How I Program Music for a live event and for a recorded mix set

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I was contacted last on my Facebook artist page from a long time follower.  He has, throughout the years, been supportive of my mixes and mashups that I post online.   He himself is working towards becoming a DJ and he tells me at times that I inspire him.  How cool is that?  Thank you Marin, this post is dedicated to you.

So anyway, he contacts me and tells me that he’s now about to be mentored by a working DJ and now he’s set up to actually play for a crowd.  Although he has plenty of songs and remixes/mashups, he is not sure how to structure the set.  He asked if I could give him some tips on how he could approach picking out songs that compliment each other and reflect the current atmosphere of the room.  This inspired me to think about sharing what I know that has worked for me, and could work for him and anybody else that struggles with this puzzle.  

So let’s begin.

I’ll first qualify this article by stating that I don’t consider my approach the most correct or better than another‘s.  There are many ways to create a great set and there are many ways to fail at it.  My approach is based on my research, trial and error, and studying and breaking down sets I feel work within the context of DJing at a night club.  

Picking music to play during the night is really a combination of a few things.  Our music tastes, what we think the room needs or wants, what’s the energy of the room at the moment, and what type of event/audience are we actually performing for.

Because this topic can be so lengthy, exhaustive, and cover so many areas, I’m only going to focus on how I pick music when DJing at a nightclub or bar that has a dancefloor.  I’ll also talk a bit on how I program music when recording a mix set, for comparison purposes.

I’m an open format DJ.  That’s means to say that I can pretty much play every type of music that people generally dance too.  It also means that I am challenged with figuring out how these different types of songs (genres and eras) work together to make my set sound good to both the dancers and the bystanders.   If the club requires Deep House or Nu Disco that is not explosive and is meant as a background for the guests buying their expensive Champagne, it’s not a problem.  If the club or bar wants a party DJ to get the crowd dancing and drinking, but no Hip-Hop or Reggaeton, no problem.  And if it’s a venue that wants the crowd to enjoy themselves, but also keep them as long as possible so they can make more money at the bar, then there is a way to play in order to accomplish that.  Sets can be tailored according to the club’s format or crowd response.  

What I generally tend to do is:  

1.  Select music that has a rhythm pattern (drum pattern) that compliments one another.

2.  Select music that have complimentary keys (harmonic).


Most music have a certain drum pattern.   Finding another song with a similar drum pattern and mixing them together will result in a very seamless transition.  As if the drummer did not have to change his way of drumming on the track from one song to the next.  

For example, Queen – We Will Rock You has a very distinct drum pattern that goes like this.

The following track by J-Kwon – Tipsy also has a drum pattern that is similar.

Big Boi – Shutterbug shares a similar pattern to the two tracks above.

Who can forget this 80s classic by Tears for Fears.

And lastly, we can include another 80s classic.

If we were to mix all these tracks together, it could sound like this.  Pay attention to the drum beats.

The cool thing to note is that these songs are of differing genres.  “We Will Rock You” is Rock, “Shout” and “Rock Me Amadeus” are New Wave, and “Shutterbug” and “Tipsy” are both Hip-Hop tracks.  These songs can mix with each other nicely because the drum beats compliment each other, regardless of genre or era they were made in.

So when it comes to programming music, drum beats (rhythmic pattern) in music plays a big role.  

Here is an example of two songs with non-complimentary drum rhythms mixed together.

As you can hear, the drum beats are synced, but the drum patterns don’t compliment each other.  Both drum beats are doing different things and although they are matched up, it’s clashing.  It’s a rhythmic clash.

Does this mean that “Freak of the Week” can’t mix well with “Tipsy“?  No, not in that particulr way that I demonstrated.  But there are methods for making the mix work well so that you eliminate the clash between the drum rhythms.  This is an area that I plan to talk more about later.   

When it comes to House music that uses a 4/4 (Four to the Floor) rhythm pattern, the challenge of mixing House tracks with other House tracks becomes less challenging.  Most extended versions of House tracks contain a drum intro and drum outro, allowing the songs to mix without a rhythmic drum clash.  There are some exceptions, but in general, these 4/4 style songs tend to mix well when you consider ONLY the drum rhythm.  There are also other factors that come into play when I select songs to mix in a set.  The second  factor involves the song’s key signature.  For me, this becomes very important when wanting to achieve a good flow in my set.  


When I play out, I tend to mix harmonically.  I don’t do it 100% of the time because programming a set for a live crowd requires me to be able to switch things up as I judge necessary.  I need to have the flexibility to make changes in my programming to suit the needs of the dancefloor/crowd.  It’s possible to do both, but if I can’t, then I will ignore the Harmonics of the two songs in favor of reading the dancefloor.

Why mix harmonically?  

For one reason, it sounds good.  We all have ears and we all have a sense of what sounds good and what doesn’t.  There is a reason why songs that are key compatible sound better than if they were not.  The most obvious reason is that there is a tonal relationship between the two songs that is in harmony.  

Let’s break this down further to discuss the parts of a song.  If a music producer is composing a song, he is going to want the instruments being used to be in the same key.  This is generally accepted.  The song’s lead guitar, bass, strings, synth leads, synth pads, saxaphone, lead and background vocals, etc. are all going to be in the same key.   Let’s use the following track as an example:  

Robin Schulz – Sugar (Bass, Lead Vocal, Electric Guitar) in key A#m

In the above example, I’m only using three song elements.  The bass guitar, electric guitar, and lead vocal.  Each element in this mixdown are in the key A#m.  

What would this sound like if the electric guitar was suddenly in C minor while the rest remained in A#m?

This is what it would sound like:

As you can hear, the electric guitar is in a different key than the rest of the elements (bass guitar, lead vocal).  Even though it’s synced, and follows a similar chord progression, the “mix” sounds dissonant because the keys are not compatible.  

So if we are able to discern what sounds good (harmonic) within the song, it can also expand to how different song along a mix chain sound together.  Instead of just putting together tracks randomly, or based solely on genre or tempo (bpm), we can focus on creating a set that sound harmonic on the whole.  The result will be a mix that sounds more fluid.  Here is an example using House tracks: