Wax-scratch Fever

FEEDBACK: The analog-digital wars rage on as OC DJs debate their weapons of choice

You hear music in a club or a bar. You start to nod your head to the beat; or you get up and dance; or maybe you chat up a stranger or you walk out of the venue. Regardless of your decision, do you think about the means by which this music is invading your head space? Probably not. But some folks do care—very much. Because to some, their livelihoods—and honor—depend on it.

For DJs, the matter of format is as crucial as instruments are for surgeons. Arguments rage online and in clubland about the pros and cons of various formats and gear: vinyl, Serato, CDs, MP3s, .wav/.aiff/FLAC files, iPods, etc. These debates crackle with the same irreconcilable fury as those dedicated to evolution vs. creationism, celluloid vs. digital video and the Beatles vs. the Stones.

Recent years have seen DJs increasingly deploying digital formats, with laptops and Serato interfaces becoming as common a sight as record bags among selectors. Every time you go to a club now, you can hear the paradigm incrementally shifting more to 0s and 1s and away from the analog medium—vinyl—with which deejaying has flourished for several decades. Serato Scratch LIVE (the consensus-preferred software program that incorporates platters and turntables hooked up to a laptop) is lauded as the logical transition product for vinyl DJs to switch to digital; its BPM readouts, ability to hold several thousand tracks and effortless navigation have made it wildly popular.

Illustration by Ben Shannon.
Illustration by Ben Shannon.

Is this cause for celebration, or weeping and gnashing of Ortofon cartridges? We decided to pick the brains of Orange County's DJs and discover how they feel about this revolution.

First revelation: DJs who use vinyl exude much more passion—and verbosity—for their weapon of choice than do Serato/digital aficionados. In fact, many of the latter whom I contacted for this story didn't even respond. That indifference speaks volumes.

Second revelation:Most vinyl champions resemble fire-and-brimstone fundamentalists, and many have sentimental attachments to wax that supersede its utility. Per the latter sentiment, Steve Fisch (DJ aDJective, who spins at Kitsch and Memphis Santora) gets all metaphorical about gatefold covers of cherished LPs, particularly Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.

"The brilliant Hipgnosis cover for that best encapsulates the essence of vinyl: That prism is a needle, and that rainbow isn't only the light hitting the spinning black disc; it's also the concepts and sounds that flow out of the groove."

Of the 10,000 records Fisch owns, he typically brings eight crates' worth to his gigs—as well as his laptop. "iTunes is now an integral part of my spinning, and once you've let the digital interface in, there's no looking back. The qualifier for this is that I'm the kind of DJ who places an emphasis on [song selection] and not so much on scratching a break or matching a beat; thus, programs like Serato have no appeal to me. Furthermore, though in the 'phones I can detect how analog sounds crisper and more warmly blended than digital, through the PA systems of the bars and events where I deejay, it's very hard to discriminate the difference when there's a crowd roaring.

"Vinyl will be around as long as the petroleum from which it's made remains available," Fisch continues, "because in the hands of a grandmaster, turntables are an instrument, and they'll no more disappear than flutes or grand pianos will, now that those sounds can be easily simulated on a synthesizer."

Sean Harris (DJ TSC1 of the Definitely Maybe/Souled Out nights at Memphis Costa Mesa) represents the hardcore ?analog brigade. He laments the instant-gratification mentality among digital-?oriented DJs. By not digging for vinyl, Harris asserts, these DJs not only miss some great obscure tracks, but they also bypass important information contained in liner notes, knowledge that can't be gleaned from most downloading sites. And besides, he states, digital data present "a catastrophic loss in sound quality. Analog is still far superior to digital."

That's a common sentiment among DJs, and Seattle-area audio-software designer Brian Willoughby confirms it. "MP3 is about the worst quality digital has to offer," he says. "MP3 does not represent the full capabilities of digital, especially if you are listening in something like Serato. By the time you hear something, the digital sound has been mangled by the MP3 coding and then pitch-shifted by Serato. There is a ton of distortion in that process. Useful distortion, in that it gets you a fast download of music and allows you to beat match, but there is a tradeoff. You have to pay attention to your signal chain because Serato and [similar program] Ableton alter the quality of the sound when they alter the pitch or tempo of a track."

Dan Sena (Busywork mogul, regular at Proof Bar's Mute) is one of the few people queried who uses both Serato and vinyl. "[A]s technology progresses, the medium follows along with it," he says. "I've noticed some DJs moving to Ableton and other computer programs that do not require vinyl manipulation. I guess it's cool, but it certainly takes the human touch out of it. The only risk you run is your computer crashing. Serato, as a visceral deejay program, got it right. [It preserves] the art of turntablism, which is what I'm most interested in. I don't really think the waning importance of vinyl has anything to do with DJs, but with consumers and, of course, that damned technology."

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