Better Mixing

The Foundations of a Better Mix

If you want to improve your mixing after getting to grips with the basics of beatmatching, there's some fundementals that you can look at, one by one, in order to improve. This doesn't take into account creativity - by which I mean things like scratching, effects processors, samplers, multiple decks etc - it's just looking at how you mix from one tune to another, and addressing each of the points that could make it a better mix than before.

In most cases, it becomes more important that your equipment is up to the job. If your mixer doesn't have EQ's, doesn't have gain controls (and more importantly a way to monitor the input level of your tunes) or doesn't even have headphone mix - then it's time to start saving up for something better.

As always this information is covered in fuller detail in DJing for Dummies.

Here's the areas (in no particular order) you can address to improve a mix:
  • Matching the input level of your tunes
  • Checking the output level of your mix
  • EQ Control
  • Using Channel Faders instead of the Cross-Fader
  • Mix placement and phrase matching
  • Harmonic Mixing
  • Driving Rhythms

Matching the input levels of your tunes

This is where it's really important to have a gain control, and a display to show you the incoming signal strength. It's easy to do - if you have a mixer like the DJM600, you can just look at the LED lines on each channel, and use the gain control to adjust the next tune you want to play, so the LED's on it match the one currently playing. Then, as long as you have the EQ's set to their normal playout position when doing this, when you mix from tune to tune (with the channel (vertical) faders at the same positions as each other) there shouldn't be a drop in the output volume from the mixer.

Some mixers require you to press a button to change the master display to the incoming level display - check with your manual to find out how to do this with your mixer (if even just to check if you CAN!)

Checking the Output Level of the mix

Sometimes, you'll mix two tunes together, and if you're using the cross-fader, as you get through the halfway point, you'll notice a drop in the output volume (most people call it a 'dip'). Go back over that same mix again, but this time, take a look at the output meter on the mixer - and see if, in fact, rather than a dip in the volume, there's actually been a BOOST in volume BEFORE you got to the halfway point on the crossfader.

There's a couple of cause that might make this happen - the first is that you might have set the Gain Controls incorrectly, and there's enough of a boost in the next tune that when you mix both of your tunes together, there's a doubling up of volume, which then dips out as you pass the halfway point. But, the more likely culprits are the next two foundation points, EQ's and problems using the Cross-Fader.

There's a video of how to do this on the Videos page, and on my YouTube channel.

EQ Control

There's two parts to EQ control

  • Sound Control - controlling the overall sound of the mix
  • A tool to aid the fluidity/seamlessness of the mix

Again, there's a short video about the basics of the EQ section on the Videos page, and on my YouTube channel.

Sound Control

This is the part of EQ control that can relate to problems with the output of your mix (dips or boosts). If you have two tunes playing at full volume with their bass EQ's set to full, there will be a LOT of bass in your mix, and there's a very good chance that the overall bass heavy sound will be a lot louder than you want it to be.

But not even considering the actual transition between tunes, you should listen to everything you play and use the EQ's to try to 'sweeten' the sound. If there's not enough High-End 'crisp' sounds to the hi-hats and vocals, then you might want to increase the 'High' EQ. If the vocals are really shrill and taking over the rest of the tune, you may want to reduce the MID control - and if there's not enough bass 'thoooomp' to the tunes, then look to increase the bass EQ.

You can do this in the headphones before starting a mix, but you might also need to re-address this when you hear the music through the speakers too. This is something you'll get to grips with more as you listen to and play your tunes - you'll remember that Tune A needs the bass boosted and the mid range cut out, whereas the next tune you play is way to bass heavy, so you'll cut the bass and raise the high-end.

Once you've decided on the optimum settings for your tune for normal playout, you can then look at how to use the EQ's to tidy up and help a mix sound even better.

EQ's helping the mix

This is another subject that doesn't have a set 'rule' on how to do it. There's (more) foundations to think about and build on though. If you know the basic approach to mixing using EQ's, you can then tweak this approach for tunes that need a slightly different Bass/Mid/Hi EQ setting.

The most basic mix using EQ's is to reduce the Bass EQ on the incoming track as you bring the tune into the mix, and then as you take the one that you were playing out of the mix, take out the bass on THAT track while bring in the bass on the new track.

This VERY BASIC quick bullet point of a mix between Tune A (the one currently playing) and Tune B (the new one you want to mix in) assumes that your bass 'kill point' is at around the 9 o'clock point on a rotary control - and 12 o'clock for normal playout:

  • On your new tune (Tune B) set the bass EQ to 9 o'clock
  • Move the crossfader into the middle
  • Reduce the bass EQ on Tune A to 9 o'clock
  • Increase the bass EQ on Tune B at the same time as above
  • Move the cross fader all the way over the Tune B

By reducing the bass on Tune B as you bring it in, you're 'hiding' it in the mix until you increase its bass EQ, swapping it with the one currently playing. In reality though, because both tunes will be playing at full volume by the time you get to the middle of the crossfader, it won't actually be that subtle, and can sound a bit 'messy'.

So, you can look at using the Mid range and High EQ's as well as the bass EQ - and you can also look at where in the cross-fader position you swap over EQ's. In most instances, doing the swap AFTER the centre point sounds a lot tidier than before, or right in the middle, of the cross fader control. This, again, is completely tune dependant. Experiment with what you're playing, and what gives you the best sound.

No matter how you set the EQ's though, if you're only using the cross-fader to mix from tune to tune, there will always be a point where both of the tunes are playing as loud as each other, and might cause the mix to sound messy. This is where the next foundation point comes into play.

Using Channel Faders instead of the Cross-Fader

This is covered in more detail with supporting images in DJing for Dummies.

The problem with a cross-fader is that it has a very strict way of taking out one tune while bringing in the next one - called the 'Cross Fader Curve'. And though mixers often have controls to vary the curve (thus varying how quickly a tune is brought in or taken out) it is still a very strict 'curve' that has no room for tweaking during the mix if you hear things starting to sound a bit messy or weak.

However, if you turn off the crossfader (or leave it set right in the middle) and only use the channel (vertical) faders to mix your tunes, you have full control over how you bring in and take out the tunes in the mix. If you feel it's all getting a bit messy and powerful, you can reduce the amount of the incoming or outgoing tune at will, and importantly, independantly of how the other ones sounds (ie - on a crossfader, making one play quieter makes the other one play louder - using just channel faders means you can keep one at the same volume and make only the other one quieter or louder.)

This then, is the ultimate control over your mix. You can make sure the mix will always sound smooth, with no sound boosts or dips - and then when you combine using your channel fader with using EQ controls, you can make the sound of the mix as seamless and as smooth as you like.

Mix placement and Phrase matching

This is covered in LOADS more details in DJing for Dummies.

Once you've got the sound of the mix sorted, one of the last ingredients is to make sure you're mixing the right parts of the two tunes with each other. If you check out the Beats and Bars page, it'll give you a lot more information about how Beats and Bars make up a tune - this is vital if you want to look at proper placement for your mixes.

I typically break a tune into these sections
  • Intros
  • Verses
  • Choruses
  • Breakdowns
  • Outros
  • And the principle of Mix Placement is to not only look at matching the bass beats, or even matching the first beat of a bar, but matching these sections of a tune so that as one tune goes from verse to chorus, or chorus to outro the other tune changes from one section to another.

    Assuming that two tunes (A and B) have an identical structure like this:
  • Intro
  • Verse
  • Chorus
  • Breakdown
  • Verse
  • Chorus
  • Breakdown
  • Verse
  • Chorus
  • Chorus
  • Outro
  • And also assuming that the relevant sections are all of the same beat duration (ie, when you have both tunes playing at the same speed (BPM) the sections will be the same duration on both tunes) then the most simplest mix would be the start the Intro of Tune B (the one you want to mix in) at the beginning of the last Chorus in Tune A - which will mean that as Tune A goes into its Outro, Tune B goes into its first Verse.

    This will happen automatically and seamlessly (in this instance) as long as you start the very first bass drum beat of Tune B's Intro on the very first bass drum beat of the last Chorus in Tune A.

    This isn't as complicated as it sounds (believe me!) as long as you know your tunes really well. By listening to music for long enough, you can start to hear how the tune is made up, and more importantly, you can hear the end of phrase markers that indicate where you are in a tune, and let you know that a section is about to change (from a breakdown into a verse for instance.

    These end of phrase markers can appear as drum rolls, symbal crashes, a drop of the beat for one bar, a vocal sample, a woosh, almost anything - but what is constant is that it'll signal you're coming to the end of a phrase.

    What's a phrase you ask? Well, this is why you should have read the Beats and Bars page. But, simply:
    • 4 beats make a bar
    • Four Bars make a phrase
    • Phrases multiply to make sections

    Remember, a section can be a verse, chorus, intro, outro or breakdown. But, if you also look at how beats make phrases, you'll notice that I don't say four phrases make a section. Sometimes, only 1 phrase will a section - or 2, or 4, or 8, 12, 16 - it all depends on how the artist wrote the track. Again, you'll find the main contstant is that apart from a section maybe only being 1 phrase long, it'll hardly ever be an odd number of phrases, and will most likely be a multiple of 4 if it's not 1 or 2 phrases in length.

    Refining your mix placement to make sure both tunes change a section at the tune time is one of the biggest 'advanced' improvement you can make to your mixing once you've mastered beatmatching. You'll need to analyse your tunes, pratice, and have patience, especially when the tunes you're mixing DON'T have identical structure, and identical sections like the example above - but it's something that'll completely transform your mixing skills.

    I really do advise checking the Beats and Bars page - and reading more about this in my book - but if it's still confusing you, please get in touch.

    Harmonic Mixing

    As always. this is covered in LOADS more details in DJing for Dummies - but check out DJ Prince's website dedicated to Harmonic Mixing in the meantime too.

    Harmonic mixing relates to matching the musical key of the tunes you're playing. Sometimes, two tunes can sound great together, but then the next tune you put into the mix sounds terrible, as though it's out of tune with the one currently playing - and simply, that's because it is - and this is why DJs use harmonic mixing to make the mix sound great.

    One of the simplest ways to do this is to get a piece of software (I recommend MixedInKey) to calculate the key of your tunes, and then use the Camelot Easymix System to calculate what key would match with the one you're currently playing.

    MixedInKey will give you a result for the key of your tunes like 6A, or 3B or 10A etc - the A being major, and the B being Minor keys - and then you can refer to the Camelot Easymix System (shown below - that sets out the keys like the hours on a clock - 4A and 4B are at 4 o'clock, 9A and 9B are at 9 o'clock etc).

    Using this wheel - finding a theoretical harmonic mix is as simple as finding a tune that has a key either side of the one your tune is, or changing the letter to a minor major. For example, if you have a 6B tune, you can mix with a 5B or a 7B tune (either side of 6B) or you can mix it with a 6A (Minor) tune too.

    I say theoretical, as two things can sometimes mess with this. The first, is simply that you'll have changed the pitch of your tune in order to beatmatch - and the pitch control literally changes the pitch (not just the speed (unless you have a Master Tempo control)) of the tune, then if you have a 6B tune, and you increase the tune by 6%, you have dramatically changed the key of the tune - you've moved it SEVEN places on the wheel, making it now a 1B tune. If you took off 6%, you'd move 7 places to the LEFT of the one you're on - in this instance, turning a 6B tune into 11B.

    The clearest way to cover all this is actually just to send you to the MixedInKey website, more specifially to a thread in the MixedInKey Community which covers how pitch affects the key.

    I said two things. The other thing is simply that though a readout and a number might tell you something will (or won't work) sometimes, your ear, or the parts of the tune you're mixing will tell you different. It's not often that tunes that should mix harmonically don't - but it does happen (a lot of that has to do with the final fundemental, 'Driving Rhythms') but more likely, two tunes which, according to the Camelot Easymix System might not mix well, actually mix perfectly well.

    This often is simply because you're mixing beats and non-musical sections over each other - so there isn't actually a key to clash - but also, often because a key change, a 'clash' if you will, actually sounds incredible, and is the effect you're looking for, rather than something you're fighting against.

    But, the last thing I'll say about harmonic mixing is not to get too worked up about it. Yes, if two tunes sound terrible together, I advise that maybe it's not the best of mixes to do - but just because a computer calculation tells you something will, or won't work - shouldn't be the basis of whether you mix tunes together or not. Use your ears, use your experience of the tunes, and use your creativity to throw tunes into a mix - not some defined rule and structure which you don't feel you can break out of.

    I don't key my tunes, I don't refer to the Camelot Easymix system, yet I still create clean sounding 'in tune' mixes. Experience, memory and confidence will always outweigh a computer readout.

    In music at least...

    Driving Rhtyhms

    This subject really is best read about in my book, but check out the 'Lectures' on this site too - the one about Driving Rhythms, with examples, will hopefully clear up any questions you have.

    Driving Rhythms are exactly that - they're the parts of the tune that drive it on. The bass beat is all very nice, but it's a sold 'Thunk, Thunk, Thunk'. The Hi-Hat pattern, the bass melody, even the main hook-melody to the tune all give it pass and drive it along. Depending on the rhythm you're mixing, it can be really easy, or really tricky to match them - alternating them can be incresibly powerful, and sticking with the same one can give a great feeling of continiuity.

    It really is easier to talk about it than it is to write it, so if you want an explanation of Driving Rhythms and what they sound like, please check the video lecture. They are described fully in DJing for Dummies too - but it takes an entire chapter to get across the complexities and variance of them.

    But, just so you have something to read once you've watched the lecutre, simply, there's four driving rhythms to listen out for:

    Ta te
    Ta te ta
    Ta fe te te

    (Actually, there's a fifth, it's the 'offbeat' Ta, which happens in between beats.)

    Each one occurs on a beat (there's four beats in a bar)and these driving rhythms are also an extension and refinement of beatmatching. Where beatmatching only relies on getting one beat 'in-line' with another one - giving you a (small) margin for error, if you mix two tunes with versy complicated driving rhythms together, and get them even a fraction of a second out of time, then it'll sound terrible. In this instance, look at complicated hi-hat patterns. If you don't match them together, the result sounds like a mess - and it's the same with the bass melodies.

    I feel like I'm cheating a bit asking you to watch the lecture, or buy the book - and I'll be sure to think about how to put this across in a better way - but believe me, the video clip will be quicker, and easier to go through than the waffle I'll type in here trying to explain it!

    Evaluate your foundations

    I hope this all helped give you ideas on how to advance your mixing. Remember, these are just foundation points that you should address each time you approach a mix. How will it sound? How do the tunes play together? What are the driviny rhythms doing to each tune etc? - Consider them, make them the best you can, and your mixing WILL get better.