An Essential Guide To Organising Your Music Library

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jachim

How you decide to classify your files really depends on on where, how and on what equipment you intend to access them. Pic: jachim.net

Now that we’ve looked at the music files and formats
themselves we can turn our attention to the real meat of organising
your music library, how to classify or label the tracks. This is the
most important but the most arduous part of getting your music library
organised. Your approach to this will impact the usefulness of your
complete library, your workflow from download to deck-load, and the way
new tracks are added to your library.

If you look at the previous articles in this series and the numerous discussion threads on music organisation and labelling that have appeared over the years on the Digital DJ Tips forum
and elsewhere, you’ll see how vocal people are in recommending the way
they organise their tracks and folders. Many people advocate a simple
structure such as “Artist – Title” for the filenames and group them
under genre or date folders of various denominations. Others prefer a
more comprehensive filenaming convention or ignore the folder structure
completely, allowing their operating system or software to take care of
it for them.

Regardless of the recommendations in this article or that from other people, the most important thing is that you classify your music in a way that works for you and your DJ set-up.
This encompasses more than just whether you can be bothered to put a
structure in place. This is about how the library will be used, where
and when it is to be accessed and what you expect to get out of it. This
stuff is more important than whether you choose to rename your files in
a certain way, or what folder names you go for.

The important questions to ask before you begin

Some of this might seem obvious but you can break it down by asking yourself questions like these:

  1. When I DJ, what track attributes or information do I need to help me
    find a track, know when I should use it and whether it will mix in with
    my set plan?
  2. If I am not able to have my entire music library with me to listen
    or DJ with, what track information will help me decide what to take with
    me or how to arrange playlists that I can have?
  3. When I am just listening to my music library, how can I learn more
    about the music tracks and how they might fit together in a mix?
  4. Does the software or hardware I use to DJ or play back music have
    any restrictions or requirements on how my music should be organised?

In each case you’re asking yourself how you will use your music
library in different scenarios. This is really important because it will
only work if your library is classified in a consistent manner that is
adaptable for these differing purposes.

Tiesto

DJ
Tiesto, DJ Tiësto, Tiesto or Tiësto? Mix the spellings and choice of
‘DJ’ or not up and he’d appear in potentially four different places in
your library.

A real-world example: The case of Tïesto

I’ll give you an example. In my library I have a couple of studio
albums, several mixed and unmixed compilations, individual tracks and
also remixed tracks, all by by the world-famous DJ Tiësto. Over time
this artist has has dropped the “DJ” title from his name and spelling
inconsistencies lead to me having a mixture of “Tiesto” and “Tiësto”
labelled across artist, title and album.

This is only a mild irritation when searching for tracks by Tïesto
using a modern computer application but with results being ordered for
both “DJ Tiësto” and “Tiesto” this slowed down my ability to find tracks
as I had to perform an extra step myself once these results came back.

In my main DJ software, Traktor, some fields that are available in my
music library software, iTunes, are not visible at all or vice versa,
so searching for “Tiesto” under Traktor’s remix field comes back with no
results as this has not been populated by iTunes. So if this were an
important field for me I must have this information completed. This is
an example of needing to ensure that I have enough of the basic
information consistently classified so that searches in both
applications work as expected.

When I transfer some or all of these tracks to my mobile phone I
could have the added complication that these tracks could be listed as
having an artist starting with the letters “D” or “T” depending on which
name was used. Thankfully there are features that can help to avoid
these kind of situations (e.g. Album Artist field and smart search) but
the principle is that by consistently classifying the information about
each track, you can avoid many of these pitfalls from the start.

The different places for classification

The need to consistently classify your music applies to the folder
structure, the filenames, the tags inside the files themselves, and
often a separate database kept by your DJ software too! It’s just up to
you to determine the level of detail and classification you want for
each of these.

If you’re storing your library on a USB stick which gets plugged into
a digital controller, then navigating around your collection might be
the main challenge. Search capabilities are limited without a full
keyboard to type on so in this case you will need to create a folder
structure and concise filenames that are not only compatible with the
hardware you use but can be easily navigated using the scroll and push
buttons on the hardware itself. Such a folder structure may well be
based on genre, artist, date or prepared playlists depending on your
needs.

In contrast, most software based DJ systems do not put much if any
reliance on structured folders and filenames. In all cases, however, the
classification of track metadata tags is paramount to how the hardware
and software tools read your music files and how they allow you to
interact with them. Let’s get stuck in, then, by looking more closely at
these.

Folder structure

In the previous article I introduced my approach to music formats
prior to reorganising my music library. I faced another challenge around
filenames and folders. Though I use iTunes to manage my library I had
previously been strict about how I manually structured my folders,
primarily grouping them based on their genre. Over time this system
stopped working, and more worryingly I found that it was of little
benefit to me as I rarely needed to navigate my tracks directly in a
file manager. Added to this I found that catagorising the genre of a
track, and more so the genre of an album, compilation or single release,
didn’t always fit and the effort to do so didn’t add value to my
workflow or my library.

In my case then, in my reorganisation I revised my folder structure
by simplifying and flattening it, allowing the files and individual tags
to do the hard work. I now have ten high-level folders broken down as
follows:

CD Albums

CD Compilations

CD Singles

Download Albums

Download Compilations

Download Singles

Other Albums

Other Compilations

Other Singles

Videos

Under each of these main folders are either folders containing the
whole album/compilation, or group of tracks. The only exception is the
“Download Singles” folder which is split by year from 2006 to 2013 based
on the release date of the track, not the import date. Purchasing
individual music tracks for download is, like most of us, my primary
method of getting music for DJing so my music folder structure has been
streamlined based on source. I don’t need anything more for my needs but
of course yours will probably differ and that’s exactly the point –
make the structure that works for you.

Filenames

What about the filenames of each music track? Again, you will want a
format that works for you. Many people like the simplicity of “Artist –
Title” but if you’re searching for files you may come across duplicates
due to the same track appearing as singles, on albums or in
compilations, so you’ll need to consider the effect of this on your
whole library.

Some of the tools I use such as MP3Tag and Bulk Rename Utility
have really useful features that not only convert the metadata tags
into filenames but can also batch process multiple tracks at a time.
Learning to use these tools effectively will really speed up your
workflow and we’ll look at tools like these in a forthcoming article.
This is one area where PC users have an edge over Mac users, who have a
lack of decent MP3 bulk processing utilities.

For my purposes I have decided to use a slightly more robust
filenaming convention that allows for some of the core tag information
to be presented in the filename itself like this:

Album – Year – Track# – Artist – Title

This format gives me the flexibility to know enough about the track
in isolation from the folder it is contained in but also retain
non-subjective information about the track that will never change.
Obviously, in order to construct this filename the information must come
from somewhere… the tags!

Tags and metadata

Metadata is simply “information about data”, and in our case
information about the music tracks we own, play and DJ with. These tags
are elements we can use or create to describe different attributes of
these music tracks. So, for example, we all know that each track is
called something, its name or title. It also has someone who created it,
the artist.

The artist and title are the two most common tags in every music file
but how might we consistently classify them and what about all the
other tags that we might have at our disposal? I’m going to share some
suggestions and preferences on the tags I use but again, you will want
to determine what you need and how much effort you’re willing to put in
to get it right.

Title

Probably the most important tag is the name or title of the music
track. This is usually the existing name but it often gets sullied by
other information. The biggest culprit is the addition of “(feat.
ARTIST)”. In my view, there should be no artists mentioned in the title
of a track as that’s what the artist field is for. As DJs, however, we
know that there are different flavours of the same-titled track, known
as remixes. You may wish to separate the remix in a different tag but
for my purposes and to ensure compatibility with multiple applications I
add the remix in square brackets after the title e.g. “Chasing Summers
[R3hab & Quintino Remix]”. Some songs/tracks have a subtitle in
normal curved brackets hence I have chosen to use square brackets for
all remixes.

Artist

Knowing who produced or made the track can help you find tracks by
the same person or group. When artists collaborate then you may want to
know who the individuals are. Although there is a separate Composer
field that could be used for this, it’s often simpler to have the main
and featured artists together in the artist tag. For example, “Far East
Movement featuring Cover Drive”.

It sounds obvious but this should be the year the track was released.
Sometimes this can be complicated by tracks being released or found on
compilations years after the original release date. It’s up to you how
pedantic you want to be but I’ve found it useful to include the full
release date rather than just the year in this tag. For example, the
track “Don’t You Worry Child” has the year set as “2012-10-05” in both
the tag and the filename. I know from experience and quirks with Traktor
that the year tag can get truncated so by having it in full I have
converted this to the release date visible in iTunes and retained all
information in multiple places.

Album

iTunes and many other applications use this tag to refer to a
collection of tracks by one artist or the name of a compilation. For
DJ’s you should think of this as the release name i.e. the name given to
the single or set of tracks under that single release. This will ensure
that different mixes are contained under the same release and that you
can group associated tracks accordingly. The album tag can therefore
range from compilations e.g. “Club Life Vol. 2, Miami” to single
releases such as “Titanium”. Consistency in the way you name sequential
releases also helps to sort your library.

Track

This is the track number relative to the total tracks on the release
or album. It doesn’t have much use in DJing unless you are playing
tracks in a particular sequence or want to play an entire album in
order.

Genre

This field is very useful for DJs so do not rely on the music
download store telling you what the genre is – quite often it’s
misguided or inaccurate. Some of us dissect our music to the finest
levels of sub-genres just so we can play a varied set. The problem is
that genres can be very subjective and with musical styles changing and
evolving over time the genre of a track from 10 or 20 years ago may not
fit its description today or that of tomorrow.

You can of course decide that you will attribute this field to your
opinion of what a genre is and this is fine so long as you know what it
means and are consistent with your classification. Having too many
sub-genres makes some tracks difficult to place and reduces some of the
variety in track selection, but having too few genres makes it difficult
to differentiate the style and fit of the track into your set. Is it
progressive dubstep or aquatic urban house?

Also known as tempo, this field is accessible in iTunes but often
populated by another application through track analysis. Usually you
shouldn’t need to amend this field manually but it is important that you
have access to it when DJing. With breakbeat music such as drum and
bass and dubstep the tempos can often be inaccurately measured as either
half or double what they actually are so make sure you use your DJ
software to correct this before you start sorting on the BPM field. If
you only play a certain style of music the tempo of these tracks are
likely to be within a specific range e.g. 120-130 BPM, and this makes it
easier to spot errors and find tracks that don’t fit.

Another really useful tag for DJs who mix harmonically. Popular
software such as Mixed In Key can analyse your tracks and determine the
musical key, and with Traktor and Virtual DJ also now doing this
automatically there’s no excuse not to have some key information in your
music library.

Rating

Most DJ guides recommend using this field to represent the energy of a
track so you know what effect it will have on the set you are trying to
build. This is a good idea but there’s nothing stopping you from
putting the energy of a track into another field such as the Comments.
Either way, you should use this field to give some comparative
information of how good or powerful the track is.

Personally I use this field to indicate how much I like the track or
how popular I perceive it to be and whether I would enjoy playing this
for my audience. Ultimately it’s my preference and one of the reasons
for this is that when I’m not DJing I like to be able to use this to
formulate playlists based on tracks I genuinely like. I use two stars
for an average track, one for something I would never want to play or
that is not even a proper music track eg an intro in an album, three for
a good track, four for a really great tune and five stars for something
truly special.

Don’t be afraid to use the full range of stars. That’s what they’re
there for and just because you have tracks rated as one or two stars it
doesn’t mean you should delete them. Likewise, something must be wrong
if you have too many five star tracks.

Release Date / Date Added

These are two separate tags and they need to be treated that way to
get the best out of them. A musical timeline is an important thing in
DJing because quite often we’re eager to play our newest tunes to the
crowd or the tunes that are most popular with the crowd and current
media ie upfront tracks. The danger is in confusing something we’ve just
recently discovered with something that is actually new.

The Release Date is closely associated with the Year tag and as such
tells us when it was first available for public access. I frequently
download tracks which have been requested for a gig but which are a few
years old. If I insisted on organising my library purely based on import
date then I may end up with lots of new tracks (new to me) that are
actually old or unknown to the audience.

Both fields are therefore useful and need to be managed accordingly
based on what you’re looking to get out of the set you’re playing. Don’t
rely on just the date that tracks were added to your library or just
their release date, use both.

Comments, Grouping, Description, Composer

iTunes has a few other fields which can be used to filter and
organise your tracks. Again, you should decide on a consistent way you’d
like to classify their use. The Comments tag is an obvious choice to
put your thoughts on the track, describe its structure, components or
just say what you like about it, basically anything to help you recall
how the track sounds and what it might mix well with. This tag is also
usually accessible from other applications such as Traktor but check
with your equipment before committing to using a specific field or
format. The Grouping tag is useful to pull together tracks of a certain
type or add another level of definition based on what you need. Other
fields that iTunes allows free text in are Composer and Description
(found under Video properties). Personally I use these tags as follows:

  • Grouping – Source of music file e.g. CD, download, music store, album etc
  • Comments – Energy level of track relative to the genre,
    rated 1 to 3. A house track rated at 3 will not be equivalent to a Drum
    and Bass track rated at 1 (or 3). They’re completely different styles
    and so the energy levels cannot be equated in the same way
  • Description – Useful for additional information about the track or album eg subtitle or DJ mix
  • Composer – Unused apart from pre-filled information

Depending on the software you are using you may have other tags at
your disposal. Traktor, for example, has a Comments 2, Producer and
Remixer fields. These are useful tags if you have sufficient information
to get the best out of them. Just be aware that some of these tags are
not written to the files themselves (they may be kept in a separate
application-specific database) or will not appear or be accessible in
other applications. You will need to assess when and where you need
access to which tags and whether they are available throughout your
workflow and usage requirements. Sticking to the most common tags will
certainly help you with this.

Finally…

I’ve presented my system here mainly to make all of this more real
and to ensure it’s not just an exercise in dry theory. As I said, it
works for me – the same system probably wouldn’t work exactly for you.
The important things are preparation (hence there have been several
articles getting you ready for this one), and knowledge of why you’re
doing this in the first place (hence the questions at the start of this
article). Then, an understanding of where your music is tagged
(filename, physical folders and playlists, software databases etc) will
help you to work out where you should do your organising.

It’s important not to get too bogged down in all of this; remember
that vinyl DJs could put records basically in boxes, and then in order
within those boxes, and that was it. Anything you manage to achieve
digitally past this is simply a bonus. And the single most important
thing of all is that no music organisation system is a substitute for
actually knowing your music, and knowing it well. If you’re spending
time classifying your music and concentrating so hard that you can’t
even have any music on while you do it… well, that’s madness and shows
that you’re thinking too much about the system and too little about the
music. Keep a balance! Until next time…

• André is a UK-based part-time mobile DJ with over 15 years’ experience.

– Digital DJ Tips

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