Believe it or not, this post is in response to a few requests I had, many years ago, to talk a little about how I put my sets together. Back then I felt I had a lot to work on, and either way wasn’t really confident enough to articulate what I’d learned so far. Although there’s still plenty to improve, the combination of more regularly hitting what I feel is the ‘TYFTH style’ and the collected notes made during a decade of mixing mean that now might be the right time to give an explanation a try.
With as many mixing styles as there are DJs, it should really go without saying (despite the occasional imperative mood) that I’m in no way prescribing this as the way to put a freeform set together. Taking set construction so seriously has always been massively rewarding for me though, so the hope is that this will be an interesting look behind the scenes for those who enjoy TYFTH’s mixes.
These thoughts (they’re far too meandering to be called a guide) are roughly divided into three sections, covering the main steps in my mixing process. Particularly important points are noted along the way, and to help with the explanations a few PD sets (or even transitions within them) are used as examples, as well as occasional mentions of non-freeform sets that have inspired me over the years.
Part 1: Research
- Listen to a lot of freeform
Starting with an obvious one here, but this remains important however long you’ve been mixing. As a rookie to the genre, listening to many old and new tracks and mixes is essential to identify the atmospheres you most enjoy. In my case, as many know, my first freeform set was Betwixt & Between’s 2005 NRGetic Romancer Live PA (including Reincarnation, Liberation, Supriya and other all time favourites), while other formative early tracks were Invitation, Ngarnuuk and Hollow. Right from the very start, then, I had a strong sense of what I thought freeform should sound like. NRG/freeform mixing inspiration, on the other hand, came mostly from Proteus and his Hard NRG series.
My FINRG Podcast set is an example of how keeping this up over the years can evolve or deepen your style. Thanks to Qygen and Mellow Sonic the scene has heard plenty more freeform in the goa-influenced style of Supriya et al, leading to previously impossible atmospheres such as the set-ending Lagash – Psychokinesis combination.
- Go to freeform events
Although easier said than done these days, this has definitely been a huge help for me throughout the years. Most tracks sound different (for better or worse) through a good PA, making a trip to an event a good way to get a crowd’s impression of the sounds you like best. On that note, keeping an eye on the crowd is a big part of doing your homework – check how they react to the timing of anthems, how often they need a break from dancing, or how open they are to harder/deeper/more experimental tracks.
Then try the same thing on yourself, paying attention to what in a DJ’s set makes you dance, and what brings things to a sudden stop. Listen out for technical tricks and transition styles that you might like to use yourself. In my case, I’m always listening out for DJs that are clearly trying to create something within a transition, rather than simply moving from one track to another. The biggest inspiration on that front is definitely Cogi, who always called long transitions the place where a ‘new track’ can appear.
Living in the city that hosted Hell’s Gate, Romancer and CODEX helps, of course, but if there’s nothing approaching that in your part of the world then videos recorded at events aren’t a bad place to start. The classic Lab4 and Proteus Freckshow video is what first come to mind; two nice sets with a decent crowd, in a typically-sized venue for an NRG event. I’ll be reuploading some CODEX videos to the TYFTH YouTube, but any others you can think of?
- Listen to mixes in other genres
Perhaps I don’t listen to many full sets of other genres these days, but the overwhelming majority of mixing inspiration I’ve had over the years has been from non-freeform DJs. One of the many unfortunate results of freeform’s strong link to UK hardcore is the influence it has had on mixing, with staccato sequences of strong individual tracks being a common style across the scene. That’s not to say it doesn’t work, of course – I’ve seen plenty of crowds go mad as each new track comes in, and enjoy the long breakdown and drop each time. If you’re after inspiration of a different kind though, it might be good to look elsewhere, and then see what can be applied to freeform.
An example I’ve mentioned before, and the set that made me realise the power a DJ has to create new atmospheres, is LTJ Bukem’s The Rebirth from 1996. I listened to it at least weekly for the rest of the decade, finding new elements to the transitions even years later. Some tracks blend pads harmonically, others mix the basslines, while a couple just add power and pace to change the direction of the set more abruptly. We’re yet to see a freeform set get close to this complexity, and there’s a lot we can learn from it.
Drum and bass/jungle are good places to look for set construction ideas in general, as they’ve always placed more emphasis on transitions and creativity than hardcore. I’m not usually that keen on the mixes I hear from other DJs, but for practice these days I find mixing Goa (and dark ambient, more on that in the future) to be a challenge that sometimes give new freeform ideas.
Another example, closer to home, is Shoko-F’s I’m Normal Techno Mania – an early NRG set (1997) I’ve talked a lot about with Cogi. Apparently Shoko-F put together the set to tell the story of a journey he imagined, travelling through a forest into the countryside, and then to a castle on a hill. It’s not an approach I’ve ever tried, but I absolutely love the concept. It’s probably Cogi’s biggest mixing inspiration.
Finally, and this might sound like a stretch, but I often look out for perfomances of one sort or another in other media. Paying attention to the setlist at a live gig or concert gives ideas on how tracks can ebb and flow to make a whole, for example; similarly some media art and even firework displays (of the Japanese kind, that go on for an hour or so) have given me inspiration.
Part 2: Early Planning
I always used to find the first steps of planning a set quite difficult, with hundreds of possible tracks making it tough to pick a starting point. Since those days I’ve developed a few little strategies, which might be a nice place to start this section on early planning.
- Make notes while planning
Quite possibly the most important step, as once past the initial idea stage it’s absolutely essential that I start making more detailed notes. One reason for this is I always construct mixes in sections (something I’ve probably mentioned before). Not necessarily but often in key, these sections are sequences of tracks that might subtly shift atmospheres, extend an atmosphere beyond the length of a single track, or create a mood that might not be there when the tracks are heard individually.
An example of that last point would be the From the Abyss into Psychotherapy (and then Rachel’s Song) sequence from Munted! Monthly Episode 1. One of my all-time favourite transitions, it was actually the starting point around which I put together the rest of the set. These ‘sections’ should ideally be at least 3-4 tracks long, but you know you’re really in business if sections start lengthening or melding together. How to shift from one section to another is something that’ll be talked about later on.
Once things start coming together, the notes can also be used to help with pacing and organisation. The example above is part of my notes for the Betwixt & Between tribute set – fairly late in the planning process, as most of the final tracklist looks to be in place. There’s still some transition experimenting on the left side, while the right shows the two main ‘sections’ of the set – as an aside, it’s no coincidence that there are only two sections in my strongest set so far. This one was a very, very long process, which explains the reminders here and there for what to work on the next day. Needless to say, without notes like this the set would have been almost impossible.
Of course you won’t end up using every transition that you note down. They’re never wasted though, as they’ll go into your arsenal for future use. I’m not quite mad enough to make separate lists of unused transitions, which is why I’ve kept these notebooks for so long. Going back to look through them when I’m stuck for ideas has saved the day on many occasions.
- Limit your options
Always a good idea to begin with, focusing your thoughts on a smaller number of tracks makes everything more manageable. I tend to make a list of contenders, sometimes categorising them by artist, sometimes listing favourite tracks that come to mind, other times noting a few strong transitions I’ve found. The notes above were made to get started with the 10 Years of FINRG set in 2010, and are a combination of artist lists and other transitions. There’s a lot going on there, but in cases like this you’ve then got the option of limiting yourself again. If, later on, you find that you’ve restricted yourself too much, it’s easy enough to expand back out and go rummaging for tracks.
- Where do you want the atmosphere to go?
No need to answer that in massive detail just yet, but if you’re aiming for an especially psychedelic, dark set, or like the idea of a melancholy finale, then that will suggest more tracks to you at this early stage. You can see an example above, from what are most likely notes for the Smiling Corpse podcast. Here I’ve listed ‘Dark-Psychedelic-Melancholy-Dark-Finale’ as an atmosphere guide, surrounded by some hectic attempts to find useful transitions.
- Never rule out any track
At first this might just sound like a useful back-up plan, but in my case it has led to some of the most interesting set transitions of all. If your notes have failed you and good options seem to be running out, consider tracks that you’ve always thought of as weaker or less successful, and start experimenting with them alongside the obvious contenders. It’s not uncommon to find that the track transforms in the right atmosphere, or acts as a nice base for a longer transition. A recent example in my mixes is Re-form’s Punishment – it’s never been a favourite of mine, but going for a dark, strange atmosphere in the second half I realised how well it blended with other less melodic tracks. It also combined well with Awakening for a long transition, and so ended up being the key for that whole section.
Part 3: Putting it Together
- Do what a single track can’t
Over time I’ve realised how massive this point is, so much so that it’s something to also keep in mind during early planning. Even a relatively short set is an opportunity to build on the atmospheres you enjoy most, to a degree that individual tracks can’t. Think in those terms and it’s the DJ’s job to take the (easier) next step after the artist, contrasting individual tracks or sections (see part 2) in the manner of the best freeform. Dark and beautiful, melancholy and uplifting, whatever it is in the genre that floats your boat, this is your chance to expand and interpret that. This is probably my ultimate goal when putting a set together, and although I’ve never achieved it for the duration of a whole set, the feeling when listening back to successful sections is what keeps me trying. One that comes to mind right away is the Munted! Animal House section that I rerecorded a few years ago, as it contrasts the psychedelia of Alek and Betwixt with Nomic/Betwixt melancholy, then shifting into PoC aggressive melodies for the ‘section finale’.
- Consider the listener’s experience of the set
Goes without saying, doesn’t it? Well yes, but when planning your grand interpretation of dark freeform it’s important to think about where listeners will be hearing it, and possibly tailor it accordingly. Listeners to radio sets or recorded mixes might be more open to deeper, more complex transitions, while club crowds often enjoy sudden, powerful track changes. That’s not universal of course, and these days when constructing a set it’s only something to keep in the back of my mind. As an example, the From the Abyss – Psychotherapy combination is something I’ve never used in a club setting, despite discovering it around 2008-9.
Having said that, if you’re lucky enough to become a resident DJ at an event or on a radio show then your options widen dramatically once the listeners become more familiar with your style. CODEX is a great example, as I felt confident enough there to use the TYFTH Live finale of Like a Flame – Make Me Real – PVC – Venla – Venla 2, even with all the breakdowns and long sections of mixing pads. Thankfully the crowd reacted well, but it might have been more of a gamble as a guest set somewhere else.
As an aside, be very careful about longer transitions if you’re attempting something ambitious, for a few reasons. If the two tracks are supposed to be in the same key or harmonising, then for goodness’ sake make sure that they are. It’s funny to listen back to my early sets these days, as although there are some nice transitions that I still use now and then, there are also plenty of sloppy combinations that go on for way too long. Getting a second opinion isn’t a bad idea, but it’s something you’ll develop an ear for with experience – an example of the fine margins involved can be found (again) in the Animal House set, where the bpm goes up from 175 to 176 towards the end in order to nudge Self Extortion and Lush closer to the same key. Similarly, though, be aware of when you’re overdoing it. A recorded example of mine is probably the Romancer/Hybridize set, which I haven’t been able to listen to for years now thanks to fiddly connections that, while often in key, also disrupt the flow of the set. That’s something that can be fatal in a club environment – absolutely nothing wrong with long track connections, of course, but I try to keep in mind that the most successful long mixes shouldn’t even be noticed by people hearing the tunes for the first time.
It’s in the club environment where shorter, powerful transitions can come in handy, but should as much as possible be part of the structure of the set. Use them as easy ways out (as I’ve been guilty of a few times) and any idea of a completely unified set gets that bit harder.
Simpler (but not necessarily shorter) transitions are especially helpful when changing key in a non-harmonic way – which tends to happen sooner or later if you’re trying the ‘work in sections’ approach. My Betwixt set is one of the most coherent overall, and one of my best ‘links’ between sections has a bigger part to play in that than you might expect. The connection between Burst and Unam Sanctum is nothing special, but it changes the key behind the heavy percussion. There are plenty of freeform DJs who do this better than me, but I’m very happy with that one.
Another factor to think about in the club is the energy of the crowd, and how much time they need to rest. Personally I tend to aim for 3-4 long breakdowns per 50-60 minute set, with other breakdowns shortened if necessary by using longer transitions, or mixing the track in or out more quickly. Again, familiarity with the crowd can help to fine tune this (see part 1), but the key is to find a balance and decide for yourself when you want to keep the energy up. The Animal House set is a good example again – I guessed that after two long breakdowns in Human Race and Self Extortion a UK crowd would be up for some dancing. That’s why I used Lush’s breakdown more like an intro, long mixing it with SE in order for the drop to hit very suddenly.
- Beware of the power of newer tracks
Let’s end with a few general points that I think are worth mentioning. This first one is an issue that gets more common by the year, as thanks to slim release lineups even DJs who prefer newer freeform will have to pad out setlists with some older stuff.
The easiest way around this problem is to mix the weaker track second, all the way up to a longish breakdown. By the time the drop arrives the listener should be reacclimatised enough for it not to make a big difference.
Another option is to mix a sequence of tracks that move from weakest to most powerful, or vice versa. A similar idea to the first point, but now you have the option of keeping the pace up if you’d rather not stop the crowd and plod through a long breakdown. The first example of mine that comes to mind is the Self Extortion to Order Chaos section of my old Munted! Monthly set, as I was very aware of kick power while planning that one.
Finally, it’s sometimes even worth playing two older tracks together to up the power levels. Be very careful with the EQing (something else that improves with experience), and limit it in general to simpler tracks with enough air for another to fit in. If all goes to plan you’ll have a fairly hard/aggressive combination that can stand up to many newer tracks. I’ve probably used this more often in club settings (inspired by a Phil York guest set at NRGetic Romancer), but a semi-example can be heard in my Smiling Corpse podcast set, where I tried to add some weight to Fatal Flashback by combining it with Afraid.
- Use promos wisely
Another looming danger awaits any DJ lucky enough to have access to promos. The key is not to use them for the sake of it – don’t throw one into a set simply because you can, wait until you’re sure it fits into the atmosphere as a whole. Speaking from experience here, as I’ve wasted a good many promos by adding them to a set when I was nowhere near finished experimenting. Have a little patience and the promos will find a place in your track collection, ready to slot into a section like any other – if the track remains unreleased for a long time then you’ll end up with a best of both worlds situation, a solid mix using tracks that aren’t heard often, as in my FINRG Podcast this year.
A technique that I’ve always found very successful, whether in a club setting or recorded mix, is to combine a promo with an established anthem. Find a strong enough transition and the crowd will enjoy and recognise what’s happening, even on a first hearing. The recording of my set at NRGetic Romancer includes the Freeform Mercury – Supriya combo, which a nice example of how well this tactic can work.
- Trust The Feeling
I wasn’t really surprised to recently discover that what I call The Feeling seems to be a pretty common concept, put to use in all sorts of contexts. In my case it’s the ultimate guide to what is and isn’t working in a set – if when mixing I get The Feeling, there’s an overwhelming sensation that things are fitting together as they should. Typical signs of that are when I can’t help but mix a new transition over and over again, simply to enjoy the atmosphere. The most recent example is probably Blackmailer – Lagash – Psychokinesis, but actually the whole section of that set from Awakening onwards is Feeling worthy. This must be another of those things that comes with experience, and is often a double-edged sword – even with all the hours I’ve spent over the years I’ve never had the time to put together a start-to-finish ‘Feeling set’, so I’m often left regretting what might have been. So far the closest I’ve managed are the Betwixt & Between tribute and the In Praise of Shadows mix for the second CD. Develop The Feeling at your peril then, but in my case it’s a pretty infallible guide to what works and what doesn’t.
It feels like this turned into a DJ therapy session, so I’ve no idea how much of it will be useful to others…at the very least it’s a pretty good overview of the efforts I go to when putting a set together, and actually has been genuinely useful to record these thoughts in post form. It also makes it clear how far off I still am from achieving some of the grander goals, but even if the output is slower at the moment I’ve no intention of giving up just yet.
As Cogi is the only DJ I’ve really spoken to at length about all this I’d love to hear about the approaches of any DJing Horsers in the audience, as well as those who might be planning on giving it a go in the future.