Foolproof Sets or Snakeoil for djs?

So I stumbled across this competition by Mixed in Key yesterday.

The challenge: Showcase your favorite music genre in a 10-15 minute mix that will impress the world's best Djs. The top winner receives prizes worth over 3000 dollars.

So I started thinking wow, 15mins to do a complete mix, thats very tight if you want to take the listener on a journey. Looking a bit deeper the site talked about Mixing in key, which pointed to a application you have to download and pay about 60 dollars for. The site opens with a picture of Pete Tong saying how much he loves Mixed in key, then a piece about improving your djs sets.

Mixed In Key is software created for the world's best DJs. With its user-friendly design and trusted technology, Mixed In Key makes harmonic mixing easy.

Mixed In Key takes your mixing to the next level by showing which songs you can mix together without a key clash. It works with all CD decks, Ableton Live, Traktor, Serato Scratch Live, and all other mixing software and hardware. Your DJ sets will always sound smooth and professional.

By now my nose is smelling digital snake oil, and why not? Anything which promises to take your mixes to the next level, deserve to be treated suspect. So I check out the concept of Harmonic Mixing (which is actually setup by Mixed in Key!) and the wikipedia entry.

A commonly-known method of using harmonic mixing is to detect the root key of every music file in the DJ collection by using a piano. The root key that fits the track perfectly may be used to create harmonic mash-ups with other tracks in the same key. The root key is also considered compatible with the subdominant, dominant and relative major/minor keys.

A more advanced harmonic mixing theory has been proposed which accounts for the various modes as well (aeolian, ionian, lydian, mixolydian, dorian and phrygian). It is shown that these alternate modes can be seen as variations of the traditional major and minor keys, and that they can be translated to traditional keys via the Circle of Fifths.

In 2006 and 2007, harmonic mixing has attracted substantial media attention. Pioneer Pro DJ, the manufacturer of DJ products have released DJM-800, an audio mixing console capable of correcting the key of the track while it is being played. Allen & Heath has teamed up with Mixed In Key to release music software that analyzes MP3 and WAV files and determines the musical key of every file. MixShare frequently updates a freeware utility called Rapid Evolution which can also detect the musical key, in addition to the BPM, of audio files. MixMeister has continued to offer “harmonic mixing” features in their DJ software. Traktor DJ Studio software from Native Instruments and Torq from M-Audio display “Key” columns in their interfaces to allow for easy sorting of songs by key as does Virtual DJ from Atomix as of version 5.0.

There has only been one software key detection accuracy comparison to date, initiated by Camelot.

DJing for Dummies book, published in the US on January 29th, 2007, and in the UK on December 1st, 2006, includes a chapter dedicated to harmonic mixing called “Building a Foolproof Set.”

Reading further I read that lots of top djs are using this technique, Paul Van Dyk, Tiesto, Markus Schulz and the number one dj in the world Armin Van Buuren. Back to the harmonic mixing site, theres a guide which explains how it all works. In principle it works by using the dominate key of the song/track. Then using the Camelot system/wheel to play tracks in the key up or down from that one. So if you were doing a set, you could start at 3B then go up to 4B,then 5B, then 6B. You also seem to get a interesting effect going between Minor (A) and Major (B). There's also the idea of a energy boost where you jump a load of keys, so from 6B to 9B should boost the mix if you do a break a pose to a long mix. So in theory it seems ok and its nice to have a rough formula to this stuff, being a logical person. Even guides like this make sense.

But what really bugs me or makes me think Snake oil is the lack of mixes to compare on the site, wording like It will sound like a professional mash-up made in the studio, even if you are mixing on live DJ equipment. And finally the secret to the perfect DJ mix, which had me banging my head against the floor.

This is a special technique that is used by hundreds of top DJs. If you release and sell your CDs, this mix will get higher review scores. If you're making a mix for your friends, there's a higher chance that they will burn it onto CDs and copy it to their iPods.

This magic “sauce” creates the perfect DJ mix:

  1. Your first track must be an instrumental (no vocals)
  2. Your second track must have vocals
  3. The duration of your first track must be shorter than 2 minutes 30 seconds
  4. The duration of your second track must be shorter than 4 minutes
  5. All subsequent tracks must be shorter than 5 minutes

This trend appears on many successful DJ CDs. Try it yourself and hear how good it sounds.

Now to be fair, I'm just a ex-vinyl dj who played in a few clubs and bars in the past and now djing on my balcony using the Pacemaker after dropping djing on laptops. But to me music is like art, its very subjective. For example yesterday I was listening to greg downey whos number 82 in the world, his technique was great but his style of mixing wasn't great, it was just in my mind too all over the place. Maybe it was hard because the crowd was all over the place. Matt Everson also was technically great but boy oh boy did he love to play with the tracks and mixer. He even opted for a bit of scratching in the middle of the set. Very high energy but i'm not so sure.

So is Harmonic mixing snakeoil for djs? Well after looking else where maybe not in concept but there are companies which are leaching off the back of the concept. For free software check out Mixshare. Harmonic mixing is technique which could be useful but isn't a sure shot. I picked this up from a forum which sums it up.

I have been using mixed in keys for the last 6 month or so, It scans your tracks and puts them into a harmonic category, If you stick to the rules of mixed in key you can move out from one track into 3 other key ranges or of course stick to the range you are already in, there are in total 24 possible ranges to work around.
The only issue with this is tracks have different bpm's so pitching up or down to create a mix will then of course change the key range again, so to truly harmonic mix you need the facility to key lock each track.
I never key lock as I feel this adds a little variation to my style of mixing, i.e. if it sounds harmonically perfect every time it makes you lazy, throw in the track and let it ride “where is the fun in that” I like to work to make it right, if something clashes cut the EQ to make it fit ect ect.
There are so many things you do to make a mix, Mixed in key is just another tool to add another something to your style, but used in variation along with everything else.
For me Mixed in key has turned into a way of cataloguing my tracks, as I find it hard getting familiar with new tracks until I’ve played them a few time, this might sound strange but a digital file is not like having a new record where you physically have something to hold with a label on it in order to know what it is.

I'm tempted to do two similar mixes to see what the difference is and if people prefer one over the other.

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Author: Ianforrester

Senior firestarter at BBC R&D, emergent technology expert and serial social geek event organiser.