How To Create A DJ Mix

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The best way to enjoy your favourite DJ, unless you are listening to a specific song, is by listening to what’s known as a ‘mix’.

The term ‘mix’ can refer to a few things, but in this circumstance it refers to the consecutive string of songs that a DJ has mixed into each other to create one continuous piece of music.

This differs from a playlist, for example, because a playlist is just a list of songs that are organised by genre.

Comparatively, a ‘mix’ is when those same songs are sequenced in a meaningful way and mixed into each other as opposed to simply stopping one track and starting another.

How To Create A DJ Mix

The term ‘mix’, apart from its obvious meaning, comes from the term ‘mixtape’. Back in the day when tape recorders were a thing, you could create a playlist on a tape recorder and copy it onto others so you can share it with your friends.

This was often done by literally just recording the song as it plays through your speaker. There became a cult culture of friends exchanging mixtapes together, trying to find the best collection of songs.

Beyond a live mix, recorded mixes started becoming a thing when people started to record the live DJ set of an event so they could listen back to it, and show friends who couldn’t make the gig.

Classic DJs such as Grandmaster Flash started to record their live mixes at an event and distribute them through their record company, these recordings often had more technical mixing skills showcased within them such as scratching and looping.

A 1974 article in Billboard reports: 

Tapes were originally dubbed by jockeys to serve as standbys for times when they did not have disco turntables to hand. The tapes represent each jockey’s concept of programming, placing, and sequencing of record sides. The music is heard without interruption.

There’s often a misconception that mixing is just pressing play, when it’s often a lot more technical than this.

Unless you know a DJ or have keenly watched someone use a DJ controller, it can be hard to understand the process of creating a mix and what’s going on.

How To Approach Mixing Two Songs Together

Choosing two songs to mix together can often be the hardest part, but also the most rewarding. As you start mixing songs, but don’t necessarily have a musical background, the best place to start is in genre.

If two songs are from the same genre, house for example, they will usually have the same song structure and what is known as ‘phrasing’.

Phrasing is the unique structure of a song, and can often be conventional to one genre. Phrasing helps identify when a song is building up to another section, when certain elements of the song kick in such as the bass, and simple things such as when vocals start and finish.

A simple way to understand phrasing is simply counting, commonly songs are counted in fours, in a genre like house the ‘drop’ will often be on the 32nd beat, this can be generic to the genre.

Next time you listen to your favorite dance track, count along in fours and you will see how the music changes as it enters each phrase. 

In terms of mixing this can be a crucial skill, knowing when to introduce another song. 

For example, maybe you have observed that in the outro of the song there is no bass but in the intro to another song there is only a bassline, this means that you could mix these two songs during these phrases as the equaliser will be balanced when mixing.

Another great starting point for beginners is understanding the key. Key is the best way to mix two songs together but it can sometimes be hard to identify what key each song is in and if they are ‘in key’ or ‘out of key’.

Some mixing software analyzes the track’s key and displays it alongside the song information, some controllers even have a key sync, but it is extremely worthwhile to understand how key operates in order to use these features properly. 

The best way to understand key in relation to mixing is through what is known as the ‘circle of fifths’. The circle of fifths is a visual aid which illustrates which keys work together.

There are 12 notes (C G D A E B F# Db Eb Ab Bb F) each are separated by what’s known as a ‘fifth’.

Without getting too deep into a music theory lesson, you can figure out which key works with another by seeing how far away it is on the circle, by nature the keys either side of your chosen key will be the ones that sound most similar.

This is important to a DJ as a song in C and a song in F# will never mix together because they are completely out of key indicated by their opposing places on the circle, whereas another song in F or G would mix perfectly.

You could follow this pattern and complete a whole mix this way, but there are other factors to consider.

How To Approach A ‘Mix’ As A Whole.

If you’re making a mix you generally want to aim for more than simply mixing two songs together. You want to take the listener on a musical journey which involves selection of multiple songs to form a consecutive mix of music that ranges from 30 minutes to 3 hours.

Deciding how to sequence each song can be problematic, here’s some tips on how to approach the mix as a whole project.

The most natural progression of a mix is purely following BPM, each song will naturally be faster or slower than its predecessor and you can sequence them in ascending or descending BPM.

Just like key, a song that is 120bpm will struggle to mix into a song that is 140bpm. It’s up to you to monitor tracks bpm as drastic alterations in bpm can really affect people’s dancing, which you need to be in control of.

As mentioned previously, one of the simplest ways to organise songs is by genre and this applies to the whole mix as well. For example, if you’re into house music you might want to create a house music mix that goes through your favourite house songs.

Conversely, you could mix two similar genres together such as drum and bass and dub. It depends if you want to be known as a genre DJ or you want to be more of a multi-genre DJ. Mixing multiple genres together can be hard for a beginner.

A simple way to structure a mix can just be the natural progression of each song. You might want to start with some softer songs and then build into the heavier floor fillers, or vice versa.

Similarly, you can just group songs by their ‘vibe’, some songs might have a darker feel to them while others might be happier for example, these songs will naturally sound better with other songs that have the same emotive quality.

If you want to get creative, it can be fun to treat a mix in the same way you would a story, giving the music a sort of narrative. An example would be having darker songs at the start which build into happier more triumphant songs by the end.

Another way to achieve this is by giving your mix a theme, perhaps it’s for a valentines night or halloween party, you can organise a mix with songs that apply to these themes. 

What To Consider When Mixing Live

Mixing live for your friends and family is one thing, and creating your own recorded mix is a great way to practice DJing and is an art in itself.

However, when mixing in front of an audience, at a venue or house party, can be daunting – here’s a few tips to perform the best.

The best live DJs are the one who experience the music with the crowd and are observant to which songs go over best with that particular crowd.

It’s important to remember that no crowd is the same, each audience member has their own musical taste and cultural experience so its important to keep this in mind when performing.

If you play a certain song and everyone is singing along, then choose similar songs and create your mix from the information you gain. This gives your mix a certain bespoke quality, the audience will feel like you made the mix specifically for them.

While playing the classic floor fillers is great, it’s important to strike a balance with playing new songs the crowd may not have heard so you don’t just seem like a crowd pleaser.

When performing live you may also want to pay attention to the pacing of your mix a lot more. You need to recognise that people are, hopefully, dancing and you need to keep a natural rhythm and pacing so they can follow the music.

This means not switching the BPM in an extreme way as this will affect people’s rhythm.

But also means maybe starting with something slow and building up to the higher energy tunes as you play, or starting with a big energy song and bringing it back down to the slow jams by the end.

When playing live there are certain mixing techniques that might get more of a reaction live than they would in a recorded mix.

Techniques such as scratching or ‘rewinding’ the track to the start, also using samples and your proficiency on the decks to have fun and put on more of a technical performance that people can enjoy.

Final Thoughts

How you choose to create a DJ mix is up to you and your own style. It’s important to remember that there’s no step by step guide to create art of any quality or form.

The best way to find your own style and voice within mixing is to practice and experiment with the songs you enjoy and to take inspiration as it comes to you rather than forcing yourself into a mould or imitating others.