How To Organise Your Tunes While DJing, Part 1

Phil Morse | Founder & Tutor
Read time: 5 mins
Last updated 4 April, 2018

Wall of vinyl
Organising your music is easier than the old days… if you know the tricks.

In Why Packing a Good Box of Tunes is More Important Than Ever, we talked about how important it is to get all your music ready before you get to a gig, and different ways you might achieve this using tags, folders and so on.

What I want to talk about in this two-part tutorial is ways to help you to always find the perfect tune to play next when you’re actually DJing. Today we’ll look at two pretty common tricks, and next week we’ll get advanced and experimental.

For our example, we’ll invent an imaginary gig: You’ve got a summer holiday residency, playing the whole night in a resort dance bar – from 11pm to 4am, for instance. It’s normally you playing, but sometimes there’s a local guest DJ (who you don’t get to pick). It’s a meeting place, where people have a few drinks before heading off clubbing. The bar has a dancefloor, and it gets quite lively later on.

How our imaginary DJ night might look:

11am – Empty (in Spain where I live nobody’s out till 12)
12am – Filling up
1am – Pretty full, lots of meeting and catching up going on. Dancefloor starting to fill
2am – Alcohol kicking in, dancefloor starting to rock
3am – Real peak time, dancefloor rammed
4am – Place closing, two or three tunes to end with required

So how do you arrange your music to help you find the right songs for all these “slots” within your night? How do you sort things so that you don’t have to randomly scroll through all your current tunes every time you’re looking for a new tune to play?

It’s essential that you know your tunes well
The first thing to state is that there’s no substitute for knowing your tunes well. However, if you know your tunes well and you also apply these techniques, you’ll find DJ sets fall together for you more easily than if you rely on your knowledge of your records alone to get you through.

There are many ways of organising your digital music within your music library or DJ software, but here we’re going to show you two of the most common and useful methods.

Sorting your tunes by BPM will make it easier to find a good tune to play next quickly.

1. Use the BPM reading
Click the “BPM” column in your track browser on your DJ software, and arrange the BPMs from lowest to highest. (BPM stands for “beats per minute” and represents the speed of a tune. All good DJ software will attempt to work this out for you for your songs.)

As the night progresses, work roughly down the list. Of course, you won’t work from top to bottom strictly – that would take all the fun out, and it’s easy enough to mix a few BPMs either side of your current tune anyway – but at least the tunes around the one you’re currently playing in your browser will be most likely to be suitable for each part of the night.

Increase the BPM smoothly
So for instance, you may play 80-90 BPM r’n’b from 11-12pm, 100-120 BPM nu-disco and laid-back house from 12-2, 120-130 BPM house from 2-3, playing a final hour or so of 130-145 BPM harder house, trance or even go higher and end on some anthemic drum & bass. All mixed well (hopefully), with no abrupt tempo changes as you speed things up a BPM or two at a time slowly as you go along.

Of course, we’re assuming here that faster tunes are always more lively and energetic and so better suited for full dancefloors later on. This isn’t always the case, and what’s more, the above rule doesn’t work with all types of music. But it’s a popular way for DJs to do things, and better than making the rookie error of just “banging it out” early on because you know no better.

Star ratings for music don’t have to be about how good you think a track is – smart DJs are using them for other purposes…

2. Use star ratings
Use your DJ or music library software’s star ratings not to record how much you like a tune (as intended), but to rate its “energy” level or “dancefloor friendliness factor”. You then have an easy way of differentiating between those warm-up “nobody here”-type records and full-on floorfillers.

This type of system crosses all BPMs and genres, and so is good if you typically play more than one type of music in your sets, because a slow dubstep or reggae tune may be an absolute winner for you and a crowd favourite, but still only have a double-figure BPM, so would be way down with the warm-up records using the BPM system.

Different stars for different times of night
So your 11am-12pm records get one star, 12am-1pm two stars etc up to 3am-4am getting five stars. (Zero stars might be reserved for samples, beats etc that you use at any time of night.)

Remember to re-star your tunes week by week; an upfront, unknown tune may start off in your warm-ups, but work its way into the floorfillers 4-star or 5-star section later on as it becomes popular.

Use a combination of the two
Experienced DJs or just more astute reader will have spotted a potential flaw in this system; if you rate all of your tunes this way and then sort by star rating, you’ll have BPMs that are all over the place. For indie or pop DJs, or if you never mix, this wouldn’t be an issue; but if you’re a mixing DJ, would you try and mix reggae into trance because they’re both “floorfillers”? Of course not.

BPM & star ratings.
Using a combination of BPMs and star ratings will allow you to navigate more easily through your tunes, whatever the situation.

That’s why it’s good to use both systems alongside each other. Here’s two scenarios where arrranging tunes by BPM then by star rating (either by eye or actually in the software if it allows you to) will help you.

Warming up well
In our first scenario, you’re warming the crowd up, say in the 11pm-1am slot above. You arrange by BPM, and then as you play slowly raising the tempo by mixing roughly from the top to bottom of your list and moving the pitch up manually as you go, but only playing the tunes starred 1 & 2, maybe dropping the odd 3-star in as things get going. You started on 1-star 90 BPM tunes, and by 1am were playing 3-star 120 BPM tunes with a happy, early-night, half-full dancefloor.

Taking control after any other DJ
Or, imagine your bar has a guest DJ with you that night, and you’re coming on after him. He was playing drum & bass at 165 BPM, but it’s only 2am and you want to get back to 125 BPM so you can sustain the crowd for the last 2 hours.

You arrange your tunes by BPM, and then quickly find a tune at 125 BPM that is a five-star surefire floorfiller. You drop this tune in abruptly, and the crowd do two things. 1. They go “wooah, this is way too slow…”, and then immediately enough of them go “YES! I love this tune!” and they all promptly forget about the BPM change. Job done.

Coming up… In part 2, we’ll show you some advanced techniques to help you programme still smoother, more professional DJ sets and come across even to other DJs in the crowd as an instinctive professional. Hint: It’s all in the preparation! Check it out here: How To Organise Your Tunes While DJing, Part 2

Do you use rating stars in this way or in a different way? Do you organise your tunes by BPM or have another way of navigating around your crates? We’d love you to let us know.

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