Vinyl DJing vs. Electronic DJing
DJ Charlie Sputnik (aka Charles Chemery), course author and instructor for MI Online’s Intro to DJing, shares his preference for International Record Store Day.
I am often asked about my thoughts on DJing “old school” versus “new school”. That is to say, DJing with vinyl records versus using newer, digital tools.
While I learned to beat-match with vinyl, and have always had a special relationship with records, I had to adapt quickly as the tools of the trade started to change in the early 2000s.
Vinyl records were no longer the main way that people listened to music when I started to spin. Cassettes and then CDs had long overtaken vinyl records when I was a teenager, but spinning vinyl remained the primary method of DJing until CDJs, and then computer-based solutions such as Final Scratch and Serato Scratch Live came along. The computer also removed the need to carry heavy crates of vinyl from gig to gig, and provided huge storage capacities. Instead of having to pick 30 or 40 records for the night, a DJ had immediate access to thousands of tracks on their computer.
When I started, it was simply impossible to claim being a DJ without both owning a substantial vinyl record collection and having mastered the skill of beat-matching by ear. CDJs made this vastly easier, as their BPM counters removed the need to guess and adjust the tempo of upcoming tracks by ear. You still had to manually “launch” the upcoming record and adjust its placement in relation to the one currently playing, but half the work was done thanks to the BPM counter.
By the time Traktor and then Serato introduced the controversial Sync button, most of the skill required to manually beat-match was no longer needed. Your computer would provide the tempo of tracks and even lock them together automatically while providing a foolproof visual aid via graphic representation of audio sound waves. You no longer needed to hear the music to see that tracks were indeed beat-matched.
From that moment on, since the technical hurdle of manual beat-matching had effectively been removed, anyone and everyone could claim to be a DJ. Clubs, instead of relying on experienced DJs who had spent decades amassing vast collections of vinyl, invited young and good looking newbies with a laptop and rocking Serato.
This state of affairs put many talented “old school” DJs out of work and ushered the era of “robo-DJs” who didn’t need to know how to manually beat-match and often didn’t care to learn how either.
As with photography, generations of “old schoolers” were now left in the dust if they didn’t adapt to the new way of doing things.
However, just like a good photographer should be able to handle film, adjust the focal length and aperture settings of an analog camera, I believe a DJ should be able to beat-match vinyl records manually. While it’s true that DVS software provides infinite possibilities — such as being able to lock keys, create cue points and trigger loops and samples — there is a certain magic to seamlessly blending two vinyl records by ear.
Also, as you’ll never know when you’ll be asked to DJ an “all-vinyl” set, having manual beat-matching skills enables a DJ to jump on anyone’s setup at any time, whether their setup is digital or not. Listening to rhythms instead of looking at waveforms displayed on a screen provides a completely different approach to blending tracks. Serato and Traktor users often rush through transitions, whereas it’s difficult to manually blend tracks within four or eight bars… Vinyl users will often let tracks play together for several minutes and will phase the first record out much more gradually than a digital DJ would.
To me, beat-matching by ear is one of the cornerstones of DJing. Once you have the basics covered, you will be able to take full advantage of all that digital systems have to offer. I see it as a process that is not easy, but that is equivalent to “paying your dues”.
Finally, as a backlash to the good-looking but essentially inexperienced DJs, there’s a back-to-vinyl trend among hip venues, where computers are not always welcome. It‘s common to see DJs touting an “all-vinyl” set on a flyer to differentiate themselves from DJs who are uncomfortable with beat-matching manually.
In the end, regardless of the tools used to play a DJ set, what’s important in my opinion is the music itself, not the medium used to play it. No one cares if a DJ is using CDJs, Serato or vinyl if the music selection is great, the pacing is gradual and dynamic, and the blending flawless.
There will always be a demand for a DJ who can make a crowd dance, sweat and holler, no matter the medium.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Charles Chemery (DJ Charlie Sputnik) is an LA-based vocalist, DJ and educator who has performed in Havana, Casablanca, New York, Paris, Tokyo, and more. He’s released music on electronic labels such as Chin Chin Records, True Romance, and Loungin’ Recordings, and produced for clients including The American Film Institute, Audi, 20th Century Fox, and Disney. He has recorded (or performed live) with Chaka Khan, DJ Sneak, Gnarls Barkley, Evelyne “Champagne” King, and Jurassic 5. Chemery is the Program Chair for both Musician Institute’s Independent Artist and DJ programs (launched in April 2016).
Explore Charles’ Intro to DJing course on MI Online.
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