The Hidden Artefacts Of An Art Form In Transition

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By Simon Slieker

 

DJ’ing went through an extraordinary era of constancy, in an era of the most rapid technological change, ever seen on the face of the planet.

 

Industry standards remained more or less the same since 1979 which saw the birth of the Technics SL-1200Mk2.

 

For a good 25 years DJ’ing meant a certain thing and was defined by it’s medium of delivery.

 

Now it’s all up for grabs. We live in a “choose your own adventure” time of re-invention. It’s at once exciting and challenging, for no longer can old ideologies about what defines DJ’ing be held to with any certainty.

 

After a long period of DJ’ing being a well defined and relatively clear thing, we are thrown back into the realisation, that the only constant is in fact change.

 

Apparent in this transition is that certain aspects that are derivative of the change reveal themselves. These things are the hidden artefacts of an art form in transition. This is of particular intersest to me. In no small way because these growing pains bear down upon the the world of dance music and its exposition. They affect the delivery, reception and uptake of the medium in which I have invested my adult life. And it’s for this reason that I’ve chosen to open up a conversation on the topic.

 

I thank Ranjit for coming and asking me to engage in this conversation. He and I have had a history of engaged discussion on various topics around DJ’ing and music. He is without a doubt one of the big thinkers in the industry. Look no further than his involvement on the dance floor as evidence of this (where you will no doubt find him occupying precious space while he stands there…thinking).

 

He asked that I bring the essence of our conversations into a written forum, acknowledging that dance media could benefit from such. So this is the beginning of, what I hope to be something that stimulates further discussion. I want to say from the outset, that my stance in this column doesn’t come from a position of “I am RIGHT.” Rather it comes from a place of “I am passionate about this subject and have a lifetime of professional engagement in it which has brought to bare a perspective, that, if nothing else, at least spans a breath of time.”  I will endeavour to be objective, and when I am clearly bringing subjectivity to a topic, I will say so. Overall, the point is to bring matters to light, not to worry about being right.

 

For those that don’t know, this is the trajectory of my DJ career:

 

1993 – Began learning how to mix SL1200’s

1994 – 2001 DJ with SL1200’s. Changes in pitch supported by subtle manual adjustments to outer rim of platter and “tweaking” the centre pin.

2001 – 2005 DJ with SL1200’s. Master “floating pitch” style of adjustments for much smoother, clean mix, ie the Derek May, Juan Atkins approach.

2005 – 2008 DJ with SL1200’s with the addition of CD’s.

2008 – 2009 Switch to Traktor Scratch with Timecode vinyl coupled with traditional vinyl.

2009 – 2010 Incorporate midi controllers to the setup. Novation Nocturn with mapping, then Native Instruments X1 with mapping

2010 – 2012 Drop Timecode vinyl completely and switch to full Traktor sync set up with the incorporation of Native Instruments S4 upon release in August 2010. This shift was the most difficult for me and brought up an intense self-consciousness that crippled my creativity. The essence of which was seeing a move beyond “pitch mixing” into sync technology as being somehow fake, or less than. It took a massive shift of perspective and dropping of ego to get through this.

2013 – Present Switch back to SL1200’s conventional dj setup, with occasional incorporation of Pioneer RekordBox USB technology

 

I’ve made a point of drawing this career trajectory out, to illustrate something. Namely, I’m an advocate for progression. That is, I’m not of a fixed view about what DJ’ing is, or should be. To me it’s about a feeling, and it’s about harnessing a moment. When I’ve seen new technologies appear, I’ve been of a mind to see what they’re about. Ask the question, “how can these tools enhance the medium, or work in its favour?”.

 

Let me say right off the bat, I do not hold a strong preference about the superiority of one medium over another. They all have a place, and more will be added to the ever-expanding list of possibility for musical exposition. Each has benefits and limitations. Each can be used artfully and creatively, and each can be wretchedly abused to the point of boredom and disaster.

 

Having experienced first hand the options, possibilities and pitfalls of several mediums I have a fair bit to say on this topic. Too much for one article. And to he honest, not all of it needs to be said because it’s boring. Nevertheless some of the topics I’ll expand on in future pieces are:

 

  • My personal problems with handling a playlist collection after a record box collection, of music.
  • DJ’ing and the disaster of celebrity
  • Laptops and the curse of the backlight
  • Vinyl and the romantic notion of the resonant room
  • Vinyl only releases: WTF? A transcribed heated discussion between Simon Slieker and Ranjit Nijjer

 

But first let me hark back to my opening point about the hidden artefacts of an art form in transition. I believe I identified one of these at Rainbow Serpent this year and I’d like to throw it under the bus, whoops, that’s me being parochial, read: throw it out there.

 

One of the things I love about a festival is having such a plethora of music on show. Having the luxury to walk through a location and be exposed to many genres, artists and styles. And, especially at a well curated event, to benefit from the event producers research in experiencing artists and styles that I may not be aware of or otherwise interested in. After many years I have happily given up the compulsion to feel any sense of justified angst in finding things I don’t like repugnant. Rather, I now, almost always find ways to get some sense of enjoyment either vicariously, through other people, or by tapping into the an appreciation for the entitlement that allows me to be at these events, in this country, in the first place. It is also a relief to be free of fervent dislike for one thing or another, as such things take a fair bit of energy. A welcome benefit of this open mindedness is that it has given me a sense of perspective that was otherwise closed off. It is this, I think that I have started really enjoying as I am exposed to all sorts at a festival. (Nb. don’t get me wrong, I am not free of opinion, I still have them and I still find myself foaming at the mouth at different times.)

 

Back to the point. This year at Rainbow, as I went through and experienced all I did, there was a quality to many of the sets I heard that became apparent, and I recognised it as something I identified when I was using Traktor. How can I describe it?

 

To generalise; there is a moment, in the mix, that becomes a moment too long. A moment that is, in essence a transition, a movement from one track, or sequence to another, that seems to linger. Then this moment, and the next one, seem to join up, and in their joining up the set takes on a characteristic of lingering. It’s like the movement forward stalls. The mix becomes ponderous and I will explain why.

 

When mixing with Traktor, not only is syncing available (which enables far more complex layering at times in a track where conventional DJ’ing is prohibitive due to the absence of repetitive sounds in the music), but another powerful feature has come into play: looping. With looping, in one fell swoop, with one click of a button, something magical happens: the track does not end. In fact it will repeat the chosen cycle for as long as electricity is available. This is awesome of course, but it is the abuse of this feature that contributes to the plodding mix.

 

For if a DJ is not pressured by the imminent conclusion of a track, then they can really take their time in the mix. And the risk here is that, in having more time, the time can be misspent.

 

How I experienced this when using Traktor: because I had the option of syncing the tracks and extending them if necessary, I would put more emphasis on achieving the perfect blend. For if the blend wasn’t exemplary, offering up something better than conventional (vinyl or CD DJing) then what was the point? (There are many points, but this is the one I fell prey to).  I would get so caught up i this, that before long I was padding out vast sections of my set, in the pursuit of perfection. Crippling. The result: a ponderous mix, lacking energy and conviction, often taking so long to get to the point, that the point was lost.

 

When I identified this, I became inspired by my friend and, who I believe to be the best user of Traktor I have encountered DJ AsN0t. He inspired me to adopt “loop theory” DJ’ing, wherein, the convention of track to track mixing is dropped in favour of loop to loop. This is extremely difficult and deserves a a feature article on itself. Suffice it to say: getting lost in the loop is even easier here.

 

I’m not saying that this is exactly what I experienced at Rainbow. For my efforts were extreme in this area, but there is something of this pattern that has become apparent. It is a leaning that laptop DJ’s would do well to be aware of. Use the feature set, get the most out of it; but also look for the hidden artefacts that can surface and all of a sudden create problems of their own.

 

On one level there is nothing wrong with what I have described here. It could also be interpreted as: timeless, dreamy mixing, free of the hectic and premature transitions characteristic of vinyl DJ’ing. But for me, it is this drive and sense of urgency that vinyl DJ’ing is bound by, that creates the thrill of the mix, and at its best, a compelling wave that can be ridden all the way to shore. And it was this, that I found myself yearning for this year, more than ever.

7 comments on “The Hidden Artefacts Of An Art Form In Transition

  1. I also started to learn to mix on 1200s in the early 90s, and similarly took a diversion into the digital via timecode vinyl and digital controllers, and CDJs, but not as heavy as Simon. I completely agree with the statement, “But for me, it is this drive and sense of urgency that vinyl DJ’ing is bound by, that creates the thrill of the mix”. This is one of the biggest difference in my mind, and it’s that thrill that is turned on when you’re in the zone, slapping down plate after plate and moving minds and feet. I’m interested to see what becomes of the discussion around “My personal problems with handling a playlist collection after a record box collection, of music.” I’ve always felt a disconnect with the processes of track selection in a digital environment (even though you have a plethora of choice) vs picking tunes from a record box. There is a phenomenological difference in the experience that is hard to put my finger, so I look forward to reading that instalment.

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  2. Hi Simon, I totally understand where you are coming from, Simon. You are right that DJing with Traktor and other software has the side effect that the DJ doesn’t have to seize the moment which probably has a negative effect on the dynamics of a set.
    This certainly changes the approach of today’s DJs which have probably never touched a vinyl record.
    In this lays a loss of some essential basics and skills that can’t be achieved otherwise.
    At the same time this could be the chance for something completely new in DJing. I’m not a DJ myself which makes it even harder to guess what that could be. But changes in general are inevitable and they are usually good for something although we might not see in which way yet. In the end it’s everyone’s individual decision what he or she feels most comfortable with to deliver the musical vision that they have in mind.
    I see the whole thing more from the point of view of the audience. When I go out to get my regular fix of dance music I want a certain type of music in the first place. I want to be taken to a different zone and be fully in the moment for at least a few minutes or so.
    I’m craving for the music that does something special to me and let me forget everything around me and make my body move without me being in control of it. This is very hard to find these days where the diversity of music styles and tastes seem endless.
    So I’m more than happy when a DJ is on the same page when it comes to that. The way he or she mixes the songs is rather secondary, I must say, but it pushes me over the edge when this part of DJing is excellent on top of it!
    To me those are the very special moments in my life that give me something extremely valuable which is almost impossible to put in words… :))
    What I want to say is that there is no right or wrong in DJing, I think.. It’s more about each individuals taste, ideas, passion, confidence, skills, level of experience and who knows what else. And everyone reacts differently to it.
    Simon, you can call yourself very lucky that you’ve learned DJing the traditional way. The new generations won’t have this privilege but I think by sharing your experiences and thoughts on it, people can majorly gain from what you have to say.
    It’s important that the fundamentals don’t get lost. So, I think you are doing a great job by sharing your thoughts here and this will hopefully inspire other DJs to share their thoughts on this matter too.
    All I can say is that as long as the beat (or whatever makes people dance or move) doesn’t stop a DJ set is not that bad. Those are the most frustrating moments for me. For some reason some DJs e.g. at the last Rainbow Serpent played just sounds and noises in between songs which made everyone stand around waiting for a minute or two for the next song. WTF??
    The dance floor is there for dancing and not standing around waiting. I can’t understand the intention of those transitions at all. However, we are all different but I must say this drives me nuts. I guess the art of DJing is to use the right technique at the right moment no matter if you are mixing with vinyl, a software or decks.
    The more skills someone has to choose from the more colorful a set can be but it’s not automatically better because of that. Sometimes I find myself on the dance floor lost in an endless transition or loop of two songs because I simply need a break.
    Other times I love fast transitions which challenge and push me. So, whatever the DJ does the audience is dependent on him/her big time. And if this ‘power’ is used carefully and with consideration I would call a DJ being pretty good already.
    Nevertheless, I’m glad that I finally found a techno party in Melbourne that gives me what I’m craving for. So far I’ve been to two Machine parties only but had the best time! Thank you for that and I can confidentially say I’m addicted already! Good luck with what you’re doing and I wish your whole team many more awesome parties to come! Can’t wait to see/hear you soon. Markus

    PS: English is my second language. That’s why I express myself rather simple and with probably lots of mistakes too. But I’m not aware of it. Sorry. 😉

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  3. Markus: what you’ve said I think beautifully and perfectly sums up what dj’ing, at least for me, is about. I love that you say:

    “But changes in general are inevitable and they are usually good for something although we might not see in which way yet. In the end it’s everyone’s individual decision what he or she feels most comfortable with to deliver the musical vision that they have in mind.”

    I agree; so the point is to create something meaningful with the tools that you resonate with, or that you have at your disposal. Let’s not forget that some of the best moments in electronic music have been created with tools that have been discarded by other areas: the Roland TB303 for example which was a failed bassline generator for band music.

    So I come back to the premise, and it means a lot hearing it from you, because you represent the “end user” the dancer, not the dj (and dj’s can very easily be distracted by their own egos and intentions). It matters less what tools you use, and more what you create with them.

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    • Simon, I’m pretty happy that I was able to contribute a little to your forum. Your original statement inspired me a lot in terms of my own musical ambitions and I had to work out my opinion on that. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences with everyone and I’m looking forward to hearing more from you!

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  4. Hi Simon, excellent post and looking forward to more.

    I agree this is an artifact of any loop based technology really – I’ve noticed this since CDJ loops were a thing. But even those loops required some effort in implementing/maintaining, but now with the ‘sync’ function it’s a one button affair. These technologies should mean the DJ has even more time to achieve what they want to, and so running out of track shouldn’t be an issue, but sadly it is too common.

    Just want to add I went through a similar loss of motivation/passion when things went digital, and I would guess there would be a ton of vinyl era DJs who would agree. No longer having a connection to a tangible thing, not being able to see the grooves, having a get-out-of-jail free card in the form of the loop (lessening the pressure to learn songs) and the explosion in my collection size due to downloads all served to lessen my connection with the music I was DJing. Plus seeing things moving digital, it hurt to know this skill of beatmatching that I’d spent so much time on was now far less valued. Good to know I’m not the only one who felt that way!

    Looking forward to your next post

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