How to record your next DJ mix

Recording a mix can at times be stressful. But with some clear planning and best practices in mind, it should be a fun and productive process.

For most of us amateur DJs, mixing is a state of play, a way to unwind and connect with music, alone or with friends. If you’ve been mixing for a while, the movements come naturally. It can be easy to slip into a zone where you’re acting without thinking, playing music you love, half-consciously making choices and connections that may even surprise you in the moment. This relaxed state of creativity is a big part of why we love DJing. 

Recording a mix, though, can be another story entirely. Somehow, once you hit that red button, the whole thing can become intensely un-chill. The simple question of, “What do I feel like hearing right now?” is replaced by anxious thoughts like, “Is this really my sound as a DJ? Do I even like any of these tracks? Why is this so hard?” 

Even seasoned DJs will go to hell and back recording an hour of music they feel happy with. It’s common, if a bit unhealthy, to blow through dozens of takes in pursuit of one solid mix. By the time it’s over, the whole thing may feel more like a Sisyphean task than a fun weekend project. 

We’re here to tell you that it doesn’t need to be like that. Whether you’re recording a mix for a podcast series, to share with a few friends, or just to hear yourself and hone your craft, the aim should be a fun and productive process. 

Here are a few simple methods to help make that happen.

Assess your tunes

Try compiling a sprawling playlist, or set of playlists, with no concept in mind. Set aside time to browse your library at a luxurious pace, ideally in a few different sessions. Reach for anything that happens to speak to you at that moment. 

Don’t think too hard about it—you can trim down your selections later. For now, just cast a wide net and see what you catch. Think less about what feels cool or impressive to your imagined audience (if you have one), and more about how each track makes you feel. To quote the tidiness guru Marie Kondo: does it spark joy? If it does, throw it in the pile. If not, put it to one side. 

Set aside the tunes you don’t know as well. Get familiar with them outside the context of a mix. Put them on your phone. Listen to them while you cook, clean or exercise. It’s essential to hear your tracks, especially ones you don’t know as well, without mixing them. You’ll pay closer attention, and form a clearer sense of how they work—what their energy level is, when breakdowns happen, what kind of mood they evoke—as well as your own connection to them, including, most simply, whether you like them enough to include them in your mix.

Try a loose concept

A weird thing about recording mixes is that you have an audience (i.e. whoever will hear the mix) but you don’t see them, and may not fully understand who they are, so you can’t play to them in a traditional sense. 

There are ways to mitigate this. One is to choose an imagined audience. Pretend you’re playing to the crowd at a party that sticks out in your memory. Or imagine you’re playing for a particular friend, or group of friends, and let that guide your selections. If you’re alone, try to vibe off your environment and your mood the way you always would while DJing. Make the mix a document of the time and place where it was recorded—what music felt right at that actual place, at that actual time. Those details will ground the mix and make it feel more real, even if the audience isn’t aware of them specifically.

It’s reasonable to see your mix as a personal statement, an encapsulation of who and what you are as a DJ. This, to some extent, will always be true—any mix you record is an artifact of your practice, and anyone who hears it will take it as a sample of what you do. But as a framework for a mix, the grand personal statement is too broad, too high-pressure. If the goal is to record something that perfectly sums up your essence as a DJ—something you might struggle to define anyway—you probably won’t be satisfied with the result. 

It is enormously helpful though, to have some kind of mental guideline, or starting point. Sometimes these come naturally via context. If your mix is an episode of a club or party’s podcast series, consider playing the way you would there. If you’re doing a two-hour show on a free-form radio station, it may be best to take advantage of that format’s built-in freedom, playing eclectic music for people listening at home, without the dance floor in mind. 

In lieu of external prompts, you can come up with one yourself. Take Andrew James Gustav’s moving on mix, recorded at home just before he moved to a new flat (supporting text: “bye bye landlord – the only way is up”). That’s a simple and evocative inspiration for a mix. In this case, Gustav revealed his concept, but you don’t have to. Even hidden from the listener, this kind of thing will guide the mix and give it personality. 

Experiment with how “live” you want to be

All DJ mixes fall somewhere along a spectrum. On one end, you have an all-vinyl mix, completely improvised and recorded in real time, with minimal edits after the fact, if any. We can call this the “live” end of the spectrum. On the other end, you have something composed entirely on software, not recorded so much as assembled, with all the tracks carefully arranged like clippings in a collage, or pieces in a puzzle. We can call this the “studio” side of the spectrum. 

How you balance these approaches has as much to do with technology as it does with your personal style as a DJ. Many people mix entirely within a DAW, but improvise as they go. Someone mixing on CDJs may use features like hot cues, pre-set loops and rehearsed blends so thoroughly that their mix is, in a way, closer to the “studio” end than another DJ’s Ableton mix. 

Wherever your personal comfort zone happens to be, it’s worth venturing out a bit. Both approaches have creative possibilities that are hard to imagine until you try them.

Learn your recording method inside out   

How you handle the actual recording is a matter of available technology and taste. If you’re mixing with a controller, it may just be a matter of hitting the record button on your software. If you’re on CDJs and turntables, you may be recording from your mixer onto an external audio recorder or via an app like the DJM-REC, or perhaps sending audio to your computer via a sound interface. 

Whatever your setup, get as comfortable with it as you can before you record your mix. There’s nothing worse than thinking you nailed a take then listening back and realizing you mixed with the levels too hot, ran out of disk space halfway through, or—a classic—somehow failed to record at all. You should be so familiar with your tech that those possibilities aren’t even playing on your mind. You’ve got enough to think about with the actual mix. The recording process should be something you could do in your sleep. 

It’s smart to do a test recording before you embark on a full take—that is, a quick recording, anywhere from ten seconds to a few minutes, that demos every input you’re using, so you can check everything is working and sounding as it should. 

It’s also good to generally record as often as possible, even when you’re just practicing. This will help you tighten up the technical side of your process in a relaxed way, removed from the task of an actual mix, and deflate the basic pressure of being recorded, which can throw off your game. And you never know, you might accidentally nail a keeper. Mixes made off-the-cuff for no one but yourself can turn out even better than ones done with lots of planning and intention.

Mind your levels     

Imperfections that may not stand out so much in a live mix tend to come through more clearly on a recording. One of them is volume levels. Dips and spikes in volume from one track to the next are more obvious on a recording than they are in a club, so it’s important to keep your levels as even as possible. 

And while mixing in the red may be forgivable in some situations, any clipping or distortion will make a recorded mix sound sloppy. Stay safely in the greens and yellows—you can always boost the overall volume of the mix once you’re done (more on that later). An easy method while you’re mixing is to choose a good output level—say, the second-to-last light in the yellows—and adjust the gain or trim on each tune to hit it.

Consider key

Many DJs rarely, if ever, consciously think about musical keys as they mix. But a key clash between two tracks can ruin your blend as calamitously as a train-wreck. On a soundsystem, this kind of thing might pass with a moment’s discomfort, especially if the clash is low in the mix and doesn’t last too long. In a recorded mix, though, it can be worth making the extra effort to consider the musical compatibility between your tracks. 

Sure, when in doubt you can simply finish your transition before any melodic or harmonic elements in the new track appear (one of a few reasons it can be handy to set hot cues at those points so you can see them coming as you mix). But mixing in key is easy enough to get the hang of, and will make any recorded mix sound smoother (if that’s what you’re after) and more professional. 

Even if you’ve never played an instrument or learned any music theory, you shouldn’t feel intimidated by words like “key” and “scales.” All this stuff is pretty straight forward, especially with the help of key detection technology—a built-in feature of rekordbox. Maybe you’ll go deep on harmonic mixing techniques, or maybe you’ll just reach a basic understanding of which keys go together. Either way, having an eye on this can take your recorded mixes to the next level.

Planning vs preparing

Some people plan their recorded mixes down to the smallest detail, with each transition mapped out and rehearsed. Others just grab a bunch of records, hit record and see what happens. Where you fall on this spectrum is a matter of personal style. But we’d recommend finding a middle ground. Establish a loose plan, leave room for improvisation, and prepare your music in a way that makes spontaneity easy and fun.

By “preparing” we mean organizing your tracks into playlists as well as analyzing them. Make sure their beat grids are all sorted out on rekordbox. Try putting hot cues in at key moments—points where it could work to try a transition, say, or marking where a hook comes in. The more thoroughly you prepare your tracks, though, the easier it will be to think on your feet and make creative decisions in the moment.

Record, rinse, repeat

Plan on doing a few takes. Try something different every time. If it doesn’t go well, make tweaks. Before each one, do what you can to avoid distractions or unwelcome surprises. If you’re mixing on a controller or a DAW, make sure your computer is connected to a power source, and close any apps that might cause notifications. Consider disconnecting from Wi-Fi and putting your phone on Airplane mode. 

Before too long, you should have a raw file for a mix you’re relatively happy with. But you’re not quite done yet. 

Take time for finishing touches 

No matter how good you feel about your final take, you’ll want to do a light edit after the fact. With a few simple editing techniques, you can elevate your mix to something you’re excited to show off. 

The most basic thing you’ll want to clean up in virtually any recorded mix is the volume levels. As we said earlier, you want to record with your outputs safely out of the reds, but the finished product should be as loud as whatever the listener hears before or after it. Boosting the volume of the whole file in a DAW or audio editing software is a quick and easy solution. 

You probably want to normalize your levels, too. Even if you kept an eye on your channels, there will likely be spikes and dips in volume somewhere in the mix, creating lulls or jumps in energy. This, too, is an easy fix, even if you’re inexperienced with audio editing. Whatever DAW you’re using, a quick YouTube search should make it quick to learn how to tweak the volume of a specific part of a file. 

What we’re describing here is basically manual compression—the process of reducing the dynamic range of your mix to make it sound more cohesive. You can also do this automatically using plugins or built-in features on DAWs and other software. It’s good to proceed carefully here, though. Used correctly, compression technology can make your mix sound full, punchy and clean. But it can also drain some of the life from your mix (some dynamic range is still desirable, after all). If you do use some kind of software to compress your mix, compare how it sounds before and after to make sure the result sounds better overall. 

This may seem controversial to some, but entry-level audio editing methods unlock another powerful option: stitching together parts of different takes. Purists may scoff, saying your mix should capture your abilities as they really are, without embellishing them—if a transition near the end went a little funny, either live with it or re-record the whole thing.

We won’t get into the nuances of that argument here. Suffice to say, it’s perfectly normal to record a mix and feel great about the whole thing… except one or two blends that made you wince a bit. You could re-record from the beginning just to get that part right. Or, you could record a new take, starting at some point near the section you’d like to change, get it to sound the way you want it, then swap that section into your original file. An easy way to do this is to choose a specific beat that’s easy to find—say, the beginning of the first bar at the beginning or end of a breakdown—and make that the point where you stitch your new take onto your old one. 

Whether you allow yourself that kind of post-mix editing is a matter of personal style and, dare we say, philosophy, that’s completely up to you. Either way, it leads nicely into our final tip. But first…

Choose a title, and maybe a pic

A mix with a title is automatically more interesting than one without. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just something to pique interest and hint at what’s inside. Whether it’s something specific, like “Old School Garage Anthems,” or something more abstract, like “Winter Afternoon,” it will pique curiosity much more than, say, “August 2023 Promo Mix.” On a similar tip, if you’re posting your mix online, choose a picture to go with it. Again, it doesn’t have to be anything special—blurry phone snaps of the decks can get the job done. The idea is to give your mix personality even to someone who’s not yet heard it.

Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good

In 1998, the now defunct Muzik Magazine had a chill out mix contest. Readers sent in their contributions and the best one got included in a CD that came with the magazine. Matt Edwards, now known as Radio Slave but at the time just a 27-year-old amateur from Brighton, sent in a mix with at least one obvious mistake—at one point, he seems to stop the wrong turntable, causing an awkward moment of silence. He won the contest, and his mix remains a cult favorite 20 years later. 

To be fair, many of us would probably have another go on a mix with that kind of gaff in it. Still, it raises the question: how many great mixes have been relegated to the dustbin of history by a DJ who simply couldn’t tolerate their imperfections? And how much do those imperfections bother anyone except the DJ themself? Faced with the choice of whether to release a recording you’re mostly (but not entirely) happy with, or scrap the whole thing and release nothing at all, you would probably be wise to release the mix. A good mix that exists is better than a perfect one that doesn’t.  

Words: Will Lynch