Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Final Paper

DJing in the Digital Era

The History

The phonograph cylinder, invented in 1877 by Thomas Edison, was the first

medium that allowed people to record a sound and then play it over as many times as

they wanted. In 1906 the first record was played on air for the first time in history.

Walter Winchell was the person responsible for the introduction of the term disc

jockey in 1935. People from that point on started to develop new needs of

entertainment, and so they started to gather in certain places called ‘jook’ houses to

listen to music. The term probably derived from the jukebox that they had to play


The popularity of jazz music in the 1940’s brought along the first jazz events

or parties, which were very underground and only the chosen few had access to them.

As years went by, dances became an increasingly common phenomenon even at

schools. Due to the lack of proper technology and hardware though the sound quality

and level in those events were very limited. It was in Jamaica, where people first

started using powerful sound systems, thus setting the foundation, on which modern

parties were built.

The 60’s brought the discotheques and the introduction of the first reliable

mixer: the CMA-10-2DL. In 1970 Francis Grasso came up with a technique called

‘slip-cueing’ that would be later on developed into the current form of DJing. This

enabled DJs to avoid pauses in between the songs and as a result the so called non-

stop mix was discovered. He was also the one to start using headphones to be able to

actually listen to the second song that he was going to mix in. It was the dawn of the

“beat matching” technique used by almost every DJ nowadays.

Shortly after, the first 12’ vinyls were released, thus allowing party-goers to

enjoy many more hours listening to their favorite music, because the songs were much

longer now and with a lot greater quality. 1974 was a benchmark for all DJs. Technics

released the SL-1200 turntables, which is considered an industry standard up until

today. Hip-hop music broke out and with it a whole cultural movement of DJs, MCs,

graffiti and breakdancing. Kraftwerk then introduced a new genre, mainly

consisting of repetitive beats and looped parts, that would later on develop into the

electronic music as we know it today.

The 70’s were undoubtedly the disco decade though. Disco was played at the

most prestigious nightclubs all over the world and it greatly influenced every other

genre (see figure 1). With it came all the aspects that dominate the dance scene all

those years: drugs, alcohol, dancing, smoking, excessive lighting etc. At that point

both the DJs and the hardware they used were at a very good level to keep a party

going in an unstoppable rhythm until the first morning hours.

Figure 1

Furthermore, in the 80’s disco evolved into something more electronic and

slightly monotonous called House/ Techno music. By that time DJ hardware was

much more affordable to ordinary people both for producing music but also for

playing it live in front of a crowd. Several scenes were formed, with the most popular

being the Chicago House and the Detroit Techno. DJs started to use even more

sophisticated hardware and they also started paying attention to technique and not

only song selection.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s Acid House and later on Rave took control over

the global dance scene. Parties that where full of newly invented drugs like LSD and

ecstasy, and also huge amounts of alcohol were the trademarks of that era. The DJ

became a key figure with the goal of taking the crowds on a journey. This is the point

where DJs really started to use their music to move the audience accordingly.

From that point on followed the digitization of the scene. Laptop DJs,

controllers, USB flash drives or MP3s instead of CDs or vinyls, and Internet radio

stations are the results of that.

The Turntable Phenomenon

The History of DJing is a history of remediation like in every other medium.

The 90’s and the early 00’s were a transitional period, in the sense that DJs used

mainly CDs, and vinyls started becoming gradually extinct. Of course they exist

up until today, and there are many that still use them. That is mostly due to the

“warm” sound that they produce and the unique feeling that DJing with vinyl offers.

It is much more challenging as well, as the technique is more demanding than that of

DJing with CDs.

However, in terms of convenience vinyls are considerably outdated. Their

capacity is nowhere near that of CDs, not to mention flash drives or hard drives. They

take significantly more space in a bag, they are heavier and they are much more

sensitive to scratches on their surface. Even turntables (see figure 2), which are

professional DJ vinyl players used mostly in clubs, are much bigger than DJ CD

players. In other words, both vinyls and the hardware used to play them are

inconvenient in terms of size.

There are many supporters of the vinyl nowadays that refuse to switch to any

other storage form, completely ignoring capacity and sensitivity limitations that vinyls

pose. It is also much harder nowadays to find new songs in vinyl form, and I can only

imagine what the price for that would be. Turntables themselves are much more

fragile in regards to certain parts of them too. The needle for example, is always

something that can cause major damage to vinyls if not used with extreme caution.

Nowadays, turntables and vinyls are used mostly by really experienced and non-

conformist DJs.

Figure 2

CD Mania

The need for a more portable and convenient means of playback and storage

led DJs to CDs. This was a major breakthrough, as it can be considered the dawn of

the digital era. Much clearer and more solid digital sound, small size enabling greater

portability, double capacity compared to vinyls, the option to burn your own tracks

into recordable CDs when CD recorders came out, and also a more durable

construction were some of the characteristics that made CDs so popular and

revolutionary, especially among DJs.

Even before the appearance of the Internet, which completely restructured the

music industry, all those aspects of CDs were enough to attract a lot of crowd to them.

As with every new medium, companies at first were very skeptical and not sure if this

new product would be a success. Record labels began releasing albums in CD format,

as a luxury product at first. Their main target remained vinyl and cassette customers.

Demand was very low then and people needed a certain amount of time to get

accustomed to how this new invention worked.

In addition, there were also practical problems as well. Customers were not

familiar with the use of CD players. Digital screens suddenly appeared, “Display”

buttons were introduced, and as fancy as they were, people were baffled. We are

creatures of habit, and when something happens that is out of the ordinary, we need a

certain amount of time to adjust to the new conditions.

All these considerations were applicable to DJ hardware as well. The turn in

the music industry had a major impact on DJs. If CDs were popular and all the latest

music came out in that format, then they would have to adopt it too. This created the

need for new professional CD players that would be used in clubs or any other type of


What’s more, the first DJ CD players were relatively simple, with not many

modern day abilities such as loops, effects, scratch functions etc. More modern

models like Pioneer’s CDJ-1000 for example (see figure 3), which is an industry

standard, are remarkably successful in demonstrating an astonishing range of features.

The concept of remediation in new media creation comes back once again in this

process, as DJ CD players imitated and still imitate all the basic functions of vinyl


Figure 3

The circular wheel in the middle of the player is called the “jog wheel” and it

is used to temporarily fast forward or rewind the track to make its beat match with the

beat of the track that is already playing. It functions exactly like fast forwarding or

rewinding the record on a turntable. The silver switch at the bottom right corner is the

tempo controller and it permanently changes the tempo of the song, if you choose to

do so. The tempo controller was a fundamental characteristic of turntables, and it is

interesting to see how even the position of the switch remained unchanged compared

to the turntable equivalent.

The blue lighted switch above the tempo controller enables you to switch

between two different options as far as the “jog wheel” goes: Vinyl and CD. This

changes the way the jog wheel responds. In vinyl mode you can use the jog wheel to

produce all those “scratch” sounds that Hip Hop DJs use, whereas most DJs use the

conventional CD mode.

As imitative as CD players in general and the CDJ-1000 in particular might

be, they have introduced a plethora of stunning new features that have radically

reformed DJing of any kind. Loop functions, effects and the ability to modify them by

changing certain parameters like depth, reverb etc., play button response time,

samplers (function that enables you to record and save part of a song in real time and

reproduce it at any given point), MP3 playback, and an almost infinite range of

options have redefined the role of the DJ.

Worth mentioning also is how Pioneer’s CDJ-1000 was one of the first players

to allow USB playback, thus acting as the predecessor to purely software based

DJing. Portability was enhanced even more, as DJs could now bring any type of

external storage device, from a simple flash drive to an external hard disk, plug it into

the USB port and browse through different files and folders via the browsing buttons

and the digital colored screen at the top of the player.

Later models, like the DVJ-1000, gave DJs the chance to control sound and

vision at the same time. That specific model allowed DVD playback as well, letting

DJs mix video clips projected into huge screens in clubs, simultaneously while

mixing music. The DJ became the ultimate master of the club in this way, and those

devices had started transforming into a kind of meta-medium, whose abilities were

simply unimaginable.

The concept of authenticity is something that is profoundly prevalent in new

media. There is a certain debate over whether there is any originality at all nowadays,

or what we simply face is just a slight modification of pre-existing forms. I would say

that the truth lies somewhere in between. There never was and never will be pure

unadulterated originality. There always will be a certain “borrowing” of

characteristics from older concepts.

However, DJ CD Players are a very representative example of my point.

Although there was an undoubted remediation in their invention (imitating turntable

functions), they definitely offered new potential to the DJing industry, that then newer

forms of media, like DJing software programs, borrowed to establish their own

remediated existence in the media universe.

Like any other form of new media, they too are characterized by variability,

which somewhat enhances their originality. There are many different versions of

them. None is identical to the other. Their modification options are seemingly infinite.

“A new media object is not something fixed once and for all, but something that can

exist in different, potentially infinite versions. This is another example of the

numerical coding of media and the modular structure of a media object” (Manovich


Laptops everywhere

The PC and Internet era has influenced every aspect of contemporary world as

we know it, and of course the DJing industry would not be able to avoid that. The

immense popularity and use of the PC, especially after the beginning of the new

millennium, and the increasing technological literacy of all individuals helped create a

new sub-category of DJs, the so called laptop DJs. Companies realized a need for

even greater portability, possibly even eliminating the necessity to carry anything

physical in terms of records or CDs.

The introduction of a new format, the MP3, which is a digital audio encoding

format using a form of lossy data compression, enabled DJs to fit even more tracks

into their hard drives, without great compromises in quality. This was a major

breakthrough, as MP3s became the first globally accepted digital audio format that

would play on every program or player regardless of brand or model.

It was time for the next step. Up until that point DJs needed too much

equipment to perform live. Two CD Players, one mixer, and many CD bags was an

everyday situation. Of course, most of the time CD Players and mixers would be

provided by the venue itself, but those CD bags were still a heavy burden.

The introduction of the first DJ software programs was followed by a huge outcry of

hostility. People opposed to the notion of software DJing, claiming that it takes the

feeling away, making the whole process more automatized. “The numerical coding of

media and the modular structure of a media object allow for the automation of many

operations involved in media creation, manipulation, and access. Thus human

intentionality can be removed from the creative process, at least in part” (Manovich


However, even today there are many so called “hardcore” DJs, that still

stubbornly refuse to conform to this new trend in the industry, continuing to even use

vinyls. An abundance of programs with different functions, interfaces and purposes

were soon released to fit the requirements of every customer. The most popular were:

Virtual DJ, Traktor, Ableton, Mixmeister and Serato. The level of expertise and the needs are

what determines the decision of the DJ in choosing between those platforms.

Virtual DJ (see figure 4) is probably the best selling, mostly because of its user

friendly and easy to learn interface, and also because of the fact that it can be used as

a standalone program to mix, without any additional external devices or controllers.

Once again the interface resembles something that is already familiar to users, and

that is a virtual representation of 2 turntables and a mixer, or CD players and a mixer

(depending on the skin you have chosen).

It adds a lot more to the whole experience though. Users are now able to see a

graphical representation of the song in the silver bar, right above each deck. In this

way they can observe various things about a track, such as where the first break is, or

where a small undesired break is, that would completely ruin your mixing etc. They

can also easily select various effects to add to a song, and very quickly browse

through their music folders, using the program’s search engine.

Figure 4

Furthermore, external DJ controllers can be connected to laptops, giving in

this way the ability to control the program in a more realistic way. Controllers are

identical to mixers, having the same knobs, faders, equalizers and switches. The DJ

loads a track into the program, sees its waveform and uses their headphones to

determine at which part they are going to mix it in, and then uses the mixer/controller

to turn up the volume, adjust the frequencies, cut lows etc.

This constitutes an intermediate stage between CD and laptop DJing, as it

combines the physical aspect of using a mixer, but without the “disadvantage” of

having to burn tracks into CDs. This requires of course a very heavily built laptop,

that will be able to run the program without malfunctions, pauses and crashes, that

would ruin the entire DJ set.

CDs became dispensable. Those who were obsessed with vinyl still are and

will never move toward laptop DJing. Few people though were fans of CDs, and

especially in the DJing field. As a result, all those switched to laptop DJing. The

ability to be able to load songs into a program from either your hard drive, a flash

drive, or an external hard disk is something that radically revolutionized the whole

process, making it more global. The immense expansion of the Internet throughout the

world, made the search for new music something that could be achieved within

seconds. All DJs needed was a laptop, a fast connection and a credit card, and they

could entirely update their collection in a few hours.

Reflectivity in DJ software, to use Bolter and Gromala’s terms, was essential

to make it easily understood and to prevent the user from having to deal with how the

interface works, rather than what they want it to do. “Usability testing is meant to

uncover those aspects of the interface that confuse, frustrate, or otherwise fail the

user. Traditional usability testing looks for the limits of transparency. It reveals those

moments when the user must think about, and occupy herself with, the interface. To

usability experts, such moments always indicate mistakes in the design” (Bolter &

Gromala 74). Therefore, one could say that a Designer rather than a Structuralist

world view was implemented in the design of DJ software. People were supposed to

look at the interface and not through it.

The digital era brought revolutionary developments not only in the field of

mixing software but in the field of music production software as well. Programs like

Sony Acid Pro (see figure 5), Ableton and Cubase gave users the ability to create their

own personal songs, and even do live remixing, by offering them a variety of sounds,

loops, effects, beats and melodies in an embedded database in the program. The

extensive support for those programs on the Internet allowed people to go online and

find additional plugins or even whole databases, that would enhance their range of

features even further.

Figure 5

The popularity of that type of programs, especially nowadays that every song

is produced with the use of digital technology, contributed greatly to the originality

aspect of the DJing and music field. Although the sounds are predefined, a great

amount of authenticity lies in the way the user is going to combine them, thus making

a creation that will have a distinct identity and will not sound imitative. The ability to

connect external devices, like synthesizers for example, to create sounds and melodies

from scratch, and then insert those elements into the program, or even upload them on

the Internet for others to use, adequately demonstrates the vast range of attributes that

those applications have.

A society of interconnected DJs has been formed in this way. They share

experiences, give tips on problematic or malfunctioning aspects of those programs,

upload tutorial videos, or even go to the extent of presenting the whole production

process, from the first moment an idea was put into notes, to the mastering stage.

Digital MP3 Stores and Internet Radio Stations

Music is the most fundamental element in DJing. The radical expansion and

use of the Internet and the digitization of anything related to the music industry, has

profoundly altered the way DJs search and buy new music. CD or vinyl stores tend

to become extinct, at least in their physical form, meaning the building where the

customer would go and pick something that they find interesting. Most of the song

searching process takes place in the cyber world, where the so called MP3 stores,

allow customers to purchase new tracks, by simply using their credit or debit card

from the convenience of their home.

At this point, the concept of the significance of the database comes into play,

as these sites are nothing more than databases of songs with a very well designed

search engine, which enables customers to find songs by artist name, song title, genre

etc. “In computer science, database is defined as a structured collection of data. The

data stored in a database is organized for fast search and retrieval by a computer and

therefore, it is anything but a simple collection of items” (Manovich 218). The

interface includes a lot of concepts that are associated with shopping in its

conventional form (see figure 6).

“The shopping cart”, in which you put all the songs that you would like to

purchase, and “My Account” where all your details are stored, as far as your credit

card and personal details go, are features that in a way make online music shopping a

more “intimate” process, giving it a sense of homeliness. The usability of the interface

in those sites is critical. If users are not able to locate easily what they are looking for,

and they get lost in a maze of non-user friendly functions, they will get turned off and

will use some other site. This explains once again, why web designers resort to the

implementation of traditional terminology to convey the functions of certain options

on the Internet.

Figure 6

What’s more, online music shopping has abolished boundaries of time and

space in music purchases. Not only it entails almost instantaneous music downloading

but it also gives you the option of receiving song recommendations, according to

your recent purchases. From charts and top tens all the way to filtering what songs

will appear on your screen, so that they match your personal preferences. Subscribing

to those sites enables you to receive notifications about special offers such as

discounts in certain compilations or announcements about release dates of new


On the other hand, the dominance of digital stores has certainly contributed

greatly to a dramatic increase in piracy. The appearance of such servers as rapidshare,

sendspace and megaupload where you can upload any type of file, with a certain size

limit, made the illegal circulation of songs on the Internet a very common

phenomenon. The worst part about it, is that it can be done so easily and it is so

difficult to fight. MP3 stores have repeatedly tried to counter that by introduction of

special offers, reductions in prices, or even by forcing the government to take

measures against it, but the vast nature of piracy on the Internet makes the whole

effort almost unviable.

Internet radio stations (see figure 7), are another part of how digital

technology has transformed DJing in the modern era.

Figure 7

The introduction of exclusively Internet based radio stations on the one hand, and on

the other hand conventional FM stations that offer online streaming as well, has

globalized the music scene regardless of genre or audience. Broadcast of shows

from distant countries, either in live or pre-recorded form (depending on the show and

the time zone), and also the ability to download them afterwards and save them in any

storage device is what has constituted Internet radio as such a powerful and pervasive


It is interesting though how Web radios are not necessarily imitative in terms

of their interface. You do not see any virtual radio tuners that you have to turn, in

order to switch between different stations, or any other function that resembles

traditional radio. That is probably because an even simpler interface was

implemented, meaning clicking on the player with which you are most accustomed.

The Conclusion

Technology has extensively restructured the contemporary music and DJ

industry. There are many supporters of it, and many who ferociously express their

opposition, claiming that it atrophies originality and creativity. I would say that it

relies mainly on the user, and how they are going to take advantage of that

technology. It is very easy to make a DJ software program synchronize two tracks.

But the real challenge lies on doing it yourself.

Technology is there to make our lives easier. The word “easier” though is

very subjective and ambiguous. Easier to one DJ may be only to not have to carry

CDs with them, to some other though it might be the “synchronize” function, because

they do not know how to do this themselves. Either way, it is completely dependent

upon the expertise and level of competency of the user, and nobody can argue that the

use of software is going to slowly lead to the death of this profession.

In conclusion, as stated earlier, people need time to adjust to changes. Maybe

in 30 years from now the next generation of DJs will not be able to imagine that there

were once people, who actually used hardware to mix, because the norm will be

different then. However, open-mindedness is a central characteristic for those that

aspire to, even superficially, engage themselves in new media.

Interesting Links










  1. As we move further into the future and are faced with progress it becomes inevitable to conform to the new or remediations of media. In the example that Alex talks about being 'Hardware' DJs, it makes me think of the many late adopters that take up Facebook, or other forms of social media. Progress doesn't stop and the only constant in our world is change.

  2. Yes, that was exactly my point. There are many people that simply refuse to conform, thinking that adopting technological means would constitute them as less competent. Although I do see a certain point in this approach, meaning how creativity is greatly reduced by the severe automatization every form of technology brings along, I definitely think technology can be used in productive ways too, like I stated in my paper. It is just a different form of creativity maybe. Maybe we are not able yet, being in a transitional period between old and new media and utilizing both, to label a new form of creativity as creativity. Maybe we are just thinking in traditional terms. There sure is a lot of remediation and automatization, but there is also a vast range of features, especially when it comes to DJing, that today's DJs can take advantage of to make their creations more original.

  3. As an amateur DJ myself I can definitely say that DJing has become more and more accessible but what many garage DJ's forget is the rich history behind their hobby, like my chosen topic,Videogames, it has evolved far beyond whatever it originally started out as.

    Also nice pic Alex,you just get out of the pen?

  4. Ya man, but I didn't drop the soap,if that's what you were thinking.

  5. It is mind blowing to think how the world of media and especially new media has evolved. I agree with Zoe that the only constant in our lives is change. I found this interesting because I have never really thought about djing and what it entails.

  6. I mentioned the hassle of carrying around equipment and CDs and how new media has solved those problems in my paper. Being a DJ used to be such a tough business to get into because all that equipment and music was expensive to acquire. Now the need for all that equipment is no more. You still have to purchase the music, unless your a pirate, but all you need is a computer and software to be a DJ. I understand where your coming from Alex, you're a real purist. But for a guy like me who always wanted to get out there and DJ, it is so much easier now that new media is around. However, I opted to purchase the external USB mixer board with my DJ software because I too am a member of the old school. The interface for some DJ software is great but there is no comparison when your turning those knobs and pushing those buttons yourself as opposed to clicking a mouse.

  7. Yeah, I see your point Kenny. You lose the feel if you use software. But on the other hand, it really depends on what you were brought up with. I would say that I am caught somewhere in between. Sometimes I just love how software has made my life so much easier, but sometimes, as masochistic as that may sound, I like carrying my CDs with me because that is part of the whole experience. It does not feel right without it. It is as if you are used to being the cook and always preparing your own meals, and all of a sudden somebody else starts making food for you. At first you are going to say "This is great, one less thing to worry about". But if you really enjoy cooking, at some point it is going to feel awkward and you will want to start doing your own meals again.

  8. Alex your paper was right on point. Because of the computer it helped many people become deejays. For example me. I'm a on campus deejay I don't have any turntables, no mixers, or anything. All I have is my computer and the virtual deejay 6.0 program. I only cost me 6o bucks, and I'll been deejaying events effectively and with a cool virtual style to it. I really enjoyed how you talk about the transition from actual turntables to the virtual interface of the turntables being projecting into the screen. Great Job. Virtual DeeJay Rocks.

  9. Thanx Rich. Having learnt about remediation in the class, made me realize how the evolution of DJing, and every form of new media in general, is based on that principle. It is very safe in every new form of media to incorporate characteristics from older forms, because the adjustment of people to it is much easier this way.

  10. The evolution of DJing is a topic that highly interest me. In writing this paper, you have given me a broader understanding how new media can take an old profession and give it new life. It is amazing how when DJing first started the staple was two turntables and a mic, and now all DJ's dont go anywhere without a laptop because most tasks can be done with that simple tool. Many sounds that Dj's use are electronic based and this is just another example about how the DJ game has changed so much. There are different applications that they use to make various beats and tunes, when originally the only sounds made were the scratching on the turntables. Dj's first originated on the rap scene but now for every different kind of music there is a different kind of DJ. Just as music genre is ever evolving the DJ profession is not far behind.

  11. Very true Rina. Remixing is related to what you said. You take certain parts of the original, you modify various parameters, change the melody slightly, or apply effects or additional sounds to it, and you have a remix of the song. It is like a cover to talk in traditional terms. The interesting thing though is that some remixes do not resemble the original at all. Which is I think a very good example of the vast range of features that those programs offer.

  12. I learned alot in this paper...very informative. I realized that even watching and listening to different dj's you realize that some are doing more work than others. Transitions seem to be smoother and the music is more of a variety. Its very cool to see "the art" of the dj.

  13. That is true. Software has enabled less competent DJs to not show that they are not good enough.