“4am? You can forget that — I’ll be in bed” said I mockingly at news that Serato would be kicking off 909day for Roland. And yet, here I am at 04.15am wide awake. It’s not due to excitement or anticipation — hell no. I already spent half a day with Mak from Roland pouring over the new DJ-808 and shooting a video. More on that later.
It is in fact due to roadworks, at 4am, right outside my lovely rural cottage. I can only guess that Serato’s influence stretches to the local council to make sure that I was stirred from my slumber. Thanks guys.
Anyway, back to the video. Mak Tongia, formerly of Serato and now from Roland headed up the country from London armed with Roland’s new lump of Serato infused shiny. The studio was duly setup up, with multiple cameras and sound sources, and we set about informing the DJWORX community about what this new box of sequencing tricks can do. It wasn’t easy, but we managed to get something. But not enough.
It seems that my overhead camera decided to play silly buggers with the sound, so it wasn’t as easy as throwing everything into Premiere and letting it work its clip syncing magic. And it seems that every now and again, something would run out of batteries losing some vital footage or sound.
And then I watched the Serato keynote,and spied the official page, and realised that I could spend a day that I really don’t have trying to salvage said footage to make something that wouldn’t be good enough by my own standards, but it wouldn’t really add anything above what Serato has just streamed to the world, something I’m assuming they’ll make available very soon. I’ll add links when they do. Be quick fellas. In the meantime, check the Serato DJ-808 page.
But I do have pictures, and something more important — actual live experience of the DJ-808, so I’m able to offer considerably more than just commenting on PR. So off we go.
A drum machine, a controller, and a sequencer walk into a bar
At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Roland just nailgunned a stripped back TR-8 on the back of a Serato controller. And to some degree that’s exactly what that this is. As you can see from the pictures, the TR-S element is a four voice drum machine and sequencer that includes the voice transformer and enough controls to make the experience worthwhile.
The controller itself is pretty standard Serato fodder these days too, albeit at the very top of their food chain. But being made by Roland, there’s some pretty special magic happening in this, namely a radically improved jog wheel experience, and a bunch of MIDI magic too.
Feel wise, it’s pretty sturdy. It doesn’t rattle when shaken, nor was it too heavy for this old man to randomly throw around either. It is a little deeper than your average controller though — somewhere between low profile and turntable height.
As an old school head brought up on the legendary sounds of Roland gear and owning some in my time too, the idea of having classic 808 and 909 sounds inside my controller does interest me considerably. But for me, it has to be executed properly, and the symbiosis between Roland and Serato has to be valid and compelling.
And it is.
More than just a drum machine
On one level, this is a simple matter of programming a four voice drum machine (bass, snare, open, and closed hi hat in 606, 707, 808, and 909 kits) and playing with the voice transformer along with whatever music you’re playing. But it’s when you throw syncing the sequencer to your music automatically that things get interesting. Having the ability to mess with the voices, and mix sounds in and out on the fly that you realise that you’ve got a new creative arsenal all in one hardware box.
It’s when you throw Serato’s sampler into the equation that things get interesting. The new 8 slot sampler (now you know why) can be engaged to use the sequences you’ve programmed. So if you have your own drum voices that you want to use, you can drop them into the 4 bank x 8 slot Sampler and engage them on the fly. And they’re all synced to whatever is playing. And in TR mode, you play along manually with the TR-S voices on the Serato pads, and record live sequences too.
There’s still a little manual work at play here. You can’t preselect a sequence to start when the current one has finished — selecting a sequence has to be done on the one right now. And when drumming on the pads, they aren’t quantised. So for now, you’re going to have to depend on your manual dexterity. Bugger — actual skills required.
But there’s more to the Roland magic. But way of MIDI out, you can sync external instruments, and bring in other Roland instruments via the Aira link. I can see the DJ-808 with a TB-3 hanging off the back and me disappearing for 6 months.
That jog wheel
One of the first questions asked of any new controller is “how well does it scratch?”. It’s never going to be as good as vinyl for all sorts of reasons, but successive generations of players have improved the experience over the years. Latency has always been an issue — for me, nailing chirps is the definitive way for my hands and ears to test a jog wheel. And very few manage to do it to my complete satisfaction.
And then Roland comes along and raises the stakes considerably. When I spoke with Serato last week, they were clearly excited about the improvements, and that has been borne out in my brief time with the DJ-808. The wheel feels super smooth under my hands, but importantly the latency is the lowest I’ve ever experienced. We’re talking milliseconds, but you can tell. And the actual feel and emulation of vinyl is first class. I need to spend more time with one, but at this point, I’m confident of saying that the DJ-808 jog wheel is the best out there, and by some margin. And this unit apparently lacks the latest firmware which improves it even more.
The rest of the controller
As mentioned previously, Serato controllers have become pretty standard, and it’s the bells and whistles that they add that differentiate each one. In the case of the DJ-808, it has Pitch ‘N Time controls right on the faceplate. These allow you to raise our lower the key of the playing track, but with a high quality algorithm so that it doesn’t sound like arse. We didn’t spend much time with it, but you do at last have controls at your fingertips to throw ill-suited songs together. It seems to work very well.
This controller also comes with some built in hardware effects. Called color… oops I mean channel fx (can’t really blame Serato for borrowing a little Pioneer can you?), you get 4 different effects to add to each channel and a wet/dry knob for control. This means that should you use the DJ-808 for playing vinyl or CD, you can apply the effects to external sources. And they’re post fader too.
Apart but together
The one thing that did strike me was how closely the TR-S and controller work together, but there’s little in the way of feedback inside Serato DJ. Indeed, while doing the ill-fated video shoot, I had staged the shoot so that I could drop Serato DJ screens grabs in, but as it turned out it really wasn’t adding anything. And that’s a good thing — less reliance on the laptop and more focus on the hardware.
If I’m left with one impression, it’s that Serato finally has a proper sequencer (Flips doesn’t count). It’s a hardware one, but does harness the power of the Sampler and brings some new creative possibilities. You could use the Roland voices, or you could use it entirely with the Serato Sampler. You don’t have to treat it like a drum machine, and could simply program… well anything. Use it like a basic DAW to add layers to your sets rather than just one shot samples.
Upon learning about the DJ-808 and seeing a picture, I was seriously worried that this was an ill-thought out and rushed unit seeing Roland and Serato awkwardly grafting their stuff together in a bit of a panic. And given the look of the DJ-808, you would be forgiven for thinking the same thing too.
Clearly it’s not a piece for everyone. If you’re a GAS afflicted DJ and have to have the latest and greatest, I’m not sure you’ll ever touch the TR-S element. Some will call this an epic fail because it’s not for them. Serato will also get abuse heaped upon them for a lack of innovation, focussing on stupid stuff when they should beefing X. Y, and Z. And just because the internet sucks, they’re Serato, and thus an easy target.
But the more I saw, and the more I subsequently think about this, the DJ-808 could well be a good way to break DJs into the realm of production and making music. The TR-S element is stripped back, but offers enough to get DJs thinking about how their performance and music creation can be used alongside other people’s music.
As the first of its kind, I consider this a toe-dipper, but is an indication of Serato’s intentions. Obviously they’re using the usual game changer language, but this is more about adding something else to DJing with a hope that it’ll catch on. They tried to bring Ableton Live into Scratch Live, but it wasn’t to be. And while the DJ-808 is a hardware only sequencer, I feel it’s a matter of time before Serato DJ gets in on the more DAW like features. I feel that the Sampler is going to get a little more love features wise too in due course as the Roland and Serato love fest develops.
There’s only so much that can be gleaned from 4 hours of play while focussing on keeping a cobbled together studio setup recording and little hands on. But the controller part alone makes me think fondly of the DJ-808, and when I factor in classic drum sounds and the ability to sequence samples on a hardware level, it makes me want to play with it more. A lot more.
And I will, but not yet. That unit has left the Worxlab, but we’ll get to play with it some more at BPM 2016. But so far, I’m impressed. And if this is the start, the future is a little more interesting.