Wednesday, February 9, 2011

On Laptop DJs

This past week I had one of those unfortunate moments when my cranky Lester Bangs side got the better of me, leading to a deep insertion of foot into mouth. A guy contacted me from one of "those" websites, and his profile pic was of him, shirtless, DJing at a party. "Whoa," I thought, "now this looks interesting, what can I say to impress this guy?" At first glance it looked like he was playing on turntables with mixer, so I shot back "hey, I like that you're spinning vinyl, I find laptop DJs kinda annoying." I hit "send," and then, oh only then, did I look closer and realize that he was using CD players and, yes, a laptop. Oops. An exchange of emails ensued in which I tried to extricate said foot from said mouth, but, as of this writing, they have come to an end on his side, and I seem to have lost a shot at a bootie call.

Aside from the obvious lesson that I should not listen to Lester when he whispers things in my ear (I've come to think of Lester and Michael Musto as the scene devil and scene angel, respectively, sitting on my shoulders as I write), this incident also provided a moment to reflect on my opinions about laptop DJing, opinions that, I have to admit, are in no way informed by having actually tried to DJ on a laptop, but are largely the result of my resistance, as someone who really fell in love with DJing on vinyl, to the very idea.

I must first admit that everything my respondent in this exchange brought up about laptop DJing is absolutely true: working in Traktor, or Ableton, gives you an infinite amount of greater control over the tracks that you're playing, and opens up creative possibilities for live remixing and layering that were nearly impossible (unless you were Carl Craig or a super turntablist) in the era of vinyl. Things like beatmatching can be largely handed over to the software, leaving the DJ able to focus on other manipulations, and being able to watch the waveform, set cue points, and loop multiple sections let the DJ create not just seamless mixes, but entirely new mixes on the fly. From a rational standpoint, where the laptop helps you overcome all the technical issues associated with DJing on vinyl and CDs, from hauling around a lot of equipment to making sure it all works together, laptop DJing makes infinite sense. And, from the standpoint of "DJ as manipulator," it is a creative tool without compare.

However, I also think that as we go from vinyl, to CDs, to laptops, it changes DJing and the kind of mixes that DJs produce. I've heard a tendency of laptop DJs to "slam" tracks together without much in the way of real mixing, what I've come to think of as the laptop DJ equivalent of the "train wreck" in other media; in both cases, things are being put together that sound terrible in the mix, but the trainwreck, with its battling beats, is more obviously a "mistake" than the "slam." In any medium, there are good and bad mixes, so I don't think there is a way to qualitatively rank vinyl against laptops in that regard. What interests me more is whether, because of the way in which one interfaces with the music, there is also a change in what we think of as "DJing," as well as what kind of mixes that person produces.

When I learned to DJ on vinyl, I saw it as a challenge. One of the first recorded mixes that really impressed me was Sasha and Digweed's Northern Exposure: Expeditions, and around the time I heard it I read, in an article about Digweed, that he was known for his "long mixes," in which he could hold two tracks together "for two minutes or more." That became my goal; to produce a smooth, seamless mix that would be experienced as one continuous track, and which would be the result of my being able to execute long mixes. I spent hours practicing mixes, figuring out which tracks went together, which didn't, honing my sense of structure and my ability to hear the effect of my EQ and fader manipulations. When I was able to produce a recording of a mix that contained no mistakes, no wrecks, no serious distortions as a I trimmed up a beatmatch on the fly, I felt it was a serious accomplishment (some of those mixes can still be found on my WaxDJ site).

Given my own understanding of the limitations of turntables and mixers, I was all the more impressed by those DJs I saw performing live who could accomplish things that were well beyond my capabilities. This became part of my appreciation of their performances - they were like virtuoso violin players who had mastered the most complex passages of Paganinni. I knew that I would never be the amazing mix master, but I could still aspire to be the smooth trance DJ, and enjoy some sense of accomplishment as such.

Laptop DJing, it seems to me, has rendered moot much of what I felt to be the physical virtuousity that I admired and aspired to on vinyl, and this seems to be the real source of my resistance to it. What I learned, and practiced, and put so much time into, now seems to have been outmoded by the machine. It also seems that the style of DJing I was into, one that was shaped by the limitations and challenges of playing music based in a physical medium, is also obsolete; what's so great about the long smooth mix when you can do so much more?

As I sit in my living room and look at my shelves of records and contemplate moving, and as I look at my roadcases of gear and think about how it could all be replaced with Traktor, I see the rationality of making that replacement. I can even understand how making the move to the laptop could open up new creative possibilities for me. But it will also be hard to not experience it as a kind of concession, and a loss.

No comments: