Harmonic Mixing Tips For DJs & Musicians

Learning the secrets of harmonic mixing can be the key to unlocking even better DJ performances. Sara Simms explains the concept, and how to use it in practice.  

Have you ever listened to a DJ blend two melodic tracks together that sound amazing? The magic of mixing records is an art form that involves taking two (or more) records and making them one. While it may seem like pure coincidence that two tracks fit beautifully together, in reality there's a little more going on. The secret to perfect mixes is harmonic mixing; a system used by DJs all over the world that involves mixing tracks in compatible keys. If you're curious about how to make your mixes sound consistently great, read on to learn about harmonic mixing.

Key Analysis

While many talented DJs mix intuitively using their ears, the rest of us can benefit from learning the keys of tracks and understanding which keys are compatible. To start out, find the key of the tracks in your collection either by listening and applying your music theory knowledge or by analyzing your digital music files. Digital music files can be analyzed either using professional analysis software like Mixed in Key, or by using the analysis algorithms in Traktor or Serato.

The Camelot Wheel

Invented by Mark Davis, the Camelot Wheel is a famous system designed to show keys that are compatible with each other. Since not all DJs know music theory, there's a numeric system included on the Camelot Wheel that may be easier for those without musical training to understand. For those who do know music theory, the Camelot Wheel is based around the circle of fifths. The circle of fifths is a sequence of pitches or key tonalities represented as a circle, in which the next pitch (turning clockwise) is seven semitones (a perfect fifth) higher than the last.

Compatible keys in either the Minor or Major scales on the Camelot Wheel are a perfect fifth above or below the key you begin in. A 'perfect fifth' is called 'perfect' because it is neither major nor minor yet applies to both scales and a 'fifth' is a distance of seven semitones on a keyboard, yet a distance of five steps within a major or minor scale. The easiest way to hear the relationships between the notes in a perfect fifth is by playing them on a piano keyboard and listen to how well the two notes blend together.

Mixed in Key uses the Camelot Wheel as a guide for harmonic mixing. This software program analyzes the keys of WAV and .MP3 files accurately and was available before Traktor and Serato began incorporating key analysis into their programs. Mixed in Key can analyze the key of your tracks and display results using the numeric system or the key of the record. Once files are analyzed, pick a track to begin with and note the key of the track. Tracks can be mixed together with other tracks that are one key code above or below the number of the track you are currently in.

For example, if your first track is in 2A (Eb Minor), simply move one step to the left or right of 2A on the Camelot Wheel. Tracks that are in 1A (Ab Minor) or 3A (Bb Minor) will mix together with tracks in 2A (Eb Minor). You can also mix together a track with the same number, but different letter. For example, a track in 2A (Eb minor) will mix together with a track in 2B (F Sharp Major). The Camelot Wheel and Mixed in Key provides a helpful system that takes the guess work out of mixing and helps you to discover tracks that blend together well.

It's always best to practise mixes before performing them out, as the Camelot Wheel is not a perfect system. There are many melodic elements in every piece of music that may affect the overall sound of the mix. While the Camelot Wheel and Mixed in Key are great starting points, they should be used as helpful tools to select tracks but the final guide should always be your ears.

Mixing Algorithms In Digital DJ Software

In the past few years, Traktor and Serato have started to include their own algorithms for key analysis. The numeric system used by both programs is different than the Camelot Wheel, which can cause some confusion. Traktor uses Open Key Notation; 4A in Camelot is 9m in Open Key. In Open Key, you can mix together 9m with 10m, and 8m with 8d using the same concept as the Camelot Wheel. In the Camelot system, A represents minor and B represents major. In Open Key, m is minor and d is major.

The choice of whether to use a program like Mixed in Key or the harmonic analysis algorithms included in your DJ software is a personal choice. Online studies on sites like DJ Tech Tools have found Mixed in Key analyzes the keys with greater accuracy. Mixed in Key will sometimes give two key readings for each track as its analysis algorithm is quite sophisticated and can detect any key changes in the track. However, it's important to keep in mind that no analysis program is perfect and it's always best to use your ears when blending two tracks together.

Energy Boost Mixing

This harmonic mixing technique is widely used by pop musicians; it's when the last verse or chorus in a song is raised by one or two semitones for an energy lift. Energy boost mixing gives the song an automatic energy lift; it's a widely used technique among trance DJs as the technique can be used to create the illusion that the energy is constantly rising.

To practise energy boost mixing, start off with a track (eg. using the Camelot Wheel - 1A – Ab minor) and to lift the energy one semi-tone, add seven to the key notation of your current track. (eg. Transition into 8A – A minor). To boost the energy up two semitones, add two to the key notation of your current track. (eg. 3A – Bb minor) The important thing to keep in mind is the melodies in the two records will actually clash, so it's best to layer the melody of one record over the percussive intro in the second record. Another choice is to perform a very short mix with careful EQing. Lastly, remember to only mix one or two semitones up; mixing in the opposite direction will bring the energy in the room down. Energy boost mixing is an effective technique to use and with practise it'll keep your audience dancing all night long.

Take It Or Leave It

When you're programming an evening of music, the best decision is always to play the right record at the right time. If your choice is between playing a record that's in key that will clear the floor, and playing a song you know the audience will love, choose the song that'll rock the dance floor. There are times to mix harmonically, and times that you'll have to leave this technique behind in favour of playing a track that'll work out better. You'll find that the real art to harmonic mixing is choosing to mix two records together that are in key and exactly what your audience needs to hear at that moment. Harmonic mixing is a technique that can guide you to create magnificent moments on the dance floor that will be remembered for years to come.

Learn more DJing, mixing, and live performance tips, tricks and techniques here: https://ask.audio/academy?nleloc=new-releases

Sara Simms captivates the world as an innovative musician, DJ, turntablist and electronic music producer. She's a multi-instrumentalist who's known for her love of music technology. Sara makes her mark in the music community by crafting diverse sets with styles ranging from pulsating techno to house. She balances technical skills wi... Read More


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