Here’s what I’ve learned over the past two years of making mixes.

Here’s what I’ve learned over the past two years…

Impetus

In early 2016, I was listening to a lot of the continuous mixes that Monstercat puts out, whether they be album mixes or their weekly podcasts. I found the uninterrupted stream of music really nice to listen to while working, so I resolved to at least give it a stab.

With very little knowledge of technique or process, this is what I came up with:

It’s pretty bad. The tempo makes really sudden jumps between songs, and all of the transitions are super jarring. However, I found it inoffensive enough that I didn’t end my attempts there. I kept at it, and a little over two years later, this is where I’m at:

These mixes have become a hobby that I not enjoy devoting time to, but also one that I can be genuinely proud of. It’s not often that I get to directly compare my recent works to my “first,” and it’s just been crazy seeing how much better these have gotten over the course of just two years.

So, I decided to write a piece talking about some of the things I’ve learned and techniques I’ve incorporated over the past 12 “volumes.”

Tempo control

By the third mix I’d picked up on a pretty central aspect to making a mix flow smoothly. Since limiting myself to songs of only one tempo was impractical, I would need to speed up or slow down the tempo of the incoming song to match the outgoing one. Then, I could slowly bring new song’s tempo back to what it was originally.

In cases where the tempo differential was too big, I would run the outgoing track a few (5-10) beats per minute faster or slower than what it was originally to make the tempo change less noticeable.

The main effect this had was that I could create actual transitions instead of relying on the audio equivalent of a jump cut. Here, the decade I spent playing musical instruments came in handy when I needed to sync up two songs.

More recently, I’ve started actually lining up tracks with the beat grid in Ableton so I could use the built-in metronome to help me.

The orange curve at the bottom of the image automates the tempo of the overall mix. It starts at the 170 bpm that Darren Styles and Dougal’s remix of “Cold Skin” runs at and nicely slopes down to the 150 bpm of Pegboard Nerds’ “Just Dance.”

Using EQ to control presence

This change came in around my sixth mix (I think). I had been automating track volume to fade in and out tracks since the first mix, but I still ran into issues of finding a good balance between two tracks. There needed to be a middle ground where the incoming track could be heard and recognized, but not to a point where it was competing dynamically with whatever was currently playing.

While watching DJ Ravine’s mixes on YouTube, I noticed something. Whenever he’d bring in a new track, he’d turn down the equalizer knob for the lower frequencies.

So on future mixes, I started adding a simple EQ plugin to my tracks, and automated those along with volume.

Each of the tracks has two automation curves on it. The one on top is responsible for fading the volume in or out, and the one on bottom controls how much of the low frequencies are filtered out. I usually try to set it so that only one song is at full EQ at any given moment.

Track selection

I don’t usually plan my mixes. I do keep in mind certain songs I’d like to use or certain song combinations that could work together, but since things that sound good in my head don’t always work out, I’ve largely strayed away from making concrete tracklists in advance.

The only exception to this is the tenth mix. I had this idea where I’d double the length of my longest mix at the time and also give it a sort of “arc.” I split up songs by their genre and feel, and arranged the blocks so that the mix would gradually ramp up before cooling down and ending on a nice, chill track. I even built in a little “interlude” in the middle where things would briefly simmer down.

I still left the order of tracks within each block up to “in-the-moment” decisions and changes, though. This actually made the entire mixing process a lot simpler, since most of the tracks ran next others that were fairly similar to it.

This was, however, still a one off thing. For an earlier draft of the eleventh mix, I did try to work off of an entirely pre-planned tracklist, but it became too restricting and produced suboptimal results. I ended up dropping the “sequence in advance” process for both the eleventh and twelfth mixes.

Momentum

This is probably the hardest concept to explain, and it’s something I’m still trying to work on. I use the term “momentum” to really loosely refer to maintaining the pacing and feel between tracks, with some indicators being the percussion pattern, synths used, number of sounds playing simultaneously and overall how “hard” the track is.

Like a lot of other things i’ve talked about, this is largely a balancing act. Sometimes, although the main melodies of two songs might go with each other, actually positioning them next together has the potential to interrupt the flow and the listener’s mindset. This is not to say that abrupt transitions don’t have their place, but for the most part a consistent momentum helps make a cleaner mix.

Mixing tidbits

Here’s a rapid-fire selection of techniques that I’ve come up with, or drawn from professional mixes, that can help make cleaner transitions and more interesting mixes in general.

These are largely possible because of how modern electronic music is made: using a digital audio workstation allows every single sound to be exactly on beat, and there exists a dynamic consistency that means that chopping up and rearranging individual tracks isn’t too jarring.

Moving the end up

This is where I move the segment that (often) occurs right after the second drop and move it right up to where the first drop ends. Not all tracks provide a natural “out” point in their middle, so this helps avoid an abrupt cutoff.

In this instance, I took the last few bars of San Holo’s remix of “Ready Yet” (shown in light blue) and moved it up to create a better “out” point for the next transition.

Intro/end loop

I’ve usually done this by taking the first bar (or so) of a song and just repeating it a few times to build out a longer transition. On occasion I’ve also taken a really short bit from the end of a clip and repeated it as a fade-out effect.

Grant, Anevo, and Conro’s track “Without You” has a really nice opening melody, but it only runs for about two bars. That was too short for the transition I had in mind, so I looped the first bar a few more times. The reason that there’s a smaller clip in each repetition is because the original bar’s fourth beat leads in to the main intro, so I just substituted it for the third beat since they were melodically identical.

Mashups

I use this term to describe one of two things:

One, playing two songs simultaneously. A lot of time this happens by accident, but when it works it combines a track that’s mostly vocals with an instrumental-only track that has a relatively consistent percussion layer.

Two, replacing the “drop” of one song with that of another. This one requires a bit more thought to maintain both the general tempo as well as the overall feeling of the songs.

To tie together the drop from Stonebank’s remix of “The Drop” with Jameson Thieves’ “Ghost,” I added back in a vocal stab from “Ghost” during a brief breakdown in “The Drop.”

I tried to make those two types of mashups the backbone of the twelfth mix, although much earlier forms have made appearances in the ninth and eleventh mixes, respectively. Mix 12 also included this monstrosity that’s kind of a hybrid between the two I talked about earlier as well as the “bridging” technique discussed below.

Aero Chord’s “Shadows” has its buildup replaced with the one from Bishu’s “Rituals.” Then, the vocal section of Stonebank’s “What’s Going Down” bridges “Rituals” to Ephixa and Bossfight’s “ “Subside.” For the latter half of the drop in “Subside,” I added back in another vocal section from “What’s Going Down” for continuity.

Bridges

This is a relatively new thing I started to do in the twelfth mix, but the basic idea is that I use a third track to help smooth out and add some continuity to a really quick transition between two other tracks.

In this case, are two transitions occurring in quick succession. The outgoing track transitions into a third, “bridge” track, and the “bridge” track almost immediately starts to transition into the incoming track. The main goal of this was to enable an almost immediate shift to a new track without the transition seeming too abrupt.

Here, I used the intro of F.O.O.L.’s “Keep On Rocking” to bridge the relatively tight transition between KUURO’s “Take Me Down” and Bad Computer’s “Silhouette.”

“E-brake”

This is a really bad title, but it’s really the best way to describe this particular trick. I mentioned that for my tenth mix I included a little “interlude” to cool things down before they got heavy again. This involved transitioning from a relatively hard and fast song to a track that starts with a chill piano solo.

After playing around, I figured the best way to do a “hard stop” on the outgoing track was by simultaneously decreasing volume, decreasing tempo, decreasing the low EQ and increasing a reverb effect. While not perfect, it helped dampen the impending nosedive in momentum.

There are three automation lanes for the outgoing track, Falcon Funk’s remix of “Cut It Loose.” The top lane faded in a reverb effect, the middle lane decreased volume and the bottom decreased the low frequencies. I also included the tempo curve in this to show how big a jump it actually was. The bpm actually goes up sharply when it gets to Infected Mushroom’s “Feelings” because I told Ableton to count every ½ beat in that track as 1 beat, so the track that came after wouldn’t have as big a tempo jump.

Sound effects

This is one of the first things I tried to smooth over transitions. It’s pretty basic and involves placing a white noise sweep or a cymbal around the transition. I did shy away from using these in the twelfth mix, however, because I noticed that I was starting to use these to force transitions that probably shouldn’t work.

Concluding thoughts (and happy accidents)

If you’re still here, I very much admire your attention span and appreciate you taking the time to read this rather long piece. If you’ve ever taken the time to listen to one of my mixes, I’m also super grateful.

I just wanted to leave this post by talking about some of my favorite moments during the mixing process. These are the moments when something really cool happens out of the blue. On occasion, I drop a track onto the timeline in a sort of “temporary” position, and it ends up creating a super cool mashup or transition that sticks. These happy accidents become doubly special when I listen back to my mixes in the car, or on my way to class.

The past two years have stunned me with how much I’ve grown, and even though these haven’t gotten too much attention, I’m okay with that. These mixes have always been something I made for myself, and I doubt I would have continued for so long if that weren’t the case.

I’m going to keep at it to hopefully be able to enter the Monstercat mix contest next year, because this is just the beginning.

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