Mixed in Key Flow: DJ Software for Radio & Podcasts [REVIEW]
It should go without saying that the growing interest in EDM over the past few years has spawned an expanding interest in DJing and the culture that goes along with it. Today, we have DJs of all experience levels and varying aspirations—from global stars to bedroom wannabes and everywhere in between—wanting to use professional-grade tools to learn, hone and perform the craft. And while the big names in the business are still going strong, there are also newcomers wanting to get a piece of the action.
And so it is with DJ software. Where Native Instruments’ Traktor, Atomix Productions’ Virtual DJ, and Serato Audio Research’s Serato DJ may well be the long-established players, some new entrants are on the scene, bringing along for the ride some new approaches. In this article, I take a look at Mixed in Key’s Flow.
Mixed in Key is perhaps best known for its product of the same name—a solution that’s become synonymous with making the art of harmonic mixing something that’s within reach of any DJ. The company has been hard at work cranking out additional offerings for their DJ software repertoire, including MetaBliss for managing metadata tags in digital music libraries. And now the company has introduced their first DJ-performance application, Flow.
When I first opened Flow and began to play with it, I found it difficult not to jump to the conclusion that it sits roughly halfway between conventional digital DJ software applications, and a category of mixing applications that purport to be for “DJing,” but in reality are more about letting the masses put together mixtapes without having to learn how to be a DJ.
Whether the folks at Mixed in Key would concur, I’m not certain, but what seems clear is that Flow is all about keeping things beat-aligned and smoothly transitioned, while allowing to you chop up and mash up in real-time.
The software is segmented into three distinct functional areas: Preparation, Play and Export. They are precisely what you might logically expect each to be.
In the Preparation department, when you bring a track into Flow, the software performs some complex analysis, which includes accurately identifying downbeats, figuring out the key the song is in, using Mixed in Key’s “Camelot” notation system, Mixed in Key’s “energy level” indication (a recent addition to that software application), and, of course, BPM. The software also divides the song into smaller parts, which are clearly marked on the song-wide waveform display when you’re mixing. You can punch in on these breaks, or anywhere actually, and the software will keep everything perfectly in-beat automatically, and even do some magical blending to smooth things out.
Play is, of course, where the work happens. The user interface is dirt simple: two decks and, in the middle, EQ and faders. Underneath is the library of material you’ve brought in during the Preparation phase of things. The interface is quite Spartan, and it’s by design, according to the company—you can focus on the material, and the software will take care of all the hard stuff. And aside from looping, there are no effects or other functions to clutter the display or overload the brain.
Flow supports controllers through standard MIDI mapping. The software’s wizard-based mapping exercise is easy and quick to complete and, in my testing, was remarkably smart about things. Of course, there’s just not that much functionality to map—but, that said, it works well.
On the Export portion of Flow, you can see that the software keeps track of all your DJ sets, including when you played, what you played, in what order you played things, how you played them. At the click of a button, you can save off a recording of the entire set, just as you played it. Pretty slick, but more about this in a moment.
While the company says Flow is designed for professional DJs, in my view, it’ll take a pretty open-minded professional to fully embrace Flow.
Considering that many DJs still consider digital DJing to be a walk in the park with all the “real work” being done for you (a fact not actually borne out by my most pro-grade DJ applications), that case could be made more strongly when it comes to Flow. There is no transport control beyond the play and sync buttons—no platters to fine-tune the beat-match. The company says it’s worked very hard to make Flow accurate when it comes to identifying downbeats, and it should never be necessary to fine-tune a beat-match. I have to say, in my testing, they’re right on that point. But it does rather shift the focus of the art of DJing away from the technical aspects of the art, and more toward the content aspects—what are you playing? And are you playing it “stock” as recorded, or are you bringing something to the table by reimagining the tracks?
I had a very difficult time finding any real faults with Flow. As long as you can embrace its concept, it works quite nicely. I wasn’t so pleased to discover that the “export to disk” feature isn’t as magical as it seems; by default, Flow actually records every set to disc automatically. On the Mac, they are recorded as M4A files, and are saved to a directory within the user’s standard Music folder. You can delete them on-demand, and you can configure the software not to do this, if you choose.
As I said earlier, provided you can embrace its Spartan look and functionality, as well as its unique point of view, Flow works quite nicely, and at just under $60, it’s affordable enough to justify a personal look to see how it suits you. Worst case? It makes for a very straightforward system for recording mixshows, podcasts, and demos with minimal brain damage, while letting you experiment with the potential mash-ups and on-the-fly remixing in a virtually error-free environment.