Let's face it, it's not good to be a digital music DJ if you're doing a gig and you don't have 100% confidence in the music you brought with you. It's also not good if you're there, looking to queue your next track but you can't seem to find it in your music collection...you're sure you brought it with you but you just don't know what folder it ended up in! Stressful.
Now, if you spin vinyl this discussion isn't for you. You have your crates and you can go searching through them easily right there on the spot. On the other hand, as a digital music DJ, it's very easy for your music collection to grow quickly, become unwieldly and before you know it...well, you can't find anything. You have to stay on top of it (and more than you think).
If you're like me, I tend to want to keep my collection of music pretty organized applying multiple levels of classification such as genre, artist, and album. Keep in mind, I've spent *years* managing my music, classifying it, re-classifying it, grouping it, etc. The good news is that despite the endless hours I spent doing that, now I have a system that works. Consistently.
What leads into today's discussion is that although a structure like the one I just mentioned may work in some instances (for example you're trying to find a track by a particular artist) it really doesn't work well at a gig...that's unless you've memorized every artist you have music from and where that music is. Feasible but not practical and certainly not efficient as you'd be scrolling and clicking into each artist folder to find the track you want. In fact, it becomes more complicated if you use USB sticks where you, the DJ, become dependent on your controller or digital turntable to scroll through your music collection and find specific tracks.
In this article we're going to talk about one type of approach you can use to prepare your music collection for a gig. More importantly, given the prominence of Pioneer equipment in the DJ field and the required use of Rekordbox, this discussion is specific to using Rekordbox to prepare your music collection and make it gig-ready, despite Rekordbox's limitations.
Rekordbox is a powerful software program that is a must for DJs that use Pioneer DJ equipment like myself. Rekordbox can be used to search for music files stored on your computer and create playlists, analyse music files, adjust beat grids, tempos and other metadata in your tracks. This is not to mention setting cues and loop points for them. If you're a Pioneer-equipment-using-DJ then Pioneer *requires* that you use Rekordbox to analyse your music so that it can be played on your Pioneer CDJ.
Possibly the best thing about Rekordbox is the powerful analysis that it can apply on each and every song in your collection. From the perspective of music management, the features are likely on par if not better with other music player software where things like sorting, grouping and managing metadata (or tags) on your music come as standard features. Rekordbox also carries a very important feature whereby you can choose your CDJ settings and preferences and export them onto your USB stick. This means that when you go to a gig at a club and you find yourself sitting in front of a set of CDJs that are not yours, you don't have to worry too much...plug your USB stick into the CDJ, load your preferences and...voila! Everything looks and feels the way it does on your CDJs at home. I mention this feature specifically because we will be discussing it further in this article as part of making your music collection gig-ready.
Just like there are great things that can be said about any software, there also some areas where Rekordbox falls short. One of those areas is exactly what I just got done highlighting: preferences. You're probably saying to yourself "wait, you just mentioned how great Rekordbox is because of its personalization features and now you're telling me that it falls short there too??". Understandable how you might be confused...let me explain. The specific personalization feature where Rekordbox falls short is on the visualization options which allows you specify how what descriptive metadata (ID3 tags) you want to see next to each track when you are looking at your list of tracks on your CDJ. The option is very restrictive and only allows you to display one additional column of information next to the track name. Well, that might work for some DJs but most of us know, there's usually two or three things that you want to know about the track you're playing besides the name of the track. For example, it's easy to imagine that you might want to see the genre and also the beats per minute (BPM) of a track. Rekordbox doesn't allow for that and you can only pick one tag. Very frustrating.
Fortunately, Rekordbox can be fooled despite it's weakness but doing so requires a bit of work on your part and another software program that I haven't talked about so far. That software is called Mp3tag. When you look on Rekordbox at the tags that it allows you to choose from, you'll see most of the common ones including title, artist, album, BPM, genre etc. Fortunately Rekordbox also offers one other column besides these common ones called 'Comment'. This tag is important since we're going to use it to combine whatever information we want to see into it. Although this could be done with any other column, if you've taken special care of updating all your ID3 tags on your mp3 files and have them just the way you want them, you won't want to overlay them with new information. Most of us don't bother with the 'Comment' tag and this means that it's the right for the job.
In this particular example, I've listed (below) the fields that I care about seeing next to the track name. This is because as a DJ not only do I play tracks that are close in BPM if not the same, but I also try to stick to harmonic keys that work well between tracks. Last but not least, I look at the energy level to make sure I'm not switching up or dumming down the energy in the set inadvertently (basically I try to stay in the same range unless I intentionally need to work the energy in either direction). Most music analysis software programs for DJs can be used to analyze tracks and will include a feature to detect the beats per minute. Instead, I run my tracks through a program called Mixed In Key which detects not only the beats per minute but the harmonic key of the track in Camelot notation and the energy level. This is important criteria for me during my set so having this feature in a software program like Mixed In Key is and allows me to categorize my tracks in those dimensions as well.
To circumvent the Rekordbox limitation of choosing only one additional tag being displayed on the CDJ, I use the Mp3tag software to write the concatenated values of BPM, harmonic key and energy level into the 'Comment' tag. Mp3tag has a powerful feature that lets you use expressions and formulas to calculate or produce tag values. When you concatenate the appropriate tags (those are referred to in the ID3 documentation as bpm, initial key, group description), assuming they have the values you need, this ends up looking something like this:
124 - 07A - 7
Now, what happens is that when I bring my track back into Rekordbox I choose to display the 'Comment' tag next to the track title, as shown in this screenshot.
When I load up my USB stick into the CDJ, and load my preferences, I look at the track collection which shows the information I need. I've provided a screenshot to show you exactly what you should expect to see.
- Harmonic Key
- Energy Level