Learning how to plan a DJ mix is one of the most important skills that you can have as a DJ. It involves taking the time to understand the listening journey you want to take your audience on; the highs, the lows, the moments of anticipation, the transitions that instigate a switch from one piece of music to another, and the glorious openers and finishers that leave a lasting impression on the crowd, long after they have left the venue or stopped listening to your mix online.
But how does one go about achieving these desirable outcomes? There are many factors to consider but choosing the right tracks, ensuring they blend together seamlessly, and catering to the personal tastes and stylistic preferences of your audience - while slipping in a few hidden surprises - is a surefire way to grab (and retain) the attention of your audience, and potential clients who may want to hire you.
In this article, you will learn how to structure a DJ set by using the latest technology, mastering the art of harmonic mixing, and incorporating other best practices into your workflow. You will also learn how to use a program like DJ.Studio in order to streamline the process of creating higher quality DJ sets that will wow your listeners.
Learning how to plan a DJ set is an essential skill for DJ’s of all skill levels
Planning the structure of your DJ set is a great way to give your setlist a sense of purpose and direction.
When preparing a DJ set , consider the journey that you want to take your listeners on, such as the style of music that your listeners are most likely to respond to positively.
Key factors to consider when planning your DJ mix include the genre, BPM, key signature, track length, and the number of tracks that you wish to incorporate into your mix.
Don’t be afraid to sprinkle your DJ set with hidden gems that incorporate the element of surprise into your setlist.
Harmonic mixing is a great way to ensure that your tracks are compatible on a harmonic level and will work well together.
Why Is It Important to Plan Your DJ Set?#
Whether you want to become established as a live performer, build an audience online by sharing pre-recorded mixes, or promote your own original music, being able to plan ahead – and adapt to different DJ mixing scenarios – is the key to becoming a more versatile and professional DJ.
In addition, planning ahead will help you identify the intent behind your DJ sets, allowing you to make more informed decisions during the creative process and cater to your target audience.
For example, if your goal is to demonstrate your live mixing skills, then automating a lot of transitions and effects would not be the best approach to take. Why? Because it would not be an accurate representation of what you can do in a live performance setting. You would also be misleading clients that may want to hire you to perform at their venue.
Start by identifying the intent behind your DJ mixes, so you can create mixes that best demonstrate your unique skills and abilities – in a genuine and authentic manner, too.
Factors to Consider When Planning a DJ Mix#
There are many factors to consider when planning the structure of your DJ set. What is the intent behind your DJ set? Who is your target audience? And what direction do you want to take to keep your DJ set interesting and engaging?
By answering these questions, you will have the necessary ingredients to start track selection, import those tracks into your mix, and fine-tune the transitions, creating a memorable musical adventure.
Determine the Intent of Your DJ Mix#
Do you hope to become established as a live DJ performer? Perhaps build an online audience? Or increase the exposure of your original electronic music? Either way, you need to figure out what the purpose your DJ set, plus the DJ equipment and DJ software you will use.
This is especially important if you plan to share your DJ set with key decision makers, such as venue owners, booking agents, and clients who may want to book you for private functions such as birthday parties and weddings.
Your DJ set should be an accurate demonstration of what you can achieve in a live setting. If that is your goal, of course. Otherwise, you risk misleading your target audience and potential clients, resulting in a potential loss of reputation and business.
Identify Your Target Audience#
Obviously, you want to create a DJ set that appeals to your audience. But who exactly is your audience, anyway? Are they the kind of crowd that wants to dance non-stop for hours on end? Or would they rather listen to a more chilled out, downtempo set that they can put on in the background?
Trying to please everyone at the same time might not be the best idea, especially if you are just starting out and trying to get your foot in the door. The key to overcoming this problem is to identify your target audience.
One way to do this is to hone in on a particular style of music. Perhaps incorporate a few different genres, to give your DJ set an identifiable style. This way your listeners can quickly ascertain who you are and the kind of music that you specialize in.
By attracting the interest of like-minded people, who have a similar taste in music to you, you will have more fun creating DJ sets and you will be more likely to attract a core target audience.
The Direction of Your Mix#
There are a lot of choices to make if you want to give your DJ set a sense of direction.
This relates to more than just track selection. It has to do with more advanced concepts, such as
the flow of all your tracks,
the different energy levels that your listeners will experience,
the strength of your opening and closing tracks.
With so many choices to make, planning a DJ set can feel overwhelming at first, but with enough practice your skills and confidence will grow.
Most importantly, your DJ set should be an accurate representation of who you are as an artist, and not just pandering to the most popular styles and trends right now.
Crafting Mixes 101#
Now that you know what to consider when planning your DJ set, the next step is to make a plan. With the information you have so far, you should have a clear idea on the intent of your perfect mix, your target audience, and the direction that you want to take. Here is where the real magic begins, and your plan becomes reality.
1. Establish a Framework#
The framework of your DJ set is all about the journey you want to take your listeners on.
Do you intend to keep the energy at maximum level all the way through? Or would you rather have peaks and valleys throughout the mix, where the energy gradually rises and falls over time, before culminating in a dramatic climax? This is the kind of thinking you need to adopt to create a memorable listening journey.
Fortunately, there are established frameworks you can use as a reference. The three most common frameworks for DJ mixes are:
Wave – Where you have multiple high points and low points in your mix, similar to how waves in the ocean rise and fall. If you have a DJ set with 20 tracks, you could have tracks 1, 5, 10, 15, and 20 be the high points of the mix. And then the other tracks that fit in-between will be less intensive, so as to establish a sense of contrast and dynamics.
Ramp – With a Ramp framework, you have the mix gradually rise up in intensity from beginning to end, culminating in a dramatic climax. Under this formation, you could start slow and quiet, and then make each proceeding faster and more intense in energy. You can also do the opposite effect, where you begin with a high-intensity opener, and then spend the rest of the set gradually simmering down the mix, resulting in a calm and soothing listening experience.
Story – A more abstract, advanced type of framework that is not bound by genre, tempo and harmonic matching, or energy levels. The structure of the DJ set is looser and more unpredictable than the previous two frameworks. It aims to include many twists and turns, transitioning from one genre to the next, and hopping back and forth between intensity levels. Since this is a more advanced type of framework, it is only suggested that more experienced DJ’s consider this approach, as they have fully mastered the basics and know how to bend the rules while still staying within their limits.
2. Choose your tracks#
Once you have settled on a framework, start adding tracks to your library. If the tracks are coming from your personal collection, make sure the files are in a high quality audio format. At least MP3 320kbs or lossless FLAC. Also, avoid using tracks that are ripped straight from an existing DJ set, as they may already have transitions into (and out of) songs that are not in your mix.
3. Use surprise elements#
Even if you are sticking to a particular genre or style, don’t be afraid to bend the rules every now and then. Consider adding a few individual tracks that are outside of your preferred genre.
Maybe, for the next track, choose a homegrown favorite of the genre, so that your audience will recognize it and relate to it on a deeper level. Another great way to add variety is to include tracks that have vocals, and then tracks that do not have vocals.
4. Determine the length of your DJ mix#
There is no set limit for how long a DJ set is. While the recommended amount is around the 1-hour mark, there is plenty of wiggle room to go shorter or longer. Don’t compromise on your vision if it means stretching out your ideas for longer than you originally intended.
However, keep in mind the intent of your DJ set. If your goal is to share your mix with potential clients, then lean on the shorter side. These key decision makers, probably, receive multiple DJ mixes a day. So, start mixing shorter sets, and they make take notice and listen.
Also, the number of tracks will influence the length of your mix. A 1-hour mix with 10 tracks will have less transitions (and thus, less work for you) than a 1-hour mix with 20 tracks. The more tracks you use, the shorter those sections will be. And the less time you will have to prepare for each transition.
Make sure the number of tracks you use, and the length of those tracks, matches the desired intensity level of your mix, and the level of activity you wish to have in your mix.
5. Choose different starting points for each track#
When creating a DJ set, you don’t have to start each new track at the same point. You have the freedom to choose, what you think, is the best section of a particular track. You can then transition into that pivotal moment for maximum effect. For example, instead of introducing a new track at the 0:30 second mark, you could introduce that same track at the 2:30 second mark, during the breakdown section and before the final chorus. Not only does this add much-needed variety, but also allows you to present your favorite tracks in a fresh new way.
6. Use cue points#
Cue points, also know as hot cues, are an effective way to label certain elements of your live mix, such as where a transition may occur or when you wish to use a certain effect. A good DJ will also use cue points to jump to a specific point in a song, thus speeding up the transition process.
Harmonic Mixing: Every DJs Secret Weapon#
If you have spent any amount of time researching the art of DJing, then you have probably come across the concept of Harmonic Mixing. And if you haven’t, well, you’re in luck. We’ll quickly cover what harmonic mixing is and how you can use it to create more cohesive DJ mixes.
Harmonic mixing is the practice of making sure that each track in your DJ set is closely aligned, in terms of being in the same, or similar, key. In western music theory, the key to a piece of music determines what notes should, and should not, be played in that key.
Take for example the key of C Major, which uses the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. Now, if you were to transition to a new track, you have two choices. You could either transition to another track in C Major or to one in a closely related key.
In this context, the obvious choice would be G Major, which uses the notes G, A, B, C, D, E, and F#.
Notice how the only difference between the two is the F note?
In C Major it is a standard F but in G Major it is an F#. This makes these two tracks highly compatible, as the only difference between the two (at least, in terms of the notes they use) is the one note.
You could also go in the opposite direction. How? By choosing a corresponding minor key. Which, in the case of C Major, would be A minor, as that uses the notes A, B, C, D, E, F, and G.
Harmonic Mixing in DJ.Studio#
Fortunately, these days, there are many DJ software tools that take the guesswork out of harmonic mixing for you. Instead of figuring out the key to a track on your own, you can simply import the track into the right DJ software and it will do all the calculations for you, accurately determining what the right key is.
Even better still, more and more DJ mix programs are starting to incorporate harmonic mixing into their workflow, but DJ.Studio has taken this to another level.
When you start a new project in DJ.Studio, simply pick tracks from your personal library or streaming service of choice. Once the tracks have been imported into DJ.Studio, the DJ software will analyze each track.
After a few seconds, it will tell you what the BPM and the key is of your newly imported tracks. DJ.Studio also goes one step further by telling you how compatible each track is in terms of their placement in your setlist. You can then manually rearrange the setlist. Or you can use the Automix to find the best way how to order your tracklist following the harmonic mixing guidelines.
Want to know another great thing about DJ.Studio? If you don't have tracks in your mix to make it fully harmonic, DJ.Studio will scan your library and suggest more compatible tracks.
Read more tips how to use DJ.Studio here.
A Word of Caution#
Harmonic mixing is a great way to create more cohesive and seamless DJ mixes. However, just like any tool or technique, the practice is not flawless. There is the potential for things to go wrong if you use it incorrectly, or if you rely too heavily on it to do all the heavy lifting for you.
As previously mentioned, the element of surprise is an incredibly powerful ingredient to have in your DJ mix. And while harmonic mixing is a great way to establish cohesiveness, it can ruin the element of surprise. Furthermore, it can make each track in your mix sound too-samey, especially if they are all in the same or similar key range.
How do you overcome this problem? Simple. Flex your creative muscles and take risks. Use harmonic mixing as a useful reference. But don’t be afraid to go against the grain and step out of your comfort zone. Consider mixing tracks that are of a completely different genre, tempo, and harmonic range. Transition from an incredibly loud and harsh track to a quiet, peaceful track. You may be surprised by the results.
While this experimental approach may take time to develop, the results are worth it. Your DJ mixes will do a better job of keeping the listener engaged. They will have more color, variety, and spark. And most importantly: they will be a more accurate representation of who you are, and what you bring to the table.
Plan Your Next Mix With DJ.Studio#
Learning how to plan a DJ set is one of the most effective ways to improve the quality, enjoyability, and timelessness of your mixes. Being able to plan ahead may also help speed up your process, and enable you to adapt to a wider variety of DJ scenarios. Whether your goal is to become a live DJ, create a radio show, or attract potential clients, planning ahead is a vital ingredient to success.
Fortunately, these days, there are plenty of tools out there to help you become a better DJ. And this is where a program like DJ.Studio can help you make more cohesive and seamless DJ mixes. With DJ.Studio the world is at your fingertips. You can import tracks, re-arrange them based on harmonic and BPM compatibility, and then fine-tune the transitions with creative effects. The result is a more memorable and consistently engaging listening experience.
To learn more about DJ.Studio, and the kind of techniques that you can use to improve your DJ mixing skills, check out the DJ.Studio blog for valuable hints and tips, along with the DJ.Studio academy to get a feel for how the DJ software works.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
- Should I Plan My DJ Sets?
- How Do You Structure a DJ Mix?
- How Many Songs Are In a 2-Hour DJ Set?
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