Around the end of November, I entered an Open Aux contest. It means, "Submit your 25-35 minute audio file, and if we like it, we'll let you play it at the festival." And just last week, my company had a virtual offsite where we ran around in the metaverse and jumped up and down to a virtual DJ mix in one of the many worlds. (The production value was way higher than I can make it sound.) That reinforced and got me thinking again about what I learned while making my own far inferior DJ set:
While listening to mixes to develop my taste, I decided:
- Bad: mixes that sound the same all the way through. I want to hear the breaks between songs and some kind of contrast. Deep house is particularly guilty of this, but maybe not my cup of tea.
- Bad: mixes that change songs too quickly. I need at least two choruses or drops for each song before going to the next, otherwise I feel like the song is incomplete.
- Good: mixes that bring out the best in actual mixing. DJing is all about pulling X from one song and Y from another and putting them together to make new things. Established DJ/producers sometimes play their songs all the way through, but I don't find it particularly engaging unless I know the artist and song.
- Good: mixes that stay mostly the same tempo throughout. So you can dance to it.
Things I learned while making my mix:
- My decisions to pre-write the track order and pre-download everything were good for my current project, but I realized one reason there's a DJ tradition of mixing on the fly. As a DJ, you only need to know high-level things about a song and act accordingly. For example: Where does the chorus start and end? Where are the good one-off cue points if I want to throw in ad libs somewhere else? What songs' keys does this song's key go well with? Harmonic Mixing is a cool idea that masks a lot of music theory from DJs while still answering that question.
- Tempo is the limiting factor. Any more than 10% increase or decrease and you start getting really wonky results. Key changes are a little more OK if you make them into breaks rather than smooth transitions of one song's beat fading into another, but I'm convinced DJs just play songs that are all in the right tempo range.
- Treating a prerecorded mix like a normal production track isn't a good idea. There's too much risk involved, especially since it's a chain where each song depends on the previous. In order to make this work, you'd need to have the tracklist in mind, know it will work, download the songs, timestretch them to the correct tempos and keys, bounce them all out, put them all into one new track, line up everything, put in transitions as needed, etc. Also, "know it will work" is very chicken-and-egg at the beginning of the work.
- Ableton's Warp doesn't have any feature like "when stretching, keep this point in time constant." That made timestretching even more tedious as I'd line something up, realize it was slightly too slow, warp again, and have to line it up again, and repeat.