DJing in the digital age

Pub date October 20, 2009
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

MUSIC The laptop has become the principal tool for DJ performances. At shows, you can catch a glimpse of the Apple logo glowing almost sentiently to the bass. The DJs’ eyes peer back and forth from screen to turntables as she or he manipulates equipment like a robotically engineered Vishnu. Well, unless he’s using just a laptop. Much has changed in the DJ world. Technological advances have challenged skill-based hierarchies and effectively thrown into peril the once essential roles of turntables and vinyl.

In the winter of 2001, the Dutch company N2IT released vinyl emulation software called Final Scratch. The software allowed users to physically regulate the playback of digital audio files on the turntables. In simpler terms, it allowed users to play and scratch any MP3 as if it were a record. But what really set it above other audio-mixing technology was its digital interface, which displayed visual cues, making fundamental DJing skills easier to master. No more need for a massive record collection, or an ear for beat matching, or a talent for juggling breaks.

The rapid digital evolution of DJing is strange to those with an attachment to vinyl. "I was blown away when I went to a younger DJ’s house, and he had a setup but no records," says left coast megamix master DJ King Most. "That’s almost like a painter who just illustrates on a computer and doesn’t own an easel or set of brushes." Most still takes advantage of Serato’s Final Scratch software’s undeniably helpful capabilities: for one, it allows him to play edits and remixes without pressing them to wax, so he can travel without carrying 100 pounds of plastic discs. Nonetheless, the democratization of DJing has saturated the social milieu with hobbyists and amateurs. "Anybody with a laptop now DJs; anybody with a beat making-program makes beats; anybody with a camera makes videos for YouTube," Most says.

In only a few years, completely digital DJing has not only become popular but dominant. Now all you need to blend and manipulate prerecorded sounds is a laptop and music production software, Ableton Live being the most popular program. Old school analog equipment is being abandoned. But while Ableton allows non-DJs to make up for their lack of experience and skill, it also enables a whole new range of options for the creative-minded. "The sport is not about matching beats from one record to the next, back and forth for two hours," explains experimental electronic musician Bassnectar. "In fact, now there is no sport — just an ongoing explorative relationship with the balance of shades of intensity between groups of people and waves of sound."

Bassnectar (a.k.a. Lorin Ashton) wholeheartedly embraces the inchoate freedom spawned from new audio technology. Infamous for creating compelling live laptop performances, he’s attuned to the aesthetic possibilities of mixing, moduutf8g, and transforming sonic elements. "Ableton Live makes it possible to execute real-time remixes and mashups of any sound or song, with less than five seconds of prep time," he says. "It allows for limitless combinations and recombinations." Those open-ended horizons might prove daunting for artists who prefer restraint when shaping their creative work. But Bassnectar faces the challenge head-on, affirming his commitment to innovate and improvise by channeling the power of the machine. "It’s like being a stand-up comedian, where you can seamlessly weave together every funny joke ever told. and tell it in any language, accent, or context while adding sound effects and mastering it all on the spot."

Despite exciting new approaches to laptop DJing, many DJs still choose the turntable as their primary vehicle of expression. A few musicians demonstrate that the turntable’s creative avenues are far from exhausted. San Francisco funk outfit F.A.M.E. (Fresh Analog Music Experience) christened themselves after their corporeal approach to making soulful, hypnotic music. The funksters of F.A.M.E. — Max Kane, Teeko, and Malaguti — embrace the turntablist and battling tradition of using the wheels of steel as a musical instrument to experiment with melody, rhythm, and editing. "[The turntable] is a huge sound manipulator," Teeko says. "You’re putting a record on a turntable and you can touch the sound, transpose it — you have control of the textures of time and space. It’s very intimate."

Teeko and Max Kane both use the Vestax Controller One turntable, for which Teeko provided design input. The Controller One is a sleek model with MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) control, memory, and customizable keyboard buttons for moduutf8g textures and harmonies. "It’s allowed us to play with the turntable like we always dreamed," says Teeko. F.A.M.E. incorporates the turntable imaginatively, with a full-fledged electronic funk setup of MPC drum machines, synthesizers, effects modulators, and Vocoder. It’s the defining element that makes their live performance provocative, as a thick haze of warm boogie grooves is coarsely flipped by the scratching of records. "I couldn’t see myself giving up the turntable" says Max Kane. "The turntable has driven us, [it’s] our hunger for wanting more. The turntable is what you will look at and say, ‘Wow, this is something that I haven’t seen or heard before.’"

Video turntablist pioneer Mike Relm also learned the ropes of DJing on the Bay Area battle circuit. He refined his artistry doing extended opening sets for live acts, bringing a skill for party rocking and a flair for pathos to virtuoso scratch DJ techniques. But even that lost its appeal. Relm yearned to study film and direct his own narratives from scratch. Then, in 2004, Pioneer released DVJ turntables, allowing the physical playback and manipulation of DVDs. "All of a sudden, I could combine all the things I loved and make a show out of that," Relm says. "That was always science fiction to us. We would think, ‘Man, imagine if you could scratch a VHS tape or something. That would be dope … but it will never happen.’ And now it’s even better."

DJs or VJs experimenting with audiovisual performance are a fairly new species in the nightlife arena. Sometimes they’re booked only because of their novelty. Many VJs play solely music videos, train-wrecking imagery of Biggie Smalls and Lady Gaga to intoxicated gawkers rendered motionless by the phantasmagoria onslaught. But Relm doesn’t create a spectacle so much as a theatrical collage that implicates the audience. His shows make reference to a dense pop landscape peopled with TV shows, film clips, music videos, and random bits of cultural nostalgia that connect the audience. "I like the pace of a concert," explains Relm. "It stops to give the audience time to react, take a break, talk among themselves for a second, tell jokes — so you get a lot of emotions."

In Relm’s view, and in the view of every musician in this piece, technology is only as good as the expressive and artistic quality it facilitates. Eric San, a.k.a. the gifted producer and turntablist Kid Koala, frames it most succinctly. His words might as well become an aphorism in the DJ world, if not within any art form struggling to come to terms with its digital mutations. "It’s not what machines you’re using, but what you’re making with those machines." says San. "It’s never about letting the machine do the work for you, but rather that you need to master the machine and speak through it." Amen.


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