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.
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."
Jose Ramirez (a.k.a. DJ Legit, who spins at Mute at Proof Bar and White Collar at Memphis Costa Mesa) makes the strongest case for Serato. "For club DJs like myself, Serato gives us many more options and advantages over vinyl. Serato allows us to keep up with the latest music selections and remixes without the hassle of trying to find them on vinyl. Most important, we do not have to carry around heavy crates of vinyl, and our music selection is endless compared to that of a vinyl DJ, who can only bring as many records as he is willing to haul in the trunk of his car. Serato is definitely the better choice for club DJs: less to haul, more to spin. And there is always the option of bringing a few of your favorite records to throw in the mix."
Scotty Coats (mainstay at Avalon Bar's Double Fisted) couldn't disagree more. He views most Serato jocks as non-dues-paying lazy-asses—and criminals, to boot. "I have nothing against any of the software programs, except that I feel it takes away from the foundation that deejaying was built on. It's one thing if you were a DJ, did your homework, and then switched over to Serato or Final Scratch because you don't want to lose or scratch any of your records that you spent your entire life looking for, as opposed to the kid who just picked up Serato and is playing all the clubs because he has the latest fashion and steals music from the latest blogs and doesn't really give a shit about the history of the culture."
Coats cites this heinous example of that type of DJ: "A dude gave me his mixtape, and I listened to it and asked him, 'What was track 3?' His answer was, 'I don't know; it was a .wav file.' A real person made that .wav file and you don't even care enough to find out who it was?!"
Coats also castigates DJs who "play MP3s that they either steal or trade with friends. I work really hard on capturing frequencies in my recordings, and I'd be pissed if someone squashed it into an MP3 to play it out without taking the time to buy the record and have it heard the way it was meant to be heard. It's about the music and respecting the artist who made it."
Coats' Double Fisted partner, Chip Bernal (DJ Poppa), also flies analog airlines at all times. "Digging for rare dance and disco cuts is still half the fun and what sets you apart from other DJs who play in your same genre. All these new-jacks who say they're DJs and just started last week/month/year can have thousands of MP3s on their laptops of all the latest shit. That's too easy. My 13-year-old daughter can do that from her bedroom tonight and probably mix just as good as half of them by tomorrow," Bernal says. "But then again, I'm old-school."
Chris Alfaro (DJ Urthworm/Free the Robots) mostly uses vinyl, but he acknowledges that Serato can enhance his deejay sets by allowing him to "perform new mix techniques, and it makes it possible to play my own new tracks and re-edits without having to press LPs all the time."
Vinyl enthusiast Andrew Meza (BTS Radio) admits he'd use Serato—if he could afford it. "People still weren't using Gutenberg's printing press as soon as homeboy added a steam engine to it," he explains. "That shit printed out, like, 80,000 more pages in a minute than Gutenberg's original device could print in 10 years." It's not a precise analogy, but point taken: This story's not written on a manual typewriter.
DJ Cocoe (Abstract Workshop) reiterates a common refrain among DJs. "Nothing sounds better than a record in a club. It's a warm, home-like feeling." In DJ circles, to claim otherwise is akin to believing the Earth is flat.
Bep (Training Bra) concurs, hailing vinyl's "sensual feel and purity of sound" and cringing at "software that automatically beat matches for you."
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Many young DJs love the convenience of Serato, but Matt Papp (DJ Shh) bucks the tide of his peers and spins vinyl. "Serato is on a trend now," he says, "and people jump into it because you don't have to have a record collection to start deejaying."
Ron D Core (owner of Fountain Valley's Dr. Freeclouds Records and a popular DJ) proclaims from his shop's MySpace page, "Laptop deejaying is killing music." Freeclouds has lasted 13 years mainly by catering to hardcore vinyl DJs and electronic-music collectors. He sums up the audiophile perspective of the argument: "Vinyl is more expensive. But I would much rather own a Mercedes than a Yugo. I see the laptop DJ as purchasing Yugo-quality music."
Just as there's more than one way to skin a cat, there's more than one way for a DJ to wow a crowd. They've never had more options with which to practice their craft, but not all media are created equal, if you believe these opinionated sound connoisseurs. Digital is on the rise, but analog purists will not fade away without getting their wax in. One thing isn't debatable: You can't download good taste.