Technology — it’s empowering and forgiving all at the same time. It allows us to do the most amazing things, to create the previously uncreatable, and to do it without eating significantly into our lives or bank balances. Our creations never looked and sounded so good thanks to the arsenal of hardware and software tools at our disposal.
While we used to hope for excellence, perfection is now more or less a given. We have little excuse for not dotting the Is and crossing the Ts in everything we do. We no longer have to worry about nailing 30-45 minutes of exquisite blends with velvety EQs and just the right amount of filter in one complete take — now we can just bung it all into Live, Logic, or Protools and fix the formerly unfixable. We can layer a mix over a period of months and years if we choose, rather than fill the side of a cassette in one go. We effectively apply the turd polisher VST, and out the other end comes yet another slice of aural awesomeness, free from double beats, key clashes, and cue burn. There are no takes, just assembly.
But here’s the thing — I’m beginning to miss the rawness and the sound of a path well-trodden many times over to deliver that amazing one shot mix. I miss the sneaky correction of slightly off beats, and a hastily thrown in spin back to mask that vocal that arrived a few bars too soon. Damn it — I miss cue burn. It’s the sound of dedication.
It may seem odd to say this, but as a listener I want to hear the flaws, the little mistakes, and frankly some of the outright screwups that used to be reasonably commonplace in a live DJ performance. Where is the sound of a perfectionist practicing a set many times over and burning that cue? What has happened to the human element that clearly showed that a mix was performed warts and all?
DJing is about performing live to a crowd, and it used to be that I’d listen to a mix and hear the live DJ. Instead, I imagine a DJ sitting in front of a DAW rather than stood in front of decks. Everything is there — the brilliant music selection with spot-on blends with just the right amount of effects, but for a lot of mixes it feels like the actual DJ is missing. The quest for perfection has left an imperfect DJ shaped hole.
As an example of what I’m talking about — I love Jeff Mills’ Liquid Rooms live sets. They’re raw and flawed, but incredibly powerful because I can hear Jeff’s human touch in the mix. But I wonder if I would like it so much if I knew it had been carefully composed sans screw-ups in Logic?
THE BIGGER PICTURE
No matter how much old or new tech is in front of us, the human element is essential. Not just for the obvious selection and technical skills, but also to humanise a performance. So the next time you’re tempted to put out that polished-to-perfection mix that took months to create, try and do exactly the same thing in one take in front of a camera, i.e. perform and not produce. I promise that we’ll be considerably more impressed, and you’ll feel a rush of accomplishment too. Why do you think the Boiler Room is so successful?
A PARTING THOUGHT
I write this from the perspective of a DJ who made and sold one-take mixtapes back in the day. But at the end of all this, I have to wonder if the non-DJ listeners i.e. the target audience for these mixes really cares as much for the craft as we do. Don’t they just want a perfect mixtape for their trip to the office or treadmill session at the gym?