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 :)

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