How Music Mixing Software Works

By: Dave Roos
Rihanna performs a song that includes a chorus of Stevie Wonder singing "Superstitution."
© Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

It's 2 a.m. at the dance club and the disc jockey starts spinning the latest hit song from Rihanna. Everybody packs the dance floor and grooves to the infectious beat.

When the song reaches the chorus, something unexpected happens. Rihanna's voice is replaced with Stevie Wonder singing "Superstition." It's the same beat and bass line of the Rihanna song, but with Stevie Wonder dropped seamlessly on top. As the song continues, the Rihanna backbeat is replaced with the deep thud-thud of house music.


How is the DJ making all of these funky mash-ups and remixes? With something called music mixing software. Music mixing software allows musicians to slice and dice digital music and reassemble it in new, creative ways. The software can match tempos between two songs without distorting the pitch of either one. It can chop a track into dozens of loops and shuffle them to achieve a totally new sound. It can add stunning effects that completely change the emotional tone of the music.

Music mixing software is a powerful tool for DJs and music producers. What can music mixing software programs do? What are the major types of music mixing software? And, what are the top-selling titles? Keep reading to find out.


What is Music Mixing Software?

music mixing software
DJs use music mixing software to create loops that can be performed in any order. DJ Nino performs at the Latin Grammy street party.
© Mary Phillips/WireImage/Getty Images

Music mixing software is the creative engine behind loop-based music. In electronic and dance music, a loop is a short sample of music that can be repeated and combined with other loops to be used in the recording studio and for live sound engineering.

Musicians and DJs can create their own loops using both traditional and virtual instruments or they can download loops from extensive digital libraries of drum beats, synthesizer patterns, bass lines, guitar riffs, vocal shouts and more. A loop can also be a sample of someone else's music, like the chorus of a hit pop song.


Music mixing software serves a different function than a digital audio workstation (DAW) like Pro Tools. DAWs are mostly used as timeline-based editing machines for music composition. With a system like Pro Tools, a musician assembles tracks along a set timeline, laying down drums, bass lines, synthesizers and vocals and tweaking the finished product with a vast array of effects and editing tools.

Music mixing software, on the other hand, allows for open-ended non-linear composition and greater freedom for improvisation. This is because the emphasis on music mixing software is on loops, not full tracks. Loops can be combined, repeated, edited and distorted in an infinite variety of ways.

With music mixing software, for example, a DJ can build a live performance from the thousands of loops on his hard drive. He can throw a Madonna vocal on top of African drums with a space-age synth backdrop. He can apply real-time effects that compress, bend and twist each loop so that no two performances sound the same. The latest music mixing software includes tools that can take a loop and slice it into dozens of even smaller loops that can be reassembled, edited and combined to create a completely original sound.

The power of this software gives the musician unlimited creativity to slice, dice, rearrange and tweak sounds in unusually and satisfying ways. DJ software, in particular, makes all of these tools available for live performances, where the musician plays off the energy of the crowd-using their reactions to choose the next loop and take the song in unexpected directions.

Music mixing software can be controlled directly from a computer with a standard mouse and keyboard, but most musicians prefer to use hardware controllers that mimic the look and feel of electronic instruments and control panels. DJs, for example, might use a control that looks like a traditional turntable deck with crossover switches, faders, volume knobs and even two control wheels that look like vinyl records.

Musicians can also use controllers shaped like electronic keyboards or drum machines with touch-sensitive pads. Each loop can be assigned to a key on the keyboard or a pad on the drum machine, allowing for quick switches between sounds during live performances.

In the next section, we'll look at the three main types of music mixing software.


Types of Music Mixing Software

dj drama
Many DJs use virtual DJ decks, a software representation of a traditional DJ rig. DJ Drama performs at a party.
© Rick Diamond/Getty Images

There are three major kinds of music mixing software designed to meet the needs of different kinds of loop-based musicians.

For DJs, who create most of their music during live shows, the simplest solution is a virtual DJ deck. A virtual DJ deck is a software representation of a traditional two- or four-deck DJ rig. On a traditional vinyl DJ rig, there are two or four playback decks for records. The DJ makes his music by switching back and forth between the loops from one record and the loops from the other records. He can also create deep dance tracks by layering many loops on top of each other.


The most prized skill of a vinyl DJ is the ability to beat match loops from two different records. If one loop plays at 120bpm (beats per minute) and the other at 138bpm, then it's the DJ's job to slow down the second record by pitch-bending it by ear.

Virtual DJ software makes beat-matching obsolete. All of the music has been converted from vinyl records to MP3s. The software can easily sync the playback rate of two loops or sync the entire library to match the tempo of the current track. Even better, the musician can now change loop playback speeds without distorting the pitch of the music. No more "chipmunks effect" when a record is sped up to match another track.

But DJ software goes far beyond the capabilities of traditional DJ rigs. In addition to old-school scratch and stutter effects, virtual DJ software offers tons of digital effects that can be assigned to control knobs or activated from the computer screen. DJs can search through thousands of loops, preview them quickly in their headphones and drop them into the mix with the confidence that the new loop will be in perfect sync with the music. And if nature calls in the middle of a set, they can press the shuffle button and let the software take over.

The second type of music mixing software is a hybrid between a timeline-based DAW and a non-linear, loop-based mixer. With this kind of hybrid software, a musician can first record a complete song on a linear timeline like he would with a traditional DAW. He can then use the software to break each track down into dozens of standalone loops. When it's time for a live performance, the musician doesn't have to play the song back exactly as it was recorded in the studio. He can use a special loop view in the software to toggle back and forth between the different components of his song, essentially making a real-time remix.

This is the nature of non-linear composition. Instead of being tied down to a timeline or a traditional song structure (verse, verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus, et cetera) the artist can call up different musical elements with the click of a mouse or the press of a button. He can tweak loops with distorting, bending and stuttering effects. And with the magic of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), he can even switch the playback instrument of any loop in mid-stream.

The third type of music mixing software is a plug-in that's used in conjunction with a powerful DAW like Pro Tools. These plug-ins work much like the hybrid music mixing software. First, the musician records the song in Pro Tools. Then, using the plug-in, he can isolate any of the Pro Tools and slice the tracks into loops. Once the tracks are isolated as loops, he can assign each loop to a different control key, rearrange and combine sounds, apply tons of effects and re-mix the original Pro Tools song on the fly.

In the next section, we'll review some of the most popular titles for each of the different kinds of music mixing software.


Music Mixing Software Reviews

DJs have a choice of software programs to use when spining. Rapper Jay-Z, left, and DJ AM, right, spin together using music-mixing software.
© Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

Music mixing software varies greatly in price and functionality. The nice thing about most of these programs is that you can download a free demo and test drive the software for a few weeks before buying it.

In terms of virtual DJ software, one of the best-known brands is Traktor from Native Instruments. Traktor lets you view and preview every song on your hard drive from an intuitive folder interface. Drag and drop songs into one of four virtual decks and use the on-screen faders or a control box to switch between tracks. Traktor lets you create instant loops from inside a track and add effects to each channel or to the whole mix. A nifty add-on is Traktor Scratch, an interface that allows traditional DJs to control the playback of MP3s using their vinyl turntables.


Other popular virtual DJ software titles are PCDJ and Deckadance. PCDJ has companion programs PCVJ for video DJs and PCKJ for karaoke DJs. Deckadance can be used as a standalone program or as a plug-in with many poplar loop-based DAWs.

The most popular hybrid music mixing software is Ableton Live. Faithful to its hybrid name, Ableton Live doubles as a powerful DAW and a versatile non-linear composition tool for live performances. In addition to the standard timeline view, Ableton Live offers something called session view. In session view, all of the instrumental and vocal tracks have been broken down into clips, which are the same thing as loops. Every clip is listed vertically in different categories (drums, bass, guitar, vocals, et cetera). Additionally, each section of the song (verse, chorus, bridge, et cetera) is divided into tracks, which are listed horizontally.

This gives the non-linear musician several playback options. First of all, he could play back the song exactly as it was recorded in the timeline view. Or he could press the track buttons to play back whole sections of the song in a different order. Or, for added creativity, he can pick and choose individual clips from each different track and make a whole new creation. Additionally, every clip can be edited and modified with effects in real time.

As for music mixing plug-ins, a popular and versatile choice is Transfuser by Digidesign, the makers of Pro Tools. Similar to a hybrid program, Transfuser lets you pull in tracks from any Pro Tools session and slice them into editable loops. Every loop can be assigned to a key or trigger pad on a controller and tweaked with a seemingly endless collection of digital effects. It's a great way to turn Pro Tools into a real-time instrument for live performances. Re-mixes can also be recorded and sent back into Pro Tools for further editing and mastering.

There are also some great loop-based DAWs that, while not ideal for live performances, make it easy to assemble creative remixes in the studio. Some of the top names are Acid Pro, Fruity Loops and Reason.

For lots more information on music mixing, music recording and related topics, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information - Music Mixing Software

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • "PCDJ DAC-2." Silva, Joe. Remix Magazine. May 1, 2003.
  • "Review: Ableton Live digital audio workstation." Breen, Christopher. Macworld. April 1, 2008.
  • "Review: Digidesign Transfuser." Fulero, Asher. Remix Magazine. September 1, 2008.