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The Revolution In DJ Gear

September 23, 2011; Jason "Hazardous" Logan

In order to really discuss the revolution in DJ equipment we have to consider the evolution. The DJ gear that most DJs are all so familiar with stemmed from the phonograph. The original Edison phonograph, introduced in 1877 was made simply to play and listen to records. Eventually during the early 1970's the DJ Mixer was introduced to allow the use of two record players or other electronic sound sources to be distributed via a single stereo path. With the advent of disco and club music, this lead to the birth of the Club DJ. There is so much more to the record player but the focus here is how it relates to current technology.

A mixer is an electronic device that allows for multiple sources (dependent on each mixer’s configuration) to be “mixed” into one unified signal (usually stereo) using a combination of mixing controls including line faders, cross faders, equalization and cueing. This allows a DJ to easily mix two records, Cds or Mp3 players together. Eventually, the renowned Technics SL-1200 became the standard in DJ turntables, especially in the hip-hop genre. The only other rival to the Technic SL-1200 is the Pioneer CDJ series. Both Technics and Pioneer are club standards to this day.

Panasonic, which is the parent company of Technics, announced late 2010 that the SL-1200 would be discontinued. This is the beginning of the revolution in DJ gear, which has introduced digital media to replace the classic hardware we've seen for such a long time. The standards are not so standard anymore. Although they are classic pieces of gear, to a new generation of DJs, are they just relics that have not caught up to current times of MP3s. In fact, the vinyl medium has long been replaced by CDs, and then CDs replaced by MP3s. So what is next on the horizon for the culture of the Club DJ?

Truthfully, digital DJing (I wonder if DJing is actually a word) is not a new phenomenon but has never been up to par for most until now. There are so many more choices and the de facto standard in digital equipment has not been determined and may never be. Choice may be the new standard. Let's discuss the different types of DJ setups that exist.

DVS (or Digital Vinyl System) DJ Rigs

The first foray into digital DJ equipment was the DVS system. A DVS turns your traditional DJ setup of two decks (turntable or CD) and a mixer and allows you to utilize your laptop for your music library. DVS is mostly utilized by DJs who were already using the traditional setup with vinyl or CD before the digital revolution. They are essentially using analog gear to control digital features.

Among the most popular DVS systems are Serato Scratch Live and Traktor Scratch Pro. They include the software, an audio interface and a set of specialized vinyl or CD that sends out time code to the interface. The time code allows the software to "speak" to the turntable and know exactly where the revolution of the record is for accuracy between the physical medium and digital medium.

Controller

A DJ controller is an all-in-one solution typically only requiring a single USB cable connected to a laptop. It utilizes MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) to send an instruction to and from the software. You can use your digital music library and preferred DJ software to play your set instead of vinyl or CD like the old days. It emulates your two decks and a mixer in one unit (or sometime multiple units). It comes in a variety of sizes from a full size replacement, like the Numark NS7, to the portable alternative, like the Vestax VCI-100 (apparently not ordered by the DJ gear buyer, hence not in the system…it’s also now called the Vestax VCI-100MK2 on the Vestax site).

Previously, DJ controllers were viewed by some as hobbyist toys and not taken seriously as professional gear. The trend is changing as companies are recognizing that the pro DJs does not want to sacrifice high quality for convenience and would rather have both the quality and convenience with no trade off. Also "controllerism" (as opposed to "turntablism") has spawned a sub culture of DJs that use very unconventional gear and techniques. This is the reason that software like Ableton Live which was not originally meant for DJing purposes is very popular along with the (made for Ableton) Akai APC40.

So what should a new DJ purchase?

Although each DJ has his or her own choice in gear and it really depends on your style, in my opinion getting a DVS system will only set you back instead of moving forward. I think the NS7 is great when you get the gig that is not in the bar and you need to impress folks with your setup, in say broad day light or photo opportunities. However, for the typical bar gig you may need to get an alternative smaller controller to suit that situation.

I personally have the same situation. I have two residencies and one has Pioneers and Technics, the other has nothing at all. I preferred to get a smaller controller (VCI-100se, previously a Mixtrack) and set up next to the Pioneers/Technics and/or move them. In the very near future I suspect bars and clubs will not have any equipment (except for house sound and mixer of course) and expect the DJ to bring their preferred mediums. I just chose to not deal with possibly malfunctioning equipment and the like.

I have fellow DJs who show up to the club to relieve me only to find that once they are ready to set up, the turntables are either missing, not working, only one works, etc. That is the most inefficient way to work especially if you have two gigs a night and you need to leave. I'm often the DJ who needs to leave for another gig and it's easy for me to setup and breakdown but the DJ who doesn't use controllers and expects the club to provide them are frustrated by the surprises.

Why would anyone under the age of 25 purchase a DVS when they most likely have never seen a vinyl record in their life? Perhaps the undeniable real estate of 12" of space, you're a "purist" who will not use anything else, or you are the rare young person who maybe grew up with a DJ and learned the traditional way of DJing. Ultimately the cost of the traditional setup does not outweigh the benefits of cheaper solutions that digital offers.

I personally love what DJ controllers have to offer. Many are very different from each other but most have control over effects, loops, cue points, and multiple decks. It just makes more sense to condense things into a quick work environment. I use Tratkor Pro with the VCI-100se which is DJ Tech Tools modified version. Ean Golden, a DJ of 15 years and creator of DJTechTools.Com has been part of the controller movement for some time and this piece of gear was one of the first controllers to be taken serious by professional DJ's. You may want to consider the new Vestax Typhoon, which comes complete with Virtual DJ software or Native Instruments Traktor Control S4, which comes with a complete version of Traktor Pro S4 instead of the more limited Traktor LE.

Many controllers are the size of laptops but they do range in size. They have come a long way in terms of build quality and features. Depending on the type of DJ you are, some things will matter more to you than others. For example, a scratch DJ will be concerned with jog wheels and the response to the software. A “controllerist” will be concerned with cue points and effects. However, most controllers are just MIDI controllers at heart and it is very possible to change any feature to do exactly what you like in your software. The main ingredient of the revolution is choice.

What to look for in a controller

So you have decided that you want to take the plunge into digital gear. The question is, what do you want out of a controller and what features suit your working style best? There are many things to consider but it really depends on what kind of DJ you want to be. The companies are making better quality units every day and you really have a wide open market to choose from. Here are a few key aspects of controllers that can help you make this very complex decision easy:

  • Size
  • Build quality
  • Jog Wheels
  • 2 channels or 4 channels
  • Cue points
  • Software
  • Video mixing
  • Audio interface
  • Community support
  • Price

Taking all or some of these into consideration can really help you make the right decision on your choice of gear. Price usually reflects the build quality and included features. A lower priced, affordable unit for a bedroom or beginning DJ may be an ideal choice since they are still learning and honing their craft but the professional DJ may require something that can withstand the rigors of the road and daily abuse.

Your choice in software is also a key factor. I'm a Traktor fan but my DJ partner is in fact a Serato user (previously DVS on Technics) but we use similar controllers. He uses the Vestax VCI-300 which is made for and comes with Serato Itch. As mentioned earlier, I use the Vestax VCI-100se customized for Traktor Pro by DJ Tech Tools. The current trend is the use of 4 channels so companies are making 4 channels standard (or at least being able to access 4 channels). Maybe you like to video mix. Currently Virtual DJ is the only major DJ software that has this feature as standard.

DJ'ing is (or was) all about the spinning thing. The jog wheels are an important feature for some. This allows for scratching, pitch bending, and track searching. They have come a long way since the early days of controllers. The Numark NS7 and V7 retain the concept of spinning platters in a controller. However, the advent of controllerism has seen some have no jog wheels at all. The Novation Twitch  for example, replaced the jog wheels with touch strips and the Livid Ohm64 has none to speak of either. DJ culture has truly changed and the lines are blurred when it comes to standards in gear. Enter the revolution.

In my own experience

I'm 31 and I own a coveted selection of vinyl that my loving father has bestowed upon me. I grew up listening to my father play records on Saturday nights. He is a huge fan of music and is actually my source of music knowledge except for hip-hop and house music.

I initially aspired to be a hip-hop and R&B producer (still do) and DJing was something I knew how to do but never invested money or time in. I was young with no transportation, living at home with my parents. Carrying crates and turntables was neither appealing nor an option. I always questioned; since they can make MIDI keyboards to function as a piano, why not a MIDI DJ instrument to function as a turntable?

Fast forward through college, purchasing a home, and a dependable vehicle; DJ controllers have come of age. Now I can carry my laptop and controller and not worry about back problems. All thanks to technology catching up with my mind. Thank you, digital!




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