Mobile DJs looking for an edge in creating dance floor magic should consider adding harmonic mixing to their arsenal of tools. The good news is that you don’t need a doctorate degree in music theory to employ harmonic mixing. Rather, there are inexpensive and easy to use software solutions to detect a song’s key. In harmonic mixing, song combinations are selected on the basis of their musical key, so that they sound harmonious and pleasant when combined. Poor harmonic song combinations can sound dissonant and harsh, even if the tracks are perfectly beat-matched.
Particularly in the realm of electronic dance music, many top DJs primarily program their sets based on harmonic mixing. Some of my favorite DJs like Paul Oakenfold, Hernan Cattaneo, David Guetta and Kaskade rely primarily on harmonic mixing. In the world of high-energy trance music, not only are successive records programmed in compatible keys, but they tend to be steps up the musical scale, contributing to an effect of increased energy, as the DJ works dancers towards a euphoric peak.
Mixed in Key is a software product that has been developed to determine the key of a particular song. Then, using the Camelot Wheel pictured below, a DJ can pick harmonically compatible songs. Please, do not confuse the Camelot Wheel with Pat Sajak’s Wheel of Fortune! Serato DJ, a popular software program used by mobile and club DJs, includes key detection and assignment of a corresponding Camelot Wheel code. DJs can then sort their library by key/Camelot code to explore possible harmonic song combinations.
Using Mixed in Key software (currently on Version 7.0 and available as a digital download for $58), select an MP3 file to be analyzed, and in about 30 seconds, the software program will reveal a code corresponding to a particular key. For example, “Mr. Saxobeat” by Alexandra Stan was tagged as 10A, or the key of B Minor (see 10 o’clock). According to the theory of the Camelot Wheel, compatible keys would be another song in B Minor (10A), one step up to F-Sharp Minor (11A), or one step down to E Minor (9A). The “A” codes refer to minor keys; the “B” codes refer to major keys. According to Mixed in Key, “You can also mix between inner and outer wheels if you stay in the same ‘hour.’ For example, try mixing from 8A to 8B, and notice the change in melody as you go from Minor to Major.“
Let’s take current dance floor hit “Can’t Stop the Feeling” by Justin Timberlake which according to key detection software is in the key of A Minor, found in corridor 8A on the Camelot Wheel. Some possible mix combinations at similar BPMs (Beats Per Minute) would be “Kiss” by Prince (8A), “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars (7A) or “It Takes Two” by Rob Base (9A).
One popular mix among mobile DJs is Michael Jackson’s “Bille Jean” into Justin Timberlake’s “Sexyback.” According to the Camelot Wheel, these records, although while both in minor keys, are not really compatible, at 6A and 2A, respectively.
For a sample of a harmonically mixed set, visit this page on the Mixed in Key site here, and look for the “Example Mix” that mixes 32 songs harmonically in just five minutes. Can you tell the difference?
As mobile DJs, we are often expected to bang out the hits of a strict playlist and may not have the flexibility to mix harmonically. However, when given free reign to mix, as DJs we should strive to keep our dancers locked into a groove with a harmonically sound mix. To achieve a truly seamless mix, listeners should not discern any changes in the incoming record that could be detected due to a jarring key change.
A word of caution – just as it would be unwise to solely program a set based on beats per minute, so too would it be foolish to pick records solely on the Camelot Wheel. Rather, it is just another tool for a DJ to pick the perfect record for the perfect moment, and to tell a story.