Know your collection intimately ... and why

I notice a lot of questions lately, even more than before, about automated systems not doing what they are supposed to do. Like BPM’s being wrong (in some cases), HD/SSD’s being “limited” to 1 or 2 TB, cue points not being where they are supposed to.

Let me start off by saying that if you have a tool, it should perform as good as possible. But at the end of the day it’s still a tool. The primary caretaker of a DJ collection is you, the DJ.

Now, I know the trappings of the internet and digital music. It is SO easy to acquire massive numbers of tracks. With no limitations it is equally easy to store them in your collection.

Looking back to my vinyl days, cost was prohibitive, you thought 3 times about 1 record before buying it. Very hard earn dollars spent only on the nicest of tracks that you just KNEW you had to have. Space was prohibitive too. 100 records (12" vinyl) already took up a significant part of your bookshelves or floor space in crates. Weight was inhibitive as well. You did NOT want to carry your entire vinyl collection to a gig. Too big, too heavy and too big a bitch to sort through in a live situation.

So, you bought only what you really, really, really wanted, sorted your collection according to your own system (artist name, track name, bpm, energy level, genre, whatever) and you selected a limited number of tracks to physically take with you to a gig.

Enter the CD, cost still high, but much smaller and lighter - especially without the jewel case. So easier to store and carry around. Less need to prepare properly as you could have it all with you and decide on the fly.

And now we have all these wonderful tools. Stuff your DJ software with 100k tracks, let bpm, key and beatgrid be automatically analyzed. Sort it with one click in any order you like. Smart playlists let you find tracks that match the criteria you set, even for tracks you added since you made the smart playlist.

So, all is well and better than it ever was, then?

Well … not quite.

Too often I see DJ’s spending a lot (too much?) time trying to find the next track, trying to figure out what the specifics of that track are, deciding how to best transition. Looking for a track in genre X, with a key of Y and BPM between A and B yields not a handful of well-known options, nor 10-20 still somewhat familiar tunes, but often hundreds of tunes. Many of which it is impossible to know the details from.

In the vinyl days you’d know every track you owned intimately. Even in the days before key detection you knew if two tracks sounded well together. You knew each intro/outro/break, all the vocals/lyrics. You’d know every tiny scratch even (don’t play that mix beyond 4 minutes cause there is a small tick). And you’d make decisions on what to play next mostly within your own head. Because you knew everything about your (core) collection. You didn’t bring more than about twice the amount of music needed, still plenty to be creative, but limited enough to know them all extremely well. You didn’t have to make decisions about a track being playable, because you only had tracks that were highly usable in your collection and in your crate. And you had selected the tracks that would go together well with many of the other tracks you’d selected.

Sure, sometimes you’d go “AH! I wish I had brought that track”, but you’d have plenty of alternatives and moved on. Less time spent crate digging as in your mind you already knew which track to play next, you’d only need to find it in it’s regular spot. More time spent watching and interacting with the folks dancing. Picking up on those cues about their reaction, giving you a better grip on where to go next with your track selection.

My advise, especially to younger/starting DJ’s, is to not let yourself be blind-sided by the ease of collecting all the music you can, but to curate what you let into your (core) collection and make sure you know that collection intimately.

This begins with preparations when inputting it into your collection. Not bulk importing 1000s of tracks in one go, having the software analyze and be done.

Rather track by track preparation of tags, album art, genre (your genre choice, not what a DJ pool or whomever else calls it!), key (if you are musical enough to double check mixed in key yourself).

Next small batch/individual adding to the collection in your DJ software. Here you listen multiple times, setting your cue points and loops, checking and if necessary adjusting beat grid, adding/changing tags, adding your track to one or more playlist, finding tracks it works really well with (maybe trying a few transitions), marking comments, maybe make those mini 3-4 track playlists of tracks that just work for you and your crowd every time. By the time you are done doing this properly, you WILL know your track intimately. You WILL know where the breaks are, what the intro is like, etx. And you ARE 100% sure that all that is important for you is perfectly set for every single track in there.

Clearly time becomes an issue. You can’t do things this way for 10s of new tracks each week. Another reason to be super picky about what you let into your collection. It can even be wise to have a track in - track out procedure in place. If you let a new track in you toss out an old one, the one you think is the least great one (remember you only have GREAT tracks in your collection now, if they are not great, they are no longer in your collection).

This has three distinct advantages. One is that your collection remains the same size and does not silently grow while you are not watching, filling up with tracks actually replaced with newer, better ones, but still in your collection. The second is that it forces you to keep curating your collection every time you want a new track. “Is this new one better than at least one track in my current collection?”. If the answer to that is no, you don’t add it, if it is yes, you remove one. And, over time, this will slowly elevate the quality of your collection even further. Third and final is that you will be able to maintain intimate knowledge of every single track in your collection and have absolutely confidence that this track and all it’s settings are 100% spot-on.

Should you then no longer prepare to for a gig as you did in the vinyl days? No, you still should. But you CAN have the rest of the collection with you if you want, to give you that extra creative playroom. Selecting before a gig can give you lots of peace of mind during the gig. Less to choose from means less to worry about.

A final word to mobile DJ’s who “have to have a massive collection to answer requests”. While debatable, let’s assume that is right. Just keep your request collection with everything you collected over the years separate from your core collection. I use an external HD for that. My core collection (work in progress as I fell into the trap I mentioned before) is of such a size that it fits on every conceivable medium. My iPhone, iPad, USB-sticks and internal SSD on my MacBook Pro. You can use a file finder option to find a track by artist name or track title when requested. No need for it all to be analyzed, tagged correctly, keyed properly and such. Drop it in a deck, let the software do it’s on the fly analysis if that is important to you, cue it up, transition, and done. Here it pays to be able to manually beat match or know enough transition styles to make this work.

Final tip: Check out Phil Morse’s best-selling book Rock The Dancefloor where you’ll find many of things I describe here, as well as a good set of steps to follow to actually make this into your standard workflow. He can say it much better than me, it’s worth the read.

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I predict you will start writing books in your future.

Walls of text … I know … sorry :smiley:

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