Making a DJ mixtape can be a bit weird.
Because if you’re a half-decent DJ, you don’t pre-plan your DJ sets.
When you’re playing to a room full of actual live humans, you’re choosing your tunes based on the energy you’re getting back from them.
When you’re playing a gig, stubbornly ploughing on through a pre-planned set will kill off just about any good-vibes.
But here we are, wondering how to make a dj mixtape, and we’re going to plan it all out, in as much details as possible.
As I said…a bit weird.
First things first…
Why Are You Making a DJ Mixtape?
What, or who, are you making your mixtape for?
Who is your intended listener? Will they be listening for pleasure? Or will they be listening to judge your skills?
And what do you hope to achieve by giving them your perfectly crafted mixtape?
Are you hoping to win a DJ mixtape competition?
Maybe you’re hoping to land a coveted DJ slot on the regular?
Are you trying to land the warm-up slot, peak-time, or the warm-down slot?
Or maybe, just maybe, you’re looking to win somebody’s love and affection?
All totally valid reasons for wanting to know how to make a DJ mixtape.
And this all takes us here…
All Top DJ Mixes Have Intent…Serious Intent
The intent of your mixtape will influence the whole direction of your set.
What tunes you will select, the order you play them in, whether you mix-in-key…the complete structure and shape of your set.
Always know the intent of your DJ mix!
If you’re looking to win a mixtape competition, just for it’s own sake, you can go right ahead and add all the layers of tricks and skills you like.
But if you’re trying to land a DJ gig, don’t waste your time overdoing it.
For this, record a mix that you know you can recreate live in a club.
Club promoters aren’t stupid, they know when they’re listening to a mix that has been over-worked, and therefore impossible to recreate in a live set.
Record Live if Possible
If your intention is to get more Dj gigs, give serious thought as to whether you could record yourself playing a live set, to a real live crowd.
Sure, it won’t be as gorgeously flawless as if you’d planned it and recorded it at home, but it will be more valuable to the promoter you’re sending it to.
Just make sure you include the venue, date and time of the recorded set when you send it.
This will give the listener a great feel for what they can expect should they go ahead and book you.
Trust me, this is much more meaningful than an hour or so of musical perfection that has been pushed endlessly through Ableton.
But all that said;
Let’s re-wind a little, and take a look at how to make a DJ mix that we are going to pre-plan…
How to Make a DJ Mixtape in 5 Simple Steps
#1. Decide the Direction of Your Set
A lot of DJ’s and dance music producers start by doing this.
Just draw a simple diagram that maps out how you want the energy of the mix to flow, from start- to-finish.
These are some commonly used examples:
- The Ramp
- The Mountain
- The Wave
- The Story
Let’s take a quick look at each of these in a bit more detail…
Your mixtape will be made up of continual rolling waves of energy.
Peaks and troughs, if you prefer.
How high you make the peaks, and how low you make the troughs is entirely for you to decide.
A nailed on favourite for mixtape competition submissions.
Back in the day, when I used to be clubbing on the regular, this is what I wanted from a DJ playing the slot from say 1am to 3am.
A more-or-less continual rise from lower BPM to high BPM, with energy levels increasing accordingly.
Sure, they’ll be the odd track in there to reign it in a little, and to build tension, but on the whole, it’s only ever heading one place.
A firm favourite with club DJ’s occupying the peak-time slot, as well as for mixtape competition submissions.
Just like the ramp for half of the set…
…followed by a descent of equal size, all the way down the other side of the mountain.
Not my preferred way of playing, or listening to a DJ.
It’s kind of like the DJ deciding everyone has had enough fun and putting the brakes on it.
I’ll decide when I’ve finished kicking the backside out of a night out, thanks very much!
This is a lot of fun to try.
And it can work equally well for mixtapes and live sets.
It allows you to move through different genres, and back again.
It lets you play some totally unusual stuff compared to what you might usually play.
The skill is to keep the story coherent.
It is very easy to lose coherence with this one, and before you know it, you’ve just got a very odd mess on your hands.
Keep to the story, make it interesting, keep it danceable.
Here’s a great example by 2 Many DJ’s ‘As Heard On Radio Soulwax‘…
…although to be fair, it has been produced to within an inch of its life!
#2. Track Selection and Playing Order
Exactly what tunes you select is totally down to your own musical taste.
Never play a track you don’t love.
Never play a track that you think of only as filler.
You should love every single tune that you play, and every one of them should have a reason to be in your mix.
Try not to be swayed by what other DJ’s are playing.
Your musical taste is unique to you, and sticking to what you love is what will differentiate you from the crowd.
Once you have say 20 or 30 tunes in mind, start thinking about how they’ll come together within the chosen direction of your set.
#3. Showcase Your Skills with Track Transitions
Try not to be bound to transition types simply because of the genre of music you play.
So you’re a dance music DJ, you don’t always have to beatmatch.
You’re a Hip Hp DJ, it doesn’t always have to be cutting.
Same goes for scratching, fading…whatever!
If you’re brave enough to mix up the way you transition between tracks…
…you will be able to add some tunes to your mix that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to.
Not to mention, it will add some great variety to your set, through both transition styles and track selection.
Being able to showcase a range of mixing skills on your mixtape will improve your chances of standing out.
#4. Use Tricks and Effects With Care
Effects and DJ tricks…
…a great way to add additional dimensions to the music, and to increase crowd excitement levels?…
…or really fuk!ng annoying?
Well, it totally depends on how skilled you are at using them, and maybe more importantly, on how much you tend to use them!
DJ equipment these days makes it far too easy to add effects, and because of this, a lot of DJs over use them.
The key is to really learn how to use each of the effects well, and to use them sparingly.
If you can’t use them well, leave them alone.
If you can’t use them sparingly, leave them alone.
But, like we said earlier, effects can be a great way to add extra dimensions to a track, and if used well, it can really help define your style as a DJ.
As the saying goes; “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”.
#5. Plan the Length of Your DJ Mix
Roughly one hour tends to be the norm.
You could do a little longer if you really need to.
But, if you’re sending it to somebody for self promotional purposes, that person really doesn’t need everyone who sends them a mixtape to start recording two-hours worth.
And much less than one hour, well, it’s a little bit flakey isn’t it?
This will tie in with your track selection and playing order.
Once you have. good idea of the tunes you will include, and the order you’ll play them in, you will be able to figure out how an hours worth will come together.
How to Make a DJ Mix – Other Stuff to Consider
Before we wrap this up, lets’ take real quick look at a few other bits and pieces you should give a little thought to…
…before getting down to hitting that record button.
Should You Mix In Key?
Probably, most of the time, yes.
Because you know yourself that some tracks just do not go well together.
They can be the exact same genre, and the exact same BPM, but because the key is totally different, it just does not sound right when you put them to back-to-back.
And others, well, they can be different genres and very different BPM’s, but boy, they just sound like they were born to be mixed together.
But, keep in mind that harmonic mixing can be a paradox.
You can get way too into it.
You can end up over thinking your sets, and not ever playing the tune that immediately jumps to mind…
…the one that’s practically throwing itself at you, when you’re listening to the one that’s currently playing, and feeling how the crowd’s reacting to it.
Instead you think about a tune with a more perfectly matched key, and that steers your direction.
Bad choice, you should have gone with your gut, because most of the time, you know, your ear is good enough to know, which tunes will go just fine together.
Know Your Tracks Inside-and-Out
You probably do anyway, certainly the ones you have so much love for that they are making onto your mixtape selection.
But just in case, give them all a full play through before you start recording, just to freshen your mind as to how they’re all put together.
You can identify any tricky little places where something unexpected happens, that you wouldn’t want to have in the middle of your mix.
And you can identify the perfect places to come in and out of each tune.
Make Your DJ Mix Interesting
There are a few super simple tips you can use to get your listener to buy in early.
Getting your listener interested in the first few minutes is essential.
This is a good formula to use for your first few minutes:
- Make sure your first track is instrumental only, and keep it short, less than 3 minutes;
- Go for a second track with a strong vocal, and keep this short also, under 4 minutes;
- Go into the rest of your mix of different track lengths, but pretty much all under 5 minutes.
We all love to fill our mixes with great new music, but don’t be scared of adding some forgotten stuff in there too.
This shows you’re not hung-up on only one era, and that you have good musical knowledge.
Another great way to add a lot of interest into your mix, is to use a great acapella or two.
If you can find a quality, and rarely used acapella, as well as a perfect place to use it in your mix, it’s a solid gold winner…every time!
Wrapping it Up!
Like everything, the more DJ mixes you record, the better you will get at them.
If you’re serious about the idea of using them as a way of promoting yourself to get more gigs, start recording your sets on the regular.
Get yourself really comfortable with the whole thing.
And when you’re putting one together for someone you really want to impress, take that bit more time in the planning…
…and that bit more care in the mix.