March 20, 2012 § Leave a comment
Numark iDJ Live
Last week I became slightly obsessed with finding a DJ control surface for the iPad. There was a possibility of hotel party on the weekend and I didn’t want to bring a computer or DJ rig.. but I really wanted to bring some music. The iPad itself is not an ideal dj interface; the lack of tactile control ruins the fun for me. Now you’d imagine that within the prolific world of DJ applications there might be more hardware controllers on the market for iPad use. But most developers have focused on the application side of the experience rather than the hardware.. and there’s really not much out there besides this piece of hardware designed by Numark that works with Algoriddm’s popular Djay iOS application. So I gave it a shot.. what the heck, right? Sam Ash has a 30 day return policy. But you know what? After a week of playing with this thing, I don’t think it’s going back.
Now I feel the best way to approach this mini-review is in Top-Gear style (if you’ve never seen Top Gear, they have what I’d call a reverse complement-sandwich approach) where I’ll begin with where this device falls short and why you’d never want to use it for a pro gig. I really didn’t think that I would like this device for the sake of it’s DJ-Hero style design and immediately upon opening the box I realized this interface lacked many features that I take for granted in other dj setups.
The initial groans happened when I realized that the headphone / monitor functionality of this program/device happens via a simple 1/8th inch stereo to mono splitter cable. This means you must run a mono output if you want to use monitor headphones. In addition there’s no headphone volume on the iDJ Live (a splitter cable gives you the headphone output). After playing around with the output options on different stereos I concluded that I could not deal with the sound of this split/mono signal. Some modern house tracks seemed to phase into the abyss without the stereo field. The next issue I found was that the EQ works fairly well but there’s no mid-band EQ, only Hi and Low (mid exists in the Djay app but not on the interface). The third thing I realized about iDj Live was – no pitch faders. The pitch faders do exist within the Djay application but they are therefore on your iPad – not the place where I want to find them. Upon realizing this I thought – well the sync better work.
And here comes the good news. The Djay application is actually a well-designed app that has been finessed to give you the feel of working with vinyl. The BPM detection and sync functionality are actually really good. Djay misread the tempo on a few of my tracks but for the most part it could detect and match the BPM of most house tracks I ran through it along with some dub, bass, techno and electro. Now an interesting thing about the sync feature is that it doesn’t seem to work the same way that Traktor does with Beat Grids. It does detect a Beat Grid, and to some extent it reads the timing / phrase. But it’s not always accurate. Strangely, this is part of why I started to like this device.
While Djay offers a beat-matching functionality, it’s not perfect and therefore you have to pay attention to the mix and adjust things as you go. With Djay and the iDJ Live I found I had JUST ENOUGH control over the mix that I could keep it running for a good three or four minutes. There are four buttons (two for each deck) at the top of iDJ Live and I found that a quick press in either direction could nudge a track back into the mix fairly easily. The platters on the device are actually a lot of fun in Scratch Mode, but be sure to switch modes when you’re using the EQ because a small bump can skip your record. I can forgive this because the scratch function is tactile and accurate. I found that I could drop a beat into a mix by hand and quickly get things in sync with minor adjustments.
As a DJ who came up on 1200s and CDJs, I like beat matching. I believe this love has a lot to do with the meditative side of the DJ experience. It also provides the gratification of training your ears and timing. When I am IN the mix I find more spontaneity in my mixing and choice of music. When I’ve used Traktor I find that my mixing is often very structured and when the Sync button is depressed I get incredibly bored with the DJ experience. With the iDj Live and Djay app, two things happened that made me enjoy the experience. First, I had to ride the mix a bit (even with sync being used) and the control experience of the platters reminded me of turntables. Second, I got away from my computer. I spend far too much time in front of a computer monitor and I’m eager to get away at any chance. The iPad is not exactly getting away from the computer but it’s different enough (and small enough) to make it feel like a different experience. Add to this the tactile control for scrolling through your music library with the Numark hardware, and it just feels better than a laptop.
One benefit of using the iPad as your music source is that you must decide what to put on it. By limiting my music selection to whatever fits on the iPad there is a back-to-roots sort of thing happening. It used to be that you had to fit ALL your music into one or two bags for a performance and you’d practice with those tracks. Today there is endless possibility for selection when you have a 3TB hard drive and I find that a lot of DJs don’t take time to create a flow with their mixes. I’ve always felt that art is best created with limits, and DJing is no exception. I’ve recently found a nice workflow of dumping all my new tracks onto the iPad and then later using the iPad and iDJ to sift through the music and find mixes. For some reason the experience is much more gratifying than dropping tracks into Ableton or Traktor. Being away from the computer allows me to listen differently and I can discern which tracks need to stay in the collection and which can go.
Currently iDj Live sits on a small shelf in my living room with the iPad plugged into a small Bose portable speaker. It sounds nice when the levels are set at 50% – just loud enough to rock out but soft enough to not bother the neighbors. I don’t use the splitter cable nor do I use headphones for mixing with this unit. I find that the waveform display allows me to cue up a track visually while using the platters and the bpm sync is usually close enough to drop the track in and use the + and – buttons to get things running in sync. The EQ is not extensive but if I find tracks that work together in this sort of setup they are guaranteed to work together in a pro format. And that’s part of the point of all of this. When I play professional gigs I’ll most likely use 1200s, CDJs, and possibly Serato/Traktor. But I don’t have room for a massive digital DJ setup in my house (and I’d rather spend that money on synths these days). I’ve been looking for a solution to this dilema and for $80, the iDJ Live seems to be working fairly well. It’s small, light, easy to use and a lot of fun to have sitting around for spontaneous mix sessions. I look forward to future updates of Djay as well. Algoriddm seems to be doing great things with this program.
Ps, Did I mention that my 14 month old LOVES it?