As you progress in your DJ journey you’ll likely come across the concept of harmonic mixing. This comprehensive guide breaks down what harmonic mixing is, when and how to use it, and when not to use it.
What Is Harmonic Mixing
At its core, harmonic mixing aims to give you the tools and insights to create better mixes. Ever listened to a mix and everything just flowed seamlessly? That is most likely due to the DJ utilizing key mixing techniques.
Harmonic mixing uses music theory to match one song with another. You’ll likely have noticed the “Key” section on your DJ software or when you are browsing to buy music. This highlights what Key the track is in.
You don’t need to be able to read music or understand music theory to use harmonic mixing.
These are then organized with the Circle of Fifths. The Circle of Fifths represents the 12 tones of the chromatic scale and more importantly how they relate to each other. The inner-circle represents Minor keys and the outer circle represents Major keys. These keys allow you to create more compatible sounding combinations of tracks.
But unless you already have a firm understanding of music theory just knowing the keys will not be very helpful to you. This is where the Circle of Fifths comes in. By following a few simple rules you can identify which tracks will sound harmonically good together. But before we dive into the details let’s check out how the Circle of Fifths can be further simplified with the Camelot Wheel.
The Camelot Wheel
The Camelot Wheel takes the same principles of the Circle of Fifths and makes it easier to understand. A perfect tool for DJs that need to think on their feet and adapt to an evolving crowd.
The Camelot Wheel represents the Circle of Fifths alphanumerically.
Instead of listing the “Key”, the Camelot Wheel replaces it with a simple alphanumeric representation. For example, the key G Major is 9B. At first glance, this may seem just as confusing as the Circle of Fifths. But once you understand the fundamental rules you’ll discover how much easier it is to work with the Camelot Wheel.
But before we get to the specific techniques we need to do some prep work.
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Before you can mix your tracks in key you need your tracks to have the proper key information available. There are several ways to both acquire this information and store it within your music collection. Make sure to organize your music library. Having a well-structured library will keep everything updated and correct.
Mixed In Key
Mixed In Key is the most popular software platform for harmonic mixing. The world’s biggest DJs support this powerful application. Everyone from David Guetta to Armin Van Buuren uses Mixed In Key.
Mixed In Key analyzes your music collection and detects the Key of the track and writes the data directly to the ID3 tag. But instead of allocating the chromatic scale Key, it will assign the Camelot Key value. This then allows DJs to quickly and easily find their next track or tracks that will work well together. Check out some of the highlights from the latest version of Mixed In Key in the video below.
But it isn’t an exact science. Finding the correct key using an algorithm is not always 100% accurate. However, out of all the options available out there Mixed In Key gets it right the most often. Independent analysis has shown that it has a higher hit rate than other options. You also need to take into account that everyone “hears” music differently. You can get two musicians in a room and they will find songs where they disagree on what key it is in.
Mixed In Key also offers extra features beyond Key Detection. It allocates an Energy Rating for a quick reference point to how high octane a track is. It also offers cue points suggestions and comprehensive ID3 tag controls. Plus it also has exportability for direct importing into DJ software like Serato, rekordbox, or Traktor.
Despite the inability to always get a 100% hit rate if you want the absolute best of the best Mixed In Key is the choice.
All DJ software utilizes analysis algorithms to detect important information about your music. It can detect BPM (Beats Per Minute) exceptionally well with most electronic dance music. It also offers Key detection. While the hit rate is high it does fall short compared to Mixed In Key.
But if you don’t want to invest in another program you can get by with the details in your existing DJ system. Before you can apply the Camelot wheel techniques you’ll need to set some preferences. Most DJ software defaults to the classic representation for Key information. Check the settings in your DJ software to display alphanumeric Key information instead of the classic version.
Key detection is a feature of all modern DJ software platforms.
For reference, Traktor does have a very high hit rate percentage for locating the correct key. Rekordbox comes second with Serato in third place. But they all fall within about 10% of each other so don’t feel the need to change DJ software just to improve key detection slightly.
From there also make sure that the Key information is available in the browser for quick reference. You can also set up smart playlists that will group tracks based on key information. Once you have all that information available you can begin mixing in key using the Camelot alphanumeric notations.
Beyond Mixed In Key and your DJ system, there are other choices available. Here are a couple of noteworthy options.
- tuneXplorer – This software also ranked highly in detection tests and is more affordable than Mixed In Key.
- KeyFinder – Open source software that offers quick and easy detection. Note the Windows version is no longer receiving updates or support.
- AudioKeyChain – Free to use browser-based detection application with consistently accurate results.
As you can see there are multiple choices available. Which one you end up using will come down to personal preference.
How To Use Harmonic Mixing In Your Sets
Now that you have your music analyzed and tagged correctly you can start using harmonic mixing techniques.
If you want long blends that sound natural and organic this is the primary technique you should consider. This is the quickest and easiest way to find compatible songs.
The Camelot Wheel system gives you directions on how to select matching tracks. The basic principle is that you can select any Key that is next to the Key of the current track you are playing.
You can go up/down/across but not diagonally when selecting the next song.
For example, if you are playing a 3A track you can go up or down a number to 4A or 2A. You can also play a track with the same number 3A or 3B. From there you can continue to make your way around the Camelot wheel as needed.
This simple number-based approach is what makes mixing harmonically easy. But it doesn’t stop there. You don’t need to be bound by this one technique. You can also take your mixes to the next level with Energy Boost mixing.
Energy Boost Mixing
Energy Boost is another popular technique using the Camelot Wheel system. This allows you to radically change the energy level of your mix. It’s a great way to move around when the current track isn’t doing it for the crowd. Or as a way to ramp up as you approach the peak of your set.
To use Energy Boost you take the existing Camelot Wheel number and jump either 2 or 7 numbers upwards.
If you want to change the mood of your set you can use Energy Boost mixing.
For example, if the track you are playing is 3A you then play a song that is either 5A or 10A for your next track. This moves the mix up 1 or 2 semitones.
This type of mix is better suited for faster transitions and is not ideal for longer blends.
Using a combination of both techniques will allow you to craft unique and interesting mixes. You may begin the night with smooth transitions to warm up a crowd. As things move towards the peak time of the night you can jump to higher octane tracks to get the crowd going. As the night unwinds you can go back to longer blends.
No matter how you structure your set, you’ll know that your mixes will be perfectly harmonious if you keep the Camelot system in mind.
Is Harmonic Mixing Necessary?
Harmonic Mixing is not always necessary. It is a tool in a DJs arsenal that can help guide them in the right direction. But your intuition as a DJ should always lead the way.
How Does Harmonic Mixing Work?
Harmonic mixing works by matching songs that will mix well together. These combinations sound pleasant when played at the same time. This is via the principles of the Circle of Fifths.
Can You Mix Songs In Different Keys?
When DJing there are no set guidelines that you must always follow. Trust your instincts. If two songs are in widely different keys they can still work. When DJing use you own judgment. If it sounds good to you then go for it.
Some Final Tips
You now know everything you need to know to harmonically mix. But mixing in key is just one element of crafting a successful mix. Use all the skills at your disposal and don’t rely on one technique. Whether that is DJing effects, looping, or scratching.
If you want to mix in a certain track nothing is stopping you. Play what you think will get the crowd going. There are loads of creative DJing techniques for transitions. Whether that is for transitions between different genres or songs in different keys. Focus on the energy of the crowd. Use harmonic mixing to avoid nasty key clashes but always trust your ears.
If you consider all these different components you’ll be well on your way to better-sounding sets.