woensdag 28 mei 2008

The future of digital DJing

With the digital music age kicking in in full effect the discussion about DJing with computers will be something that will flame up increasingly in the near future.

In my opinion DJing from behind a notebook doesn't look like DJing anymore, it looks more like you're checking your email or chatting with your honey. Big DJ’s like Armin van Buuren and Tiesto have stated in recent interviews they absolutely do not intend to move into that direction, simply because it looks dumb and they feel it’s embarrassing towards their fans.

And the objections don’t stop just at what it looks like on stage. Software like Ableton Live enables you to pre-program and pre-beatmatch an entire set, making the actual “live” performance nothing more than clicking a few buttons every now and then. In a way the difference to actually playing a studio prepared mix cd becomes very small here.

Part of being a good DJ is being able to perform the music that the crowd you’re playing for wants to hear. From that perspective it shouldn’t matter what technology you use to actually play that music. But the thing is there is more to live DJing than just that.

Today’s DJ is the star on the stage and the people want to see their star in action, which does not mean leaning backward, clicking a mouse every 4-5 minutes and sipping on a Bacardi-Red Bull in the meantime. They want to see hands operating decks, live beat matching and headphones going on and off. They want to see the focus, stress and dedication it takes to make every transition work and the grin of their hero when he kicks in that killer new tune and feels the flow of energy it releases from his fans.

The transition from vinyl to cd’s a few years ago basically has not affected this. Sure, it was argued a lot at the time too that DJing with cd’s was not really DJing, but the advantages of the increased sound quality, reliability, logistics (ever carried a full vinyl bag?) and flexibility to bring the latest stuff straight from the web were simply too big. It was an unstoppable change just as the cd pushed out vinyl for consumers 15 years earlier. The fact that the cd took so long to conquer the DJ-world was purely based on the absence of a logical cd successor to the infamous Technics SL-1200 turntable. But once the marvelous engineers @ Pioneer Electronics managed to recreate the touch and feel of the good ole Technics in their CDJ-1000 there was no going back. A beautiful example of virtualizing manual control through a piece of hardware that basically is the same as the original.

In the upcoming years we will see a similar discussion with the rise of the Macbook with Ableton (or similar) loaded DJ taking on the old school DJ with his CDbag and CDJ-1000’s. The discussion will very probably be much more intense than the vinyl to cd transition one from a few years ago. Because let’s face it, as stated above a DJ standing behind a notebook clicking a mouse to start a new song will be the death of public DJ performance as we know it. It is as boring to look at as a light jockey punching a knob to start a strobe.

However all is not lost. Mankind’s creativity never fails and new devices to bring back the live performance aspect of the DJ, even when his tunes actually are played from spinning hard disks, are on their way. Various companies like Vestax, Numark, Stanton and EKS have already released new devices that allow a DJ to manually control and manipulate digital files being played from a computer in a similar way that an SL-1200 or a CDJ-1000 player works, with a pitch control slider and a physical wheel to mimic the old vinyl.

EKS Otus DJ Controller

Devices like this recreate the show aspect that the DJ is known and loved for. Even better, what they do is almost eliminate the difference between laptop-DJing and cd-DJing. Anyone who has ever used a CDJ or similar device will know that they are actually much more a computer than a cd player to begin with. Sure, you insert a cd, but the first thing the device does is load your track into working memory. Wanna pitch up? It’s not the cd that will spin faster, it’s a piece of built in software that resamples the music file while being read from memory. You grab the control disk to hold the track? It doesn’t stop the cd, it simply stops the playback from memory and resumes as soon as you let go of the wheel. Open up a CDJ and you will basically find the same components that make a professional grade computer. Without realizing it we have already been watching DJ's spinning tunes with computers for a few years.

So there you have it. DJing out of a computer will be a thing of the future. The core issue however is that DJ's need to realize that their manual activities like track selecting, beat matching, starting, stopping and correcting are an essential part of their act and should therefore never be taken over by software.

The cool thing is it doesn’t stop there. Where certain DJ’s have fallen into the trap of using the Macbook/Ableton combo completely automated, others use them to introduce all kinds of real live elements into their sets. Paul van Dyk was one of the first to do this, and DJ Shah has been experimenting with live keyboards in his recent live sets as well. Dirty South from Australia is another fine example of someone who gets creative in his sets, actually live remixing tracks from his sequencer software. All we need now are graphical interfaces to project this cool stuff on video walls so the public can fully enjoy what is going on. We are on our way to live DJ entertainment that’s bigger than ever before.

Ow and talking about creative new directions, check this out :)

dinsdag 27 mei 2008

Five things that are wrong with digital downloads

Commercial digital downloads, don't get me started. Just like 20 years ago we are collectively being screwed over by the music industry. Mind you, digital downloads could have a great future but so far there are just too many things wrong with them. They are a serious threat to the joy of quality music reproduction. And it’s a truly sad thing that the general public doesn’t have a clue. Here’s what’s wrong:

1. Inadequately used compression technology
Most download stores nowadays offer 192 and 320 kbps cbr (constant bitrate) mp3 compressed files. Both are inadequate in my opinion. 192 lacks dynamics whereas 320 results in files that are too big to be considered mobile, which significantly cuts down the amount of files you can fit on an average mp3 player. Why on earth don’t they use variable bitrate compression? It offers the dynamics level of 320 whilst reducing the size to an average 192 file, hence combining the best characteristics of both in one. I only rip my cd’s in vbr and I cannot understand for 1 second why these download portals don’t use it. Not good.

2. Sound quality
Even when vbr encoding is used mp3 (or any other compression algorithm for that matter) still is a destructive way of storing audio that actually reduces the sound quality of the work of the artist. The argument here is not whether it is lower quality, because that is a given, but the fact that we as consumers are not given a choice. If Joe Average is happy with an mp3 because his Joe Average speakers can’t reproduce full hifi to begin with, than he should have the opportunity to buy an mp3. No problem there. But millions of people (including myself) actually do care about maximum sound quality. And they should at least stay able to buy uncompressed music, even if it takes on the form of a digital download.

I happen to like electronic dance music and in this scene there are a few portals that actually do offer full digital, uncompressed wav files for purchase (at a higher price, more on that later). The vast majority of digital music on offer today however is only available in compressed format. If this goes on and record companies eventually stop releasing cd’s all together we will effectively end up 25 years back in time. Not good.

3. Obscure file formats
iTunes uses a proprietary encoding algorithm (aac) that requires Apple hard- or software (aka iPod or iTunes) to play it. Useless for non Apple music players, car radio’s, etc. They claim it is more efficient than mp3 (as do wma, ogg vobis and whatever else have we seen) but the fact to the matter is that the actual difference is extremely marginal. Mp3 has been the world standard for compressed audio forever and the last thing we need is 20 other formats that are 2% better than the standard that’s already in place, but in the meantime incompatible with half of the world’s digital music players. Apple has done great things for digital music distribution with it’s iTunes Store, but in this regard they are just as arrogant as Sony (with their ridiculous memory sticks). Not good.

4. Pricing
Music is too expensive and has been ever since the cd was invented. In the early 80’s when the cd was first mass marketed the production cost of cd’s was sky high, resulting in high retail prices. The early adopters accepted this because of the enormous leap forward in sound quality the new format offered. But when cd’s broke mainstream in the late 80’s and production costs leveled with vinyl, record companies formed a global cartel and kept the price point artificially at roughly 150% of what lp’s used to cost, increasing their operational margins and at the same time creating what has always been the biggest drive towards illegal file sharing: overpricing.

20 Years later digital downloads have created a major cut in the supply chain costs of music distribution. First of all record companies no longer have to produce a physical medium (you have to provide that at your own cost) nor do they have to provide a case or a booklet. Secondly the entire cost of logistics involved with physical products has vanished. Thirdly the margin share with the retailer has been cut back since the new retailers (aka the download portals) have significantly lower operational costs than the old ones (the brick and mortar cd stores).

But despite this enormous reduction of costs the price of a digital download is on average the same as a cd. Okay, albums tend to be slightly cheaper than cd’s, but singles and ep’s are considerably more expensive than comparable cd releases. New tracks on Beatport cost a whopping 2.50 euro each. Want a full quality wav file like on a cd? 3.50 euro. Want a 4 track ep? That’s 14 euro please. Oh and by the way please pay yourself for a cd to burn it on, for a case to store it in, surf the web to find your own cover art (if they even bothered to make it in the first place) and buy a printer and cartridges and paper to print it yourself, in inferior quality of course.

Ergo: record companies have again grossly increased their profit margins per unit at the expense of the loyal paying consumer, who on top of that now gets a vastly inferior product for the same (too) high price he has been paying for years. And to mask all of this the average price of cd’s has been raised by over 10% in the last year. Not good. And you guys keep wondering why people run to illegal downloading. Tssss.

5. DRM
Drm (digital rights management, a coding technology preventing a digital download file from being played anywhere except the device where you bought it for) is actually the only negative aspect of digital downloads that has received the public outcry it deserves. And thankfully with due effect as the industry is rapidly moving away from it at the moment. In dance music it has rarely been used though, portals like Beatport, Audiojelly and DanceTunes for example never used it to begin with. But there’s still millions of drm infected files being sold daily, mainly by Apple. Still not good.

Fair enough
I have nothing against change, neither do I have anything against digital music compression technology as such (I use it myself quite often) nor do I have anything against the concept of digital music distribution. But I do have a principal objection to being screwed over.

People should be aware that if they buy a digital download today what they get is an inefficiently compressed and grossly overpriced piece of music that in many cases is not even playable when and where they want.

What digital downloads should be are vbr encoded mp3’s, costing half the current price, with properly embedded cover art and credits (id3 provides all the necessary possibilities for that), free of drm and with an always available and no more than 10% surcharge option for full digital (wav) format. That way you pay a fair price for a product that’s convenient but far away from what a cd ever was (an mp3 download) and a reasonably fair price for what eventually will be the (albeit rather lame) replacement of a cd (a wav download).