HOW DO PROFESSIONALS EVALUATE YOUR DJ MIX?

Cédric Finkbeiner DJ TIPS

You may wonder “how da heck can anyone pretend to know what’s in professionals’ mind all around the world?” knowing that each of them has his own needs, goals, tastes of music…. but according to Cassini Mission around Saturn, Earth is a small dot in the cosmos, so let’s not take life too seriously and see some of the criteria which are often considered by the judges of the music industry, knowing that the more of those you nail, the more you increase your chances to succeed…… Makes sense?

NO TIME TO READ THE FULL ARTICLE? THE SUMMARY…

The question is basically “What is a great mix?” … We asked that to the one’n only Daniel Avery, well known for mixes so deep even James Cameron can’t explore them… and here is the answer:

For me, a great mix is a mix where I can get lost into…

You get the ultimate goal, which is a matter of a smart track selection, for your listeners to swim into a fantastic journey, and of a great technique, to make sure nothing disturbs them from their trip. But how to make people exactly “get lost into your mix”? The book writers & the movie directors have tons of tricks to provoke specific emotions at a particular time. Well, pro DJs too: it’s mainly about setting up an extreme consistent mix, and about balancing the boring aspect of it by a particular management of the energy… Professionals will foremost evaluate these aspects, as well as others detailed below.

YOU THINK YOU KNOW EVERYTHING? CHECK THIS OUT…

Here @ FLOOR⁴, a lot of mixes are auditioned for our SoundCloud channel. We follow these standard professional criteria in our evaluation:

1. THE WAVEFORM :

The global waveform of your set already speaks a lot: it visually shows if it’s globally loud enough, if the volume is well balanced along the entire length and, by that, your abilities at processing sound (and potentially at using well a professional sound system).

If you download couple sets of well established mix series and study them, you’ll notice mainly two types of “acceptable” waveforms:

THE “LINEAR” ONE :

In this waveform, a limiter has obviously been used, bringing all the sounds at -0.3 db, the standard limit. It’s a safe waveform, as the volume is linear toward the full set, but you lose some dynamic (which you can balance with some process on the equalization if you are expert enough).

THE “AIRY” ONE :

Does the volume really have to be linear toward the full set? If you study the waveform of a single track it’s never 100% linear, and a DJ mix is nothing else than a very long track… Having a slight rise of the volume during the transitions for instance can bring some interesting dynamic, and by not forcing all the sound to -0,3 dB , the “airy” style also lets the tracks of your mix “breathe” more, resulting in a natural dynamic better preserved.

However, you must still make your mix loud enough, which is easier if it’s already well balanced during the mixing stage and which requires some subtle process.


RELATED : We will cover in deep how to master well a DJ mix in a future article.


2. THE TRACK SELECTION :

… said your mama… (and every possible DJ forums)… Let’s be more precise:

The biggest mistake DJs usually do is to make a best of their fav’ tracks of the moment, which is okay for the Bar Mitzvah of your 13 years old cousin, but which won’t impress professional judges… A “timeless” mix is what will impress them, which partly consists of creating a very consistent set.

What you need to do is ordering your library with – extremely – precise genre tags, so that you can build a full mix around one sub-sub-sub-genre… This is the easiest way to remain consistent (it’s not a rule: nothing stops you to surprise your listeners by playing couple tracks in other genres, as long as you respect the guideline of your set).

Playing music by genre is of course not the only way: you’ll notice that in the Fabric mix series for instance, very talented DJs are crossing genres in their mixes, but they have a guideline still: it’s usually a particular work with the percussions and/or a particular frequency/vibe which dominates along the full set… Let’s be real though, it’s easier to follow this direction when you’re already famous…

In the well established great mixes mentioned above, you’ll also notice that the tracks are unknown… Yep, if you want to provide such high quality mixes, you’ll need firstly to evolve in the underground scene and secondly to avoid any temptation to play one of these Beatport Top 100 tracks “even if it matches so well in that particular place”… because it drastically reduces the quality of your mix in the ears of the pros, as you give them an easy indicator that you are building a “best of”…


RELATED : If you are looking for a great system to set up precisely the genre tag, check out my bonus article about it in my Facebook page (link at the bottom of the article).


3. THE ENERGY :

Another misconception of DJs is to think that consistent mixes can only be boring… which is the case if the energy is too linear. The energy management, more than the tracks themselves, is what will move your listeners.

As you know, each track comes with a particular dynamic: in a mix, you don’t only mix tracks, you mix energies… So you need…

  • to create a particular system of tags to represent the energy of each track (which, as you know, doesn’t necessarily rely on the speed of the track)…
  • to follow a global pattern in your mix, having mainly two choices: the “mountain pattern” (which consists of increasing gradually the energy up to a climax and reducing it after) and the “hills pattern” (up and down AND up and down AND up and down, etc.). Choosing between the two depends on various factors; here are some suggestions (not rules huh?):

Here @ FLOOR⁴, the “mountain pattern” is our favorite (as we like to have some “club flavor” in our mixes). Let’s examine this pattern in more detail:

As you can see, the curve is not regular (more sexy huh?). The graph shows how you can constantly build up the sound in your mix, with crises (see next point) and moments of deepness, to reach a climax before calming down. The climax must be well thought: you must drop a super dynamic track at one point, which represents sort of “an explosion” of all what you built up…


RELATED : If you are looking for a great system to write down the energy of each track, check out my bonus article about it in my Facebook page (link at the bottom of the article).


4. TENSION :

Immediately linked to the energy comes the topic of tension or “how to create moments of crises?”:

One of the purposes of art is to give pleasure… Pleasure is defined in some encyclopedias as “the release of a tension”. By extension: the higher the tension from which the audience is willing to release is high, the higher is the pleasure (theme parks got this very well)…

As for music, the mainstream world definitely abuses this concept, while the underground artists are more subtle about it. No matter what, you can build & release tension mainly in three ways along your mix:

  • by opposing tracks on specific criteria, such as the mood (luminous VS dark), the energy (low VS high), the noise (playing with levels of quietness), the amount of layers (with VS without beat, complex VS minimal), the speed (slow VS 2x faster), etc.
  • by selecting a strategic place for your transitions (for instance: follow the natural build up within a track to mix it with the next one).
  • by using creative mixing techniques: vary the fade in / fade out classic one with the use of particular effects (EQs, filters, delays, reverbs, pan… be subtle: your effects must not ruin the journey…), with the use of extra loops, with sudden changes, etc.

Having in mind the concept of tension in your mix can potentially make it more “alive”, and eventually add more emotions in a place which has a lack of it.

5. STORYTELLING :

The track selection is the most important because it’s with the content of your mix that you bring your listeners to a journey. What about basing your selection of tracks on a story (real or imagined)?…

If the songwriters are often influenced by their own experience in the creation process, why couldn’t a DJ be so? You could express something that you experienced… something deep; the death of a friend, the mess in your brain (?)… or more light: the visit of a country, of a strange museum, a walk in a forest… It can be also some story which you invent… A journey in the cosmos, Alice in Wonderland revisited, the exploration of an underwater city……. You use then the sound to translate the story, instead of just mixing tracks next to each other…

Without any description under your mix, not sure that your listeners will get your story, but this is a fantastic way to make them “get lost into your mix”……..


RELATED : We will cover in deep how to select well you tracks in a future article.


6. TECHNIQUE :

“It’s not the most important” can you hear each time you turn on DJ Network TV…

We think it’s blOOdy hell important still…

Technically, there are rules and if you don’t follow them, the only place you deserve is Guantanamo… straight away… direct pass…

Let’s list the vital ones (you probably already know most of them):

  • Never (ever!) mix in the red and keep your eyes on the level meters during the transitions…

  • Avoid any clash of melodies (use minimalist mixing spaces and make sure your tracks match well in terms of harmonic key).
  • Avoid also any clash of hi-hat (less known, can bring an uncomfortable sound).
  • Avoid also any clash of vocals (@ FLOOR⁴, we are not fans of vocals anyway; there are exceptions but we usually prefer music to speak by itself).
  • In the transition, the arrival of the next track must boost the previous one or rather bring a deep effect, in a way that you don’t feel an uncomfortable sudden drop down of the energy…
  • Don’t fade out the previous track too fast… Respect the classic 8-bar structure of a track to fade out in minimum 16 bars (except if a shorter mix sounds better with particular tracks)… Dare to leave the previous track for a long time in the background (using a loop), especially if you have a 4 channels mixer. Making a super long fade out (for instance until the main break of the next track) can contribute to make your set consistent…
  • Trust you ears (but be also alert of the reactions of your gear & softs).

RELATED : Everything you need to know about harmonic mixing (with exclusive tricks) can be found in this article: click here.


7. PRESENCE OF TRACKS WHICH YOU PRODUCED YOURSELF :

The ultimate level of a high quality mix is unquestionably a mix made of original tracks only (if they are well produced of course and well dispatched)… But you don’t need to go to such an extent: bringing edits, remixes, mashups and/or couple personal tracks in your mix is already saying to the professional that you master well the sound…


RELATED : We’ll cover an article about how to make great mashups and about how to edit a track soon.


CONCLUSION :

The 7 criteria above are of course not always all considered by the professionals worldwide (a lot of them, for instance, will just base their judgment on feel or on the track selection only…), but you have here a great checklist to improve your sets, which is what matters the most. As you know, DJing is not only about juxtaposing tracks: there is an artistic side of it which is living inside of you and which only needs to be awaken during the mix…

WANT TO GO FURTHER?

—> Download your favorite mixes and study them in deep…

—> Download each track of your favorites mixes and practice your mixing techniques, having a model to help you…

—> Have a great setting of markers and loops to recreate the quality of your studio mixes live (we’ll cover an article about such a setting soon)…


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