Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Search for the ultimate DJ software part 2

As I wrote before I am looking for an alternative to Ableton Live for DJing. I started with reading specifications and feature lists on the product websites, and then reading reviews, forums, and blogs.

First, I looked at Serato Scratch Live, partialy because my favorite DJ uses it and I heard from other DJs that it is "da thing" for digital DJing. After doing some more readng about Serato, I realized that its main strength is that it can be controlled with time code vynil and time code CDs. This is great. It looks great and it is convenient, because most parties usually have CDJs or turntables and I would only have to bring my laptop, the Rane SL1 box and a sound card. This is cool, but the problem is that I do not have turntables or CDJs and don't want to buy them. Besides, I have never used them, and I would have to buy them in order to practice. So, "Scratches" are probably out including Traktor Scratch Pro.

Next, is Serato Itch which is bundled with Vestax VCI-300 or Numark NS7. Numark NS7 looks pretty good, but the company does not have a good reputation when it comes to quality, and NS7 is nowhere to be found in stores. VCI-300, on the other hand, has rave reviews from people who had a chance to try it. A great thing about these two controllers is that each includes a sound card, so that's one less box to carry around. Unfortunately, you cannot download a demo version of Itch and try it with a MIDI controller, Itch works only with these two designated USB controllers. I guess, that means Itch is out too.

Then I found Vestax VCI-300 in Guitar Center. It is absolutely awesome! It is pricey too. $900 is a lot for a USB controller with software, especially given that the controller will work only with this particular software. True, that it also has a sound card, but the sound card is limited to DJ use, and not really suitable for studio recording or multi-channel performance. But I started reading about Itch. Not so good :( only two decks, and no VST support. Not too impressive. Too bad, because I really liked VCI-300. But then, VCI-100 is almost as cool, and almost half price, and Traktor and Deckadance fully support it. Since my choice was narrowed down to Traktor and Deckadance now, I went to Guitar Center and bought a new VCI-100.

Vestax VCI-100

Ean Golden does crazy stuff with VCI-100 SE which he modded to match Traktor Pro. If for whatever reason you are reading this, and are interested in controllerism, you should check out his videos.
After looking at Ean Golden's videos and reading his posts, Traktor Pro seemed very promissing. It has 4 decks, many cool effects and works with VCI-1oo. While I was waiting for Traktor Pro release (it realeased on November 1), I started using Traktor LE with VCI-100. Several things that I noticed right away: sound quality was not so good, beat synching is not very precise, but then, this was the LE version, and I have read that Traktor Pro has signigicant improvement in these areas.

Traktor Pro. Awesome tool. It has everything you may need for DJing, it has 4 decks, effects, beat synching is good, a lot of useful features, such as remembering multiple cue points, load and unload markers, etc, and then again, it is nicely integrated with VCI-100. If you add the price of Traktor Pro to the price of VCI-100, it almost adds up to 900$ which is how much VCI-300 with Itch costs, but Traktor Pro has much more than Itch. At this point I was almost set on buying Traktor Pro, but decided to try out Deckadance as well.

Deckadance. First impression was negative. It looks awful compared to Traktor. It also has only two decks. The three killer features are that it supports VST plugins, can be a VST plug-in itself, and has slots for samples. What really got me intrigued is the fact that it works as a VST plugin and as a VST host, so I can load my synths into it, and I can load Deckadance into Ableton. Now that opens a whole new range of possibilities, doesn't it.
Here's a screenshot of Deckadance inside Ableton:

deckadance VST in ableton

I opened Ableton and loaded Deckadance. The first blow - both cue and master outputs go to the channel output. Luckily, I found a solution on Ableton forum. A bit of inconvenience is that Deckadance exposes mono channels, and Ableton has stereo channels. The workaround is to assing Cue Left and Cue Right outputs to two separate Audio strips in Ableton and pan the strips accordingly. Here's the screenshot of the setup:

ableton setup for deckadance

MIDI channel "3 DD" is where Deckadance is loaded. "1 Audio" takes input from Deckadance monitor left output, and "2 Audio" takes input from Deckadance monitor right output. Other MIDI channels have software synthesizers. With this setup it works perfectly. I control software synths with a keyboard, and Deckadance with VCI-100. Once I managed to get this working, I realized that I am definetely choosing Deckadance over Traktor, because it just adds to Ableton what I was missing in it, and it is also much cheaper considering that I already own Ableton. Together, this becomes a much more powerful solution than Traktor Pro alone, because I can have synths, I have access to VST effects and Ableton's built in effects and instruments, which are more powerful than Traktor's. The irony is that most of my software synthesizers that I load through VST into Ableton are from Native Instruments, the company that makes Traktor. I really don't understand why Traktor Pro is not a VST host.

Search for the ultimate DJ software

I have been using Ableton Live for about 4 years now. I was using Live for performance, and Logic for production. Then, when Logic dropped Windows support, I switched to Ableton for production as well. But while Live is absolutely unmatched for live performances, it isn't so great for just playing tracks. First of all, when you are DJing with Ableton Live, you look like you are checking your email, even if you are using a shiny cool MIDI controller. Because, unless you are using software synths, triggering samples and bending effect parameters, the only knobs you may be using are those of EQs and X-Fade. And that is only if you are not using the external mixer. Another, smaller issue with Ableton is that you really have to prepare all your tracks before hand and make sure the beat markers are aligned. Unless you are playing psytrance, this usually requires going through the whole track and adjusting the markers. If your beat markers get misaligned while two tracks are already playing through the speakers, you are screwed, because if you start moving beat grid while the track is playing it sounds like a skipping CD. Other, smaller, flows in Ableton Live as a DJ tool are:
  • no MIDI control for browsing the library and loading tracks (you have to drag them to the channels with your mouse)
  • no MIDI control to fastforward/rewind a track (have to use the mouse)
  • cannot fastforward/rewind when previewing tracks in the browser (my workaround is usually to have a designated channel for previewing tracks)
Having all these in mind I decided to look for a new tool. I have been reading a lot of reviews, articles and discussions on forums and blogs. One specially helpful blog that I found is DJ Tech Tools by Ean Golden. There is a lot of useful information on Ableton's forum, on NI forum and on Image Line forum as well.
There are plenty of software and hardware tools for a digital DJ. Some of them are cheap, some expensive, and some are free. For now, I am not going to look at integrated decks that have built-in harddrives because of two obvious limitations 1 - hard or impossible to upgrade the hard drive to a bigger one, 2 - I already have a laptop, a MIDI controller and a sound card, and I don't want another box to carry around. Also, usually they are more expensive than software, because they can also play audio and mp3 CDs, which I do not need. I decided to focus on the five mainstream programs, which as far as I know are:
  1. Traktor / Traktor Scratch
  2. Serato Itch / Serato Scratch
  3. Image Line Deckadance
I think, these are the top three brands to be cosidered as an alternative to Ableton Live for DJing. I also read on Serato and Ableton websites that they are doing something together this year. Hopefully, their collaboration will result in an ultimate digital tool which will be the best choice for both DJing and performing live, but they did not announce any details or timelines. Meanwhile, I will be testing Traktor, Serato and Deckadance. I will be posting the results here as I research and try these programs.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Selling my Line 6 POD XT Pro

It came to this finally. I need a better sound card, so I am selling my . Line 6 POD XT Pro on eBay
I am probably not going to use it with my guitar. I only used it a couple of times, which is about how many times I plaid a guitar in the last year, and I don't think I want to use it with an electric violin either, because I prefer either clean sound or VST plugins.