Selecting Tracks For a Set

I’ve been reading a lot of articles on the subject of set building and track selection and have seen a lot of the “most of the time I have a set but then I wing it on stage” which I find hard to believe a professional would do. Granted some artistic license is always taken in live performance but i just can’t believe that everything is strictly spontaneous. Anyway I was curious how other hobbyist like myself and industry professional go about selecting and arranging and practicing a set.

I’ll give you my basic thought process for gigs… after a quarter of a century+ DJing in the professional club scene. Most gigs differ - ie, one may lean towards funkier tunes, one may be more techy, another more full-on (trance etc) - that is, if you tend to stray a little outside your recognised genre/comfort zone. So, in prep for each gig, I’d do a mental refresh of what was in my ‘vinyl’ box, go through new tracks I’d received either from promo companies (record pools) or purchased myself, and ‘envisage’ what I think I may likely play out for whichever gig/crowd I’m playing ‘to’. This is where a mental ‘preparation folder’ would come into being - but, this is/would be, only a guide.

The fundamental over-riding factor is your crowd’s reaction - and/or, your ability to read the crowd! You may have planned a playlist, done some practice mixes (ie which track works great mixed with another etc) or even laid out a ‘I must play these tracks, in this order’ set (foolish!), but if the crowd aint feelin’ what’s being played, then you’re on a fast-train to nowhere.

Bottom line, I’d go to a gig, any gig with any crowd, with KNOWLEDGE - intimate knowledge of my record collection, the mood, the energy levels, the arrangement (and the artwork) etc, so that yes, I could walk into a gig and ‘busk it’, because that is one of the main power-features of a DJ!


Thanks for the feedback Paul. I guess I have been approaching this for many years like a band practicing for a gig or recording session.

  1. practice 10 to 15 songs until they are perfect
  2. practice them some more
  3. play them/record them

But it really is just play to the crowd. How much time do you spend listening to your tracks to have the type of knowledge it takes to just step and play out the night successfully?

I’ve been playing bars and clubs for many, many years, and with the exception of a few times back when I first started and had a bunch of ‘cheat sheets’ in case I had a panic attack and froze, I’ve never bought into the “play prepared sets” idea. As Paul mentioned, even if playing at the same venue each week, every night the crowd will have subtle differences, and what was killer one week won’t work at all the next.

Since going digital, here’s my current system (I use Virtual on my laptop for the record):

  • a few minutes before set starts scan through any new tracks I’ve added from last week, add ones I want to play tonight to the Sidelist
  • open up my history and move the playlist from my last show to Automix
  • pick a first track and wait to get the green light to start the night

Over the course of the night my sidelist gets requests or other things I want to remember added to it. The reason for keeping my set from the previous week in Automix is so I have a quick record of what I played last week, and the order I played it in. This helps to make sure I’m not getting in a rut and just playing the same sets week in and week out.

That all said, as I’m getting ready to move over to Prime gear I’m going to be changing up how I approach prep a little bit. I haven’t quite figured out how yet - I’m still waiting to see exactly how the new software and hardware are laid out - but I have a feeling it will be a tad more organized into ‘parts of the night’ instead of just one list.

Hope that helps you a little!

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ToddOddity All shared knowledge helps. Sitting here reading these comments it has just occurred to me that while using my prep windows in serato tracks where disappearing as I played them to add cue points which this weekend, This behavior which was infuriating two days ago now makes perfect sense. The prep window is an on the fly system of queuing tracks not making set lists for creates.

As part of your part of your prep do you have all or some of your cue points pre-set or is that an on the fly part of DJing as well? Even though I am only a hobbyist and most likely will never actually play anywhere outside of my home I’m trying to figure this all out so that I don’t sound like a total poser with an expensive controller and an auto sync button.

That depends a little… As part of my music discovery - as I’m adding it to my library and analyzing it, I’ll set “cue 1” (ie. the start of the track). That’s normally it at first. I used to also add a cue around the mix out point that I’d just use as a marker, but I tend to be lazy and skip this one a lot now.

After hearing the track a couple of times, I may start to get ideas of parts of the song I want to hop over, or jump back to, or loop, etc, etc… Those will get added as I come up with the idea, so normally at shows. If it is something a tad more complicated, then it will get done between shows, and connected to my system at home so I can test it out a little and make sure what I’m hearing in my head actually translates out to what I’m trying to do.

If you look at my cue bank for a track, they are normally broken down like this: 1 to 4 are going to be various mix in points (so just cue 1 on a lot of tracks, maybe a couple more if the intro is long or has a lot of acoustics before a beat kicks in), 5 to 8 are markers (places I might want to loop, or jump to, or odd endings that I’m convinced I’m going to miss).

It’s why I am an advocate of avoiding the “digital DJ pitfall” of having WAY too many tracks in your collection. It is so easy (been there, done that, couldn’t find my t-shirt anymore through the tracks) to just throw everything in that wonderful, seemingly endless, storage on our modern computers.

Your collection should only contain the stuff you KNOW you will play on a regular basis. And you should know all those tracks intimately. In the days of vinyl, I knew the “waveform” for every record by heart, that is, I would know the lyrics, where and how many breaks, the way the intro worked, the way the fade out/outro worked. And I could hear the track play in my head if I thought of it.

I am mainly a mobile DJ these days and the “rules” are slightly different there as you have an even broader audience. At the end though I am re-creating my core collection and my intention is to end with fewer than 1.200 tracks. I keep all the rest of my tracks on an external HD for those requests that come in, or because at some point in a gig a certain track just pops up that I think would fit perfectly.

An new tracks are very few every month, only the pick of the litter. That gives me enough time to listen to them thoroughly several times, prepare them to perfection. I also will toss a track out when I put in a new one. Thinks like “times played” that your DJ software can provide you with are good tools to help you weed out the ones that made it into your core collection but get played so few times it is worth replacing them by something new you think is better.

On-topic: I prepare when there is a special theme. For example I played the after-party for the The Who concert here in Amsterdam a few years back. Clearly you don’t take Sister Sledge and other 70s/80s disco with you, nor any house or EDM. I sifted through my core collection and did a genre search through the rest and selected about 200 tracks (2 1/2 hour gig, so a bit overkill, but I wanted enough options to move in various directions depending on crowd reaction). If it’s a “normal” night I don’t really prepare. I know my collection and just get started. Watch/read the crowd and move with it. The better the mood, the better my “flow”. The better the flow, the more tracks start popping up in my head as “Oh, that would be good to play too - into the prepare folder”. On the best nights I will end up with 200 tracks in my prepare list that I never got around to playing as the night ended way too early.

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