections on the other hand will get you noticed, and your skills appreciated.

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