Preparing, Importing And Tagging Your Music
If one mistake rookie DJs make when getting started with regards to music is the ‘more is more’ error (‘real DJs have tens of thousands of tunes, so I’ll just download everything I can think of by everyone I can think of…’), a second is coming up with convoluted ways of processing and organising their music collections. ‘If I organise my collection better than anyone else,’ goes the thinking, ‘I’ll be able to find tracks quicker, which will make me a better DJ.’ With the abundance of clever tools out there in the digital age for cataloguing, filtering and playlisting our digital music collections, it’s easy to understand why involved processes for organising our music can sometimes get the better of us.
There are two issues with this way of thinking. Firstly, the more complicated your music processing system, the more likely you are to abandon it and end up with a music collection in a worse mess than if you’d done nothing. And secondly, there is really no need to do any more than the simple universal things I share with you in this chapter in order to organise any digital music collection effectively, whatever the size. Keep it simple and you’ll stick with your system for life, it’ll serve you well and, best of all, it’ll become second nature to you.
I’ll divide my simple system for adding music to your collection into three parts: ‘Preparing’, ‘Importing’ and ‘Tagging’.
Preparing your music
So you’ve bought a handful of tunes, maybe imported a few from CDs or even ripped a few from old vinyl. They’re all sitting there in your laptop’s downloads folder, ready to move across into your DJ collection. There’s actually only a single thing I’d recommend before you do that, and that is change each new tune’s filename so it follows a standard system. The system I prefer is simply Artist – Title (Remix Title), for instance: Robin S – Show Me Love (Stonebridge Club Mix).
By doing this, you’ll remove extraneous info that often gets included in filenames, the most common being track number. (Remember, we are not interested in whole albums as DJs, so track number isn’t necessary.) Even if you throw all of your songs into one single folder at any time, or put them in one pile on a USB stick, by sorting them alphabetically you’ll have a workable collection, ordered by artist. In the absence of any other way of slicing and dicing your music (for instance, if you’re playing the songs on a very old CD player or sorting them on a strange computer using the file browser), at least that will be available to you.
Importing your music
As it’s pretty much impossible to do more than alter a tune’s filename in a Windows explorer or Mac Finder window, it’s time now to add your new tunes to your music library proper. This is where we’ll ensure we have all the other information we need for each track, information which is stored inside the music file itself using something called ‘ID3 tagging’ – namely things like the correct artist, title, artwork (if wanted), genre, and more, and potentially do some organising too.
The first thing you need to do, then, is move those new tunes from your temporary downloads folder or wherever they happen to be to where you keep your collection proper, which is where you’ll work on them further. (Always keep your music library in one place on your computer, because this makes it much easier to back it up regularly.)
Should you use Music/iTunes?
Many DJs, on both Macs and Windows computers, use Apple’s Music app (formerly iTunes) to store, tag and organise their music. You can set it up to add new music to its own Music folder automatically, meaning you can then safely remove new tracks from anywhere else on your computer.
It’s not a perfect piece of software for DJs, but nonetheless they use it because they always have (it was the original digital music library, of course). It is a familiar way of handling a digital music collection, it has powerful playlist features, and it makes it easy to put music from iTunes on to an iPhone, iPad or iPod for listening to elsewhere. It is also unique in that its collection is visible within all DJ software, so all your Music/iTunes playlists will be available to you to play from in any DJ software without any extra work on your part, even if you switch software platforms at some point.
If you’re going to use Music/iTunes, due to the amalgamation of the Apple Music streaming service within it, we recommend you use it only for your DJ music, turning off the Apple Music streaming service and keeping non-DJ music away from it. If you do want to use it for the Apple Music streaming service too, be clear about how you’re going to keep your DJ music separate from all that other stuff.
If you don’t want to use Music/iTunes, that’s fine. Most DJs who don’t use Music/iTunes do what I am about to describe directly in their DJ software. Some DJs use a different program to tidy up the information in their music files (these programs are called “ID3 editors”). The important thing, though, is to absorb these principles and find something that works for you.
Tagging your music
Tagging your DJ music properly is important because it’ll let you find stuff quickly. Really, there is only a small amount of information you need about your tunes to do a good job of this for DJing. In Music/iTunes, your DJ software, or your chosen ID3 tag editor (whatever you’ve chosen to use for this), find a music playlist view that shows you all your music listed as rows, and set the software to show all the columns listed below for easy editing.
These are the basic things you ought to be sure you have for each tune:
- Title (including any remix or version name)
- Release art
- Energy level
Let’s look at the above one by one. Artist is easy, although you may have more than one artist (usually it’ll be a ‘featuring’, for instance ‘Primary Artist feat. Featured Artist’), and you’ll have to decide what to do about artists whose name begins ‘The’. Do you drop the ‘The’ so you don’t have loads of artist names clogging up the ‘T’ section of your library? I keep the ‘The’, for what it’s worth.
When it comes to the track title, this is the right place to keep the remix or version title, and it can be good to put this in separate brackets, or even square brackets, so as not to confuse the remix or version title with any part of the song title that’s in brackets itself. As an example: Single ladies (Put A Ring on It) [Dave Aude Club Mix].
Year is self-explanatory, although it is worth remembering that the track may have been released before you bought it, and often the year will be wrong on downloaded music as it may refer to the year the album the track came from was released, not the year the track itself was released. This can trip you up on tracks from ‘Best of’ compilations or digitally remastered versions of songs, so make sure you check the release year.
Genre is the category a lot of people mess up on, which is a shame as it’s one of the most powerful things to get right. The bottom line is you need to choose genres that mean something to you, and that will help your DJing. let me give you a couple of examples.
Jeff is a mobile DJ who plays for all ages at a variety of gigs. He plays music he divides into the following genres: Pop, Dance, Hip hop, Rock, Disco, Ballads, Country. Sarah, however, is a dance DJ/producer type. She divides her collection into Deep house, Big room house, electro house, Tech house, Minimal house, and Trance. Jeff could put every single track in Sarah’s collection into just one of his categories: ‘Dance’.
So who’s right? The answer is both of them are. You see, Sarah often plays a whole set of one or two of those types of music (maybe a minimal house build-up, followed by some big room house). If she didn’t divide her collection up into a handful of genres meaningful to her, it would rob her of the ability to sort her collection quickly depending on the type of music she wanted to play.
Jeff, on the other hand, plays a wider selection of music and his genres are broader, yet for him they make perfect sense (he rotates a bit of hip hop with pop and dance at a typical mobile gig, ending with some country, rock and ballads). For Jeff, subdividing these genres makes no sense. Furthermore, he may be a bit loose with his definitions, for instance throwing funk in with disco and R&B in with hip hop, and again he’d be right, because Jeff is organising tunes into piles that serve a purpose for him.
However (and this is crucial), for both Jeff and Sarah, the genres their tunes are labelled with when they arrive mean nothing. Absolutely be ready to throw the labelled genres when you buy a tune right out of the window. Just because a tune is labelled ‘Deep house’ when you buy it does not mean you have to keep it that way. If to you it is pop, change it to that label. The important thing is that when you dial up all the tunes you’ve labelled as one genre or another, they feel coherent to you, and you could imagine them on a mixtape or in a set together. learn to be irreverent with your musical genres. You can always change them again later.
This is the only caveat once you start relabelling your tunes’ genres: don’t fall into the trap of using the ‘Genre’ column to label non-musical qualities of tunes, ‘Girl-friendly’ or ‘end of night favourite’ or ‘Warm-up tune’, for instance. This information best belongs in the catch-all ‘Comments’ tag. Keep genre for musical descriptions.
So moving on, BPM means beats per minute and refers to the speed or tempo of the tune. When you first add a tune to your collection, it may or may not already appear in the BPM column, depending on whether the store you bought it from included that information. Don’t worry about this for now: your DJ software will automatically add this for you later on.
Release art (or Album art) is well worth adding, especially if you’re a visual type of person or have ever owned a physical record or CD collection. If the tunes were once in a physical collection of yours, head off to Google Images or similar to find the cover you recognise. If not, again, Google Images can find you a nice cool-looking release cover for most tunes (especially helpful if you bought a single track from a cheesy compilation album and want something a bit cooler as the album art).
Finally, energy level. This is a bona fide secret weapon which can be especially powerful when used alongside your Genre column. Quite simply, when you listen to a track, how much does it make you want to dance? In other words, how energetic is it? Does it bang along, all big drops and overblown synth lines, or is it more subtle? Giving your tracks a subjective rating of say one to five on an energy level scale (have a guess, you can always fine tune later) can help you plan a set that rises gently and avoid accidentally playing something too full-on too early in your set.
Now, there is actually no ‘energy level’ column in any software. You could put a number in the Comment column, or use the ‘Rating star’ column if your software has one. As you’re being particular about every single tune you allow into your DJ collection, logically your rating for them all is five, making this a redundant column, so why not use it for energy rating instead? The only issue is that DJ software usually doesn’t show the Rating column from the Music/iTunes app, but it is possible to set up Smart Playlists in Music/iTunes that automatically include all tracks with each of the five energy ratings, and these do show in DJ software.
By the way, a great resource for checking a lot of the above information online is a site called Discogs (http://www.discogs.com), where record collectors have meticulously organised decades’ worth of music releases. If you’re missing a year, or a remix title, or some cover art, this is the place to do your research.
Now you’ve properly tagged everything, we can move on to organising your music.