My back hurts. As a working DJ who carts a good 70-plus records from city to city, my spine feels like it's at least a decade older than the rest of me. Hauling 25 pounds of vinyl through Chicago O'Hare — or even from the front door of the club to the booth — can easily leave me struggling for breath. However, it's a small price to pay for a job I love, and I'm resolved to the fact that my destiny as a vinyl jock is inevitably intertwined with pinched nerves and slipped discs.
There are other ways, of course. The first CD mixers hit the market in the early '90s, and, today, CD burners let you put whatever you want on those shiny discs. Blank CDs are cheap. They hold eight to 10 songs; they sound great; they're small and weigh next to nothing. So why do you still lug your records around? Simple: Like me, you like your vinyl. Yes, it's a love-hate relationship, but we feel a special connection to our records that simply doesn't survive the transition to CD media.
I can wax sentimental (no pun intended) about the mystical properties of vinyl all day, but that doesn't solve my problem: My back still hurts from carrying all those records around. I don't want to give up my vinyl, and I don't want to switch to CDs. What's a DJ in pain to do? Enter Stanton's Final Scratch. This miracle of modern technology is one of the first products to successfully blend the control and tactile feedback of traditional vinyl with the fidelity and convenience of digital media.
The basic concept behind this system is simple: A standard DJ setup consisting of two turntables and a mixer is connected to a control unit, which in turn is connected to a PC that contains MP3 files of your music collection. Specially coded vinyl allows you to play back these MP3s as if they were on the actual vinyl. With this system, you can encode your entire record collection to your PC and scratch and back-cue these digital files just like you would with regular vinyl. Best of all, you can leave that heavy record bag at home — all you need to be able to gig is a laptop, two coded records and the interface unit.
Final Scratch is a lesson in efficiency, providing simple connectivity in a compact and elegant package that would make Philippe Starck jealous. Stanton clearly designed Final Scratch with the gigging DJ in mind. The control unit, called the ScratchAmp, is a silver disc-shaped unit roughly the size of a 7-inch record and about an inch thick. It looks deceptively fragile, but close inspection reveals quality workmanship and a reassuring weight. Non-skid rubber feet keep the unit where you put it, but if it does take a tumble, three black plastic bumpers keep it from getting nicked up by anything but the nastiest spills.
The ScratchAmp doesn't have a line input for recording sets to the PC while using Final Scratch, but it does function as a soundcard and phono preamp under Windows, so you can record your records to the PC. Also pleasing is that all of the connectors on the ScratchAmp are recessed. Not a single item on the ScratchAmp looks like it might break off due to mishandling — a big-time bonus for road-ready DJs.
LINUX AND FINAL SCRATCH
Having heard a lot about Final Scratch's use of the Linux operating system, I was anxious to see how it compared to Windows. Linux is an open-source operating system based on Unix, which is known primarily for its stability and efficiency. Linux is open-source software, so developers have free rein to get into the nuts and bolts of the OS and strip out unused features, which is exactly what the Final Scratch team did to optimize performance with its product.
Linux has to be installed on a partition formatted with the FAT or FAT32 file system; if you're a Windows 2000 or XP user and want to use NTFS, you have to either convert your file system to FAT (the Final Scratch CD includes a utility to do this) or use a third-party partitioning tool to resize the NTFS partition and make room for a new FAT partition.
Linux has a reputation as being a beast to set up and configure. Luckily, Stanton did a remarkable job of making it a painless process, so installation only takes a couple of keystrokes. The CD boots to a menu that allows you to select the partition on which you'd like to install Final Scratch; once that's done, the rest of the process is completely automated.
To get the Final Scratch system to a point that it is ready to belt out tunes, users must employ the included prep tool called Record Boxing (see Fig. 1). This is a straightforward program that reads and writes ID3 tags, creates waveform overviews (called Sound Stripes) and allows MP3s to be categorized into 10 instant-access categories called — you guessed it — Record Boxes. Record Boxes are virtual representations of the real thing; they hold tracks in a specific order, so if you have a particular set you like to play, you can arrange your songs in order using a Record Box and never worry about thumbing through a crate of records with a flashlight again.
Record Boxing also has a ripping facility built in. Drop an audio CD in the drive, choose the desired bit rate and format (it will do both MP3 and WAV) and let it rip. If you're particularly daring, you can use Final Scratch to play music directly off of audio CDs, although Stanton doesn't recommend mixing two songs from the same CD without first testing the capabilities of your system.
ALL HANDS ON DECKS
Getting started with Final Scratch is simple. Simply launch the Final Scratch application and calibrate the unit by playing the Final Scratch record on each turntable. My setup checked out okay, but if I had miswired a connection, it wouldn't have been a problem: Final Scratch includes a slick feature that auto-detects common problems like swapped L/R pairs and phase problems. Even better, it can fix both of them on the fly in software, a welcome level of idiot-proofing that comes in handy in dark clubs.
The Final Scratch user interface is clean and straightforward (see Fig. 2). The Record Boxes, configured in the Record Boxing utility, are mapped to function keys F1 through F10 for quick access, and a list of individual tracks complete with ID3 tag information fills the bottom half of the screen. A powerful search function makes it simple to locate specific tracks. Once a track is mapped to either the left or right turntable, an overview of the file's waveform is shown at the top of the screen, and a zoomed-in view directly underneath offers a detailed view of what's coming up in the next 20 seconds or so.
Playing music with Final Scratch is nearly a religious experience. Putting the needle on the record and not hearing the usual pops and crackles is slightly eerie, but once the music kicks in, all is right in the world. I can't emphasize enough the similarity to real vinyl; it really is just like having your hands on an analog record. Latency is practically nil. Regardless of how hard I worked the vinyl, whether scratching or back-cueing, I wasn't able to distinguish the slightest delay in response to any of my actions.
Final Scratch felt so much like real vinyl that I kept catching myself trying to take the record off the turntable and start sorting through my bag for the next track — old habits die hard. Incidentally, if you do ever feel the urge to play an analog record, just switch the mixer channels from line to phono, and you're good to go. Final Scratch's pass-through circuitry makes it a seamless transition. Also impressive is the quality of the D/A converters in the ScratchAmp. Aside from the slight compression artifacts inherent in MP3 files, the fidelity of files encoded at 192 kbps is warm, full and nearly indistinguishable from a CD-quality recording.
What this all boils down to is, Final Scratch feels like an instrument. It preserves the soul of vinyl. It keeps the DJ in direct contact with the music at all times and does it all in a tiny package that won't bust the seams of your luggage. For the serious turntablist or the professional traveling DJ, there is no other choice. Final Scratch is it.
Pros: Incredibly responsive. Small size. Fast and simple to operate. Recessed connectors. Functions as Windows soundcard. Powerful search function.
Cons: No line input. Requires installation of Linux OS. No networking support.
Overall Rating: 5
Intel-compatible/500MHz; 128 MB RAM; Linux (included); 2.5GB free hard-disk space (500 MB for installation, 2GB+ for MP3 storage); boot-enabled CD-ROM drive (installation only); free USB port