Harmonic Mixing with Rekordbox, Serato DJ, Traktor, XDJ RX2/CDJs
Do you want your mixes to sound better? One of the easiest ways of creating smooth mixes that blend together almost seamlessly is to mix in key. There is a bit of music theory to understand to take full advantage of mixing key but luckily for us, recent updates to DJ software and hardware is making it easier than ever. Let’s get stuck in!
What is a Key of music?
To begin we need to learn about three key terms that are used when talking about the key of a piece of music. These often get confused so it’s good to get these cleared up and understand them fully before we move on. If this sounds a bit confusing don’t worry, we won’t need all this information to perform a mix in key.
1) Key: A collection of notes that group together to create a major or minor scale.
2) Scale: The notes belonging to a key in ascending and descending order by pitch starting and ending on the root note of the key.
For example, if you know that your current track is in C major, we can look at that key and find that the note G is in the scale.
(C D E F G A B C)
With this information we know that a song recorded in G will harmonically mix into our song nicely. However the note F# isn’t in the C major scale, so we know that song will not mix in key. Now don’t worry we don’t expect DJ’s to know all this, luckily for us there are various ways to both detect the key of a song, and show us which other songs will harmonically mix!
Ways to show a tracks key
Circle Of Fifths
The amazing thing about musical keys is that they follow a predictable harmonic pattern. The starting note will always have a progression of notes that naturally follows, thanks to the scale system. This pattern within the scale also fits into the key perfectly, meaning that we can map out the keys to know which key will sound best when mixed into another, this style of mixing is called Harmonic Mixing. The circle of fifths shows the relationship among the 12 tones of the chromatic scale, their corresponding key signatures, and the associated major and minor keys in one handy wheel shaped diagram.
The Camelot Wheel
The Camelot Wheel is a fantastic way to not only visualise keys, but see what other keys would mix in well. The Camelot Wheel gives each key a number and letter tag such as 9A, rather than using the traditional naming scheme of Em or Eminor, and gives it a colour. Keys are denoted by numbers and A/B for minor/major keys respectively, so E major is 12B and D-flat minor is 12A. It’s easy to see by glancing at the camelot wheel that a song recorded in F (7B) would mix harmonically into a song recorded in D minor (7A).
Open Key Notation
Very similar to the Camelot Wheel, the open key notation is an open source method of visualising keys, whereas the Camelot Wheel is a copyrighted system by Mixed In Key. Used by Traktor, the system is very similar to the original circle of fifths. The only difference is that the Open key uses D / M for major / minor, based on German (dur / moll) rather than English (major / minor). So F major is 12d and D minor is 12m.
Finding the Key of a track
Finding the key of a piece of music used to involve a thorough knowledge of the above musical theory and a good ear to find the key manually. However, these days we have various pieces of software that can analyse our tracks and find the key for us, they are usually very accurate and can even find other information such as the BPM and beat grid information at the same time.
Mixed In Key
The software that started it all, Mixed In Key, is a fantastically accurate piece of software and actually developed the Camelot Wheel! Backed by many professional DJ’s, Mixed In Key analyses your track and then gives you an option where you want the information placed in your tracks data. You can have it written into the various places within the tracks data including the comments, track title or key section. Because this is a standalone application it works with every other piece of software and the option to write the key into the track title is ideal for USB users who may be working on older CDJ’s that don’t display key Information. There is a handy guide within the software on how to get the key to show in other softwares should you want to.
The software can now detect the key when analysing songs within the library and is essential to use the Pitch Play features included in the “Pitch n Time” extension. Even without the Pitch n Time expansion pack Serato gives users the ability to analyse Key and display it in various ways within the library.
Unlike other software in this list Serato gives you the ability to display the Key in a system that suits you best. This includes Camelot (Mixed In Key Style), Classical (Musical Annotation), Open Key Notation (as used by Traktor) or Original Tag (how ever the Key is written in the ID3 data). You can set your preference within the Library View Preferences in Serato’s settings and you can even chose to secondary organise your library by Key which we find extremely useful. For example you may have your library organised by BPM but did you know by Holding CTRL (CMD on OSX/macOS) on your keyboard, and clicking on the Key column it will now organise the key’s into harmonic order!
Pioneer’s Rekordbox can both analyse and display Key information within a track. However Rekordbox only displays the Key information in Classic form which is fine if you can remember the circle of fifths from the top of your head but it’s quite a bit harder than Serato or Traktors implementation. With this in mind a lot of Rekordbox users use Mixed In Key and write the Camelot Tag to either the track Title or Comments section. To find songs within the harmonic range of the selected track in Rekordbox you can use the Related Tracks tab to the left hand side and then select Key. This will then display all the tracks within your library that would harmonically mix well.
Pioneer CDJ/XDJ USB Players
For the following to work please ensure the songs on your Rekordbox library are analysed with the Key Information before exporting the tracks to your USB and that your CDJ/XDJ players are linked with an ethernet cable. When scrolling through a playlist in the browse section any song that will mix harmonically will show with a green key icon next the BPM. Please note this icon shows tracks that are harmonically compatible with the MASTER deck.
Alternatively you can search your library by key, within this view you can scroll to the key of the playing song highlighted in green. Once you select this, harmonically compatible keys will display and you can enter any of these keys and view the tracks inside.
Native Instruments have chosen to use the Open Key Notation system within Traktor. It’s very similar to the Camelot wheel and as such is quite easy to follow. Unfortunately Traktor doesn’t show the colour of the wheel as Serato does but there is a handy shortcut within Traktor’s library that allows you to view all the songs within harmonic range. Simply press the magnifying glass icon next to the key on any track in the library view to instantly see all the compatible songs within your library. It’s a quick and easy way to navigate through your compatible tracks without having to change views or settings.
So now you know how to find the key of a track and how to display them in your software it’s time to start mixing in key. Now should you mix in key all the time? Well it’s a much discussed topic but in short, it’s up to you as a DJ. If you are mixing two tracks with the melodies overlapping, then you should always try to mix in key as it will blend and sound so much better. However if your mix will be completed over a drum loop for example there isn’t much benefit to mixing in key as melodic sounds aren’t found in simple drum loops, but in the synths and vocals. When planning a mix, we recommend you take into account the keys of your tracks but that’s not to say you shouldn’t mix two songs that aren’t compatible. Mixing in key is just another tool to make you sound better as a DJ and isn’t a strict rule you must abide by! Have a go for yourselves and see what tracks mix together harmonically, you’ll be surprised how good some of them sound!