ALCATECH DIGISCRATCH PRO

There was a time only a few short years ago that digital vinyl was fresh, cutting-edge science. Stanton's FinalScratch was the trailblazer, the progenitor
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There was a time — only a few short years ago — that digital vinyl was fresh, cutting-edge science. Stanton's FinalScratch was the trailblazer, the progenitor of this new class of musical tools that promised to tear down the walls between analog turntables and digital media. Introduced in 2001, it enjoys the most brand recognition and a solid, dedicated user base. But that's not to say that worthy competitors aren't out there: The latest to join the fray is AlcaTech's DigiScratch.

AlcaTech has made a place for itself in the world of digital media with BPM Studio, a laptop DJ product similar to Native Instruments' Traktor and Visiosonic's PCDJ line. DigiScratch builds on the BPM Studio legacy by adding the best hardware in the biz and support for vinyl control to BPM Studio's robust playback engine. It's an attractive program that builds on proven technology, but is this newcomer to the digital-vinyl world really worth the eye-watering, wallet-blistering price of $1,399?

PIECE BY PIECE

DigiScratch is the only product I've ever reviewed that arrived in multiple boxes. There was a box for the software, one for the coded vinyl, one more for the audio interface and yet another for the interface to the audio interface (more on that shortly). This piecemeal approach is a direct result of the system's design philosophy: DigiScratch is set up so that you can purchase a complete system, or if you have a compatible audio interface, you can purchase the software and vinyl alone at a substantial discount.

The audio interface is one of the most impressive things about the DigiScratch package. Rather than design a spanking-new interface from the ground up, AlcaTech wisely focused its energy entirely on the DigiScratch software, leaving the hardware end of things up to folks who do it for a living — in this case, those at RME. RME has an industrywide reputation for manufacturing high-quality, low-latency audio interfaces with rock-solid driver support, and I was pleased to see that AlcaTech selected this company to fill the crucial role that the audio interface plays in a digital-vinyl setup.

The DigiScratch interface — or box, as the folks at AlcaTech like to call it — appears to be a stripped-down version of RME's Hammerfall HDSP RPM. The DigiScratch box has two pairs of RCA inputs that are switchable between line and phono levels for use with turntables or CD players, as well as one pair of RCA outputs for connecting to a DJ mixer. A stereo ¼-inch headphone jack and a volume knob on the front panel provide a quick and easy way to monitor DigiScratch without using a DJ mixer. The phono connectors will pass audio whether a laptop is connected, making the DigiScratch box an unobtrusive addition to any DJ rig.

READY FOR A SPIN

Getting DigiScratch up and running isn't rocket science, but you do need to keep the manual handy. Installing the DigiScratch box requires you to follow a specific sequence of physical connections, reboots and software setups that's easy to mess up if you aren't following the step-by-step guide.

Previously, I mentioned that the DigiScratch box requires a separate interface; the box is not a USB or FireWire interface like you'll find on most other systems. On the rear of the unit is a socket that looks suspiciously like a FireWire port but is actually a proprietary connector that requires a special cable and a host interface. Laptop users need to install a special PCMCIA card, and desktop users will need a free PCI slot for a host adapter. This is a drawback in two significant ways: It's an additional expense if you want to move DigiScratch between systems, and it's one more piece of equipment that can fail when you least expect it. The interface also requires a special cable, so if you lose it before a gig, you're in trouble. Pack a spare. DigiScratch uses a dongle for its copy protection. Love them or hate them, dongles are often a fact of life in a market segment that's rife with piracy. Fortunately, the DigiScratch dongle is a compact silver device that's only slightly wider than a fingernail.

ON DECK

DigiScratch sports a black and gold interface that places all of the program's features within easy reach. The general layout is typical, with two virtual decks displaying waveform and other playback data at the top of the screen; a playlist directly underneath; and a third segment at the bottom providing a variety of information, including a track library, an audio mixer and more. Scattered around the interface are tiny up and down arrows that can be clicked on to reveal additional tools such as a sampler, pitch controls and a large track-name display.

You can load each virtual deck — or player, in DigiScratch terms — with your choice of audio files. DigiScratch supports popular formats such as MP3 and WAV, as well as less common file types like WMA and Ogg Vorbis; support for DRM-enabled AAC and WMA files is planned in a forthcoming software update. Both players feature a zoomed-out overview waveform that displays the track in its entirety along with a zoomed-in display that shows a more detailed display of the next six seconds in the song. Unfortunately, both wave displays are set at a fixed zoom level, but AlcaTech says that user-defined zoom settings are on the table for a future software update. A standard transport bar offers features like load, stop, play, reverse, record and key correction.

DigiScratch's playlist resides directly beneath the players. The playlist keeps track of songs loaded into each player — perfect for DJs who need to submit track logs — and users can create custom play-lists and organize tracks into virtual record crates. DigiScratch also loads playlists in standard formats like M3U and PLS, so if you've spent a lot of time organizing songs in other apps like Windows Media Player or Apple iTunes, you can import these libraries into DigiScratch without any modification.

The bottom portion of DigiScratch's user interface displays the track collection. Tracks can be sorted by nine standard fields such as name, artist, genre, bpm and so forth. The lower display can also be switched to an archive view that displays automatically archived playlists and a mixer that allows you to fine-tune audio I/O levels. Searching for files is simple, and search results are kept handy in a separate Search Results folder in an Explorer-style pane. The interface looks nice and is designed for ease of use, but for some reason, it can't be resized. So if you're running any screen resolution higher than 1024×768, DigiScratch won't take advantage of any of that extra screen space. AlcaTech claims that this will be addressed in a future software update.

SLICK WAX

Like other digital-vinyl systems, DigiScratch is controlled by special records that contain a proprietary coded signal. The signal contains direction information so that DigiScratch knows which way the record is moving and how fast, as well as timecode that lets the system know where you are in the song.

The records in the DigiScratch package are high-quality, with deep grooves pressed on thick slabs of vinyl that will keep the needle stuck to the wax during even the most ferocious scratching sessions. Both sides of the vinyl contain 12 minutes of identical timecode at 33 rpm, but one side features the added benefit of thick grooves at every one- and five-minute mark. These marks make it simple to drop the needle a couple of minutes into the song rather than skip around watching the time display on the DigiScratch user interface. Not many tracks out there are longer than 12 minutes, but if you happen to have a couple in your collection, don't sweat it — the final groove is locked, so things will keep rockin' even if the record runs out.

DigiScratch can be used in its default Relative mode, or it can be switched to an alternate Absolute mode. If your primary concern is scratching and you don't care about needle-drops, you can disengage the timecode and use the system in Absolute mode. If the needle skips in Absolute mode, nothing happens — DigiScratch only pays attention to speed and direction of the vinyl, not the location of the needle, so you can scratch as hard and fast as you like without fear of skipping.

DigiScratch can also be used without the vinyl entirely. Simply switch it to Internal mode, and use the transport and pitch controls on each player to mix your music. This may seem like a useless feature on a system that's geared specifically toward using vinyl, but consider this: Should you encounter a malfunctioning turntable at a gig or lose your timecoded vinyl, you can kick DigiScratch into Internal mode on the fly, and the show will go on.

One of the more interesting features of the vinyl is a special data-selection area near the label of each record. This part of the record sends special control information to the DigiScratch user interface, letting you scroll up and down through the playlist by moving the record forward and backward. With a little planning, it's entirely feasible to play an entire set without ever touching your laptop.

ROUGH EDGES

While browsing through the DigiScratch manual, I came across a couple of screenshots that showed the players with a cue-point bar at the top of the display. “Outstanding,” I thought, “finally a digital-vinyl system that implements cue points!” Unfortunately, my excitement was short-lived. I looked everywhere, but try as I might, I couldn't locate the cue bar in the DigiScratch interface. A quick e-mail to tech support brought unhappy news to my inbox: The cue-point feature isn't enabled in the current release and is scheduled for a future update.

This by itself was a bummer, but adding insult to injury, I soon found that this isn't the only “feature” in DigiScratch that fails to deliver. Press the Key Correction button on the transport bar, and you'll get nothing more than a message stating, “This feature is not currently implemented, sorry.” Same with the Record button. Cue points may be a luxury, but key correction is a standard feature in most other digital-vinyl systems, and I'm surprised that AlcaTech released DigiScratch without implementing this relatively standard feature.

BUT HOW DOES IT SOUND?

DigiScratch may have a few key features that have yet to be implemented, but one area where it's no slouch is sonic quality. AlcaTech has clearly put a lot of effort into making the DigiScratch software sound the best it possibly can, and it has done a remarkable job. Using MP3s encoded at 320 kbps, the system reproduced audio with top-notch fidelity. Everything sounded clear and defined, with crisp highs and full, rich bass.

Scratching and braking on DigiScratch sounds completely natural, and the program operates at such a low latency — 1.5 ms at the lowest setting — that it really feels just like working with real analog records. There is no sense of lag or disconnection from the decks at all, and the sound produced by scratching is authentic and entirely convincing. One of the best tests to examine the quality of a digital-vinyl system is to cut the power to a turntable while playing a track and listen closely to how “digital” the audio sounds as the record spins down. Many systems lose it as the record slows, dissolving into a crunchy, lo-fi mess. Not so with DigiScratch. It handles changes in pitch beautifully, exhibiting only the slightest of digital artifacts right before the record comes to a complete stop.

ALMOST THERE

At its core, DigiScratch is a solid product. It performs admirably as a straightforward digital-vinyl system and offers the added benefit of operating with or without the coded vinyl records, giving it a bit of a leg up on the competition. It boasts audiophile specs thanks to its RME-designed hardware and sports an attractive user interface with some unique and impressive features. In a twist of unfortunate irony, however, this is the point that DigiScratch fails to deliver, as the most tantalizing features still aren't implemented.

DigiScratch does show a lot of potential, and the folks at AlcaTech have built the foundation of a product that will be a serious contender — when it's finished. Conventional wisdom says that most new technologies hit their sweet spot a couple of product generations down the road, and DigiScratch seems to be a prime example of that line of thinking. Keep an eye on this baby. Once it's finished, it'll be a force to be reckoned with.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

ALCATECH

DIGISCRATCH PRO > $1,399

Pros: Stellar sound quality. Stable operation. Attractive, skinnable user interface.

Cons: Expensive. Important features not yet implemented. PC only.

Contact:www.alcatech.com

SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS

Pentium 4/1.4GHz; 512 MB RAM; Windows 2000/XP; CD-ROM drive; free PCI slot (desktop) or PCMCIA slot (laptop)