Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Paradigm shift: DJing digitally

When I'm not designing products for Retronyms and our clients, I spend a lot of my time working with electronic music as a producer, musician and DJ.

It seems that in 2010 the ax that DJs previously ground against digital DJing might be getting laid to rest. Technology like Ableton Live, Traktor and Serato Final Scratch has made using a computer to DJ not only much easier and smarter but also made it more acceptable as heavyweights like Richie Hawtin have signed on (in Hawtin's case, an early adopter of Final Scratch).

I love records. I didn't have a turntable until 2001, previously having hoarded CDs only, and it was such an extreme delight to me to have access to all the vinyl-only music I could previously only listen to as a dubious-quality MP3 from Napster (cough cough, dating myself). Since then I've bought, sold, and traded hundreds or even thousands of records. I picked up an extra turntable in 2003 which finally allowed me to try my hand at DJing and mixing -- I'm by no means the best but I've acquired the hand and ear for it over time.

Despite my love of records, I usually do DJ gigs with my laptop and a controller. It's ironic, because my wall of records in my studio goes largely ignored for long stretches of time. I'm not actively pulling and testing records together, because I'm not worried about understanding how to construct a coherent set out of them. I use Ableton Live and either full mp3s or cut-up segments to layer into a DJ set digitally instead.

Perhaps the biggest leap forward with Ableton as far as I'm concerned is the ability to radically pitch-shift tracks or change their duration / tempo. Even a skilled DJ is not likely going to be able to make a 105 BPM track work over a 135 BPM track – you might say that it just isn't meant to be. But Ableton makes things like that possible, which is exciting for me. To be able to manhandle tracks into submission and create something hopefully inspired and new is a lot of fun, with no disrespect intended toward the original recording artists or producers.

Using Ableton as a DJ tool is hardly revolutionary, and to be honest, I exploit it for a small fraction of its current capabilities -- it's come a very long way in terms of power & features. My newest acquisition is the tailored Akai APC20 console which provides plug-n-play compatibility with Ableton Live. Its console has 5 rows of clips and 8 channel columns, scrollable with up/down/left/right controls to browse a more comprehensive on-screen session. Typically when I DJ digitally I have the main mp3 as well as loops from tracks that allow ease of intro/outro and layering in different ways on the fly. So a typical session is quite full of loops and tracks, which makes the APC's browse buttons indispensable. Prior to the APC20 I was using a Korg Nanokontrol which is a very small, discreet MIDI controller with basic sliders and on/off triggers -- this provided the bare minimum in addition to using the trackpad or mouse to actually trigger loops on screen. With the APC I hope to keep my hands on the console more than the mouse; I am just now getting used to using it so time will tell for sure. One thing that I haven't figured out is how to view a clip (which you do by clicking on it in the Ableton Live UI) without turning it on via the APC20. Many times I need to view the playhead on a longer track to know when to turn on another channel or loop, so I may not be able to completely avoid using the mouse or trackpad after all.

I doubt that my love of vinyl will ever fully wane, as I order a new batch of records every couple of months, but I definitely find myself resorting more and more to using my laptop for DJ sets. Between not wanting to lug turntables around and having the added flexibility of sonic manipulation that Ableton affords, it's a much more convenient approach. Technology like the APC20 helps make this easier, and I'm sure with time there will be even smarter devices to complement software developments.

Check out a recent DJ set: Ableton Live DJ Set (June 2010) by Matthew Mercer

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