Mixing In Key

Chris Macom —  February 27, 2013 — Leave a comment

Mixing in key is a great way to make a DJ set seamless, and there are more ways then ever for you to implement it into your own mixes these days. For beginner DJ’s or even seasoned professionals looking for ideas, this technique can be a valuable tool. Remember that mixing in key is a tool, and you don’t use the same tool for every job. Mixing in key will sound good most of the time but not every time. Sometimes mixing two tracks that are not in key can work. A lot of new DJ’s get into the habit of blindly mixing tracks together based solely off what key they are in, and this can be potentially disastrous. If you are playing a high energy track and mix it with a more mellow one, you could lose your crowd whether the mix was in key or not. Mixing in key is music theory. It’s best to use it as a guide and not treated as law. Sometimes rules must be broken.

Mixed in Key is the most widely used software for analyzing the key of your tracks. You tell the software which songs to analyze, and it provides you a number and letter combination in Camelot notation and adds the info to the track’s file name for easy reference in your DJ software or CDJ. While mixing, you simply reference the Camelot Wheel and mix songs which are adjacent to each other on the wheel. Easy breezy.

The Camelot Wheel is based off of the Circle of Fifths which is theory used by traditional musicians to create chord progressions. Really, the only difference is that the Circle of Fifths uses traditional music notation. If you know the Circle of Fifths already then simply include the key of the song in the file name of your track and use the Circle to start mixing in key. Although I think that Mixed in Key is decent and that the system works relatively well, I personally choose to know the traditional system of Circle of Fifths instead.

Beatport and Rekordbox provide an arguably preferable method than the Camelot system. Using notation like Amin and Bmaj is better for most musicians as it refers to the actual key of the song. Brilliant!

Most every DJ will eventually get into music production at some point and knowing standard notation and the Circle of Fifths can help you immensely with your note and chord progressions. This is why I feel that just knowing the traditional method is best because it will translate to everything music related no matter what the instrument might be. There is no reason to learn multiple systems. Just learn the Circle and be on your way to being a real musician.

This is also a great tool if you produce sample-based music. If you have a hot sample and need to add a bass or other melody, knowing what key the sample is in will make your workflow faster and limit guessing. This is also a great way to create mashups with songs that might be from different genres.

Rekordbox, Pioneer’s track management system for the CDJ, goes a step further by also marking tracks with a green light that ensures if the track will mix well with the current one playing. They also provide you with the actual key of the track next to the track name in the browser window which is nice. If I only had a green light to go by, then I would feel slightly insulted.

You’ll only get the key from Beatport if you purchased the track there, but other pay for download sites like Traxsource are also starting to provide this info as well. Eventually this will be the standard and I ensure you that Serato and Traktor will have the ability to analyze the key of your tracks as well. (UPDATE! Traktor now analyzes the key of your tracks in its latest version 2.6.1 using traditional notation.)

For all of the do-it-yourself DJs out there, you can learn how to find the key by ear. This might sound a little daunting, but can be accomplished with practice. Even if you use software to analyze your songs, eventually you will want to reach the point of knowing the key simply by listening.

To start doing this you will need a keyboard, piano, or MIDI controller and a way to listen to both it and the song you wish to analyze. The order of the keys on your keyboard from left to right are C, C sharp, D, D sharp, E, F, F sharp, G, A flat, A, B flat, B and then repeats all the way down the keyboard. Memorize this if you don’t know it. What you want to do now is to play your track. Start hitting the keys on your keyboard one at a time until you hear a note that sounds good with the track that’s playing. Try to find a few keys that work and then pick the best sounding one to ensure accuracy. Write down or remember what note you were pressing as this will be the root note of the song. To go a step further would be to label the key of the track as either minor or major, but this requires slightly more skill. In a nutshell, minor keys are typically sad, dark, and suspenseful while major ones are generally happy, bright, and triumphant sounding. Minor and major keys can be mixed together, so just knowing the letter is still very beneficial but try to label it minor or major as well. Once you have found the key, add it to your track’s file name as such and your ready to go. You may want to mix it with a track you already know the key of to test as a reference. This takes time to fully master but practicing just a little can help you to get closer to recognizing keys by ear.

As you can see, the act of mixing in key is not just a DJ tool but a robust theory for all musicians. Knowing how to use it and when to break the rules can be integral to creating complex musical progressions or DJ mixes. It is important to not rely on this method 100% of the time as it can cause your sets to sound stale as well as limit the harmonic range of your mixes.

Do you mix in key? What system and or software do you use?

Chris Macom


Chris Macom is a DJ, producer, and writer in the Detroit Metro area. Growing up in the 90's, Chris grew fond of electronic music and started collecting vinyl and DJing. Now, as a founder of both Detroit Techno House and Lost Science, Chris hopes to share with the world his experiences through music and writing.
February 2013
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