It's been roughly a year-and-a-half since I reviewed the premiere release of FinalScratch, and a lot has changed. In September 2002, FinalScratch was a fledgling product, a freshly hatched newcomer with a radical idea that promised to revolutionize the landscape of DJ culture. At the time, it was a concept that was hard to believe: playing WAVs and MP3s with real vinyl? Many thought it couldn't possibly work. Forsaking traditional vinyl was, for many, a thought akin to heresy and met with the same disdain that CD mixers still haven't quite shaken; skeptics were a dime a dozen. Rumors of FinalScratch crashing on early adopters like Richie Hawtin and John Acquaviva ran rampant. How could serious DJs really trust their sets to a computer? Don't those pesky machines have a propensity for behaving poorly at the worst possible times?
Well, of course, they do, and they have. Fortunately, the folks at Stanton and the company's new partner, Native Instruments, have listened to their users and worked hard during the past couple of years to make FinalScratch what it should be. This radical upstart has evolved into a stable and robust application that runs equally well on Macs and PCs, a program packed with features and so easy to use that even high-profile DJs like Paul van Dyk are eschewing vinyl in favor of the power and flexibility that FinalScratch offers.
If you're a working DJ, you've no doubt heard initial users singing the praises of FinalScratch. But is it really ready for prime time? Why rig up this whole new system when you can get the job done with CDs and records, keeping $700 in your pocket in the process? The answer is simple: portability and flexibility. FinalScratch isn't for everyone, but if you're a DJ who travels frequently or who owns thousands — or even tens of thousands — of tracks, you owe it to yourself to check out how FinalScratch can make you a more efficient and creative DJ.
In a radical departure from earlier versions of FinalScratch, installing version 1.5 on my 2.4GHz Toshiba laptop was the model of simplicity. Previous versions of FinalScratch ran only on Linux and required installation of a whole new operating system. Version 1.5, which is based on Native Instruments Traktor, runs on Windows XP, so installation is just as simple as installing any other Windows application.
Like all of Native Instruments' latest software titles, FinalScratch needs to be registered using a key that is linked to the hardware specs of your computer. The registration tool offers three ways for you to permanently unlock the program: online, via a different Internet-connected PC or through the mail. It only took me about five minutes to register on the Internet, and I received my activation key in an e-mail from Native Instruments within 10 minutes. Keep in mind that each key is linked to a specific hardware setup — if you ever decide to move FinalScratch to a new computer, you'll have to reregister on the new setup. (NI allows users to authorize the software on two machines at once.)
Installing the FinalScratch software is only half the battle and by far the easiest. The next step is to connect the FinalScratch hardware, the ScratchAmp, to your DJ rig. At about an inch thick and slightly larger in diameter than a CD, the ScratchAmp looks a bit like a UFO and is small enough to pack in a record bag yet large enough that it can't be easily misplaced. The ScratchAmp also has a reassuring weight that gives you the impression that it won't break the first time it encounters a little rough treatment. Some additional protection from fumbling hands is offered by three plastic bumpers around the periphery of the unit, and recessed RCA and USB connectors ensure that careless handing won't result in loose or broken jacks.
The ScratchAmp lives between your computer and your turntables, so it requires some repatching back in the nether regions of your mixer. Turntables plug in directly to the phono inputs of the ScratchAmp, which in turn connects to the line and phono inputs of the mixer. A USB cable connects the ScratchAmp to your computer. The ScratchAmp does receive power through the USB cable, but if you still plan to throw analog records in the mix from time to time, you'll have to connect the wall-wart power supply to activate the phono pass-through. Plugging in a second power supply is a real hassle when hooking up in clubs and represents a significant design flaw in what is otherwise a slick piece of hardware. Rumor has it that Stanton is in the process of designing a new ScratchAmp; hopefully, the company will address this issue with the new model.
Once the ScratchAmp is patched in, getting started with FinalScratch is as easy as booting your setup and firing up the application. FS asks where it can find your media files and calibrates the turntable inputs, and you're good to go!
THE NEW FACE OF FINALSCRATCH
FinalScratch's main interface is called Traktor FS, a stripped-down version of Native Instruments' DJ tool, Traktor Studio. At the top of the screen are two “decks” that represent both turntables. The large window at the top displays roughly 10 seconds of the selected track, with a white line marking the exact location in the file. Directly beneath the large window is a smaller overview waveform that shows the track in its entirety, allowing you to see upcoming peaks and valleys in the music, much like reading the grooves in analog vinyl.
The majority of the screen is occupied by a comprehensive listing of media files called the Track Collection. The Track Collection aggregates media from your hard drive into a central database that can be searched and organized any way you like. This is no simple directory listing, mind you — all information from ID3 tags is displayed, as well as Traktor FS — specific data like rating, bpm and so forth. You can customize which columns of info are displayed in the Collection, and the Collection can be easily sorted on any field by clicking on its column.
SEARCH AND DESTROY
In the upper-left corner of the Collection is the single most powerful tool that FinalScratch has to offer: the Search field. From here, based on criteria you specify, you can quickly and easily search through your entire collection of music. Looking for every track written by Orbital? Just type Orbital in the search field at the top left, and in a split second, you'll be looking only at tracks with the bald brothers' special touch. Can't remember the name of that Oakenfold remix? No problem. Simply type Oakenfold in the Search field, and watch as FinalScratch grinds through your entire collection and spits out every track tagged with his name.
The sole drawback to the Search function is the inability to search for an explicit string or strings in specific fields. Say you've used the Genre field to tag some tracks with Progressive House and others with just House. A search for House will return tracks tagged with both, because the word House appears in the properties of both tracks. I'd like to see Native Instruments add a way to differentiate full and partial string searches. It would also be nice to have the option to search on specific fields and use Boolean operators like most Internet search engines. This would enable advanced searches like “Timo NOT Tori” if you're looking for every mix Timo Maas has done that doesn't include Tori Amos.
One of the coolest things about working with FinalScratch is how easy it is to find and play old records. At my house, I have shelves and shelves chock-full of good records from years past that have been neglected for ages simply because I've never had room in my crate or the time to dig them out. Now that I've encoded the bulk of my collection, I've brought back to my sets classic tracks that I'd forgotten completely. The instant access that FinalScratch offers is truly liberating and opens creative avenues that simply aren't possible with CDs or analog vinyl.
PLAYLISTS AND RECORD CASES
If the Search functions don't sell you on FinalScratch, the Playlist functions will. Right to the left of the Track Collection is an Explorer-style browser containing a current Playlist, nine Record Cases and a folder for custom Playlists. Each offers a unique way of organizing your music files and further enhances FinalScratch's ease of use.
Playlists store tracks from your Collection in a predefined order. You can have as many Playlists as you like, and each one can hold as many tracks as you need. Tracks are added to Playlists by dragging and dropping them from the Collection. From there, you can drag and drop tracks up or down to change their position within the Playlist. One of the best uses for Playlists is to preplan DJ sets: Simply decide what tracks you'd like to have available for a show, and create a Playlist; then, your entire set is laid out in advance. No digging through record crates looking for that next tune — all you have look at is what's next in the list.
Okay, so FinalScratch is a great database tool. But all of that is irrelevant if it doesn't sound good, right? Fortunately, the sonic quality of the FS hardware is just fine — there's no real noise or unpleasant distortion evident when listening to music played back through the Scratch Amp. Scratching with the time-coded vinyl sounds just like scratching on an analog record, and latency is virtually unnoticeable, even at the highest setting.
If there's one thing that will make FinalScratch sound bad, though, it's poorly or improperly encoded MP3s. The program will play back MP3s encoded at any bit rate, but for good results, you'll want to keep it at 256 kbps or higher using a good-quality encoder. The LAME encoder is free and produces excellent results at high bit rates. FinalScratch will play AIFF and WAV files, as well, so if you have space, don't even bother converting your collection to MP3. If you're feeling the squeeze on your hard drive and must encode to fit all the tracks you need, try to keep them at 256 or, preferably, 320 kbps. Your audience will thank you.
If you're a scratch DJ, you've probably heard of skip-proof records. These records feature short samples, like stabs and drum hits, that repeat exactly once during each rotation of the record. If the needle jumps a groove forward or backward while scratching, it picks up the sound at exactly the same point, resulting in a “skip-proof” record. Some enterprising FinalScratch users have figured out how to make MP3s that behave like skip-proof records, a goldmine for serious scratch DJs. You can find comprehensive instructions about how to make them yourself at http://finalscratch.sourceforge.net/lockgroove.
If you guessed that there's a catch to all of the convenience that FinalScratch offers, you're absolutely right. It is a remarkable tool for getting massive quantities of music under control, but it suffers from one painful flaw: Connecting the FinalScratch hardware in a live DJ situation is about as pleasant as a coronary bypass.
As mentioned earlier, the ScratchAmp serves as FinalScratch's audio hub and handles getting timecode from the FS records into the computer and audio from the PC back to your speakers. Setting all of this up at home is a snap. However, in live situations, things get complicated fast. FS users are often required to plug in the ScratchAmp to the system while another DJ is already playing. This makes for a difficult (and sometimes tense) situation, as it's a rare person who will tolerate you repatching mixer cables during his or her set! Think of it this way: You're essentially replacing both turntables and connecting a pair of CD players while the music is running. On top of that, you need to find power for the ScratchAmp (the wall-wart-style power supply makes that even harder) and your laptop. Starting to sound intimidating? It is.
The setup issues are indeed irritating, but if FinalScratch has a true Achilles' heel, it's the system's susceptibility to turntable feedback. Because FinalScratch relies on clean timecode from its special records, any impurities in the signal from the decks can seriously degrade or even completely disrupt playback. If you're planning to use FinalScratch at club or party gigs, be sure to soundcheck in advance at full volume and verify that the program is receiving clean, solid timecode. Hopefully, Stanton will work out a method that allows the system to filter out turntable feedback in future versions.
At the end of the day, FinalScratch is such an incredible tool that it's worth the extra TLC it takes to get things running smoothly. But there really doesn't seem to be any quick and easy way to circumvent these problems. They just go with the territory. Until every club has a patch bay and properly isolated turntables in the DJ booth, it's imperative to plan out your patching strategy ahead of time. To Stanton's credit, the company has begun partnering up with a number of clubs around the country that now provide a preinstalled ScratchAmp in the DJ booth for a quick and easy setup. For a complete list of the clubs in the FinalScratch Club Network, check out www.finalscratch.com.
WHAT DOESN'T IT DO?
There are few things to dislike about FinalScratch, but there are a couple of things that would make working with FS more satisfying. Anyone who has spent five minutes with Native Instruments' Traktor DJ Studio will miss the equalizers and filters present in the full-featured versions of Traktor. Also conspicuously absent are Traktor DJ Studio's looping and cue-point features, two powerful tools that would open up new worlds of creativity to FinalScratch DJs. On the upside, if you currently use Traktor DJ Studio, you can export Track Collections and Playlists for use within FinalScratch.
Although Native Instruments has taken steps to provide users with options for customizing the interface, it would be nice to see even greater flexibility in future versions. I'd also like to see more MIDI functionality. If Traktor FS generated MIDI Clock or implemented ReWire for connection to sequencers like Propellerhead Reason, it would open the door to a whole new realm of live performance.
INTO THE FUTURE
FinalScratch has not caused the glacial shift in DJ culture that many predicted it would when the system was first released more than two years ago. However, FinalScratch is slowly making significant inroads, with support coming from an ever-growing list of luminaries such as Paul van Dyk, Judge Jules, DJ Radar, Junior Sanchez, LTJ Bukem and others. Some purists see this as a move away from vinyl roots, but that's an ill-conceived notion. These DJs understand that vinyl is an important part of the culture; however, they also realize that embracing advances in technology is an essential part of keeping the scene vital and energized. FinalScratch is an ideal tool to bridge the gap between old tech and new tech.
Few things in life blend tradition and progress without sacrificing some of both, and FinalScratch is a notable exception — it's a wonderful tool that offers the look and feel of real vinyl with the power and flexibility of digital media. If you're a serious DJ with an eye on the future, do yourself a favor and give FinalScratch a try. You won't be disappointed.
FINALSCRATCH 1.5 > $699
(COMPLETE PACKAGE); $49 (SOFTWARE UPGRADE FROM V. 1.1)
Pros: Incredibly responsive. Small. Fast and simple to operate. Recessed RCA connectors. Functions as Windows soundcard. Powerful Search function.
Cons: Difficult to set up hardware on the fly. Susceptible to turntable feedback. No DSP. No looping or cueing features.
MAC: G4/1.25GHz; 512 MB RAM; Mac OS 10.3.2; USB port
PC: Intel-compatible 1.6GHz; 512 MB RAM; Windows 2000/XP; USB port
DIFFERENCES FROM VERSION 1.1
Owners of earlier versions of FinalScratch won't be disappointed with the new features in version 1.5. Windows users in particular benefit the most, as version 1.5 now runs natively on Windows XP, eliminating the need to dual-boot into Linux as a second operating system just to run FinalScratch. Don't buy the hype that Windows isn't stable enough to handle the workload that FS places on the operating system — Native Instruments wrote Traktor with Windows in mind, and it's every bit as capable of delivering stable, low-latency performance as the Linux version. The shift to the Windows platform also means that users who had hardware issues with earlier versions now may be able to run FS thanks to Windows' comprehensive driver support.
Version 1.5 also offers a host of minor improvements for both Mac and PC users that make everyday life with FinalScratch easier. Particularly noteworthy is high-quality key correction (called “master tempo” by many CD mixers), which allows a track to be sped up or slowed down without changing the pitch. You can also now resize the interface to accommodate computers with higher-resolution screens, and three font-size choices help maximize screen real estate.