How to construct a great demo mix: Part 1- The Music

Let’s just get one thing crystal clear from the off, I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a ‘perfect mix’.

You’ll come close a few times when the stars align and the music is with you, but generally, and especially in these days of ‘hear today and forget tomorrow’, the majority of your mixes will ‘do a job’. That shouldn’t put you off, but if it did, you weren’t going to make it anyway. What you will find is, with more practice, you’ll have a sound and a style of your own: something to set you apart from everyone else.

Now that out the way, let’s give you a few pointers on making your mixes sound more professional, and more likely to impress agents, bookers and club owners. Demos and mixtapes are the ideal promotional tool. Its important therefore to be mindful that its a studio mix and not a live set, so mistakes, either in EQ or track selection work against you.

First things first, you need to decide what sort of DJ you want to be. Are you a performer; a larger than life character like James Zabiela or Carl Cox who whips the crowd into a frenzy through the course of their sets, or are you more considered like John Digweed for instance, who can equally wow the audience, but is reserved in the DJ booth. Once you have that figured out, you can move on to your choice of music and what you want to say with the mix.

Make sure you know what sort of mix you want to make before you start, and divorce yourself from the mix if you go wrong or lose focus. Nothing worse than trying to do that awesome transition you heard at the club, if after the 20th time you still mess it up. Move on and forget it. For time immemorial, the DJ has been the person to whom the party looks for entertainment in the form of music. Whether its a dorm room with mates or a stadium of fans, all eyes are on the DJ to provide an experience greater than simply putting a CD on, and thats a big ask. When I started out in the 90s, superstar DJs were already a thing and we scoured their charts and track lists for a clue as to what the hot tunes were, and what by default we should be playing. And that really hasn’t changed in 20 years. Pick any online music store, and you’ll find a chart section with sponsored posts by all manner of DJs cluing you into their hot tracks. But to stand out, to truly lead and not follow, you need to learn the ancient art of digging in the crates. As DJ Shadow states in this video, it won’t make a bad DJ good, but it will make a good one better.

That whole digging in the crates thing might have sounded a bit vague. I don’t mean you have to go and buy old vinyls, what it means is you look beyond the Beatport top 100 tracks and check out the smaller indie labels, maybe take a look at a record store you’ve never been to. I can recommend Bloop, Juno, Bandcamp and Net labels (good for a few obscure gems and sometimes free downloads). Choose only music that moves you, not music everyone else is playing. Too many working DJs now will play a soundtrack that 1000 other DJs would play in a slightly different order. Find those secret weapon tracks (or make your own) and keep them secret instead of telling the world and posting a Soundcloud link. If you are working, try to get signed up to DJ pools and promo lists, as that can take the sting out of buying new music and allows you to focus on the really cool stuff you can’t get for free.

The way I approach mixes is really the same as I approach every set, whether it’s a mix at a club/festival/or a mix for the radio. I try to start off deeper and go through the mix progressing into the more driving rollers. Most importantly though I’d say just play what you love, as if people are listening to the mix, they want to hear you, not hear you try to be someone else. – Dale Middleton

So you have an idea what sort of DJ you want to be, what sort of mixtape you want to make and have a playlist full of potential tracks. Mixing these tracks is of course down to individual taste, but as a rough guide, I personally cannot stand mixes that begin on the first beat of a track. Remember dance music is made to be played continuously, so by picking a track with a flat beat intro means the listener gets 30 to 60 seconds of kick/snare/hat and drop before anything interesting happens. Most will have moved on. The first track HAS to be an attention grabber, but it doesn’t have to be the biggest track in the world, or even have a beat. Some of my favourite mixes start slowly and build tension and excitement like a good live set.

The perfect mix tapes always take you on a sonic journey and are seamlessly mixed. For house music I think a good mix should start mellow and slowly rise in intensity with a few ebbs and flows. A good mix is a lesson in understatement, let the tracks do the talking don’t try to keep things in the mix for too long (unless your surname is Carter!).

The best mixes do not (usually) only feature upfront tracks; give a respectful nod to the past. By all means work the EQ, but leave the efx alone as that is just irritating. One golden rule for all…. absolutely no putting Martin Luther King or Once You Enter My House spoken word over the top of a track please!!

The mix should astound the listener with it’s track selection and inventiveness, and should always push people slightly out of their comfort zone, even if it’s for only one track. – Jerry Bennett (CEO – Electronic Soul Bookings)

The important point there – the mix should astound the listener. Stop playing safe and pick music YOU like that moves YOU. Tastes vary so much that even if a few don’t get it, there will be others that do and they’ll come back for more because they get you and like your sound. Never be afraid to take a chance on something if it sonically expresses you as an artist. You shouldn’t be in a rush either. So many mixes I hear where the DJ is desperately trying to show their ability by cut mixing 5 tracks in quick succession, or layering 3 tracks needlessly just because Traktor allows you to. When you pick great music, it does the talking for you. If you feel the need to have to layer 2 or 3 other tracks on top, its got no place in your mix – save that for live sets, we want to hear you tell a sonic story with music.

circle of 5ths

Learn your tracks. Its sounds really obvious, but even I go to gigs with tracks freshly downloaded that I simply don’t know, and so take un-necessary risk in using. If you really learn how your music sounds, your sets will instantly improve. Its all about judging energy levels (yes, I know Platinum Notes etc does this for you, but the point is you should know this stuff instinctively). Another useful tool – note I said TOOL, is harmonic key software. Harmonic mixing just sounds more pleasing to the ear, its basic music theory, but its not the be all and end all, you are allowed to throw the rule book away if the mix sounds good to you.

Its just that some notes go better together, and some sound awful. A basic understanding is really all you need to get started, and with time and experience, you’ll come to appreciate it more and want to read deeper into it. Harmonic mixing is based on the circle of Fifths, which is the relationship between the 12 tones of the chromatic scale, their corresponding key signatures, and the associated major and minor keys. Having this understanding, but using your own innate musical ability allows you to make the best of it all.

“Always follow your own musical path, don’t try and sound like someone else. Have belief in your own convictions and taste. Don’t be blinkered musically; open your ears to all genres of music.” – Slam

So you’ve got your tracks sorted, you’ve done a basic run through and arranged them into an order, now its the moment of truth. Time to press record. But thats not the end of the story. Too many DJs think once they’ve nailed a mix, they should upload it and hammer social media. Just hold on there. The first rule of producers is to let the track sit for a few days and then revisit it, same applies to the mixtape. It sounds amazing when you record it, I’ll wager some of you daydream you’re playing the peak time set at your favourite club and have an army of adoring fans screaming your name! But in the cold light of day and with fresh ears, you’ll notice all the small imperfections that make you consider re-recording everything again, listen to those voices. You only get one shot at making that first impression and sloppy mixes will get deleted very quickly, if listened to at all. But thats for next time. Marketing yourself is a whole other kettle of fish…