Mixing and DJing live in front of an audience requires some thought and preparation, no matter what. If you’re a beginner or a professional DJ there’s always some degree of practicing certain mixing techniques and having some tricks up your sleeve to DJ to a high level.
Here are my top 20 DJ Mixing Techniques for your Live DJ Sets, plus some general DJ tips too for playing live.
- Track selection to cater for your audience
- Harmonic mixing (mixing in key)
- Start strong and end strong in your DJ sets
- Keep the vibe flowing, don’t play tracks too long
- Layer mixes with Acapellas, drums or breakbeat loops
- Temporarily drop in a classic track
- Read the crowds reaction
- Plan three tracks at a time
- Use looping & auto-looping to help with mixing time
- Use reverb and delay to help mix transitions
- Set cue points as markers for when to mix
- Use the microphone to hype up the crowd
- Have a signature move as a DJ
- Play your own remixes and mash-ups
- Mix in music that’s not related to your genre
- Use “Effects” sparingly
- Make sure there’s 3 to 4 decks as back-ups
- Have a signature track style in your set
- Create a DJ drop to shout about your DJ name
- Keep the levels out of the red
After reading all of my advice you’ll be able to think about how you DJ in front of a large live audience and put on the best show that you possibly can.
1. Track selection to cater for your audience
Track selection is definitely one of those things that sets DJs apart from others.
I almost think that the audience cares more about track selection and the musical vibe that a DJ is playing compared to just pure mixing ability alone.
You can get better at track selection by understanding your audience first. Here are some ideas to get better at track selection:
- Playing live a lot and DJing music loads within your “genre” to get a feel for the music.
- Asking the club manager what sort of vibe is going well.
- Asking the wedding or party organiser for song ideas before playing the set.
- Having a good mix of new releases and sure fire classic tracks that will get the crowd going.
- Having a mixture of vocal and non-vocal tracks. I’m a true believer in that some people listen and vibe off of music by either the lyrics alone or the music instrumental sounds alone. Track selection can help you cater for both needs.
If you’re an open format DJ then overtime I’d imagine play a lot of gigs will help you understand track selection better. This would apply to wedding DJ as well as mobile party DJs. There will likely be some “go-to” tracks that really work well with these sorts of audiences.
But having said that it’s not always necessary to play loads of gigs to get good at track selection. If you’ve got a good understanding of musical rhythm and song structure then you should be ok.
Rhythm and energy is always a factor in the tracks that put together in my DJ sets. You can really benefit by focussing on getting the energy transition right between all of your tracks. This is where you can help take your audience on a journey.
For example it’s possible to get the energy wrong by mixing a track with another track if the kick drum is weaker. Sometimes it just doesn’t sound right and the energy just flops.
Musical sections and phrases are important to know as a DJ as it will allow you to know which tracks work well together in transition of eachother.
For example the end of track might work really well with the first breakdown/build of another. Or two tracks might work really well together mixing the chorus of one and intro another.
Final point on this one!
Tip: Get to know your music collection inside out and it will certainly allow you to mix better in front of an audience that you’ve got to know well, or are getting to know better in real-time when you’re DJing.
2. Harmonic mixing (mixing in key)
This tip works hand in hand with the previous tip of track selection, so definitely take this on board and combine the two tips together. You’ll become unstoppable as a DJ when crafting track selection and consider the key of each track.
Some people have an ear for music and can hear which tracks work well together from musical harmony point of view.
But fear not! You don’t have to build up a natural ear for hearing which tracks work well together.
There are two ways to do this that I can vouch for to save you time.
DJ software, such as Rekordbox which is what I currently use, can help highlight the key of the next compatible track in the playlist of your music collection. The software does this by highlighting tracks in bright green which are compatible with the current tracks playing live.
On the other hand you can get ‘Mixed in Key’ which is another software that syncs with DJ software to help highlight key compatibility of songs harmonically and also energy.
Mixed in Key assigns an energy level score out of 10 allowing you to pick which ever song would work best to mix into. Here’s the harmonic mixing guide here for more info.
3. Start strong and end strong in your DJ sets
The most memorable moments in DJ sets are at the beginning and at the end. You could argue a few banging stand out tracks in the middle of the DJ set play a part in this too, however beginning and end of the set is the most stand out in people’s minds.
Starting strong with a DJ set can really depend on your genre and who you are playing to.
I like playing a high energy House track at the beginning of my House DJ sets and then taper it down a bit.
For Drum & Bass sets I sometimes start with a liquid melodic type track and then start building up to a more heavier bassline / Jump Up sort of track.
Either way, you need to think about how you’re going to construct the rest of your DJ set after the first track and the tone / energy, plus the overall journey you’re going to take your listeners on.
Ending strong with a DJ set can be just as important, usually from experience playing out or listening to other DJs, the MC will usually say last track. This tends to peak everyone’s interest and see what epic track the DJ is going to play.
House sets I put together usually end in something more downtempo from 126 BPM, to a more 115 to 120 BPM vibe. The sound is usually more funky and fun, giving a chilled feeling at the end of such as “dancey” House DJ set.
Drum & Bass sets I’ve put together in the past I usually have something that’s more memorable, a classic track or dramatic sounding track.
There’s a bootleg of Snow Patrol – Open Your Eyes that is one of the go to tracks I used to use a lot. It literally brings tingles to your body it’s such an amazing track, which is great to be remembered as a DJ and ending strong in your set.
4. Keep the vibe flowing, don’t play tracks too long
One of the things that I’ve seen other DJs talk about online and in person is making sure you don’t play a track for too long.
I’ve personally seen a DJ in a club in Dublin Ireland where the DJ played a track for about 8 minutes and the vibe on the dance floor sort of dissipated somewhat.
Try to keep to a rule of not leaving a track to play too much after 5 minutes. This is a good marker to keep when you’re playing out live.
It’s a really great thing to know all of your music inside-out, by that I mean the structure and phrases of the tracks you DJ the most. In doing so will allow you to mix fluidly without leaving the crowd hanging.
Remember, the goal is to keep the vibe going and everyone dancing!
5. Layer mixes with Acapellas, drums or breakbeat loops
Being creative with your DJing can really add to the groove and vibe of your DJ sets.
Beatmatching is great to do from track to track, but playing some extra drum loops or breakbeats on top of a breakdown could help give some extra groove to the mix.
Acapellas are also another great way to really add some surprise and creative flare to the mix.
My advice with Acapellas is to find ones that go well with instrumental tracks that you have. Also, make sure the harmony, also known as ‘key’, matches and is compatible, otherwise the sounds might clash quite a bit and not sound right.
Getting the BPM similar is also a requisite I’d say but not essential as you can easily change the tempo, but it does help if the Acapella is the same tempo as the instrumental you’re mixing over the top of.
Read my article here about how to get Acapellas to DJ with if you want to get stuck into this technique.
6. Temporarily drop in a classic track
A technique when playing live that I’ve seen other DJs do which gets a little bump of reaction from the crowd is temporarily dropping in a classic track that everyone knows and then pull it back out of the mix again.
Andy C, a Drum and Bass DJ, seems to do this quite a lot over his DJing career. Subsequently I’ve heard other Drum and Bass DJs follow the exact same technique too.
This technique has definitely been used in Hip Hop sets, but I’d be keen for DJs in other genres to try this technique out. You can test this out in your EDM, Trap or House sets to see how the crowd reacts to it.
Tip: try looping a specific part of a track, maybe 4 to 16 beats in a loop, and mix that over a verse, breakdown or intro of a track. Achieving this with Rekordbox or Serato is easy.
7. Read the crowds reaction
This is the all time goal of all DJs out there in the world, but not all DJs follow suit. Some DJs I’ve seen play live simply look un-interested in DJing a and also looking at the crowd. In doing so it doesn’t really get the people dancing to their full potential.
As a DJ playing tracks it’s really important to change up the sound during the DJ set to understand which tracks are working. This will allow you to sculpt the DJ set in the direction that puts smiles on faces and dancing feet on the dance floor.
Tip: test out a few different tracks here and there in your DJ set to see which ones work. It may be the case that your crowd is exhausted and you need to play a more chilled track to give them a rest.
8. Plan three tracks at a time
A great technique in your DJ sets that you can use is planning and playing tracks in groups of three. Using this technique allows you to gather some momentum with the same energy, rhythm and tone.
Plus the pressure is taken off of you as a DJ, you know what the next few tracks are going to be like, so you can crack on a mix those tracks with an idea of how you want the next three tracks to sound like.
Some examples of how you can group tracks together include:
- Harmony and key
- Vocal tracks that are popular
- Roller tracks that get people dancing
- Rhythm and groove e.g. percussion is similar in all three tracks
9. Use looping & auto-looping to help with mixing time
Looping beats at certain points throughout the track can really help take the pressure off when you’re mixing live.
The loop of a track gives you some extra time to mix in a new track without losing the vibe and catchy-ness of a melody or chorus.
I’ve personally used this technique in the past to help keep the catchy melody of a really cool classic dance track I like called Gypsy Woman by Crystal Waters. Once I’ve got the loop going I can focus on mixing in the new track straight away and fade out the loop.
You can play around with the loop a bit by shortening it to build some suspense and tension into mix when fading out into the next phrase. This technique can sound daunting, but after a few attempts you should be golden and ready to smash this in a live environment.
Tip: Looping in DJ software, such as Rekordbox or Serato, rely on beat grids being set. Make sure these beat grids are set correctly so that looping beats are snapped in time correctly. Otherwise the loops will sound out of time.
Auto-looping is another technique as part of this tip.
This is one of my favourite aspects and features of DJ software. I personally use Rekordbox, and in there I’ve saved a point where I’ve added a trigger that once the track hits it, the auto-loop is activated. At which point I know it’s time to mix in the next track which I’ve already got ready to mix in together.
Check out my Rekordbox tips article, search for ‘Auto Loop Activation’ to understand how to set this up.
10. Use reverb and delay to help mix transitions
When you’re getting into the mix there’s a great technique that I find really helpful for a smooth transition. That is, the Reverb and Delay effects.
I use Reverb and Delay performance pads on the DJ controller, just for reference I use the Pioneer DDJ-400.
If you’re in the market for a DJ controller by the way check out my recommendations here.
In terms of applying the delay and reverb, I will specifically use this to transition a mix into a breakdown.
Holding down the reverb and delay helps to create some depth and atmosphere, with a feeling of releasing the tension of the sound. Especially helpful when mixing into the breakdown.
Sometimes I will cut the low end EQ which helps to no muddy the DJ mix with too much low end bass frequencies.
Then (if you’ve got it available) I use the delay cut off, which means when you press the performance pad the delay is added to the last sound when you pressed the pad, but cutting off the sound at the same time.
Using techniques like this can really add some smoothness to your mixes, especially in a live setting to sound professional as a DJ.
11. Set cue points as markers for when to mix
When mixing live there can be a lot going on, potentially things that might distract you. I’ve found in the past that it’s possible to miss a particular point in the track that I wanted to cue up the next track.
In order to combat this issue I’ve made a point of going through all my tracks adding ‘Hot Cues’ as marker points or references of when to drop in the next track.
Here you can see how I’ve set up markers with hot cues which are colour coded.
- Drop = Green
- Chorus/Verse = Orange
- Breakdown = Blue
Simple but effective. Takes some setting up to do. Well worth it in the end.
12. Use the microphone to hype up the crowd
Depending on what genre that you’re playing or what’s maybe deemed as acceptable, you may benefit from jumping on the microphone a couple of times in your DJ set.
If there’s no MC then this could be a good thing to help hype up the crowd by asking them if they’re having a good time or just generally hyping them up.
I know David Guetta does this in his DJ sets, a few Drum and Bass DJs do too. So it clearly does work for certain DJs to get the crowd hyped up and going.
13. Have a signature move as a DJ
If you haven’t got one already then consider creating some weird but amazing looking and sounding technique that you can do in your live DJ shows.
DJ Marky = Scratches on a vinyl turntable that is sideways or even upside down.
James Hype = mad technical skills with build ups and using the channel fader like a humming bird.
Andy C = Double drops basslines of two or more tracks at the same time.
Skrillex = Stands on the DJ desk, rewinds the track, switches off the loop and jumps off the desk, track slowly builds up, enter heavy wobbly grotty bassline.
I didn’t have to research these things above, I just know them in my mind from the first time that I saw them.
This is the point, your audience will get to know you as a DJ and your DJ name because of the crazy signature DJ move you have.
14. Play your own remixes and mash-ups
Creating your own remixes and mashups can help you control the music that you play. It’s a really great thing to create your own edits of music because no other DJ will have that version.
By mash-ups I mean, putting vocals of one track over the top of another track which is just the instrumental. This is great way to stand out from other DJs when playing live.
Check out my article here on where to get acapellas so you can make your own mashups and remixes.
15. Mix in music that’s not related to your genre
I’ve mixed in some tracks before in live DJ sets where the track is not highly related to the style or specific genre.
For example I’ve mixed in an Oasis track or a Chemical Brothers track into a House mix. I just find that it gives a unique aspects to the DJ set and helps you stand out from other DJs.
Don’t just mix in a track that’s different without any thought.
Aim to get the tempo similar and get the harmonic key the same or at least compatible. Otherwise it will sound completely strange when you mix in the track.
16. Use “Effects” sparingly
Don’t get trigger happy with the sound effects that you have on your mixer or DJ controller for example.
People are at the live gig to hear you play awesome tracks one after the other, without you smashing effects over the top of the whole mix.
Use effects such as reverb and delay sparingly and focus mainly on quality of using the effects. Have a purpose when using them, not just showing off to the crowd that you’re clever and you can hit an effects button.
My main advice is with effects is make sure you use them to transition between one track to another. Or use them when a track is building up to another section such as a drop into the chorus. This will help emphasise the buildup of tension and release into the drop.
Some effects can create a lo-fi feel and cut out the low end EQ which is a really great effect to add in when mixing.
17. Make sure there’s 3 to 4 decks as back-ups
When DJing live a lot of the time you might see that there’s around 3 or 4 CDJs available. At first glance this might be misunderstood as the DJing using all of them which is not always necessarily true.
A DJ is likely to use 3 at any given time, which is great to mix in acapellas and potentially mix in tracks really fast and also double drop tracks too.
However say if something went wrong with one of the CDJs then there are two other CDJs for you to use.
This is especially important when DJing live in front of a crowd who are up for partying and have potentially paid for your services or paid to be there.
18. Have a signature track style in your set
Some DJs, including myself, have a signature track in their DJ sets.
This could be a really good way to stand out as a DJ if you consistent deliver a signature style track in your sets.
For me in my House sets, by the way usually involve nu funky house, disco, funky house and deep house. At the end of my sets I usually fade out the track using some reverb and delay bringing in the new track.
The track has to be of a funk rhythm, soulful yet groovey. Sometimes with soulful sounding vocals or just a fun sounding track.
Here are a couple of tracks that I’ve used in my last two DJ sets that have gone down really well. Note that the tempo is not the same, about 10 BPM slower than normal House tracks.
Choose your signature tracks and see how they go down. To give you some more ideas, adding in a Hip Hop track half way through a Drum and Bass set might work.
19. Create a DJ drop to shout about your DJ name
If you’re not familiar with DJ drops then check out my article here explaining what DJ drops are.
Creating your own DJ drop can help make your presence known, drum your DJ name into your audience’s minds and push your “brand” as a DJ.
Creating one is pretty easy and you can play DJ drops at the beginning, middle and end. It’s possible to create more than one DJ drop to cater for these different stages in your DJ set.
I really like the idea of DJ drops as they can be translated from your live sets to live podcasts and mixes that you put on Mixcloud for example.
20. Keep the levels out of the red
A basic foundational technique of using a DJ mixer is making sure that you stay out of the red.
Click here for more information on how to control this on a mixer.
No one wants to listen to distorted sounds at high volumes. You will simply damage people’s ears and ruin the dance floor vibe.
The record of your DJ sets aswell won’t sound as high quality either, so always keep an eye on the meters running into the red.
Dial down the gain (trim on some mixers) on each channel and control the quality of the audio signal.
How do you mix DJ sets?
DJ sets are mixed by using a DJ mixer connecting to two or more DJ turntables, also known as DJ decks, CDJs or DJ Controller. The beats of two or more tracks are matched by tempo and phrases allowing DJs to transition smoothly between tracks.
Do DJs plan their sets?
Some DJs do plan their DJ sets and some do not. DJs can plan their DJ sets by ideas, tempo, genre and mood and can access their music by categorising their music this way. Some DJs use playlists of tracks to play music for a specific DJ set, but might not play their tracks in a particular order from that playlist. Always focus will be on the benefit of the crowd.
How long should a DJ mix be?
A DJ mix can be as long as a DJ prefers, however typically DJs that play live DJ for around 1 hour and up to 5 or more hours. If recording a DJ set to be published onto a music platform between 60 and 120 minutes is fine. A mini-mix is sometimes classed between 15 and 30 minutes.