The mp3 DJ Mixing Revolution?

It’s hard to find a steady path to tread between the nay-sayers and hyper-evangelists in this ever-changing world. Never more so than in the world of DJ’ing, where it appears, after more than 20 years, we could be coming towards the end of the 1210 era.

After vinyl: the CD?

CDJ 1000But what will come next? While the Pioneer CDJ 1000 seems to be adopting the same position in the CD DJ market that Technics held with vinyl, can we really expect the CD to enjoy the longevity of the black plastic 12″? After all part of the reason vinyl stuck around so long was due to distribution: it was the medium of choice for specialist dance music shops. For the digital DJ unconcerned about looking cool with a record bag round the Boho district of town, shopping online is an attractive proposition. High-quality mp3s can be purchased from anywhere in the world relatively cheaply (forget the exhorbitant ‘import’ price tag).

Even though the latest CD players (inc. Pioneer’s) can handle mp3 playback allowing you to take a whole night’s worth of records on a handful of CDs, you have to be prepared to go through the act of burning CDs (two copies of each if you want the possiblity to mix from any track to any other).

The pure digital DJ

If you’re thinking there’s enough plastic in the world and have no romantic attachment to the 11.5cm CD, then another option is to go down the complete digital road. Although this industry is still in its infancy, innovators such as Richie Hawtin, Coldcut and Sasha have been championing this technology for some time.

Traktor - Digital DJ SoftwareA common setup is to have some kind of USB midi controller that you connect to a laptop via a standard USB cable. The controller can be anything from faders through to a time-coded piece of vinyl that sends a control sound back to the computer. For the software, there’s custom DJ software, or the more advanced sequencers such as Ableton Live. Across the board, what you end up with is a package that can be highly mobile – you need little more than a laptop loaded with all your mp3s and some form of controller.

Hardware controllers

What controller you use largely depends on how you mix. If you’re more into seamless beat mixing, then faders will probably do, for the turntablist, a time-coded piece of vinyl on a regular deck may fit the bill.

Native Instruments produce high-end digital equipment and software for musicians, producers and DJs. The Traktor Scratch is based on technology they originally produced for Stanton. It’s essentially a box that sits between the turntable/CD deck and the laptop that receives a signal from time-coded CD/vinyl. As you scratch, or alter the pitch, the signal sent to the box changes, and this is used to adjust playback. So for instance, using an existing pair of 1210s it’s possible to directly control mp3s on your laptop.

Rane’s Serato Scratch offers essentially the same, although this product has attained a high following in the hip hop world.

M-Audio’s X-Session Pro offers knobs and faders to control playback. More aimed at the more value-conscious end of the house music playing market, the contoller is ideal for performing long fades and mucking around with EQ levels.Vestax DJ Midi Controller

A newer entrant on the scene (released early in 2007) is the VCI-100 DJ Midi Controller from Vestax. This hybrid device contains both jog wheels and faders, and is no wider than your average laptop. Vestax has long been a producer of high-end DJ gear including turntables and mixers so you can expect this equipment to live up to their high standards.

Software contenders

For the DJ, the software market can be less confusing. You have the choice of the bespoke DJ products, or to use a specialized sequencing package. Your options can be limited depending on what hardware you choose.

Tracktor DJ Studio is, as the name suggests, built squarely for the DJ. The interface can be cumbersome, but is packed full of features, with a mixer modelled on the Allen & Heath Xone:92. Many controllers ship with the lite version of the product which will help Native Instruments in its quest to dominate this market.

Virtual DJ produced one of the first products to put the waveforms side-by-side, making it instantly easier to mix by sight, as well as by sound. The interface is generally well laid out and the performance of the software is one of the highlights.

Ableton Live is a multi-track editing tool that revolutionized the industry by introducing a different way of interacting with samples – the ability to quickly move the blocks around a vertical grid. No more messing around with tricky waveforms. This product is squarely aimed at sample-driven dance music and hooking it up to a midi controller has become the kit of choice for many digital DJs including John Digweed and Laurent Garnier.

The future

As with any new industry, it can be worth waiting to see what wins out as the king pin – the de facto industry standard. Pick your bandwagon before you jump. After all, is it really worth a vinyl DJ training on anything other than a pair of Technics given that this is what you’ll be presented with in most bar/club settings?

However, the digital DJ space can remain a lot more open allowing different DJs to pick their tools of choice. After all, if it’s just a laptop bag and a controller you need to hook up to the club’s amp, you can get out on the road with any kit you like. With different setups allowing you to interact with sounds in a different way, the emergence of the digital DJ could well signal a true revolution.

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