Ultrabooks™ as Ultimate DJ Machines

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It seems like eons ago, before digital media and the Internet forever changed the way we consume music, folks visited brick-and-mortar stores to purchase vinyl LPs and 45 rpm records. While there are signs that “vintage” analog is making a comeback, the fact remains that people nowadays mainly buy and listen to music on computers and portable electronic devices. As much as the digital revolution has upended listener habits and the music industry in general, it has also altered the landscape for music’s professional and amateur tastemakers: DJs.

Years ago, the DJ’s coat of arms was two turntables and a mixer. Vinyl jocks seamlessly segued between two songs, crafting a continuous mix by monitoring the mixer’s cue outputs with a pair of headphones and matching and aligning beats manually via the turntable’s pitch control. Although this may sound primitive, the two-decks-and-mixer archetype has simply been adapted into the wide range of computer-based tools we have now. These digital DJ rigs have become ubiquitous because of the convenience, functionality, and ease of use they offer. Whether you’re an experienced club DJ, a wedding DJ, or a budding bedroom DJ/producer, an understanding of these tools is essential for any Twenty-First Century mixmaster.

Ultrabooks: The Horsepower that Digital DJs Need

At the heart of any digital DJ rig is a powerful and lightweight, yet durable laptop. Intel’s® Ultrabook class of high-end subnotebooks certainly fits this bill with their speedy Intel Core processors and durable unibody construction. Designed for portability and low power consumption, Ultrabooks are typically outfitted with solid-state drives—a distinct advantage over error-prone hard disk drives that can be sensitive to the vibration in environments where loud music is played. It’s unlikely that the DJs of old look back fondly to the days of hauling heavy equipment and crates of records. Thankfully, such back-breaking work is a thing of the past, with many Ultrabooks measuring less than an inch thick and tipping the scales at less than 4 lb.

The ASUS Zenbook UX32VD-DH71 13.3” Ultrabook is a solid choice. It has a 1.9 GHz Intel Core i7-3517U dual-core processor with 4GB of 1600 MHz DDR3 RAM and a 500GB, 5400 rpm hard drive with a 24GB solid-state cache. It also has a 13.3-inch LED-backlit IPS display with a 16:9 aspect ratio and Full HD 1920 x 1080 native resolution, powered by a dedicated NVIDIA GeForce GT 620M graphics card with 1GB of discrete memory. While you will most likely utilize the 3.5mm headphone jack on the Zenbook, it also has Bang and Olufsen ICEpower stereo speakers for when you want give your ears a breather. 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 give you the wireless connectivity you need. The system is powered by the Windows 8 (64-bit) operating system.

Another option is the Toshiba KIRAbook 13.3” Ultrabook. It has a 2.0 GHz Intel Core i7-3537U dual-core processor with 8GB of 1600 MHz DDR3 RAM and a 256GB solid-state drive. The 13.3-inch PixelPure display is also a capacitive touchscreen. The screen has a 16:9 aspect ratio and impressive 2560 x 1440 native resolution, powered by integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000. You can also enjoy audio through the Harman/Kardon stereo speakers with DTS Studio Sound technology. While they might not compete with your professional-grade headphones, the Harman/Kardon speakers provide impressive sound quality for an Ultrabook. 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 support offer you with the wireless connectivity you need. The system is powered by the Windows 8 Pro (64-bit) operating system, which provides you with additional Windows 8 Pro features and security.

So, now that you have a souped-up laptop to do your computational bidding, you’ll need some place to store all those crates of vinyl… I mean files, digital music files, that is! Ultrabooks, with their smaller-capacity solid-state drives aren’t enough for a multi-gigabyte music library. Consider investing in one or more external bus-powered hard drives such as the high-capacity, style-conscious Rugged Mini Portable from LaCie. An Ultrabook, properly configured, can benefit from the increased transfer rates afforded by the drive’s SuperSpeed USB 3.0 ports, which brings extra peace of mind when you're dealing with data-intensive music files and software applications.

Digital Vinyl Software: Serato versus Traktor

Traditional vinyl DJs may be most at home with a DVS (Digital Vinyl Software) system, which utilizes special time-coded vinyl records or CDs to allow the user to physically manipulate the playback of digital music files. Scratch-mix DJs, turntablists, and other others who simply prefer the tactile feel and hands-on control of these familiar tools will find DVS to be a bridge between the analog past and the digital future. To create a complete rig, you’ll want a minimum of two professional-grade direct-drive turntables or CD decks, a multichannel DJ mixer, a DVS system with audio interface and software, and a powerfully spec’d Ultrabook to run the show.

When it comes to DVS systems, two companies dominate the field: Rane and Native Instruments.

Rane’s Serato Scratch is much loved by old-school vinyl and hip-hop DJs for its rock-solid stability. In order to interface with Serato’s low-latency control vinyl, you’ll need the appropriate Rane hardware. This hardware ranges from the SL2, SL3, and SL4 USB audio interfaces—which connect to your DJ mixer and turntables—up to fully featured professional DJ mixers such as the Sixty-One, Sixty-Two, and Sixty-Eight.

Native Instruments presents a slightly more mix-and-match, technologically scalable approach, with their Traktor Scratch series. Centered on the highly flexible, feature-rich Traktor software, Native Instruments offers the requisite vinyl-control packages and USB audio interfaces such as their Audio 6 and Audio 10 as separate stand-alone products. This allows the flexibility to use an all-in-one hybrid DJ mixer/controller (see below), a combination of MIDI controller (such as Native Instruments' own Kontrol X1) and DVS, or simply mixing “in-the-box” with just a laptop. Where Traktor truly shines is in the quality of its effects, such as tempo-synched filter sweeps and multi-tap delays, must-have tools for club music DJs to create dramatic buildups and drops. Another Traktor innovation that's tailor made for the producer-DJ is the Remix Deck, an easy way for users to seamlessly incorporate their own production elements and remixes into their sets.

Hybrid DJ Mixer/Controllers: Portability is in the Bag

Those looking for a more compact, all-in-one solution should investigate hybrid DJ mixer/controllers. These devices allow direct control of almost any DJ software and provide built-in audio interfaces that enable you to output sound to PAs, sound systems, and powered speakers. The sheer variety of these types of interfaces is staggering, ranging from entry-level favorites like the Hercules DJ 4Set to feature-packed professional solutions such as the Traktor Kontrol S4 by Native Instruments.

While the list of compatible software, feature set and physical form factor of all these hardware devices varies widely, almost all utilize a scaled-down version of the familiar two-decks-and-mixer physical interface. Jog wheels replace the turntable’s platter, allowing you to cue to specific points or pitch bend (nudge) tracks, while crossfaders, volume sliders, and rotary EQs correspond to mixer controls for “shaping” sounds within the mix. If showing up to a gig with little more than a laptop and a compact hardware device sounds appealing, then a hybrid DJ mixer/controller should be on your list.

Vestax, Numark, and Denon are well known for their range of professional DJ mixers, turntables, and CD decks. Now, their all-in-one digital DJ solutions are finding favor with pros and advanced hobbyists who demand a robust set of features as well as durability that holds up against day-to-day gigging. The Vestax VCI-100—previously a MIDI-only controller, now in its second iteration as a hybrid—is a popular choice, with its sleek design, tension-adjustable jog wheels, and tight integration with Traktor.

Numark offers the slightly more robust, feature-rich NS6. Tightly integrated with Serato ITCH, the controller-based version of the popular DVS, the NS6 sports such pro features as balanced XLR outputs and a microphone input. Professional users desiring the most flexible connectivity and expandability options may want to consider the Denon DN-MC6000. In addition to the requisite control of digital DJ software such as Traktor and Virtual DJ, the DN-MC6000 is equipped with a fully functional 4-channel mixer, allowing you to expand your rig with turntables, CD decks, MP3 players, microphones, and more.

MIDI Controllers and Performance DAWs: Live Remixing and Controllerism  

The advent of digital audio and MIDI technology has spawned a distinctly Twenty-First-Century mode of DJ performance that’s more akin to live remixing than traditional beatmatching and mixing. Utilizing a variety of MIDI hardware—MPC-style drum pads, push-button grid controllers, rotary knob controllers, and even modified arcade-game parts such as joysticks and battle buttons—in concert with performance-oriented DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) such as Ableton Live, this iconoclastic breed of performer/DJ practices what’s known as controllerism. More concerned with radical new combinations of sounds than rocking a party, controllerists modify techniques borrowed from turntablists, flipping and juggling beats, scratching and transforming, adding digital effects, and creating dizzying reconfigurations of pre-existing tracks, all live and in real time.

Because the cutting edge of any new musical development requires tools that may not even be invented yet, controllerists typically come up with interesting “hacks,” be they hardware or software-based, of off-the-shelf equipment in order to realize their creative visions. Some of the most popular hacker-friendly hardware pieces are DJ controllers such as the original Vestax VCI-100, Ableton clip launcher boxes such as the Akai APC-40 and Novation Launchpad, and MPC-style drum pads like the Korg PadKONTROL. For the do-it-yourselfer, manufacturers such as Livid Instruments offer encoders, sliders, buttons, and other components in modular form, for the tech-savvy among us to design the ultimate MIDI controller of their dreams.

While a few daring souls are brave enough to wield a soldering iron upon these unassuming boxes, many more prefer utilizing open-ended software solutions such as Ableton Live to customize their performance setups. Dispensing with the limitations of strictly linear, timeline-based DAWs, Ableton presents a GUI that's based around their Session View, a highly flexible zone for experimentation that enables you to trigger musical events while playing instruments or applying effects in different combinations and in real time.  

An even more advanced level of customization is offered with Ableton’s own Max for Live add-on. Containing a comprehensive set of audio and MIDI building blocks (sort of the sound-design equivalent of LEGOS), Max for Live allows you to create your own effects and instruments using a graphical programming environment. Of course, this level of customization affords the modern-day DJ or controllerist ultimate flexibility, but it comes at the cost of a learning curve.

For more information on hardware and software solutions for DJs, stop by the B&H SuperStore in New York, speak with a sales professional on the telephone at 1-800-606-6969, or contact us online via Live Chat.