DJing in the digital age

Does the future of turntable DJing lie in the balance?

MUSIC The laptop has become the principal tool for DJ performances. At shows, you can catch a glimpse of the Apple logo glowing almost sentiently to the bass. The DJs' eyes peer back and forth from screen to turntables as she or he manipulates equipment like a robotically engineered Vishnu. Well, unless he's using just a laptop. Much has changed in the DJ world. Technological advances have challenged skill-based hierarchies and effectively thrown into peril the once essential roles of turntables and vinyl.

In the winter of 2001, the Dutch company N2IT released vinyl emulation software called Final Scratch. The software allowed users to physically regulate the playback of digital audio files on the turntables. In simpler terms, it allowed users to play and scratch any MP3 as if it were a record. But what really set it above other audio-mixing technology was its digital interface, which displayed visual cues, making fundamental DJing skills easier to master. No more need for a massive record collection, or an ear for beat matching, or a talent for juggling breaks.

The rapid digital evolution of DJing is strange to those with an attachment to vinyl. "I was blown away when I went to a younger DJ's house, and he had a setup but no records," says left coast megamix master DJ King Most. "That's almost like a painter who just illustrates on a computer and doesn't own an easel or set of brushes." Most still takes advantage of Serato's Final Scratch software's undeniably helpful capabilities: for one, it allows him to play edits and remixes without pressing them to wax, so he can travel without carrying 100 pounds of plastic discs. Nonetheless, the democratization of DJing has saturated the social milieu with hobbyists and amateurs. "Anybody with a laptop now DJs; anybody with a beat making-program makes beats; anybody with a camera makes videos for YouTube," Most says.

In only a few years, completely digital DJing has not only become popular but dominant. Now all you need to blend and manipulate prerecorded sounds is a laptop and music production software, Ableton Live being the most popular program. Old school analog equipment is being abandoned. But while Ableton allows non-DJs to make up for their lack of experience and skill, it also enables a whole new range of options for the creative-minded. "The sport is not about matching beats from one record to the next, back and forth for two hours," explains experimental electronic musician Bassnectar. "In fact, now there is no sport — just an ongoing explorative relationship with the balance of shades of intensity between groups of people and waves of sound."

Bassnectar (a.k.a. Lorin Ashton) wholeheartedly embraces the inchoate freedom spawned from new audio technology. Infamous for creating compelling live laptop performances, he's attuned to the aesthetic possibilities of mixing, moduutf8g, and transforming sonic elements. "Ableton Live makes it possible to execute real-time remixes and mashups of any sound or song, with less than five seconds of prep time," he says. "It allows for limitless combinations and recombinations." Those open-ended horizons might prove daunting for artists who prefer restraint when shaping their creative work. But Bassnectar faces the challenge head-on, affirming his commitment to innovate and improvise by channeling the power of the machine. "It's like being a stand-up comedian, where you can seamlessly weave together every funny joke ever told. and tell it in any language, accent, or context while adding sound effects and mastering it all on the spot."

Despite exciting new approaches to laptop DJing, many DJs still choose the turntable as their primary vehicle of expression. A few musicians demonstrate that the turntable's creative avenues are far from exhausted. San Francisco funk outfit F.A.M.E.

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