History is a security blanket

When we look back on our past – no matter the context – we often experience a feeling of safety. It’s normal to base your current decisions on your past experience. Deep within our brains is a mechanism for recognizing cause and effect, and our past experience serves us well most of the time. But when taken too far, or out of proper context, it can become a cage from which new ideas can’t escape. I think this is where the DJ industry is right now.

We all know the well-established DJ workflow. If I showed any of you the following abstract picture, you would immediately understand what it is…

Nearly every DJ software package has copied it to some extent at one time or another. On the surface of it that may seem logical, but did you ever stop and think about why?

What’s the Big Deal?

Let’s look at the reason that workflow is so deeply established in our minds. The basic idea behind modern DJing was to have multiple playback sources and an audio mixer to transition between them – that way the DJ could prepare the next record while one was playing. Only one song was played at a time, so that defined the minimum number of sources needed as two. This also helped establish the specifications for the audio mixer (it had to support at least 2 audio sources and be able to transition smoothly between them). The idea of moving a platter to manipulate playback comes from the fact that for a long time, record players were the primary devices for playing back recorded music. To reproduce any audio, the record had to be spinning (to drag the needle through the groove and create sound).

This workflow has been around even as far back as the early 1900s. In 1910, the Gaumont Chronophone was developed so that music could be played during silent films.

Gaumont Chronophone – on display at the Museé de la Musique in Paris

So the established DJ workflow exists because of the limitations of hardware at the time. We’re used to 2 decks and a mixer because that was the simplest way to achieve continuous playback, and we’re used to using a platter to control that music because a spinning platter was required in order to play a record. Neither idea was chosen because it was the best way to manipulate music. They were both a means to an end at a time when the most important thing was what was playing – not how.

If it’s so antiquated, why has it lasted so long?

It’s lasted so long because DJing didn’t change much between 1910 and 1980. For a good 70 years, whether you were playing music for people in a nightclub or in a radio station, you were mostly playing songs end to end and doing a simple fade between them. The first pitch variable turntables you would recognize as “DJ quality” came out in the mid-60s, but they were used mainly by radio stations and transcription services. Even very basic techniques (like slip cueing) weren’t commonly used by DJs until the end of the Disco era, inspired by the first generation of “superstar DJs” like Francis Grasso, Dave Mancuso*, and Rick Squillante.

*Late in his career Mancuso stopped using most DJ techniques and just played records end to end.

Even when you progress through the early 80’s and the birth of many new DJ techniques, they were generally simple, and rarely detracted from the playback of the song. They were used most often to enhance or lengthen the playing record. The star of the show was still the song that was playing, and a DJs record collection did a lot more to establish them in their local scene than their technical prowess.

Flash forward to today, and even now how many of you have a performance that is closer to Jazzy Jeff or Ritchie Hawtin than the simple end to end DJing that was the norm in 1985?

So it’s Timeless. What’s the Problem?

The problem now is that in this internet age, we all have access to the same songs. There isn’t any such thing as a “promo only” release anymore. If you’re a successful DJ in your area, there isn’t much to stop an up and coming DJ from listening to you for a week and ripping your set lists, then underbidding you and grabbing your gig.

If you want to sound different now, it takes interacting with the music in a fundamentally different way than we did before. If we as DJs need to be able to differentiate ourselves and interact with our music in a new way, is the old 2 decks and a mixer workflow the best way to accomplish that?

Producer as DJ?

One of the most obvious ways to differentiate your music from someone else’s is by adding some original production. This allows you to please your crowd while also creating something no one else has. One way to do this is to pre-produce your music via normal means (like a DAW) and just play the result at your gig. That gets the job done, but it’s not a lot of fun, and it lends credibility to the notion that DJs just push buttons. I don’t personally agree with that idea, because production is its own skill. But I think the ideal situation is one where the DJ can create remixes live.

We’ve had some tools to accomplish this kind of performance for a long time. Nearly every DJ program available offers these elements – from simple looping and sample playing to complicated, beat-synchronized macros. But it has only been in the last couple years that these features have been given their own workflow instead of being shoe-horned into an old DJ idiom, and what used to only require 2 sources is now commonly spread out to 4 or more. Software has been improved to allow what was once mundane functionality (like cue points or loops) to be used in a musical way, and everything from the various deck sources and effects to the triggering of cue points and the length of loops can be synced to perfection. The job of the DJ – like any other artist – is highly variable, but more and more the modern DJ is turning to production to stand out from the crowd.

The genie isn’t going back into the bottle anytime soon. There has been a fundamental shift in the DJ market, and everyone’s expectations have changed. It used to be that this kind of production (indeed using software to DJ at all) was looked down upon. Companies like Pioneer and Serato once championed the notion that using a traditional DJ workflow was keeping it real – and some users flocked to those platforms because of that. Now there is very little difference between using a Pioneer DJ setup you’d find in most clubs and using DJ software. Using Serato DJ now is a lot like using Traktor. DJing has fully embraced the computer age.

Everything we work with is digital, and all of our music plays from software.

If it’s all digital, is the platter still important?

Personally I think not. The platter is now more often than not a waste of space. In the digital world, it’s not even the best control to handle traditional platter functionality. If I’m using a platter to set up a cue, that’s easy – but what if I want to mark a position 2 minutes into the song? I could use a platter and spin like crazy – or I could use a smaller and much more efficient touch strip and get there in a  couple seconds. And while the deck is playing I could use that same touch strip to nudge the pitch for manual mixing. Incorporate a couple gestures and you have something really flexible in a fraction of the space a jog wheel takes up. A touch  strip is actually a better turntable analog than a platter, because it also allows needle drop functionality as well as direct waveform manipulation.

And that’s just one possible control choice.

Here’s the real problem with this platter debate – NO ONE is sitting down and figuring out a better way forward. The increasingly shrinking roster of companies that make DJ gear are playing it safe – which is why everyone right now is pretty much making the same handful of controllers. Any company that dares to break convention faces the struggle of getting that product into retailers (who don’t want to buy it because it doesn’t look like everything else). If that product gets loaded into stores and doesn’t immediately become a sales hit, it’s usually pulled before it ever has a chance (making the next unique product – no matter how good – impossible to pitch).

And of course if it’s a sales success, the entire industry will turn around and copy your work. If the Novation Twitch had been a huge hit, by now everyone would have had their own take on the concept and Native Instrument’s S8 wouldn’t be so controversial.

While synthesising audio into liquid form was nothing short of a miracle, the mad scientists spectacularly failed in grasping the concept of DJ mixer design.

Should I Worry?

Are all future controllers going to start pulling off the bits that I need to work? Are they all going to be sync enabled button grids with no pitch fader or platter?

Of course not. When Adobe came out with Photoshop stores didn’t stop selling paint and brushes. When MIDI was developed they didn’t stop selling pianos. If there is a demand for a product, someone will always sell it.

But you have to allow for people who want to approach the art of DJing from a different angle to pursue that as well. Now more than any other time in history, the whole idea of what a DJ does is changing. You have to know that some people are going to go in that new direction, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s no different than GWT figuring out scratching, Kool Herc juggling breaks, or DJ Pierre discovering that you could make a Roland TB-303 sound really cool if you tweaked it a bit. These are the people that push our boundaries and figure out new ways of doing things.

We as a community need to encourage that. At the very least we need to allow the space for it. Because that’s where the really good stuff comes from.