How to Make a DJ Mix – 20 Points To Help You Smash It

How to make a DJ mix

DJ mixes are one of the best ways to get yourself out there. They show your audience and potential bookers exactly what music you play and what you are capable of. Because it is such a powerful promotion tool means you shouldn’t make it up as you go along. Besides, you have all the time you need to plan and execute.

There are many important factors when you’re considering how to make a DJ mix. These include your aim, who you want to reach, your technical ability and what tools you have available. Creating a pre-recorded mix is also an entirely different beast compared to performing live. In a club, you feed off the crowd’s energy to work out which direction your set is going to take. While they might know a set’s start, the best DJs often don’t know where they’re going to finish up. They go on just as much as a journey as the crowd themselves to.

However, when you are recording a mix at home then you are fully in control and you dictate the direction and the energy. Not only that, but you also have the opportunity to plan. So, let’s go over the most important considerations that go into how to make a DJ mix to the highest possible level.

Making a DJ Mix Is All About Intent

The key here is to work out what the actual aim of your mix is. For example, if it is to book more live gigs then you need to represent what you are capable in a live setting. There is no point spending hours making a perfect mix with multiple layers when you simply can’t recreate it in a club with standard DJ equipment.

Therefore it is a good idea, if you want to make a DJ mix to get more bookings then you’ll want to use the equipment that will be available on the night. Quite often this is simply a set of Pioneer decks (see our recommended decks here) and a mixer.

Alternatively, you may want to know how to make a DJ mix to sell or to showcase your own tunes. In this case, as the intention for the mix is repeated listening pleasure then it is okay to put more production value into them. This is where DJ software such as Ableton Live can be more useful.

Although it is possible to play and record live DJ sets with Ableton, the huge benefit is being able to go back and tweak or correct any mistakes. You can also add as many extra layers and flourishes to your mix as you want. This is a completely different approach to recording a mix than described above.

This is why knowing the intention of your mix is essential. The last thing you want to do is send a highly produced mix to a promoter and get a booking, only for them to be disappointed when you can’t mix to the same level on the standard club setup.

How to Make a DJ Mix Fully Realistic

This is another good idea, particularly when looking to book more DJ gigs. Consider whether you can actually record a live mix while playing in a club. So, if you already have a booking, plug a recorder into the mixer and record your entire set. Then label your mix with the date and venue that you played and send to any future promoters. That way they are going to know exactly what they can expect when they book you.

Who Are You Making the DJ Mix For

Knowing who you're making a mix for is key
Knowing who you’re making a mix for is key

As I touched on above, knowing your intent is vital, as is thinking about who your listener is. This is how to make a DJ mix that you know will be targeted at the right people. Thinking like this will give you guidance on which tunes to select through to the mixing style and the amount of extra production you can put in.

For example, if you are targeting a specific club night and know that they favor high-energy EDM then this can help inform the tracks that you pick for your mix. Or, if you know a certain promoter values technical ability or new music, then you can emphasize these elements when creating your DJ mix.

Thinking about this is also helpful if you are aiming for shareability or for people to download and enjoy your mix (similar to a podcast). In this case, you can analyze what some of the most successful mixes in that arena are like and then similarly tailor your mix. But with your own flair of course.

Tailoring Your Mix Gives it the Best Chance of Achieving Your Aim

Considering who your listener is going to be is the best way to get some direction for your DJ mix and ensure it is going to be as successful as possible. For example, what’s the point in producing a 3-hour chill-out mix when the most popular mixes in that genre are an hour of non-stop bangers.

Therefore it is worth thinking about your end listener and having a scout around to see what type of mixes they are downloading and sharing.

After all, as I’ve mentioned above, mixes are one of the best ways to get your name out there. Therefore you want to give them the best chance of being enjoyed and shared. And perhaps get you some bookings of the back of it.

Planning the Direction of Your DJ Mix

How to make a DJ mix

The best DJ mixes out there take the listener on a journey that varies in intensity and energy.

For example, think about listening to a solid hour of relentless non-stop bangers. This can get quite tiring after a while. Not only do you suffer hearing fatigue but if every track is a banger then their effect starts to be minimized.

To quote The Incredibles “everyone’s special Dash…” “which is another way of saying no one is”

Therefore considering adding dynamics by mixing high energy tracks with more subtle, melodic tracks. Not only does this add life to your mix but when mixing in a big track it will be a lot more striking for your listener.

Although I want to avoid suggesting formulas of how to make a DJ mix there are some good frameworks to bear in mind when planning yours.

Some Commonly Used Frameworks When Creating a DJ Mix Are:

The Wave

The wave is a way to think about bringing the energy up and down throughout your mix. Varying the intensity in this way, as I say above, ensures impact for your bigger tracks.

Constructing your sets like this is a great way to create surprises and take your listener on a journey, as they will not know what to expect next. Of course, you’ll want to make sure that your mix is still cohesive by choosing tracks of a similar mood, genre or tempo.

The Ramp (up or down)

This is arguably the most widely used technique by DJs when creating a mix, whether live or prerecorded.

Often a DJ will start lighter and then, throughout the mix, ramp up to end on their biggest, high-energy bangers.

Which of course makes sense as the listener’s energy will rise as they listen. You are essentially warming them up before the main dance section at the end of the mix.

This same method also works in reverse. A prime example of someone who does this, particularly in a live setting, is DJ Krush.

He will come into a venue and then, depending on the energy and/or his time slot, he may opt to play his biggest tracks energetic tracks at the beginning of his set. Then slowly bring the crowd and energy down, relaxing them as he goes.

Ramping down can be perfect when playing a late set as people’s energy levels start to dwindle. Doing so allows you to transition from high-energy dancing to a chill-out mix.

The Story

This is of my favorite methods and commonly how we structure sets in my DJ duo. Refusing to be tied to one genre we often used to start with hip-hop, then move through into breaks, dubstep, EDM and then ending with drum & bass. In this way, we were able to take the crowd on a meandering, yet cohesive journey full of surprises and unexpected tracks.

Not only does this cater to all sorts of musical tastes but it also allows you to showcase tracks that an audience may not normally hear. Of course, you still make sure there is a flow and all tracks are danceable, that way the DJ mix never feels awkward.

Any of the above can be used in combination to create a set that is both engaging and dynamic. For example, when playing a story set our mixes would also ramp up to the high energy drum & bass end.

So, when planning your DJ mix, consider the energy levels and direction that you want the mix to have when finished.

Selecting Your Tracks

Track selection is everything in DJing
Track selection is everything in DJing

Track selection is one of the main two skills that a DJ requires. Knowing how to read a crowd (when playing live) being the other.

This is because, at the end of the day, the tracks you select determines whether your audience or listeners are going to be fully engaged and enjoy your mix. While your track selection will always come down to the music you enjoy (after all if you don’t enjoy the music you’ll play you’re not going to give it your best), your listener also plays a factor.

So, when choosing your tracks, be sure to include anything that not only creates a flow to your mix but is going to keep your listener interested.

There are also a few tricks you can include to do this, while also making sure it stands out from other DJ mixes…

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So do we, check out our favorites…

How to Make a DJ Mix Interesting

The most notable idea is to keep things interesting is to make sure you include some surprises in your mix.

While a big part of DJing is finding and playing new music, don’t be afraid to mix in a few forgotten classics. After all, people love to hear music that they know.

Adding unlikely acapellas is another great trick to surprise your audience. It is also an easy way to create mashups that are simple to recreate in a live setting.

The tracks you select will also vary depending on the direction and energy mapping that you decided on above. if you are going to create a wave-type mix then you need to select a good mixture of high energy and more relaxed, melodic tracks.

If you are short on ideas of which tracks to use, or how to control energy in a mix, then you can deconstruct some of the most popular mixes in your industry and analyze how they were put together. This will give you plenty of ideas on how to make a DJ mix.

Of course, you don’t need to use the same tracks. You just analyze the type of tracks that were used and then mimic that in your mix.

Another factor that is going to affect your track selection is how long you want the mix to be to. This is also determined by your mixing style and the length of time you play tracks.

For example, if you mix quickly then you’ll need 30 tracks to create a 1-hour mix. This is assuming each track is played for 2 minutes.

Letting tracks play longer, of course, means fewer tracks needed. For example, you can get away with only 10 or 15 tracks assuming you play each four or five minutes each.

A Couple of Notes on Mixing Too Fast or Too Slow…

Is it can be an idea not to let tracks play for too long. This can sometimes make the listener feel like the mix is not moving along quick enough.

At the same token, mixing too fast can mean that, when the listener hears a track they like, they feel it is mixed out too quickly to fully enjoy.

The key is to find a middle ground. One way to do this is to find the absolute best section of each track and making sure that that is played in its entirety. This means people will get to hear the section they know and love without feeling shortchanged.

This will also give you a good variance in how long each track is played.

Grabbing Your Listener’s Attention

As I mentioned above, although I avoid trying to be too formulaic when constructing mixes, knowing a basic framework to grab attention can be a good idea.

This formula was originally shared on the Mixed in Key blog and goes like this.

  • Make your first intro track and instrumental with no vocals
    • keep this short, ideally less than a couple of minutes
  • Go from that and mix straight into a track with vocals
    • This hooks the listener into the mix
    • Again keep this track short, less than 4 minutes
  • Move on to the rest of your mix, varying track length
    • Keep most below 5 minutes to keep things moving

Building the intro to your mix in this way i.e with faster mixes and dynamic tracks helps showcase your ability as well as drawing your listener in. People these days have short attention spans, so you want to grab them as quickly as possible and engage them with your mix’s story.

The above is just a general guide and there are many ways to create the intro section of your mix. Use this as an idea to get you thinking about how to grab the attention of your audience. Then make it your own.

Showing Your Skills with Track Transitions

The are many ways to make a DJ mix interesting

We touched on this above in the first section but this is the area where you can showcase your skills. How you truly understand whether a DJ is good or not is in their ability to blend and mix tracks.

So again, depending on your intention for the mix, give some thought into how you are going to mix between your tracks. If you aim to get more gigs then be sure to showcase all the skills at your disposal.

Whether this is creating tight, perfectly executed blends. Being masterful with effects and using them to add extra elements to your mixes. Or perhaps adding some turntablist tricks to your mix, for example, Scratching.

Having a broad range of mixing skills in your repertoire can not only set your mix apart from other DJs but they also help massively to mix in unexpected or surprise tracks.

For example, if you can do some basic scratching, then it makes it very easy to drop in some hip-hop over the top of a drum & bass track for example. This is because hip-hop is around half the speed of drum and bass so it still fits the tempo while providing a sharp contrast.

So, don’t be afraid to showcase all of your skills throughout the mix. You can even go through your tracks and pre-plan mixes so that you know what to do after you press record. Just be careful not to be too rigid in planning your mixes and transitions. A large part of DJing is going with the flow and being able to use your skills to create mixes that feel right in the moment.

Another Skill… Knowing When to Reign in Your Skills

As the saying goes… less is more. So don’t concern yourself with packing every.single.second of the mix with some kind of trick or skill.

The overall flow and direction of energy should always be first in how to create a DJ mix. Your mixing ability and the transitions should always add to that flow, rather than distracting from it.

A good analogy to think of this is when you see an MC with a DJ. In my case, I am thinking about the many, many drum & bass MCs I have seen in my time.

A good MC will only ever spit rhymes that add to the flow created by the DJ. Vitally they will also know when to be quiet.

A bad MC will be rhyming constantly throughout the set, often with nonsense lyrics. Perhaps even shouting things like “In the mix…. In the mix…” while a blend is taking place. Instead, they should be quiet, letting the focus be on the flow and the DJ during the most skillful part of their job.

So be careful to find a balance between showcasing your skills and creating such a technical mix that only other DJs will find enjoyment in it.

Harmonic Mixes and Mixing in Key

how to make a DJ mix musical
Mixed in Key analyses your music and shows you complimentary tracks

If you’ve ever wondered how to make a DJ mix musical then this is it. Mixing tracks in key is a part of music theory that has increasingly found its way into the DJ world over the years. In short, harmonic mixing theory covers how certain songs will blend into some tracks better than others.

This is a skill that many DJs learn as second nature through experience and learning their music library back-to-front. However, with the development of technology, there are now software programs that make this process a lot easier. The most widely used of these being Mixed in Key.

This can analyze your entire music library and tell you what key each track is in. It will even update the ID3 tags so the keys show in your DJ software. There are then guidelines that show you which tracks will fit with which. This can either be tracks that are in the same key or complementary keys.

Mixing in this way helps make your mix sound more musical and helps it flow as effortlessly. Doing key analysis can also help you with track selection and the order in which you play your tracks.

This is because you’ll know both the complementary keys and also those tracks that may clash. Therefore you can avoid these as, even with the best technical mixing skill, they will just not sound right.

A Warning on Mixing in Key

It can be possible to go a bit too far deep into harmonic mixing.

For example, when I first discovered Mixed in Key I analyzed and organized my entire music library with it. I then became overly obsessed with only ever mixing tracks that complimented each other perfectly.

This quickly took a lot of the freestyle, on-the-fly music selection excitement out of my mixes. Thankfully I realized this pretty fast and reigned in the obsession.

So while harmonic mixing software can be a helpful guide, it shouldn’t be the only way that you select your tracks. Be sure to also trust your ears and your taste. As sometimes you will find tracks that mix well together against what the theory says.


Kaskade’s essential mix is a great example of Harmonic Mixing

Constructing and Phrasing in Your Mixes

Further to the above sections in mapping out your energy levels and knowing your track’s keys is knowing how to “phrase” your mixes. This essentially comes down to knowing your tracks well, which is essential for all DJs anyway.

The better you know your tracks then the easier you will find it to create smooth mixes.

For example, you don’t want to be merging two tracks and have one drop it’s main bassline before the first track has finished its most energetic run.

Instead, it makes sense to create transitions where a track has finished a section before the next track takes over. In western music, most songs are built around sections of 8, 16 or 32 bars. So you’ll want to switch tracks at the end of one of these sections.

Think of it as mixing a track at the end of a verse or chorus, rather than cutting it off halfway through.

Creating phrasing in this manner helps add fluidity to your set as well. It will also reduce the risk of any clashes or causing listener fatigue in your audience.

For example, imagine you have two high-energy tracks both playing their main sections at the same time. There will be too much going on in the mix and your listener will not know what to focus on.

So how to make a DJ mix that’s properly phrased? The answer here is really to know your tracks back to front.

You can do this by creating a playlist on your phone where the tracks play in their entirety. Then simply listen as you go about your normal business or commute and before long you’ll have learned all their nuances. And the best sections to mix with, more on that in this next section…

Love DJ gear?

So do we, check out our favorites…

A Note on Organization

When using software like Serato or Traktor, you can set cue points and add notes to tracks. These can help you quickly skip to the correct section of the track i.e where they will mix best.

Normally, for example, you often start mixing tracks using intro and outros. However, sometimes it will make more sense to start mixing a track from the breakdown/middle section. This often has elements of the intro but also a melodic build-up. This can then that can be woven into the track that you are mixing out of.

In a club, you will often test phrasing by previewing tracks in their headphones before playing them out. However, at home, you have more time to plan your mix’s phrasing and can select which sections of your tracks to mix with.

When executed properly, seamless phrasing makes a DJ set flow and make musical sense to your listener.

Use Effects, Looping and EQ (Tastefully)

Effects like echo can be used to add flair to my mixes
Effects like echo can add flair when used sparingly

Modern DJ equipment includes all sorts of options when it comes to manipulating a pre-produced track. DJs can add extra layers of effects, filters or looping to certain sections.

Often it may not be necessary to add effects (for example) to an existing track. After all, if it’s a well-known track the audience will know it is being manipulated and may not appreciate it.

That said they can be a great way to add extra dimensions to your mixes. As with anything in DJing the options available should be used subtly to convey your style, skills and to further the flow of your set.

This makes it important not to overdo effects, doing so is a shortcut in how to make a DJ mix sound cluttered. They can quickly dominate a mix and make it difficult to listen to, particularly when a DJ is too reliant on them.

Therefore it is worth spending time fully mastering effects. That way you can just use them as another trick and technique to help make your mixes sound slick.

To see our recommended mixer, that includes these FX, head here.

They are also built into our recommended controller.

EQing

Spending time learning proper EQ skills is vital in being able to go smoothly from one track to another. As well as giving you the ability to surprise and delight your audience.

For example, with EQ it is possible to take the bass out of one track and replace it with that of another. Essentially creating a mashup live on the fly.

Again using the theory of mixing in key can help make this process easier. Then further to the organization note above, when you find tracks that work well together, make a note so that you can recreate that mix in the future.

Looping

Learning how to loop sections of tracks can also be a great way to maintain the flow of your mix. As a basic example, if the outro of a track is too short then you can find and set a loop point to extend it. This then gives you plenty of time to mix the incoming track.

Looping in this manner can be set up before recording or playing a gig. Doing so means those settings will be available every time you load that track in the future.

Therefore, any time you spend upfront mastering these types of skills can be used time and again in the future.

How Long Should Your DJ Mix Be?

The length of your mix was touched on briefly above and depends on the aim of your mix. How long you have allocated can add interesting challenges and push you to further learn and showcase your skills.

To learn how to make a DJ mix punchy, listen to Annie Mac's mini mix series

As a general rule DJ mixes clock in at the 1-hour mark. However shorter mixes can be great motivation to push your abilities to the very limit.

A perfect example of this used to be the mini-mix feature on Annie Mac’s radio show. During this, DJs would have only five minutes to showcase their skills and any music they wanted to include.

This would really push DJs. Not only to think about the tracks but specific sections and how it would relate to the next track. It would also push DJs to think about how they could layer up more than two tracks at a time. Thereby packing in as much as possible in the available time.

So when considering the length of your mix think about what you are trying to achieve.

For example, when sending to promoters, there is more chance it will get listened to if it is shorter. Say a promoter is sent 10 mixes a day for example. If all are an hour-long, then there is no way they will all get listened to.

However, you can instead create a 15-minute mix that showcases both your variety of music and skills. This has far more chance that it will be listened to in its entirety. And hopefully, get you the DJ bookings you were aiming for.

Getting Your Mix Out There

With so much music and listening options available to listeners, the way label, tag and promote your mix is as important as the mix itself.

Therefore it can be worth spending some time thinking of a catchy, representative name for your mix. You should also include a short, concise yet descriptive blurb to do with it. This way you can intrigue people to listen to it that may have otherwise skipped past it.

Unique Artwork Helps You Stand Out

If you have the skills, that it can also be worth creating some unique artwork for your mix. This can help it stand out and be recognizable when placed amongst mixes by other DJs. Be sure to include the title of the mix, your name as well as where people can find you online.

If you don’t have the skills yourself then use sites like Fiverr to get it made at next to nothing.

After all, if you have spent a lot of time creating the mix itself then you don’t want it to go unnoticed. Just a little time spent post-recording can help make your mix way more shareable and easier to find online.

A simple benefit of adding artwork is when your mix is shared on Facebook for example. Without an image the mix will appear as just a link (or perhaps a player embed), however, with an image, it will take up much more space and stand out of a Facebook feed.

How to Make a DJ Mix Top Tips

  • Make sure you know your tracks inside and out before you hit record
    • This puts a lot less pressure when recording as you know exactly what elements are coming up in a track.
    • You’ll also know the best points at which to blend and switch between tracks
    • Learn your tracks by creating a playlist on your phone and listening to them on repeat
  • Make sure you are primarily DJing and creating mixes for the enjoyment of it…and nothing else
    • Otherwise, you will find you quickly run out of motivation to keep practicing, crafting mixes and sharing them
    • Doing things for a quick buck will never produce the same commitment as doing something for the love of it
  • Anytime you practice or make mixes make a note of any track combinations that worked particularly well
    • You can reuse them in future mixtapes or sets as easy, low-pressure mixes
  • Consider the mood you want to portray in your mix
    • This allows you to assess individual tracks easier. You can then work out if they’ll flow well within your mix, or if they’ll sound out of place
  • You can’t beat a DJ that has put in the practice
    • This might sound an obvious tip but far too many DJs don’t realize just how much practice it takes for these things to become second nature & effortless
    • Recording every single practice session can help speed up your learning. Doing so means you can listen back and hear your wins and your mistakes. You will then be able to recreate or eliminate them much quicker in future

Conclusion on How to Make a DJ Mix

Everything detailed above should now give you an in-depth understanding of what goes into a well-crafted DJ mix. The key to creating engaging DJ mixes is to be consistent in creating and sharing them. You will then be able to collect real-world data on what your ideal listener enjoys and what they respond to.

Over time the above will become easy and you’ll find you barely thinking about how to make a DJ mix. You’ll just do it as second nature.

However, when you are creating DJ mixes for specific reasons then it’s worth putting in time upfront. Plan the type of DJ mix that you want to create and the feeling you want to come across.

There’s no better way for your audience to get to know you, your style and your music than with mixes. So try not to rush them.

Spend time creating something you are proud of and enjoy. Just think, these things could be out there being shared for years. Because of this, you want them to be something truly representative of you at the time. Even if your skills and tastes do change over the years then they will still serve as a stamp in time.

If you have ideas on how to make a DJ mix please drop a comment and I’ll respond to everyone.

FAQs About How to Make a DJ Mix

What program do DJs use to make mixes?

There is no definitive program that all DJs used to create mixes as there are so many options on the market. What a DJ will use depends on the equipment available and their technical ability.

One of the most popular pieces of DJ software is Ableton Live. This is because, in combination with a controller, a DJ can record an entire mix and then go back and tweak every single element to tidy up and polish the mix. And even fix mistakes.

Other popular options in line with a traditional DJ setup (i.e decks & a mixer) are Traktor or Serato Scratch Live. These allow DJs to have vast music libraries on their computers and play them through normal decks (see our recommended decks here). Exactly as if they were using the old-school method of vinyl or CDs.

In terms of recording, there are many options either for phone (using Pioneer’s DJM-REC app) or with a laptop. On a laptop, you can again use Ableton, as well as things like Logic or Cubase. All of which would then allow you to master a mix and ensure volumes and gains are at a similar level throughout the mix.

How do you make a good mix?

A good mix depends on several factors. These can include tune selection, controlling energy levels and technical ability. The best DJs will be able to mix new, interesting music and fuse it seamlessly with classics that their listener will already be familiar with. Adding surprise elements such as unexpected tracks or acapellas (to create mashups) can also help keep a listener engaged and enjoying a mix.

When it comes to technical ability a DJ should be able to maintain the flow of a set through a mix. The human ear is incredibly good at picking out a rhythm and, as such, great at noticing when it is out. Therefore the best mixes are those that contain seamless transitions between tracks that can take the listener on a journey. All without overloading them with pure noise.

Things like effects can also add detail and flourishes to DJ mixes, as long as they are not overused. Many DJs rely heavily on effects to cover up a lack of technical ability but this is always obvious. Even to non-DJs.

How do you plan a DJ set?

This question varies slightly when considering whether you are recording a DJ mix for distribution or planning a club DJ set for example. One thing that applies to both is tune selection. To do this successfully, aDJ should know their entire music library back to front. That way they can choose the best tracks to portray the mood they are aiming to convey.

When performing live, the DJ can feed off the energy of their crowd and adjust the direction of their set depending on what the crowd is responding best to. In a live setting, things like the time you are playing and if you are playing before a big-name also become factors.

Often when supporting a big-name DJ, you may be asked to keep the energy levels lower than you would normally. This is so the big name DJ creates the biggest impact when they come on stage. Although this is not ideal it is, unfortunately, common within the DJ world.

One thing that is definitely not to be done supporting a big-name DJ is to play any of their music. This is because it is assumed they will be playing those tunes themselves so instant exclusivity on the night should be reserved for them.

Other than the above, planning a DJ set should come down to how you feel on the night and the mood you want to set. While it is an idea to have your first track or two in mind, the best DJs can create mixes on the fly you. Which this comes back to knowing your music inside out having confidence in your abilities.

What does a DJ set consist of?

The most literal answer would be that a DJ set consists of pre-recorded tracks, blended by a DJ to keep people dancing. But it goes way further than that.

On a more conceptual level, a DJ set should consist of a sonic journey that conveys to an audience what musical interests a DJ has, as well as the mood they are in.

For example, a good DJ, in a euphoric mood, should be able to go out and convey that emotion. Through their mixing, they will be able to construct a set that helps bring the audience to that same level of euphoria. In essence, they can take their crowd on a musical adventure.

This is particularly true for DJs who have longer sets. For example, during a 4 or 5-hour set a DJ can take the energy to both extremes while also exploring many different musical avenues or types genre. So the best DJ sets consist of a musical story both in terms of music and mood.

What next?

  • Now you’ve got a mix done, check this post to learn how to promote yourself as a DJ.
  • Interested in becoming a radio DJ? Then this is the post for you.

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