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15 Analog vs. Digital
  • 08 May 2010 22:49:47

I DJ strictly vinyl. Although I'm not a snob towards digital DJing, it's not really for me, and I like the tactile interaction. I will make the case for why I DJ vinyl, but this should be taken as my own logic towards reaching that decision rather than a manifesto. It says more about me and my approach to the art rather than a universally applicable rule.


Some methods such as FinalScratch and Scratch Live give more classical control of digital music, but as far as turntablism is concerned, these are still far from optimal, and ironically, much worse than real scratching! The needle on a record player makes a natural sound — you can listen to a record player without speakers, headphones, or an amplifier. While this is perhaps more "cool" than "useful" if the booth is quiet, or I'm dropping my first track, I'll use this for cuing before the fade without headphones. My headphones are turned off and not around my neck most of the time around my house. If you turn up the bass and tap on a record, this can be used as an improvised drum beat. Digital scratching will never match analog scratching in sound quality, speed, or general accuracy. Although digital versions of DJing allow for a larger range of pitch control than most turntables, this is mostly impractical, as things shifted by 10% start to sound really terrible — except for the case of the 33/45/78 buttons on a turntable, which can be useful for scratching. The 78 button is one reason I need to get some Technics MK4s, actually, but those are only sold in Japan and are hard to find on the used market. And sure, you can reverse either a turntable platter or a digital song, but try to flip the laser in your CD player upside down and play the opposite side of the CD to play things backwards! CDs don't even have two sides! Impractical perhaps, but DJing is a performance art, not pressing "play" on a CD player. It should be cool to watch.

Performance Art Aspects

The fact is that spinning vinyl is much more of a performance art that digital DJing. The first time someone witnesses a good DJ, they should be blown away by what's happening, how it's happening, and how it can possibly give the result that comes through the speakers; I know that's one of the reasons I started DJing. A good DJ should inspire other people to want to DJ themselves.

Watching someone straight laptop DJ moving a mouse to the beat to alter levels is bloody lame. It could get cooler once someone makes a pure touchscreen mixer, but I shouldn't be giving people all my good ideas free of charge. But you can have that idea, because I have an even better analog idea I've tested a prototype on that is even cooler, doesn't use any power, and will cost me less than $100 to wire together; no, I'm not going to write about that until I make it and try to patent the technology. Most clubs in Tokyo I see people using the turntables to hold CDs that are on cue. I start to think people who CD DJ have just lost all connection with the performance art aspect, because I've never seen anyone doing anything interesting. They could at least use the start/stop button on the turntable to move the platter a quarter turn to put the next CD they want in front of them rather than reaching for it. It gets worse though. I've seen people use my turntables as a mousepad! Can I open your laptop lid and use its keyboard and screen to hold my cued records? Plz thx OK bye. Actually, that's an awesome idea...I need to find a junker laptop and start doing that. Setting a beer on the record while it's playing might seem dangerous, but it's funny anyway. I should try to make a beer-loop instead of a tape-loop.

And would you rather see someone turning through a book full of CD-Rs (or worse, scrolling with the mouse-wheel through music directories on a MacBook) or digging furiously through a record bin and double and triple stacking vinyls on the platter due to lack of time? Not only that, but for my organizational style, I am more spatial and I think about where records are physically rather than remembering artist or track names. I would rather sift madly through my record collection trying to find a missing vinyl before the next song ends than point and click on it. I would rather draw on my records with silver markers and write on the labels than edit track tags. And in any case, computers crash and so anyone doing laptop DJing responsibly at a show must also have records with them.

What are you paying for?

Most aspects of digital DJing are inherently easier than analog DJing. I'm not saying "harder is better" but I am saying it's at least a skill and worth a cover charge (this doesn't suggest there aren't good digital DJs, but the average skill of an analog DJ is superior to an average digital DJ). Hell, there are even programs to auto-beatmatch songs for you. Why should anyone pay to see a DJ who is using a computer code to match the beats? As far as actually beat matching one's self, I don't think anything in the digital world can compare to one finger on the record label and one hand on the pitch shifter. This technique is nearly perfect for exact beat matching. The extent anyone will argue in favor of digital DJing is trumped by the basic fact that all digital DJing forms are trying to mimic analog DJing as much as possible, with very few actual innovations. Sure, you can do more live-remixing with pre-programmed loops, but again, if it's a live performance, and you have pre-programmed loops, this is about the same as having pre-taped records to make tape loops. The correct way to do live remixing and add extra loops into songs is using two or more copies of the same record on different players and backcuing. But instead of learning that skill and telling your laptop to reloop your tracks, why not throw on a CD, sit on the couch, and drink a beer? Why bother to play two copies of the same record slightly mis-aligned to get wave-form interference when you can just press a shiny button with the effects selector on 'flanger'?

Just because I suck doesn't mean I'm wrong

And no, I'm still not very good at DJing despite doing it for 5 years. Part of the reason for that is because analog DJing is a lot harder. But I'm getting better.

Historical influences

The fact is that all digital DJs I ever talked to don't even understand the history of their own art because they are too far removed from its origins. And anyone studying history will tell you that understanding the past is a useful thing indeed. These people don't know how to do a flanger themselves, and they probably don't even know that the etymology of 'grooving' to the music comes from the physical fact that records have grooves and so a good track is groovy in retro-slang. CD players have "track" numbers, but CDs don't have any tracks! A record player runs a needle through a track, which is a groove cut physically into the record. Maybe this doesn't seem related to DJing, but it is. But at some level you have to go analog to get a sound out of the speakers. So if you have experience making the circuit board for a low-pass filter, which could go either in a speaker box or on a mixer board (or directly on the turntable preamplifier if you like), do you think you're going to be better or worse at innovation in the art?

It's just more fun!

Analog technology gives you a lot more to play with. You aren't limited to what the CD player is programmed to do or what some close-source software coder though might be cool. I've taken apart turntables to repair them, and they can be changed in many many ways, either by opening them up or just using features that already exist. I've even seen "track lights" on CDJs! How absurd! What track are you trying to light...seriously. There are different kinds of platter mats that effect the sound quality you get; I need to get some sound deadened steel. The needle choice absolutely affects everything — even the headshell matters! For example, I want to check out some ebony headshells. Adjusting the break-speed on a turntable can allow for all kinds of tricks. Perhaps I've digressed more into the roots of basic turntable technology than ways knowing the history can make a better DJ, but these things are all related. If you're not into tinkering with technology, you cannot be a DJ. And there's sadly little to tinker with to tune your sound digitally unless you are desgining your own CD player or writing your own code for playback. Sure, effector boxes are sweet, but those, digital or analog, can be used for any kind of DJing. There are even two different common turntable orientations (classical and hip hop style); did you ever see digital DJs arguing about which way is better to turn their CD players? The worst is when digital DJs using my gear complain that I have things oriented in hip hop style; they'll even pull my turntables out of the coffin and balance them precariously on top of the case to get a normal mode. Do they even know why hip hop style exists I wonder? I don't think anyone doing digital stuff worries about clean power. How are you going to get the white noise out of your laptop or CD player, anyway? The only white noise on turntables is the groove, and a good preamplifier and amplifier (prefer it to be vacuum tubes) with a great clean power supply will give you an absolutely fantastic sound. In a few years, I'll have all this kind of garbage in my basement, but clubs that charge $40 cover charges don't even run vacuum amps or clean power. It sounds terrible.

Sound quality

I won't go into sound quality at all, but here is a quick overview of the basics on how digital sound is inferior. Don't even get me started at people who play mp3s at shows. "Vinyls get scratched and damaged over time." Guess what, CDs also get scratched, and computer bits get flipped by cosmic rays. Sure, CD-Rs and hard-drives are cheaper than a vinyl cutter, but let's see how dedicated you are to this whole "DJing" business. I must have dropped a few thousand dollars on my DJing stuff, and I'm a student who is mostly broke. I'm not saying you have to pay to play, but I mean, come on, it's still cheaper than souping out your car and it's not only more fun but it's also more practical in terms of the results.

Digital DJing is a waste of money

The value of analog DJing is also much greater. Just purchasing a laptop and one of these fancy programs that makes your turntable into a USB device will cost you something like the whole cost of the turntable mixer setup. Good analog technology depreciates in value much slower than digital technology. The Pioneer RT-909 reel-to-reel player I want was made in the early 1980s, and it still sells for nearly $1000. My TI-86 graphing calculator, which I bought in middle school in 1996 for $100 has the same processor as early 1980 computers that my friend's parents old computer magazines were selling for $2000 in 1980 dollars! Some of my used Technics turntables were probably manufactured in the early 1990s and I still had to pay more than $200 for them in a condition that required fixing broken parts. Some people complain that records are expensive, which often they are since they are of limited press, but this is just their fault for DJing digitally. If more people were analog DJs still, more records would be pressed and I wouldn't have to buy them on the used market for $100. And besides, even with responsible DJ use, the value of a record doesn't degrade nearly as quickly as many records go up in price. Even in their condition, I'd say in the last 5 years my record collection is worth 4 times more than I paid for it, easily.

Music availability myths

People complain that you can't get "everything" on vinyl, but that's a total lie. You can cut your own vinyls at home if you want. These technologies are slightly pricey (VinylRecorder T560 or the Vinylium Dubcutter). But this is less than an order of magnitude more expensive than these digital computer programs and USB boxes and a laptop. And in ten years it will retain its value much better after you've bought two more laptops and two more programs.

If you don't have a vinyl cutter (like me for now), I recommend searching for used vinyls on Discogs or MusicStack.

Waaaaah waaaah, vinyls are heavy

People complain that vinyl records are heavy, and there's not much getting around that. But I'd rather lug a crate of records to a show than toss my laptop into a satchel and roll in with my hat backwards (well, the orientation of my hat will probably not be normal anyways). I purposely buy 180 gram records (the heavy weight ones) whenever possible, and I purposely carry extra copies of the same records. If you're worried about you back posture, probably you shouldn't be DJing anyway.

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