Mixed Signals: Digital Dillema

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Think back to that first time that you saw a laptop onstage at a club. Now think back to the last time you didn't see one onstage. It's no stretch to say that the digital world has taken over music production and, to a lesser extent, performance, with hardware/software combinations firmly establishing their place in the live music pantheon beside guitars, turntables, and drum machines.

But are they all that they're cracked up to be? We gathered a unique group of DJs, who use even more diverse gear-and-software setups, to give us the skinny: Ninja Tune producer/DJ Amon Tobin, an early Final Scratch user who has since switched to Numark HDX hard drive/CD-R turntables to manipulate digital files; David Dewaele of Soulwax/2ManyDJs, a true believer in Pioneer CDJs and CD-R technology; DJ Craze, a hip-hop/drum & bass battle DJ who prefers Stanton Final Scratch above all; and DJs Low Budget and Cosmo Baker, analog- and turntable-lovin' hip-hop/funk/electro/soul jocks sold on the strengths of Rane's Serato Scratch Live.

With so many options out there, we asked these five which platforms perform the best, what needs improving, and who still buys records.

What made you make the switch to digital DJing?

DJ Craze: I used to carry two or three record crates on each trip–me being a small dude, it sucked having to carry all that. What also sucked was that in Europe, most airlines are stingy with the weight [limit], so I would end up paying extra weight fees. Another good thing about Final Scratch is that I can show up to any gig and be ready for any kind of crowd.

Amon Tobin: It was the early days when I had the first whiff of [Final Scratch]. Up until that point I was making my sets with dubplates, and this was my main reason for [switching to] these digital formats... In the end''m still bringing my own decks to the shows; it's not exactly making it more lightweight or less cumbersome. The only reason for [using Final Scratch], from my personal point of view, is to have an alternative to cutting acetate every week. I want to play my own stuff that I've made before I get it pressed, and also be able to customize other bits of music.

What does your current DJ setup consist of?

Amon Tobin: What I'm currently using is the Numark HDX [hard-drive /CD turntables]. I was using the CDXs for a while. I started out with Final Scratch, but that was so volatile... I landed on Numark because it's the only turntable that's doing it with the proper 12" platter that moves with the right torque, and it just seems like the closest thing to a [Technics] 1210.
Cosmo Baker: Unless I have a new piece of vinyl that I haven't encoded yet–and I still buy vinyl every week–I'll play strictly off of Serato. I just did the Sunglasses Is a Must Tour this spring with A-Trak and Ayres. We used four laptops, four turntables, two Pioneer DJM-909 mixers, and two samplers... it was just crazy. But everything we did was sent through either Serato or Ableton Live. Serato is great because I play a lot with cue points and with programmable loops and whatnot.

What were your early experiences with digital systems?

Amon Tobin: [I tried] Pioneer CDJs, but I could never get my head around them because I was so used to the 1210s that I just couldn't ever get used to not having a moving platter. Final Scratch was awesome: I could still use my 1210s and I could play all my customized tracks. It was a mess for a while because it was in beta testing, but it was a fantastic idea. It worked when it worked, but there were a lot of problems with how the software reacted with the signal path, from the time code on the record to the needle to the tone arm to the USB device to the software itself. There were many, many places where there could be a break in the link.

How did the crowds react to the new format?

Amon Tobin: It was very hard to get it across to people that you were actually doing exactly the same thing. There's a real status quo with gear and equipment, and people are constantly looking at developments in gear and shunning them, saying, "You can't do that" or "That's not proper DJing" or "That's cheating." And until a recognized DJ actually starts using the stuff, then the reaction is very negative. When I started playing on Final Scratch' had a huge amount of resistance. People would be standing in front of me, booing, and yelling out, "Vinyl is not dead!" without realizing it's the same fucking thing... I see it as a parallel to when electric guitars came out.

DJ Craze: The biggest problem was the ignorance of people in the beginning. People really thought that I was just pressing buttons on the computer and the scratches were just magically coming out by themselves. There was actually a couple times in the beginning where I was having technical problems. I remember the computer crashin' on me.

So what do you think of the gear and software itself?

Low Budget: I've been pretty much just using Serato for almost two years now, and as far as duplicating the experience of spinning vinyl, it's fine... The main difference [between Serato and vinyl DJing] is just having to look for your next song by reading text. You start to associate songs with pictures and sleeves and colors, so when you're looking for a song, you don't really read. But now you have to read, and typing skills come into play. So when I search for a song, and I'll misspell it''m like, "Where the hell is it at? Oh' spelled it wrong." This is like at 2 a.m., after I've been drinking [laughs].

David Dewaele: When you bring CDs or vinyl, you're kind of limited to your selection, which I think is a really good thing, as opposed to bringing 20 million MP3s and just browsing through them. Something like Final Scratch lacks another advantage the CDJs have: You can do all these loop points and be really creative with where to come in and out and loop certain things.

Low Budget: I didn't try Final Scratch. [It] was a bit ahead of its time, and I just feel like more people have laptops now and are more computer-savvy. When Final Scratch came out' was broke, and there was no way I was getting a laptop, and I couldn't even comprehend something like that. I almost started [playing with] CDJs but I just couldn't get used to the feel; I was just so used to vinyl.

Amon Tobin: One of the things that the Numarks do, that Final Scratch didn't at the time, is let you lock the pitch of a track or assign a pitch to a track on the fly, so you can make proper musical mixes. I started doing key mixes, as well as BPM mixes, so that everything flows musically really well together. That's a really big part of my set now. It's a really good use of technology.

Do you still buy records?

Low Budget: Not too often. Especially the "flavor of the month" Top 40 stuff, or the bangers that you play in clubs that you play for a little while and then don't really need after. I still go record shopping 'cause I like to talk to people to see what's hot, and to get acapellas and instrumentals and harder-to-find stuff. There's digital record pools and digital promos, too, so I don't go to the record stores as much.

What are the other obstacles with the hardware/software digital controllers?

David Dewaele: I'm always afraid that it's gonna crash and then there's nothing. It's basically at a point right now where I don't think it's good enough. I've tried them all out and it seems like it's not there yet.

So what's the ideal situation?

Amon Tobin: If I could do away with laptops altogether, that would be a start. I don't particularly like the notion of looking at a laptop when I'm playing records, and I think Serato has gone a long way in their design to help overcome this. For instance, you can scroll through your tracks by dipping your needle in different parts of the vinyl instead of always using your mouse. Because, in the end, we do all come from a background where we're using turntables, and there's something just a bit cold about looking over and mousing through your tracks. I'm hoping that if things can get integrated properly, the way Rane are trying to do it with their mixer, the next stage would be to have the laptop itself (like the hard drive) inside the mixer, so you basically slot your tracks into the mixer and you play them off your decks.

David Dewaele: There's this thing called Coverflow [recently purchased by iTunes]. [It] links all your iTunes albums to covers, so you see these huge images of records that you know, and then you click on them and hear the music. It makes the whole experience of choosing music completely different. If I were to have that and be able to DJ while looking at [the images] instead of Times New Roman fonts or whatever... If that was possible, and things could be linked in a more tactile way, that'd be ideal. If people could see the whole library, like it was projected onto a wall–that' think, would be cool. [With technology], a lot of things are being focused on the wrong way. It's always the flukes that end up being the big successes.