Scratching that itch for nix

As well as warmer sound and retro style, vinyl maintains its hands-on appeal. Now your PC allows you to play old-time DJ.

Audio CDs may be more popular, but vinyl is far from dead. In fact it's enjoying something of a renaissance these days. Geek chic aside, records remain essential to DJs for scratching, where they're used with a combination of manual record deck control and mixer techniques to create unique sounds and rhythmic effects.

Not counting fun stuff like DJ: Decks & FX for Sony's PlayStation2, you could mix MP3 files from your notebook, or use hardware from companies like Pioneer (www.pioneerprodj.com) to let you scratch music from CDs and DVDs. Not bad solutions, and certainly more portable than two decks (record turntables) and a case of records, but lacking in those visual and sonic elements inherent with mixing and scratching vinyl.

The problem is that there are substantial set up costs involved. Kitting yourself out with direct drive turntables, a mixer, slip mats, styli/cartridges, headphones, plus an amplifier and speakers can set you back over $2000. And that's before you actually fork out for the records themselves! So before you spend up big, why not use your PC to test the waters and get in a bit of practice?

Gold Coast developer Ots Labs (said like pots - not O.T.S) has supplied PC World free limited versions of its Ots CD Scratch 1200 and Ots Turntables programs for our cover CD (they're also available from http://otslabs.com). Spyware-free and compatible with Windows 98 upwards, these programs provide virtual turntables for mixing and scratching music from CDs and MP3s.

Ots CD Scratch 1200

Make sure that you have no CDs in your computer, fire up Ots CD Scratch 1200 and have a quick read through the welcome box. You should now see the program's main interface (See picture). On the far left you have a volume level indicator, and near the top left you have the playback controls for the fun, if slightly clumsy, Auto DJ feature.

Top centre you have mixing controls which include vertical volume sliders for both channel one (your first song) and two (your next song) in addition to a horizontal crossfader to mix between channels one (slider to the far left) and two (slider to the far right) or both equally (slider in the centre).

At the top right, you'll find the program's options. The EQ (equalizer) button allows you to adjust the individual frequencies of each channel separately - as long as you've unchecked Gang channel adjustments option in the bottom right. The Dyn button lets you apply compression through your own adjustments or using presets, and the speaker icon button lets you select your sound card and/or drivers - beginners should leave this one be for the time being. All program options can also be accessed by clicking on the icon in the far top left corner.

CD Scratch 1200 can play two songs simultaneously from the same CD or a song each from two CDs (if you have two CD drives). For the former, you simply ensure that Drive 01 is selected for either channel (at the far bottom) before choosing a Track number from the drop down list. Alternatively, to use two CD drives, you simply set channel one to be on Drive 01 and channel two to be on Drive 02. See "In the mix" for mixing instructions.

Ots Turntables

As well as mixing and scratching CDs, Ots Turntables lets you do the same with MP3s files, too. (See picture.) Ots Turntables features a very similar interface to CD Scratch 1200, but with a few tweaks and improvements. Although arranged a little differently, the Auto DJ and mixing controls are almost identical. The EQ, compression and configuration controls are accessed here by clicking on their respective panels.

The entire bottom section of the OtsTurntables interface is dedicated to managing your WAV, MP3 or CD track playlist, via the control buttons at the left hand side (see above picture). Simply drag a song from here onto the virtual turntable that you want it to play on.

In the mix

It's worth noting that the limited versions you'll find on the cover CD don't allow cueing/auditioning - where you (not the audience) can hear what's on one channel through your headphones before you decide to make it heard through the speakers. This is an essential factor in most real DJ-ing, but you're still provided with tempo and pitch sliders to help synchronise (beat mix) the two tracks. Besides, here we're focusing on goofing about with scratching rather than prepping you for a live gig.

After pressing play on a particular channel, just hold down the left (and/or right) mouse button on the virtual turntables and move your mouse back and forth - it's as simple as that. You can apply pre-set scratches using keys 0-5 (for channel one) and 6-0 for channel two). Of course, scratching is as much about nimble mixer work, so use all nine number pad keys for cross fader short cuts (making sure NUM LOCK is on first).

You'll find help both online and supplied with the software, but timing, practice and track selection is everything. If you're serious about learning to scratch, you may also want to look into the wealth of oddly-named techniques such as chirps, transforms, beat juggling and scribbles. But most of all, remember to just enjoy the music.

DJ techniques (book and cd)

DJ techniques (book and cd) If you don't know a scribble from a squabble and you learn just as well from written tutorials as you do videos (you're reading this tutorial, which is a good sign), then this 48-page paperback featuring the insights of experience and a great rundown on DJ culture will be of interest. The book is based in part on the UK's Point-Blank Music Production and DJ College course and covers scratching and mixing techniques; plus DJs working with PCs, including music production. Lessons are also made clearer through use of an included CD. Written by Tom Frederikse and David Sloly.

Publisher: Sanctuary Publishing

Price: $41.95

Phone: (03) 9874 8414

ISBN: 1844920275

Hands-on control

The Pro versions of Ots Labs' software also interface with this great little device: the $499 Hercules DJ Console. (See a picture.) Not only is it a high-quality external USB 2.0 sound card that's ideal for notebooks, but it also features dedicated DJ controls on its top surface as well as its own virtual DJ software. You get two channels, a crossfader, a spinning jog wheel with finger grips for scratching, track position and speed adjustment, jog dials in addition to EQ knobs and soft rubber buttons (some of which are backlit) for playback controls. The DJ console comes with a shoulder strap and protective cover that doubles as an inclined base. It's quite addictive and incredibly easy to use, serving as a great introduction to the mechanics of mixing.

Distributor: Sound & Music

Phone: (03) 9555 8081

URL: www.sound-music.com

On the flip side, there are also two competing systems that use time-coded records that work on any turntable to interface with software on your PC or notebook, allowing you to scratch digital music files.

Native Instruments and Stanton Magnetics' Traktor FinalScratch 1.5 (pictured below) retails for $1199, supports Windows XP, Mac OS X and Linux, and features a special version of Native Instrument's Traktor mixing software, which supports MP3, WAV, AIFF files and audio CDs. Alternatively, Serato Scratch Live - which funnily enough also costs $1199 - is an emerging competitor reported to focus on reliability.

Traktor FinalScratch 1.5 Traktor FinalScratch 1.5

Distributor: Jands

Phone: (02) 9582 0909

URL: www.finalscratch.com; www.jands.com.au

Serato Scratch Live

Distributor: Audio Telex Communications

Phone: (02) 9647 1411

URL: www.seratoscratchlive.com; www.audiotelex.com.au

Danny Allen has been with PC World since 1999, and has both authored and contributed to several books during this time. A self-confessed insomniac, he produces electronic music into the wee hours, organises events and harbours a ruinous obsession with audio/visual gadgets.

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