Alphabetically? Chronologically? All thrown together in one massive folder called ‘Jamz’? We speak to some DJs about how they organise their music collections.
Attack readers come from many different backgrounds and demographics but we are all united by one thing – we all love music. And many of us have huge music collections that stretch out across multiple hard drives, USBs, vinyl and CDs. Keeping on top of your collection is essential to DJs and collectors alike, but how do we all do it?
Do you keep your vinyl in chronological order or alphabetical? Or by genre? Or by label? What about your digital collection, do you have a naming system or filing protocol? How do you organise your Rekordbox so you can find tracks quickly and easily? In an era of near-limitless music, keeping your music organised has become something of a challenge. So we decided to ask some DJs how they organised their music collections – and this is what they told us.
Thomaas Banks (Psychemagik)
With digital it varies. I still use an older version of iTunes and within that are hundreds of folders and then subfolders. Compilations and albums have their own folders, EPs and singles not so much. Then I’ll go through everything, picking what’s going to be in the “crate”. Then all of those get put into even more DJ dedicated folders categorized by BPMs and style/genre. Then beyond that its all memory. I have thought about trying to do them by year too or maybe even 2 parts of each year, but that’s for another day!
Vinyl is way more relaxed. They are grouped by genre then roughly oldest to newest from left to right. Then there’s a separate box that has my current jams in there. No labelling or anything with vinyl, you can tell what record it is by the different shaped scuffs on the sleeve. Itunes can’t do that. Ha!
I store my records in boxes because I hate getting dust on them. Then it’s by year – label – country, or artist and genre. For digital music, it’s date – genre. For edits, I only use the titles of the track.
Black Girl, White Girl
Organisation is key and it has been essential to find our own way of doing it that actually works for us. Our music collection is vast, but not exactly categorized perfectly. We work with two different systems to sort and navigate our collection. First, all our digital files are categorised temporally, so that means by the year, month, and week the record was picked up. As our entire collection is digital, it’s fundamental to always make sure all the crucial metadata is complete and accurate. Having all the tags filled out makes it pretty straightforward to unearth the records we need at any moment in time.
This works really well for us, and an added perk is that this method also acts as a sort of time capsule, because you can go back to a particular week or month, and find all the tracks you were into at that moment, which can be really fun. Humans naturally associate music with moments and memories so, for us, this type of approach works quite organically.
I organise all my music and playlists in iTunes, then I import those playlists into Rekordbox. I like to categorise tracks using keywords and tags that I have made up like ‘Chunky’, ‘Jackin’, ‘Closing, etc., then when I’m playing I’ll search for these words on the CDJ’s. I also list my music in order of date added and have set up ’smart’ playlists on iTunes which is a godsend. iTunes will automatically add tracks into these playlists based on the parameter rules you set, for example I have smart playlists for styles, artists, keywords etc.
To be honest, we’re terrible at organising. Or at least, physically. Our records are scattered over 2 homes and our studio and structured by a kind of genre-bending pan-alphabetical post-gig algorithm. In other words: it’s a mess. There will be priceless records next to thrift shops pickups and slow soul next to slamming techno. The good thing we found out though: When you’re sorting records for a set, you’ll always come across that record you didn’t think about taking and it’ll be exactly that record that really makes the night. It probably has to as well, because the record you were looking for in the first place was nowhere to be found.
Our digital music is gathering giga-dust in the download folders of 2 hard drives, 3 SSD’s and a dropbox storage account, so it’s safe, but we’re not librarians so by the time we’re thinking about organising, there are already way too many other things on our plate to really be bothered with it.
The best part of our method of non-organisation is probably in our heads. My mind works like a catalogue and together with Lars’ approach on how to describe the songs for which he can’t remember the track titles, we’re sorted. It’s fool-proof and even though it won’t win any awards, it goes to show this disorganisation itself has it’s pro’s as well.
I have been through so many different ways of organising my digital files. I used to have folders in Rekordbox labeled: +5, +4, +3, +2, +1, 0, -1, -2, -3, -4, -5. The numbers denote the energy level or time slot I would play in. A 5 would be very high energy, 3 would be solid main stage tracks, 0 is ambient. The “+” means a mood that would be more bright and “-“ would be darker. So, if I was looking for an Industrial Techno banger I would look in my “-4” folder.
Having it organised like that was cool, but I think I play too many different genres and a mix of new and old, that it just became easier to find tracks in playlists pertaining to the genre or ‘vibe’. For example, I have a playlist with Schranz and Tribal because the BPM and rhythm is similar and it’s easy to switch between those genres. The folders don’t need to be 100% genre specific. My ‘Acid House’ folder is mainly Acid House (what a surprise), but also has tracks from other genres that blend well with my selection.
The first step for digital and vinyl is to organise the music by release dates. The second step for the vinyl is sorting them in bigger crates like Hip Hop, Jazz, Organic Grooves, World Music, House, Techno, and Electro. Sometimes it can also be sorted by label or artist, depends on the amount. The third step it’s selecting them for a gig and in that case, we use little colour stickers that represent moods and genre.
For the digital files, the work takes a bit more time as in some periods a lot of promos come in and you have to be really selective. We usually sort them by date, second by artist, label, and genre, third. Then the final ‘gig’ step is to create some playlists named ‘Soft, Medium, Hard, Classic/Killers’, and ‘Vocals/Acappellas’.
For vinyl, I give each shelf in my Kallax unit a broad theme based on its genre. For example Deep house, edits, garage, 4×4 house + techno, broken techno & electro etc. I try not to get too clinical or sort them any more specifically within each shelf because I like the element of surprise when it comes to flicking through records during a mix/listening session.
With digital, I have the same sort of genre categorisation system but I get very granular with the sounds, I’ve got around 20 different folders just for variations of house & techno and there’s around 40 in total. My digital collection grows quite quickly so I’ve found this is the best way to catalogue it as it comes in, however, I only use these playlists as an emergency last resort when I’m playing out. From these main playlists, I create a folder with sub-playlists on a gig-by-gig basis based on where I think the set will go. This is influenced by the club, my set-time, who else is on the lineup etc. I also have a playlist for every month that helps me put together my radio show & is a nice way to snapshot what I was into at a particular time.
I organise both my physical and digital library selections using a similar method, based on mood. I use my own familiar terms for categorising the personality of tracks ranging from descriptions like ‘4×4 glittering’ to ‘peak time rave bangers’ (sadly a very neglected and lonely category at the moment for apparent reasons) through ‘pitch down or up’, designated for beatless tracks where the mids serve as layers over driving percussive tracks. Recently, I started chopping stems of tracks too and applying a more hybrid DJing or live approach which allows me to strip down / isolate my favourite parts – purely from a frequency dynamic perspective.
I always keep a safe stack on deck as well with obvious reaches, like breakbeats/electro or vocal shots. Moreover, I tend to identify with memories from particular sets, so it’s important for me to also keep a digital backlog of tracklists from previous mixes for any sudden inclinations to reproduce key nostalgic moments. It’s never entirely the same set to set, but there’s something very special about carrying over the inspiration from one setting to another.
For years I DJ’ed off Ableton rather than CDJs. My CDJ USB setup is pretty basic: just folders by genre and that’s it, but my Ableton setup was born out of live shows. I find tracks by genre and scroll by artist. It’s a faff and I’ve got to start using playlists more, but the issue is I very, very rarely plan sets. Also, I really only started using CDJs about 2 years ago so I could do b2b sessions!
The Ableton setup is a proper DJ setup though. 8 channels, of which 6 tend to be tracks. Usually about 120 sessions so at anytime I have 700+ odd tracks at hand plus about 200 loops, samples, and acapellas.
It allows for jumping around in tracks a lot more and looping parts on the fly in a way that is less clunky than CDJs. Lots of effects: I have a controller (Akai Midimix) which has 8 faders for main volume, 3 sets of assignable rotaries which are either track or send effects, switchable to filter-style EQing (I prefer that to mixer style). Tracks are colour coded by genre with those that work well grouped next to each other and overall organised by tempo – slow to fast from the top to bottom.
My records are organised by genre in alphabetical order by artist / label. Digital is a bit of a mess! It’s loosely organised by genre or specific playlists for radio or gigs or vibe.
My vinyl collection is in a right state! Luckily it’s not large enough for me to never be able to find anything but over the years things have got pretty random. I’ve got nicely kept sections for lesser played stuff like library music, soundtracks, my ECM collection, IDM, hop hop and drum & bass. But for all my house, disco, soul and funk, stuff which I’m digging out more often for either gigs before covid or for my sofa session livestreams it’s pretty much all mixed up. There’s 8 cubes where I try and keep new vinyl and the most often played releases so I generally only have to flick through those to find things.
For digital I still use iTunes as my master library and I think I’ll struggle to find a good replacement for it when it gets fully retired. I try and keep as much of my music in lossless format as possible so I have my entire library on an external hard drive as it is pretty large. I keep the iTunes set to sort by Date Added so new imports are always at the top. For sorting music for playing out I use Rekordbox so drag new music from iTunes into Rekordbox for making playlists. I’m used to doing creating playlists by gig from days of still burning CD’s so generally all my playlists are just a club name/location and date. I’ve never got around to creating playlists by genre or sub genre of music so most times, if I want to play a track that isn’t in the particular playlist I’ve created for that gig, I’ll do a search on the CDJ or a lot of time I know which gig playlist to find it in.
Keeping records in order is an ongoing project in my household. I’d like to say that I have an impeccable system but things get mixed up with time, radio shows and parties. Moments and reactions that music provides informs greatly how I think about records, but it’s unfortunately not a sustainable way to keep track of the music.
Essentially, everything is organised by style and by key labels that are prominent in my collection. I also save a few shelves/piles for records that I played recently – this is where it can get dangerously messy after a while if I don’t take time to put them back in their place. Even though I’m not a great archivist and that I sometimes feel disorganised, I console myself by believing that some records are meant to be forgotten about for a while, only to be rediscovered later in my very own collection.
Ashley Beedle & Jo Wallace
I made Ash archive all his vinyl records when I first met him – Excel spreadsheets and correct keywords – and that’s an ongoing project. Digital is dead easy. Folders with genres – then artist, title, label and keyworded. We don’t use Rekordbox for archiving. For BPM and key we’ve got DJ Pro. Same with my vinyl collection and digital for the labels.
Ash’s 7″ & 12″ Reggae collection and House 12″s are filed separately. Same with my 7″ collections – Northern Soul, 60’s RnB, 70’s crossover soul, Reggae – all catalogued within genres by artist alphabetically. However, when I played out, my 7″ playbox is in the order of set play. So warm up incl. midtempo, then a divider, floor fillers, divider, enders, divider and get out of jail 7″s – that’s your 100 box.
Through the years I have developed my own system to keep music easy and organised. When it comes to digital, each month, I go and search for different sources of music and I create an ITunes folder for each month of the year. Inside this folder I create around 30 playlists in which I categorise the tracks into playlists that most fit the vibe. I divide these list by groups or tasks I need to complete, and then genres.
On the other hand, when the job is to dig physical records, I visit record stores around the city of Barcelona and other cities when I get to travel. I also buy records online in digital shops. I like to look at each store and determinate what they are best at and dig there, or look to their own independent labels. When I get home I add them to my collection on Discogs and record them on digital. I store my records on 12 shelves, 2 for each category: Techno, Breaks, Acid, Electro, Rave, Minimal house, Micro house, Dub, Deep House, UK House, Retro/Italo/German/Dutch House, Old and 90s Records. And I organise them from the newest to oldest purchase, or by label.
For records, the general collection is organised alphabetically, by artist. But also split into House, Techno, Disco, Classics, Acapellas/DJ Tools and just “general other stuff” like pop, hip hop, whatever. For digital, every record is held in a folder relating to the month I bought it or made it or edited it etc. and then added into a main folder that feeds my Rekordbox.
Once in Rekordbox, nearly every track has loop points or hot cues added in some way shape or form. In Rekordbox, each folder is listed in the order of a set so, there’s around 10 folders, starting with Acapellas / FX, then bonus beats, then warm up stuff, progressing through disco into house into tracks I always keep (under ‘DEFF’ for ‘definitely always keeping this’) into Techno, then tracks by me, remixes by me, edits by me, tracks on my label and ending with classics. The final folder is for the most recent stuff. Every year or so I re organise the rekordbox, assigning the stuff I really like to the relevant folder, or deleting it.