A Closer Look

DJs Change Their Tune on Computers

By Seth Hamblin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 18, 2005

It's true that music-loaded laptops and MP3 players have become widespread objects of consumers' technolust, but that's hardly the case in the world of club and mobile disk jockeys, where hulking turntables still hold an elite status, computers are finally starting to bust through stigmas and the mighty iPod is frowned upon as a tool of the trade.

Go out to a hip-hop club, and you might see a DJ cuing up a vinyl record that weighs as much as three iPod Nanos but holds only two songs. Ask the DJ for a song at a wedding reception and he'll likely have to flip through cases of CDs to find the track.

But here and there, DJs are beginning to turn to computers -- and to a much lesser extent, iPods -- to boot up the dance floor without having to carry hefty crates of records or CDs.

Back in the rave days of the 1990s, Atlanta's Preston Craig was criticized for DJing on a PC, which many turntable artists considered cheating because it lacked the artistry of manipulating two slabs of wax to line up beats or cut back and forth between songs.

Now, between 300 to 500 people pack the room at his Friday night party, dubbed Decatur Social Club. Never mind that he's using a laptop; the hipsters just want to hear the indie-pop, dance punk and retro stylings that Craig deftly blends with a popular mixing program called Traktor.

"It's so much easier now to walk into a club and plug in a laptop," Craig said. "It wasn't acceptable before, but now the stigma is gone. . . . Now I hear DJs say that vinyl is overrated."

One major breakthrough for digital DJing came in 1999, when a computer program called FinalScratch was introduced. Its interface allows DJs to use generic, digitally coded records on their turntables to control audio files on a computer. The audio on the records is a time code that the computer "hears" in order to know which millisecond of the song should be playing based on where the needle is on the record.

The system is so precise that DJs can "scratch" songs to get a "wicky-wicky" sound like on Herbie Hancock's 1983 hit "Rockit." FinalScratch was embraced by a number of DJ legends, such as Detroit's Carl Craig. A rival system called Serato Scratch Live is used by DJ Jazzy Jeff, who is best known for his work with rapper/actor Will Smith.

Neal Becton, a Washington DJ and co-owner of Crooked Beat Records in Washington, said the technology has won over some vinyl purists.

"I have a few DJ friends who swore they would never use [a computer], but are doing it now," said Becton, who uses records to DJ at clubs and weddings because he thinks it sounds better and because he likes the historical aspect of using a decades-old record to get people dancing.

DJ Dr. Drax, president of the Arizona-based American Disc Jockey Association and an authority on digital DJing, said fewer than 10 percent of professional DJs are using computers, but he expects most DJs to switch over by the end of the decade as they discover their convenience.

Dr. Drax uses rack-mounted computers and a program called DJ Power to DJ and play videos at events and wedding receptions. The computer lets him quickly search his library of 100,000 songs. Rather than digging through piles of CDs, he can focus on keeping the party going. If someone wants to hear a Phil Collins track but can't remember the name, by the time he has typed in P-H-I, he has a list of all the artist's hits.

"A DJ doesn't just play music, he is an entertainer who threads it all together," said Dr. Drax.

As for iPods, Dr. Drax said they're not suited for professional DJing.

"You could DJ with an iPod, but why would you want to?" he said. "That would be like you writing your story on a BlackBerry."

Built with the consumer in mind, iPods lack the sophisticated cuing, beat-matching and mixing functions that are standard on DJ gear. But their portability and tie-ins with online music stores have captured the imagination of many devotees who see the potential for the gadget to be a DJ tool.

IPod nights have sprung up at nightclubs in Washington and other cities, where patrons can bring their iPods into a club and play a short set of songs.

Already, the first step has been taken to make iPods more DJ friendly: Numark recently released the iDJ mixing console, which lets users dock two iPods on its surface. The mixer allows for cross-fading between the two devices and has separate volume and EQ controls on both channels.

This may be miles away from the action of riding two records on the wheels of steel, but who knows what the next spin will bring?


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