7 Secrets Of Good Music Organisation For Digital DJs

High Fidelity

Daunted by that endless pile of tunes in your "Downloads" folder? Here's the solution: Treat your digital files as if they were a real record collection and spend time getting them sorted! You'll thank yourself come gig time. Here's how...

Today's post is inspired by Digital DJ Tips member Jason Nappier, who writes: "I'd like more insight about programming and organisation. I have a ton of music, but it is all dumped on my hard drive. When I used CDs and even back in my vinyl days, I knew where everything was, so if I needed an idea, I would just flip through and something would jump out at me quickly. Without that organisation, I find myself blanking and scrolling through mountains of junk before seeing a song that fits with where I'm going, which causes a lot of stress and a disjointed performance. Can you help?"

It's an extremely common problem, and one I battled with personally for many years as I converted to digital. Especially for DJs used to vinyl and CDs, coming to digital - where there's just a whole list of files in a browser - can take the soul out of owning music. It can lead, as he says, to "blanking and scrolling", when you should be intimately interacting with your beloved music, tunes just jumping out at you as you play.

I have tried all types of music organisation techniques over the years, and realised that there are some principles that - however you decide to do it - can make the daunting task seem less so, and ultimately move you beyond vinyl and CD systems into having a digital music organisation system that works great. So here are some time-trusted techniques for taming a digital music collection, with special emphasis on helping DJs coming from a vinyl or CD background.

My 7 killer tips

  1. Use a separate program to organise your music - Your DJ program is simply your "DJ booth". It's where you perform from. When it comes to organising your music, use something else. For most people it is iTunes, because the work you do in there shows in your DJ software seamlessly. iTunes is your shelves of vinyl or your racks of CDs, organised how you choose
  2. Pack a "crate" for every gig - CD and vinyl DJs never take their whole collection to a gig with them. You shouldn't either. Instead, "pack" a playlist full of about twice the number of tunes you think you'll need for any given event. Put your soul into choosing those tunes. Spend hours doing it, and be strict and only play from that playlist or folder within your DJ software at your event (whether that event is a new mixtape, a web radio show, or a "real" gig). This will force you to think harder about your music choices ahead of time, and stop the blanking and scrolling syndrome you speak of
  3. Have less music - Your collection is almost definitely too big. What happens with vinyl is you have a go-to "area" of your collection and whole "no go" zones of stuff you rarely look at. With digital, everything tends to get lumped together. Worse, you tend to collect much more as digital files are cheaper and take up less (no) room. But it's a trap. A lean, mean music collection keeps you focused on quality, so regularly prune stuff out. If you haven't played it for a year, or ever (there's a column to show you that), strongly consider deleting it or moving it to a "never played" folder or backup hard drive, and out of your main searchable library completely. Oh, and keep all non-DJing music out of iTunes entirely. Figure out another place for that stuff
  4. Add cover art to your tunes - Especially for tunes you used to own on vinyl or CD, adding the correct cover art (and by correct, I mean the art you remember from your old physical copies) can give you a great visual aid and let you "flick through" your music in the same way you were used to back in the day. It's easy to use Google Images to find the cover art you're used to, and takes seconds in iTunes to then add or replace the picture associated with each music file to make it the one you want
  5. Use digital's sort features to your advantage - With physical vinyl or CDs, you used to have to have a sorting system and stick with it (alphabetical, by genre, by date purchased etc.) With digital, you can use all of these and more. You can sort by genre, BPM, date of release, date added, alphabetically by artist, alphabetically by title, even by key. So do it! As you're planning your sets and packing your crates for gigs, use all the sort tools to slice and dice your music and reduce it to more meaningful "chunks" than one big collection. By using smart playlists in iTunes, you can get even more granular ("everything from 1988 to 1992 marked house and techno"). Oh, speaking of genres...
  6. Be bold with genre names - It's tempting to leave the "genre" name as it was when you bought a music file, but that's nonsense. If you play house and house only, having every track marked "house" is not going to help you sort your music. But if you're a mobile DJ who plays everything from country to EDM to rock, having big categories such as, well, "country', "EDM" and "rock" may be far more useful than "deep house", "UK garage", etc. Point is, you need to choose the six to 10 categories that make sense to you and replace the "genre" information in your files with one of those, for every song. When you sort or filter by genre, the tracks you've associated with each other should "feel" like a coherent set of music to you, something you could make a strong mixtape or DJ set from
  7. Use the comments field to your advantage - DJs used to put stickers on their tunes "back in the day" with info like key, BPM etc. Of course, that info can now be displayed digitally for you, but you can use the "comments" field in iTunes and your DJ software to add other useful info for memory association among songs and to make tunes more searchable. I like to use "MWW" followed by the name of another tune in a tune's comments field to mean "mixes well with": It jogs my memory for a great next tune when I am playing a tune I've tagged this way, and you can add such tags while you're out DJing so you don't forget a great mix

Finally...

When you start thinking about your files, folders and playlists the same way vinyl and CD DJs think about their physical collections, you reap the benefits of digital and negate the drawbacks. Soon you move way past what vinyl and CD DJs can do, realising that things like the history features in your DJ software (that show you what you've played at your gigs), and the awesome sorting, filtering and smart play listing functions in iTunes, move how you can interact with your music way beyond physical media.

My final tip is simply to ensure that when you're in iTunes sorting your music, improving your tagging, adding artwork etc, make sure you always have something playing! Above all of this, just listening to your music is the most important thing of all. Don't sit in a silent room re-tagging all your music for hours on end - it kind of defeats the object of this, which is of course to get to know your music better so you can play better DJ sets with it.

Did you struggle with digital music in your move from digital to vinyl? How did you get around the issues? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Comments

  1. I add stuff about the track to the comments, but if I know it goes with another track i add "goes with XXXXXX", so that I can just search for "goes with" and come up with loads of tracks that have pairings. That, coupled with mixing in key can get you out of most any bind.

  2. Big Fat Duck says:

    The third tip should be the BIG ONE !
    You cannot tag everything very well if you have too many musics.

    My tip : In order to buy/download fewer music I found one stupid solution : use a headphone or speakers that are not making every music sounds good.
    If i use high quality headphone, some music seem pure and nice, but if i'm using my laptop speakers (the worst i know) i can't understand the music, the melody is not that's new and so on.

    Maybe never buy a track right after you discover it. You should maybe put all in cart and, sometimes, come back to listen to all the tracks in cart and choose.

    The article is really cool !
    as a Discomobile and nightclub DJ it is harder to be bold with genres. Packing a crate for all the gigs is very efficient.
    And i wanted to really thank you to make me remember to write down in comment part the "MWW". i had totally forgotten that when i was djing with CD i used to have a piece of paper to write down my MWW discovery and now i will do it again in comment part. Thanks.

  3. Caleb Grayson says:

    I tried organizing in iTunes on my iPhone, but it won't let me.

    Is there a way I can do this on my phone?

  4. Jeremy Ryan says:

    MediaMonkey.

  5. Shaun Ramage says:

    In regards to #3, a great place for your non-DJ music is in a separate iTunes library! Here's how to do it straight from Apple! https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT201596

    I'm just starting in on separating my DJ and non-DJ music so if anyone has comments about how this works with Serato DJ I'd love to hear but either way this should help a lot!

  6. Scribbl3 says:

    I like a lot of these. I never thought of packing a digital "crate" for my gigs. It makes a lot of sense.

    I personally split my music into folders based on genre and time of night (rock, early night, EDM, etc). This allows me to use my library in different pieces of software on different computers pretty efficiently.

    I inadvertently use #1. I think the file management in Virtual DJ is the best out there, so I'll use that to organize, tag, and move around all of my files, then I'll load them into Traktor to DJ with.

  7. [IN]CLUDED says:

    As a non-apple user, I've always steered clear of iTunes (never keen on anything that requires credit card details for 'free' accounts).

    That said, I've yet to find anything for PC that organises my tracks in any sort of usable/logical fashion or doesn't require an investment of hours of time to manually id and sort stuff.

    Is iTunes really the only sensible option? Is it a must have that I need to bit the bullet on?

    • All the work you do in iTunes is visible in your DJ software automatically. That's the clincher.

    • Kenny Schachat says:

      I also don't use any Apple devices and I resisted using iTunes for my DJ music library for quite a while. However, once you learn a few "tricks", it's really an excellent tool for organizing music for DJing. Here's my tips:

      - Use strictly consistent naming conventions for all of your files on disk. This will help you when your're searching for files on disc, when and if you ever need to find them outside of iTunes or any other software library. Use the same naming conventions *inside* of iTunes. While this isn't strictly necessary, it will help. For those times when you're scanning a list in iTunes, it's easier on your eyes and your brain when everything is in the same case, for example. It can be tedious sometimes but take the time in iTunes to do this and it will pay off. The same goes for genres or any other input.

      - Take advantage of iTunes sorting. In addition to the obvious ones: BPM, Genre, Date Added, etc., iTunes has a dozens or so fields that would otherwise be unused, such Episode, Sort Show, etc.. Feel free to use those for any "tag" that you want to use consistently and you'll have the ability to sort on that.

      - Here's one the big ones: Learn to use iTunes Smart Playlists. They're very easy to use. Think of them as an automatic, pre-defined search, that can use multiple fields. For example, you can set up a Smart Playlist that has all of your tracks between 120-130 BPM, UK Funky *and* UK Garage, Sort Show = "Your custom "tage", Date Added after 4/1/15. The best part: not only will it create this playlist but any track that you subsequently add or change that meets those criteria will *automatically* be added to the list. Create as many as you need, change them as you see fit. Try it: you'll be glad you did.

      - Back up your iTunes library files database file: iTunes.itl. That contains all of your playlist and other iTunes data.

      Once you start taking advantage of using the full feature set if iTunes, you'll find that it's a great tool for DJs. And this is coming from someone that generally holds Apple on very low regard and doesn't use any other Apple products.

  8. Thanks for some excellent tips in this article. I especially agree with the advice to make a crate for each and every occasion.

    I thought I might share with you my method for organising tracks in Serato, which is the following:

    Two high level crates: WARMUP and DANCE.
    - These are mutually exclusive; no track can belong in both; they must be either or
    - This way I am never confused as to whether the tracks I am looking at are appropriate for dancing or warm-up

    Below each of these two are sub-level crates based on GENRE.
    - But not necessarily your typical genres; rather some home-made labels that I find most helpful to me given my typical audience, so that I can quickly find something appropriate for a given audience or mood
    - Very importantly: these are NOT mutually exclusive; each track can belong in more than one - because many tracks are indeed appropriate to more that one situation, audience or mood
    - This is why I don't use the "genre" tag at all; it is limited to a single genre, which is too limiting for many songs

    My DANCE crates are the following - again it is important to note that they are NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE:
    - 80s
    - 90s
    - Alt/Indie (Talking Heads, Pixies and Cure go here as well as into 80s/90s; Tove Lo and Lorde go here as well as into Pop and Pop-EDM)
    - Disco (including remotely disco-y beats such as "Der Kommissar" that of course goes into 80s as well)
    - EDM (any and all electronic dance music; new stuff as well as old stuff such as Kraftwerk, New Order, Yazoo, Chemical Brothers etc; ALMOST anything with a drum machine)
    - Pop-EDM (modern top-40 stuff such as "Scream & Shout", Rihanna, Pitbull, Avicii etc)
    - Guitar Rock (AC/DC and Green Day along with older stuff such as "Born To Be Wild" and Primal Scream's "Rocks")
    - HipHop/Rap
    - Classic Rock (in essence this is 60's all the way up to non-disco hippie 70s)
    - Latin
    - Pop (I might actually delete this one because it is quite vaguely defined as any music from any time-period that doesn't exclusively belong to any of my other genres such as hip-hop, guitar rock, EDM etc)
    - Reggae/World
    - Soul/Funk

    I won't bore you even more with my WARMUP genre-crates, which are a bit different. Except to say that I recently added "dancefloor-friendly" as one of the WARMUP-crates so that I can quicly identify upbeat and energetic warmup-tracks that work well when you want to start bringing things to a boil even though they don't quite make it into the DANCE category.

    • Thanks for sharing, Olafur!

    • I am a wedding Dj so I organize mine in Serato with crates. It much easier then ITunes and I can my crates together with a drag and drop. ITunes has become more cumbersome over the past few years and it is not as simple as before. In iTunes when you search for a songs, it pulls up 50 options in a Column to the right of my library. Then if you don't click to song you are looking for, that column disappears. The iTunes does not search on in your library directly. Serato Library lets you search much easier then ITunes ever will.. ITunes has tweaked (twerk) themselves out simplicity and now "I don't even know you ITunes. You are dead to me"

  9. Back when I started with digital, it took me a few months to realize that I needed to keep my DJ music and my music collection separate. If I were to load a whole Prince album, for instance, into mediamonkey -instead of re-tagging the files I wanted to DJ with and ruining the album tag, I would highlight the songs I needed then copy/paste them into a dedicated DJ folder and re-tag those. That took me I bit to figure out but now it's an integral part of my workflow.

  10. I use Foobar2000 on PC to tag my tracks (artist, title, genre, year). Then, I put them in a folder "music_mix".

    I use MV Cross for (smart) playlists, crates, and "matching" tracks (Cross features)

  11. Excellent article!

    My advice:
    -Use iTunes
    -Use Playlists
    -Know your Library, know your music.
    -Use tags, cover art and ratings
    -Add BPM info (I analyze via Djay then use an applescript to get it back to iTunes)

    Word! :) http://content.screencast.com/users/Miguimau/folders/Jing/media/52323000-deb0-4532-91a8-3b75fb73e887/00000498.png

  12. BTW, Algoriddim´s Djay lets you automatically save your sessions as a iTunes Playlist. It´s kinda cool.
    http://content.screencast.com/users/Miguimau/folders/Jing/media/86f7a3ec-bff0-41a4-9336-dea80ed483ba/00000499.png

    Do you know if Traktor has such a feature? Because I often must use in gigs .

  13. LOL - all of you have this wrong although there are some decent take-aways in the article such as #3.
    Can't tell you how many DJ crates I have seen where there is just all sorts of disorganized categories with all sorts of inconsistent font cases.... looking like total chaos.
    My opinion: there is one simple strategy to organize a library. Ultimately you want a conducive workflow. Considering that good sets consist of mixing music in a harmonious way (something DJs have intuitively done for decades), and that usually sets are presented by genre and era, it only makes sense that the library organization should lend itself to said workflow. So, get it? Genre, Era and Harmony metadata are the 3 ingredients. I don't care how good you are, its a time-waster to look for tracks that are spread out all over and you will never be able to craft mixes for EVERY option in your head. These 3 pieces eliminate the need for many sub groupings. Yes, the current top 20 list or special event playlist may still be useful, but in general, with this formula you can just look at your options and make nice decisions as "the DJ". Technology has made it easier than ever to accomplish this, but you still have to use some smarts.

  14. Am I missing something here. Why would you keep your music collection separate from your DJ collection in iTunes? The software reads all the files on your hard drive when doing a search. Please explain to this goon.

  15. I'm a bit confused here.
    I understand and appreciate the tips you put forward, however in my experience "itunes" limits the quality of sound on conversion, I can't remember exactly but about 128 k/sec. I usually buy a 320k/s version and to my ears the reproduction quality is significantly better and worth the extra expense. I demonstrated this at a party recently using an ipod against tunes stored in my flap.
    Is there a way to upgrade the sound quality of itunes further on conversion?
    Am I making a valid point or is the digital generation so used to listening to music through their telephones that relative quality of sound is of no real importance ?

    D(Old Fart)

  16. Andrew Powe says:

    I've got to say number 7 and to my surprise number 4 have made a HUGE difference for me. First number 4, cover art. After downloading music for years online often without the cover art, I found it harder to remember the names of songs, I'd have the tune in my head that I wanted to play but the name would escape me! I read an article on here (I believe... Was probably around a year ago) where the author talked about how we are visual creatures and associate all sorts of things with visual cues. After that I made it a habit to ALWAYS get the cover art for tracks. Not because I like the images themselves (although they're often great!), but because it has helped me in being able to remember and recall tunes much easier. Now when I'm scrolling through a crate or playlist looking for a tune I want, I actually rarely read the track titles, instead I find myself scanning through the cover art images to find the song! I was truly surprised at the difference that this made.

    Regarding number 7, the comments section in iTunes and smart playlists has become integral to my organization. The tags are ones I've come up with myself and make sense to me, things like (TurnUp), (SlowFeel), (Grime), (dark). In iTunes I have smart playlists set up that automatically add songs with these custom tags to them. i guess these lists end up serving as different mood or theme groupings. For me these lists open up the options of available tunes to choose next and can lead to interesting mixes. Now I don't ONLY use smart playlists, if anything I use those smart playlists to build my crates with as I also stick to tip 2 about packing a crate for a night.

    Really I use and love all of these tips to different degrees. Great article as always! Thanks!

  17. The "Mixed in Key" program is a great way to jumpstart your set lists. It can help organize your sets by energy level, Camelot #, or key.

  18. Jo-michael Penarubia says:

    hello and good day!

    thanks for all the useful tips! got a burning question.. what are you doing in terms of literally storing your music? i have a limited amount of space on my mac and a growing library. do you keep your entire library on your laptop? is it stored separately and completely on an external hard drive? how does that setup work? is it a separate itunes library on the external hd? do you bring the hd with you to your gigs? is there a separate tutorial on digital dj tips that im missing? no answer/input is too obvious and would be grateful for it.

    thank you kindly!

    warmly,

    michael p

    • Hi! This is a great question! We always recommend keeping a lean collection of tunes (going through and auditioning them, so to speak). This way you don't get lost in a sea of music - it makes organisation, set programming, and overall knowledge of your music that much smoother. Do you have any poor quality Soundcloud tracks that you just got because they were free? How about music you don't DJ with, but listen to for your own enjoyment? Along those same lines, can you dance to it? Scratch with it? Drop it as a sample? When it comes to buying new tracks, do you keep a shortlist and wait 24 hours before buying it? If you've got more than a few thousand tracks, then cleaning up your library will help immensely. The ideal situation would be having two computers: one exclusively for DJing and the other, for...well...other stuff! For the most part this isn't financially practical, and workarounds exist. I'd first recommend creating two separate user accounts on your computer, one for everyday use and one for DJing. The next step is cleaning up your library- I've linked to some articles below on doing just that. Beyond this, you could store your tracks on an external HD (which is always a good idea...especially in the case of computer failure), or could look into internet storage sites. For Mac users, check out something like Apple's iCloud. There are other sites, both free and paid-for, that could help in the event this doesn't work out. As for tracks you don't DJ with but still enjoy, you could store them on a separate HD entirely to remove them from the equation, without needing to hit delete (while still having them on your iPhone etc for listening), or use the Cloud as mentioned above.

      Here are a few articles on organisation (and iCloud), should they interest you:

      How Apple’s iCloud Could Change DJing http://www.digitaldjtips.com/2011/06/how-apples-icloud-could-change-djing/
      5 Reasons To Organise Your Music Properly http://www.digitaldjtips.com/2013/03/5-reasons-why-you-should-organise-your-tunes/
      How To Organise Your Tunes While DJing, Part 1 http://www.digitaldjtips.com/2010/08/how-to-organise-your-tunes-while-djing-part-1/
      How To Organise Your Tunes While DJing, Part 2 http://www.digitaldjtips.com/2010/08/how-to-organise-your-tunes-while-djing-part-2/

  19. Scott Hutten says:

    I have definitely overthought the digital organization thing over the years but came up with a auto-update method that serves me well. When I ID music with Mixed in Key, I set the camelot key to record the key in the comments section of iTunes. From iTunes, i make a genre-folder with smartlist subfolders as follows: 85-95 bpm, 96-105bpm, etc. When setting up the smartlists, choose bpm, in the range ___ to ____. When you open the smartlists in iTunes, you simply click the header of the comments section to put those mixable tunes in their order by key. Obviously, the worst case scenerio is mixing up by 5 bpm and down by 5 bpm. Reduce the number of entries within your smartlists by including another perimeter in the iTunes smartlist that only allows Ratings of tunes you've awarded, say, three to five stars. The beauty of this technique allows for auto-updates as you "rate" your tunes from 0-5 stars AND as you add new tunes from pool services, etc. With this technique, you simply review your new track inventory and award a star from 0-5 accordingly and your lists will auto-update and subsequently populate in your DJ Software without fail.

  20. Raphael Palmer says:

    Great tips! I'll share my organization too.

    I also keep all my tracks on iTunes, but i find the genre categorization too vague. So what I do is I divide my playlists by "feeling". For example, if a track makes me feel like drinking a coffee late afternoon at sunset, I put it in a playlist i call "Coffee House" (which is like lounge stuff). If a track makes me feel like walking through a forest, I put it in the "Jungle House" playlist, or if it's feels "trippy" with lots of synthesizers and arpeggiators, goes to the Trippy House playlist, and so on. I have around 20 of those playlists. It works wonders because i'm sure that every track on those playlists has the same "vibe" and will mix well with each other.

    Aside of that, I use a software called BeaTunes that enhances the track organization. It reads your itunes library and fills every missing field automatically, including bpm and key (added in the comments section). It also renames everything if you wish so, all my track are named like this: "Artist Name - Track Name".

    Another thing that I do is a playlist folder called "party sets". It contains every set I've played in parties, I do it like you said, fill it with a bunch of music and work with it, but I like to keep my options more open, because you never know what the ambient feels like until you're there. I've had situations which I prepared a very "techno-ish" selection but when I arrived at the party the vibe demanded a whole other stuff, so for that I have the ambient playlists I said before.

    This is it basically :) Cheers!

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