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How I prepare my DJ sets

Organising playlists by energy levels, vibe, and flow

It would be interesting to know how you prepare your DJ sets, how you decide which track will be mixed well with the previous one, how on stage you choose such tracks that were not included in your planned tracklist, etc.

Vlad Zabolotsky

How to organize your music collection in order to quickly pick the right track in the right moment out from tons of material?

Dj Nerva

Preparing for the performance includes a lot of things: negotiating with the promoter, visiting the venue (when possible), agreeing on a technical and domestic rider, researching the lineup and communicating with other artists, thinking through and launching an advertising campaign, recording a video invitation or a promo mix, working on social media and much more. Maybe someday I’ll tell you about it, but today is all about the “creative” part, the music.

I don’t think of DJ as a creative profession, hence this word is quoted. I’ll write my thoughts on this later

Vlad, in order to answer the question of how I decide which track will be mixed well with the previous one, I have to explain the structure of my DJ collection first. A similar question was sent by Dj Nerva, so I will combine them into one.

Rekordbox and playlists

DJs play on various different media, apps, and gear: laptops, disks, flash drives, vinyl, smartphones; on Pioneers, in Ableton, Tractor, Serato, and much more options. Speaking of myself, I use three things: Recordbox, USB sticks, and Pioneer media players.

On audio formats support

Here is how it works. First, I add music to Rekordbox on my laptop. Then I carefully tag the tracks so that they are automatically distributed among the ‘intelligent’ playlists, and sync these playlists to the USB sticks. Then in the DJ booth, I connect my USB sticks to the Pioneer players, and inside I see all the playlists exactly as I structured them on my laptop back home. And this is the key moment because thanks to these playlists I can easily find that very track I want to play next within a few seconds.

Now I’ll tell you about the key playlists that make up the structure of my collection.

Energy levels

First of all, after adding tracks to Recordbox, I assign them the energy level. This is the main criterion. The most important thing here is that the level of energy is how I feel the tracks and not a formal thing like the tempo or anything like that.

How DJs usually do

Here I want to make a little detour and tell how DJs usually do. Most DJs pre-select the required amount of tracks in advance and arrange them in the order in which they plan to play. So that is complete predestination. Of course, such pre-planned sets can sound great at home, but they might be completely inappropriate on the dancefloor.

It may seem that only newcomer DJs do this, but no: even those who have been performing for more than a decade are doing this, so it’s really common. Some DJs even record the whole mixes in advance and during the performance they basically fake, but this is just so wrong so I won’t even discuss it.

More proficient DJs don’t prepare sets in advance in such way but select tracks right during the set looking at the crowd in front of them. Most often, they use tempo as a plain simple criterion for choosing the next track.

So it turns out about the following. Let’s assume the following track is playing on the dancefloor:

A DJ thinks: “Aha, 122 BPM. The dancefloor is going on well, everything is fine, let’s not slow down the pace.” He is looking for the next track in his digital library of hundreds of tracks, scrolling and scrolling that rotary knob, and he finds this — a track in the same key and even two BPM faster:

Obviously, the energy on the dancefloor went down; people going out. Lowering the energy during a set down is fine if you know why you are doing this. But if the DJ from the example above wanted to keep the driving vibe, then this is a failure.

Or here’s the opposite example. Suppose a DJ is playing such melodic progressive:

He does not want to speed up the tempo, so he finds the track in the same key and even one BPM lower, and in addition also from the same record label:

Do you get it?

It is clear that the energy is partially correlated with the genre, and as a result — with the tempo. But the relationship of energy level and the tempo is not always that obvious, and it is not always predictably linear.

This is why relying simply on the tempo of the tracks and thus mechanically select the next track for mixing is clearly not worth it, and hence I organise my tracks by the energy levels instead.

So, now going back to the energy levels I use in my Rekordbox. In total, I make five levels:

Deep
★★ Build-up
★★★ Driving
★★★★ Peak-time
★★★★★ Banging

Experienced guys might have noticed that these names resemble a type or time-slot of a DJ set: opening, warming, “peak-time” and so on. Indeed, speaking of the energy level, I immediately think about the scenarios for using a particular track. In other words, I ask myself: “At what point of the event would it be appropriate to play that particular track?”.

For example, I can easily put a driving track in the middle of a warming-up set if I realise that I need to cheer-up the dance floor a bit, or vice versa – put a warming-up track in the middle of the night, if I decide to give the crowd a little rest.

energy level is how I feel the track

Update from September 2021

I wrote this article in 2019, and since then I have re-organised my DJ library in a different way. I still use energy levels as one of the main criteria, however, I no longer use the vibe and the flow (which I explain down below) as playlist-defining tags. That being said, even though I personally don’t use that system anymore as it evolved into something else, the rest of the article is still worth reading as it might give you a general idea or inspiration for the DJ library organisation.

Inside the energy level playlist, I make four more sub-playlist nested according to what I call vibe and the flow:

Dark Hands-up
Dark Heads-down
Melodic Hands-up
Melodic Heads-down

And here the most interesting part begins.

The vibe

“Dark” and “melodic” are more or less intuitive terms, although the names are very nominal. This is emotional ‘colour’, the mood of the track.

First, a couple of obvious examples. Here is the “melodic” — think of rainbow, butterflies, flower meadow:

And here’s the “dark” — twilight, anxiety, hypnotism:

Please note that these tracks even have the same key, but how different their mood is.

But there is also a less perceptible difference. This is especially true for Techno, where a pronounced musical part is not always present.

Listen to this:

Is it “dark” or “melodic”? Someone can say, “what are you talking about, there are just a kick, bass, and hi-hats, how can you understand anything?”. For me, the answer is clear: if while listening to the track I’m smiling like an idiot, then this is “melodic”.

Now listen to this track. I specifically chose a similar style and even the same artist to shift the focus of attention only to the vibe:

To me, this track is colder and more aggressive, hence clearly “dark”. And if you think there’s not much of a difference when listening at home, there is a huge difference on the dancefloor.

The flow

“Hands-up” and “heads-down” are pretty unique entities, and I didn’t see anyone using these terms for their music libraries.

To me, this is all about the structure of the tracks: build-ups, breakdowns, pitch-rising effects, big drops, climax etc. In other words, how the tracks flow.

If the track goes smoothly, and you can just dance and keep dancing without being distracted by the breaks and big drops every minute or so, then this is the “heads-down”. In a sense, we can say that the heads-down tracks are more monotonous. This is not very accurate, but sufficient for a general understanding.

What is Progressive

If there are constantly some breaks, new leads, intense breakdowns and all those big things where people literally put their hands up, literally, then it’s “hands-up”.

Below are a few examples:

Pay attention to the breakdown in the middle and drop at 1:30. This is “hands-up”.

Another example:

You probably realised by now that this is “hands-up” too.

From the two examples above it may seem that the hands-up is always something melodic and cheesy. But for the vibe we have another criterion, and here we are talking only about the structure. Just both of these tracks are “melodic hands-up.”

Here is another “hands-up”, but this time it’s “dark”:

And now let’s take a listen to “heads-down”, for contrast:

Can you feel how much smoother this track is?

If it seems to you that heads-down is necessarily something slow and deep, here’s a driving Psytrance example:

Note how this track just is going and going without the interruption, you can close your eyes and just dance without the breakdowns.

Speaking of breakdowns, listen to this track:

Here the breakdown is stretched for a minute and a half, but notice how smooth and even monotonous it is, again, if we compare it to breakdowns in the hands-up tracks.

Therefore, knowing the energy level, the vibe, and the flow of the track, I can fully control the direction of the set. And thanks to the playlists, I know exactly where the next track is. This classification of all the tracks and new arrivals in my media library is the main work on the preparation of my DJ sets.

 8495   2019   Advice   Behind the scenes   DJing   Pioneer   Rekordbox

This post is a part of the “Advice” series. I’m happy to advise on such topics as music production, sound design, performance, management, marketing, and career advice in the music industry and beyond. Send me your questions via Google Form.

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13 comments
Monika Olech 2020

hey, very interesting article! I am developing a system of tagging that is pretty similar, it was really cool to see your perspective! There is one more aspect of a track that I am considering and I did´t manage to tackle it completely, I wonder maybe you have some thoughts about it, I´m talking about ´´tension´´. Some tracks create tension, and when they are finishing, you re waiting for more, and when you don´t get more energy, you feel disappointed, whereas some tracks create release(explosion) of energy, after which you are anticipating the energy to go down for a little rest. Lets say you can have 3 tracks of the same energy level, 3 of them are hands up tracks according to your classification, but all 3 are tension creating tracks. 1st one gives anticipation of a release, but you don´t get it bcz the second track is also tension creating, and then 3rd also, only tension, no release for 15-20 minutes. I imagine something like this wouldn’t be good in the middle of the party, even with proper energy level of those 3 tracks. Do you consider something like that while tagging? Little exclaimer: I don´t have experience with a crowd, I hope it makes sense and it would be lovely to hear your thoughts about it :) thank you again for the article!

Daniel Lesden 2020

Hi Monika, thanks for your question! To me, ‘hands-up/heads-down’ tag pretty much does what you’ve described as ‘tension’ (and the opposite would be ‘release’ I guess). It allows me to work with the crowd’s anticipation and control the flow of the set making sure I have a good balance between these two.

Efstathios Fotiadis 2020

This is pure gold. Thank you!

I have found that other people use similar systems (https://www.native-instruments.com/forum/threads/best-tools-to-organise-and-tag-your-collection-or-should-i-make-my-own.327313/) but your explanation is super comprehensive and your rationale makes things crystal clear!

John Joe 2020

I liked your insights about preparing and executing a set list. I like to create ‘overmix’ sets as a practice using others youtube videos. What I do is I find other DJ’s live set mixes on youtube and create my own version of that youtube video. Matching what I think the crowd is hearing. I would like your opinion...

Daniel Lesden 2020

Hi John, to be honest, I think overdubbing other videos is not a good idea. First, you upload on your channel video content made by other people, so technically it’s a copyright violation and they can easily shut down your uploads. Second, this looks a bit disrespectful to the DJ and the crowd on the video because, but maybe it’s just me.

Joseph Saliba 7 mo

Hi Daniel,

Great article! And I’m trying to follow your recommendations.

Do you think that your vibe and flow criteria can also be applied to minimal music?

Also, can you please explain more in details about the driving energy? I think i kind of get it but i end up some times being confused whether to consider a track as level 2 or 3, or level 3 or 4. Maybe you can share some examples?

Thanks,
Joseph

Daniel Lesden 7 mo

Hi Joseph, glad you liked it!

The energy levels are totally unique to every DJ. It’s about feeling. And it’s relative to other music in a DJ’s arsenal.

For example, what energy level would have a 150 BPM Hard Techno track? Probably level 5, right? But in fact, not at all—it still easily could be level 3 or 4 if the other stuff that DJ plays besides Hard Techno is a 170 BPM Hardcore :-) I hope it makes sense?

To me, having those energy levels are crucial because I play longer 5-6 hour sets, so I’m building up my sets from lower to higher energy (typically) with few different music genres during a set. But let’s say if you are just playing minimal music with a typical 1-2 hour sets, maybe you don’t need such classification at all? Or maybe just two or three levels will do for you instead of five?

Joseph Saliba 7 mo

Thank you for the reply Daniel.

But can you explain me more what Driving (level 3) energy means to you? When would you play this and what does it sound like...

Can you please share some example of tracks for the different levels just so I have a better understanding?

Thanks

Daniel Lesden 7 mo

Well, if I play one of those longer sets, to me it goes something like this:

Energy level 1: people are just arriving at the venue, meeting their friends, hanging out a bit, so I play something deep and atmospheric. BPM range is ~110—122 BPM.

Energy level 2: once people are getting into the vibe and start feeling the dancefloor a bit, I play something groovy with a more prominent bassline, but not too banging because people are still nodding their heads rather than fully dancing yet. BPM range is ~120—130 BPM.

Energy level 3: once people are clearly ready for more, I can start to play heavier and faster. BPM range is ~123—130 BPM.

Energy level 4: peak-time is pretty much self-explanatory, this is where my most aggressive tracks are, typically with very busy soundscapes. BPM range is ~125—132 BPM.

Energy level 5: this is a category for anything above the previous level, from Psytrance to Techno with industrial flavour. BPM range is ~132—145 BPM.

These all are very rough and general examples, things can (and usually do!) change from set to set, from event to event, because all the people and circumstances are different.

Feel free to listen to my 6-hour open to close set or a 3-hour special podcast episode to get an idea of how getting from level 1 to level 5 sounds in action.

Sena Çelebi 6 mo

Very explanatory and inspirational post! I am grateful as a self learner and beginner dj. I followed u from all platforms. I hope everything will be the way you want :)

Daniel Lesden 6 mo

Thank you :-)

Stew Pha 5 mo

Hi Daniel,
Thank you so much for this post ! You made my day and to be honest with you I’m Djing and producing for more than 6 years and never thought this way !
I was looking for a new way organizing my tracks because recognizing and remembering all of them by heart is no more possible for me (less time and more tracks) :)
Like you I play a lot of different genra and my question is how are organized your folders ? Do you use the genra For example Peak Time > Melodic Techno > Melodic Hands-up > /// Peak Time > Hard Techno > Melodic Hands-up ... and so on
But this way you’ll have a lot of folders & sub folders ...
Do you have any tips not to get lost in folder classifications please ?
Last question linked to the previous one, how do you name your tracks please ?

Another time thank you for sharing these tips, you’re a true artist and a good guy ! <3

Daniel Lesden 5 mo

Hi Stew, I’m glad you found it useful.

“my question is how are organized your folders?”

I don’t use folders. Instead, I just throw all tracks to iTunes as a unified central hub of my music collection, and it does all the job for me automatically. Read about it here: https://dsokolovskiy.com/blog/all/organizing-music-library/ (that article is slightly outdated now though, but the principle is still the same)

“Last question linked to the previous one, how do you name your tracks?‘

I have a note about it too :-) Read it here: https://dsokolovskiy.com/blog/all/music-library-standards/

I hope it helps!

Stew Pha 5 mo

Thanks Daniel, I don’t like the way relying on the computer to organize the music for me, I need to classify it by my own and manually to be sure everything is under control but I understand your way of working too :)
Now I need to find the right balance to have a nice organization without having a lot of folders/subFolders.
Another time thank you very much for your help !
Cheers Bro

Gido Den Ouden 4 mo

Hi Daniel, Intresting read, i am still aswell trying to build a good organizing system and of course to easly find the best potential track to play after the current one and i have something you could add to your system

The 5 track flow cycle, i discovered this technic in my face with the cafe del mar compilations but
when i listened to the mixes of one of my favorite story telling dj’s, dimitri kneppers and other favorite mix cd’s
there was a system behind it.

To identify a track i use the metafoor in my head of you at a swimingpool going to take a dive from a high springboard

1 track – opener, you communicate direct with your surrroundings, this is what i am gonna do, this what you can expect, get the attention , extrovert

2 track – you climb the ladder ,

3 track – you are on top of the springboard, top of the world ,

4 track – you jump of the springboard and float through the air

5 track – land in the water, story ends , go back to track 1

The differances between the tracks although feel simular, in storytelling big differance, specially the expectations of the next track

1 between 3 , the distance you feel , are my feet on the ground, next track feel of climbing up , going somewhere, to a top , then its a 1
if you feel the next step is a jump and from that moment its gravity in control , inner glow needed next , its a 3,

At the moment i am trying to make a solid legenda , to put emo collering to every stage
track 2 can have the feel of a tunnel, hicking, ...

For the whole night you could add an extra tag to the song, where does it stand in the boy meets girl stage in a clubnight from alone in an empty club, to first crowded to the feel of filling up to dance together and seduse , melting together to the closing of the night

just some thoughts

greetings from antwerp

gido

Gido Den Ouden 4 mo

To get the tags in to the file is an other story , specialy the multilevel ones and found a sollution yesterday

let say , this is just an example you want to add the following line in the genre tag “Clubhouse 90 – Garage House – Piano – Classic” you have to type the whole line by hand everytime until you come to the last word .. or you could copy past it from an exel sheet but you can imagine the length of this list, not workable and no tagging software where you can group certain chooses

BUT with this exceltool , you could make a choice system and then copy past the end result and then let smartplaylists go crazy on your collection in itunes

https://www.extendoffice.com/documents/excel/5852-excel-multiple-level-drop-down-list.html?fbclid=IwAR0IizfWwJGk02v4D7uD3emN4A1xScl0LyUaVQQM7MBYv1-on8w33IochBM#a2

greetz

gido

Gido Den Ouden 4 mo

to add to my previous post , you can combine the end result of the 3 cells with this methode and then past it to a tagfield https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tkFbTMSiA8I

Dragos Vremaroiu 1 mo

Hi Daniel. Great article. I am lookin for some time for this kind of article but not everyone is willing to share this or they don’t know how to explain it. I also had a lot of people saying to me: “Just listen to the songs if they go well together” or “do whatever sounds good for you” LOL.

I like your melodic/dark and hands-up/heads-down breakdown of the songs. It makes complete sense and I also heard them at work in your sets. It’s working. It sounds pro and it’s exactly what I am after in my sets too. I would like to mix and control the crowd how pro DJ’s seem to do it. Concepts like: tension/release, playing something happy and then go down, the push/pull, draw them out/draw them out; pro dj’s seem to always get the effect they are after. I noticed also that great dj’s always seems to “know” what to give the crowd, when to give it and also give the people a reset(fresh start) every 2-3 tracks so they can start jumping and dancing again. And your explanation makes sense for me at all. You seemed to have mastered that as well from what I have heard so far.

But what you would to for house music regarding the vibe? it seems that there are not that many dark songs in that realm, or at least to the music I like.
For example I am in doubt of where to place this track: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PM1UY-rEhwo. For me it’s either a melodic heads-down because it has a nice groovy happy texture but also gives me a tense/dark vibe. I am almost tempted to create another vibe category called “tense” next to melodic and dark. :D.

Also I would be very curious where do you place tracks like this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CkQ3u2Zp6uM. For me it’s a dark hands-up. If it’s a melodic for you can you please explain why?

Thank you a lot for this great article! Best article on the subject out there.
Also I tried to comment with my facebook but it didn’t work. I had to create a twitter account to be able to comment. You can check this issue :D

Daniel Lesden 1 mo

Hi Dragos, thanks for the feedback, I’m glad you find my humble experience useful! To be completely fair though, this article is slightly outdated now as I have changed my playlists’ structure since then, I should probably add this somewhere.

‘Dark’ and ‘Melodic’ are just the words I use (or should I say used to) to describe certain moods, but they don’t always mean dark and melodic literally. Think about it as ‘Sad’ and ‘Happy’, or ‘Minor’ and ‘Major’, or ‘Serious’ and ‘Cheerful’, or something like that. Or don’t use these tags at all, that’s an option too.

The most important thing about such a system is that it has to make sense to you. This structure is just a tool that should help you to find the right tracks at the right moment, nothing else and nothing more. If you feel a need to create a category called’ Tense’ for certain tracks, and it makes sense to you, then just go for it :-)

Also, keep in mind that all of those criteria (dark/melodic, heads-down/hands-up, or whatever) are relative to the other tracks in a DJ’s library. For example, the track you’ve linked above might sound ‘darker’ for you if you tend to play more melodic/playful sounds in general, however, for a Hard Techno DJ that same track would be the most cheesy/melodic song relatively to the other tracks in his collection. I hope it makes sense.

Dragos Vremaroiu 1 mo

@Daniel Lesden. Yeah, don’t worry. I won’t take it very literal. I was just curious more about how you view the flow and you interpret your music, but I won’t hesitate to name things as I see them fit. It just happens that I like to be very organized and I like your approach. Also music is 70% art but 30% mathematic. There seems to always be a push and pull effect in great mixes and sometimes having a pattern or a plan let’s say, helps. Like you I have a huge library and without some filtering a a plan I would be overwhelmed. Anyway. Thank you once again for this great article. Wish you all the best.

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