The DJ library is one of the most critical tools and has to fulfill the needs of the user. There is a lot of debating going on with the recent iTunes 12.2 release. But when you compare iTunes vs Serato to manage music directly, well this hotly debated argument deserves a deep dive look into its underpinnings.
So what makes great music management software? Well, this depends on the user and their workflow, which is why this is such a debated issue. For some DJs a totally manual method of management is the only way. For others, a level of automation is very refreshing to help make snap decisions.
Before I throw some observations into this topic I want to make it clear that I have been an iTunes advocate in the past to manage music files. I wrote up a detailed blog on how to leverage nested smart playlists to create powerful final queries for music. A lot of DJs got very upset at the iTunes 12.2 update and had some of their libraries get scrambled up. Some even totally lost their libraries into the ether. I had a minor issue where it updated and I could not add tracks. I was able to revert back to 12.1 and recovered my iTunes playlist. Backups are crucial people!
Also before anyone thinks I am advocating iTunes for DJ playback… nope. This is not what I am advocating at all. This is purely about managing a library of music for DJ use.
So in this article, I am going to compare iTunes 12.1 versus Serato DJ 1.7.5 and SSL 2.5 using my MacBook Pro and OS-X Yosemite 10.10.3. I also utilize the Jaikoz tagging application to help fill in a lot of the secondary tag information.
Contender #1: iTunes
It’s hard to believe that iTunes has been around since January 2001. Prior to that WinAmp was one of the most popular consumer players out there. And with that, manual management of your folders was the only way. Here comes iTunes with a pretty slick interface and at the time zero bloat. Sure a v1.0 release needs some refinement, but it was pretty solid. It would still take another 18 months before a Windows version release would come out. But it caught like wildfire but it quickly became THE player. And for a number of DJs it’s a defacto music manager.
You can simply drag and drop your files into the application. And with iTunes you can, if you choose, to organize the files by artist/album/track # – track. For many purists and manual music managers, this is not an option to even consider. Everyone has their own personal methodology for file naming and folder creation. Some segregate music by genres, some want far more identifying information at the file level like artist – track – year – bpm, or some other iteration. But for a lot of people with growing databases of music, they put their hands in the care of iTunes.
The popularity of iTunes forced Serato (and Traktor) to have an option to read off the iTunes library file. This is not a perfect marriage. In Serato loading, a large library has quite a bit of time in loading. Once there, you lack functionality inside an iTunes playlist or smart playlist like sorting. But the shortcomings aside, it’s very nice to have your iTunes organization inside of Serato. I leverage iTunes in Serato is I treat all my iTunes lists as static. I create crates for my specific gig. This allows me the ability to jump to any of my lists at will and deposit them into a crate if needed. In general, it’s worked out well given my desire to use smart playlists in its organization.
Now there are lots of complaints, including myself, on how iTunes has become bloatware. Its deep integration into apps, the music store, etc. has turned what was once a lightweight into something of a monstrosity. This does not mean that iTunes is crapware as some people blindly claim. However, I think with each version there are potential pitfalls for using the application. Will it ever get abandoned by the professional DJ playback software like Serato? Doubtful, unless there are new independent solutions that fill in that void. I has to pick up enough momentum that Serato and others deem it worthy of incorporation, or if Serato (and others) realize that many DJs want powerful querying tools for their growing databases.
Contender #2: Serato
Digital Vinyl System (DVS) initially started as a “WTF is this” by a lot of DJs. But it didn’t take too long for DJs to embrace the ability to manipulate digital tracks over timecoded vinyl, CDs, and eventually controllers. There were two distinct platforms for Serato, Scratch Live and ITCH which has now converged into Serato DJ while many purists are sticking with SSL because of its stability. The good news is file management on both Serato DJ and SSL is nearly identical.
So the first thing to recognize is if you don’t rely on iTunes, loading into Serato is significantly quicker. Especially if you have a large library. For some this is a huge benefit to not using iTunes if say you had to reboot your laptop or restart your application due to a crash, it will take you a bit longer to get everything up and running.
Manipulating your information in Serato on an external drive ensures complete portability to any laptop. For a club DJ, this feature alone is a reason not to consider iTunes and makes perfect sense to keep everything in Serato. For a Mobile DJ, there will likely never be a time where you have to plug into a computer that is not yours. So it’s less of a technical requirement.
Creating Crates and Smart Crates are very straight forward. You can nest Crates into a hierarchy which not only allows you to organize your collection well but rolls up the results to the master Crate. When creating a Smart Crate you have options to filter your data. But note that Smart Crates are pretty limited. You can’t use conditional statements (AND, OR) or do simple NULL checks (say you don’t want to see anything that is not rated). You can do this in Virtual DJ.
Another shortcoming is that Smart Crates are only saved to the local Serato directory and not to an external media device. I have seen requests on the Serato forums as far back in 2007 to make some more powerful queries, but it has not come to light. I am curious if there is a performance hit with such queries in Serato. For instance, if you create a new smart crate query in Serato it takes a few seconds to populate where in iTunes a pretty complex query is nearly instantaneous.
Last Words on iTunes vs Serato
There is no simple answer to this; no victor to give a crown. Most people will simply default to their assumed positions of “iTunes is crapware” or “Serato sucks for management” without giving the alternative a thorough try. iTunes vs Serato is simply a moot subject if you are stuck in a particular camp.
Personally I am trying to work in solutions to use Serato exclusively. I have been a long time iTunes advocate but with each passing iteration issues seem to creep up and I would rather a faster platform that should be stable throughout its lifetime. My personal issue with Serato is its lack of complex queries that force me to rethink how my music is stored and organized. I may be able to find a way to work through Serato’s limitations to produce the results I desire, but it will takeÂ some work to get to where I want it to be.
The rule of thumb here is to see what options work best for you.
Update #1 – 8/30/2015: After trying a few different methods on trying to forgo iTunes and use Serato exclusively. I’ve come to the conclusion that I simply can’t. I have too much time and logic invested in my Smart Playlists and a personal demand to have a real digital asset management tool for music and Serato simply does not cut it. Too much manual intervention including the requirement that new music has to be manually dragged and dropped (no auto-updating of root folders), the fact that Serato Smart Crates are actually pretty slow and very limited, and Serato lacks the ability to search beyond the basic id3 tag features makes all my attempts thus far frustrating. At the time of the article, I wanted to approach this with an unbiased mindset and as of this point, I can’t forgo iTunes.
Update #2 – 9/15/2015: I bit the bullet and decided to throw caution to the wind and go purely with Serato. So far after a couple of gigs I am digging the workflow now. Is it any better or worse than my old method? I’m not sure yet. But there are some advantages to being Serato only.
Update #3 – 5/2/2016: After many months using Serato to manage my music I can say for certain I have been much happier with Serato-only to manage my music. So I’ve posted a lengthy addendum to this article explaining on how to break free from iTunes, if you dare.