Last Night a Laptop DJ Saved My Life

London’s nightclub business is thriving and our DJs remain world leading. How do they do it? editor Lowri Clarke reveals all


Photo by Kieran Pharaoh

Who would have predicted there’d be such a fascination with the playing of other people’s music? The arrangement of music has become an art-form, the decks – an instrument. The DJ has arrived at his destination as a demi-God. A bona fide musician.

The genesis of the DJ has been a fascinating one. First the unlikely figure of Jimmy Saville invents modern two-turntable mixing, when he commissions the construction of a bespoke mixer, cross-fading between two tracks on separate decks. Then the 70s disco scene. Then the era of block parties, scratching, acid house, raves, needles jumping… and DJs lugging around big boxes of records.

Today, to play on vinyl has become niche. There are of course the vinyl purists: those who treasure the special sound of needle on wax. Those DJs for whom physically moving the records with their hands, feeling the mix, is the point.

“Some argue that digital solutions mean that people can effectively ‘press play’ and then do nothing”

Surprisingly, vinyl sales are on the increase again, but thanks to incredible leaps in technology, (and the switch to MP3 as predominant format), most DJs have moved away from vinyl. Initially, this was in favour of CDJs (CD turntables). The MP3 revolution has hit the vinyl scene hard, and now CDJs are the norm at all clubs in London. Of course most will have traditional turntables to be pulled out when required, but in general DJs are expected to be playing on CDs – or on a laptop.

Digital DJing

Digital DJing has changed things further. Software like Ableton Live, Traktor, Serato and Atomix Virtual DJ have enabled DJs to mix without the necessity of physical decks. There are of course proponents of both schools. Some argue that digital solutions mean that people can effectively ‘press play’ and then do nothing. There is less visibility – it’s harder to discern what a DJ is actually doing up there. There is a loss of any kind of performance and credibility of skill.

The purists say that the technology is doing the mixing for them. This is the trap of the laptop DJ; they could just be pressing play on a pre-recorded mix and messing about with live effects. Laptop DJs say that the beat-matching software frees them up to do live edits, chop up tracks, add samples and literally build their own sound, that the art of pure beat-matching is not what makes a great DJ.

“Some producers who have achieved notoriety for their music – but are not actually DJs – can now perform their music ‘live’ in clubs without the necessity of learning how to mix”

Beat-matching has conventionally been a necessary skill for DJs - a technical necessity which encourages DJs to organise their collection in a particular way according to tempo and groove. This aspect of DJing pervades, and is encouraged even more so, with the use of programmes such as Ableton but at the same time this type of software has removed the obligation to actually beat-match, so now a DJ’s time is freed up to allow for other creative effects which a vinyl (or CD) DJ couldn’t necessarily do.

This throws up a whole other can of worms about what is truly ‘live’. Some producers who have achieved notoriety for their music – but are not actually DJs – can now perform their music ‘live’ in clubs without the necessity of learning how to mix. Previously, they would simply give their tracks to DJs to get them played in clubs – now they are being asked to perform the music themselves – and software like Ableton allows them to do this.

How can a producer be sure that someone who listens to their music is going to fully appreciate the expertise, the hours of practice and skill that is put in? Does it even matter whether they appreciate the level of skill – and does this effect the opinion they form about the end product?

“What of music as a physically transported medium? As cloud computing is now a reality, will DJs dispense entirely with bringing their tunes with them?”

This has wider implications for pre-recorded mixes as well as the live show. Mixes are made for many reasons, most commonly they are a snapshot of the artist, an audio CV. They display to the listener what sounds the DJ is enjoying at that moment and what they want to project. They are promotional tools as much as anything else. Live mixes recorded in clubs and at gigs transport the listener via the sounds. The shorter studio mix, (as opposed to the one shot live mix), is produced to be digested in one sitting and has no boundaries so artists can mess around with it; the emphasis has to be on the music itself and what they are doing with it, rather than how they do it.

An analogy could be made that when listening to an album recorded by a band, you don’t wonder how three guitars are being played at once, how the vocals sung by the same person overlap, you simply enjoy it for what it is. The answer has to be that the music speaks for itself. If it’s good you enjoy it. What matters is the creativity of the mixing, the track selection, where it’s going, what the artist makes you feel – and whether they make you move.

And what of music as a physically transported medium? As cloud computing is now a reality, has the way been paved for DJs to dispense entirely with the need to bring their tunes with them? With a cloud-stored collection, all a DJ would need is a physical controller, just a mobile phone in fact, to plug into the club soundsystem.

Music fans have already been making use of web-based music hosting for years with the likes of myspace, youtube, and now spotify. For DJs though, the important question will be is cloud computing reliable enough for live performance? In other words, if my internet connection fails mid-gig then how long will the music keep playing for before I can get online again? In the UK at least, this may be a technology that has to wait for the long-delayed upgrades to 4g mobile internet and superfast broadband updates to happen before it matures to the point of appealing to professional DJs with a reputation for consistency and reliability to uphold.

  • CDJs A term used to describe a CD player that allows analogue control of music from CDs using an emulated vinyl control surface – ie it ‘feels’ more like vinyl.
  • Beat-matching The technique used by DJs to get two songs at the same tempo and pitch to create a mix that flows seamlessly.
  • Beat-matching Software: Software which performs the task of beat-matching automatically. Tracks are automatically synchronised.
  • Ableton Live A loop-based software music sequencer which is designed to be an instrument for live performance as well as for composing and arranging music.
  • Serato Scratch Live A Vinyl emulation software application which allows manipulation of digital audio files using traditional vinyl turntables via special timecode vinyl records or CDs. Serato crosses the divide between the versatility of digital audio and the tactile control of vinyl turntablism.
  • Traktor The most recent version, Traktor Pro, offers seamless looping, effects, automatic beat-gridding of tracks, advanced beat detection and Sync Lock for automatic synchronization of tracks, a 4-channel mixer, automatic gain control, support for multiple midi controllers.
  • Virtual DJ Audio/video mixing software for use with or without an external controller.

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  • Lowri Clarke

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