CD burners and mixers are a dime a dozen these days, so why do you and I continue to haul vinyl from gig to gig? Simple: We like our vinyl. But the hard facts are clear — records weigh a ton, and they wear out quickly under heavy use. Does a middle ground exist between the digital and analog worlds? Indeed it does, and Soundgraph is one of the first to exploit this niche in the market with its D-Vinyl2020 system, an interface unit that blends the control and tactile feedback of traditional vinyl with the fidelity and convenience of digital media.
The D-Vinyl system seems like a DJ's dream come true. A standard setup consisting of two turntables and a mixer is connected to a control unit, which in turn is connected to an Intel- or AMD-based PC that contains MP3 files of your music collection. The MP3s are loaded onto virtual turntables in software that runs on the PC. Specially coded vinyl allows you to play back those MP3s as if they were on the actual vinyl.
With the tools provided in the D-Vinyl package, you can encode your entire record collection to your PC and scratch and back-cue those digital files just like you would with regular vinyl — all without ever worrying about record burn. Best of all, you can leave that heavy record bag at home; all you need for a gig is a laptop, two records and the interface unit.
When I received the D-Vinyl unit, I was a bit taken aback to find that it shipped in a box nearly as big as my coffee table. Once I cracked it open, my fears were confirmed: The D-Vinyl controller is a 3U rackmount behemoth clearly suited more for permanent club installations or bedroom DJs with plenty of room than for the traveling DJ.
I was impressed (and a bit confused) by the proliferation of buttons, knobs and sliders on the control unit's front panel. The back panel sports six pairs of RCA jacks for connection to a turntable-and-mixer setup, and it also includes a seventh pair that functions as an audio input that enables the D-Vinyl unit to record DJ sets back to the host computer. One Type B USB port provides connectivity to the host computer, and an extra Type A port offers room to connect a mouse, a keyboard or another USB device.
NECESSITY IS THE MOTHER
The basic hardware setup is simple enough: Turntables plug into the control unit, and the control unit connects to the phono and line inputs on the mixer. Pop in the program CD, and setup kicks off automatically.
D-Vinyl's installation guide reads like a Roland manual from the early 80's with gems of broken English — for example, “If you meet the audio signal stuttering” — scattered throughout the document. Luckily, there's a screenshot for every step in the process, so you can bypass the text entirely and follow along without any real problems.
I didn't encounter a major stumbling block until I fired up the D-Vinyl application. My test PC was an Pentium III/800 MHz, with 512 MB of RAM, running Windows XP Professional. It's an average system, one that won't set any speed records, but it clearly exceeded the 500MHz minimum listed in D-Vinyl's system requirements. Yet for some reason, I just couldn't get the D-Vinyl application running. I double-checked my installation, and it didn't look like I'd made any mistakes, so I shot an e-mail to Soundgraph's tech-support department to ask for a little guidance.
The answer that I received was unsettling: Yes, my system met all of the requirements to run the D-Vinyl software — just not on Windows XP. I received a personal e-mail from the CEO of Soundgraph (now that's tech support!) stating that 500 MHz was indeed adequate for earlier versions of Windows, but to use XP, I would need to have at least a Pentium III/1GHz processor. According to Soundgraph, the problem stems from a bug within Windows XP, and Microsoft is now working to remedy it. However, in all fairness, my machine was getting a bit long in the tooth, so I plunked down the cash to upgrade my machine to a Pentium 4/2.4 GHz. Once I installed the new motherboard and processor, D-Vinyl ran like a charm.
To get the system to a point where it's ready to belt out tunes, MP3s need to be prepared with three separate applications: the MP3 Editor, the Playlist Editor and the D-Vinyl2020 software. All of those apps sport great graphic design and look very cool, but the lack of Windows interface standards is irritating, and using three separate applications to play records is needlessly time-consuming. Finding my way around these programs was a little confusing until I got the hang of it, and I often referred to the manual to find and understand basic functions.
The first step in playing an MP3 with D-Vinyl is configuring it in the MP3 Editor. This tool is without a doubt the most powerful part of the entire system. When an MP3 file is loaded, a surprisingly accurate bpm-mapping algorithm immediately displays six tempo “candidates” for the track and selects the one it thinks is correct. Nine out of 10 times, it's spot on; if, for some reason, none of the auto-detected tempos seem quite right, it is a simple matter to configure it manually. ID3 tag info is also displayed, and an editor is provided for both ID3 version 1 and version 2 tags.
The best features in the MP3 Editor are the cue and loop functions. Multiple index points can be positioned anywhere in the track and immediately accessed using cue buttons on the D-Vinyl controller, providing the equivalent of perfectly accurate, predefined needle drops throughout the track. No need to spin and back-cue until you find the sweet spot in that killer track; just drop a cue point and skip right to it. Loops can also be easily configured for on-the-fly access, and both loops and cues can be individually named for easy identification. With as many as 20 loops and 20 cues per MP3, the possibilities for remixing a track on the fly are staggering.
Before playing music with D-Vinyl, users must assign tracks to playlists in another application, the Playlist Editor. A single playlist can contain a max of 99 individual MP3s and is assigned to either the left or right turntable by dragging-and-dropping on the appropriate graphic. Once the desired Playlist is loaded on each deck, you're ready to fire up the D-Vinyl2020 software and kick out the jams.
GET UP ON IT
The D-Vinyl2020 application is basically a mirror image of the hardware unit with additional information such as waveform display, song title and loop or cue-point name. It's actually quite possible to use the D-Vinyl system without looking at the computer at all — the computer display is convenient but doesn't offer any crucial information that isn't available on the LCD. The panel on each side of the control unit displays just about everything you need to know to make a mix, including track number, time remaining, active cue, active loop, bpm and pitch setting.
Each side of the D-Vinyl system can function in three modes: Analog Vinyl, MP3 Player and Digital Vinyl. The Analog Vinyl mode is nothing more than a pass-through from the turntable to the mixer and allows regular vinyl to be played back normally. MP3 Player mode enables full control, similar to that of a CD player, of the D-Vinyl system from the front panel of the controller. Tracks can be selected, cued and looped using the array of buttons and dials on the controller's front panel, and pitch control is provided by sliders on either side of the unit. Mixing tasks are handled using the transport controls, jog dial, pitch buttons and sliders on the D-Vinyl unit. In this mode, it's quite possible to mix an entire set without ever touching a pair of turntables, which may be a significant benefit to beginners or CD jocks.
The third mode, Digital Vinyl, is the setting that will be of most interest to traditional DJs. To use Digital Vinyl mode, specially coded records are played back through the unit, supplying the application on the host PC with information on record speed and rotation direction. Unfortunately, Digital Vinyl mode has one fatal drawback: It doesn't support needle drops. D-Vinyl's coded records only tell the controller which way the record is playing and how fast, not where the needle is in the song. The discs don't contain a single lick of timecode information, so when the needle is lifted off of the record — regardless of where it's put back down — the song simply plays from the point at which it stopped. According to the manual, this is a feature that “gets the strong point of the turntable and dual CD player” and enables D-Vinyl to offer advanced functions like loop and cue points.
Unfortunately, the reality is very different. The lack of needle-drop support relegates the Digital Vinyl mode to little more than a souped-up pitch control, forcing the user to deal with the vinyl and the control unit to handle simple cueing tasks. Traditional DJs will likely find the omission of this feature restrictive and confusing.
The responsiveness of D-Vinyl's digital vinyl is slightly sluggish. In the best-case scenario with an optimum setup, latency won't go any lower than 11 ms, so serious turntablists who plan to use digital vinyl as an instrument may have difficulty using D-Vinyl for heavy scratching. For normal cueing purposes, however, it's more than adequate.
D-Vinyl drives like a luxury car: It's a little big but full of fancy bells and whistles. It feels like it practically runs itself, and that's exactly what it will do if you take advantage of its automatic beat-sync features. I don't know many DJs who carry 19-inch racks from gig to gig, so unless you're already toting effects processors or other rack gear, it's likely that you'll find D-Vinyl too large and unwieldy to carry around on a regular basis. It's also important to remember that the system requires a considerable amount of processor power on the host PC, and any system upgrades will need to be added on top of the retail price.
If you play CDs on a regular basis, D-Vinyl might be the perfect way for you to make the transition to MP3s. The cue and loop functionality will immediately feel familiar, and CD DJs won't be disappointed by the lack of timecoded vinyl, which is a serious drag for vinyl DJs who cue records with needle drops.
Realistically, the D-Vinyl system is best-suited for permanent installation where a consistent resident DJ can take time to sit down and really get to know the system. It has a number of slick features — such as customizable samples, built-in effects and auto beat-sync — and in the hands of a patient and technically savvy DJ, the system has the power to open up extraordinary new creative avenues.
D-VINYL2020 > $749
Pros: Operates without coded vinyl. Powerful cue and loop features. User-definable effects. Most program options available from front panel of interface unit. Functions as Windows soundcard.
Cons: Coded vinyl provides pitch and direction control only.
Pentium III/500 MHz or Pentium 4/1.4 GHz (Windows XP); 128 MB RAM; Windows 98SE/2000/ME/XP; DirectX 8.1; 30 MB for program installation, more for MP3 storage; CD-ROM drive (installation only); two or more USB ports