By Stu Chisholm
“Satori” is a Buddhist/Japanese word that means “sudden enlightenment,” or what we might think of as a “lightbulb moment.” Mine came during the late ‘70s when I was playing with my girlfriend’s stereo. It was one of those old all-in-one jobs that had an FM tuner, turntable, an 8-track and an aux line that I plugged a cassette deck into. I was basically goofing off one day, putting on different tunes on each sound source. By sheer accident, when I flipped from FM to turntable, the songs matched beat-on-beat. When I flipped to the 8-track – same thing! Then I flipped to the cassette… and came in on beat again! At that stage, I had yet to play my first gig and knew nothing of BPM (Beats Per Minute) or mixing. That “satori” moment was my first clue.
Understanding the concept and execution, at the time, were two completely different prospects! I had only the vaguest idea, given my past history as a drummer, of melding beat structures between records. The equipment at the time, lacking many features we now take for granted, such as instant start, tempo lock, pitch controls, etc., seemed to work against me. Finessing a cassette tape to start on beat was truly an art! But a transformative moment was soon to appear which would change my sound for good.
Years before I had stood in line at “THE” big electronics store near my home in Ferndale, Michigan. I went to see the first home video cassette deck, the Sony U-Matic. While it was stunning at the time (as was the price tag), I also noticed a huge gathering in the audio department and decided to take a look. It was there that the Technics people had come to Michigan to unveil their new direct drive turntables: the SP-10 and forerunner to the infamous 1200. That, too, was stunning. So when I had the opportunity to grab a pair over a decade later, in 1985, I jumped on it! A slip mat, high torque and pitch control made beat-on-beat mixing a breeze and transformed my sound forever.
It was also around that time that I learned how to calculate the actual BPM manually using a stopwatch. Having a fixed number to slap onto a record jacket or into a computer database made finding everything within a certain BPM range easy. Once again, my sound improved. (By the way, to this day I do my BPMs manually, as Serato and other programs aren’t drum-savvy and often miscalculate actual BPMs. This is why some DJs notice that some ballads look faster than a dance track!) Precise control combined with good information further refined my sound. I was one of the very first DJs to incorporate nightclub-style mixing at wedding receptions all due to these advents! The arrival of the instant start, pitch-controllable CD player carried over these improvements to the (then) new medium.
OLD DOG, NEW TRICKS?
Much of my improvement over the years that followed was more about the mastery of my mixing skills. Making aerobic dance tracks for studios, cobbling together mashups before there was a name for them, and incorporating drum machine sounds were all, part and parcel, the judicious use of BPMs. Even after the arrival of decent sounding digital files, decent software to play them with and fast computers, the game was the same. Until now.
The bane of every DJ’s existence is arriving at your bar job or mobile gig and being slammed for a song you’ve never heard of or don’t happen to have. Some of us incorporated things like iTunes into our playback computers in order to buy such a track “on the fly,” but this could get tricky; you don’t need your playback computer’s processor getting balky while trying to download a track, or “bing-bongs” going off while your Apple software asks if you want to update. Or things like YouTube or Spotify playing ads. Overcoming this, a track you’re unfamiliar with might also contain some “objectionable material” that you might not see coming until it’s too late. So we all found our various work-arounds, occasionally simply telling a requestor, “Sorry, I don’t have that one.” And if you’re like me, it grated every time.
Help has finally arrived in the form of TIDAL, a streaming service for professionals. For around ten bucks a month, you can add TIDAL to your Serato or Virtual DJ software and instantly pluck almost any track right out of the sky! The sound quality is amazingly good. All you need is a Wi-Fi connection. While you can ask each venue for their password, I have most often opted to use my phone as a mobile hotspot. The results have been consistently good, even in areas where regular Wi-Fi is unavailable. TIDAL is optimal for those tracks that you’ll only play once and never need again, or for the odd request that you never anticipated. The selection is stunning! When I first subscribed, I spent over an hour trying to stump their playlist, and was delighted to fail!
BUT WAIT… THERE’S MORE!
If you haven’t been paying attention lately, then you might’ve missed the buzz about Crate Hackers, a subscription service that literally puts the collective wisdom of the industry’s top DJs from every sector at your fingertips. For instance, try as we might, it’s hard to keep up on every music genre. What happens when you arrive at your mobile gig and find that your crowd wants to hear some tribal EDM? Or Country? Or [insert genre you’re completely ignorant of]? This is precisely where Crate Hackers comes in! You can download the actual virtual crates from superstar DJs who specialize in these events, plus take advantage of the uploaded crates and mixes of the thousands of members like yourself. Crates even include each DJ’s specific version used, ins and outs and order to play. No matter what the music style you’re asked for, Crate Hackers can make you sound like an expert!
Another benefit of membership are the weekly online “Hack-A-Thons” where members can check out performances and collaborate, various online events that let you be a virtual guest at a world-class DJ’s party, and various workshops and forums. All of these are time well-spent, and as far as the cost is concerned, I’ve spent a whole lot more on things that didn’t help me out half as much! This is one write-off you’ll be happy to have.
And they WILL transform your show… perhaps in a very big way. Until next time, safe spinnin’!