How I Use iTunes To Plan My DJ Sets

Phil Morse | Founder & Tutor
Read time: 8 mins
Last updated 6 April, 2018

iTunes Cover Art Project #3
iTunes Cover Art Project #3 Photo: Swanksalot

One of our perennial topics is how to organise your digital music as a DJ. That’s not surprising: if you’re used to records or CDs, digital suddenly seems, well, virtual. And even if you’re a new DJ starting out with digital, you’ll still want to develop a system that works for you. You’re probably also curious as to how other people organise their collections.

So following several requests, I thought I’d lay out exactly how I organise my DJing music in iTunes, to let you see one system in some detail. I’ll tell you exactly what I do, and explain all of my thinking along the way.

Some background

Before we start, let me give you some useful background. I have developed the system to deal with the following circumstances:

  1. In our household, we use iTunes for everything. All our music. No separate libraries, no separate computers. I have my indie records from when I was a teenager, we have rock and jazz and Latin music, and my partner has her Ministry of Sound dance compilations and old Madonna LPs from the 80s, all jumbled up with new promos and current bombs. We do this not only because it’s easy and we’re lazy, but also because I have an all-inclusive philosophy when it comes to music. No music is off-bounds or taboo!
  2. I have different types of gig. I play “sundowner” gigs (my favourite 🙂 ), but I also play club music. I play private parties. I want to play more indie sets. Therefore I need a way of keeping my sets for various venues/gig types nicely organised.
  3. I never play just one style of music in a set. If I did, I could maybe sort by date and genre (and possibly rating) and be done with it. But I don’t; I go all over the place. That means I need a way of pulling disparate record together that suit a particular venue. It also means I need a nice way of reminding me what I’ve done in the past.
  4. I believe in preparing a set for each gig. That means thinking about, and packing, a “box” of tunes for that week only. I don’t like turning up and playing out of a collection with 100s or 1000s of unsorted records in it. It feels like I haven’t done my homework.
A familiar site to anyone who DJed through the 1990s… a wall of vinyl. Pic: Jem

How I used to do it with vinyl

When I used to DJ with vinyl, I had a room that was dedicated to my DJing. I had a whole wall with shelves that I built myself especially for my records. I had everything sorted in genres, and also had a section that was just current music, of any genre.

Then I had record boxes for each type of gig I played containing an actual current set (which was basically the last set I’d played at that particular venue). Finally, unfiled, unshelved and piled up against the feet of my deck stands, I had all my current new promos and recent purchases that I’d yet to properly listen to, mix with or play at a real gig

Organising my music in iTunes

I think iTunes is a wonderful program, and even though it has things I’d change (I want a back button for browsing, and I want the search box to keep what I typed into it when I switch folders or playlists, for instance), I do not intend to ever use anything else. My system is based around doing all the hard work in iTunes, then opening my iTunes playlists and playing from them in my DJ software. So my system is based around doing all the hard work in iTunes, then opening my iTunes playlists and playing from them in my DJ software.

To show you how I do it, we’ll concentrate on preparing the tunes for one regular gig, and you’ll see how it can be applied from there to all my gigs. I’ll use an imaginary new weekly residency that I’ve just managed to land for myself, and let’s call it “Digital Nights”, after this very blog.

Basic tagging

This is how I’d separate out the tunes I’m interested in within iTunes for “Digital Nights”:.

Tags can be added to the Grouping column in iTunes (click to enlarge).
  1. I tag all the tunes that are suitable for the gig by going through my whole collection. I do this by opening each track’s info dialogue box (you can highlight and do this in bulk) and in the “Grouping” column putting “Digital Nights”.
  2. I set up a smart playlist called “Digital Nights Current”, by going to File > New Smart Playlist. On the dialogue box that opens, I set the rule to be “Grouping contains Digital Nights”, making sure that only “Live updating” is ticked out of the options.

This playlist now contains every tune in my collection that I have tagged “Digital Nights”. Whenever I add or remove that tag from a tune, the playlist updates automatically. Whenever I open my DJ software, there they are, all up to date.

Preparing tunes for a set

However, this list is going to grow quickly. After six months of gigs, I will have many hundreds of records tagged “Digital Nights”. Also, when I’m listening to (say) an album at home, I may leap up and say “that’d be great at Digital Nights!” and tag a tune off an old Fleetwood Mac record or something, only to think better of it later (or when more sober).

So next, let’s look at my way of preparing a DJ set for any given night from my pool of records that I could>/em>play at that residency. This next bit is the equivalent of preparing a box or two of records or a CD wallet before a traditional DJ gig – say 50 to 150 tunes.

Before we do that, though, let’s make a folder to keep all the Digital Nights stuff in from now on. In a minute we’ll add another “Digital Nights” playlist, so to keep things neat, I want a folder to start keeping all the stuff for this particular residency in. So I add a simple folder called “Digital Nights sets” by going to File > New Playlist Folder. I drag the “Digital Nights current” smart playlist into it. This is now where all the “Digital nights” stuff goes. Noe we’re ready.

  1. I add a normal playlist within the Digital Night main folder called “Digital Nights mm-dd-yy”, where mm-dd-yy is the date of the gig (you’d do it in any format you’re comfortable with)
  2. I click on the “Digital Nights current” smart playlist. This displays all the music that I’ve tagged as vaguely suitable for Digital Nights in my main window. I select list view (the left-most button of the four small buttons top-right of the screen) and sort the list of tunes by Date Added by clicking the Date Added column (you may have to ensure the Date Added column is visible by right clicking any of the column headers and selecting it)
  3. I work through the tunes, dragging the ones I want to play tonight to the “Digital Nights mm-dd-yy” smart playlist. I am working from newest to oldest, and of course I can listen as I go along.

At the end of this exercise, I have a “box” of records “packed” for tonight’s gig in the “Digital Night mm-dd-yy” playlist. Remember, when I open my DJ software, this playlist is there for me to play straight from.

I can play my gig from that playlist, knowing my homework is done, but still having all my other suitable tunes to hand in the “Digital Nights current” smart playlist as well.

iTunes playlists
Managing a DJ collection in iTunes is painless and feels as close to real records and CDs as you\’re likely to get.

Managing the music

So we’re back from the gig. Some tunes worked, some didn’t. Now we’re getting on to the beauty of this system, and why it’s so powerful for me.

First, though, we need to do one more thing, and that is make a folder for all of our old sets. We only have one old set at the moment, but next week we’ll repeat “Preparing tune for a set” above, and make a new dated playlist, and soon we’ll have dozens of these actual sets. We need them tidy, but there’s another reason for gathering them all in one folder too, which we’ll, get to.

To do this, we add a folder within the “Digital Nights sets” folder called “Digital Nights old playlists” (by going to File > Add New Folder), then we drag the “Digital Nights mm-dd-yy” playlist to this folder. Now we’re ready to prepare our set for next week like we did last week’s set

The advantage of my system

  • Speed of packing your weekly box. When you’re preparing next week’s set, you can select last week’s playlist in the “Digital Nights old playlists” folder and immediately copy across all the records you want to play again. It’s like starting with the week before’s record box. If you do this as well as checking through the “Digital Nights current” smart playlist (for all your new tunes you’ve tagged “Digital Nights” in the meantime, and maybe a couple of classics you want to throw in that are older and that you didn’t play the week before), you can have a set ready in no time.
  • You can easily remove tunes from your current DJ set. You can easily “spring clean” your current Digital Nights set by selecting “Digital Nights current” and removing old tunes you don’t play any more (or those that you feel shouldn’t have been there in the first place having played them once or twice!) by simply taking “Digital Nights” out of the “Grouping” column. This speeds up again your ability to “pack” your box quickly week by week, as you’re not wading through old or unsuitable records to find the stuff you want. (Of course these tunes remain in your iTunes collection, but they’re effectively invisible to you when you’re focusing on this particular gig.)
  • You can to separate your current tunes from those you’ve ever played at the residency. This is a powerful feature. If you open the “Digital Nights old playlists” folder, you can look back on previous sets, either when preparing a set, or actually while DJing. The tunes will still be there even if you’ve untagged them in the meantime, because this is a “normal” playlist, not a “smart” playlist. But the really powerful thing is that if you highlight just the “Digital Nights old playlists” folder, iTune will list ALL the tunes you’ve EVER played at that particular gig – again whether they’re still tagged “Digital Nights” or not. Great for New Year’s Eve, or a bit of inspiration when your new tunes are temporarily not doing it for you. This way you don’t need to worry about aggressively pruning your main collection for that particular residency on a week by week basis, as all of your actual, real-life sets are preserved and easily searchable.
  • Ability to use the same tune in more than one gig/residency. Say you end up playing Daft Punk’s “One More Time” everywhere you go – cool residencies, weddings, your big Saturday club gig – everywhere! In the Grouping column you can tag it with all of your gigs, so it may say “Digital Nights, weddings, Saturday Club” – whatever. This system handles this with no problems. And if you just decide you hate it and never want to play it again, you can remove it from all your gigs in one go by deleting whatever you’ve written in “Grouping”. Done!
Traktor Pro
Let us know your experiences of using iTunes and Traktor Pro together.

Traktor issue?
Some users have reported issues with playing from iTunes playlists where certain information, particularly cue points, doesn’t get remembered. I’d love your input if you’re a Traktor user with experience of it.

One way around it might be to do something similar to what I’ve described but using a program like Trainspotter to manipulate the actual Traktor database and not using iTunes at all – but I’d love to hear from our seasoned Traktor/iTunes users as to what the real state of play is here. I’ll update the article accordingly.

So there you have it! It works for me. I hope it was of some use to you in working out how to organise your own sets, especially if – like me – you want to do it in iTunes. I haven’t moved on to keys, or BPMs, or backups, or any of the other things that go with maintaining a music collection, as this post was specifically about gig playlists – but there’s plenty of time for all of that.

How do you organise your DJ sets? Do you have any tips of tricks to get iTunes playing nicely with Traktor or any other DJ software? Please share in the comments.

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