A DJs life is surrounded by music. From sourcing brand new tracks to discovering amazing transitions between the music you love. As a DJ you begin to amass a staggering amount of music. The drive to continue to expand your arsenal with the latest tunes results in a constant stream of new files.
Organizing your music library in a useful manner becomes a critical part of any DJs workflow. Having a streamlined music library that can be referenced and searched can make your life as a DJ far easier.
In this guide, I’ll cover everything you need to know to organize your music library. In the end, you’ll have all the tools needed to keep your music library clean and mean.
Why Is It Important?
When it comes to organising your music library we are going to focus on the digital side of things. While Vinyl and CDs are still used it’s a whole other organising beast to tackle. Digital storage devices have become a staple of the modern DJ. It has allowed DJs to bring a lot more music with them on the road. As a result, manufacturers have embraced the technology and many modern DJ gear has direct support for digital storage devices.
Portable hard drives have become the most common way that DJs store their music.
Organizing your digital music library is important. Having a well-organized music library will allow you to focus more on the mixing. Time is a constant battle for DJs. You need to find a track, beatmatch it and prepare your transition. A well-organized music library gives you more time for the other tasks involved in mixing two tracks. The less time you spend digging to find tracks the more time you have to craft the perfect transition. This time saved can also be used to expand your creative mixing options. It will give you time to set loops, layer extra elements or incorporate effects.
It’s also important to continue to evolve your music library. This way you stay up to date with the newest tracks as well as having former classics be accessible. Keeping a well-organized music library makes it easier to cut tracks from your music library when you want to downsize.
Spending time organizing your music library also engages you with your music. Listening to a track to determine items like the genre and what part of a set it would suit is important. The very act of organizing your music library will expand your knowledge base. Becoming more familiar with a track will make it easier to identify where it sits in your arsenal. This knowledge will also make it easier to craft more coherent and fluid sets.
Beyond the above benefits, it’s also good to organize your music library from a security standpoint. Having your files organized in a central location allows you to set backups for your music folder. Having your music scattered across random folders on your computer or laptop makes this task very difficult. It also makes it easier to take your music anywhere if you have a centralised location where all your DJ music lives. You can quickly copy your files onto USB making you ready to DJ on most modern DJ gear.
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Before we dig into the details on ways to organize your music library we need to cover file formats. Digital music comes in a wide range of formats and there are some notable differences to be aware of.
Compressed lossy formats are audio files that have been compressed to reduce the file size. Generally, these are MP3, AAC or Ogg Vorbis files. You can identify these by the extension at the end of the file. You’re most likely familiar with MP3’s which exploded in popularity in the early 2000s. These compressed files are of reduced quality compared to other file formats. They are designed to allow for music to be quickly uploaded and downloaded. Additionally, they save space on hard drives. With the increase in internet speeds and the reduction in hard drive costs, these benefits are not as useful anymore.
You can still use these files to DJ especially if you never plan on playing on massive club systems. The loss in quality is not very noticeable on an average home studio setup. Dedicated audiophiles will notice the slight differences but for the general listener, 320kbps MP3’s are fine. Avoid any lower quality than 320kbps though as even for an average listener you will begin to notice the difference.
The next level up is Compressed Lossless formats. These tend to be FLAC or ALAC files. These files while compressed do not alter the source material to the extent that MP3’s do. The ability to save some space on your hard drive without losing sound quality is a big benefit. As a result, these file formats have become very popular among digital DJs. Do keep in mind that Apple doesn’t support the FLAC format. If you run all Apple gear or use iTunes stick to ALAC files.
The final level is reserved for WAV and AIFF files. These uncompressed files will take up the most space on your hard drive. Nothing has been done to the files. The difference in sound quality is minimal as well. Additionally WAV doesn’t support extra metadata which is a big negative. Adding metadata to your files will be the cornerstone of your music organisation. Avoid WAV files or convert them to a compressed Lossless format.
Try to be consistent in the file types you add to your music library. It will reduce any potential compatibility issues down the track. Having one main format also makes it easier to find the files on your hard drive. It will also make it easier if you want to bulk edit metadata.
It’s also important to keep you files high quality. If you have an existing music library aim to get rid of low-quality files as these can impact on the quality of your mixes. Mixing a 96kbps MP3 after a 320kbps track will result in a poor sounding mix. If there are some tracks you love in your music library but they are low quality invest in purchasing higher quality versions.
Also, avoid acquiring music illegally. You are more likely to get low-quality files or poorly compressed versions. Additionally, you’re not supporting the artists that make the music you love. The other issue is you may come across files that appear to be 320kbps but are nowhere near it. It’s possible to convert a 96kbps file into a 320kbps file but it doesn’t add everything that was stripped out when it was first encoded. There is no way to get that data back once it is converted down.
If you do have files in your music library that you are unsure on you can use the free tool Spek to analyse the spectrum of the track. A 320kbps MP3 will cut off at 20kHz. Lossless formats like FLAC will not have a flat cut off point. Low-quality files will be cut much lower than 20kHz and these files will have a noticeable drop in audio quality. If after analyzing your files you do find some “fake” 320kbps files be sure to remove them from your previous music library. You do not want these files in your main DJ music library.
Now you know what type of files will be suitable for your DJ music library and why it’s important to keep a well-organized music library. It’s now time to move onto the next stage. The first step is to start a brand-new dedicated folder for your DJ music library. This primary top-level folder will make it easy to know where your music is located. It will also allow for easy importing into your DJ software.
I would then recommend establishing a “Sort” or “Temp” folder to hold tracks that are scheduled for analysis and tagging. Once a track has been analysed and tagged up to your preferences you can then move it into the main folder. This will ensure your primary folder stays as clean as possible. It also means only the very best and properly tagged files are added to your main DJ music library.
The next step is to determine what type of folder structure you want to put in place. There are many choices and it does come down to personal preference.
Some DJs prefer to organize their music library by the date they acquired their music. This keeps all new music downloaded separated from the rest of their music library. This is beneficial when it comes to tagging and analysing your music. You can further break this down into broad genres. For example, you can have a folder for tracks downloaded on a particular day labelled 2018.11.04 with subfolders for House, Trance, Hip Hop etc.
Using genre tags is a good way to organize your music.
Having top-level genre folders is also an option. This allows for all music from a specific genre to be organized in one location. Problems can arise using this format. Genres are very fluid and even specific genres evolve over time. A trance track from 2000 sounds a lot different than one produced in 2018. Having date-based folders within these top-level genre folders can reduce the problem. If you like the sound of this structure try to keep the top level genres broad. You can go into further detail in the metadata which I’ll cover further in the guide.
Date downloaded folders can also present some unforeseen issues. In your music discovery journey, you may download tracks which are not new. Placing a track from five years ago into a folder for today can cause confusion. This issue can be resolved with metadata so it’s not a huge issue.
If you would like to keep things in chronological order you can place any tracks in an appropriate release date folder. This method can be difficult to manage. Locating each track among hundreds of folders for importing into your software is a cumbersome way of adding songs to your DJ music library.
Other options include having single track downloads separated from album downloads or compilations. This can be an effective way to isolate groups of tracks which are likely to work well together.
If you download from specific labels you can group your downloads by the label. Often labels will have a very specific genre they stick to with sub-labels for other genres. This is a good way to keep similar genre tracks together. The drawback to this method is there are a large number of labels out there. Unless you are sticking to a handful of labels this method can become difficult to manage.
Irrespective of what folder structure you decide on it’s all about consistency. You want a spot for the music to go to be prepared and then a spot for it to go once it’s ready for your music library. The exact specific folder format is not as important as keeping things clean and understandable to you. Metadata will prove to be more important than where the file sits. Keep things simple and structured. The metadata will do the rest.
Tools For Organising
Before we dig into metadata let’s cover your choices when it comes to tools to organize your music library. You will be spending a lot of time working with your program of choice to edit metadata so it’s important to find one you are comfortable using.
Some people prefer to use iTunes as they already have an existing structure in place. If you do use iTunes and have already got several playlists setup it can be a good jumping off point. Modern DJ software usually offers good integration with iTunes. If you’re comfortable using iTunes you can continue to use it but it isn’t what I would recommend. iTunes has several settings that attempt to auto-categorize your music. Usually, these groupings are not ideal for the type of structure we want to establish.
When it comes to editing metadata or ID3 tags you can use an application like MP3Tag for Windows or MetaBliss for Mac. You can also make direct changes within your DJ software. Both options will allow you to change the metadata of your files. MP3Tag has the added benefit of powerful bulk editing tools. You can update metadata in bulk and then even rename your files based on that data. It’s quick, powerful and all information is universal. The data will be readable by all music software.
A large amount of information can be stored in an ID3 tag.
DJ software often gives you extra tagging options beyond what is available in a generic ID3 tag. These options are a great tool to organize your music library. The problem is this data is often stored locally in a dedicated database for that software. Moving across to other software or taking your music elsewhere will result in that extra data not been visible.
Using a combination of both can be the most efficient use of time. Utilise MP3Tag for renaming and mass editing and then using you DJ software for extra information.
DJ Software can also analyse your music to provide data in relation to BPM and Key. When analysed this data will be stored in the metadata of the file. Keep in mind while DJ software gets it right most of the time it can make errors for items like BPM when there is a variable BPM in a track. You may need to alter these values yourself.
The next couple of potential tools are only suggestions. Neither is mandatory but they do give you some extra options. They can streamline your tagging workflow as well as standardise your files.
You can also use MixedInKey. This tool will clean up your files and add data in relation to the Key of the song as well as an energy rating. It will also suggest cue points. This is a great way to fast track the process of tagging your files. You may find that you may want to alter some of this information to your own preferences though. A certain track may be listed as having an energy rating of 6 but you may view it differently. The same can occur with cue points. Building a DJ music library is a personal process which can be difficult for software to reproduce. It’s still worth considering as a time-saving tool if you’re not overly specific about the data you want associated with your files.
Platinum Notes is another tool you can run your files through before adding them to your main music library. It can normalise the audio to balance loudness levels. DJ software does have auto gain features but you may want more manual control over volume levels on your DJ gear. If you don’t want to use auto gain having your files normalised in loudness can be useful.
Editing Your Core Tags
Now we have everything lined up to begin organizing your music library. The next step is to edit the metadata and filenames. Having a consistent naming convention for your files will make searching for them easier.
The easiest way to edit your filenames is to use MP3Tag. This light yet powerful application will allow you to edit your files in bulk. To do this start by entering the relevant metadata for your music. This data is usually stored in an ID3 tag within the file. Below is a list of the core data that is located within files and what you should enter.
This is the name of the song. Keep this clean with the title of the song followed by the remixer if relevant. It’s best to add the remix title within brackets of some kind. While it is common to use standard round brackets () it is better to use the square brackets [ ]. This is due to some track titles including the round brackets within the title. The title could then appear as follows:
Track Title (Sub Title) [Remix]
The next bit of data to enter is the Artist Name. There are variations on how this is represented in files you may download. For example, a vocalist may be listed as Featuring. or Feat. In some cases, the vocalist may be listed within the Title Field. I recommend you remove it from the title field to make searching easier down the track. I also suggest using a shortened Feat. or Ft. for vocalists. It will make finding vocal based tracks easier within your database. All artists should be separated by a comma. The artist field could then appear as follows:
Artist 1, Artist 2, Feat. Vocalist
In this field either enter the compilation or album title. You can use this field to enter the release name if it’s a single. Many releases will have a label tag for that release. This area is a good spot to place that information in.
Many downloads will come with a Genre predefined but don’t be bound to this. There are a lot of sub-genres within genres so feel free to personalise this field to something which is meaningful to you. There is also nothing wrong with adding multiple Genres if applicable within this field. Having a consistent Genre naming convention will allow you to find tracks that may suit each other when mixing. You can start with a top-level Genre here if you prefer and then edit further once you have become more familiar with the track.
This field will be populated once you analyse your files within your DJ software. BPM analysis will get it right 95% of the time but not all the time. For tracks that have varied BPM’s your software may get the BPM wrong. Feel free to edit it accordingly.
Utilise this field to list the release date of the song. Be careful here as sometimes a song included in a compilation may actually be much older than that release. It’s fine to use the release date as is but if you want to take it to the next level find the original release date of each track.
It can be handy to have cover art for your files if you think it will be beneficial in identifying a song. We tend to associate images with memories better than words. If you have converted your files from your CD collection or don’t have the album art embedded in a particular file you can do a quick Google image search to locate the cover art. If you feel you will not use this feel free to skip it.
Cover art can help jog your memory and allow you to quickly identify a track.
This field indicates where the track is within the release. It’s not an important field unless you want to mix all tracks in a compilation in order.
The Key for the song will also be determined by your DJ software or by MixedInKey if you are using that service. You do not need to alter this value and you’ll use this for determining songs that are harmonically similar.
This is a great field to use for marking certain tracks. You can use this to give the song a score out of five. You can also use this for determining the structure. For example songs you may want to use earlier in a set can be marked with 1-2 stars. Peak time tracks can be marked at 3-4 stars and unwind tracks at 5 stars. Much like Genre, this is a great field to use for your own personal reference.
This tag is one of the only remaining tags available that will be visible across most players and DJ software. Use this section to add any remaining data you feel is relevant. You can include information about other songs that may mix well with the track. Another option is to include more granular data about the song. You can include comments like “high energy” “aggressive drop” “difficult mix out” “uplifting vocal”. This section is fantastic to be able to assess tracks quickly when browsing. Once your music library grows it will help to identify suitable tracks that you may have not used in a while and forgotten about.
Now that you have updated the metadata associated with your music you can select how to rename your files. This comes down to a personal decision but you will need a minimum of Artist – Title for future searches. Adding in other data like Album and Date can be useful so feel free to add that if you want.
Your music library will now be uniform in both metadata and filenames.
Utilising Extra Tags
Now that your files are in good shape you can look at adding extra data. The options available to you will vary depending on which DJ software you use.
For example, some DJ software allows you to colour code songs. This can be another way to help group certain tracks or genres. You may also have the option for a second comments field. You may also have access to extra tags you can assign to tracks. These tags can be used in the same way as the comments section. Using these tags will free up your comment section for other information. Some of the best DJ controllers like the XDJ RX2, a Pioneer DJ controller, will display this information on a screen located on the controller.
Keep in mind that the data you enter in these extra fields or the tags you assign will not be available across all platforms. Where possible try to keep most of the data within the ID3 tag of the files. You want access to this information in the largest amount of places. This becomes very important if you change to different DJ software or take your music to play on someone else’s gear.
DJs used to be limited by how much music they could physically take with them. They would need to carefully select their music for the night from their collection of vinyl and CDs.
You no longer have to bring a stack of vinyl with you to perform a DJ set.
With the large size of hard drives, you can now access thousands of tracks. The next level you can take is to begin composing playlists or grouping tracks into crates. This term comes from how DJs used to bring a crate worth of vinyl to use for their sets.
The goal of crates is to reduce the number of visible tracks. For example, having a playlist of “Classics” “Uplifting” “Groovy” can allow you to cut down on search time. Creating playlists for Genres is also another useful way to group top-level genres or even sub-genres.
Be creative with your playlist names. There are no rules. It’s another way to personalise your music library and speed up your workflow on the decks.
The key is to continue to adjust and refine your playlists. Try to keep them reasonable in size. You don’t want to have to scroll endlessly. If you find that the playlist is too big you should try to break it down further into smaller playlists. You can nest playlists within each other much like a folder structure on your PC.
Playlists of past sets can also be a quick way to find a track you know works with another track. If your DJ software doesn’t automatically do this try to make a habit of manually creating these after a set.
Keeping Things Clean
You now have all the tools to organize your music library. There are a few other tips I’d like to add.
As your music library grows you can cut down on the number of tracks in your main database. If you haven’t played a track in a year it’s just clogging up your interface. Remove tracks you’re not excited about so that your selection process becomes easier. This doesn’t mean you should completely delete the file. Remove the track from your master database or move it into a dedicated “Low Use” playlist.
Establishing a routine to edit and organize your collection is important.
Keeping a refined music library will enhance your sets. You don’t want to be playing the same 20 tracks over and over again. Likewise, you don’t want to have thousands of tracks to scroll through.
The other tip is to stick to your regime. If you have established a system make it a part of your DJ life and stay consistent. You’ll come to love how easy it is to find tracks. Additionally, you’ll know only the best is available to you when you compose a set.
If you find that your initial system is overbearing feel free to refine it down by eliminating steps that have not proven useful. For example, if you find yourself never looking at the Album Name or the Cover Art you can remove that step.
You can also be more selective when acquiring tracks. Limit yourself to a manageable amount of tracks that you’re excited to play. It’s much easier to edit the metadata on 10 tracks than 100.
If you have an existing music library I still recommend you start from scratch. You can slowly incorporate older tracks into your new music library and edit them as they’re added. Just make sure all new tracks go through your system before making it into your main music library.
Do What Works For You
You should now be ready to set up your personal DJ music library. Keep in mind it’s your music library. Find a system that works for you. All DJs have their own little quirks when it comes to organising their music. The info in this guide should set you on the right path and give you a strong foundation. Adjust and fine tune to your preferences but stay consistent. Your sets will benefit from the extra work you put in. Good luck and have fun!