Spun Around

Larisa Mann
November 13, 2007

When I show up for a gig these days, I've got a backpack, like I always did, but instead of being crammed full of vinyl, it's got five or six records, headphones, needles, a black metal box and some cables. Times have changed; the digital deejay era is in full swing. A recent club appearance illustrates how far music technology has come.

A few months ago, I shuffled into an event I was to spin at after it had begun and set up my laptop and digital mixing gear while the opening deejay was playing. Before you can use a laptop to spin tunes on turntables, you have to route them into a hardware interface. I wedged my cigar-box sized Serato ScratchLIVE digital-analog signal conversion unit behind the deejay mixer and leaned over the turntables, trying not to get in his way as I switched out the RCA cables from the deck he'd just used into the Serato box's input slots.

I waited for the other turntable to be free so I could do the same with its cables. Now I had both turntables running through my Serato digital interface, completing the first step of connecting a laptop deejay set-up. I found a power source for my laptop and the Serato box, and went to dance until my set. Later, when it was my turn to spin, I turned on my laptop and accessed a virtual record crate, my 4,000-plus MP3 collection -- enough music to last six or more hours. To bring the equivalent amount of vinyl records would have required a U-Haul truck.

(see video below)

Vinyl Without the Bulk

Digital dejays don't entirely abandon the vinyl experience; software-hardware interfaces like Serato ScratchLIVE (simply referred to as "Serato") make it possible to use encoded vinyl records to spin MP3 files the same way a vinyl deejay mixes old school wax. The needle is placed at the start of the record platter, but it can represent any one of thousands of song files in your collections. You can even assign the same track to both platters, and juggle and scratch back and forth like a deejay using double copies of the same song.

In a club, the first people to notice the difference between a digital deejay and traditional vinyl set are usually the trainspotters -- inquisitive fans that stare down at the spinning record to make out what a deejay is playing. When these curious clubbers approach the decks, they see two identical vinyl plates with labels that both read "Serato." And although the songs change as they're blended or mixed from deck to deck, these special encoded records never leave the turntable.

When listeners come up close, they'll see me selecting tunes off my laptop screen from a menu of tracks, cuing them in the headphones as usual, and starting up a record. Folks in the back might notice the laptop's glow on my face as I spin and wonder what I'm squinting at as I'm scrolling through song lists or checking the SeratoScratch software's visual cues (the software interface includes two circular spinning virtual "records," start points and colorful waveforms), which help me know when a song is about to change or end.


Deejays Go Digital

Digital deejaying is more common these days than it was a few years ago, and Rane Corp's Serato ScratchLIVE is just one in a range of software-hardware choices that allows a deejay physical vinyl control and the ability to play MP3s or other digital files. Serato has quickly become the most popular software/hardware combo, despite its $539 price tag. But the digital deejay equipment market is crowded with competitors; companies like Pioneer, M-Audio, Native Instruments and others all offer alternatives.

First released in 1998, Native Instruments' Traktor (used in conjunction with Stanton Magnetics Final Scratch hardware interface) was one of the first commercially available computer-based deejay software programs. I never used it because in its early versions it never seemed stable -- I always saw deejays checking their watches as their computers rebooted while cranky clubbers complained about the sudden silence.

Early versions of both Traktor and Serato also suffered from latency issues -- the time the computer takes to send information through the hardware interface to the vinyl discs. When software/hardware latency is slow, each song you're trying to mix is a few seconds off -- its like shouting into a vast canyon and waiting to hear your echo. Many of the early glitches have been worked out as faster computer chips have been developed, and by 2003 the rush to convert from vinyl to MP3 was on.

GrandMixer DXT (the scratcher on Herbie Hancock's "Rockit") was an early adopter of Serato's no-longer-manufactured Studio version. In 2003 DXT was using Serato on his albums, but it wasn't until 2004 that the stand-alone version, Serato ScratchLIVE, entered the DJ scene. I remember hearing about turntablists like Daly City, Calif.'s Shortkut and Toronto, Canada's A-Trak demonstrating Serato at music conventions. No doubt many fears were soothed by the fact that award-winning scratch deejays found the program sensitive and stable enough to work with.

Open the Digital Floodgates

I began seeing ScratchLIVE used commonly in nightclubs around 2005, when a whole slew of Bay Area and New York jocks I knew bought it, seemingly simultaneously. When planning a European tour in the summer of 2006, I was worried about the weight of records I was going to have to lug around, and also interested in using the growing number of tunes I only had on MP3 format. It seemed like a good time to invest in Serato. As it turns out, spinners around the world were making the same decision. I wondered what motivated them to abandon the warmth and texture of records for the still-evolving medium of digital deejay technology?

Beat Research producer DJ Flack says Serato's interface "is keeping alive the turntable as an apparatus and the tactile art of turntablism." Playing with vinyl -- even the encoded vinyl platters in a typical digital deejay set up -- is just hella fun, compared to poking at laptop buttons or messing with mice. It's also nice when your realize, as Boston's DJ C ) did, that "suddenly an entire library of music only weighs five pounds." Many older deejays will attest to the back and shoulder damage done by weighty sacks of vinyl.

There are also technical plusses to digital deejay gear, such as Serato's integrated album art function, so you can see the cover art associated with a song as you scroll through your MP3 menu -- a nice addition for DJs who still think of tunes visually. The backlit screen doesn't hurt either -- as Jimmy Love of Nonstop Bhangra and Surya Dub says: "Searching for a track [on your screen] is a million times better then sorting through a bag of records in a dark club."

Drawbacks of the Digital Age

Serato is pricey ($539 plus tax at last price check), but (assuming you pay for MP3s) the cost of tunes can be much lower. Sites like Beatport charge $2 per track, while others like DanceTracksDigtial or Stompy charge slightly less. As a deejay who paid 12 hard-earned dollars for a two-song jungle 12" single in 1996, this is definitely appealing! But it's not all cake and ice cream, of course. Digital deejay gear has its share of disadvantages.

"The biggest thing holding me back was the daunting task of digitizing all my records," says Boston's DJ Flack, referring to the process of recording a song on a vinyl record into his computer. "There is no quick way to transform songs from records into MP3s -- it has to be done in real time that for old school vinyl junkies and long term DJs can be a serious holdup."

Serato software is extremely stable, but if your hardware is wonky (as it is in many clubs that have the Serato converter box preset in their sound system) it can behave unpredictably. Bad needles can lead to a bad signal, or if you reverse the audio inputs to the deejay mixer (easy to do in the dark), the tunes play backwards, I learned one memorable night in Ireland last summer.

Setting up on the fly gets a bit difficult, especially when the decks are already in use. And if the other deejay is also using Serato, it can be harder, not easier. "You soon learn you need to bring some records if you have problems transitioning from one laptop to another," says Jimmy Love.

"[Serato] makes you a librarian as much as a DJ," remarks DJ C. For people with huge obsessively organized record collections, this might not be an issue, but these days, metadata is the name of the game.

The biggest problem I face as my MP3 and digital file library of tunes expands, is how to organize all this information. When I first guest-deejayed live on KUSF's Future Breaks radio show, the host DJ Push asked me to play some instrumentals so he could talk over them. I looked at my laptop blankly and racked my brain, since I hadn't marked specific MP3s as instrumental tracks. Ooops.


Fast Forward

Perhaps the most interesting development is the way the rise of MP3 deejaying is changing the way jocks and producers play and make music.

Jimmy Love likes the format's flexibility to change up sounds and pull fast samples on the fly. Different ways of sorting have opened up new mixing methods for DJ Flack. "Often just view my entire library disregarding genre and view it only by the song's BPM (beats-per-minute or tempo)," he says. "By knowing which tracks will be close in tempo, I have found some strange and satisfying mixes that I wouldn't have found otherwise."

The effects reach farther than individual deejays, too. The term "collaboration" came up in almost every person I talked to about digital spinning. DJ C thinks digital deejaying is responsible for more collaboration and sharing, in the form of social networks, blogs, email and other internet tools that allow deejays to work with other producers, vocalists. etc., all over the world. "I can then turn around and send the output of those collaborations to deejays anywhere, who can go and play the tracks in their sets that same night," he says.

Producer and DJ Maga Bo points out that tools like Serato make his tracks available to others more quickly and easily. "It has encouraged collaboration and sharing with others, which has led to me being able to play special, unreleased or exclusive mixes. "

DJ Flack agrees: "It's so much easier to play one's own original compositions in the middle of one's DJ set. It's great hearing your own music in the context of other music that you love, and sometimes a good blend will give you an idea of a type of beat to include in a new song or a future version of the one you are playing. Getting a sense of how it sounds out in the world and how a crowd reacts is also very helpful."

The Record Keeps Spinning

Some folks mourn the death of vinyl, and it's true I have bought far fewer records since I started using Serato. Meanwhile, the president of EMI has said that the CD is dead as well.

But like my fellow deejays and producers, I'm finding more lively and interactive connections with music makers: mixes, remixes and mash-ups fly back and forth across the world. On the dance floor I've found a whole range of new ways to connect with audiences and entertain myself as well. Until someone comes up with an interface that is as fun to use as vinyl (I'm looking at you, monome), Serato ScratchLIVE and similar gear is a pretty good way to keep the party rockin'.

For more on digital deejaying:

Digtial DJ

Serato ScratchLIVE

M-Audio Torq

Virtual DJ

Mixxx (open source software)

Miss Pinky (scratch digital audio or QuickTime movies)

Larisa Mann writes about technology, media and law for WireTap, studies jurisprudence and social policy at U.C. Berkeley and djs under the name Ripley. She collaborates with the Riddim Method blog-dj-academic crew, Havocsound sound system, and various other cross-fertilizing organisms in the Bay Area and worldwide.