Enter the digital rage
THE entryway of Eddie Mendoza’s North Hills home is stacked with unopened packages stuffed with records -- advance copies a lot of fans would kill for. But DJ Eddie One, as he is known on his KIIS-FM (102.7) and Sirius Satellite Radio shows, doesn’t care about those anymore.
“As of two months ago, I’m not collecting vinyl,” said Mendoza, 26, a hip-hop/reggaeton DJ who switched to a digital DJ program this summer. “There’s no point really. The new stuff I get, as long as I have the MP3s, I’m good.”
Mendoza is one of a growing number of DJs who are going digital because it’s so convenient. Using a computer-based system means he doesn’t have to break his back carrying heavy crates of records or pre-select what he brings; he can carry his entire 5,000-song library in a compact, lightweight laptop. He also doesn’t have to spend as much time looking for records or as much money buying them; MP3s are quick to download, easier to categorize and less expensive per song than vinyl. When he creates his own remixes, he doesn’t have to go to the trouble of pressing them onto vinyl; he can immediately add them to his digital library.
Most important, he doesn’t have to sacrifice any of the tricks of his trade, like scratching and matching beats. And listeners can’t tell the difference.
When laptop DJing first came on the scene a few years back, there was a small handful of software programs for DJs to choose from, and none of them offered the same range of song manipulation options available with turntables or even CD DJ players. DJs could cross-fade (or blend) digital tracks, but the crucial function of shifting the pitch (or speed) of a song to match beats was unreliable. There was also the question of credibility. Vinyl was for purists. Digital was seen as cheating.
But in the last year, technology has finally caught up with DJs’ expectations -- and given them a way to keep it real. From techno to hip-hop, on the radio and in clubs, many of the genre’s biggest names are ditching their vinyl and CD collections and going with audio files instead. All the DJs at hip-hop station Power 106 (KPWR-FM, 105.9) now use a digital DJ program to “spin” their shows. So do huge hip-hop DJs such as Snoop’s DJ Jam, and techno/house DJs such as Paul van Dyk and Josh Wink.
Some of them are using laptops alone, others are using their computers in conjunction with the traditional two turntable (or CD DJ player) setup. This fall, even iPod users will be able to get in on the game with the help of an iPod mixing console that can overlap tracks, not just play them back to back. The cost of these systems: $200 to $800.
Digital DJing “is really catching fire,” said Josh Levine, president of the Rebel Organization, a grass-roots marketing company affiliated with the dance music magazine Urb. “We’ve seen DJs from just about every genre using it -- DJs like Jazzy Jeff, who are known for their turntable skills. So from our view, that’s probably at least the near future of where the profession is going.”
Jazzy Jeff, an old-school DJ who works with actor-singer Will Smith, was one of the early adopters of a program called Scratch Live. On the market for a year, the program is one of two turntable-based systems that uses vinyl “control records” to manipulate audio files on a computer. The records aren’t engraved with songs but with a signal that controls the digital audio file on the computer and allows it to be manipulated. Scratch the record, and you scratch the computer file. Spin it backward, and the file plays backward. Speed it up, and it speeds up, and so on. The system works the same with control CDs and CD DJ players.
“It’s weird,” said Daniel Hall, a.k.a. DJ Haul of the duo DJ Haul and Mason. “If you told me two years ago that you’re not going to bring out records anymore, that you’re going to play on these digital records but not the real thing, I would have said, ‘No. I don’t believe you.’ ”
But in November, Jazzy Jeff urged Hall to check it out, and he hasn’t looked back. Now, instead of bringing 150 pounds of records to a club or party, Hall brings two laptops and his control records.
“My back has stopped hurting ever since,” he said.
SCRATCH Live is actually the second turntable-based computer DJ system. The first was Stanton FinalScratch, and it debuted in 2002. Although groundbreaking, the system also had its bugs. There was an audible lag between the time a DJ moved the vinyl and what he heard. Particularly for turntablist DJs, who work with extreme precision, slicing and dicing beats into milliseconds, that was a major problem. That issue has been fixed with subsequent versions of the system, including the most recent, FinalScratch 2.
FinalScratch was created with traditional vinyl DJs in mind, but it was developed with the input of DJs John Acquaviva and Richie Hawtin. Its software system is called Traktor DJ Studio, and it takes a different, less vinyl-centric approach. The program can be run either with the FinalScratch turntable/CD DJ player system or on its own with just a computer.
The program was originally developed in 2000 as “an answer to the phenomena of people transferring their music more and more into the MP3 realm,” said Tobias Thon, press manager for Traktor’s parent company, Native Instruments in Berlin. “It was obvious as soon as people had their music collections on their computer they would need a tool to DJ on their computer, and that tool could be way more powerful than a turntable.”
The current incarnation of the program, Traktor DJ Studio 2.6, was released in February and allows DJs to create loops from a song while that song is already playing and to filter out individual components in a song, among other things.
Because it was developed with house and techno DJs in mind, Traktor has found a strong following in that scene. It recently partnered with the online club music store Beatport, which offers a free entry-level version of the program. In the future, the Beatport store will be integrated into the program itself, so DJs can preview and purchase new tracks directly from the software.
Club music or otherwise, not every song is available as a digital file or on paid websites like iTunes or Beatport. Many of the DJs who’ve switched to computer-based systems have spent hundreds, even thousands, of hours converting their vinyl and CD collections into MP3 and other digital-format audio files. Others are shortcutting the process by trading copied files.
That takes them in to dicey legal terrain. Distributing copies of licensed music is generally illegal. So is downloading music without proper payment or proper authorization. Some digital DJs are doing both. Although the Recording Industry Assn. of America doesn’t seem concerned about this issue now -- it hasn’t yet sued a DJ on such grounds -- the rapid rise of digital DJs may force the issue.
NEXT month will see the debut of the iDJ iPod mixing console in two versions -- a mobile DJ model by Numark Industries and a consumer version from Ion Audio. Both are traditional mixing boards with volume control and a fader to segue from track to track; the only difference is that these mixers are built with docking stations for two iPods.
Both of the new iDJs were developed in conjunction with Apple -- the Ion Audio version targeting iPod fans and amateur DJs, and the Numark version aimed at the mobile DJ market: the ones who play weddings, parties and bar mitzvahs.
Right now, iPod users with an itch to DJ are restricted by the limitations of the iPod itself. The current incarnation of the wildly popular hand-held digital music player allows the user to create playlists and to shuffle songs, but it doesn’t allow users to overlap or change the speed of songs. Whether Apple will incorporate such features on future models, the company would not say, but Numark and Ion Audio are working on a second-generation iDJ that will enable more tricks.
In its present incarnation, however, the iPod remains an imperfect DJ tool on its own.
“It’s work, work, work. The major detraction is that to cue up a song, you have to press play at the right second, so you’re cutting off the last song that was playing,” said Alfred Daedelus, 27, a Ninjatune record producer and DJ at the Dublab online radio station who occasionally uses an iPod to play shows.
“There’s still something to vinyl. You can see your music,” he added. “But gosh it’s fun to play from 10,000 songs.”
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Vinyl fades to digital
More and more DJs are “spinning” with MP3s and other audio files instead of traditional vinyl or CDs. A look at the main systems and how they work:
Serato Scratch Live
How it works: Scratch Live uses “control records” on two turntables to manipulate audio files on a computer. The records are engraved with a signal that controls the digital audio file and allows it to be manipulated. The system works the same with control CDs and CD DJ players and is compatible with Mac OS X and Windows XP.
The computer works as a library and visual guide. On the bottom half of the screen is a list of songs that can be organized and accessed by artist, title, genre and beats per minute. The upper portion shows two virtual turntables. Each virtual turntable is accompanied by a time counter for the song that’s playing and a visual, color-coded representation of its sound wave so the DJ can see, as well as hear, the music.
How it works: Like Scratch Live, FinalScratch 2 is also a turntable-based system, only the type of signal used on the control record is created differently and the visual representation of the music on the computer shows the entire sound wave of a song, not just the portion that is playing. The system works the same with control CDs and CD DJ players and is compatible with both Mac OS X and Windows XP.
Traktor DJ Studio 2.6
How it works: Developed with the input of house DJs John Acquaviva and Richie Hawtin, Traktor is a software program that runs with FinalScratch 2 or on its own with just a computer. In addition to vinyl-derived tricks, like scratching and matching beats, it allows more digital-oriented maneuvers, like looping sounds from a song while that song is playing and filtering out the high and low frequencies of a song. The graphic interface looks a lot like a traditional two-channel mixer, with volume control, EQ and cross fader, but it also shows each song’s wave form above a digital library.
Numark Industries and Ion Audio iDJ mixing consoles
How it works: The iDJ is basically a two-channel mixing board, with volume controls, a cross fader, three-band EQ and a microphone input. Instead of connecting to turntables or CD DJ players, it has docking stations for two iPods, allowing the user to segue back and forth between tracks. The iPod screens are the guides to what’s playing.