Paul Bell – Digital DJ Technologies

Materials PDX-3000 Ultra Pitch and Reverse Functions Vestax VCI-300 Traktor Scratch Time Code vinyl

Tron Lennon recording The Setup Serato Itch Software (fro Vextax VCI-300) PDX-3000 MIDI Control

The agenda was to explore the different digital DJ technologies available at STEIM in order to devise and develop my own DJ setup but also to form a critical understanding of these technologies that mostly emulate analogue equivalents. They included new turntables, hardware controllers, software applications, and the Korg Zero 4 hybrid DJ mixer that I purchased just before heading out to Amsterdam.

For the past few years I have been exploring digital vinyl systems which have allowed DJs to gain tactile control over digital audio with special vinyl cut with time code. This mixture of digital and analogue technology has allowed me to exploit the best of both worlds: random access and hands-on interaction. However, it hasn’t been a smooth journey as I’ve encountered all kinds of difficulties mostly to do with the latency and instability inherent within digital systems, which can be frustrating when one demands immediacy from an instrument.

As part of my STEIM residency I also wanted to metaphorical ‘cut’ my own vinyl by collating samples from a variety of sources that could be consolidated into one audio file and controlled with the time code vinyl, the idea being that these samples would eventually become a DJ tool I could learn to play like an instrument (in the same way that a hip hop turntablist learns his battle vinyl). In making this ‘vinyl’ I would have a rich resource at my creative disposal that would, at the same time, also do away with the need to change records during performance and perhaps sustain the creative moment?

Daily Activities:

Nov 4

Arrived in Amsterdam feeling very fatigued due to a flight delay. Attended the first performance of the ‘Greatest Hits’ concert at STEIM that evening. Went to bed early.

Nov 5

Explored the Vestax PDX-3000 turntable. The Ultra Pitch and Break Adjust functions opened up a new set of performance possibilities for me, complementing my aesthetic preference for slowing down sound, and the digitally simulated servo motor characteristics were a dream to play with.

Explored Ableton Live’s capabilities of manipulating loop start/end points in real-time by assigning MIDI parameters to the Zero 4′s mappable rotary knobs. However, the real-time possibilities were a bit disappointing because parameter changes only occured when MIDI information was no longer being received by the program.

Explored the Allen and Heath Xone:1D MIDI controller with Ableton Live.

Nov 6

Began beat juggling with the time code vinyl both as a means of doing some technical exercise and to investigate the ‘responsiveness’ of the system through the Zero 4 Firewire interface. The results were very positive with no noticeable latency.

Explored the Zero 4′s internal sampler. The combination of mechanical repetition and gestural hand movements proved exciting.

Nov 7

Moved away from the idea of manipulating loops in Ableton Live since the internal sampler on the Zero 4 was yielding more interesting results as it allowed greater control over the sampled material.

Reconfigured my physical DJ setup (PDX-3000 [left deck], Zero 4, Technics 1200 [right deck]) by moving the PDX-3000 to the right of the Zero 4 in order to access the ultra pitch and break adjust with my right hand whilst accessing the Zero 4 with my left.

Documented various beat juggling experiments which became more ‘abstract’ through utilizing the Zero 4′s internal sampler.

Started gathering samples to be controlled with the time code vinyl.

Nov 8

Collated samples (Hildergard Westerkamp, Luc Ferrari, and various beats from DJ battle records) to begin production on my metaphorical vinyl.

Documented performances with various combinations of technology, setups and materials.

Nov 9

Gathered materials from CDs, 7-inch vinyls and studio recordings.

Developed a bit of a fetish over 24bit digital audio.

Began editing samples into one audio file.

Nov 10

Finished editing together samples for the 1st vinyl build.

Reconfigured physical DJ setup (again) by moving the PDX-3000 to the left so that it could be set in motion, leaving me to scratch and overdub samples with the right (Technics) turntable. Recorded two pieces exploring the setup.

Re-edited audio file to remove samples that weren’t working.

Explored PDX-3000 MIDI capabilities. I made a simple patch in Max/MSP that would allow the PDX to be controlled with MIDI note messages. However, I didn’t find this functionality all that interesting so I also tried making a patch that would allow the PDX to be controlled via the Zero 4. The patch was very unstable because I was trying to use MIDI controller messages (from the Zero 4) to control the PDX (which only accepts MIDI note messages). I was able to control the PDX with a rotary knob on the Zero 4, which was cool for a few seconds after which the PDX stopped responding.

PDX MIDI Control PDX Zero 4 MIDI Control

Met up with DJ Sniff.

Nov 11

Worked on different combinations of materials for the ‘vinyl’.

Nov 12

Devised a short performance for the open studio session that demonstrated my research so far. Presented this at the session.

Nov 13

Recorded some Tron Lennon duo performances (with John Ferguson) using the systems we were both developing.

Nov 14

Recorded some playing with DJ Sniff. Had a chat about using buffers as a way of recalling previous moments (memories) within an improvised performance.

Nov 15

Explored the Vestax VCI-300 which is a dedicated USB MIDI controller for the Itch DJ software (made by Rane Serato).

Both the GUI and the hardware interface were simple in design and I had fun exploring the three cue point functions by changing their start and end points in real-time. The compact nature of the USB controller provided some interesting ways to interface with the digital audio such as controlling the platter with my thumbs whilst accessing the cue points with my other digits: a functionality I would love to explore further or possibly even build into my DJ setup one day.

Extreme pitch shift was also interesting when combined with long break stopping times. The tracking seemed very tight, however, spinning back the platter felt a little alien in comparison to real vinyl. Without any visual aid on the platter to help with cuing (it seemed a bit naughty applying sticky tape) it was difficult to execute scratches so I had to rely on the waveforms in the software. Also without any force feedback (torque) from the platter the machine felt ‘cold’ to use. However, it was fantastic for creating avant garde-esque beats.

I didn’t have much time to work with this technology so didn’t get to a stage where I knew the system enough to begin thinking compositionally about the music, which is a I place I love to be because it means mistakes are inevitable and the interaction can go anywhere. Consequently the 3 video documents show first and foremost how I’m gesturally interacting/interfacing with the technology and the digital audio, which I believe is possibly the most important factor in new instrument design
I think it’s exciting when hardware and software manufacturers team up because it results in cool new instruments. The only downside is that Itch is the only software the USB interface will work with but I’ve heard people have been hacking them.

It seems that the VCI-300 along with the Itch software could be a dream come true for a new breed of DJ whose background comes from trying to mix on an ipod at house parties.

Nov 16

Explored the Traktor Scratch digital vinyl system. I became interested in Traktor’s live sampling capabilities having made an unstable ‘Live Sampling Scratching’ patch using the Pinky object in Max/MSP. I was impressed by the amount out MIDI mappable parameters within the software. MIDI mapping was via the Xone:1D and the Zero 4 (recording, selecting a turntable and loading the sound file). I didn’t figure out how to scroll through the recordings list, instead I had to do this via the arrow keys on laptop. The sound quality was very good at slow speeds (as opposed to Ms Pinky where the sound cuts out as it falls below a certain threshold) and tracking was very tight.

Documented playing the Traktor Scratch vinyl at slow speeds.

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