Digital DJs: how do you organise music?

Firstly, before I write anything, I’d ask you to go ands first read this really inspiring interview with Avalon Emerson, an American DJ based in SF. She organises (and sub-organises) her collection in all kinds of interesting ways. I’ve come back to this interview numerous times.

I’ve found my organisational methods seem to be constantly shifting and changing according to the needs of the gigs I do. This is partly because I get booked to play a lot of different styles. Since the end of the pandemic I’ve done sets based around the Paradise Garage, Studio 54, Paul McCartney, New York disco, Downtown New York (early 80s NY basically). These are the ones I can think off the top of my head. So they all make you look at your collection in different ways and how you organise it.

So the core crate that I use is called PLAYOUT. I start a new ones of these each January. This contains all the newest releases, plus new old discoveries, any new edits I’ve made, and also old tracks that I want to revive; been playing When You Love Someone by Daphne a lot recently, for example (PS Daphne was Danny Krivit’s girlfriend at the time!).

But then I also have DISCO PLAYOUT, AFRO/LATIN BANGERS, HOUSE BANGERS (I’d maybe lean on this one towards the end of a night when I want to play some more familiar tracks), DISCO NOT DISCO, AFTER HOURS, DOWNTEMPO JAMS (Not funk exactly, but stuff like I Wanna Do Something Freaky To You by Leon Haywood). In total, I have nearly 100 categories, but not all of them are loaded up on my USB.

I haven’t played vinyl for many years. I started using CDJs in 2001, when I was still resident at Fabric, because they were the first people I knew who had 1000s. I carried a box of vinyl around with me for years, though, like a comfort blanket, until I probably stopped doing that in about 2005. About seven years ago I moved over to RekordBox and haven’t used any format since. I sold my record collection in April 2019. Getting rid of almost all my vinyl completely changed my relationship to it, too, so I only buy records if there’s no way of getting a digital copy. I buy way more CD singles now than 12-inches or vinyl LPs.

It’s honestly just so much more fun playing digitally than playing with vinyl and when you look at where François K is going with his stems DJing sets, I think it makes playing vinyl look laughably ancient, like making tea by putting a pan on an open fire rather than pressing the button on a kettle. I found @papaloudj’s comments really interesting in the Rate Thyself AS A DJ thread, because the one thing you have to really think about so much more is organisation when you play digitally cos I have about all these categories that are constantly evolving when I DJ, and, as I said, I have a main PLAYOUT folder.

I also write the artist name into the title section (D-TRAIN - You’re The One For Me) so that I can work out what I’m looking at much quicker. It really forces you to learn songs much better than playing vinyl, because you no longer have those visual cues to aid you. I’m currently using one of these Samsung HDs, which has 500gb on it (it’s currently holding over 7,000 songs on it!):

Remembering names/titles etc is definitely where vinyl will always beat digital hands down, so you have to use other techniques to help you, but many’s the time when I can’t think of the name or title of something I want to play.

So I was curious, how do YOU organise everything if you play digitally?

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@GrimsbyRiviera how many tracks do you end up with in your PLAYOUT folders?

I try and keep the numbers down or it can get ridiculous. These days, I try and keep it to about 350-400 tracks.

I just read the Avalon Emerson article. Next level science. But so much that it’s back to being an art!

Good thread Bill. I like you, ‘did a Brewster’ as it’s now known, and finally sold the last of my collection earlier this year (bar a couple hundred rarities and Weatherall bits), as i hadn’t played vinyl in years, having transitioned to RB about 2016, when i finally got round to buying some CDJ’s. I love the versatility and ability to edit tracks on the fly.

I don’t play out that regularly so just tend to create playlists for each radio show or gig, plus then have some staple playlists like CHUGGERS, DISCO NOT DISCO, SEX DUNGEON, etc.

All will be in ascending BPM order and, as @ElZorro said in the other thread, I’m much more conscious of harmonic mixing, although that can be at the detriment of tracks which would work just as well, or better, that aren’t quite as harmonious, so have been consciously moving away from that recently.

I also try and add the sleeve pic where possible to provide that visual aid when scrolling through.

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100% on the harmonic thing. I get addicted to it.

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< Optimistically adds SEX DUNGEON to categories >

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Optimistic crate titles…great thread!

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I tend to find whatever I categorise or playlist doesn’t really work for me as they don’t sound like say I put a track in fire or peak and then after listening back for future it doesn’t feel the same. I tend to just create playlist from my collection at time of event or session. And I’m usually way off in my selections. Proving that for me it’s more about feeling at the time.

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I have also switched to mainly digital this year, mainly due to being asked to dj for a friend’s party and not wanting to to cart boxes of records and turntables down to London. I then decide to sell things that I already had digitally and managed to save enough in a month to buy 2 XDJ700s.

I have some regular playlists with genres and moods, but one thing I have found incredibly useful in Rekordbox is the intelligent playlists. I have some BPM ones set up in the range of 5, so <90, 90-95, 95-100 etc. I have a tag that I have called beatamix that I tag anything that is beat mixable. The rule for each intelligent playlist is that tags include beatamix, and the BPM is in the range of 90-95 for example.

Read the Avalon interview for super detail on this front. You’d learn a lot (I certainly did!).

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by artwork colour originally, but I find sorting by BPM makes for more cohesive sounding/easy grab DJ sets.

Here’s my complimenting Vinyl collection…

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It’s where I got the idea from, it is a really interesting interview, I read it when it first came out then it has lurked in my subconscious until moving to digital. I like where she says; ‘I’m obsessed with optimization and I think there can always be a better way to do something’. I am also obsessed by this, the geeky bit of my brain, which is probably most of it, gets genuinely excited by being able to improve and streamline a process in any type of area.

This is absolutely fascinating to read about and I can see the huge benefits of moving to digital if you’re DJing out regularly and even more so if it’s your living. Amazing to think you’ve not been a vinyl DJ for 17 years Bill. Imagine if I’d told you that when we first met!

I could never get my head around the digital files side of it actually largely because I was unwilling to devote the time to sorting out my files in the ways mentioned above. I also find buying files disposable probably because I didn’t organise them properly. It’s just a personal preference thing too. I like physical product.

Now my DJing days are over I listen to and buy music in a different way now. Way more focused on albums, and I buy CDs more too (they’re often so absurdly cheap!) Also what I want to listen to sitting down at home is different to what I’d want to hear at a party.

That said, I do regularly feel like selling my collection and just doing high quality streaming. Howler I admire your fortitude! But I go back to the enjoyment I get from the physical product - books, records, CDs, flicking through things I can hold and feel and read.

Some years ago I was going through a bad patch and “in therapy”. I’d quit DJing and sold a chunk of records but felt like a bit of me was really missing - and it was pointed out to me that’s because a bit of me was missing, records have been a big part of my life and my collection is a small part of my personality - why deny it if you enjoy buying records.

Interesting thread anyway. :+1:

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Sorry to ramble on … to add, is there a danger that digital DJing can make you lazy - sticking to certain keys and BPMs? I’ve always found four hours of perfect mixing at roughly the same tempo incredibly dull to listen to and dance too. It like it when it’s messy and unpredictable, tempos changing. Does digital encourage this too? It probably does but just throwing it out there!

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This last point from @jolyon is why I don’t tend to categorise things in Rekordbox, particularly in BPM range. I’m scared of being led by the tech in playing only a certain tempo or style. I’d much rather play with feeling and judge the room / crowd for what to choose next. That said, its obviously good housekeeping to organise thousands of tracks and I do have a few playlists, but you can get too niche with naming them so I generally try keep it simple with labels like: Downtempo/Balearic/Chill, Disco, House, Bangers etc but I don’t lean on these for what to play mid set, more as a library when preparing for a gig.

One thing I would say about harmonic mixing is I find when you match things by the key you can create a really varied set (styles of music) even if it’s in a similar tempo range. And you get that real serendipity of mixes sounding incredible with tunes you might not have thought would go together.

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There’s obviously a danger in that, but I’ve always tended to move up and down the BPM in a fairly measured way anyway, not necessarily from a mixing POV, but just to keep changing the style and tempo. I’ll occasionally make a swift, more dramatic change, but I don’t do it that often. Plus I tend to move in and out of different crates anyway depending on what/where I’m playing.

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One thing I have learned over the years is to have a very small number of key tracks that I have to shoehorn in somehow and to play them the moment the oportunity arises on the night, not to save them for the right moment. Sometimes the right moment happens by playing them.

With vinyl I loved the feeling of flying by the seat of your pants, having of a very limited selection of things to choose from. When it was going well it was like having a magic box of goodies that kept on giving, when it was going badly it was torture!

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I asked Man Power a very similar question last week (shameless plug): https://bestpromos4eva.blogspot.com/2022/11/really-big-questions-with-man-power.html

I’ve got one of them Samsung SSDs with folders by genre: Ambient, Balearic, DANCE, Christmas, Rock, Pop, Weird, etc., then I’ve mirrored those folders in Serato as crates with sub folders here and there.