harmonic mixing

Harmonic Mixing For Beginners- How do DJs mix in key?

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Harmonic mixing is the process of mixing 2 or more tracks together to create a transition whereby the notes in both tracks fit together harmonically. 

Lets work on the basis that most music is recorded in 1 particular key and therefore that song will contain some or all of the notes within that key. The problems come when two tracks are mixed and notes outside of the key or scale you are working in occur. Thats when you its sounds out of key and messy.  

This means, as DJs, we need to be able to identify the key of the track that is currently playing and also which tracks are available to us to use in the transition out of that track.

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The Roots of Harmonic Mixing

Many years ago, in the days before the key analysing software, DJ’s who wanted to mix records harmonically used to get out a keyboard and find the key of a track by playing along to it and working out the root note and scale. 

DJs like Sasha were ahead of their time with harmonic mixing and you can hear early examples of it on his renaissance mixes with Digweed. 

However, this had its drawbacks because its one thing knowing what the key of a track is at its original tempo but when you change the speed of it to fit into the mix, the pitch and therefore the key will alter.  

Enter the CDJ master tempo feature. This was a real game changer as it meant that you could play tracks in their original key but at different tempos. Much like the way Ableton live works and its sometimes referred to as time stretching. 

Today, mater tempo mode and key detection software form the building blocks of a great deal of the modern DJs armoury. 

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Software Options

There are loads of options available to buy and some free one’s too. Serato, Traktor, rekordbox and mixed in key all offer decent key detection within their programmes. 

Whatever software option you decide to use, it’s important to be organised with your music collection. 

Set up your interface so that you can easily view batches of tracks that are in a particular key. This will help you when you want to perform harmonic mixing in a time sensitive live environment. 

Analyse Your Music

The next step is to analyses your tracks in your key detection software so that your tracks are tagged with either a key or a number and letter. (The number and letter is used in the Camelot Wheel system which we will use in our example latter on.)

The Process Of Mixing In Key

So now that we have an idea of the basic music theory and we have analysed our music collection through our key detection software, its time to look at the actual process of harmonic mixing. 

The Camelot Wheel system works on the basis that it exchanges the traditional key system of music for a number and letter combination. Working numerically and alphabetically like this makes thing much easier when it comes to track selection. If your key detection software doesn’t give you this option then don’t worry, you can still use the Camelot Wheel for harmonic mixing, its just not quite as user friendly. 

The Camelot Wheel groups tracks into Major and Minor Keys which are represented by the letters A and B. A represents tracks in a minor key and are on the inside of the wheel while major keys are marked B and on the inside of the wheel. 

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You will find that a lot of western music and particularly electronic music will be in a minor key and therefore represented with the letter A. 

Lets assume that we are DJing and playing a track that’s in the key of A minor or 8A. We know that this track contains all or some of the notes associated with that key or scale. Therefore we know that all tracks which are also tagged with 8A will contain all or some of these particular notes. 

If we move one step up the wheel we get to 9A (E minor). This key contains all of the same notes of 8A except 1. We can therefore assume that there is a likelihood of this track matching 8A harmonically as there is only 1 note contained outside of our initial key. Similarly, if we move 1 step up again to 10A there will be 2 notes found in the scale of B Minor which are not associated with our initial key of 8A. This track will have even less likelihood of matching our initial track of 8A. The further round the wheel we go, the more notes outside of our original key occur. 

Let’s take a look at how tracks in major keys fit into the system. 

Let’s go back to our original example of playing a track thats in 8A (A Minor). If we move 1 step forward to 8B (C Major) all of the notes that are in that key are the same as 8A (A Minor) The reason that its in 8B is that the relationship or the gaps between the notes are different from tracks in a minor scale and this is what gives it a happy feel. 

As a good rule of thumb for using the Camelot wheel to select music with the best harmonic results, we can use either tracks in the same key or one step either side or in front of our current track. 

Let’s assume that we are playing a track in 8B and we need to find a track that will work harmonically. 

We can move one step either side to 9B or 7B or one step in front to 8A. 

So thats the basics of harmonic mixing using the Camelot wheel and if you would like to go into more depth I suggest heading on over to the Mixed In Key website where they have loads of expert tips on using the wheel in more detail. 

Learn How To Programme A Pro DJ Mix On Ableton Live

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A Final Thought On Mixing In Key

Before we finish up, let’s get some perspective on the use of key detection software and harmonic mixing. 

The golden rule is “use your ears” and don’t rely on the chart to mix for you. Even though a track may be in exactly the same key as the one you’re working in, it may still sound messy in the mix. Knowing your music and understanding track arrangement is still just as important. Mixing 2 baselines over the top of each other will more often than not sound bad. 

Its also worth remembering that tracks in completely unrelated keys can also throw up some really interesting results. This is often the case with songs that utilise a small range of notes within the scale. Minimal and deep electronic music tends to fit into this category. 

Check Out Our Video On Mixing In Key Over On Our Youtube Channel

Check out our blog on Track Warping