I was a DJ long before I ever got good at producing music. Because of this, I've always thought about how to make music DJs would want to play. (Starting with myself!)
The obvious rule here is “make great music.” But there's more to it than that. Especially in genres where DJs are mixing tracks on top of each other in a set. The fastest way for a track to never get played again is for it to be a pain to mix. The last thing a DJ wants is a train-wrecked mix—and if playing your track leads to a lot of bad mixes, you're outta here!
That's why I've put together these seven rules that will help your great music also be music that DJs will want to play over and over again.
One quick note before we dive in. As you read, some of these rules may seem very simple, if you've been mixing or making dance tracks for a long time. But in my experience as a DJ, they represent the mistakes that are most likely to get your track moved from the gig crate to the dustbin. So it pays to be reminded!
With that, let's dive in…
1. Be Mindful of Overlap
First and foremost, if you're making music in the genres of house, EDM, dubstep, drum and bass, techno, trance, or any other genre where the DJ will try to beat-mix tracks, you have to be mindful of how tracks overlap.
Getting real basic here, the DJ is going to play the last part of one track over the beginning of the next. (How long this overlap is depends strongly on genre.) And while they may buy your track because the 2-minute Beatport preview sounds good, your track has to be relatively easy to mix to make it into regular rotation in their sets.
And so when you look at the first 15 seconds to 2 minutes of your track, you have to think of how well it layers with whatever it's being mixed into. In general, for most genres, the beginning should be fairly simple, and beat-driven. I like to stick mostly to the tonic note in whatever key I'm playing in (A in the key of A, C in the key of C, etc.), and maybe the dominant or 5th note. You can tease melodic elements, but remember this part of your song is most often playing mixed with another track. Keep it simple, and it's easy for the DJ to mix it in.
This bassline is the entire melodic content of the intro of one of my tracks.
A similar rule applies for the last 15 seconds to 2 minutes of your track. Another track is going to be mixed in under it, and you have to be mindful of this. Yes, you can sustain your melody more through this final section. Though the track should grow simpler and more beat-driven as it reaches its conclusion. Remember, the last thing the DJ wants is to end up with a mix where two songs start to clash, creating chaos in the mix. While some of that is about the DJ knowing their tracks, it's also your responsibility as a producer to help them out.
2. Work in Multiples of Four Bars
Pretty much every dance music genre is built in groups of four bars, and multiples of four. 4, 8, 16, 24, 32, even 64 bars. And so nearly every change to the music will take place on the fourth or eighth bar. Big changes most often take place after the 16th, 24th, or 32nd bar.
When you're beginning to structure your track—especially in the beginning and end where mixing is taking place—you want to think in groups of four. At the beginning of the track, you can start to introduce elements after 4 or 8 bars. Bigger changes—like bringing in a lead synth or bassline—often work best in 16-bar increments.
Main instrument tracks during the first 32 bars of my song. Notice changes every 8 bars, with both bass tracks coming in after 16 bars. Automation adds to the sense of movement.
At 128 BPM, a standard tempo for mainstream house music, every 8 bars is 15 seconds. What I'm seeing in many mainstream tracks today is a 24-bar intro. Usually the first eight bars are very simple, meant primarily for the DJ. The following 16 (bars 9-24) start to introduce distinctive elements. After bar 25, the track is meant to be playing alone.
Some more progressive or minimal genres may have as much as a 2-minute mix overlap, so you may want to hold off on breakdowns or other major changes until 64-bars in. It pays to study your favorite tracks in your genre to see how they do it.
3. Know Rhythm Structure for Your Genre
There's no quicker way to get a track dropped from rotation, than for the track to have a rhythm that just doesn't match the songs it's being mixed with. Know thy genre!
House, trance, and techno music have the kick on every quarter beat, with a snare or clap on the two and four.
A standard (if simple) house beat.
Breakbeat genres most often have the same snare or clap on the two and four, with the kicks on the one plus on eighth notes between the two and four.
A standard (if simple) breakbeat.
Other percussive elements matter, but you need to have the core rhythm down. Because otherwise, when your track is being mixed over another, the blend of the two very different beats will create a mess.
When it comes time for the other percussive elements (including the synth or bass) you have to be mindful of where their hits fall, too. Most dance music is based around a 4/4 beat, with some elements hitting on the eighths and sixteenths.
Again, mind the overlap. Especially in the beginning and the end of your track, you should tend to stick to convention, and only place elements on the quarters, eighths, and the occasional sixteenth where appropriate to genre.
Unless your genre or subgenre makes use of heavy swing, triplets, or some other less-common rhythm, avoid them in the areas of your track where the DJ will do the mixing. Even if you have a mind-bending melody that's a strange mix of triplets and 7/8ths time, hold back until the middle of the track! DJs will thank you by playing your track for more people.
4. Know Track Length and Structure for Your Genre
I'll admit, most of my first arrangements for a track are too long. Most DJ music these days—even in progressive genres—clocks in somewhere shy of six minutes. If a DJ is playing a whole set of songs that are right around five minutes apiece, and yours is an epic eleven-minute journey, it probably won't fit in the set. It'll disrupt the flow, and could damage dance floor momentum.
For a track to get regular rotation, it will help to have it match other tracks in the DJ's set. So spend some time browsing listings on your favorite music store to get a feel for track length. And then use that as a general guideline for your productions.
Also, remember song structure in your genre. How long is that intro and outro? Where are the breakdowns in the track? How long are they? Good music both meets and surprises the listener's expectations—get to know what they expect by understanding the structure of other songs in the genre.
The waveform on Beatport tells you a lot about the track structure. This recent Top 10 hit is 4:50 long, at 126 BPM. The intro is about 45 seconds, followed by a 1-minute melodic breakdown, followed by 45 seconds of beats, another 1-minute breakdown, followed by 1:15 of beats/outro.
5. Be Mindful of Tempo Changes During the Song
This may be a bit controversial. But I'm going to say it anyway. Most DJs today don't want to beat match. And you should cater to their laziness, if you want to get your tracks played.
My first DJ setup was a pair of Numark TT-1 turntables and a Numark 2-channel mixer. I know how to beat match. I enjoyed it on vinyl. I loved getting good at the craft of mixing. But with digital DJing, it's unnecessary. And even though I know how, I don't want to have to do it. I want to focus on song selection, and enjoying the performance.
Which brings me to one song I often think to play in my sets. The intro and outro tempos are standard house speed, 128 BPM. But in the middle of the track, there's a tempo change that throws the track off-grid in Traktor. On vinyl, this wouldn't have been a problem. And if I put in the effort, I could fix the problem in Traktor. But I haven't. And so the song doesn't make its way into my sets.
If you are going to change the speed in the middle of your track, find a way to ensure your track stays on-grid. Otherwise, think long and hard if you want to risk DJs not knowing how to—or not putting in the extra effort to—include your track in their mix.
The good old days… When DJs wore pinstripes, spun vinyl, and were willing to work to fit your track in their mix.
6. Be Mindful of Your Key
One of the great improvements digital DJing has brought us is a dramatic increase in key mixing. Today, when you load a track into most DJ software, it's immediately analyzed for what musical key it's in. If you know how to use this information as a DJ, it's easy to create mixes that sound good together, and even rise and fall in energy and emotion over multiple songs. This is great.
For producers though, it just underscores the need to understand some pretty basic music theory, and to make deliberate decisions around your use of musical keys.
Yes, you can put key-changes in your music, but you need to be aware of how it might impact the DJ. A key change in the breakdown of your song could sound incredible, for example. But it's a good idea to return to your original key for the outro, to not throw off the mix.
Also, be mindful of accidentals (notes not in the song's key). Especially in the intro and outro. They may sound great in your melody, but if layered with another track in another key, they could sound terribly dissonant.
Just think about how a DJ who uses key-mixing is going to handle it. Especially if they're over-reliant on software analysis, as I'll admit I am. If the software gets the key wrong because of too many key changes or accidentals, it could botch a mix, and the DJ may not be able to figure out why.
Again, make great music. But be mindful of how decisions like this impact the DJ, if you want your tracks to make regular rotation in their sets.
7. Make Sure It Sounds Good
Finally, you should be obsessive about the quality of your final mix.
Use a good pair of headphones and/or reference monitors while producing. Then, when you think you have a good mix, listen on as many different systems as you can. Earbuds. Your car, with bass boost turned up. Big speakers. Small speakers. Everywhere. Get other producers and DJs to listen to your mix, and give you their feedback.
I learned this the hard way. Years ago, I had a track I'd created on my Cerwin-Vega MX-400s, with 15” woofers. And I'd checked it out on my DJ headphones. Neither were good for actually checking my mix. Then, I played it in a club, and the speakers went to mud. It sounded horrible. The life was sucked out of the dance floor. You never want that to happen with your tracks… Trust me!
Since then, I've learned about aggressive EQing, managing the frequency spectrum, being very careful with bass, using reference tracks to check my mix, and a whole lot more.
Learn everything you can about mixing and mastering. And don't hesitate to send your tracks off for professional mastering, until you're able to create an end product indistinguishable from what the pros send back.
Can You Break These Rules?
Absolutely! But you should be mindful when you do.
For example, if you're creating a track solely meant to be the intro track for a set, it can start with a powerful melody, or ignore drums altogether for the first 3 minutes. But a DJ only plays one intro in an hour-long set—and maybe 10 to 25 other tracks. If you're going to make an intro track, find a way to make it the only one they want to play.
I also regularly break the 4-bar rule, but only in the middle of my tracks. I like to play with listeners' anticipation, and so I'll often throw in a one- or two-bar pause after a build-up (everything drops out here except a vocal or synth or percussive line). Because this is in the middle of the track, it doesn't mess with a DJ's ability to mix it, even though it breaks the 4-bar rule.
I could go on… All rules are made to be broken. But knowing the rules before you break them will serve you far better than ignoring them from the start.