We're used to the idea of using fader boxes and other MIDI controllers to manipulate our music software, but now Serato want to get us using our turntables to scratch digital audio. Can it possibly work?
If you haven't heard about what's been happening in the world of DJ technology lately, prepare to gaze off into the distance while mumbling "Wow, that's genius, why didn't I think of that?" It's an idea that's very simple, yet is almost inevitably going to be huge. The problem is it's apparently really hard to implement well, resulting in a scramble as companies try to corner the market. The two super-powers leading this arms race are Stanton Magnetics with their Final Scratch system, and Serato Audio Research with Scratch.
The idea is this: take some digital audio on a computer. Load it into software that can varispeed from zero to high speeds, play backwards, and can handle erratic jogging backwards and forwards of the 'playhead' (ie. scratching, or scrubbing). Now make the playback speed and direction follow some kind of external audio control signal, instead of a mouse or other hardware controller. Finally, press up a vinyl record or two containing the control signal instead of a musical signal, and plug the phono outs of your record deck into audio inputs on your computer. Now you can scratch, varispeed, or otherwise manipulate audio on the computer using a standard turntable... Like I said, it's genius.
The beauty of it is that it frees you from the constraint of actually possessing a particular piece of audio on vinyl, while leaving you with the same equipment and skills to control it. In the studio, it means you can scratch and manipulate any audio to hand, including stuff you've just recorded, as if you'd had an indestructible dubplate made up. As a gigging DJ, it means you could digitise your entire record collection onto a laptop and go out with just the two control records. Serato Scratch SE (Studio Edition) focuses mainly on the former of these (working in the studio), and comes us an RTAS/HTDM plug-in for Pro Tools Mac and Windows systems. Later on in 2003, a more expensive stand-alone version, Scratch Live, should include a few advances that will make it more suitable for taking out on the road. Meanwhile, Stanton's rival Final Scratch system is already available, although only on the Linux OS so far.
I tested Scratch SE on a TDM Pro Tools Mix system, although it will work on LE-based systems (more later on the implications of using different platforms). Installation is just like any other plug-in, with a single file going into the Plug-ins folder. The only other requirement is that you have the Digidesign Stream Manager installed, which enables HTDM plug-ins on TDM systems. The copy protection method is iLok USB dongle authorisation.
Before connecting a turntable, I decided to try Scratch's internal mouse control mode. After I'd created a stereo aux track in Pro Tools, Scratch simply inserted like any other plug-in and threw up the main window. The load button opens a standard file locator for navigating to any WAV, AIFF or SDII file. Once selected, the file loads into the plug-in and its waveform appears in the plug-in window. To be clear, playback and control of the audio clip is independent of Pro Tools' audio playback: Scratch is a sound source, not an effect, as far as Pro Tools is concerned. As you can see from the screen shots, the plug-in's controls are set out to resemble a physical turntable. In Internal (mouse) mode, you get all the controls you'd normally expect: Start/Stop, 33/45 speed selectors, pitch/speed adjust slider, and the turntable itself. Additionally, there are forward/reverse buttons, a toggle for setting whether the nominal speed is 33 or 45 rpm, and the ability to change the sensitivity of the pitch slider away from the standard ±8 percent, from half to eight times the normal range.
Hitting Start begins playback of the current file, looping indefinitely. Manipulating the on-screen controls produces changes exactly as you'd expect from a physical turntable, complete with inertia and momentum when starting the deck or moving the pitch-adjust slider. Clicking and holding on the record has exactly the same effect as putting your finger on a real record. When you let go the record winds back up to speed pretty quickly, as though you were using a slipmat and not actually stopping the turntable itself. 'Holding' the record and wiggling the mouse does pretty much what you'd expect. The place you clicked follows the mouse pointer, and you're scratching! The audio waveform follows all this, with the 'needle' position shown as a green line in the middle. This makes it easy to locate and scratch around particular parts of the file, especially for talentless scratchers like me!
From the beginning, I found mouse control very easy, and it just seemed to work how I expected it to. A little practice is necessary to get used to the particular sensitivities of the mouse, but once you've adjusted you can do pretty much what you could with a real record, including 'throwing' it to bring it in at full speed or performing a spinback. There is one notable limitation when using the mouse, which encouraged me to move on to using the intended external turntable control. The smallest possible movement of the record is limited to the smallest possible movement of the mouse, ie. one pixel, so very slow movement results in playback occurring in small jerky steps. This can be reduced a lot by clicking on the 'record' and then moving the mouse pointer to the edge of the screen, thereby greatly increasing the number of pixels the mouse will cover for the same amount of record movement.
Next, I set about testing Scratch in its full glory, by connecting a turntable. The illustration on the next page is Serato's set up diagram, showing all the recommended connections. The main part is very simple: just plug the phono outputs of each turntable directly into a pair of Pro Tools' inputs (no preamp is needed). In fact the most complicated part of the whole thing was finding a pair of female phono-to-XLR cables to connect a Technics SL1200 turntable to an 888/24 interface! Additional connections routing the outputs from Scratch plug-ins through your DJ mixer mean you can use all your normal controls, in particular the crossfader.
Once all the physical connections are in place, you set the inputs of the Pro Tools aux input to the corresponding turntable, and switch the plug-in to External mode. In my case, at this point Scratch started playing back and meandering all over the place, a sign that I hadn't yet calibrated the plug-in to the level of noise in the system. This is achieved by putting the needle on the special Scratch 12-inch record, stopped, and holding down the Calibrate button on the plug-in window. Within a couple of seconds the control signal graph (see screen shot below) calmed down and stabilised at the null position. As the Technics wound up to speed, Scratch followed exactly, although backwards! Evidently, I had got the left/right connections into Pro Tools reversed. I'm guessing Serato's control signal uses a phase differential between the channels to indicate direction, in the same way that bi-phase sync works in film projectors.
With the techie stuff complete, it was time to put the system through its paces. Playing the real record and moving the pitch adjuster produces precisely the effect you'd expect. Grabbing the record, letting go, slowing it down with your finger, speeding it up by tweaking the spindle, nudging it on, anything you'd expect to do in the course of DJ'ing bar needle-dropping works perfectly. At this point I was impressed, but what about scratching? I expected it would work up to a point, but guessed I could confuse it or cause it to get jerky and erratic if I went mad. Not a chance: it just does it.
I was initially suspicious of Serato's claim that "Serato Scratch feels and sounds just as though you are scratching a real record." My scepticism gave way and I had to admit that this really is the truth. The response is so accurate and instantaneous that you do forget that the audio is not actually on the record itself. You can keep spinning back to a particular point to play a particular break or phrase, without any apparent drift between the point on the record and the point in the file. Having the waveform display is really useful in this respect, and is a marked improvement on watching the record's label to keep track of a position. An added bonus that I'm sure people are going to have fun with is that you can set a side-chain input into any Scratch plug-in and record directly into it instead of opening a file. Serato see this as being most useful for a mic input, so you can record in some vocals and immediately start scratching and messing them up! This in itself is a really exciting idea in developing the turntable as a musical instrument.
As I've already hinted, one thing you can't do with Scratch SE is pick up the needle and drop it in different places as a method of cueing up a playback position. This is the one significant functional limitation of Scratch SE (although you can skip using the on-screen waveform). In one way, though, the lack of needle dropping brings a certain advantage to scratching and performance turntablism: it vastly reduces the problem of needle jumping, or skating. The lack of any absolute time position being represented on the record means that if the needle jumps, Scratch falters very briefly while it re-establishes tracking, but doesn't lose its position.
However, the lack of the option to cue from the record, the fact that you're tied to Pro Tools, and the inability to load MP3s are the reasons why this is described as the Studio Edition, and may not be the product that facilitates replacing your record box with a laptop. Instead, Serato plan to release Scratch Live later this year, and this will be aimed more at the gigging DJ. While very similar to the Studio Edition, Live will be a stand-alone product, and come with a small USB audio interface: a very similar configuration to the rival Final Scratch system. Also like Final Scratch, Scratch Live will support needle dropping, and MP3 playback. Although Final Scratch has stolen the march by being released first, it is currently limited to the Linux OS, which may be a turn-off for some.
This initial use of Serato's technology does exactly what it says on the tin, works fast enough with Pro Tools to remove the problem of latency, and has a very reasonable plug-in-level price-tag. If you mainly need to create turntablist, electro and hip-hop music in the studio, as opposed to delivering live DJ sets, then SE really will revolutionise what you can do.