The DJ is making music changes seemingly effortlessly, the crowd is loving it as the set switches from genre to genre yet still stays tight and smooth – and there’s you, shaking your head in the corner, wondering how the hell he’s pulling that stuff off. Here’s the secret: It’s all about thinking beyond genre, and being organised…
What is tagging, and why do it?
I define tagging as “extra great information about a track”. So a music file in your collection will typically have lots of standard stuff in its metadata: at least artist, title, remixer/remix name, BPM, genre and key. There may be other info too, like date added to collection and number of plays. This is the stuff we typically use to filter and group our music together with and by when DJing.
So to put it simply, if we want to play a disco set, we’ll filter by genre “disco”, and then maybe sort the results by BPM, then look for key matches among similarly keyed tunes in order to put together a smooth, gently building set of disco music. So far, so good.
But any magic dust past that tends to live in our heads. We instinctively learn our music, and so certain tunes “clump together” because we just kind of work out they work that way. We have a feeling for what will work early on in the night, and what needs to wait till later. We kind of get a sense about what will work in a lounge bar against a big club. We just “know the right record to end the night on”, or to start a set with. Certain tunes work on the beach, or outdoors…
Likewise, we remember quickly the songs with female vocals, or male vocals, or saxophones, or someone whistling in them, and so if we want to play a mini-set of songs with whistled melodies, our spider sense kicks on and our fingers find the right tracks through, as I say, just knowing our music.
Tagging, then, is simply a way of recording some of that info down so we don’t forget it, and so we can make better use of it. As our collections grow, and DJing turns into a something we’ve done for years, then decades, and our gigs pile up and up, it becomes impossible to remember every great mix, every song with bongos in it, everything that has a tempo change in it. That’s when tagging can really pay off.
In this article, I’ll introduce you to a few ways DJs already tag their tunes, that are easy to get started with. Hopefully by the end of it you’ll have at least one new idea or two to try in your own music library.
Five tagging ideas
- Tag energy level using stars – Many DJs use the star rating system in their DJ or music library software to mark the perceived “energy level” of their tracks (one star means strictly home listening, two starts means warm-up, right up to five stars for your peak-time, big room tunes). Some software such as Mixed In Key even tries to do this automatically for you. It gives you a good way of sorting warm-up music out to use alongside, say, BPM
- Tag great song pairings in the comments field – “Comments” is a text field in music files that lets you add comments to tracks – you can have it show as a column in your DJ software, and sort, search, and filter by it. For instance, when you find a song that works really well with another song, why not write a short note to jog your memory in the comments? I just write “MWW [name of another song]”, where “MWW” stands for “mixes well with”. You can do this right as you DJ, so you don’t forget
- Use the Grouping field in iTunes to add specialist tags – Many DJs who use iTunes to organise their music use the unused “Grouping” tag to add tags to their tracks, which can then be accessed directly in some DJ software, or used to create smart playlists in iTunes, which you can then dial up in your DJ software. You could use this field for tags like “vocal”, “instrumental, “filler”, “BPM change”… you get the idea
- Use DJ software that has a tagging system built in – Pioneer’s Rekordbox DJ platform has a comprehensive track tagging and filtering system built in. Serato DJ lets you assign colours to tracks so you can visually differentiate them from each other (you could have one colour for male vocals, one for female vocals, one for instrumentals etc) – have a look at what your software offers
- Experiment with library software that has a tagging system built in – We’ve already shown you how to “hack” tagging into iTunes, but Pro For Desktop (Beatport’s answer to iTunes for Mac and PC) has always had tagging at the heart of how it works. Beatport seems to be trying to bring a crowdsourced element to this too, recently announcing that over a million tags have been added to tracks by its users – the article also reveals the types of things people have been tagging
As with many things in DJing, it’s not how you do it, but why you do it that’s important. The best DJs have that extra something that moves them past fixed, predictable genre playlists, but yet they still play sets that hang together: Coherent music choices, expertly programmed.
Tagging your music so you can move past genre as a way of linking tunes together is a big part of this, and digital offers us ways to do that that mean we don’t have to keep it all in our heads (and by the way, if part of you thinks “that’s cheating!”, I used to carry a small notebook with me when DJing to write this stuff down – it’s ultimately just the digital equivalent of that).
Do you use any of the systems above to further slice and dice your tunes past genre, key or BPM? Do you think crowdsourcing may become more important in doing this type of thing in the future? Let us know your thoughts and experiences with tagging your tunes in the comments.