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Review: Image Line DeckaDance 1.2 - EMusician

Review: Image Line DeckaDance 1.2

LEAN, FORWARD-THINKING RECENT GRAD OF THE DJ SCHOOL STILL NEEDS SOME PROFESSINAL EXPERIENCE
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Not only can Deckadance host VST effects and instrument plug-ins, but it also holds a built-in sampler and a Relooper that re-slices samples.

As a digital DJ, I'm always on the lookout for new products to incorporate into my sets. When Deckadance popped up on the radar, it really piqued my interest, and now version 1.2 is compatible with both Windows and Mac. Trying to bridge the worlds between DJing and live performance has been tough, but this new product from the creators of Fruity Loops promises forward-thinking features, including universal compatibility for timecoded vinyl and the ability to run inside another sequencer such as Ableton Live. Naturally, I was excited to put these features through the paces and see how Deckadance stacks up against the other DJ programs. Could the search for DJing features that integrate with Ableton Live be over?

LOADING DOCK

One of the things that Deckadance does well for people trying to use DJ software for the first time is offer plug-and-play operation with many popular control surfaces and DVS systems. Just select the icon for the MIDI controller you own; Image Line has already mapped the controls out, so you can start mixing right away without finding settings files or tedious MIDI mapping. Almost all of the popular DJ controllers have presets ready for use (such as the Vestax VCI-100, Numark Total Control, Behringer BCD2000/3000, Allen & Heath Xone:3D, M-Audio X-Session Pro and others), and if you want to customize them, you can also do your own MIDI mapping to reassign the controls.

The next task in running a new DJ program is bringing in some tunes, and therein lies a problem. The file management/import feature is really limited in Deckadance 1.2. To get songs into Deckadance, you have to directly access folders on your hard drive or drag them into a deck from their file folder locations. That is a very frustrating lack of functionality because with other DJ software, I'm used to easily importing iTunes playlists. Once you do have all of your songs in Deckadance, it does a very good job of quickly analyzing them and figuring out their tempo and rhythmic layout. Organizing them is an entirely different story. There is no way to manage music inside Deckadance unless you have all your music grouped by folders on a hard drive. If they happen to all be in one giant folder, then you will have a hard time sorting your music out without access to crucial MP3 tags such as genre or bpm.

EFFECTED MUSHROOM

The internal effects are simple but sufficient for most needs; the seven options include four filters, echo, phaser and a lo-fi sonic degrader for getting that 8-bit sound. None of the effects are bombastically amazing, but they are effective and easy to use. Should you want to build your own unique sound with effects, that's easy with the eight VST plug-in slots, which are assignable to either deck. The slots have independent level faders to blend the effected sound in or out of the mix and can also be routed out of your soundcard to a separate channel on a hardware mixer as well.

Once you get three or four really wild effects running on each deck, it's not hard to quickly morph a boring drum beat into a much more exciting sound that can be radically manipulated on the fly. Rather than layer multiple songs or samples on top of each other, sometimes it can be much more effective to work in several different versions of a track. Electronic music producers have used this trick for years, and now you can easily do the same thing in a DJ setting by using your personal collection of VST plug-ins.

To further layer your sound, you can turn to the eight available sample banks. With those you can sample a quantized section of a playing deck and load that sample for immediate playback and manipulation. Once the sample is loaded you can loop it and work the level fader into the mix or sample drum hits and play them back as one-shots. To fit several layers of samples into the mix, you have a convenient bandpass filter on each sampler that can cut out conflicting frequencies or just make a drum loop more interesting. Should a loop drift out of time, it can then be independently nudged to keep it in time with the other sources of music.

The Relooper, my favorite out-of-the-box feature, seamlessly performs fills, glitches and impossible combinations of loops on a full track with a single button. This creative idea carries immense instant gratification. It's also flexible and easy to use, so you can quickly reprogram the default micro fills to fit any style of music you might want to radically rearrange.

ALL UP IN THAT PIECE

One of the more promising features of Deckadance is the ability to run it as a VST plug-in inside a sequencer. That worked well for me, and both decks can automatically sync their tempos to the master sequencer. Sadly, Deckadance has no way to lock its own songs to Ableton's beat grid, so you still have to get them in phase the old-fashioned way — by ear. The good news is once you have Deckadance running in time with Ableton, they stay locked for a while, and you can ride superlong mixes with multiple sources quite easily. By running all your loops in Ableton and full song in Deckadance, you only have to keep two sources in time, which is a lot more manageable than the alternative.

About a year ago I wrote an article that mentioned how A-Trak was using Serato and Ableton to build a song on the fly by scratching in and recording loops. Much in the same manner, Kid Beyond layers songs with his voice instead of record samples. Those techniques required some fairly complex wiring, but now you could theoretically do the same thing completely internally by using Deckadance inside Ableton.

ONE SIZE FITS ALL

Instead of being tied to one digital vinyl system, you can use whatever timecoded records happen to be handy to control MP3s inside Deckadance. However, although the control records from all the manufacturers work in Relative mode, only one DVS system's vinyl — M-Audio Torq — is natively supported in all of Deckadance's operating modes. It's important to note that any soundcard that supports multiple inputs will not work by itself. You need phono preamps as well or a card that has phono-level inputs such as the Mix Vibes U66Mk2.

ALMOST THERE

Besides the file-management deficiencies, there are a few other shortcomings you are bound to notice. Many people expect good pitch-lock functionality similar to what is offered on the Pioneer's CDJ CD players, Traktor and now Serato. Although Deckadance comes with key lock, it's basically useless. Even without adjusting the speed of the track, it creates really noticeable artifacts that sound more like a phaser than transparent pitch lock. When you start to adjust the tempo with key lock on, the track's underlying rhythm falls apart, and it must be disabled if you expect to sound professional. Image Line told Remix they will be releasing a new version later this year that includes the same key lock algorithm used by Traktor and Ableton Live, which will be a massive improvement.

There were two other shortcoming in Deckadance 1.2 that Image Line addressed in a new update that was released too late before press time time for Remix to test. Version 1.2 had an incomplete MIDI Learn system that lack some controls and advanced features, including direct cue-point access. Also, 1.2 lacked hotkeys and hotkey assignments, which was frustrating for people who want to control the software with a computer keyboard or who may not don't have access to a MIDI controller or control records. However, Image Line has updated Deckadance to include full keyboard short cuts assignments and a full list of MIDI Learn features — crucial additions.

FINAL WORD

Deckadance totes many of the features you would expect from a professional piece of DJ software, but some of them aren't yet complete. The unique features brought to the table are noble attempts and create genuinely exciting possibilities, but they also seem to still be in the midst of the development stage. However, you can't be too hard on the small team, which endured losing the original developer and took a very small window of time to create the OS X version I tested for this review. The team also deserves credit for getting as far as it did when you consider the massive head start its competitors at Native Instruments and Serato have had in the field.

For new digital DJs, Deckadance offers a host of quick and easy ways to get started playing music and easily create interesting sounds without a lot of experience. The software will surely grow and mature with its users, but those with experience on other DJ programs may find it hard to make the switch just yet. If Image Line keeps innovating and improving the software, it may not be too long before you see them catch up and give Traktor and Scratch Live a run for their money.

IMAGE LINE

DECKADANCE > $179 (Club Edition); $99 (House Edition)

Pros: Works as stand-alone or as a VST plug-in. VST hosting support. Multiple timecode system support.

Cons: Poor pitch lock. Bare bones file-management system.

Contact:www.deckadance.com

SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS

Mac: G4, G5 or Intel/1.25 GHz; 512 MB RAM; OS 10.4

PC: Pentium III or Athlon XP; 512 MB RAM; Windows 2000/XP/2003/Vista; DirectSound or ASIO-compatible soundcard