A Foreword

We’re a passionate bunch at DJWORX. We care deeply about the gear that is made, who makes it, and how it is made. After all, writing about it is all we do, and that passion shows in our assorted scribblings, especially in these end of decade roundups.

And there’s nobody more vocal than Ray. His piece is as passionate as it gets, and that’s reflected in the language and the emotion. It’s how we talk in real life (especially in our Slack channel), and now it’s how we write.

You see, as we push forward into the next decade, we have to be who we are, and express ourselves accordingly. We’re not like the rest, and it’s time to underline that.

Anyway, on with Ray’s unloading. Brace yourselves — opinion is coming.


SOME PERSONAL CONTEXT

At the beginning of the last decade, I half-seriously got into battling. Having competed in Laptop Battles / Beat Battles for 3 years prior (rightfully getting my ass kicked every single time — great learning experience), I’d finally won two of them in a row in 2010, and then went on to accidentally taking my first national IDA Show championship the same year. I say “accidentally” because I did it purely for fun, knowing I can’t scratch my way out of a paper bag, let alone a proper battle. Still, I somehow ended up with a title I managed to hold on to for a couple of years to follow — until I stopped competing because you don’t get points for hacking in a turntablism battle… and because those titles ultimately mean very little if you’re as bad at self-marketing as I am.

One good thing about battling is: it drove me towards experimenting with all types of tech, and that in turn opened a door for me to freelance as a showcase artist with a couple of brands. This gave me access to a nice arsenal of musical weapons right as they hit the market. I’ve built the original APC 80, which coincided with Ableton introducing Combination Mode (letting you use multiple APCs as a single control surface — something I wanted to script myself, but ultimately didn’t have to), won a few more Beat Battles with that, and eventually joined the DJWORX family to write strongly opinionated words for you.

Over time, I’ve progressed towards doing some pretty complex things, utilizing a massive pile of gear that makes people look at me like I’m a madman every time I roll up to a gig, dragging more flight cases and Magma bags than a single person should be able to even move (airlines love me). I’ve started exploring live visuals, incorporating decidedly non-DJ tech like Kinect and LEAP sensors, a Theremin, a laser harp and others, more or less successfully — all the while waiting for mobile processing power to get to a point where I can do all these things without worrying, which it finally has. For PC users, at least *cough*.

On the tech side, this decade was very kind to me. At times it seemed like the industry was reading my mind, giving me exactly what I wanted. Other times they gave me exactly what I wanted without consciously planning for it to be used the way I used it — simply enabling me to hack things to suit my purposes. Overall I’m tremendously grateful for everything that happened, but there were some rage-inducing disappointments along the way — which should explain the Disaster Girl x Ray faceswap above. Get ready.

DEM FEELS AWARD

Three recipients need to share this one. This decade saw the end of Ecler, Vestax, and OG Rane — all beloved brands with great, aspirational and innovative products many of us drooled over, and some are lucky to own to this day. Ecler had the Evo5, Vestax had the PDX3000 and Controller One, and OG Rane had the Sixty-Four which is still one of the most capable 4-channel mixers in history. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears… in Rane.

DON’T FIX IT IF IT AIN’T BROKE AWARD

This one goes to the Traktor team for knowingly leaving in the hex editor backdoor, allowing users of non-scratch-certified mixers to use them with Traktor if they wanted to. That’s long before Traktor Pro 3 started supporting any interface you’d want to use, of course. It was a really cool move, because they knew only nerds like myself would even bother and it wouldn’t really impact their hardware sales. How do I know they did this on purpose? Well, when 2.9 came out (introducing STEMS), that backdoor was accidentally shut. I immediately complained to the team, because I didn’t want to downgrade to Serato just to keep using the Sixty-Four, and they promptly opened it again. You’re welcome, 3 other people who actually relied on this to work outside their bedroom.

BTW, when I say “downgrade”, I don’t mean to insult Serato users. It’s just that certain things (like looping in VST effects through a DAW in a DJ set) aren’t quite possible to pull off with Serato DJ, as the channel routings for whichever audio interface or mixer you’re using are hardcoded. I get how this is a UX thing, but it really needs to be configurable in preferences.

GOOD SAMARITAN AWARD

This one goes to Ableton and NI for Link and STEMS respectively, the specs of which were made available to the industry upon release, allowing anyone to implement the feature set at will in their products. While STEMS wasn’t very successful (because people are resistant to ideas unless you stuff’em down their goddamned throats), Link was — and is now found across many DAWs, DJ software, iOS apps, VJ software (shouts to Resolume), and even some dedicated devices which put out MIDI clock slaved to a Link session, letting you tie in pretty much any piece of hardware. Yeeeeeeeeeeeeah, baby!

Did it kill MIDI clock sync? Nope. But once you’ve figured it out, it makes multiplayer jamming a breeze — and will help you sync software locally on a single machine, too (localhost sweet localhost). Like anything, it has a learning curve, with DJ software especially — but it’s awesome. One thing many people don’t know is that Link works over LAN too, ensuring stability even in a club with 1000+ people who each have their own phones and could potentially mess up your WiFi signal. Of course, you have to pack a router and cables for that — and if you’re on a Mac, you need an additional USB-C/RJ45 adapter, because why make a “pro” thing actually pro, amirite Apple — but the stability is well worth it.

OVERUSED ROUTINE GIMMICK AWARD

Pioneer’s S9 made some cool things possible for performing DJs — but for fuck’s sake, I’m tired of tone play. I don’t remember who did it in a battle first, I think it might have been Eskei83 (correction: it was Four Color Zack in 2012 – cheers 69Beats) — but since the S9 pretty much took over the battle landscape, every other 3Style set contained some form of it, because pads need bashing. That part at least I agree with — but most executions were either cringeworthy, off-key or both. There were exceptions, of course, some creative arpeggio-style moves (reminiscent of Shiftee’s earlier routines), cool Traktor mappings utilizing entire keyboards (69Beats has some neat explainer vids on his page) — but god damn it guys, please at least edit your stuff better and try improving on a trick once you’ve appropriated it.

Also: not really a hardware-related thing, but stop it with Liberace’s “And now for my next number, I’d like to return to the classics” already. Seriously. Stop it. It’s been done, and overdone. There’s so much great stuff you could sample instead (but please not “the champ is here” — Ed).

UNDERRATED CONTROLLERIST MASTERPIECE AWARD

I had both the Numark Orbit and the Novation Twitch lined up for this, but no. This one has to go to the Electrix Tweaker. I still have my pair, and use at least one of them in every set. This is, without doubt, the most awesome controller I’ve ever owned, and one that well deserved to take off — but mysteriously didn’t. Built in collaboration with Livid Instruments, sturdy and versatile, with a layout that can adapt to most performance styles and awfully vibrant RGB LEDs, it’s the MIDI controller equivalent of a Swiss army knife — if you take the time to make your own mapping.

ULTIMATE MARKETING CRINGE AWARD

While I feel like I could give this out every other time PR arrives and we play Bullshit Bingo in the DJWORX Slack (game-changing! next-level! revolutionary! oh fuck off), there’s one thing you all probably forgot. And I apologize for reminding you of it. But hey… yo, remember BEAMZ?

That laser-tripwire MIDI controller, which was effectively a very inefficient way to push 4 buttons, was an insult in itself — but what really took the ticket was this “Grandmaster Jay” figure promoting it. Dude popped up from seemingly nowhere (later proven to actually have been from nowhere), miming a “performance” to the sound of Jazzy Jeff’s routines, and they seriously used that offensive fucking GARBAGE as their main marketing vehicle.

Beamz failed hard, wrists were broken worldwide because of the heavy facepalming, and it all died a miserable death. Good riddance. That said, the brand still exists, and they do some cringeworthy VR stuff now, with equally cringeworthy promos featuring people like Megadeth’s David Ellefson playing shitty pre-recorded riffs with Vive controllers. Will it ever stop? (For balance, Beamz pivoted and does a lot of good work in schools and with children in challenging circumstances, so I forgive them — Ed). 

THANKS FOR NOTHING AWARD

Apple’s iPad and its operating system have become really impressive tools for mobile music making. Over the years, we’ve seen nearly every major company put out some sort of cool iOS app, ranging from touch control surfaces and sequencers to effects and synths, most of which are genuinely powerful.

So far, so good. But in terms of making all of this stuff usable in a “proper” production or live performance environment, there’s very little the industry as a whole has done to make it happen. Sure, iConnectivity has released interfaces that can tie in the iPad as an audio/MIDI device using proprietary cables, and they work fine even on Windows — the only product of this kind I can vouch for. Aside from that, Alesis and even Behringer made docks, and of course there’s a plethora of various connection kits that sometimes worked a bit, but mostly didn’t — especially if your main machine wasn’t a Mac.

To be fair, it’s generally possible to sync via Link and somehow send and receive MIDI using some hardware add-on contraption. So if you REALLY want to tie the iPad into your rig, I guess you can. If you’re willing to put up with the effort of using a special audio interface for the sake of one or two iOS apps — or a MIDI only box, looping the iPad’s 3.5mm toy output through the preamps your “proper” audio interface and compensating for the delay manually. You know, like you would with an analog synth. Except it makes no sense with something that is fully digital and has a freaking port with enough bandwidth for nearly every possible application. It should literally be seamless plug & play at this point. The experience is tolerable within the Apple ecosystem, but becomes a royal pain in the ass as soon as you take one step outside of it. Which is of course intended and understandable — but also incredibly stupid, because it cuts off a major part of the potential user base. And then we get shit like this.

The fact that there’s no “total integration” for iOS devices yet (I’m referencing the Access Virus TI synth) makes them nothing more than gadgets in my eyes, and the fact that there is no VST version available for most of those awesome apps — especially the Moog ones — makes me angerous. “I wanna use it but I can’t” — I’ll let Martin Landau’s portrayal of Bela Lugosi provide the appropriate reaction to how that feels.

iPads still make great touch screen controllers, but their vast potential as powerful DSPs with an integrated touch screen is limited to and by their shitty walled-off platform. Make a goddamn dedicated “iOS device” plugin already! Send MIDI, receive audio, compensate latency, done. Access did it cross-platform as far back as 2005 — and it worked even if you weren’t using the Virus TI as the main audio interface in your DAW (source: I owned one). The year 2005, ladies and gentlemen… allow me to emphasize this a bit as I draw a deep breath… was FIFTEEN YEARS ago! That’s before iOS even existed! Hit’em again, Bela!

ONE HAND CLAPPING AWARD

For every tool that does DMX lighting control integration with DJ sets. Rekordbox, ShowKontrol, SoundSwitch, I don’t even know them all to be honest. Let me start by saying that I appreciate the work that has gone into making these things happen, even if they’re not for me. If you’re a resident DJ who works the same spot every weekend and can work on interfacing with the club’s DMX setup, or if you’re a mobile jock with his own lighting rig — these things are undoubtedly awesome.

Having said that… the untapped potential in here for the rest of us who have no use at all for DMX is fucking infuriating. Think about it: we have tools that can trigger external things in direct response to what we do in DJ software, in fact we’ve had them for years… and we limit that shit to DMX? Are you fucking kidding me, industry? Rekordbox, to pick an example, already has a powerful built-in editor for the lighting stuff. You can trigger commands, draw parameter envelopes, and have all of that stuff nicely sync up and follow any song from your collection. Can you imagine the absolutely wild, crazy shit a skilled DJ could do in a routine if only these things were to spit out something genuinely useful — like MIDI or OSC? For fuck’s sake, people. This isn’t that hard to figure out. Build it! First one gets a cookie. And my money.

UNEXPECTED ACQUISITION SYNDROME AWARD

I’m gonna give this one to Teenage Engineering‘s entire line of products. Everything I wrote about the iOS stuff being ridiculously annoying to tie into a “proper” production environment… yeah, this applies to their stuff as well. In fact, it applies to nearly every mini synth, sequencer, drum machine and whatnot I’ve seen so far. These things are great for what they do, but I’ve always discounted them on account of the absolutely crazy power of modern VSTs and software in general.

There is, however, one thing VSTs don’t offer out of the box: hands-on fun. Sure, you can make a full controller mapping for pretty much anything that supports MIDI (in the DAW realm, that’s basically everything) — but you have to put in the effort, and I perfectly understand how a small box with a bunch of knobs could be more appealing in comparison. A Korg Volca won’t sound like UVI’s Falcon, but you also don’t have to spend the equivalent of a CompSci semester learning how to use it.

Despite that, I’ve never actually wanted to have one of these. Novation’s Circuit was the first unit of this kind I liked (and I finally own one), but for me, Teenage Engineering was the company that knocked the ball out of the park. The OP-1 won’t tie into my live rig, but on its own, it’s a creative powerhouse and well worth the price tag. The OP-Z does things I would’ve never expected from such a small unit, all the way up to producing visuals in conjunction with a companion app on iOS. I’ve first touched the Teenage Engineering stuff at Music Tech Fest in Stockholm — and I haven’t been able to get these things out of my head since (especially the Pocket Operators). I genuinely think they’re the best gateway drug for making electronic music because of the awesomely fun interface design. It’s just a notch above every other thing I’ve played with.

HACK THE PLANET AWARD

This one goes to Stray, the developer behind NativeKontrol. He’s been creating software tools that enhance the functionality of countless MIDI controllers for ages, doing stuff lightyears ahead of the industry. I could name a lot of things he created, but there is one that stands out to me as an Ableton Live user: ClyphX Pro.

ClyphX is to Live what JavaScript is to web design. Putting it overly simple, it allows you to place code onto clips and even arrangement timeline markers in Live, and that code can do things you’d normally have to do with your keyboard and mouse — in addition to pretty much everything you can do with any MIDI controller. Except it can now all be triggered by a single button. There’s almost no limit to what you can do with that power — once you’ve put in the time to learn it, you can automate things that are impossible any other way. This is very nerdy stuff, but this is DJWORX — we love nerdy stuff. If you use Live, I highly recommend you look ClyphX up over at Isotonik Studios.

TECH (MIS)APPROPRIATION AWARD

Around the time I started exploring the world beyond 2 decks and a mixer (mid-2000s, ish), the D-Beam feature on some Roland hardware absolutely fascinated me. The idea that I could very organically control synth or effect parameters just by waving my hand above a sensor was crazy. Alesis copied the tech, and we briefly saw keyboards like the Photon X25 as well as fun but poorly-designed toys like the AirSynth or the AirFX — until they vanished, presumably having been sued into oblivion by Roland. For a long time, that was it — no magical hand-waving for Ray.

Then, a Kickstarter popped up: LEAP MOTION. A cigarette-lighter-sized sensor capable of tracking hand movements with ultra-low latency, sub-millimeter precision and an impressively high refresh rate. A lot of people bought these expecting to get the full Minority Report experience, perhaps because of the similarly styled marketing videos — but they didn’t read the fine print, explaining that something like this would require some coding from scratch. So a LOT of these things went on eBay for half the Kickstarter price, and I snagged up a couple, aiming to build a MIDI translator tool. You know, like if Beamz actually worked as advertised.

As with Ableton’s Combination Mode for my APC 80, an idea I’ve had was executed very well by someone else before I could get into it, saving me a lot of precious time. Tons of love to Geert Bevin, formerly of ZeroTurnaround (now Moog), for GECO — the gesture control app for LEAP, which is now completely free. This tool lets you map every axis of hand movement and output the resulting value as MIDI or OSC, easily adding a very expressive layer to playing synths, controlling effects, or triggering visuals. Theremin eat your heart out! Of course, you need to make sure what you’re doing translates visually on stage as well (otherwise people will wonder what the hell you’re doing flailing your hands around)… but it’s not like you can’t download Unity, grab a few stock assets and build a visualizer. Which is exactly what I did a few months after using the stock LEAP visualizer in that IDA routine.

“FUCK IT, I’M NOT REVIEWING THIS” AWARD

When Nu-Rane announced the Twelve and Seventy-Two, I got genuinely excited for a second. But then I took a closer look at both these units, and the ra(y)ge meter went past 11 faster than a scared marketing executive can ALT+F4 this window. And you know what? Fuck it, I’ll address them directly.

Aside from going through various design iterations after release, which left many customers rightfully angry, the Twelve is a pile of wasted potential and weird design decisions. The touch strip should be below or to the side of the platter, not above it, so we can touch it mid-scratch without lifting our hand off the platter — have you learned nothing from the Controller One and DIY projects like the Button Box? The lower left corner is just wasted real estate, and I’ve actually seen people put Dicers there because it just makes sense. Triggering hot cues, especially in a battle routine where pinpoint accuracy and timing matters, should happen via pads — Reloop solved this very well on the RP8000, proving it’s possible and handles great.

Then there’s the on/off switch, copied nearly 1:1 from the Technics 1210 — a completely unnecessary throwback I haven’t seen a single person use in a routine yet. A brake duration knob would’ve been smart instead. And let’s not even get into the potential of pad modes — this is where Reloop showed everybody how it’s done, making a modern take on the Controller One which deserves praise. Shame every version of the RP8000 I’ve touched in the wild seemed to have some weird motor issues though.

However, what most annoyed me about the Twelve was the Serato partnership. Call me salty if you will, I’m primarily a Traktor user and we’ve been waiting for something like this for way too long (although I did manage make it work with Traktor in a routine from last year with an impractical but functional workaround, just to prove I won’t be fucked with) — but it’s not about what I want. It’s about this unit being heralded as the new standard, as everything is these days. No, Nu-Rane. Just no. If you’re gonna make bold claims like that, make the damn thing work with everything out of the box.

Just embed some onboard storage, or at least a USB/SDHC reader, and add RCA outs. You did the ground work 10 years ago with the V7 (that was technically not Rane, but Numark — but both are inMusic now, hence my calling it Nu-Rane), it seems like a no-brainer. Keep the Serato functionality for all I care, but let us load our own timecode, or perhaps even a bunch of tunes or scratch/juggle sentences to make the whole setup fully independent of any specific DVS. Then, and only then, you can claim to have created something that could evolve into a new standard — but that’s only if your users choose to make it so. Your marketing department has no power here.

See, you could’ve gone for that. You could’ve listened to input I know for a fact you’ve heard, and you could’ve trusted the community to build deserved hype around your game-changing product on its own, as it did with Vestax… but you haven’t. Considering what it could have so very easily been, the Twelve fucking SUCKS. Now sit your 5-dollar ass down before I make change. And fix it on the mk2 if you’re ever allowed to make one.

Now, on to the Seventy-Two. What a convoluted mess of a mixer, it just pisses me off that something this bad could be attached to the Rane brand. I can’t blame anyone for copying Pioneer’s S9 layout — Pioneer has appropriated features in the past too, it’s fair game. But it all falls apart once you get to the touch screen (which, apart from the price tag, is one reason why the new Seventy doesn’t have one). The controls are very unintuitive, often leaving me wondering whether I can touch the screen or have to turn a knob to change a parameter. Menu navigation is a guessing game, but most importantly: the screen itself leaves a LOT to be desired.

Even on the fastest computer in my lab (hint: ridiculously fast), the touch FX display lags like hell, and the waveforms look terrible. It’s not like this couldn’t have been a LOT better. We all know Nu-Rane is part of inMusic — and so is Denon, Numark, Akai and many other brands. I can’t help but love the screens on the SC5000s — high FPS, crispy, responsive, tight. With this R&D resource being available to the parent company, there is no excuse — NO EXCUSE! — not to have it on a mixer marketed as the premium end-all superweapon for turntablists. Instead, this is Numark NV level of tech with an OG Rane price tag (which back then was appropriate, with manufacturing happening in the US as opposed to China). Just disappointing. NEEEEXT!

BLUE BALLS AWARD

Phase! Hooooly shit. How can you build so much hype, make your supporters wait that long, and then not deliver a product that is absolutely fucking flawless at release? Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve actually tried Phase recently, and it’s a very cool little gadget I’d actually like to own. The most recent batch seems not to suffer from Bloated Battery Syndrome either, and the firmware seems very stable indeed — so they’ve ultimately delivered, even though the first couple of months were tough. But god damn, did it take long! And I’ve still yet to test it with something other than Serato to do a proper shootout. Traktor, Rekordbox, heck — I’m curious enough to install Virtual DJ. As with the Twelve, Phase would’ve really benefited from an onboard sample playback function — no reason to worry about whether it will work with a DVS other than Serato when you could just load up any timecode you want, right? Pretty sure this would bypass potential copyright cease and desist letters, too.

I’ve probably just burned a bridge here, so might as well keep going: I think the reason I didn’t get a review unit in the first place was… FEAR. So how about it, Phase? You feelin’ lucky?

WHAT THE FUCK WERE THEY THINKING AWARD

This one goes to NI for “The Culling” which, in the scope of an entire decade, happened very recently. Many Bothans died to bring us this information, and we’ve had to shut up about it until everyone else spilled the beans, watching many of our dear friends getting heartbroken and ultimately fired. Many of these great people have thankfully found a home elsewhere in the industry, but it still boggles the mind. This has got to be, hands down, the stupidest managerial decision I’ve seen in a long time (I’ve got a couple other examples, but they’re not public and we’re not fucking TMZ).

Why is this part of a hardware retrospective, you ask? Well. Millions in R&D were burned with heavily anticipated products basically sitting on the assembly line, waiting for a button to be pushed, and ultimately getting scrapped. People who were the living soul of a company I pretty much grew up with as an artist (the original Traktor DJ was the first piece of music software I bought — back in 2001) have been ripped out and replaced, for the most part, by avocado-toast-munching hipsters who have no connection to making or playing music whatsoever. As a long time fan and friend of NI, I was heartbroken too — and still am.

I don’t know where NI is going, but with the hardware part of the company being pretty much dead, I imagine they will focus on combining their sounds.com platform with their impressive offering for producers, and probably heading for some sort of subscription model because that’s the trend across many industries these days. KOMPLETE KLOUD? I don’t know, this is speculation based on publicly available data. In any case, we at least know that the Traktor team is very much alive and kicking, so there is hope for DJs. The question is: will they fix everything they need to fix in Traktor before Rekordbox becomes the ultimate DVS or something else comes along, and will anybody besides the most die-hard fans trust them again? I hope so, because it’s still the most hacker-friendly DVS in existence.

ENDURANCE AWARD

To you, for sticking with me throughout this epic rant. You see, I’m really passionate about this stuff — so once I get going, it’s hard to draw a line. There’s actually tons more I could talk about, but I’ll stop here. If you made it this far, I appreciate the time you’ve spent reading (probably just me here at this point, just checking for law suit worthy opinion — Ed). We might not agree on everything I said, but that’s what the comment section is for — let’s continue there.