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All Keyed Up

February 1, 2008
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dj performing in club

Ali "Dubfire" Shirazinia of Deep Dish uses mixing in key and devil's horns to whip clubbers into a diabolical frenzy.
Courtesy Rephlekto Inkorporated

The time has come to get your keys together. This won't require a trip to the hardware store or a 10-cent key chain; you're going to need some basic software, a smidgen of music theory and a little creative thinking. With those tools in hand, you will stand poised to take musical control over the dancefloor.

All aspects of our lives involve some form of the never-ending soap opera starring Tension and Release, also with Conflict and Resolution. It's a story line we are all familiar with — and secretly love — so it's no surprise that it manages to weasel its way into almost all forms of art. Music is unique because there is an almost scientific system of tension and release, not to mention that it's one of the most powerful emotional triggers around. No cinematic climax would be complete without the final musical touch that tugs at the human heartstrings. So how do film composers use music to leave them spellbound, and how can you have the same effect on the dancefloor? Whoa there, cowboy; you need to learn how to get on the horse before you can go galloping off into the sunset.

MUSICAL JOHN HANCOCK

Each song has a unique key — its melodic fingerprint if you will. Although there are 12 notes in the Western musical scale, they can be combined in ways that yield many more unique keys. Even though some of these keys contain the same musical notes, it's the specific way in which they are arranged that gives each its own special flavor. You can mix some songs together that are not in the same key, and they don't clash because they share similar tones. Sometimes small changes can make a big difference in mood. For example, dropping two notes down turns the happy-go-lucky A major into the mysterious A minor. Before looking at how to use those characteristics in your mix, you need to figure out the keys of your songs.

SHORTCUT CHEMISTS

Figuring out the key of a new record in the past involved 10 minutes of fiddling around on a piano and then marking the (often-incorrect) key you found on the record label. As with so many other things, digital technology has made that process significantly easier and more effective. In the past few years, several software programs have emerged that can quickly analyze each digital audio file's signature and assign the correct key about 90 percent of the time. One of the more popular programs is appropriately called Mixed In Key ($58; www.mixedinkey.com). Created in 2006, this simple but effective application counts Pete Tong and Ali “Dubfire” Shirazinia (Deep Dish) among its users. Mixed In Key founder Yakov Vorobyev explains why it works: “The patent-pending technology enables Mixed In Key to think like a human musician, including mistakes they commonly make, so even though the keys may not always be perfect, they will always blend well. Consistency is key; when Mixed In Key recognizes that two songs are in the same key and you mix them, it will sound amazing.” Mixed In Key is streamlined; there's also a less-straightforward — but free — key program called Rapid Evolution (www.mixshare.com).

DJs OF THE ROUND TABLE

Finding out a song's key may be simple, but keeping track of which keys mix well together nearly requires a music degree. That is, until some helpful DJs created a circular system of numbers called the Camelot Sound Easymix System based on the circle of fifths. The Camelot system replaces the common lettered keys labels such as Bb with a logical sequence of numbers that keeps brainwork at a minimum. Instead of letters, you have 11 numbers — major and minor have become 1A/1B, respectively — and the numbers are assigned in a pattern that keeps friendly keys close to each other. For instance, if you are playing a song in Ab minor (1A on the Camelot scale), you know that a song in 1A, 1B and 2B will all blend well without clashing musically. Always mixing up one step on the Camelot scale will result in a continuously pleasing mix, but it can get a little monotonous after a while, so you need to learn to move around the Camelot scale.

One popular method is moving up one full note to create an uplifting feeling. For example, if you are playing in Ab minor, you would jump up to Bb minor. Although those two keys will clash if you try to blend them musically, a clean drum transition will work perfectly. Remember the Camelot scale does not mirror the traditional Western scale, so although A is next to B on your piano, they are on opposite ends of the Camelot scale. To create this effect without trying to figure out keys, remember this simple formula. To create a boost in energy, add two or seven points to the number you are currently mixing. In the case when you're mixing a song in Ab minor (1A), you'd need to find something appropriate in 8A (A minor) or 3A (Bb minor). A reliable formula for a full set would be to play two or three songs in the same key and then move up a whole step, slowly working though the scales.

These suggestions for mixing in key are not hereby the Ten Commandments of DJing. Doing nothing but moving up one key at a time or mixing 20 songs that are all in E minor will be a profoundly boring mix and result in you getting fired as a DJ. Sometimes your musical instinct will come up with a much more creative and compelling combination of songs than any computer program ever could. That being said, noticing that two current dancefloor hits are in the same key and doing a creative blend between them will leave the crowd with the impression that you are the most brilliant DJ ever. You don't even have to tell them that a $60 software program helped; take all the credit for yourself.

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