Digital DJ: Nano Technology

With all the computer-DJing options out there, people are still using CDs live. CD technology is so 1997, dude shouldn't they get with the program and
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With all the computer-DJing options out there, people are still using CDs live. CD technology is so 1997, dude — shouldn't they get with the program and get a laptop? Well, CD slingers still have a few attractive features that the computer can't quite match: great portability, universal compatibility, ease and reliability, among others. So, allow me to suggest a compromise. Quick quiz: What is a nearly universal medium for digital audio storage that is light, portable and reliable? That's right, the iPod. Then why isn't everyone DJing with an iPod (or a brand new iPhone) yet? Because the technology to do so is just finally coming into its own now. The truth is, people have been hacking iPods and pseudo-DJing with them for years. Lately, however, technology has caught up with those pioneers, and now true iPod DJing is within everyone's reach.

DOUBLE DUTY

Beyond being great music players, iPods double as great hard drives. The latest line includes a 160 GB model, which is more than enough to store a serious collection of music. That's so big that you can have your cake and eat it, too, by using your iPod as a music player and your digital DJ hard drive. Simply allocate half of the iPod for data use and load your music collection twice — once as a music collection through iTunes and again in data form on the hard-drive partition of the iPod. This is a great way to not only listen to and preview your music without turning on a laptop, but it's also a fail-safe backup in case of system failure.

Also, save a copy of your preferences, stripe folders and any other files required by your personal DJing software to the iPod. This way, if you do have a complete laptop melt down, you can run your collection off the iPod from a loaner laptop and not skip a beat. Worse-case scenario, play tracks one by one from your iPod and beatbox transitions between them. Roll on an extra layer of deodorant for that one because it will truly put your crowd-rocking skills under pressure.

WHEELS OF PLASTIC

Ever since the iPod first came out in 2001, people speculated about its potential for DJing. The trademark wheel navigation was an obvious aesthetic cousin to the original wheels of steel, and many dreamed of a DJ future for the new upstart. Thanks to a hack that allowed Linux to be installed on an iPod, it was not long before that dream was a reality. In 2004, I saw a guy jump on the decks of a house party with a single iPod. Although creative and incredibly brave, it hardly looked sexy as he squinted to adjust each track on the tiny screen. Since that time, DJing using only an iPod has failed to take off, largely because it required hackers to keep up with each iPod software update. One promising device picks up were they left off and should be in stores in the coming months. It's a handheld, all-in-one music mixer, but it's not made by Apple.

A Swedish company called Tonium is set to release a product called Pacemaker (www.pacemaker.net) that packs an amazing array of features into a device roughly the size of a Sony PSP. All the basics such as cue, looping, crossfading and filters are handled from a very minimal set of controls including an x-y touch pad that takes iPod-esque navigation to the next level. Beta testers for Pacemaker already include the likes of Richie Hawtin and the Stanton Warriors.

BREAK THROUGH

While they started off slowly, iPod mixing consoles have matured nicely over the past few years, including a crucial technology jump that instantly made iPod DJing a more practical reality. Both Numark and Cortex (the dMIX-300 and dMIX-600) have released hardware mixer/controller solutions that make it possible to mix a pair of songs from a single iPod, which wasn't originally possible. Not only can you mix two songs together, but also you can pitch bend, scratch, key lock and even loop tracks all from one iPod (or other external USB drive). Numark's first incarnation, the iDJ, required two iPods as sources, but even that did not slow widespread interest in the product. Now with the more advanced capabilities, the iDJ2 is almost a no-brainer (read the Remix review in next month's issue). The fact remains that the majority of people buying and playing with DJ gear are not professionals. They are casual hobbyists and part-time fans that might “play out” every once in a while. The idea of being able to buy single piece of DJ gear that interfaces perfectly with a music player most people already have is understandably appealing.

Some may wonder how a single iPod (with almost no processing power) can possibly compete with a laptop for DJ superiority. It can't, but the average person does not need all the power of a modern laptop or the advanced features offered by most DJ software. They generally just want to mix songs, rock the average weekend get-together or show off for friends. In that respect, the hardware iPod mixers compete very well. Admittedly, professional DJs won't be rushing out to trade in their laptops for an iPod anytime soon, but the idea certainly has its appeal, especially if clubs start installing the hardware en-masse.

Sheer numbers seem to set industry standards. The Technics SL-1200 turntable is still the industry standard because so many of them existed before any competing models could even be manufactured. To date, more than 10 million iPods have been sold throughout the world. That number clearly dwarfs any existing digital DJ system on the market; so if iPod DJing technology evolves to a competitive level, it's possible that the iPod or some futuristic version of it could become the SL-1200 of tomorrow.