Seeking DJ wisdom
February 15, 2012 1:09 PM   Subscribe

What criteria do you use to determine mix tape/CD/playlist order?

I'm in the process of assembling a carefully planned mix CD/mp3 playlist of Brazilian popular music, to the point where I'm considering learning all of the key signatures that the songs are in, so that I can take that into account when putting it together.

My question is twofold.

First, for the music theory savvy, if you were to do this, how would you arrange the modulations from song to song for maximum impact, if other factors (tempo, mood, groove, lyrics, etc.) weren't taken into account?

Second, anyone who has overthought a mix tape, what do you take into account, both in determining the song to song order, and the broader arc of the mix?
posted by umbĂș to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
2 things: spacing of my most favorite songs in the list (usually want them spread out so it seems more balanced), and tempo/mood (e.g., you don't want three upbeat songs that really seem to build on each other and then slam into a slow, sad song)
posted by Eicats at 1:14 PM on February 15, 2012

Getting this out of the way first:
The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up is hard to do. It takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick it off with a killer to grab attention. Then you gotta take it up a notch. But you don't want to blow your wad. So then you gotta cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules.
I'm responding more to the second part of your question (I don't know enough about music theory for the first) -- for me, mix tapes are a pretty right-brain activity. If I had to point to any "rules" I have, they're mostly about tempo and mood -- I try not to have all the slow maudlin stuff all clumped together, and I try to break up the fast ones with a slower one every now and then. I also avoid having things that are too similar coming one after the other (i.e., on a recent mix I made, I had songs by both the Pogues and Flogging Molly; they're both kind of "celtic punk," so I stuck something by Van Morrison in between them for variety). But really, I do a lot of listening to things in sequence over and over, tweaking the order and listening again, until it "sounds right".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:20 PM on February 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

I always make my mixes like they are a movie, and pace them like a director would scenes.
posted by quibx at 1:23 PM on February 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mixed in Key will tell you what key songs are in.

And I've spent, many, many, many hours making mix cds.

I'm generally mixing dance music, but I think of it like creating jewelry. I have a few songs that I absolutely have to have and the rest is just the setting so I can make them shine. I try not to get my heart set on any particular songs or transitions, and there have been times when I've ended up completely replacing my original songs with different ones as I experiment with mixes.

As far as tempo, you generally want to speed up as the mix goes on, but you don't just want to ramp it up constantly, you can go up and then back down.

Aside from tempo, you also want to look for songs which are similar musically to put next to each other -- look for songs that use similar instruments, that are in the same key, have the same drum beat, and so on. I usually get inspired to make a mix when I hear a set of songs with a common thread between them, and then I work out how to extend it to an hour. With songs that are similar like that, you can set up expectations through repetition and then subvert it as the different tracks go in different directions.

Don't be afraid of putting in minimal or even 'boring' songs. One of my favorite techniques with mix cds is to lead into a really big song with 2-3 songs that are really dark, repetitive and minimal -- no big melodies, no vocals, just rhythm and bass-- and then when you come out of it with a song with a big hook, move up to a song in a new key at the same time. It just lifts the whole thing up.

Covers and remixes are always a good tool for a mix cd -- if you really love a song but just can't make it work, look around on youtube to see if there are any other versions you can use.

Also, try mixing it in ableton, if the music has a fairly steady rhythm.. that way you can get beatmatched mixes fairly easily and can overlap the tracks much longer... this works even with non-electronica music, as long as the tempo is more or less steady...
posted by empath at 1:24 PM on February 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

I like to order songs so that each one has some musical element in common with the next, so it feels like there's a coherent through line and it's not just a random mix. I also think about the overall flow of the mix -- do I want to start with a high energy bang, or build energy gradually? Usually I start with the song I want to lead off with and let that determine the overall rhythm.

And listening to the whole thing through a bunch of times is important, so you get a feel for it and see if anything turns out to be a clunker or doesn't really fit with the rest.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 1:26 PM on February 15, 2012

No music theory savvy but a great predilection for mixtapes.

Many of my tapes are very specifically about my own life, so songs are organized as a cogent narrative of my emotional state/reactions to other people throughout however long the "life arc" is.

I've done a couple recently for other people that were NOT based on my own emotional narrative (they were songs that I thought the other folks should know/would like based on what I knew of their taste), but I realized I was still looking for some sort of emotional/aesthetically pleasing narrative. I think tempo and mood, as EC mentioned above, do have a lot to do with those. My standard seems to be to kick off with something up-tempo and powerful, move to slower and more introspective in the middle, and end with some sense of positive resolution.

I'm also a bit of a wanker about gender balance in tapes, so I'm likely to try to balance out male and female artists, and try not to clump them too much together if I can avoid it. Ditto if I'm using instrumentals vs. songs with lyrics--I try not to clump those either.

(I have to admit, I love "happy accidents" in mixtapes as well. Recently I did one in which I didn't realize while I was making it had two songs ending with the sound of glass breaking--and I put those next to each other completely by accident. Another recent one had two songs with the sounds of angels in them--"like a lot of lawnmowers mowing down my lawn" and "like marbles being thrown against a mirror"--right next to each other. Again, totally by accident.)
posted by dlugoczaj at 1:27 PM on February 15, 2012

iPod/iTunes based solution:

Put a bunch of songs into an iTunes playlist. More than you'll actually use.

Set your iPod to repeat the playlist. Hit shuffle. Listen. Skip tracks till you find a good opener (or, if you know how you want to open it, start there). Play through so the track registers in the playcount.

When the next random tracks plays, you'll intuitively know whether or not this flows well. If it doesn't, skip it. If it does sound 'right' play through to register the track in the playcount. Repeat ad nauseum.

Be sure to listen to 'good' tracks all the way through (or scroll to the end so they registered as being 'played'). Skip tracks that aren't feeling right.

When you're done, look at iTunes 'recently played'. You'll have a play order that you intuitively created to 'work' based on feel.

Use it as the basis of your mix. Add/delete/move to tweak it.

One surprise with this method is that the rules you 'think' should apply usually don't. You wind up putting together tracks that might be wrong logically, but feel right.

Good luck!
posted by mazola at 1:33 PM on February 15, 2012 [6 favorites]

Oh, and as far as ending it -- my favorite of a mix trig is to take a really long, repetitive, vamp-y song (like this one) and fade it out well before the end, so it sounds like the party keeps going on.

Sound effects are another good mix cd trick -- if I were doing a brazilian party music mix, I'd probably look for recordings of people at a party, maybe some whistles, etc and mix them in from time to time... You don't really need to put them in the foreground, you can filter them way down and put them back to the mix, but sound effects like that can really add to the vibe.. I've done that, and used airport and city sound effects in the background, too...

Here's an example of party sounds on a mix, that was on an old Layo and Bushwacka mix cd...
posted by empath at 1:33 PM on February 15, 2012

my favorite of a mix trig

wow, that was not even close to right- 'favorite trick to end a mix'
posted by empath at 1:34 PM on February 15, 2012

I have put together many mix tapes, CDs, playlists, &c. I regularly "DJ" (construct a playlist throughout the night) swing dances, and I handle friends' house parties from time to time.

One thing I have never, ever cared about, at least consciously, is the key a song is in.
posted by cardioid at 2:17 PM on February 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

One thing I have never, ever cared about, at least consciously, is the key a song is in.

Oh, you do. If you put two songs next to each other in the wrong key, they won't sound right, even if you don't know exactly why, especially if you're cross fading. Most DJs don't key-match, but the best of the best almost always do.
posted by empath at 2:31 PM on February 15, 2012

Depends on what kind of mixtape it is. If it's thematic ("I've got a crush on you", "Sorry your relative died", "Let's make up") I try to keep the songs in line with that theme, and yeah, generally follow the rules from High Fidelity.

If I'm making a dance mix or something, I try to stick to songs with a similar tempo, so I can pretty seamlessly transition one song right into the next for a non-stop groove. If the tracks differ in tempo by more than a few bpm, I'll throw a little scratching in there or something so the difference isn't so jarring.
posted by xedrik at 2:50 PM on February 15, 2012

empath: consciously. I will listen to the songs and see how the transition sounds, and yes, part of that involves the key of the two songs. I do not, however, think "Oh, this is in G, the next song is in F minor. That won't do."

What I'm saying is I like mazola's idea and digging into music theory to create a playlist approaches beanplating.

Also, I never cross-fade. That's not the kind of DJing I do (hence the quotes and parenthetical). A song ends, there's a pause, there's a new song.
posted by cardioid at 4:03 PM on February 15, 2012

Digging into music theory to create a playlist approaches beanplating.

But that's what he was asking about. And it's one of those things that makes the difference between a 'meh' mix, and a mindblowing one. with mixed in key and stuff like audacity that can pitch shift, there's no reason not to do it.
posted by empath at 5:31 PM on February 15, 2012

Seconding mazola! Assemble a playlist you like in a rough order. Listen to it while working etc. Obvious clashes and great combinations will stand out. Refine, rinse, repeat. Don't get hung up on technique, most of the time a simple fade does just fine.

tl;dr: EVOLVE a mixtape.
posted by Tom-B at 8:22 AM on February 18, 2012

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