We all have our favorite songs, movies, books and live performances–but what makes a DJ mix memorable? A great DJ set can connect you with something larger than yourself, whether it’s the surging crowd on a packed dance floor or the churning, emotive power of a well-juiced mix.
If you’ve ever made a mixtape for someone, you know what it means to create a mood, tell a story, or stir a memory with the music you choose. This has been a part of modern DJing since the beginning, from Kool Herc’s block parties in the Bronx to Larry Levan’s epic sets at the Paradise Garage in downtown Manhattan. DJ Steve D’Acquisto, who was Francis Grasso’s apprentice in the early 1970s, consciously played with the language of the music he was spinning.
“[Steve] wasn’t a mixer,” Frankie Knuckles recalled, “but back then mixing wasn’t that important. His selection of music was excellent, and he kept the energy going. With him it was all about the words. He would actually match up the words between one song and another so that they would form a complete sentence.”16
This is where the art of making a great mix comes in. What songs you choose, and how you choose to mix them, will determine how much of a lasting impression you leave with your audience.
Let’s examine the flow of an artfully crafted harmonic DJ set. We’ve mentioned Kaskade’s “BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix”17 before, and we think it’s a prime example of harmonic mixing at its finest. All the song transitions and mashups were created with harmonic compatibility in mind.
Here’s a look at the playlist, with Camelot keys attached:
Each of the 38 songs in this two-hour mix is mixed up or down on the Camelot Wheel one key at a time, so it’s perfectly harmonic. The mix includes several of Kaskade’s own mashups, which contain vocals of his tracks mixed with beats or melodies of other songs–all in the same key. The Camelot wheel does what it says it does; it simplifies harmonic mixing.
Most of the world’s top DJs use the same technique. The next time you listen to your favorite DJ’s live set, mixtape, or podcast, listen carefully to the transitions. If you have the tracks, run them through Mixed In Key and study the mix. Was each transition harmonically compatible?
If you haven’t noticed by now, we like analyzing music, and one trend we’ve discovered is that many successful mixes follow a certain formula. We’ve pored over the mixes created by hundreds of top DJs, and uncovered a sequence that they appear to rely on frequently. These are the magic ingredients that can help you create the perfect DJ mix:
This trend appears on many successful DJ mixes. Try it yourself to see how it feels; it’s not just the times that matter, but your song choices as well. Your mix may vary if your time is limited by a radio show or the rules of a contest, but this formula should provide a good foundation to help you get started.
We’ve had 50 thousand fans in our community read about this approach, and we’ve received a lot of positive feedback about it. There are a few reasons why we think it works. For one, the audience never has a chance to get bored. Second, the instrumental intro gives you the option to play a voiceover (listen to Pete Tong on BBC Radio 1 for some of the best), which does a lot to engage the crowd. Lastly, by mixing quickly, you’re making a statement about your level of expertise to your audience. Anyone can play a 15-minute track and mix into another 15-minute track, but if you mix quickly, you’re showcasing your talent as a DJ and showing the audience that you’re in control. Once you’ve established your authority and that you are leading the night, you can play each track longer (up to 5 minutes).
As with everything in this book, rules are meant to be broken, so we encourage experimentation. But if you haven’t tried this formula already, we urge you to give it a test drive the next time you mix.Next: Interview with Markus Schulz