A full DJ nerd-out article by Simon Slieker
This is an account of my personal dilemma from the frontline of battlefield DJ booth. My viewpoint is that the dj marketplace is waging a cynical war of product line advancement that is no more advanced than an arms race. The casualties are the DJ’s for whom this war, ostensibly at least is being waged. Confusion, insecurity and second guessing reign supreme, forced obsolescence, constant upgrades and continual updates are common methods of attack. I’m going to honestly share the current state of play in my dj tech life in an effort to make sense of it and pick my way through the minefield.
Whilst this may be a self indulgent exercise I’m almost certain that in writing down my current dilemma and “talking” it through with you, we may both get some clarity. That’s what I’m hoping for, because I’m really struggling at the moment to determine the best way forward with my technical set up and work flow.
If you are a DJ you may get some insight into your own process or have some questions revealed and or answered. If you are not a dj but someone interested in the art you may get some insight into the hidden miasma the contemporary DJ must negotiate to survive.
Once upon a time the dominant skirmish in our ranks was the *Battle of the Formats, AKA The Format Wars. This conflict has come to a happy enough conclusion. Either that or we’re all beyond caring. But in its wake there is a new battlefield and it is being waged against DJ’s and the aggressor is the market place. These are the DJ System Wars.
* The Battle of the Formats. Analogue or lossless digital both have their merits and it turns out they don’t need to hate one another in their childish vying for the ultimate accolade. Win win. Compressed digital (lossy, i.e. mp3) however lost out; it’s no good and if you’re using one it’s time to stop. You’re only fooling yourself not the dance floor and certainly not your contemporaries.
Delivery System: in the context of this piece a system is the dj’ing mode of delivery. Systems of delivery include: turntables with traditional vinyl, turntables with a digital vinyl system (DVS), CD players playing on board digital media i.e. CD’s, USB sticks, CD players as timecode players for a DVS or controllers for computer based DJ apps and lastly the litany of computer based apps i.e. Traktor, Serato, Rekordbox, Ableton Live, all of which can utilise hardware devices as the means to control media.
Format: the nature of the audio replication: analogue or digital. Analogue options include vinyl (records) and tape as in cassettes. No one plays cassettes. Digital options include: WAV, AIFF, MP3, FLAC, M4V, etc… They can be lossless or compressed (lossy).
My Set Up
- My system of preference is analogue vinyl played on the only device possible for this format: the turntable. This system offers me something unique that no other system does: access to a particular feeling of comfort and aptitude that has been developed over time. I have been DJ’ing for 24 years. Roughly broken down this looks like 15 years of analogue vinyl, 5 years of analogue vinyl plus CD’s, and about 5 years using a computer based system with DVS and other controllers. The amount of time spent honing my craft with records is unique in the context of the moment where new devices, systems and software are rolling out daily (battlefield DJ booth).
- The second system I use is CDJ’s with Pioneers proprietary file management software: Rekordbox. More on this later.
- The rabbit in the hat. More on this later.
The Politics Of The DJ Marketplace
The DJ market place is too rich a field for commercial enterprise not to mine. And mining it they are. The market is driving “advances” at a rate impossible for most of us to keep abreast of, let alone update to. Most of the “advances” are unnecessary falling into the realm of cosmetic or the very particular. Some of the “advances” I would argue are not advances at all, but cynical grabs by the market place at claiming more market share and more dj dollars. Many software upgrades roll out before the bugs in the previous ones have been eradicated and with new versions of software wave upon wave of new hardware we are led to believe will truly harness our creative potential.
All of this leads to a stressful situation for DJ’s. Whether you are established or starting out, you can’t escape this noise. So how do you make sense of it?
When I play on CDJ’s I utilise Pioneer’s Rekordbox software which has cleverly chained me to the Pioneer arsenal of devices of which the CDJ range is the current overlord. I actually quite like Rekordbox and rate it as a music cataloging application. This set up is great for any DJ environment which contains the industry standard device range: 2 turntables, 2 CDJ’s and a mixer. Here I have the security blanket of my vinyl with the added option of playing digital tracks on the CDJ’s. This is a great compromise as it means I can play promo releases, potential signings and unreleased material that I can’t get on vinyl. I have both angles covered. So what’s the problem?
What about when you come across the non-standard?
CDJ’s are fucking expensive. I mean really expensive. The top of the range CDJ retails at $6,700AUD at the time of writing. The common model CDJ900 Nexus which has well and truly been superseded still retails at $2,000AUD. I can buy a new MacBook Pro for the same price. Oh but wait, you need two CDJ’s for a complete set up. I don’t currently own CDJ’s. It’s no wonder that so many people go for the option of computer based systems with controllers. Comparatively these are a pittance next to Pioneers topflight dj options.
As a result of this it’s not uncommon to come across performance situations that don’t include CDJ’s. Okay, so it’s vinyl then.
Well, it’s also not uncommon, hang on, let me rephrase that: it’s highly fucking normal to come across performance situations that don’t include turntables. And even more likely that when there are turntables they haven’t been correctly installed, maintained or accommodated.
Hmmmm okay, so I can’t be guaranteed either format? Correct. I have rocked up to more gigs than I’d like to count only to discover one or the other missing and forced to adapt. In fact, so often that what I do in response can’t really be called adaptation because it’s simply become the norm. Nevertheless it’s a shit situation. More often than not I have one hand tied behind my back because I am bound to CDJ’s for my digital collection and turntables for my vinyl collection.
When to pull the rabbit out of the hat
Remember up at the beginning I mentioned 5 years using a computer based system with DVS and other controllers? Well that system was Traktor, Traktor Pro, Traktor Scratch, Traktor Pro Scratch, Traktor S4. Which is actually all the same application with the same appearance but some differing iterations of the “functionality”. Sometimes that “functionality” actually worked. Despite the furious run of upgrades.
Because I used Traktor, I still own Traktor which means I can roll it out when necessary. It seems that recent times have made necessity somewhat of a regularity. So if there are turntables and no CDJ’s I can patch in my computer and with Traktor access and play all of my digital music using the turntables to control it via the DVS technology. Pretty awesome. Especially seeing as it finally seems to be stable and doesn’t lead to an anxiety attack when it doesn’t work properly when I’m about to play to a room of 1000 people and the dj before me is not actually a DJ but a live act and they’re telling me: “You’ve got 20 seconds”, and that live act is Alex Smoke. Yes that really happened. Regularly. Which is why I originally stopped using Traktor Scratch (DVS) and embraced the digital controller iteration.
The digital controller set up is my absolute last case/worst case scenario but a handy one to have when all else fails. In this instance I have and use the excellent first generation Native Instruments midi controller that was made for Traktor the X1. Incredibly this device hasn’t been decommissioned and is still supported to work with OS environments of today. Unlike the bit of kit that was once Native Instruments flagship controller the Kontrol S4 (first generation) which was actually released after the X1. If you were unlucky enough to have bought one of these for $850 and still be using it, too bad it’s collateral damage in the war against DJ’s.
Meanwhile I have pretty much stopped having the nightmare (sic) where I am DJ’ing and I can’t get Traktor to work. I’m serious, not even my sleep state escaped unscathed from this time in my life.
But I digress, the point is, in the case of missing or busted gear I have Traktor as the sword of preference to fall on. But what does that mean in reality?
My digital format preparation workflow…
A fun evening of DJ prep at Simon’s house:
- Source and download digital WAV files to my computer.
- Import to master iTunes library (oh my god don’t even get me started on iTunes).
- Preview and delete the files I know I don’t want.
- Open Rekordbox, source and import the files from the iTunes library that I want in Rekordbox.
- Create playlists and import album artwork.
- From here I can easily export these files and playlists to a USB stick/s which then plugs into CDJ’s at the gig. Great. But what if I know I’m playing a gig with no CDJ’s?
Open Traktor, download any updates and install (seeing as usage is intermittent). Traktor and Rekordbox only speak through their attorneys so I can’t utilise the work I just did with Rekordbox, instead I have to replicate the exact same process in Traktor: import files from iTunes library, create playlists and import album artwork.
Note 1: There is an independent application that will act as an intermediary between the two adversaries of Traktor and Rekordbox. I haven’t bought it. I balk at having to buy another piece of software simply to make the other two behave. More updates, iterations etc… Fuck it.
Note 2: There is a fault for which I am responsible with my workflow. I could actually make master playlists in iTunes which would be visible in both Traktor and Rekordbox, but until now have had no reason to do so, and now that I do am simply bored and daunted at the prospect.
Note 3: By far the most annoying part of this workflow is uploading album artwork. You see WAV files don’t have id3 tags and therefore don’t carry artwork in the file. So if you want the artwork to appear in any software you must import it to that application and it only appears in that application. Which means importing separately and individually everywhere. What year is this? No wonder some people opt for mp3’s. No, don’t let that be your excuse!!! Forget I said it.
So this is where I’m really at, BUT…
Turntables, CDJ’s and Computer based dj software? Vinyl when it works, CDJ’s when present, Traktor as a fall back. Suck it up and deal with the workflow. But…
The shadow side in this war of “advancement” is forced redundancy
Okay so Traktor Scratch works perfectly with Pioneer’s digital mixers, which for a long time were the industry standard fare for most clubs. USB cable from computer to mixer and bang you’re in and ready to go: 4 internal decks instantly mapped to the 4 channels of the mixer and variously incorporating DVS with turntables if present, or timecode or midi with CDJ’s if present. Beautiful…
But what if there’s only an analogue mixer like what we use at Machine, the Allen & Heath Xone:92? Then I go back to the original audio interface that came with Traktor Scratch when I bought it the fabled Native Instruments Audio 8. It’s a shit of a set up with 6 usb leads going in and out of everything but it does allow for DVS…
But wait, back to that bit about forced obsolescence. Native Instruments have just announced that as of OSX Sierra they will no longer be supporting this device. I run Sierra. My Audio 8 works perfectly and it is now useless to me. Why? Because Native Instruments are only interested in making new weapons of DJ destruction and can’t really be expected to look after discontinued product lines hanging out in the DJ RSL. The shadow side to “advancement” is forced redundancy. The only thing guaranteed is that your device will continue to work with the operating system from the time of release. Doesn’t really play nice with the continual updates and upgrades mantra. The war against DJ’s continues…
So my fallback position of Traktor is no longer water-tight because it is dependent upon a particular mixer or I buy an upgrade to their audio interface hardware because they no longer support the existing piece which is in perfect working order. Grrrrrrr. So I rush out and support the arms race? Fork out more $$ to support Native Instruments in their grab for world domination? No I think it’s safe to say I’m finally done with Traktor. Native Instruments have sealed this themselves.
Where to now? A list of options:
- Stop playing vinyl and make CDJ’s the mainstay with a computer based controller environment as back up. No. Vinyl stays, it’s too significant a loss. I’ll always pack it even though some of the time it won’t be supported. Vinyl staying means a computer based DVS is still on the table as well.
- Buy CDJ’s and take them out to select gigs when necessary. Too expensive, too cumbersome, too much risk.
- Forget about Traktor let go of my baggage and embrace Serato. I have seriously considered this as a fallback option for playing digital files. It is a possibility. But only if I stop using Rekordbox. Otherwise I’m in the same situation described above with dual workflow environments. Rekorbox and Serato only speak through their lawyers. Which would mean CDJ’s are reduced to controllers for Serato. This is a big piece of functionality and convenience to give up. Too big, I think.
- Get over myself with regard to Traktor. It is after all the one software option I own and have experience with. Buy the current audio interface to unlock its DVS functionality with analogue mixers. So what would this be? They have two iterations the Traktor Scratch A6 ($399AUD) and Traktor Scratch A10 ($584AUD). The A10 allows for 4 deck set up, ie. 3 turntables and 1 CDJ. Both come bundled with the software I already own and the control vinyl I already own. Again Native Instruments manage to infuriate, lacking the option of buying the interface separately.
- Use Ableton Live as a DJ performance tool. This would constitute an entirely different approach and workflow. Not one I’m fond of in the dj context.
- Rekordbox DVS. Hello. Pioneer have expanded their Rekordbox application into a fully fledged dj system, including DVS. It has plug and play capability with Pioneer mixers, it offers all of its existing cataloging and file management functionality for setting up playlists for export to USB stick and play on CDJ’s. And Pioneer have just released an audio interface for the DVS side for use when the mixing environment is turntables and an analogue mixer. If Rekordbox is a one size fits all solution, my workflow problems are solved, my fallback solution for a CDJ absent set up is resolved with their DVS or controller based functionality. This all comes in a package including control vinyl and cables currently retailing at $500AUD. The drawback here is the discomforting feeling of supporting Pioneers monopoly on the market. Buying into it. Hmmmm.
- WTF? Denon have just made a play. Denon the company responsible for the first DJ CD deck, who spectacularly gave up their position to a far more innovative Pioneer are somehow back in the game. They’ve just released the full arsenal: CDJ’s, mixer, file management software and turntables! It’s as though they’ve spent the last 20 years quietly building the same repertoire as Pioneer, have waited to be completely overrun and are now launching their super surprise attack. But as good as their software and CDJ’s appear to be, they don’t currently play nice with anything but Serato. Wtf? So it’s completely adopt Denon or nothing. Also the addition of turntables seems to be a disembodied add on, as Denon don’t offer a DVS, so it’s clearly geared at Serato. Not so great seeing as I’ve already all but ruled out Serato. I honestly don’t understand how Denon think they can get clubs around the world to re-tool their hardware setups completely to accommodate their new range, regardless of how good it is.
- Djay Pro, is another DJ software option with the additional selling point of native Soundcloud and iTunes integration. This would be pretty handy if I way playing lots of shows in bars and clubs to dance floors that required music that I didn’t necessarily own. However I made a conscious decision to remove myself from those situations long ago and I’m not about to go back to playing music I don’t like for the sake of making money.
- I mentioned the software utility earlier that would be the marriage counsellor for Traktor, Rekordbox, Serato etc… to communicate and share libraries, playlists and file management. This software is called DJ Conversion Utility. It will DJCU transfer metadata (cues, loops, beat-grid, key info) between DJ applications, well some of them anyway. Again, like I said earlier, I’m loathe to bring another element into the mix.
What am I not seeing?
Probably a lot. It’s a minefield out there, a minefield on a battlefield in a war being waged across the DJ market place all in the name of the DJ, meanwhile the DJ is being crushed by the phalanx of product advancement and profiteering.
Which way will I turn in my pursuit of a clean, simple and functional DJ workflow?
Stand by for Part 2. Decision time.
A couple of tips for anyone about to walk out into this mire:
TIP: Do your best to choose a system that suits your process. Take note of how it feels in your hands, and how you feel when you use it. Go with what feels good.
TIP: Once you choose a system avoid the temptation to change. Everything in the market place is screaming at us to: upgrade, up-sell, upsize etc… Where the real benefits emerge is from time spent developing skill and style with the chosen format and device. Stick with what you choose and hone your skill into an art and rock it.