Monday, April 29, 2013

DJ Mixing: Autosync - Automation of an Art, Loss of an Art

DJ Mixing: Autosync

The Automation of an Art, The Loss of an Art


aka DJ Maestro B

There is a split in the DJ world between the traditionalists, who mix manually, and those who use computers to autosync their mixes. It is incredible that such a minute detail has caused so much controversy since laptops started making their way into DJ booths. In this article I will explain my reasons for preferring manually mixed DJ sets.

Before proceeding, I need to make clear a distinction between DJs and controllerists. Controllerists use laptops and midi-controllers to rapidly create new tracks on the fly. They loop sections of music, drop in samples, and cut-up tracks in real time to build new compositions. This article is not directed towards controllerists. My focus is on DJs and the process of DJ-ing in the traditional sense of the word.

The DJ mixset as we currently understand it originated in the late 1970s. DJs such as Francis Grasso discovered that by placing a slipmat under a vinyl record, it was possible to hold the record in place while the turntable continued to spin beneath. This allowed the DJ to release the record on beat, and have it start at virtually full speed. By gently nudging or dragging the record the DJ would then ensure that the beat of the incoming record aligned with the beat of the outgoing record. Adjusting the pitch tempo on the turntable would ensure that the beats of the two records remained synchronized and thus the DJ could slowly blend the two tracks together.

Beat mixing soon became the central mechanic of the DJ’s craft and the technique remained unchanged even as vinyl turntables gave way to CDJ players. During the mid 2000s, however, DJs started to turn their back on vinyl records and CDs, favoring instead the use of a laptop. When laptops first started to appear in DJ booths, the advantage was nothing more than practicality. A DJ would be able to bring his or her entire music collection on a small device rather than carrying crates of records or endless CD folders to gigs. DJ software allows the DJ to mix traditionally by interfacing the laptop to a pair of turntables or CD players via timecoded vinyls or CDs. Relatively simple in concept, the timecode control record contains data that indicates the position of the needle, which the software uses to place the position of the MP3 being played. Changes to the pitch of the timecode through manipulation of the turntable (or CDJ) pitch control directs the software to increase or decrease the tempo of the MP3 as required.

Early DJ software was primitive, but it did provide the DJ with useful information about the songs they play. Waveforms and BPM information became guides for DJs to plan better mixes.

DJ software quickly evolved to include the most controversial feature that has hit the world of DJ-ing. This feature is known as auto-sync. When a DJ activates the auto-sync feature, the software aligns the beats of the two tracks being played to ensure a perfect beat-mix. This releases the DJ from the time-consuming task of manually beat-matching, but removes a significant part of the DJ craft. This is where the controversy arises. Purists believe that the art of DJ-ing requires manual mixing, while embracers of technology believe that removing this task frees the DJ to focus on the real art—song selection.

I have used both manual and automated systems and I’m going to boldly state my position. Auto-sync mixing does diminish the art of DJ-ing. There are two aspects to art: the end product and the production of the end product. Autosync supporters focus much of their argument on the end product. They believe that the means of production is not as important as the end product in itself. The idea is that the real goal of a DJ is to read a crowd and select songs. Those song are to be delivered as a seemless mix, but how that mix is technically implemented is not relevant. Furthermore, auto-sync supporters argue that the crowd doesn’t care about the implementation of the mix, so long as it is tight and delivers the songs that take them on a journey.

I am sympathetic to this position. Having watched many dance floors as a DJ, I don’t think the audience has any idea what I’m actually doing in the DJ booth. Many of them are not interested in the technical aspects of what I’m delivering to them. They just want the result. However, I get the feeling from some audience members that they expect that something is happening in the booth. After-all, there is a person standing there, wearing headphones, pushing buttons, moving jog-dials or record platters. They can see that someone is doing something. When DJs are mixing manually, the audience may sometimes hear a track drift slightly out of sync before being immediately corrected. It’s a live experience. I wonder if there would be a feeling of disappointment if it was revealed to a crowd that the DJ was merely selecting songs on a playlist and letting the computer sync the tracks—something that everyone can do at home with no special skill or talent.

At this point the quite legitimate objection can be made that selecting songs that move a dance floor does require special skill and talent. Not anyone can do it. There are many empty dance floors out there with DJs selecting all the wrong songs. This is a fair point. But what I’m trying to suggest is that the audience want to see someone doing more than they could do themselves. Philosopher Denis Dutton (2010) argues that art requires the combination of the following criteria.

Artistic work must:
1. gives direct pleasure;
2. exhibits skill and virtuosity;
3. exhibit novelty and creativity;
4. demonstrate style;
5. have the ability to evoke criticism;
6. be a form of representation;
7. have a special focus;
8. expressive individuality;
9. evoke emotional saturation;
10. be intellectually challenging; and follow artistic traditions; and
12. be an imaginative experience.

How many of these criteria are met by a DJ performing a mixshow? I would suggest that a well planned, well mixed set fulfills all of the above criteria. However, if automation is used in the mixing, there is a diminishment of the second criterion, thus the resulting mixset is not as artistic as a manually mixed set.
Imagine visiting an art gallery. You admire the paintings hanging on the wall and reflect on the fact that someone has meticulously placed every stroke of paint in just the right place to complete a work of artistic perfection. The end results are impressive in themselves, but part of what makes them impressive is the fact that they were made entirely by hand. We like to see things done well by people who care about what they are doing.

Now, suppose as you walk through the gallery you find an small door labeled Artist Studio. Wanting to gain some insight into the creative process, you enter the room expecting to see an artist, covered in paint, carefully crafting a new creation. But to your shock you see a computer linked to a robotic arm. A person sitting at the computer is placing colors on the screen using an auto-fill function—something like a paint-by-numbers—which results in the robotic arm producing the painting. Would you value this painting as much as you would if the artist had carefully placed the paint strokes on the canvas?

Or consider another analogy. You go to a fine dining restaurant because you’ve heard of an award winning chef. As you wait for your dinner you imagine the chef in the kitchen, carefully mixing the sauces, cutting the meat, and hand slicing the vegetables to get them just right for his culinary creation. You think of him tasting the sauce, considering very carefully the flavor and adding just a touch more spice. Wanting to witness the creative process, you slip into the kitchen to take a look. To your horror you find the chef working with pre-packaged sauces, pre-cut meat, and pre-prepared vegetables. You complain that he’s cheating by not cooking by hand, but he responds with the following statement:
“The menu is my creation. I’ve chosen every single item that appears there. Using pre- packaged sauces saves me from the tedious and time consuming process of mixing. This gives me more time to focus on food selection—the real art of cooking”.

Is this convincing? I believe most people would be disappointed to hear the chef make this statement. The food may be indistinguishable from food prepared by hand, but that is not the point. We want to know that someone has put care and attention into the preparation of the food. We enjoy human creations that are produced with skill. With each step of automation, we lose an essential part of the human touch. This reduces the overall artistic quality of the end result. As Denis Dutton (2010) puts it, “We find beauty in something done well”.

I suggest that the same is true of a DJ mixset. The end result of a computer synced mixset may be the same (perhaps even better) than the manually mixed set. However, allowing a computer to take over an element of production that would otherwise require human skill ultimately reduces the artistic merit of the end product.

There is no doubt that technology has had a huge impact on the art of the DJ. Where DJs once played vinyl records on turntables, they now bring in laptops that contain immense music collections and perform by either interfacing with traditional DJ technology or by using midi-controllers. The benefits of software are huge. DJs have access to instant overviews of track structure through detailed waveform display, they can loop or sample sections of songs for greater creativity, and they can rapidly search music libraries for obscure tracks on the spur of the moment. However, this technology comes at a cost. The ability to auto-sync tracks renders obsolete one of the crucial elements of the DJ skill-set. This manual craft was time-consuming, but it took skill and attention to detail. Listening to a manually mixed set is a wonderful experience. You see the DJ putting in the effort to bring the end result to the audience. You can even hear his work as tracks sometimes drift slightly out of sync and are then corrected. This is part of the artistic merit of the mixset. People like to see performers who exhibit skill. Automating part of the mixing process results in an overall reduction of the artistic merit of the end product. We are human. We like to watch human artists at work.

Brewster, Bill & Broughton, Frank. (1999). Last Night A DJ Saved My Life, London, Headline Book Pub, 1999

Dutton, Denis. (2010). The Art Instinct, Bloomsbury Press; First Edition Thus edition, 2010

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