How To Mix In Key – Harmonic DJ Mixing

Mixing in Key Part 1

For years, top DJs have been creating wild roller coaster rides in their live sets and DJ mixes, not only with amazing music and top notch mixing but with a special way of programming their sets called mixing in key. DJs like Paul Oakenfold, John Digweed, Paul Van Dyk, and many others have used this technique to create flawless sets. Mixing in key is a special way of mixing records together that have compatible musical signature. This avoids the dreaded key clash and generally makes mixing easier. For the purpose of this article, I will talk about the latest key analyzing software, which allows you to quickly catalog a large collection of files with key information so that you can really utilize your entire collection properly. You can find more info about mixed in key here. I will also talk about possible pitfalls of the software and how to use it properly.

First of all let’s back up a bit and explain a bit about music theory and DJ Culture. Prior to today’s advanced DJ CD players and even turntables that include key lock functionality, DJs really only had one tool to blend things together. This was of course the pitch control on a standard DJ style turntable such as the famed SL1200 MKII from Technics. This only allowed DJs to manipulate the tempo and thus the pitch (coincidently the key) via this control. Since beatmixing was the foremost goal, for the most part key mixing was much more difficult since the two are controlled by the same physical pitch control. Once in a while you get lucky and the tempo and key match up. Then those two records work very well together as you can pitch them up or down and the other will always line up. Everyone with me so far? Secondly, I should point out there are a lot of top DJs who don’t follow the key mixing rules exactly. You can analyze DJ mixes from anyone of your favorites, and I am willing to bet that many don’t line up completely according to the “rules” of mixing in key.

Zoom forward to today, and thank your lucky vinyl that Key lock has been introduced on CD players, turntables and software like Serato and Traktor have arrived. You can now keep the original key and mix at whatever tempo you like, with very little artifacts. It is pretty amazing. I must admit that I am very impressed with the key lock functionality of Serato, which as I understand uses some similar technology to their full blown pitch manipulation software Pitch ‘n Time Pro. Serato’s Pitch and Time Pro is well known as being one of the best pitch manipulation pieces of software out there. The pitch algorithm in Serato Scratch is just as good, just much much simpler. Although I have yet to test out the quality of the NI Traktor engine, I have faith that it will be pretty good. As soon as I get my hands on one, I will report back with more info.

Let’s move on to the actual practice of mixing in key and how it works. Camelot notation is a simplified way of determining which key is compatible. Shown below is the Camelot notation wheel, which also shows the actual key as well as the Camelot notation.

The rules are as follows: On this wheel, musical keys can be seen as “hours” on a clock. For example, 4 o’clock corresponds to 4B or 4A. The “B” letters on the outside circle represent Major keys. The inside circle represents Minor keys.

To use harmonic mixing in your DJ sets, you can transition between songs by subtracting one hour (-1), adding one hour (+1), or staying in the same hour as your last song. The MIXED IN KEY software analyzes your songs and determines the Key of each song, and stores the key via the ID3 Tag in the title of the song for quick and easy searching of compatible songs. Using software like Serato you can search by key, and if you organize by genre you can Search for a specific key in a specific genre. This allows you to quickly find several songs that will fit the key you are currently in. These are the basics of Mixing in Key. Following these rules will allow you to always stay in key, enjoy smooth transitions, avoid key clashes, and keep you from having to stay in the same key all night long. In light of these guidelines, I should mention that many songs are not produced following the standards of Western music theory. Many songs do not follow these rules whatsoever, and in cases such as these you may end up with a bassline that is not in the same key as the melody or lead, and possibly even the vocal. This being said, it is possible that a song will not have compatible key signature with any other song. Not to worry, in cases such as these, some creative filtering of the bassline, melody, and or any other offending part will help. Trust your ears! If it sounds strange, it probably is, but who says that is bad?

These are not hard and fast rules, but they serve as great guidelines to help you transition smoothly and effectively, as well as allowing you to move between keys easily. Many DJs get locked into playing on key all night long as they don’t understand how to transition properly from different keys. Make sure to experiment and remember that these are just guidelines. Good luck and see you on the dance floor.

Mixing In Key Part 2

Last time we talked about the basics of mixing in key. Now I would like to introduce the more advanced techniques that can really make your mixing stand out and give you more control over the dance floor than ever before. Do you ever wonder why the crowd goes crazy at certain points in the night? Often times it is not what you are playing but what you play it with and when. The mood of the room is greatly affected by the key of the music that is playing. Let’s get down to the nitty gritty of how it all works.

In Part 1 we discussed using key lock and the original key of the song that is currently playing to choose the next song. Always moving up or down one hour from the current keycode as shown on the circular wheel above

We also know that changing the pitch up and down changes the key of the song, unless we use our key lock function. If you increase the speed of a song by about 6%, you also shift the song’s key up to the next higher key on the chromatic scale (technically a “half-step” or “semi-tone” shift). Your keycode shifts up by seven numbers. If you shift it up only 3%, you are half way to the next key (a “semi-tone” shift). A song in A-Flat Minor (keycode 1A) shifts to A Minor (keycode 8A) with a 6% increase in speed. A song in E-Flat Minor (keycode 2A) becomes an E Minor (keycode 9A) song with a 6% increase. The same is true for a 6% decrease, your keycode shift would also be 7. For example a 6% decrease from 10A would be 3A. Keep in mind this is a fairly large jump and will be very noticeable if you do it while the track is playing. If you are going to make a large pitch change while a track is playing I recommend doing it as a transition point so that it feels as if it’s part of the song, or doing it gradually.

This next technique is best used only a few times during the night, when you really want to build it up and tear it down so to speak. The modulation mix provides exciting results by jumping a half step or whole step on the chromatic scale without significant changes in speed. For example, a half step jump (seven keycodes) may be from E-Flat Minor (keycode 2A) to E-Minor (keycode 9A). A whole step jump (two keycodes) may be from E-Flat Minor(keycode 2A) to F-Minor (keycode 4A) . This type of mix will bring the mood up or down depending on the direction of your shift. CAUTION: Do NOT attempt to overlay bass lines/melody in modulation mixes, only percussion segments of one source. Make sure the mix is complete when the new bassline/melody starts. Following the same procedures you can also modulate from a minor to a major key, or vice versa.

Now you can easily and swiftly move around the musical spectrum without ever clashing, and always sounding harmonically perfect. Keep in mind these rules only apply to music written according to the western scale. There are other scales and modes, non western music for example follows completely different intervals. Tribal music is a whole different story as well. “Sometimes you just have to feel it!” -DJ Sasha

Written by David Thompson who can be reached by email here.