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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Scratching the surface: DJ'ing with your Mac

It's Saturday night and you're out and about painting the town red, or whatever color it is that towns are painted these days. Whether you end up at a night club, a lounge or a bar, there's a good chance there's going to be a DJ spinning up some tunes at the venue. And there's a good chance that you'll see a glowing Apple in front of the DJ, as said DJ may be accompanied by a MacBook or MacBook Pro. If you've ever looked into doubling your Mac as a virtual turntable, then this post may help you scratch the surface -- err, vinyl.
At the top of my list for DJ apps is Serato Scratch Live, commonly known just as "Serato". Although the software-hardware combination of Serato is also compatible with Windows-based machines, most DJs that I know, and most of the DJs in the venues I've been to, outfit their Serato setup with a Mac. Here's what's in a typical Serato DJ config:
  1. There's Serato Control Vinyl. Although it looks and feels like a traditional vinyl record, Serato Control Vinyl doesn't have any pre-recorded music on it. Instead, the record contains a control signal that allows Scratch Live (the software on your computer) to track the motion of the record -- allowing you to control and scratch the the MP3s or AACs on your computer. The price for Serato Control Vinyl records ranges between USD $10 and $20.
  2. Scratch Live, which is the software that's installed on your computer.
  3. To bridge the digital world (Scratch Live and your digital music) and the vinyl analog world, you'll need to use special hardware: either Rane's SL 1 or SL 3 audio interfaces. These breakout boxes connect to your computer via USB. Audio is passed to the breakout box by connecting your left and right turntables' respective RCA cables to Serato's inputs, and likewise Serato's outputs to your mixer.
While you can purchase Serato Control Vinyl and a Rane SL 1 or SL 3 box separately, they can can also be purchased as packages. For example, a package with Scratch Live, two Serato Control Vinyl records and the Rane SL 1 box is usually priced at about USD $540.
Similar vinyl-based digital solutions are also offered by Stanton's Final Scratch, Native Instruments' Traktor Scratch, and Torq DJ.

But if you're just looking to get your feet wet without the need for expensive hardware, there are software-centric options to tickle your beat matching and vinyl scratching fancy. Here, instead of using digital vinyl, you'll be using your Mac's trackpad and some keyboard combinations to perform your mixing trickery. Of the paid-for options available, I've found algoriddim's Djay (USD $49.95) to offer the best balance of simplicity and ease-of-use for novices, as well as providing some advanced features for the more seasoned DJ.
Like a traditional DJ setup, DJay's interface presents dual virtual turntables to the user. Playing a song on one of the turntables is as simple as dragging and dropping songs from your song library (which is very nicely integrated with iTunes) to the desired turntable. Besides EQ, gain level, record speed and mixer controls, you can also set looping and cue points. To facilitate your workflow and mixing, the app features an "analyze library" feature that analyzes your songs and provides the beats per minute (BPM) of them. But if you're feeling lazy and not in the mixing mood, you can choose the app's "Automix" option. As implied in its name, the feature puts DJay on autopilot and automatically mixes your music for you. While DJay is suitable for use without any special hardware, Vestax has developed Spin, a USB controller that provides for more physical, turntable-like control. Spin is available at the Apple Store for USD $249.95.
Advances in technology have changed DJ'ing, as the sight of seeing DJs carrying in large carrying cases and milk crates full of 12" records has become less frequent. Serato and DJay represent two DJ'ing offerings available on the Mac, but by no means are they the only options. Readers, we'd like to hear some of your recommendations to the aspiring DJ or the mixmaster in all of us.