More and more these days we see DJs moving away from playing the role of a jukebox with a pulse, and moving toward playing the role of a producer in the booth. We saw this twenty years ago, when most DJs were playing vinyl in the clubs, they were all making music behind the scenes. Yes, there were fewer options for production and the limited capabilities of computers really made producers have to work hard to get projects to flourish with technology, but the real hindrance was getting that music into the clubs quickly. Now, with the advances in technology and the ability to self-publish, things have changed somewhat.
I can remember finishing a track one evening and then wanting to play it at a gig later that night in the 90s. Digital performance wasn’t how we know it today. Often a venue would only have two 1200s and a battle mixer, so you had to improvise. It got so desperate at times that I would literally record the track live from my sequencer onto a cassette and bring a Walkman to plug into the mixer at the club. This made mixing a brand new track somewhat difficult, and with a quality that was not always desirable. At least when you knew CDJs were going to be an option at the venue, you could quickly burn off a CD of any new tracks before heading out. Of course, I say ‘quickly’, but I really mean spending a good half an hour for a track to be rendered and then burnt onto the CD at painfully slow speeds to ensure no errors. Oh, how times have changed! The introduction of portable media and computer controllers has changed the way a DJ interacts with the room forever. Yes, there is some nostalgic feeling to having a tape jam-up on you at the wrong moment when you try to rewind it desperately in order to cue it up with a record that was quickly coming to an end, but we must all agree that what we have to work with today is definitely a turn for the better.
The ability to create a CD in a minute is brilliant. The fact that we can now save enough music for an entire set onto a USB stick in a few minutes is outrageous. You can literally have your entire music library hanging from your key ring, and simply connect it with the hardware at the club to access it all, and create a performance on the spot. This has drawn some criticism in certain circles with the suggestion that DJs are simply plugging in a USB stick and pressing play. These sorts of claims have always followed us. The introduction of the CDJ to DJ booths brought with it the suggestions of complete mix CDs being played and that was twenty years back. So, it is best to leave those who wish to talk rubbish out of the equation and create the best possible mix from whatever tools and media you have at your disposal.
With these advancements in portable media, we have obviously seen a huge growth in the market when it comes to DJ controllers for both computer and stand-alone operations. Nowadays, you can use a CDJ without a CD, and still work with it like you music is on a physical moving disc within the unit. This great rise in hardware controllers means portable music making has become the forefront of the modern DJ set. Why play music that is pre-recorded when you can build your tracks and mix them in real-time within your set. Now, you can simply 2015make it up as you go and create something truly unique.
Clever portable controllers, like Akai Pro’s AFX Serato controller, include many features into a device that fits into your laptop bag and works with just about any software. Of course, there are dozens of great controllers. I am simply using the AFX as an example because it caught my attention this week, and so I have found myself ignoring other controllers while I get my fix of this one. The design isn’t ground-breaking, it isn’t a re-invention of the wheel and it will probably join the rest of my arsenal in due course, but it does offer me a slightly different approach when controlling Serato. It’s a simple and intuitive design, one that reflects the classic mixer layout and features many options you would expect to find on such a controller like drum pads, cue point and FX assignment with rotary encoders and a backlit LCD for data readouts. There are no physical faders though, and noticeably no cross-fader along the bottom of the unit. A touch sensitive endless controller running across the top of the unit has taken the place of a cross-fader, with the ability to complete a range of functions.
Sure, this does the job of many other controllers, but it is always fun to work with a new one and see how the change in workflow redirects your creative process. If I had the time and money, I would ultimately end up with every controller out there and learn how to use them all inside out. The possibilities of using a range of controllers with a traditional DJ setup including vinyl is just mind boggling. I am going to leave this thought with you. Take it away and consider how you can up the stakes in what you bring to your DJ set. See how you can work more devices into the process to better mix up the results.