Hip-hop has always been about progression — the music and the technology surrounding it have gone through many stages. For the past 10 years, hip-hop has been straddling the analog/digital line, waiting for the microprocessors and the digital domain to emulate the analog freedom of wax. That is, until Pioneer introduced the CDJ-1000 digital turntable. It can play digital CD-quality AIFF files from CDs, and you can scratch and manipulate the digital recording with the movable platter in the same way you can with vinyl. Besides a little tactile difference between the feel of scratching vinyl and the movement of the CDJ-1000's scratch plate, we, with the combined DJ experience of 29 years, could not find an audible difference between the digital and the analog. It's the real deal!
MING + FS ENTER THE DIGITAL-TURNTABLE DOMAIN
A couple of steps are involved in making the switch to digital turntables. First, you must transfer all of those irreplaceable vinyl recordings to the digital realm. The process takes a bit of time, but you will get reacquainted with some of those amazing floor-stompers that have been hiding in your crate.
To do that, you need a computer running a digital tracking program — such as Digidesign Pro Tools, MOTU Digital Performer or Emagic Logic Audio — or a 2-track editing program like Macromedia SoundEdit 16 or BIAS Peak, as well as a compatible digital interface, such as the Digidesign 888×24 I/O or the MOTU 2408mk3. Get some new needles for your turntables and set the pitch of the turntable to 0. You may need to calibrate your turntables so that the 0 pitch is true.
Set the output level on your turntable mixer so that the input level in your digital audio software is maximized without clipping. This is usually 0 dB max for digital; analog can run +6, but we recommend running your analog mixer in the green. Overdriving a digital signal causes really bad-sounding artifacts and ruins your tracks. Setting the input level to its maximum corrects the gain differences between your album cuts and 12-inch versions. You will be able to play those really low-volume album cuts off that original Run-D.M.C. record that's been collecting dust in your collection. Even if you don't normalize the volumes of your selections, you can still play them without feedback because the digital turntable isn't sensitive to vibration feedback in the same way that an analog turntable is.
You may also want to EQ the tracks on their way into the computer. For example, our drum 'n' bass tracks were a lot brighter and louder than our hip-hop tracks, so we added some highs and increased the volume of the hip-hop tracks so that there would be less of an audible difference between the level and the quality of the recordings.
CATALOGING VS. LIVE PERFORMANCE
A quick distinction should be made between recording tracks with the highest quality for catalog's sake and preparing tracks for live performance. For cataloging, you need to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio of the tracks by keeping the gain stage of your turntable mixer to a minimum while keeping the input to your digital recorder at a maximum without clipping. That produces the cleanest recording of the track.
For live performance, it may be more important to normalize the tracks audibly instead of using the maximum-level principle. In other words, make the tracks sound equal in loudness and EQ so that you have less deviation between the content of each record. For our live show, we use a number of a cappella and scratch sounds that are EQ'd and leveled so that they don't jump out in comparison to the volumes of the instrumental tracks that they are cut and played over.
Each DJ has his or her own way of cataloging music. The best way for you may be to catalog your music as you have it in your crate. For our live show, we do routines with four turntables, so for the quickest and most accurate selections, we catalog our music according to set and routine. I have my music separated on two CDs: a left program and a right program. FS has something similar, and together we are able to run through our routine effectively. If I were to play a solo set, I would catalog my music into groups of tracks that work well together, and I would carry doubles of each CD.
EDITING THE AUDIO
The CDJ-1000 does have a few idiosyncrasies that can be compensated for during the editing process. If you are just recording tracks that are going to be played by simply hitting the Play button — not, for example, rubbed in on a kick — you can edit your tracks from start to finish, trimming any excess blank time before and after the track.
That is not the case if you are going to rub in or scratch a track. For that, you will need some extra blank space at the beginning of the track. If you spin the track back past the starting point of the audio without this space, the audio stutters or stops while the vinyl turntable re-cues the track at its beginning. We recommend adding approximately three to four seconds of space so that the audio is more flexible for performance.
We often use cue points in our songs that don't occur at the beginning of the track. On vinyl, DJs use a sticker to mark the cue point on the wax for quick mixing. Try fast-forwarding through a track to find a cue point 32 bars into the recording — it's virtually impossible with time constraints. For our shows, we edit the audio to start at the desired cue point and add three or four seconds of blank audio before the cue point. We also keep copies of the complete track for cataloging purposes and for other performance pieces.
We record the scratch sounds in sections so that they don't receive a track ID for every sound. Editing these sounds into groups makes picking scratch sounds easy. But don't group more than 30 seconds of sounds, or you'll get caught fast-forwarding the sounds instead of scratching them.
Because the digital turntable is in its infancy (clubs may not have them yet), we travel with two sets in custom coffins. Each coffin holds a Pioneer EFX-500 effects unit, two Pioneer CDJ-1000s and Rane TTM 56 and TTM 54i Performance Mixers. The two stereo outputs from the Ranes are submixed in a 12-channel Mackie.
Through the Mackie, we also mix electric guitar with a Line 6 Pod multi-effects unit, electric bass running through a Rane DC 24 compressor and an Alesis graphic equalizer, keyboards (Hammond XB2 and Novation K-Station) and two mics, one specifically for beat-boxing. The stereo out of the Mackie is sent to the mains of the club, and the headphone out is used for a monitor out — self-contained and ready to roll!
The digital turntable allows us to broaden our performance possibilities. In addition to being able to play any piece of music that can be put on a CD, we are able to create remixes and alternate mixes of our music and routines without having to cut expensive and untimely show vinyl. It also enables us to bring the equivalent of 400 12-inch records in a CD wallet instead of heavy space-consuming record crates.
If you'd like to catch it all in action, come to our Subway Series tour in support of our new album, Subway Series (Om, 2002). You can get information and win tickets at www.mingandfs.com. For more information about the Pioneer CDJ-1000, check out www.pioneerprodj.com.
MINI CDJ-1000 BREAKDOWN
Check out the following three tips for using some of the CDJ-1000's functions:
- The CDJ-1000 can time-stretch a track in real time without changing the pitch. That means you can mix in a track at any speed, and the pitch of the music that you are playing along to stays in key.
- The Play/Pause button is accurate and can be used to create interesting effects. With the Touch/Brake set in the middle and the Release/Start set sharp (all the way to the left), play a track and try tapping rhythmic patterns on the Play/Pause button.
- The Reverse function instantly plays the track backward, in real time, from the current cue point. Combining the Reverse switch with some fader work creates some really cool sounds.