First Final Scratch, Miss Pinky and now Serato Scratch Live have all successfully emulated the vinyl DJ experience in the digital realm. You can have the same feel and control that you are used to with records through your computer. Well, that's all fine and dandy, but are you still using the same set of routines and techniques that you used with your old records? Yes, there are a lot of cool features like looping, cue points and effects that each program has to offer its users. But what is a basic tool that a user with any system can incorporate into their scratch routine that will add a whole new dimension? What is a digital advancement like the crossfader, a basic analog tool that radically changes the way you can rhythmically mix two records together? The answer: a foot controller.
Scratch rearranged phrases with a multiswitch foot pedal.
A foot controller is, in its most basic form, an analog switch, built ruggedly enough to take the weight and pressure of your foot. They can be very simple, a single on/off switch, or very complex floorboards with multiple switches and pedals. They are most popular with guitar players, commonly used for switching between effects and amp settings on the fly. Foot controllers are the natural choice for guitar players because, obviously, both of their hands are in use. So what is another group of musicians that doesn't have any hands to spare? It's all you turntablists and hyperactive DJs out there.
When connected to a computer, you can use these switches to send messages to any program you want controlling whatever function you need. That could be as simple as setting a loop-in or loop-out point, moving between cue points instantly or complex strings of actions. For example, a single switch could either start a recording from an external source (think MC or musician) or stop that recording and load it into a selected deck. Instant, on-the-fly sampling available at your fingertips — now that's worth writing home about.
PEDAL TO THE METAL
The most useful way to use foot controllers in your scratch routine may also be the most basic. Set up the switch or switches to move between cue points or jump to a cue point in the song. Say you have a song with a James Brown — style vocal intro that sounds something like, “One, two, three, get down!” Depending on the number of switches you have available, you could do one of two things. First, with a single switch, it would be logical to drop a cue point on the “one” and program the switch to either a “jump to cue 1” or a “go to previous cue” command. You rhythmically cut in the “one” for four counts and let the phrase play out for three counts. Right when “down” is about to play, go to scratch that phrase but press your foot controller at the same time. You are now at the “one,” and after one count of scratching, you can drop the phrase right back in on the first count without missing a beat. Keep repeating that pattern until the end of a 32-count phrase, and then let it play right into the new song. It could sound something like, “Wa/wa/wa/wa/one, two, three, get wa/wa/one, two, three” and so forth. Normally, after the phrase, a quick backspin and a lot of practice could get you back to the “one” quickly but not right at the start of the next bar and certainly not instantly if it's a long passage.
Say you have a footswitch with two or more switches. Assign them to “jump to cue 1,” “jump to cue 2” — and so on — commands. Drop cue points on each word, “one, two, three, get, down.” There is nothing special if you just play the phrase from start to finish, pausing to scratch each word. That could be done with a standard record. What you want to do is rearrange the phrase. By instantly jumping to any of the words, you can rhythmically scratch any combination without a pause. The phrase could become: “G/g/get one, get two, d/d/down three.” Your phrasings could get far more creative and complex, but that should give you the tools and concepts you need to go to town.
GET IN CONTROL
One foot controller you can buy now is the DigiTech FS300 Multi-Function Footswitch, which retails for $49.95. By the time you read this, the FS300 should be able to interface with and be supported by Serato's Scratch Live software. Beyond the FS300, you have three other options: Buy a MIDI controller, buy a human-input device or build a custom footswitch.
There are a few MIDI controllers, but they are all for guitar players and tend to be quite large. Those wouldn't be very practical to carry around in your DJ bag. The easiest and least expensive way is to use an expression pedal for a MIDI keyboard, such as M-Audio's Oxygen 8. Some programs do not support MIDI inputs, so you will also need to install a MIDI-to-keystroke converter. Expression pedals require a MIDI device to plug into, and they are small, light, rugged and inexpensive.
You can also build one, which is by far the most flexible option. You can find a detailed tutorial and more info on footswitches at www.eangolden.com/blogger.html. Using several prebuilt parts, building one can be a relatively simple process and will give you exactly what you want, including complete programming flexibility. With a custom-built controller, you can execute the complex series of recording commands I mentioned earlier. Does soldering completely freak you out? No problem, you can purchase a completely programmable human-input controller from X-keys at www.xkeys.com. That company has a simple three-button foot controller that's not too expensive.
Whichever way you decide to go, some type of foot controller can no doubt enhance your scratch style. Add one to your setup, and see how much more sophisticated your performances become.