M-Audio is known as a purveyor of affordable yet pro-quality audio gear, such as the Delta line of PCI soundcards and a wide variety of USB MIDI controllers. However, M-Audio recently announced its new SynchroScience division that's aimed at grabbing a chunk of the burgeoning digital DJ market.
SynchroScience's first product is Torq Conectiv, described as a “4 × 4 USB DJ audio interface with performance software.” Competing directly with Stanton FinalScratch and Serato Scratch Live, Torq Conectiv is two products designed to work together: Torq, a DJ software package, and Conectiv, a USB hardware interface much like Serato's SL1 interface or Stanton's FinalScratch ScratchAmp.
For an extra 50 bucks, the Torq Conectiv Vinyl/CD pack adds two control vinyl pieces and two control CD pieces at a very competitive price of $349.95.
Conectiv is a bus-powered USB 1.1 audio interface that features two pairs of RCA inputs and outputs, a ¼-inch headphone jack and a ¼-inch mic jack. Two large dials dominate the top surface. Also included is a pair of three-way toggle switches for setting its inputs to phono, mic or line level, as well as Cue, Phones and Mic dials. Conectiv can be used as the interface between two turntables or CD player and the Torq software via special control vinyl or CDs. Conectiv also functions as a regular 16-bit/44.1 kHz audio interface and can be used as an output for most audio applications.
Regarding hardware durability, the Conectiv box is manufactured out of gray and black plastic, and the dials and switches could be more solid. I don't recommend stuffing it unprotected into a bag with other heavyweight gear. Given the affordable price, the build quality may be excusable; however, considering that Conectiv is the critical component in using the control vinyl and CDs with the Torq software, I prefer a more roadworthy design.
Conectiv installs on Mac or PC with either Core Audio or ASIO drivers. Windows XP installation was foolproof and adds a control-panel applet to your toolbar for adjusting Conectiv's latency. I hooked up a Gemini CDT-05 CD player to Conectiv's audio input, loaded a control CD, connected outputs 1 and 2 into inputs on my mixer and was ready to go.
In many respects, Torq is similar to programs such as Native Instruments Traktor; it features two virtual DJ decks and their associated controls, as well as database/playlist functionality for selecting and loading tracks. But Torq also boasts some unique and desirable features, including iTunes integration, external VST plug-in support, a 16-cell sampler and the ability to function as a ReWire slave. Torq also includes support for a variety of MIDI controllers (including auto-detection with M-Audio's controllers). Once recognized, a controller can externally trigger almost any Torq function.
With Conectiv configured, I fired up Torq to play some tunes. The interface was initially confusing due to the extensive use of icons representing most of its features. After exploring the interface for a while — and making extensive use of the tool tips — I was finally able to play some music. Torq does not come with a printed manual, but with the upcoming v1.0.2 update, the CD installs the PDF manual to your hard drive. Mastering some of Torq's advanced functions, such as tweaking external vinyl control and working with the sampler, will likely require consulting the manual or online help.
The interface is fairly basic in design. While a lot of thought has clearly gone into its features, Torq feels like a version 1.0, lacking some of the slick shortcuts and polish you get in more mature software. Once accustomed to the interface, the layout proved to be fairly logical. All of the supported skins followed the same layout, varying only in color; however, alternate layouts would be a nice addition.
The scrolling waveform display dominates the top half of Torq. I liked its horizontal layout; it's easy to read the beat and bar markers for manipulating tracks.
Controls for each deck are placed in columns to the left and right of the waveform display. Along with title and time display information, each deck includes a set of easy-to-use looping controls (including one-touch buttons for looping 1, 2, 4 or 8 bars), a waveform overview and various cueing, QuickCue and tempo/key controls. The layout within this section is logical and uses familiar icons. This section also features controls that enable you to turn on/off external playback control (for using the control vinyl/CD) as well as sync the tempo and beat to the track loaded on the other deck. If set to Amputate mode, you can control either deck from one turntable, allowing you to play a live set with just one turntable, a mixer and a laptop.
BIG, ROUND ASSET MANAGEMENT
Torq maintains its own database of audio files, accessible through the browser interface on the lower portion of the screen. The first time you load a track into one of Torq's virtual decks, it will be analyzed to generate the waveform display and calculate the bpm. This process can be slow and occasionally results in stuttering playback while the analysis runs. Thankfully, the developers included the ability to batch analyze a group of files ahead of time. Your hard disk will be peppered with one TQD file for every analyzed track. These files live in the same folder as the matching audio track and can be annoying when navigating your music library outside of Torq. However, as with Ableton Live, the analysis files allow you to move your music to other computers without having to perform the analysis again.
Once your tracks are in the Torq database, you can search or sort them by various columns (Artist, Album, Genre, BPM, etc.). Torq includes the ability to create playlists, allowing you to subdivide your collection further. At press time, users on the Torq Support Forum (www.torq-dj.com) were reporting extremely slow start-up times when using Torq with large databases of music (for example, 13 minutes to open 80 GB of music). M-Audio has claimed to fix this in Torq v1.0.2 update, which will be out by the time you read this.
Torq's iTunes integration lets you browse your iTunes library natively in Torq. Unfortunately, the integration is not complete. While the iTunes library was indeed available within Torq (it imports artist, song, album, track, genre and comment info), if you make subsequent changes to this information in iTunes, Torq does not update its database to reflect the change. Likewise, Torq cannot write changes made within its database to iTunes. If you've entered the bpm for your music in iTunes, Torq ignores it and recalculates bpm as part of its analysis, which is particularly annoying if Torq incorrectly calculates it — as it did for roughly 15 percent of my tracks. That can be corrected in two ways. With the mouse pointer over the bpm section, you can click in time to the music, forcing Torq to recalculate the tempo based on your clicks; alternatively, you can manually enter a new bpm.
Along with bpm, Torq attempts to detect the first beat in the bar, representing it in the waveform view with a thicker vertical line. Having this beat recognized accurately is critical if you plan on using Torq's auto-sync feature. With almost half of my songs, the first beat was incorrectly detected. You can manually fix that in the waveform display, but if you have a large number of tracks, it could get tiresome. Instead, you should try the “beat sync” feature, which will align the music to the closest beat. Torq may not identify the downbeat right away. If the event the beat is turned around, pressing Shift + Offset moves the song by one beat. Two taps of Offset usually does it. Torq saves the downbeat correction in the TQD file so you don't have to adjust it again.
As a scratch DJ at heart, I was eager to see how well the external control vinyl/CDs controlled Torq Conectiv. With latency set to 128 samples, I experienced no noticeable lag to my scratching, even when performing fast scratches, such as the hydroplane. Although the latency spec is not as good as that of Scratch Live, in my experience, latency was acceptably low and of no concern. Torq's pitch or bpm display don't reflect your turntable's pitch fader changes until you turn off the Amputate mode. Afterward, moving the turntable pitch slider also moves the the onscreen pitch slider as well as changes the bpm and the Pitch Adjust value.
THE DJ AS REMIXER
Torq includes a 16-cell sampler that allows you to load externally recorded samples and record samples on the fly through Torq's software cue (so you can record audio snippets from a track that is not heard over the master output). Samples can be configured to playback as loops (synced to the master tempo) or one-shots. The sampler works well, but if using an external mixer and an audio interface limited to two stereo outputs (like Conectiv), you must universally preassign all sample banks to only one of the two audio outputs. That presents a problem if you are not playing that input channel on your mixer when you trigger a sample.
For me, Torq's killer feature is the ease with which you can control any of its functions via an external MIDI controller. After firing up an M-Audio Axiom 25 keyboard, programming various functions was as simple as right-clicking on the function in Torq and then moving the desired hardware MIDI control to assign it. I had tons of fun with this feature, controlling a series of samples from the keyboard and assigning the looping and effects controls to the Axiom's drum pads. With my keyboard more easily accessible than a mouse, I was able to remix on the fly with a collection of samples and effects as well as trigger Torq's built-in looping features.
The effects features in Torq are impressive. Each virtual deck has a dedicated effects rack located just beneath the waveform display. Each rack allows you to add as many as three internal effects and one external VST effect. The extensive internal effects include basic versions of delay, reverb, flanger, phaser, dual filter, distortion, strobe, reverse, brake and repeat. For those, you can configure basic parameters such as wet/dry mix and effect intensity.
Adding VST effects is an awesome feature that worked very well in my testing. After pointing Torq to your VST plug-in folder, select a VST plug-in from a drop-down list, and the plug-in's window opens in the foreground. You can then tweak the settings as you would in any other VST host, as well as turn the plug-in on or off and adjust the wet/dry mix from within Torq.
M-Audio recommends some fairly high CPU and RAM requirements, especially if you want to use VSTs. On my Pentium 4 3.0 GHz with 1 GB of RAM, I experienced no problems and had great fun playing with a variety of VSTs.
I am extremely impressed by Torq Conectiv. For a brand new, version 1.0 system, it is remarkably well conceived. While it is lacking in some areas, the potential uses for this tool are amazing. FinalScratch and Scratch represent well-established competitors, but M-Audio has bestowed some possibilities to the digital DJ realm. With a little more development, Torq Conectiv should evolve into an excellent tool at a phenomenal price point.
TORQ CONECTIV > $299.95
Pros: Low price. 16-cell sampler. VST effect support. Easy external MIDI control.
Cons: Disappointing iTunes integration. Unknown track record for stability.
Mac: G5/2 GHz or Intel Core Duo/ 1.83 GHz; 1 GB RAM; available USB port; 7,200 RPM hard drive; OS 10.4.7 or later
PC: Pentium 4/2 GHz; 1 GB RAM; available USB port; 7,200 RPM hard drive; Windows XP SP2