The Sync Button

Pioneer dropped a bombshell this week with their announcement of the CDJ-2000nexus. Well, it’s not so much of a bombshell to the rest of us who have been dJing with Ableton Live, Serato or Traktor for years now, but for the more traditional DJs it was. The traditional DJ has been put on watch so to speak. Actually, in their minds they have been. So what’s the bombshell? The sync button.

Yup. The sync button. It’s the “auto-dj” feature. It’s exactly what wannabe DJs like Paris Hilton have been wanting for years now.  On the laptop DJ side of the world you heard crickets chirping about the CDJ-2000nexus with the exception of some drool over wireless capabilities and the thought of hauling around just an iPod with tracks. There were a brave few who thought that it would be wise to venture forth and defend the existence of a sync button on a CDJ.

It all comes back to the same debate we’ve been having now since Final Scratch first hit the market: What exactly is DJing?

Is DJing the art of lining up two or more tracks of audio so they do not rhythmically clash with each other? Is it the art of playing the right track at the right time? Is it the act of making your audience happy? What is it?

There is the argument that in the end, it’s just a matter of making sure that those who pay the bills are happy. This means that the DJ gets paid AND invited back to do it again. It looks great on paper and if he is really doing his job right, it looks great in a photograph as well. The money aspect cannot be ignored, but just making money doesn’t make you a DJ. Not keep a crowd happy though is a sure sign that you are not a DJ.

The meat of the argument is whether or not beatmatching is a step, a skill or THE art. The traditional DJ argues that it is both an art and a skill. What’s funny about the argument is that on one hand it’s presented as something that only a masterful DJ can truly well… master, but on the other it’s a skill that’s dead easy to learn and everybody should be able to pick it up. I hate to get political, but it’s about like how people argued that President George W. Bush was a moron while at the same time arguing that he was a political genius.  The truth is in the details. If it is something that everyone can learn, something that is easy… it’s a basic skill, much like walking. There can be no high art in that. If there are any DJs out there that truly believe that lining tracks up so they don’t sound like shoes in a dryer is the main thing DJs do in their craft, I haven’t met them. I’ll even take it a step further, they’re not DJs.

Scratching, there’s skill in that. There’s also an art. We’re talking about truly turning a record player into a musical instrument with the aid of a mixer. The DJ plays back small samples of a record over a bed track playing on another deck. These samples aren’t just one shots, they’re mixed in. They’re chopped up. They’re in time and they groove. It’s an art form.

Basic EQ mixing is again a skill and an art. It builds on the skill of beatmatching and harmonic mixing, but now you’re sculpting the sound from two or more decks so that only certain frequencies from each shine through. A kick from deck A. The hats from deck C. The baseline from deck B. There’s not just skill, but art involved in that.

I could go on, but there’s no point. Beatmatching is a basic skill. A cornerstone maybe, but the addition of a sync button to a CDJ is not the end of DJing as we know it. After all, you don’t have to use it.

Chris “deeflash” Reiche said it best today on Facebook:

“Basically, what’s the role of the DJ? To provide an atmosphere for the crowd to have a good time. Beat matching is a tool or skill that helps with making sure tracks flow together to create a journey for the crowd. When it comes down to it, does the crowd feel cheated out of their $10-$50 cover because the DJ used beat sync? Most of them don’t care. It’s DJs with an elitist attitude that think because they spent time learning a skill that is now becoming not necessary to help a crowd enjoy their night they’re better than someone who doesn’t need that skill to do their job. Do you have more respect for a waiter who doesn’t use a tray to bring you your food because that’s dumbing down waiting on tables?”

Times have been changing. Just about ten years ago, using CDJs was considered cheating. About the same time, so were BPM counters – not that they were all that accurate. Look at where we are now. The DJ World Championship is now allowing Digital Vinyl Systems. Hello? Granted, midi controllers are not allowed yet or any effects, but times are changing and keyboard commands are allowed. The team competition even allows midi controllers. Want proof? Here are the rules.

Beatmatching is a basic skill. In the evolution of technology, it becomes a function. Functions eventually become buttons and then those who used to do it the old way are forced to evolve or die. This isn’t the end of beatmatching. It isn’t even an issue for those of us who have moved on. We’re fine if you want to beatmatch. We think it’s kinda cute. We just believe that we could better use that time to line up our next track, to focus more on our mix, to get the perfect loop and to put that smile on the pretty girl-up-front’s face.