Updated

a dj guide to mixing in key

First things first…harmonic mixing, mixing in key…they’re the same thing.

Just thought I’d clear that one up early because I’m probably going to use those two phrases interchangeably throughout this article.

What Is Harmonic Mixing And Why Should You Care?

Music is written in keys.

Major keys and minor keys mainly. There are others but we’re not going to worry about those right now.

Some keys compliment each other and sound great together, while other keys clash with each other and sound pretty bad together.

What you need to know as a DJ is that if you want to blend tracks perfectly, it’s better to mix in keys that compliment each other.

But you shouldn’t get too hung-up about mixing in key all the time.

Yes, it’s important to not totally key clash, but you don’t need to make every mix perfectly harmonic. You only need to do that if you’re trying to impress other DJ’s…most normal people don’t care that much.

Finding The Key Of A Track

You can do this three different ways:

  • By ear
  • Key detection software
  • Online key databases

Learning how to do this by ear really is a great skill to have and it’s actually not that difficult.

You’ll need a little bit of kit though…either a piano (should you happen to have one lying around), a synth or a virtual software piano/synth keyboard (what I use).

Very basically, you then set about finding the key on your keyboard that is the best match with the tune that you’re playing. I’m not going to turn this post into a tutorial on exactly how to do that because you’ll have no trouble finding a better one online than I could write anyway.

Most new DJ’s probably find the key of their tracks using a bit of software. There’s a few different options out there and increasingly, DJ software packages come with track key identification as a standard feature.

How To Mix In Key

There are three key elements to mixing in key:

  • Finding the key of all your tracks (if not already done for you by your DJ software)
  • Labelling each of your tracks with their respective key (if not already done for you by your DJ software)
  • Knowing which keys blend together the best

We’ve already covered how to go about finding the key of your tracks. labelling them accordingly naturally follows on from this.

So now let’s look at how to go about finding which musical keys will blend well together.

For this, I recommend using the Camelot Wheel, which is an easy to use, colour-coded system that has the sole purpose of helping you determine which keys are the most compatible.

A picture paints a thousand words, so rather than try to describe it further, here it is:

 

the camelot wheel for mixing in key

 

From the image above, you’ll notice that each musical key has been assigned a Camelot key number from one to twelve. And each number has been suffixed with either an A or B.

And this is how to use the Camelot Wheel in two steps:

1. Convert the keys of your tracks into its Camelot key (e.g., 4B, or 12A, or 5B).

2. Now, to find compatible keys, you just need to know that the three immediately adjacent keys on the wheel are the most compatible. So the keys on either side are compatible, and the key either above or below is also compatible. For example, if the track you are playing is in 5B on the Camelot Wheel, mixing into a track in either 6B, 4b or 5A will give you a harmonic blend.

And you’re done, mixing in key, how easy was that!

Just keep in mind that when you’re mixing, if you want perfectly harmonic mixes, you have four keys available:

  • The same key you’re already in
  • The key immediately to the left of the key you are already in
  • The key immediately to the right of the key you are already in
  • The key either above or below the key you are already in

Because the Camelot Wheel is colour-coded, you’ll find that you start to remember tracks by their colour-code as well as their numerical key, which is fine because tracks with the same colour code, or close match will be compatible for mixing.

Tools And DJ Software

Don’t want to find the keys of your tracks by ear?

Don’t want to think too hard about which of your tunes will blend well together in the mix?

Well luckily for you, this is the space-age and you don’t have to put any work in if you don’t want to.

There is a whole bunch of software out there that can get the job done for you, some better than others obviously.

You can go right from a simple bit of online software that will simply tell you the key of a track, to a whole DJ software package that’ll barely stop short of driving you to your gig.

Here’s a very small selection of a few different options:

Mixed In Key

Kind of becoming the daddy of harmonic mixing software.

And I’ve got to say I both love it and hate it.

I love how brilliantly it does what it says it does, I mean it really is pretty flawless.

Mixed In Key will show you the key of your tracks, and, using Camelot EasyMix (so using the Camelot Wheel coding system), identify the tracks in your playlist that will blend well together.

It does a ton of other cools stuff too.

But what I hate it for is it’s ‘Energy Level’ function.

Yeah it will rank every song in your playlist from 1-10 based on how danceable it is.

I mean, come on! Really?

If you’re a DJ and you need a bit of software to tell you the energy level of your tunes, seriously, and I really mean this, sell all your DJ kit today, every last bit of it, and go and take up snooker or something…whatever, just never go near a set of decks again.

Serato DJ

Serato is one the top software brands for digital vinyl DJing, and it also lends itself well to mixing in key.

For quite a while now the Serato DJ software has been able to analyse your music files for track key information. It’s both easy to use and accurate.

Within Serato you can use any one of three different key notation systems, including the Camelot Wheel system. And it’s colour-coded in the same way.

It’s also comes with quite a few advanced key mixing features, such as the ‘energy boost’ mix function.

AudioKeyChain

If you want to keep your key detection nice and simple, this might be for you.

This is an online, standalone track key finder.

It searches your music library, identifies the key and tempo of your playlist and identifies compatible tunes.

Jobe done!

There are plenty of other online key detection services, as there are quite a few other DJ software packages that have key finder functionality, such as the popular Ableton Live for example.

Energy Boost Mixing

Dancefloor looking a bit worse for ware? Think they could do with t a bit of a pick-me-up?

Or do you just want to add a big burst of extra excitement to an already energetic floor?

An energy boost mix could be just the thing you’re looking for.

All you need to do to pull this off, is mix into a key that is one or two semitones higher than your current track.

If you want to go up by one semitone using the Camelot Wheel coding, simply add seven to the number of your current track.

To go up by two semitones, add two to your current Camelot Wheel coding number.

When, And When Not, To Mix In Key

When all is said and done, reading and understanding the mood and energy of a crowd is the number one most important job of a DJ.

Not slavishly sticking to a bunch of DJ rules.

We’ve all been to clubs and seen DJ’s with flawless technical skills, but the night was still flat. And we’ve all seen DJ’s who’s skills weren’t quite as sharp as they could be, but they took the roof off.

DJ’s who go with their gut-feeling and connect with the dancefloor will always get my vote over techies.

So when the floor is buzzing and you absolutely know that you have the perfect track to drop next, don’t disregard it if it’s not perfectly in-key.

Chances are that 99% of the time, the tune that jumps into your head as the perfect next track to play, will be in-key anyway.

When should you mix in-key?

When your building the mood of the night, tempting people onto the floor.

And when you’re keeping hold of that mood, bringing the floor up to the boil, creating an atmosphere of anticipation.

Summing It All Up

Does it actually matter if your mixing is not completely harmonic all of the time?

There are two types of DJ.

DJ’s who love the technical side and love to make their mixes as totally seamless as possible. For these DJ’s, mixing in key is going to be super important.

And there are DJ’s who are much more interested in the music side, rather than the technical side of DJing. These DJ’s don’t tend to worry so much about manufacturing each mix so that it’s perfectly in key. They probably spend more time finding new music than they do practising their skills.

I tend to prefer to go to clubs where the second type of DJ is playing.

I can forgive some pretty average DJing skills if whoever is behind the decks is playing great, original tunes tunes with love.

Get In Touch

What you think about mixing in key?

Is it important to you as a DJ? Is it important to you as a clubber?

I’d love to know what you think so please go ahead and drop your comments directly below.