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|Paul D. Miller on Sat, 3 Nov 2001 22:55:01 +0100 (CET)|
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|[Nettime-bold] Analog to Digital Dj mixes coded language...|
The New Breed of Digital DJ
By Yakob Peterseil
Record sales are down this year, and the proliferation of digital audio files over the Internet is partially to blame. Since Napster burst on the scene in the late '90s and terms like "MP3" and "bit rate" became part of the national lexicon, the hard drive has rivaled the home stereo as people's most popular means of bringing music into their homes and offices. Home computers equipped with PC jukebox programs offer several obvious advantages over traditional CD-player stereos: they do away with those bothersome and easily-damaged silver coasters, they have tons more storage space, and playing any song from a record label's entire catalog is potentially only a mouse click away (that is, once the majors unveil their subscription services; until then, there's still peer-to-peer).
So it is only natural that the trend away from "hard media" should eventually pass from those who play music simply for fun to those, like professional DJs, who do it for a living. After all, if you think it's cumbersome loading CDs into your stereo sitting at your desk at home, think of the tribulations of a DJ who must load upwards of twenty CDs an hour standing and sweating with a headphone to his ear high above a dance floor. For the most part, those DJs who previously used twin CD decks have already been converted to audio files. Several new computer programs allow for the manipulation of MP3s the same way Pioneer's CDJ-1000 Digital Vinyl Turntable allowed for the manipulation of CDs: with a jog dial, users can slow down, speed up, or scratch audio files similar to the way DJs tweak vinyl.
But a new sound system is sending shock waves through the DJ community by purporting to be the digital audio file equivalent to the classic DJ set-up of two turntables, a mixer, and a stack of vinyl. N2IT Development, a Dutch company, has developed a new technology it calls Final Scratch, a hardware/software package designed to work with a Sony Vaio laptop and simulate for users the phenomenon of spinning vinyl using digital music files. Purists may scoff, but Final Scratch technology has already made a believer out of world-famous DJ Richie Hawtin. The Canadian is among the first people to use Final Scratch professionally, and the professed vinyl-junkie can barely contain his enthusiasm over his revolutionary new system: "[Final Scratch] opens these floodgates to a whole new potential," he told the New York Times last week.
Last Night That DJ's Laptop Saved My Life
The system that Hawtin uses is the vanguard of digital DJing. Pioneer introduced their Digital Vinyl Turntable earlier this year, which surprised many analog purists with the relatively easy and accurate transition from spinning vinyl to spinning compact discs. Hawtin's Final Scratch uses audio files in ways that previous programs only hinted at. "DJ technologies have come out to help you mix, but those have been relegated to the mouse and the keyboard," Hawtin says. "It's so much easier to skip through the files when you are using a needle" (Wired News).
Enter Final Scratch, originally conceived at a hacker convention in Amsterdam, which uses existing turntable technology to manipulate audio files as if they were vinyl records. The system is composed of three main parts: the classic two-turntable-and-a-mixer DJ set-up, a specially equipped laptop computer, and the ScratchAmp interface, which connects the turntables to the computer. Using a traditional turntable stylus and specialized Final Scratch vinyl records, a DJ can cue up and manipulate audio files as easily as spinning vinyl. The specialized Final Scratch record acts as a conductor between the stylus and the audio file: the program translates whatever action the DJ performs with the needle to a corresponding effect in the audio file. For example, scratching the Final Scratch vinyl at the record's two-minute mark would scratch the corresponding audio file at the same spot to within a millisecond of precision. This allows digital music to be used in precisely the same way vinyl records are and makes the array of techniques and tricks that make up the artistry of DJing no longer restricted to using vinyl records.
Those who can forgo the vinyl purist outlook of most DJs will find there are a lot of conveniences to be had as a result of Final Scratch. Hawtin has some 900 audio files stored on his laptop, most of them encoded from vinyl, which he has categorized and cross-referenced so that retrieving them becomes a snap. Even better, unlike the costly dub-plates that DJs use to encode their tracks on vinyl and that deteriorate after 15 to 20 plays, Hawtin's audio files retain their sound quality indefinitely. As for the notoriously suspect sound quality of encoded files, "a lot of the sound systems in clubs aren't that great, so you can't tell the difference in quality," Hawtin says (Wired News). The DJ is especially enamored of the fact that with Final Scratch he can use actual turntables, which he claims get better crowd response than if he were stuck behind a computer clicking a mouse.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of Final Scratch is the fact that Hawtin no longer has to lug huge crates of vinyl from gig to gig. Except for the hundred or so records he still carries to gigs (vinyl-lover that he is), the DJ's entire repertoire is stored on his laptop. "Do you have any idea how much a crate of records weighs?" he asked the New York Times. Hawtin's former setup with 900 records, one might suppose, weighed a lot.
Please Try This at Home
Over the last two decades, the DJ has become more and more of an enviable figure, now rivaling the status of the rock star of the '60s and '70s. Just as there were thousands of amateur guitarists aspiring to become Hendrix but rarely leaving their bedrooms, so there are "Desk Jockeys"-those who spin records primarily for themselves and a few friends. These home DJs were the first to widely use digital DJ equipment and embrace the digital audio movement of which Final Scratch is the tail end. A company called Carrot Innovations has offered a shareware program for some time now called Virtual Turntables, modeled after Panasonic CD-decks. The program, which is free to test and $42 to keep, works with mouse-controlled jog dials and a cross-fader to bring users such features as real-time mixing, volume and pitch control, and even some rudimentary scratching. With the addition of a cheap strobe light, anyone can now create a dance club in their own home without a closet filled with vinyl records. As more people are allowed to create music this way in their homes, look for dance music to become more popular and go beyond the club.