Question from DJ Chris Bell. How do you sort your music?

A DJ in Australia contacted me regarding organising his music for DJ’ing. Here’s my response:

Something I struggle with too is remembering to play all the great records at the right time. That’s part of the fun though. It’s nice when you get a response to a track you play that made someone think or reminded them of a something that hadn’t crossed there mind for a long time.

Should a DJ be there to educate or entertain? ‘We’re there to educate godamnit!’ I wish I could attribute that quote, but I can’t remember who I had the conversation with. It really made me laugh and it crosses my mind often – the balance between those is key. We can’t be playing Now Cd’s all night, nor can we be playing ONLY Bob Dylan, Televison (the band) and Jimi Hendrix.

I’m fortunate in that I have a lot in my head now as I’ve been playing consistently for so long. I’m not as on top of my folders as I should be. But that’s the place to start. Once you’ve got your music folders arranged how you’d like. For me it’s Album’s alphabetically. Compilations by genre.

Soundtracks are a genre alphabetically. Where I’m not alphabetical by artist is with Irish Music and Country Music. You could take this approach too, with all genres. But it’s the ‘crossover’ artists that are a problem. Although duplicates are less of a problem with hard drive space so cheap.

There’s maybe a tagging system you could look at. So you could tag a song ‘Rock’ and ‘Pop’. And then it will appear under searches for both Rock and Pop. If you find one, please let me know.

By the way those crossover songs are really useful in sets rather than a problem. For example Valerie by Amy  Winehouse would be pop. But it’s a Zuton’s cover so it’s also indie and it’s got that older soul sound. So it’s wouldn’t be out of place proceeding of preceding any of the above. Finding crossover tracks that aren’t as overplayed is a worthwhile pursuit.

Removing duplicates is something I would never do. I could find numerous reputations of a song after a search. Each is the tip of an iceberg. Accompanied by more great songs on a Decades Greatest Hits, Sound track, Artists Album or occasionally I make folders of songs for specific events.

Something like Wunderlist, to prep a to-do list of core songs. You can tick them off as you go. Alternatively, you could limit yourself and focus that nights music by not playing a certain type of music. You’re in a bar so you can maybe do that.

Something I occasionally find useful is to have a background music mix for early on. Just ‘nice stuff’ that I’m NOT going to play later. It’s familiar enough in its vibe, I’m not talking left field. The idea is, that it will stop you playing those key songs on your to-do list. I’ve been so excited about that I’ve jumped the gun and played them when only three people have arrived.

On the other hand, once there’s at least four people there just throw the songs onto the fire like the worlds about to end. This will force out the good stuff later in the night as you’ll really have to dig deep because you’ve set a high bar midway through the night.

Once I’ve got my music in folders on my hard drive. I scan everything NOT IN MY DJ SOFTWARE but in Media Monkey. It’s brilliant. Fast. And handles all files types I’ve thrown at it. Old WMA’s, Mp3’s 4’s and 24 bit 96khz FLAC files*. iTunes (also free) was my go-to software before that, but it’s inability to handle Flac files forced the switch to Media monkey.

So, in theory, the only files in my DJ Software database are songs I actually play. I say in theory because I drag and drop lots of things in there listen to them for 3 seconds and swear I’ll never play them again. If I really wanted to keep that database clean, small and fast loading. I’d sample tracks in Winamp (still the best music player for home) and not load them into my DJ software.

The advantage to keeping only songs you play in your DJ software is the small and fast loading database. But also, when you do a vague search, and I don’t like typing so I’ll type Beat Saw and the computer will bring up The Beatles - I Saw Her Standing There. When I type Beat, loads of tracks will come up. And The Beat Goes on will come up, Beat It and Beat Dis. And, often enough I’ll think, maybe I’ll play that later and save those to a side list / song list.

Ultimately, keep digging while always keeping a weather eye on the room. I decided early on that I wouldn’t ever play a song twice. There’s an economic principle called ‘Opportunity Cost’ which essentially means any record you play and with every choice you make. You are foregoing the opportunity to be playing anything else. Except those rare occasions when you do a totally awesome mix where the songs overlap for days and days. Like Fatboy Slim.

Each music software has a 5 star rating system. And Pioneer DJ - Rob Anderson told me a great tip which is to use that to quantity the energy of a song. Maybe a bit more useful to dance music but when you’re looking for a song in a set that’s a certain tempo range, certain key and certain energy level you can search your 5 star rating. To you and me the energy of a song is an emotional element that you feel more than quantify. However, when they program computers to do it, the software analyses the high frequencies. Which makes sense, hit-hats, distortion and those energetic synth sounds spring to mind.

You know what the funny thing is? Sometimes the technology is so useful, (by the way if you’re connected to the internet the software will suggest songs to follow what you’re currently playing) that you’ll contact me in a few months to say, why have my sets stagnated? Why am I playing the same songs over and over?

And the above methods will lean toward repetition. So just keep your eyes peeled for the variables. Which is the crowd, you and your quest for gems.

* I know some people will scream at me for suggesting playing old low bit rate WMA’s. I had this conversation recently with a Cinema Projectionist and friend who I got talking to a wedding I was DJ’ing which he was attending as a guest. Admittedly a geeky conversation, but I said I’d rather have the track and play it in ANY format than worry about the bitrate. Certainly, if I have it in multiple bit rates I’ll play the highest quality one, and I always have my software displaying bit rate info in the search results column.

The other conversation with the Projectionist, who also installs cinema systems was about surround sound. I knew a little because my university dissertation was on ambisonics. We had eight channel surround. But on that night in that wedding venue I was in Mono. Not even two channel Stereo. Just because of the room layout and my position. Mono gave me the most control and consistency.

I include the above as another example of the technologies potential to get in the way. I’d hate for you to spend too long organising your music. Go through it and get it to a place that’s functional (you’ll have to play some tracks as you’re digging through – I can’t help it – you’ll enjoy it). But after that make sure it’s about the music, the crowd’s reaction and nothing else.

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