The great painter Pablo Picasso once said: “Learn the rules like a pro so that you can break them like an artist”.
DJing is a form of art. And a great DJ set should tell a story or paint a picture via songs. The dancefloor is our canvas, and songs are our colors.
It’s tough to come up with general rules or a formula for crafting a DJ set. But, what we can do is to give guidelines. After all, it’s not about perfection. It’s about purpose.
In this definitive guide for building a DJ set you’ll learn:
- How to organize and categorize tracks
- Phrasing and how to use it properly
- Why mixing in key is “a tool but not a rule”
- How to play an opening set
- How to play a headlining set (using key shifting)
- Key analysis across platforms
- Lots of advanced tips, strategies, and techniques
Let’s dive right in!
How to Organize and Categorize Tracks
Beyond the technical aspect of understanding how to mix between tracks, use effects as necessary, and establish cue points, the absolute most essential thing for a DJ is knowing his tunes.
It would be best if you learned how the dynamics of the various tracks fit into the dynamics of a mix. With that said, step one would be going through ALL your music. Listen to every single track you have.
Once you’ve formed your selection well enough, get it all analyzed and key-tagged. Now that’s a folder with a decent number of tracks that you can identify, sorted by key. If you open library view and list everything by key, it’s pretty simple to narrow your picks. That solely will increase your set quality by a ton.
But, I figured out that even when knowing my tunes and mixing in key, I would still make bad choices sometimes and drop lower energy tunes that I like into techno bangers and kill the vibe.
So what’s the solution? Go through everything in your collection for playing out, listening to it, and tagging it by energy level.
Make three folders; the first one being introductory – beginning, the second one being mid part of the set, and the third folder being the peak.
Don’t just have one folder with like 40 songs in it. Break them down into three maybe four subfolders in terms of the types of music, and the energy level, and you’ll have to follow those three folders. But at least you know where those different types of songs are housed and plan as you’re going.
If you want to find a song that’s a neutral energy level like a long tribal track now you’re like: “It’s in folder two!”. Hence, you go there, you don’t waste too much time flipping around through your folders looking for an appropriate song, and you can focus more time on making sure that you’re going to do a grand set that it’s going to mix well and it’s not out of key.
This way, DJs can still get to that one rare track remembered as perfect for dropping, but they’re not digging through a ton of bulls*** when you’re building sets the rest of the time, especially if they’re working on the fly.
It’s easy to mix up your feelings for tracks with how much energy they have. I also saw I no longer need to organize by genre as I’m going through and marking stuff by energy level.
The Minimal and Deep House and dubby stuff drifted towards the lower energy levels and were now at the lower end, the Tech-house, House, etc. were now around the middle, and Tech-House bangers accompanying more pounding Techno tunes were now on the high end of the spectrum.
After preparing tracks in Rekordbox, energy levels help you remain cohesive without pigeonholing yourself into playing only specific categories of music.
Phrasing and How to Use It Properly
Phrasing is a concept used to explain the routine of lining up two phrases in a set. Most western tunes use 16 or 32-beat phrases. These are key to a fluid transition, where one song ends its phrase just as the new one begins.
It’s a typical mistake to have your beats per minute balanced but drop the new tune too early or too late, so they break down at the wrong time.
Or, if the new song drops too quickly, it will be messy, and you could have overlapping vocals!
Mainstream Techno usually features a track structure that is very similar to other music – it’s always effortless to count the phrases until the next section of the track. Lots of the sounds usually have more of a digitally synthesized feel, and there’s a big trend of having big booming kicks that will fill a big room, hence the term big room Techno.
Quick Tip for Phrasing (1)
Having listened to your tracks in advance, you will know the structure and phrasing for each song and be able to line them up correctly.
I love mixing the next track in early. I know that when I hear a DJ and start mixing part of the next track, I get all excited, especially when it’s a song that I like coming up next. The anticipation is critical because you know what’s coming.
Here’s an example of two tracks matched in phrasing. The formatting here may not allow these to quite line up, but I’m sure you’ll understand the concept.
Each ‘O’ represents a bar with a full bassline.
Each ‘o’ represents a bar with no bassline.
- Track A: O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-(end of track, or breakdown)
- Track B: o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-(first breakdown or drop)
What you want is the basslines from the song A and B to never play together at an identical time (except if they can complement each other harmonically). You can also use the Low knob or a high-pass filter to cut in and out the basslines for each of the tunes if you want.
Quick Tip for Phrasing (2)
I usually play Tech-House. Or Techno, and sometimes even House. The way I typically mix I have found to be the smoothest and most interesting while still flowing naturally in a progression sense. You should try it.
Line up the first one or two intro phrases of the track you’re transitioning into – with the last one or two phrases of the drop of the track you’re transitioning out of.
I figured out that when I do that, both the tunes follow a usual progression of building up into a quiet and lower period where they would both naturally build back up into another drop. It’s sort of like phrasing within phrasing. Do you see where I’m getting at?
I started applying this method to whatever style I mix, and it sounds fantastic. You get this straightforward progression of energy. Since the two tunes are getting down to another build-up period at the precise same time, it’s simple to smoothly transition using reverb, HPF, LPF, echo, delay, or anything. It’s all a matter of style and music I feel like gaining from the set.
Why Mixing in Key is “A Tool but Not a Rule”
My cousin is a music teacher, and she’s well versed in keys (she uses the key names, not the number system), but for the most part, it’s the last thing she pays attention to as a DJ.
She said that it does sound flawless but suggested I focus more on the tracks I want to play and how they fit together.
Fun fact: the most frequent key change in modern music is a half step – which is nine times out of 10, are keys on the opposing side of the wheel. So our ears are accustomed to it. (but not when the two are playing together)
You can convert keys (modulate) to anything from anywhere, but the skill is in how you do it!
If everyone mixed by key, mixes with the same tunes would sound the same. It’s not a golden rule.
Have a listen to DJs that play similar music and what tune follows what. See if you can figure out how they have transitioned from one track to the next. Record everything and listen back to see what worked and what didn’t.
I just made a 7-track mix, unplanned/ad-hoc track selection as I went, and it came out pretty solid. I don’t want to be limited by only tracks in 2 keys during every transition. I’m trying to focus more on energy.
Mixing in the key is good for a few reasons though:
- First, if you want to overlay melodic tunes, it will usually (not always) sound s*** if they’re not incompatible keys.
- Secondly, if you’re going to do an ‘energy jump.’ The MIK (Mixed In Key) software has excellent info about how to do this.
If you’re making a mix for yourself/listeners, then the right next tune is the one that fits the “story” you’re trying to tell. If you’re trying to build energy over the set, then it will be a higher-energy tune in the same genre. Or a higher energy tune in a different but close style.
The key does not come into it.
With all that said, if the tune you want and need to play is in the right key, that is the best of everything. And I have to admit, with DJs, I listen to, when I say “holy cow that was good,” usually the mixes are in key.
But that’s why it is a tool, not a rule to mix in key. Generally, if you’re DJing live, it is way more important to choose the right tune for the next moment.
Opening Set vs. Headlining Set Building
What a lot of DJs prefer to do is arrange the tunes that they want to play that night so that the set includes more minutes of music than the actual amount of time they have to play.
A two-hour gig usually takes about 25-30 songs, depending on genre. You’ve got to keep in mind that you lose time on either side of the song as you mix in and out, so a six-minute track becomes a three-and-a-half-minute track if you’re doing extended mixes on either end.
If you’re playing a one-hour set, you should bring two hours of music. I would say go double, and you’ll probably be pretty secure as long as you have enough diversity in there in terms of types of track speeds and keys.
My favorite DJs and DJ mixes are full of surprises, big and small, whether they are disparate mixing genres, changing tempos, etc. And that’s what I strive to do when I play. It’s about a journey for me.
The typical beginner mistake, one every DJ unavoidably makes early on, is preparing your whole mix from front to back and having no room for variation. You can plan a peak time set of stunners at home, but then you enter the event, and it’s 10 p.m., and there are twelve people there. It isn’t going to work.
You can read our article on what makes a great DJ and how they are always prepared for these things.
Knowing when you are performing is essential, the start of the night and the end of the night are very different times. With digital DJing, it’s much simpler to pre-plan for multiple situations. When it was just vinyl records, and you came with a set that wasn’t going to work, you were screwed.
Warm-up (opening) sets are not so popular because most DJs want to perform when the dancefloor is busy. However, I cannot stress enough the significance of playing a lot of opening sets.
After all, an opening set is essential to set the tone for the rest of the night and set up the headlining DJ into a decent sort of energy level when he comes on stage.
- Start slow enough to keep things chill as people will flow on the dance floor and then slowly pick it up
- Exercise some restraint
- Leave them where the headliner can pick it up: from 121, 122 BPM if it’s a Deep House or Progressive House party, maybe 123 for Tech-House and 124 beats per minute for Techno.
You want to leave the headlining DJ a little bit of room to take things up a notch.
My dear friend is often a headlining DJ, and he says that’s at least 20% of his performance; when the opening DJ does a good job, it warms the room up for him and leaves the crowd wanting more.
The headlining set is where you get more creative, and you get to have those peaks and valleys and the ups and downs like a roller coaster ride. A headlining DJ has two, three, or four hours and a big blank canvas in front of him.
You can play music that’s fast for a while, then chill things out a little, relax a little, and then pick it back up again. You take the music to a darker place, maybe for a little while, making it a little weird, and so on.
How to Build a Warm-up (Opening) Set
The opening DJ is very relevant because it gets the energy levels moving in the right direction.
Rookie DJs that play their first gig tend to play too many bangers in the opening set. This is wrong, but understandable considering the excitement that the first gig brings.
But there’s just too much energy in these types of tunes.
Start with more melodic tracks, more chill, maybe some Deep-House. Also, start off playing as low as 119 per BPM at the same time, recognizing the speed and the energy levels.
It’s not usually suitable to be playing Techno at 126 BPM at 10 p.m. when there are only two waiters and two bartenders in the club, and maybe 15 people are chilling out or getting drinks.
It would be best if you played tunes that are appropriate for the club and time. Unless it’s a theme Techno party, and everyone wants you to play Techno the whole time.
Typically you don’t have time to do a lot of ups and downs that you might do to experiment around with a journey, as you would in a more extended set.
You have limited time, so typically, you’re starting slow, letting people trickle into the room and get a few dancing. It’s your job as an opening DJ to drag a few people from the bar to the dancefloor.
It’s about people to start getting into it. So when you see that there are four or five people on the dance floor, you may pick up the pace with one of these energy-raising type tracks. And you try to get a few people more away from the bar, send them to the dance floor right, and keep them moving. Nice and slow.
Dance floor retention is primarily the thing you should do, and it’s not an easy thing to do.
Headlining DJs typically don’t appreciate it when the DJ before them starts playing hard tracks with big breakdowns build-ups and massive drops. Because they come in and now it’s difficult for them to build up tension and get the people to the point they want.
If the DJ comes into a situation where you’ve already been playing a lot of high-energy tracks, it’s like “Where do I go from here?”.
Also, the promoters will say, “Well, this guy’s playing really hard fast music for early in the night,” and that could be the reason why you’re not going to get booked again.
It’s all part of DJing’s business side: keeping the promoters, nightclub owners, and, of course, the guests – all happy.
How to Build a Headlining Set
The sky’s the limit here. You can play a lot of more massive tracks with the energy released and keep people moving. But you don’t want to go for too long playing the same type of music even though people will probably continue partying.
If it’s a lot of high-energy music, it’s nice to give people some variety. Don’t let your sound get too stale.
You don’t have to slow down the actual BPM of the music, but you can play tunes that are a little bit less busy and don’t have as many percussive elements in their beat.
If you play a track at 122 BPM, but it has a lot of percussions and a lot of sixteenth notes, hits on the hi-hat sort of drums, that song will have the effect of sounding quite fast.
Something else you can do is use a bit more effect and a bit more control of the volume, for example, during breakdowns.
I sometimes bring the volume down slowly and bring it back up to accentuate the build-up and that swell, and I’ve heard other DJs do that when I’m in the crowd. I think it’s useful.
Key Shifting and Vocals
You can also use key shifting, and when I say a key, I mean the key the music is in, to change the vibe of your mix and the mood and emotion in the club.
So what do I mean by that? If you know a little bit about music theory, you may know that keys for Western music and Western-trained ears like ours hear music in a major key. It sounds more pleasing or more sort of complete or correct to us if you will.
If you play a song in a minor key: minor Keys have the effect of sounding more kind of evil or darker right. Like in a movie, when the killer comes in the room, or there’s something terrible is about to happen. Then you typically hear music in a minor key. And that’s very intentional on the part of the score writers for the movies.
So if you are playing on tracks, play at a major key for a couple of songs, and then you decide you want to make things a bit darker and change the mood, take people down that rabbit hole, you play a song in A minor or D minor. And it’s going to sound a bit eviler.
Vocal tracks can get the crowd pretty engaged, I find. If you’ve played for an hour without playing any vocals, maybe it’s time you sprinkled in a couple.
The point is to pay attention and be alive to variety and keep in mind that not everyone has the same taste for your type of music.
There are going to be people in the crowd who like vocal tracks, at any club on any given night.
To make it seamless, work on slowly pulling the lows, mids, and highs out of the looped best and use some reverb or something to create a build-up before the solid drumbeat of the master track comes in. Just practice and see what works.
I found this book on Amazon quite helpful to learn these things.
Key Analysis Across Platforms
Don’t wholly ignore what the software says about the key, but use that as a rough guide only. I’ve always had issues with key analysis across platforms: Beatunes says one thing, Traktor says another, and Serato says another.
Use keys as a secure sorting method but trust your ears/heart/gut. If you think two tunes fit well, but the keys are supposedly incompatible, then go for it. Serato’s key analysis is reliable, but I prefer Traktor’s BPM analysis and beat gridding. I only use Beatunes for file management: cleaning up metadata, genre, tags, duplicates, etc.
Trust your ears, not your eyes: Play a second track next to the one you’re playing, and if they sound good together, go for it.
Don’t trust the beat grid, either. Turn on cue/PFL on both tracks at the same time in your headphones and listen for the “budoomp” of the two kick drums, which hit slightly off each other, and tweak the incoming track with the jog wheels. If it slowly starts going “budoomp,” again, you have a BMP slightly out, so fix the wrong beat grid or turn off sync and fix it with the pitch control.
That’s why DJs should learn how to beat-match without sync. So even if you never want not to use a laptop, you have a backup plan.
My practice is usually just picking out a random song/genre/bpm and rolling from there. You’re your audience and curator. Even if it sounds s***ty, you can learn from anything.
“These keys clash, but I nailed the beat match” or “Keys and sync sound great, but the mood change is too much.” I take it slowly half the time: spin stuff I haven’t played much and drop hot cues until the last 8 bars, mix, repeat. You get to learn everything in your library.
-> How to Be a Successful DJ: From Bad to Good to Famous
How to Be Confident in Your Music Selection
The best way to be confident in your sets is only to buy the music you truly love and consider “good music.” By doing this, you limit your library from getting filled with mediocre tunes. When the best DJs pack their bags for an event, they don’t worry too much because they’re sure that their bag is packed with good music.
Know one thing: your tastes will change, so don’t be afraid to remove/move music that you don’t like anymore.
I love the tracks I listen to, and if I can make at least one person in the venue love it as well, I will be smiling, but most of all, it’s about the music you play in between the hit songs. I personally love DJs that play great tunes I’ve never heard before.
Please go with your style & selection of songs to tell your story. It’s about having fun and performing with what you believe is right (presuming beat matching, key, etc. are in check).
Connection With the Crowd
There’s no universal answer to the crowd’s emotional expectations. And a lot of the time, it’s more about the people than the DJ. The set that’s going to rock the dancefloor this week might not do the same the following week.
But when everything aligns, the music, the people, the environment, it can create an energy that’s hard to put into words.
I saw Hot Since 82 at Cercle last year, and everyone I spoke to who witnessed it agreed it was legendary, people still talk about it today. The crowd was lapping up every single selection, but also the weather was ideal, it was the only event, so people were well up for it, and the sound system was incredible.
The feeling in your body and the consciousness of your mind have to be relaxed and on a definite wavelength before you can connect with the crowd.
And if you don’t feel connected to the crowd, it’s positive that you’ll go off on some tangent or leave them in the lurch, which is always a disaster and a recipe for clearing the floor.
When you’re in sync with the dancers’ energy, intuition will always lead you from failing at the performance. That’s why it’s so crucial to be comfortable and in the flow, and physically in touch with your records.
The physical activity is in the DJ’s ears, hands, and heart. Eyes are often half-closed, and their mind can take a back seat to their intuition, falling into a zen state of moving meditation.
With a hand on each turntable, actually, in touch with the beat, their entire body is engaged in a dance with the music, and only with a calm and quiet mind, they’re able to have the poise and the timing it takes to perform a flawless set. Maybe not perfect, as the art isn’t that simple, but surely close to that.