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Harmonic Live Sets

July 7, 2011

Harmonic Mixing

I’m not going to go into the how-to of key mixing as it’s done well elsewhere. I mention it because I found it particularly useful putting this set together and I think now I’m fully signed up to the concept. So this is more of a discussion of HM’s merits and weaknesses plus its benefits for the live recombination of loops etc…

Harmonic mixing was always something I was dimly aware of but, to be honest, I thought it was more a concern for house music or trance DJs and it would never be a factor for the music I liked which wasn’t primarily melodic anyway. Also it seemed a bit flash and fancy to me, probably just somebody showing off their knowledge of music theory, so I was consoled by telling myself the real way to do it was with instinct.

Now I know I wasn’t completely wrong but I wasn’t completely right either. Harmonic mixes happen all the time without any theory being known. Every DJ, even with a moderate level of experience, knows when they hear a track that it would sound great mixed into some other track in their collection. Those two records might get played together time and time again because the DJ knows how well they go together. Most record bags are full of just such combinations. Now, using music theory as opposed to musical instinct is bound to rub some people up the wrong way, particularly using software to predict such combos.

The idea of cheating in music, or art as a whole, is a weird one. Who exactly is being cheated? (The film/documentary ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ tackles this theme in relation to street art in a really entertaining and thought provoking way) Of course there’s the very real possibility some n00b will download the Beatport top 50 of a particular genre, analyze them for musical key, mix them using beat matching software and take a crowd away from somebody who has paid their dues to a scene learning deep skills for years. I’m not saying I know the solution to this situation but I definitely know who I’d prefer to listen to and I’ve no doubt I’d be able to tell the difference. I think anyone who’s paying music real attention would too. It’s normal for some people to be threatened when technology can automate a certain skill set but there will always be room for multiple ways of approaching a task. Software has nothing to communicate, it’s just a tool. The user controls the message and no software will ever replace a good set of musical instincts. So that said why not try all the tools out there, see if any suit your way of working and what can be achieved using them?

Previous to software like Mixed in Key and Rapid Evolution the way to analyse what key a piece of music was in was to play a key usually on a piano sound bank along to a track and see if there was harmony. If there was sour or bum notes, try a different key on the piano until you find one that fits. When that’s done, write it on the record, maybe with the BPM that you figured out by counting it while looking at your watch. Some dj are known to do this for huge collections in diverse genres going back to the early days of disco. All that time and effort could now be sidestepped, by those interested, with software which will write the key and BPM into the file name. However it’s not all roses, the Dubspot blog has a great post on the accuracy of Mixed In Key which is the premier software key analysis tool. There are plenty of situations where rules can be broken for even better results.

For the Live Set

One issue I’ve had with sets I’ve created using combinations of loops and over several channels is if you want to improvise combinations it can get messy and busy in an unappealing and unpredictable way, unless you plan combinations beforehand. Planning improvisation is fine, I believe a lot of jazz musicians do it to some extent but they also are working a lot harder during a performance than your average electronic DJ. So, for me anyway, the planning can take the spice out of it. I’d much rather be making some weird drum machine for the set rather than that sort of rehearsing anyway.

While working with loops I’ve found the reason that some sound poor together is that they relate to tracks of different key. Nothing new there except the small personal revelation I had that this equally applies to percussive loops. Anything bar white noise and the shortest percussive click has pitched elements and these obey or break the same laws of harmony as basslines or melodic pieces. It helps to think of pitch and it’s direct relation to the frequency spectrum. If you’re layering three snare samples in a production you pay close attention to pitch because you want it to sound like one new snare and not three snares playing at once and this is achieved by stacking the frequencies, the fundamental and the harmonics, in just the right way, harmoniously. The same principle works with percussive loops mixed with stems mixed and full tracks.When you layer harmonically compatible material the frequencies stack up and the end result of that is the sum of its parts with the stronger elements in each frequency band dominating and the weaker elements neatly tucked underneath with important sonic space left empty; as opposed to layers and layers of different frequency sounds making an sonic mess that doesn’t bond together in any meaningful way.

So having all your loops/tracks with the musical key identified can save a lot of time auditioning combos over headphones when you could be doing something else. Something I’ve only found in one source, the mixed in key forum, is this table on HM with Major and Minor thirds included.

 The danger here is that if you pay too much attention to musical key on separate elements you engineer out the possibility of any exciting dissonance. Smooth and natural can become bland and predictable in the wrong circumstances. My thoughts here are that harmonic mixing like anything else is just a tool, a possibility, that may or may not suit a situation. It may help you avoid horrible clangers and it may help you pull off impressive stunts but it is still not any sort of replacement for you making the end decision. If a person doesn’t invest a passion in music that goes beyond the technical they may as well stick on an iPod  (which will probably pull off perfect mixes in a year or two anyway).


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