When DJs start talking about systems that fuse the versatility of digital audio with the hands-on feel of vinyl, it's a rare conversation that doesn't eventually turn to Stanton's FinalScratch. With more than four years of development under its belt, this forbearer of all digital-vinyl systems has ushered in a sea change in the way that DJs think about music. The vinyl junkie of yesterday is giving way to the file junkie of today, as a new generation of forward-thinking DJs continues to stuff its hard drive full of the latest tracks, loops and samples.
FinalScratch was the first system to offer vinyl control of digital media, but during the past few years, it's felt the heat from competing products introduced by Rane, PVDJ, AlcaTech and a few other newcomers who are gunning for Stanton's top spot. Lacking any significant hardware update since its introduction, FinalScratch was naturally looking a bit outdated versus the competition: Rane offered live input for manipulating recorded material on the fly, and AlcaTech and PVDJ both offered optional control surfaces and a host of software features that FinalScratch couldn't touch. In the face of such stiff competition, many began to wonder if FinalScratch was losing its edge.
But with the introduction of FinalScratch 2, it appears that Stanton is still on top of the game. The old audio interface has been redesigned from the ground up as a professional piece of gear, and Stanton's partnership with Native Instruments is paying off handsomely — the Traktor FS software that drives FinalScratch is still second to none in the world of digital vinyl, and convergence with Native Instruments' Traktor DJ Studio software is on the horizon. As with most major upgrades, this new version isn't without its drawbacks, but by and large, it's a worthy successor that upholds the quality tradition of the FinalScratch brand.
Since its inception, FinalScratch has been driven by a proprietary piece of hardware called the ScratchAmp. The ScratchAmp is the traffic cop of the FinalScratch system, the central switch point where turntables, CD players and computers all meet and engage in the complicated task of turning timecoded records into real music. The new ScratchAmp 2 is about as far removed from the old version as it could be: Whereas the original ScratchAmp was small and plastic, the new Amp is large and metal; the old one was simple and straightforward, and the new one is complex and powerful. The updated unit sports all sorts of new features that will dazzle some and confuse others, but, fortunately, you can use as many or as few of these bells and whistles as you like while retaining the core functionality of the system.
The redesigned unit is larger — about the size and weight of a hardcover book — and delivers all of the same connectivity as the original ScratchAmp: six pairs of RCA connectors offering input and output for two turntables and computer audio, and a FireWire port takes the place of the old USB port for data communications with the host computer. (The phono preamps can be driven by the supplied power adapter, but this is only an issue when using a laptop that doesn't offer a powered 6-pin FireWire jack.)
The new ScratchAmp doesn't stop there, though. The redesigned device also includes individual gain knobs for each input channel, a headphone jack with volume control, separate auxiliary RCA inputs for recording mixes live to disk, line/phono switches for connecting to turntables and CD players, an XLR microphone jack and even MIDI In/Thru for connecting external control surfaces. Top it all off with pristine 24-bit, 96kHz audio and a solid metal case, and you have a serious audio interface that rivals some entry-level pro studio gear.
FIRE UP THE TRAKTOR
If you are familiar with Native Instruments' Traktor software, you will feel at home right away with the FinalScratch software. Even if you haven't used Traktor, odds are, you'll be comfortable with FinalScratch in no time — the system's Traktor FS software remains, hands-down, the most logical and easy to use of any digital DJ package I've used. FinalScratch's user interface is largely identical to that of version 1.5. The upper portion of the screen is reserved for two virtual decks that display graphic representations of music files, also known as Stripes. The larger Stripe displays a detailed picture of the audio around the current needle position in the track and can now be set to display the waveform at one of three different zoom settings. A smaller Stripe underneath shows the song in its entirety. Both virtual decks also display title and artist info for the loaded track, and each has a configurable info section that can display additional information such as time remaining and elapsed, bit rate, bpm and more.
The bulk of the Traktor FS interface is consumed by the track Collection, a database of all the songs that the program knows about. The Collection is a detailed list that displays information from all of the standard ID3 tags — such as artist, title, album and so on — as well as some custom fields like rating and import date. The entire Collection can be quickly sorted by any of these fields; just click on the desired column header, and the entire list is re-arranged in ascending or descending order. I use this function all the time to sort my Collection by import date, so all of my new music is easily accessible at the top of the list. When I need to dig deep into my music, a text box above the Collection allows me to search the entire database for key words or phrases in seconds.
One of the nicest new features in the updated software is a system status bar at the top of the screen that displays CPU load, battery remaining, clock, input level and ScratchAmp connection status. I know a few FinalScratch users whose laptops have run out of juice in the middle of a set thanks to a power cable that was jiggled loose, so the battery meter is especially helpful, and the CPU meter comes in handy when using the processor-intensive phase vocoder for key-locking tracks. Sometimes, it's the simple things in life that turn out to be the most useful.
Virtually unchanged from earlier versions are FinalScratch's playlists, which are grouped in a column at the left side of the screen. Playlists can be thought of as virtual record crates: Tracks are dragged and dropped from the Collection into a playlist and can then be rearranged into any order you see fit. Playlists are extremely useful for collecting batches of tunes in one spot for quick access. Whether you're planning your set for an upcoming gig or you just like to organize all of your music into folders for easy access, playlists make it possible to distill collections of thousands of tracks into manageable, bite-size chunks that quickly put music at your fingertips. Playlists can't be nested, but you can have as many as you like. So if you want to break down “Techno” into hundreds of folders for each subgenre, you won't be limited by anything other than your own patience.
FinalScratch also includes a folder called Current Playlist, a handy tool that keeps tabs on all of the tunes that you load into each deck during your sessions. This is a great tool for DJs who need to report their playlists at the end of the night (some clubs like to post playlists on their Websites), and it provides an easy way to look back after playing a killer set to see how it all came together. Now, when someone comes asking what that amazing track was that you played an hour into your set, you'll be able to tell them right away!
FinalScratch 2's playlists may be largely unchanged from previous versions, but one newcomer stands out as a unique and powerful addition: the Loop Pool. If you're a battle DJ who uses skipless records for scratching, this feature may be just the thing it takes to make you forsake old-fashioned wax forever. The Loop Pool is a special playlist for short tracks like drum loops, vocal snippets or other short sound effects. Anything played from the Loop Pool is, as you might guess, looped — all the way from the start of the record to the end. An enterprising DJ could use this facility to pull a drum loop from a sample CD or record a loop from another record, load it in the Loop Pool and use it as a music bed while scratching or mixing on the other deck. If you're feeling particularly innovative, try loading a sample recorded live from a microphone into the Loop Pool. DJs who work with MCs or live musicians will no doubt go hog wild with this tool. The creative potential here could be staggering in the right hands.
Using the Loop Pool as a skipless record is simple, too. FS 2 offers a “continue play on needle up” option, which essentially turns off the timecode feature so FinalScratch only listens to the direction and speed of the vinyl, meaning you can skip the needle all the way to the end of the record during a furious scratch session and the loop will keep chugging along without missing a beat. Some might feel that this breeds lazy DJs without finesse, but consider that this could be a lifesaver when you're expected to do your job on a poor DJ setup with bad needles or worn-out decks.
Time stretching, otherwise known as key lock or master tempo in DJ parlance, is vastly improved in FinalScratch 2. You can now select from three different algorithms: CPU efficient, pitch synchronous overlap add, and phase vocoder offer a variety of methods to suit a wide variety of processor speeds. I've never been a fan of time stretching on DJ gear because the low-quality algorithms tend to introduce timing inaccuracies that make tight mixes difficult or impossible. Earlier versions of FinalScratch suffered from this problem, but FS 2's phase vocoder does a great job of stretching audio while keeping the timing spot-on. It works wonders for changing the speed of music full of tonal instruments like pads and bass lines without altering the pitch of the song, but I found that even my 1.7GHz Pentium M had a rough time keeping up with two key-locked tracks using this method. Owners of slower computers who absolutely must use key lock will probably need to stick with the other two algorithms. Both are serviceable, but most will likely find them a bit sloppy for anything other than minor speed changes within ±3 percent. But the inclusion of a high-quality time-stretching tool is a welcome addition that further ups the appeal of FS 2.
When Rane/Serato's Scratch Live came out and challenged FinalScratch's claim to the digital-vinyl throne, it offered a few slick features that FS couldn't match. One of the best things about the system was the vinyl, which offered visual cue points at every one- and five-minute mark on the vinyl and thereby provided DJs an easy way to needle-drop through tracks. With FS 2, Stanton now offers the same feature — both sides of the control vinyl offer 15 minutes of continuous timecode with visible gaps at every minute for easy cueing. Special “scratch” records are also available, with a B-side containing three five-minute timecoded tracks with a locked groove at the end of each section.
Using the FS vinyl is almost like using real wax, but needle dropping in FS 2 does exhibit some peculiar behavior that's different than with earlier versions of FinalScratch. When moving the needle from one section of the record to another, a split second of music from where the needle just was is played back before the software realizes the needle's new location in the song. It's not a serious problem, but because earlier versions didn't behave this way, it is annoying, and it detracts from the “real vinyl” feel that FinalScratch has always delivered so well. Stanton tech support claims that this is a result of the new timecode engine that drives FS 2 and that future software updates will minimize or resolve this issue completely.
Furthermore, FinalScratch 2 supports a wide variety of compressed and uncompressed audio formats. Uncompressed files, such as WAV and AIFF, will provide the best results with the new ScratchAmp's pristine audio path, but at 10 MB per minute for CD-quality audio, they chew up disk space at an alarming rate once you've accumulated a good-size collection. Double that figure (or more) if you're using higher bit or sample rates, and the next thing you'll be saving up for is a stash of extra hard drives. Fortunately, FinalScratch handles compressed files with aplomb, offering support for MP3, WMA, AAC and Ogg formats. The preferred format for most users tends to be high-bit-rate MP3, preferably encoded at 256 or 320 kbps. For the super-space-conscious, FS 2 will also play back variable-bit-rate MP3s. And Apple iTunes users will be happy to hear that iTunes libraries can be imported directly into FinalScratch 2.
As with all audio material, the golden rule applies here: If you put garbage in, you'll get garbage out. Your music will only sound as good as the weakest link in your setup. FinalScratch 2's new ScratchAmp is a great audio interface that's perfect for recording music to your computer, so make sure to use a quality stylus and pick the highest bit rate possible when selecting a compression scheme for your music.
As I mentioned previously, critics of former versions of FinalScratch often took issue with the old ScratchAmp's less-than-spectacular audio specifications. Stanton has put that reputation to bed with the ScratchAmp 2, an audiophile-quality unit that sports 24-bit, 96kHz audio that really lets your music shine. Realistically, this is probably overkill for most users; MP3s and other compressed file formats don't have the resolution it takes to benefit from specs like this — even WAV and AIFF files would need to be recorded at the higher rates to enjoy any noticeably enhanced clarity. However, the pristine signal path in the new ScratchAmp is clearly engineered to higher specifications than the old model: When you stack it up against the old ScratchAmp, the sound of the new unit is cleaner and more open with detailed highs, and the low end feels warmer and punchier; some users may also find it very useful as a general FireWire recording interface or for archiving vinyl.
FinalScratch 2 also offers a couple of extra audio enhancements on the software side that can help you squeeze the most out of your music. The three time-stretching algorithms offer a high-quality method of altering tempo without changing pitch. In addition, an auto gain control works as a real-time normalizer, automatically increasing the volume on quiet tracks so you can spend less time fiddling with the gain control and more time mixing. FinalScratch 2 also offers two scratching modes, digital or vinyl, although I can't think of why anyone would want to use digital mode — the vinyl setting is absolutely convincing, and it sounds just like real wax.
CLICK TO BUY
I have used FinalScratch for years, and I have watched the system mature from a finicky Linux-based product into a solid performance tool that works equally well on Macintosh and Windows platforms. I had high hopes for the next step in FinalScratch's evolution, and by and large, I'm pleased with the host of new features offered by version 2. Most of the major improvements are on the hardware side and address some serious issues with the old ScratchAmp while providing new options for connectivity and creativity as well as greatly improved audio fidelity. Furthermore, the Loop Pool, audio recording, timecode meters, calibration tools and enhanced time stretching, along with the addition of cue points and minor improvements to the interface, are welcome enhancements to the older versions.
As with most major upgrades, FS 2 has a few minor annoyances that take some getting used to. The “buffering” problem during needle drops is annoying, and the new ScratchAmp is definitely a bit on the porky side, making it a little harder to carry from gig to gig. Aside from that, though, FinalScratch 2 is a solid system that falls squarely in line with the sterling legacy that Stanton has built around the FinalScratch brand. If you're in the market for a DJ rig that offers the perfect balance of hands-on vinyl control with the flexibility and convenience of digital audio, FinalScratch 2 is the right tool for the job.
FINALSCRATCH 2 > $799
Pros: Outstanding user interface. Can record mixes or live audio to disk. Switchable line/CD inputs. Microphone input. Looping facility for creating music beds or locked grooves. Solid construction. MIDI I/O. FireWire interface.
Cons: Bulky audio interface. Slight buffering problem when needle-dropping. Requires powered FireWire port or external power supply.
MAC: G4/500; 256 MB RAM; Mac OS 10.3.5; available FireWire port
PC: Intel-compatible/1GHz; 256 MB RAM; Windows XP; available IEEE 1394 port