DJ Mineh Ishida

Mixed in Key – Harmonic Mixing Tutorial

By Chris Bacon (DJ Bacon)

Photo: DIAC Images - Creative Commons

Harmonic Mixing In a Nutshell

In the past it took me hours of listening to tracks and pairing down “rough draft” playlists for me to finally churn out a west coast swing music set that I didn’t think was total rubbish. Harmonic mixing is a system for selecting tracks that complement each other when played in succession (For More Information of Harmonic Mixing, see #Harmonic Mixing Article#).  In theory, by using complementary keys, one should be able to better control the energy in a room full of dancers. You can easily create a naturally progressing flow to the mix while reducing the time it takes to choose the next track in line from hours to seconds and removing the possibility of rubbish.

What Is A Musical Key?

Without going into great detail, a musical key is a major or minor scale around which a piece of music is based on.  In order to find the key of a song you are listen to you must find scale being used in the piece. Then the note at the center of that scale, or tonic, for which that scale is named.  Some artists, be it on purpose or by a magically wonderful fluke, do not write music in only one key which makes it even harder to pin down. Some people can train themselves to do this by ear; I am not one of those people. With that said, the process of manually keying your music is extremely time consuming and takes a fair amount of prior music theory knowledge.

Enter Mixed In Key

Mixed In Key is a powerful tool developed by Zplane Development whose sole purpose for existing is to analyze key signature(s) and beats per minute and then write them into the ID3 tag of your track.  The program is strongly geared toward use for key detection in electronic key detection, and as such is championed by some of the most renown DJs on earth (David Guetta, Kaskade, Sebastian Ingrosso, Paul Oakenfold, ect.). It takes the work out of finding out which key on the Camelot wheel your song falls on and allows you to focus on other factors you should consider while choosing the next track in line.  Naturally, I was pretty skeptical of how accurate a program running an algorithm so complex could be.  Sponsorships can be bought, and there are other programs out there with key detection functions that are notoriously bad. So before shelling out the $58 to buy a piece of software that was potentially the same or worse than what I already had, I did some research on it. As it turns out, the accuracy tends to float around the 80% range (http://tinyurl.com/MIKvsBP) (http://tinyurl.com/77z9uon). No program is as accurate as a keen human ear armed with a background in music theory. But for those of us who don’t have a technical music background or perfect pitch, or for those of us with hundreds or thousands of tracks that need to be processed, 80% is a pretty attractive rate of success. After having personally used the program to key my west coast swing music, and repeatedly compared it to Virtual DJ for 4 months I can hear the difference in the quality of flow in my set.

How Does It Work?

One of the biggest advantages in using MiK5 aside from its reputation for accuracy it’s extreme ease of use.  After opening the application you are taken immediately to the Analyze Songs tab and presented with the option to add your music folder or specific file(s).  At this time it would be a good idea to select the Personalize Tab, click the Update Tags field on the left and designate exactly how you would like MiK5 to behave after it’s analyzed your west coast swing music. Return to the Analyze Songs tab and make your choices. Press Ok and let the program begin analyzing your tracks while you are free to do other things.  After the program has run its course Camelot wheel key tags will have been written into the track’s ID3 information (if you told it to). You also have the option of selecting the tracks hear it or see a visual representation of the waveform and key signature(s) at any given point.  Tracks that have already been analyzed appear in the Browse Collection tab when you have additional sorting options.

I’ve Got Everything The Way I Like It, Now What?

Camelot Wheel

The Camelot Wheel

In order to utilize basic harmonic mixing via the Camelot Wheel, choose a track that is one step to the left, right, inside or outside the circle from your current track and mix between songs as you normally would.  There is additional literature for advanced harmonic mixing available on the MiK5 Community website (http://community.mixedinkey.com/).

In Summary

Mixed In Key 5 and the concepts behind harmonic mixing can be powerful tools in your arsenal as a DJ.  They save you valuable time and remove the stress that comes with any guess and check method allowing you to potentially have a more engaging and personally enjoyable performance.  While all programs and workflow systems have their pitfalls, it’s my personal belief that the benefits far outweigh any risks that having a little experience and good judgment would save you from anyway.

About The Author

DJ Bacon is a West Coast Swing DJ living in the Ann Arbor, MI area. He discovered his love for music at the early age of 10 when he took up orchestral Violin. He regularly plays at monthly local WCS parties and has been a member of the West Coast Swing community as a dancer and DJ. He enjoys fueling his passion for dance as well as the passions of others and actively seeks out new stages to perform on.

  • http://www.camelotsound.com/ Mark Davis

    “No program is as accurate as a keen human ear armed with a background in music theory.” 

    Indeed!  That’s why Camelot Sound has been compiling a database of musician-keyed tracks since 1987.  With over 65,000 tracks currently keyed (>4000 additions in 2011), it is the most comprehensive musician-keyed database in the world. 

    If you would like free trial access to this work-in-progress harmonic mixing database at camelotsound.com, please email camelotATgte.net.

  • gregbo

    OK, so they’re using the Circle of Fifths as a basis for sequencing songs, by transitioning to relative or neighboring keys.  I’ve heard of similar techniques used by program directors of Top 40 radio stations during the 1960s and 1970s.

    BTW, A-Flat minor is usually referred to as G-Sharp minor, and D-Flat minor as C-Sharp minor.