Portability is the “new black,” as the fashion-smart would say if they spent time behind the decks. That wasn't too hard to see in practice at this year's Winter Music Conference, where several marquee DJs dissed vinyl and opted instead for flip books full of CD-Rs. For those willing to take things one step further and go the route of the MP3-loaded laptop, PCDJ's new DAC-2 controller puts a new portable hardware face on PC-based mixing.
Weighing in at only 7 pounds, the DAC-2 brings proprietary, multifunction soft-touch control to its popular PCDJ software packages. Once you wire the unit to your PC with a USB cable, you can use the DAC-2 to mix MP3 and WAV files on the fly from the virtual Recordcase with one of three PCDJ software packages. The unit can be rackmounted if necessary and sports two large durable jog wheels, pitch-control sliders and bright-green backlit displays. Individual button controls for cue memory, looping, beat matching and pitch bending are also onboard.
As detailed in the Quick Start guide, firing up Windows and attaching the DAC-2 sets off the standard Found New Hardware Wizard as soon as the unit is connected by a USB cable. (There is a fancy Flash-based option included on the installation CD that will accomplish the same procedure.) From there, you'll need one of the PCDJ packages to get your music in motion. For the purpose of this review, I explored PCDJ FX, the latest in the line of PCDJ releases from Visiosonic. FX features a new master-tempo feature that allows for changes in bpm without affecting a track's pitch. There are also four multiparameter effect add-ons (echo, chorus, flange and reverb), a new Loop Editor module and improved file management built into the PCDJ Recordcase. The older PCDJ Red and Blue packages are also DAC-2 — compatible.
You can authorize your software with the CD key that comes with the software and an online registration process that will deliver an “unlock” code to your e-mail account almost instantly after you fill out the registration form on the Web page. With both keys in place, you can now start up the software. Once the software is up and running, you have to enter the Hardware tab in PCDJ's configuration editor to identify which port the DAC-2 will be connected to. It took a couple of minutes to figure out which port the USB connection point was mapped to, and then I was ready to roll. If you have multiple outputs on your sound device, you can use the same tab to assign specific output pairs for the Cue Mix, the Loop Editor and the Metronome.
The slick PCDJ interface boasts virtually every feature you need to do real-time mixing with the DAC-2 controller. You can pretty much drive PCDJ from the DAC-2 remotely, but there is a certain amount of groundwork that must be done to get things to a point at which you're not reaching for your mouse button.
Six modules make up the DAC-2, and each is activated by the toggle switches at the top of the interface. The LP switch displays the loop section, where you can set the varying length of a loop. MXR is used to unveil the 2-channel PCDJ mixer. The mixer now features a 3-band EQ for each player, complete with kill switches for dropping out frequencies on the fly. You can perform automatic crossfades, control the overall output for each channel, press Cue buttons for previewing via headphones and use the Cue Mix slider for mixing the cue volume and the main output volume. The four available effects can be hidden or seen with the FX button, which will also give you access to the individual parameter and bypass switches for each. The LE button launches the Loop Editor, and the RC toggle will display your PCDJ Recordcase.
The player windows are particularly full-featured, each including a complete display for track name, bpm, elapsed time and mode display. Each player is also equipped with a brake; pitch-bend sliders (which can be customized to any particular increments you wish to use); and master-tempo switches, which enable you to retain a track's original pitch during shifts in tempo. The transport controls for each player feature a nifty Reverse button (which can be the jumping off point for some cool loops), as well as a Reloop button to restart a loop that is already playing.
If you are not a current PCDJ user, loading music into the Recordcase is the first step toward working with the DAC-2. You can drag-and-drop standard Windows folders into your Recordcase as a Group, or you can open a separate Recordcase window by clicking on the Edit Recordcase button and importing them there. The Recordcase Editor window can also be used to quickly build multiple Wait Lists in which you can store upcoming tracks in any order. Both the Recordcase and the Wait List can be sorted by various fields (bpm, artist, track name, genre, album, time, version, comments, file format and path) to make finding music fast and easy. PCDJ can also scan your tracks or groups to determine precise bpms before you begin mixing. (That is highly recommended for beat matching and beat stepping.)
Once your Recordcase is built, grouped and sorted to your satisfaction, you can hit either the left or right Load buttons on the DAC-2 to select a track for the corresponding player. Use the inner jog wheel to scroll up and down and highlight your selection. Pressing the Load button a second time loads the track into the player.
With PCDJ FX, you can set a total of 20 cue points per track, each of which can be labeled using your computer keyboard for easier recall. You have several ways to establish a cue point directly from the DAC-2. For starters, select one of the available cue points for your track using the Cue Memory buttons for either player and then press Play. When you reach a desired point in your music, hit the Play button again to pause the track. Using the jog wheel, you can seek forward or back to find the desired location for the cue point. When you find the exact spot, punching the Cue button again creates your cue point.
You can also establish a cue point on the fly by using the Beat Step feature, which lets you use the beat of a track to determine where the cue point is set. The bpm of the song must be determined for this to work correctly, however. By holding down the Match button and pressing the Cue Memory button on the desired beat, the DAC-2 will set the cue point. Deleting a cue point is accomplished by right-clicking on the corresponding cue point square above the track title or by simply writing a new cue point over an existing one.
Creating loops while a track is in motion is equally easy. If you press the Loop button at any point during the song along with the minus Pitch Bend button, the software creates a four-bar loop instantly. Substitute the plus Pitch Bend button, and an eight-bar loop is made. It make take a bit of practice to nail the loop start point, but once you spend a few minutes getting used to the feel of the DAC-2 buttons, you'll be able to do this without any trouble. Once the loop light is lit, your loop will continue to cycle. Pressing the Loop button again in combination with either of the Pitch Bend buttons will double or halve the loop time. You can create loop lengths as short as a 16th of a beat or as long as 64 beats.
Any loop that you create can be stored on any of the first 16 cue points. What's great about this is that you can load any of your song's stored loops and drop them into your mix on the beat and exit out of the loop at any time by pressing the player's Preview button. The loop will play to its end point and then automatically return to whatever music you have loaded and ready to go next.
Once your basic loops are in order and your tracks are flowing nicely, press the Rec button at the top of the interface to have the software record all of your hard work. There are 12 different WMA, MP3 and WAV file options that you can record to when you're ready to commit your mix to history.
One of the new features available with the PCDJ FX package is the Loop Editor, which allows you to load tracks, determine in and out points for a loop and then export them to particular cue points. Not only can you use the Loop Editor for visual reference, it can also be a handy way to check the accuracy of the track's bpm. By returning to your mouse and keyboard, you can select any track from the Recordcase; then, hit the Load Track button in the Loop Editor, and PCDJ automatically creates a four-beat loop as a starting point at the beginning of your track. You can change the loop length using the plus or minus signs toward the left side of the Loop Editor. Similar controls are available for setting the in-sample and out-sample points, and these tend to be a lot speedier than the Loop Editor's sliders for slipping the loop points exactly where you need them to be. Once you pass the 64-beat loop length, though, your track goes into free play. You can employ a cool cheat at this point: The next time you click on the Loop Editor's plus sign, it will revert back to a four-beat loop. If you time it right, you can land a loop on the beat by virtue of just using your ear. Having tweaked your loop properly, you can then export it back to whatever cue point you like for later use. Another extremely practical use of the Loop Editor is the Fill to Next Cue switch, which will have the Loop Editor make successive loops (of any specified length) once you've established the correct bpm. This is a fantastic way to quickly chop up a section of your track and get those parts automatically tied to successive cue points.
Another keen hook for new users is the Record Pool trial subscription that's offered once you are a registered PCDJ user. The subscription gives you access to a large amount of music that you can test-drive, rate and then download to your PC for use with your PCDJ rig.
Despite the industry movement toward FireWire connections, there was no noticeable lag between the DAC-2 and the PCDJ software through the USB connection. But be advised: The folks at PCDJ are in rapid development, upgrading software at a pace that has at times outstripped the included documentation. So it's best to keep up with what's going on at PCDJ.com to ensure that you remain in sync with product growth. When I last contacted the company, the software was several revision points down the line from the documentation I had on hand for testing. At the time of this writing, the Visiosonic people are busy making PCDJ even more robust and sleek. (A more polished interface is in the works, and there is talk of being able to drop huge folders of tracks into the Recordcase to make them almost instantly available for use.) So for those ready to stare down their vinyl fetish and think more 21st century, PCDJ can give you the power and flexibility to turn up at your next gig with literally gigabytes worth of music ready to spin all evening long.
DAC-2 > $375
Pros: Flexible, creative real-time control for PCDJ software. Solid construction. Easily portable. Good integration with online Record Pool.
Cons: Documentation not current.
Contact: tel. (727) 799-3828; Web www.pcdj.com