Many DJ School Amsterdam students come prepared. They have a USB-stick stuffed with tracks and watched many online tutorials about the great art of 'Mixing'. Some of them glorify 'Mixing in key' and take pride in the fact that they memorise every connectable key.
Sometimes, these are the so-called 'attic room' DJ's, who trained their skills to perfection in front of an imaginary crowd, preparing for a phone-call from Ultra Music Festival to join the line-up. Those are the ones, we have to sober up about priorities in DJ'ing.
In case you don't know: Mixing in key is way of mixing that makes the transition of two tracks smooth and unnoted as both tracks are composed in the same, or a similar sounding key. Back when DJ's played vinyl, only a hand full mastered this skill, relying on their musicality.
Nowadays, the display of the DJ-set gives away every song's key. So choosing songs that blend well tonally, is always option. There is even a widespread graphic showing all connectable keys. And the software 'Mixed in Key' has become very popular; showing how many aspiring DJ's mistake mixing in key for an essential part of spinning.
So, why sober up about creating a musical landscape in which keys never clash? The answer lies in our Big-4 learning stategy. Reading and anticipating the energy level of a crowd is the first task of a DJ. To do so, he or she has to find tracks that connect well to the momentum.
So the absolute priority in choosing the right track at the right moment, is energy level. This always surpasses the risk of any possible key clash.
In a well shaped track-collection, a DJ has more than a few good options to choose from in a certain folder on a specific moment. Now, if one of those good options happens to be in key with the track that is running, that could well be the best option.
BUT, when the vibe on the floor is good, and the in-key mix would change the atmosphere while you don't want to loose momentum, another off-key option could still the better choice!
So when DO you mix in key? If you got 'the floor' going, and you have a few great songs to choose from energy-wise, pick the one which is in-key! This way, your mix is more beautiful and will most likely keep your crowd in the state of trance you brought them in!
Still, it's a great determination, that when you look at the dancefloor, absorb the vibe and ignore all input from your display while choosing the next track, very often the song your brains come up with is in-key with the track that is running!
It's a beautiful proof of the greatness of your intuition as a DJ, when you dare to rely on it. And, an important reason to leave that attic, train your live DJ-instincts, focus on what does matter and go get that gig at Ultra!
Start with a Basic Course DJ, quickly learn when mixing in key does matter and how to make beautiful transitions. Article by Olivier Meijs, co-founder of DJ School Amsterdam.