Thanks to recent technology, you no longer need to purchase expensive turntables to create a professional DJ sound. Software programs like Virtual DJ allow you to use your laptop as a fully functional mixing center complete with playlists and a host of other features.
If you are still relying on antiquated analog methods to produce music as a hobby or as a profession, you are behind the times and should consider upgrading to software-based DJ software. Virtual DJ is one of the top names in the industry and has been awarded the prestigious Best DJ Software award multiple times. You can learn more about using Virtual DJ in the Virtual DJ Course.
In this article, you will learn how to mix in key. Sometimes also referred to as harmonic mixing, this technique focuses on making sure songs match musically in order to mix them more smoothly. Fortunately, technology has made it relatively simple to match tracks based on harmony without having an ear for music. Harmonic mixing is a skill that sets you apart as a true professional DJ. Amateurs simply do not understand harmonic mixing nor do they care to learn, but the fact that you are reading this means you are ready to bring your DJ skills to the next level and add harmonic tones to your beats.
Tag Songs with Their Musical Key
In order to mix in key, you need to know the key of your songs. There are several ways to do this and fortunately, they do not involve having a specially trained ear. If you are already using Virtual DJ, you have nothing to worry about. This software automatically determines the musical key of all your songs and displays it in the track information box.
If you are not already using Virtual DJ, you can use another software product such as Mixed in Key or Rapid Evolution 3. Rapid Evolution 3 is free to use but many professional DJs rely on Mixed in Key because it uses the same notation system that you will find in the Camelot Wheel (discussed in the next section). There are other software programs that determine the key of your songs as well, but these two are the most popular and easy to use.
Newer versions of Traktor Pro also analyze key automatically. You can learn more about this feature in How to DJ with Traktor Pro 2.
The key to tagging your song successfully is to make sure the key information ends up somewhere where it is easily accessible. This could be in the MP3 tag, the comment field, or in the filename itself. Just make sure you can quickly look at a track and know what key it is so you can quickly make professional sounding mixes wherever you are.
Use the Camelot Wheel
Using Google Images, search for the “Camelot Wheel” and download a copy to your computer (or Right Click on the Image Below). This is what mixing in key is based on and it is very simple to use. Many professional DJs actually save this image as the background on their laptop so they can quickly minimize the DJ software for reference while playing.
The Camelot Wheel shows you every musical key in existence. If you are using Virtual DJ, your songs will already be tagged with one of the musical keys on the Camelot Wheel. If you are using another software program, make sure you manually tag your tracks with the correct key for easy reference later.
The Camelot Wheel looks like this:
As you can see, the wheel is broken into musical keys as well as Mixed in Key-style notation such as 3A, 9B, and 11A. You can learn more about using the Camelot Wheel in How to DJ: The Fundamentals and Beyond.
Using the Camelot Wheel is relatively simple. You find the key of the track you are currently playing and you can confidently mix any other track into it that is the same key or an adjacent key. Basically, you can move left or right one segment or up and down one segment. These mixes will always sound good because the keys are either the same or closely related.
Applying it to your Mixing
At this point, you should have already tagged all your tracks by musical key and you now understand how to use the Camelot Wheel. Now it’s time to actually put harmonic mixing into action. There are a few things you should remember when applying harmonic mixing to your playlists:
Turn on your software keylock – Harmonic mixing requires that the software keylock feature be enabled. This feature holds the key steady once you have beat matched your tracks.
Select songs that are close in BPM – Keylock sounds best on songs where it doesn’t have to work too hard. That means you should try to select songs that are as close as possible in BPM for the best sound.
Set up your playlists around the wheel – Assuming you have already set up your tracks with their key information, you should have no problem creating set lists that mix adjacent keys automatically. This makes harmonic mixing extremely easy while sounding really good.
Ableton Live can actually sort your songs automatically based on musical key. DJ with Ableton Live explains how to enable this feature and many others useful tools as well.
The rest of your success in harmonic mixing comes from practice. Remember that just because two songs are in the same key doesn’t mean they will sound good together (think Nirvana and Metallica mixed together – never going to sound good).
You still have to use your ear to listen for songs that simply don’t go well together as well as for distortion caused by keylock that is working too hard.
As you probably already know, being a DJ is like being an artist. Most people aren’t born to paint or sing. They need practice and you also need practice to master the art of harmonic mixing. If you have never tried it before, you will be absolutely amazed by the different sounds you can get by matching songs that go together harmonically.
Learning harmonic mixing makes an enormous difference in your sound and proves to your audience that you are a professional that understands music better than most other DJs working the clubs.