Monday, 11 April 2011

How to make a 'Mix Tape'

This week I'm going to show you how to make a 'mix tape'. I do not mean a tape to give to that girl you like with all your favourite love songs on. This type of mix tape is probably not going to get you laid (but you never know). What I mean is a selection of songs mixed together to show your ability as a DJ. It should be about an hour long and you can give it to bars and clubs or potential DJing venues (house parties are always good) in the hope of getting a set. You can also just give it to friends and family or keep it for yourself. Remember that if you want to DJ in a club or bar you should probably practice a lot before you try to get a set. In the last post I outlined some of the things you'll need to become a DJ, but to make a mix tape you'll just need Ableton, headphones or speakers and some tunes. Later I'll show you how to turn your mix tape into a live set.

I'm not going to teach you how to use everything in Ableton in this tutorial, there are the built in tutorials or if whatever you are looking for isn't there – just google it. What I am going to do is to
explain a few techniques that I use and that I haven't seen tutorials for anywhere else (this doesn't mean they aren't there, just that I haven't seen them).

Progressive Music

The idea of a mix is to get a nice progression going throughout your set. You might want to start with some chilled out stuff first, then build to your heavier tracks. Overall the mix should gain energy, although some DJs like to build it up and take it down, it's just one of those rules that are there as a guideline but can be broken when necessary.

Picking Your Tracks

The first thing you need to do is pick some music to mix. I usually mix hip-hop or electronic music but you should just pick something you are into. It's nice to find songs that not many people know, but it's important that you keep your audience in mind. If you start a mix with minimal tech then mix Thriller by Michael Jackson over and over for 2 hours, people might get annoyed. Some DJs stay in one genre and some mix it up by adding in things you wouldn't expect. Just keep it interesting and I'm sure everyone will love it.
Another thing to bear in mind when mixing is tempo. Although Ableton is capable of changing the tempo of individual tracks, you shouldn't really try to mix anything that's too different. Any more than 20 bpm difference will probably sound weird (depending on the style of the track). I noticed that bass starts to sound a bit weird at about 5bpm difference. Also, if the tracks you mix have any real instruments, changes to tempo could mess them up. Just use your ear.

The next thing to listen for is the key of the music. If you aren't very musically minded then just forget about this for the moment. You should be able to notice whether something sounds good or not when mixing.

Depending on the length of the tracks you have chosen and how much you decide to use of them, you should pick about 10-20 tracks (bearing in mind that some of them might not work in the mix). Now copy all the tracks you want to a new folder on your hard drive. This will avoid the possibility of you moving a track – Ableton won't be able to find it and your mix could get ruined.

Mixing In Ableton

So the first thing to do is go to preferences and change some settings. Under the warp menu change the Loop/Warp short samples setting to 'Warped One Shot', make sure Auto Warp Long samples is on and change the Default warp mode to 'Complex'. This should make it easier for Ableton to Warp your tracks (although you'll almost always have to finish warping it yourself).

Now change to the arrangement view of Ableton, delete the midi track (right click it > delete midi track) and add a few extra audio tracks. I start with about 3 or 4 and add them later if needed. Add an EQ Three to each of the audio tracks and drop 3 or 4 of your tunes in. I always change my mind when mixing and the tune you pick as first now might not be the same later. Ableton will try to warp the tunes for you, double click the tune you want to show the sample view below, right click the beginning of the sample display and choose 'Warp from here (straight)'. Now go through and make sure that everything is warped properly. It's important that you keep your eye on the Seg BPM because this will show you the beats per minute for each of your tracks. If it's vastly different between tracks (like 70bpm or above) it's probably a problem with warping, go back and sort it out. Now you can either choose an overall tempo that is somewhere between your tunes, or you can control the tempo as the mix goes on (I sometimes do both). But again, if you change the tempo too much it'll sound weird. Make sure all the tunes are all around the same volume and you're ready to start mixing.

Now you need to make a decision. What sort of mix do you want (or need) to do?
If you are lucky, the person who make the tune will have thought about the DJ when they made their tune but this might not be the case. If the song has a strange intro or if it just won't fit where you want it to, then listen to your tune and take a look at its wave. If you can see from the wave that there are quieter segments later on in the tune, then maybe you can cut that part out and use it as a way to mix the tune. Look and listen for any breaks or parts where the drums, voice or whatever else are on their own. Then you can take this segment and loop it. Here's a graph showing a common structure used by musicians. A lot of the time there is a period of rest just before the final drop (see the graph) in this segment (the break) musicians give the listener a 'break' from the main parts of the song. This can be utilised by us to make our mix. Copy a bar or 2 and add it to the beginning of the mix, then you can mix the new track into that. Below is 'Electric Worm' by the Beastie Boys, altered with a loop at the beginning (faded in).

Looping and controlling hi by abletonian

There are another 4 types of mixes that I do often, and they are enough to get me through. Here's what I have decided to call them:

Cut it off
This is the easiest technique but it's hard to make it sound good. It's where you just cut it at the end of one tune and drop the the new one straight in. Works best when 2 tunes are similar sounding in key, tempo and/or rhythm.

Supreme People to Parachute Pandor by abletonian
Fuck it up
This is where you apply loads of effects and fuck the tune up completely. Then you can mix the new tune into the mess you've created.

Time to Bang the floor 2 by abletonian

Make It Fit
This is the most time consuming but often makes for the best sounding mixes. It's where you take part of the tune and loop it, but also cut it up and make it fit with the other song. It's kinda like remixing. In the example I use a voice sample found in the second track (where the voice is without any background music) and loop it. The drum sequence from the first tune is looped and cut up to match the second tune then when the drums from the second tune come in the first drums are cut.

Drop The Bass
Where you (either slowly or all at once) drop the bass from one track and add the bass of another. Use the EQ Three to control only the bass. This is how most DJs mix, especially house and techno DJs. I don't use it very often because the tunes I mix don't really suit it.

And just carry on from there! Hopefully, you should be able to finish your mixtape (and pretend you are an awesome DJ) with these techniques.

So that's it for now, next time I'll show you how to take your mix tape and turn it into a live DJ set, and how to get the most out of your effects.

Also, if you've got any questions or if you make a mix, I'd love to hear them! Drop me a line: abletonian at gmail dot com

Stay tuned!


  1. Pretending rarely works right =p.

  2. Very good post! And sounds very nice! :P

  3. Great tutorial, how could I find any info like this? Thanks dude.

  4. I was a f** master at this, I made tons of mixtapes on the 90's :P

  5. this is awesome I was working with FL studio but now I can learn how to ableton thank you +followed awesome tutorial

  6. Cool stuff! I've always wanted to learn how to make beats/ instrumentals with computer software! Do they have Albeton for Macs??

  7. I need to get the new FL Studio 10 so I can start doing this.

  8. Thank you so much! It was exactly what i was looking for! Really great tutorial and the illustrations really helped! :)

  9. GREAT tips, my brother's been trying to figure this out for a while now, I'll link him to this blog.

  10. so helpful, i was thinking of what to make for my gf. very nicely written. followed

  11. The cutting it off at the right time is hard to judge, but other than that, this guide is full of information, not just for mixtapes

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  13. This helped me alot. Thanks!

  14. Oh, man, this is some very useful info for future djs or something. I really am not into this, but my friend will be very happy when I show him this. Nice info, man, keep going!

  15. Very nice, lots of helpful information

  16. ohh awesome info , thanks ^^

  17. This helped me out so much, thanks!

  18. So much knowledge! You really know your stuff.

  19. gonna start mixing tonight!

  20. always wanted to become a DJ.
    settled for playing guitar in a rock band lol.

  21. Dude I've tried to use this and other DJ programs but I fucking suck.

  22. This got me interested, bookmarked for future read with proper attention.

  23. wow great I'll keep reading, just wanted to start making my very own dubstep.