DJing in the Digital Era
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.
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-
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.