The PVDJ DAI allows users to mix, audition and remix tracks on the fly from a single hardware interface without having to touch the computer.
If there were any doubts in my mind about the ascendancy of digital audio in the DJ world, 2004 put them to rest. Week after week, it seemed like a constant stream of DJ products geared toward digital audio playback flowed across my desk, promising to revolutionize the way DJs play music and offering freedom from the big vinyl anchor once and for all. Some, like Stanton FinalScratch and Rane/Serato Scratch Live, delivered the goods and then some. Others left a little to be desired.
The latest entry in this game is being fielded by an unlikely player: PVDJ, the new DJ division of venerable music giant Peavey Electronics. Peavey's bid for greatness in the digital-DJ domain comes by way of its new Digital Audio Interface (DAI), an ambitious mixture of hardware and software that claims to offer an intuitive interface coupled with high-quality, rock-solid tools for mixing digital audio files. It requires a separate computer to operate, and at $1,499, it might even cost you more than the computer that drives it. To determine whether PVDJ has created something special in the DAI that makes it worth such a pretty penny, fire it up and take a closer look.
When I pulled the DAI out of its box, I was immediately impressed by the unit's solid build and slick aesthetics. The 19-inch rackmount unit bears a striking resemblance to dual-deck CD mixers, with two distinct control sections featuring large dials flanked by an array of buttons, sliders and knobs that operate various elements of the DAI software. Each rubberized button is marked with an icon, but aside from the Cue button, there isn't any descriptive text anywhere on the unit, giving it a distinctly clean and minimal look.
The controls on the DAI are laid out logically and give you plenty of room to work without having to worry about bumping the wrong button by accident. The pitch slider has a detent at the center position so you can zero it out easily, and two smaller buttons near the top offer the ability to nudge the pitch up and down, similar to most dual-deck CD mixers on the market. The main dials both feature spring-loaded secondary dials that can be used to nudge audio forward or backward and do double duty as play-list navigation tools when a deck isn't active. An extra knob above the pitch slider controls the DAI's Grabber function, ported from PVDJ's popular stand-alone Grabber product.
The DAI's most striking feature is a big, bright white-on-blue LCD located right in the middle of the unit. The 320×240 screen is touch-sensitive, so many of the options available in the software interface can also be operated using the DAI's display. In fact, it's quite possible to play an entire set without ever touching the computer at all — the main selling point behind the DAI.
The DAI's back panel sports an impressive array of I/O. Whereas most offer standard RCA jacks for connectivity, the DAI goes a step further and offers RCAs along with balanced XLR outputs for direct connection to professional audio equipment. The DAI also features an XLR microphone input. There is no facility to sample and manipulate the microphone input in real time, so it seems to be a feature targeted less toward creative experimentation and more toward giving mobile DJs a way to use the DAI as a self-contained system.
THE ONES AND ZEROS
The DAI software is a straightforward, no-frills audio-playback application that roughly mirrors the functions found on the DAI hardware while kicking in a few extra tools that enable mixer-free operation. Two displays at the top quarter of the screen show vital information about each deck, including song name, time elapsed, time remaining and bpm. Each deck has a gain control, a pitch slider and a 3-band EQ to make software-based mixing easier; a crossfader enables smooth mixes between decks.
The bulk of the interface is consumed by the track library, a listing of all MP3, WAV and CD files that the DAI software knows about. Tracks can be imported file by file or added in batches by importing entire folders. The library displays all of the standard ID3 tags — such as song name, artist, time and genre — along with a few custom fields, such as when the file was last played. A basic search feature offers the ability to filter the library by keywords, but it's difficult to perform specific searches — for example, searching for house and prog house will display every entry with house somewhere in its ID3 tag.
A file can be played immediately once it's imported, but to use any of the bpm-based tools, like the Grabber or the Auto Pilot feature, the DAI software needs to scan them to determine bpm and likely cue points. The analysis process is slow — my library of 1,000 MP3s took well over 24 hours to finish on a Pentium M/1.7GHz processor — but this is par for the course with other digital DJ software, as well. Fortunately, the DAI has a leg up here, as it prioritizes audio above everything else, and track analysis never disrupts playback. I found that the bpm detection worked nine times out of 10, and if the DAI software gets it wrong, you can always manually edit the bpm field yourself.
For some reason, you can only resize the user interface to the DAI software vertically, which puts some serious limitations on ease of use while browsing song information. If you've added a lot of extra information to your ID3 tags — like genre, album title, composer and so on — count on a lot of side-to-side scrolling to get at all of your data. Luckily, the columns can be tweaked by dragging and dropping.
Further hampering the software's ease of use is the lack of a visible waveform display. Virtually every other piece of software targeted at digital DJs offers some sort of visual representation of audio files so that you can see exactly what's coming up in a song. The DAI offers no such luxury — all you get is a time-elapsed and -remaining counter and a progress bar that shows the current position in the song. This may be adequate for mobile DJs who often tend to segue between different genres of music, but club DJs who perform long mixes and rely on reading vinyl grooves or digital peak files may miss the visual element.
Using the DAI to mix music takes a little getting used to, but within 15 minutes, I found myself quite comfortable with the DAI's feel and was able to put tracks together without any serious issues. Tracks are selected using the rotary dial of the deck that isn't engaged in playback or by pecking out the first few letters of a search term on the touch screen's keyboard.
The DAI's touch screen has roughly the same (albeit smaller) layout as the PC software and operates in a similar fashion, with the two decks at the top and a library beneath. Tapping a deck's time display switches between time elapsed and remaining, and tapping a column header in the library sorts the track listing by that attribute, making it easy to group music by title, bpm, artist and so forth. Working with the DAI was an experience much akin to mixing on a dual CD deck. Operations are nearly identical: Seek using the jog dial, place cue points by holding down the Cue button, and nudge pitch using the plus and minus buttons. I wasn't able to get any convincing scratch-style effects out of the unit, but it worked well enough to mix tracks together.
Getting the DAI's latency down to an acceptable level took a bit of trial and error. The software allows you to select any buffer size from 128 samples all the way up to 8,192, with literally hundreds of steps in between. Initially, I didn't have any luck getting skip-free audio out of the DAI with a buffer size smaller than 1,024, which adds up to a noticeable 24 ms of latency. PVDJ tech support suggested that I try 448 samples, and — like magic — it worked like a charm. The DAI is indeed quite capable of delivering rock-solid audio at low latencies; you just need to know how to finesse it into delivering optimum performance. The next version of the DAI manual will highlight this setting.
It's clear that the DAI was designed with the mobile DJ in mind because it handles unexpected disconnects with an extraordinary grace that I haven't seen in any other product to date. If the unit loses power or the USB cable is disconnected during playback, simply reconnect the loose cable, and the DAI picks up right where it left off — without missing a beat. It isn't often that major problems like this happen during a performance, but when they do, they're a killer. The DAI's robust handling of cable disconnects will be a real benefit to people who are often forced to set up in high-traffic, unsupervised areas.
For those times when you just can't be bothered to mix records yourself, the DAI offers Auto Pilot, a hands-free mode that will seamlessly blend tunes without any human intervention. Auto Pilot has no concept of phrasing, and it's only capable of mixing the last 10 seconds or so of a track, so it's not well-suited for serious performances; it might help you squeak by in a pinch or take a much needed bathroom break, though. I listened to the DAI mix my tunes for hours while writing this review and found that it managed to start songs on beat and mix rather well — for a computer. The Auto Pilot feature is intriguing and would be more useful if it were configurable. An option to increase this value or set cue points in tracks for use with the Auto Pilot setting would be useful in a number of situations.
REMIX ON THE FLY
Without question, the coolest feature on the DAI is the Grabber function. The Grabber is a smart looping tool that lets you grab a snippet of music and seamlessly loop it as long as you like. Simply press the rotary knob on the deck you want to grab, and you get a perfect loop free of the annoying clicks and pops that frequently plague other loop samplers. Rotating the knob increases the number of beats in the loop, from a maximum of 32 all the way down to less than one for stutter-style effects. Push the knob again, and the DAI releases the loop, smoothly making the transition back in to the song with nary a pop or click to be heard.
The Grabber is at its best when used to remix tracks on the fly. You can achieve this by changing the start point of the grabbed section in real time — simply hold down the Grab function button and spin the rotary knob to move the loop forward or backward. Because the DAI is bpm-aware, the loop will always synchronize perfectly without any gaps or stuttering.
The real-time remix capabilities become more apparent when you drop a cue point into the mix. From the DAI interface, you can drop a cue point anywhere you like during playback and instantly return to that location. For example, you could remix a track in real time by dropping a cue point a minute or two into a track and grabbing 16 beats in the middle a few minutes later. After looping that section for a while and grabbing new sections by shifting the Grabber's start point, simply hit the Cue button and jump back to the original cue point. Voilà! Instant remix with perfect loops, no fine-tuning necessary. It's one of the most entertaining and useful tools offered by the DAI. It would be nice if you could preset cue points in the music files and recall them on the fly, but the fact that this sort of creativity is even possible at all is a good thing.
A NEW DAI
At the end of the day, I walked away from my time with the DAI wishing for a little more. There are positive things about the unit: It's a serviceable tool for mixing MP3, WAV and CD audio files, and it includes some cool features like the Grabber and Auto Pilot. The main thing that gives me hope for the DAI's future is PVDJ's open-platform philosophy. The company's intention is for the DAI to become the de facto audio interface and control unit for DJ software written by third-party developers, thus the lack of printed labels on the hardware unit. I think this is a great idea, and given that the DAI performs admirably as a stable audio interface, I'm looking forward to seeing what sort of alternatives other software developers offer for the DAI.
The most frustrating thing about the DAI is looking at it and realizing that it has a lot of potential that simply isn't realized. The groundwork is laid for a great product, but the software lacks key features, the unit's touch screen can be slow under certain CPU-draining conditions, and having to have the DAI plugged into a PC for it to function makes you wonder why it has a screen at all. If PVDJ had included the option for an internal hard drive and made this a stand-alone unit, it would be an outstanding choice for club installations and mobile DJs. As it stands now, the DAI is a version 1.0 product that holds a lot of promise. With any luck, some future software upgrades and fine-tuning will make the DAI into a powerful digital DJ package.