DJ Tech Developments Keep Expanding Musical Horizons
In nightclubs around the world - gay and straight - the DJ is God. Every night they send out their messages via sound, as we, the welcoming and (the DJ hopes) adoring masses dance our blues away and soak up the thumpa-thumpa prophecy of music. Over the past decade, technological advances have profoundly changed the dynamics of what it means to be a DJ. Still, a number of experienced disk jockeys say that, regardless of the digital takeover of their profession, it still all boils down to talent, programming, and having the ear to spin what the crowd craves.
As a Billboard reporter covering the club scene, DJ Trent Von has seen all of the evolutions of DJ gear over the past 25 years. "From the tried-and-true Technics SL1200 turntable, the first introduction of Pioneer's CDJ's and Mixers, and Rane's Serato digital interface, all of these innovations have offered DJs differing ways to mix their music by ear. I've tried all of these formats and I like them all; however I always find myself favoring Turntables with Serato."
Since 1986 Trent has worked at Palladium in San Francisco and Kazbah in Napa, California. He's played everything from Italo Disco to Acid House and Industrial Dance. For 17 years, Trent Von has served as resident DJ for Neighbours Seattle, the city's premiere gay dance club. Like all veteran DJs, Trent Von reminisces nostalgically about the transition from vinyl EPs to CDs, and now digital transmission.
"While technology has always played a strong role in the evolution of the business," he said, "the past few years has seen an acceleration of just how much technology is changing what it means to be a DJ."
The latest leap in technology is laptops with midi controllers. "These DJ platforms offer the DJ a lot of new possibilities with multiple tracks an effects," Trent Von explains. "These tools are powerful, and in the right hands can be really amazing!"
DJs see what they do as an art, not a technical skill. That at least partly explains the resistance with which they greet every innovation. The newest platforms are especially controversial because of "auto beat sync" button - or the "lazy button" - implies a DJ can go on autopilot and let the music beat match itself.
"Most of your traditional DJs find this as .... well, you know, an AutoTune version of a DJ," he said. "I generally don't mind this feature being used, so long you're doing some really amazing stuff with it like remixing on the fly or Mashing Up multiple samples and beats. "but it should never distract you from what really matters - good programming!"
Everything Old Is New Again
Over fourteen years ago, DJ Brian Gorr fell in love with dance music. "When I first started out in the business, there only existed the technology of vinyl for spinning," says Gorr, another Seattle-based DJ who has played Circuit parties as well as local club gigs. "When CDs came into the picture, most people moved to using them out of practicality. The truth is, CDs saved room so the effort of carrying them to the club for a gig became much easier than lugging around crates of records."
Like Trent, DJ Brian Gorr noticed that when mixing software for laptops arrived, "it really changed the way a DJ could spin" and even "changed the definition of what it means to be a DJ" in certain circles.
"The software essentially allows anyone to upload the software, learn it and 'spin' although it's technically not spinning because the computer is doing the beat-matching for you," he points out. "However, there also exists software/hardware that allows you to spin vinyl or CD again using the computer. I was so excited to spin vinyl again after a long hiatus and still stay current by using my computer to store all of my music."
"What's next?" he asks. "I've actually seen virtual spinning where you spin on a vertical wall or window and all of the mixing is literally just touching or spinning on the wall where there are no actual dials, turntables, or anything physical."
Despite getting his start when turntables and vinyl ruled the business, DJ Gorr says he looks forward to "the continued evolution of music technology."
Maintaining the Art Amidst the Industry
DJ Keo Nozari, a well-known L.A.-based DJ/recording artist with eight years experience in the business, warns that technology can be a "double-edged sword."
"On the one hand, technological advances allow for more innovation, creativity and options and smoother transitions," he told EDGE. "On the other, it lets anyone who simply 'likes' music to think they are a DJ."
Keo, a bicoastal DJ who recently played the Trevor Projects' "Spring Fling" benefit in New York City, maintains that, in order to be an effective DJ, would-be professionals need to understand tempo because, "DJing is an art."
"People are listening to more music than ever which is great - and downloading lots of DJ podcasts, which is introducing DJs to new audiences," he said. "On the flip side, people are also now accustomed to listening to songs they want instantly. So often they take that approach with DJs, insisting they play their song 'right now' - even handing them their iPods if they don't have their request."
"What they don't understand is the DJ's job to please the crowd as a whole, that the DJ often plans their sets many tracks in advance, and that they are creating an atmosphere and vibe that their request might not fit, especially in that moment," Keo noted.
For Nozari, the five innovations within the last five years that changed the DJ landscape forever are Serato, Traktor, iTunes, iPod, and Cloud Technology.
"I'm very curious to see where Cloud technology takes us," he said. "In theory, DJs will now be able to go to their gigs without any music, and instead can download it on the fly, potentially pulling from a catalog they have spanning decades and tens of thousands of songs, allowing for an incredible amount of creativity," not to mention not having to schlep boxes and boxes of music through airports.
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