Back in 1995 when rave culture began emerging into the mainstream, reggae was ripping a line of speed and morphing into jungle, and DJ Shadow's Endtroducing prompted breathless announcements that the DJ was back (from where?), a sleepy industry that had stayed pretty much the same for fifteen years was suddenly in the spotlight.
Up to that point, the DJ's standard pieces of equipment, a pair of Technics SL-1200 direct-drive turntables and a simple two-channel mixer, hadn't changed much since they were first introduced to the world back in 1978. But in the last several years, the surge in popularity of DJing has led to an explosion in choices.
In contrast to the bold announcements and flashy advertisements for the latest DJ gear, sadly, there are few outlets in the East Bay where you can find decent advice, compare prices, or actually try out equipment. Many of the smaller specialty DJ shops have simply gone out of business, and a survey of Yellow Pages listings yields a string of disconnected numbers and unfamiliar names such as "Homeboyz Musik." Even the venerable Leo's Pro Audio on Telegraph Avenue has shifted the bulk of its DJ business to its San Francisco store.
As a result, buyers seem to be on their own when it comes to sorting through the bewildering array of equipment available. With a basic setup running anywhere from $1,200 to $2,500, perhaps an overview of the East Bay market -- or what's left of it -- is in order.
Nearly all DJs offer the same advice to neophytes: Find a Technics 1200. "The Technics 1200 and the standard mixer is kind of the Fender Stratocaster of turntablism," says Robert Hansen, associate editor for the Emeryville-based Remix magazine.
But because a new set of 1200s can set you back anywhere from $1,000 to $1,200, many seek out used decks through word-of-mouth or Web sites such as eBay or Craigslist. "Even if they've gotten a lot of use, used Technics are usually a good bet because they don't wear out," says Nelson Fernandez of Skills DJ Workshop on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley.
There are now several companies making turntables especially for DJs, including Gemini, Stanton, and Numark. According to Hansen, in the last four or five years, major professional audio companies have caught on to the fact that kids are investing in digital recording software and turntables instead of guitars. The result has been a rush to improve upon the bare-bones functions offered by Technics; competitors are loading their new turntables with extras aimed specifically at the needs of the performing DJ. Hansen explains: "They've stripped a lot of features out of synths and samplers and started incorporating them into turntable products. A number of turntables now include functions such as effects, BPM counters, smart looping technology, and beat-matching functions, which give DJs more control and more of a live, spontaneous element to their music."
But does that mean that the Technics are on their way out? "Not necessarily," he says. "What we're seeing are companies making products geared toward specific genres of DJing, whereas the 1200s have sort of become a 'for everyone' product."
So, if you don't want to buy used equipment, where to start? With arguably the best selection of DJ equipment in the East Bay, Guitar Center in El Cerrito is a good place to get a street-level perspective on the latest turntable developments. The DJ department is presided over by a knowledgeable, if not long-winded, self-described DJ preacher and guru named Danyah. Taking his name from the biblical Daniel, Danyah likens the DJ experience to entering the lions' den. "If you think I'm lyin', try learning to DJ in front of four hundred drunk relatives. You have to become a lion real quick, or you'll get eaten alive."
A veteran DJ and instructor at his own DJ school called, appropriately, the DJ School, Danyah has little patience for unworthy equipment. He's less charitable than Hansen when it comes to the Technics 1200. "I give Technics respect for being first in the market, but now I wouldn't rank 'em higher than fourth," he says. Like Hansen, Danyah likes the myriad functions that companies have added to their turntables, but he feels even more strongly about the commitments those companies have made to improving the basics. "The pitch control on the new turntables is much better," he explains. "Once you get past plus- or minus-two with the Technics, your record is going to sound like Darth Vader or the Chipmunks."
Combined with other smart details such as an internal ground wire, digital outputs, and a removable stylus arm, tables like the Numark TTX (Danyah's #1 pick) look more attractive than the stodgy minimalism offered by the Technics. Factor in that the competitor's products are priced about the same or lower than the 1200s, and brand loyalty starts to sound a little silly.
Variable-speed CD players, also called CDJs after the Pioneer line that leads the market, are a more recent development. Initially regarded with skepticism by DJs, they've made inroads in the market and many clubs have added them to their turntable setups. The prohibitive cost of pressing small quantities of vinyl means many great music tracks are available only on CD, and few DJs want to be limited by format.
Many DJs still doubt that CD players will ever be an adequate substitute for the turntable because they rely on being able to see the needle's position on the record, and they can use their hands to spin records back or forward to access specific places in a song. That feeling is missing in the jog-wheel control that the CDJs use to manipulate a CD. Besides, after many years of collecting, many DJs are simply in love with the vinyl aesthetic, reinforced of course by special pressings that record companies make especially for them.
But not everyone is wedded to records. "Vinyl wears out, and it's heavy and expensive," counters Hansen. "Sure, there are things that only come out on vinyl, but they can easily be put on a CDR an infinite number of times. The CDJ makers are bringing the level of control that vinyl has, plus a lot more."
Market heavyweights such as Pioneer and Denon have added many of the same extras that turntable makers provide. Both companies cleared some major benchmarks last year when Pioneer introduced the CDJ 1000 and Denon brought in the DN-S5000. Both players address the "hands-on" issue by trying to approximate the feel of vinyl as closely as possible. The CDJ 1000 gives DJs the ability to scratch with CDs, pitch them way up or down, and provides an enlarged jog wheel with a visual readout that DJs can use to "see" where they are on the track.
Danyah has put both players through their paces. "They've been making the claim that CD players will be as good as vinyl, and until now I wasn't that impressed," he says. "But when I was able to break down a beat with the 1000, they had me." He demonstrates by putting a CD in the player and, once it was playing, rapidly tapping the enlarged jog wheel as he would a piece of vinyl. It responded like a real record, starting and stopping rapidly and producing a rippling sound effect. "The Denon feels even better, but it's not as easy to see what you're doing," he says. "I like the readout in the 1000 'cause it's easy to use -- plus the jog wheel on the Denon broke too easily."
Neither model comes cheap, with both retailing for around $1,000 apiece. But even Pioneer's first pro model, the CDJ 100, is worth considering. "It doesn't have all the extras that the 1000 has," Danyah says, "but they work and they're a good, inexpensive place to start."
Once dominated by only a handful of brands, the mixer market has now exploded. In much the same way CD players and turntables have added performance-enhancing features, mixers now incorporate a range of tools for DJs to use. Numark has incorporated the "Korg Chaos" effects pad into one of its mixers and a new Rane mixer features specialized faders, loops, and sampler technology alongside its standard features. "The mixer market has really addressed the long-standing criticism that DJs aren't really making music," Hansen says. "Audiences can now see the DJ doing something with his hands, and there's an aural result that they can connect with." Guitar Center sells a bunch of mixers, plus you can get them direct from the manufacturers.
Finally, there are a couple of products looking to harness the advantages of digital music formats like MP3 and Wave. The most promising and ingenious of these is Final Scratch, a system devised by Stanton. Using a combination of software, hardware, and special vinyl, Final Scratch lets DJs interface with and manipulate digital music files on a laptop with a standard turntable setup.
The two specially encoded pieces of vinyl, which look and feel like regular LPs, send signals through the needle to the computer running the Final Scratch software. The signals instruct the software to manipulate the sound files to correspond with the way the vinyl is being manipulated. The software allows a DJ to categorize music files and to create and store playlists to use in a set. "Final Scratch is really going to take off, because it works with existing technology and it allows DJs to bring their entire record collection with them on their laptop," Hansen says.
Danyah agrees. "It's a good idea, because it always seems like people request the one record you left at home. Plus, you don't have to worry about carrying around all those heavy crates full of vinyl."
In the end, according to Danyah, formats don't really matter: "Regardless of what equipment you use, the most important thing about being a DJ is creating a vibe -- if you can't do that, you might as well stay home."
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