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The Final Funk Fronteir Falls with Final Scratch

Bruce Gillespie
30th October 2002

For those who have not been exposed to dance culture, it comes as a shock that most DJ's still prefer ‘old fashioned' LP/records, more commonly known amongst those who ply that trade as simply ‘Vinyl'. Why does anyone bother now with those large plastic platters that have a limited life span not too mention bulk and sometimes dubious audio quality?

The truth is that all real DJ's are in love with vinyl - the flat plastic platter as a medium, and the direct drive pitch-controlled turntable and tone arm (most often the Technics SL1200 or SL1210) as the tool to extract their tunes. It mostly has to do with touch and feel - the touch of the needle in the track and the feeling of that die-cast direct drive platter. It gives the DJ almost infinite controllability - a physical connectedness to the tune which the knobs, buttons and jog wheels of CD player do no justice to. Having the tune physically laid out along the length of a spiral grove gives DJ's a vision of structure of the track, wether it's dropping the needle just this side of the break, or before the bass drum kicks in. Although DJ friendly CD Players have been widely available for several years, they have not made a significant impact on vinyl as the primary medium. There might well be other reasons for the technological lock-in of the turntable besides the above, but that's the subject of another musing. However an ingenious product has arrived on the market which marries the world of digital music (with all the conveniences that come with it) to the traditionally entrenched analog turntable. Final Scratch (FS) was developed a few years ago by a Dutch company in collaboration with techno DJ's Richie Hawtin and John Aquaviva. It has recently been commercially released by Stanton, who are well known in the industry. Whilst Final Scratched might not be the Final Word in providing the ultimate 21st century DJ tool, it certainly is a significant conceptual development, and undoubtedly the dawning of a new breed of DJ technology, embracing tried and tested analog technology with the more collaborative and convenient realm of digital music.

Essentially what Final Scratch does is allow DJ's to play music stored in mp3 files via the conventional Vinyl DJ turntable, and with the best of both worlds. Its an impressive piece of engineering and undoubtably, its not the last product we will see that does this job. It is truly impressive in that it works, and works well.

This is how it works: You need a fairly powerful Pentium PC - a PIII 800MHz+ laptop/notebook will do. It needs a USB port. The hardware heart of Final Scratched is a junction box the size of a portable CD player which has sockets for the signal cables from the turntables to plug into. Going out is four sets of leads which go into the Phono and Line In sockets on the mixer. An earth wire needs to be connected to the mixer as well. The FS box connects to the computer via a USB cable. The laptop needs a special software installation which installs a dual boot facility, since the software application runs under Linux, which is an operating system in itself so you don't have to worry about Windows crashing. Special vinyl records are supplied. These look like standard vinyl tunes, except that they contain a special position code signal in the track to let the system know where the needle is on the platter and how fast it is going.

You load the mp3 files onto the PC either by copying already encoded files, or by using their software to rip from a CD or record from your original vinyl. As most mp3 headz know - the bit rate has to be at least 192Kbps for top quality play back. The software includes a handy organiser for you to group your tunes together into categories. What this means is that you can carry you complete record collection in your notebook. FS also supports other file formats including .wav's and .AIFF's.

Before you start to spin, you obviously have to get all those cables sorted out - and that's quite a mission even with full access behind the decks with lots of light. There's a lot to get confused with, but if its well marked and you know your Left and Rights in all sorts of orientations, it will still take at least 5-10 minutes. Once your notebook is powered up, you have to synchronise each deck with the FS platter, which is a fairly quick procedure assuming all the cables are correctly plugged in. The top of the screen is divided into two panels, one for each deck. To load a tune to a particular turntable, it's a matter of selecting a tune file with the mouse pointer and hitting the "MAP' button that sits underneath that deck bar on the top. The waveform then appears and now all you have to do is spin up the platter and drop the needle - and the waveform starts rolling. It's amazing to use that waveform as a visual aid, since one can see where the bass beats are, when the breaks are coming, much like a trained eye can read off the texture of track on vinyl. Counters tell you how far you are into the track and how much is left, much like a CD Player. It's that simple. The next tune can be selected and cued up on the other deck, using all the mixer controls as normal. For the Final Scratch input, the Line In is selected. For a normal vinyl, flick the channel selector to Phono which then means that the FS system is by-passed.

How you move the platter is reflected in how the track is played on the PC. Hit the On/Off and you get the classic wind-down. Moving the Pitch slider speeds the tune up and down, as one would expect. So what ever beat mixing technique you use, its just the same. One issue the developers struggled with was latency, that is the delay between when you cause an action and the system responding. They have got it down to 20 ms, which is quite a considerable achievement considering the limitations of PC's and that interconnecting hardware. Of the few people that tried it, most expressed complete satisfaction although a few did notice that tiny latency, but it really is insignificant.

It's about the price of an SL1210 turntable, possibly more. However, the current analysis here is that although this is a fantastic product which truly breaks the barrier between the digital and analog worlds, we are going to have to wait a while for the technology to condense into more DJ friendly products. Although its quite feasible, most DJ's are going to struggle to successfully set up this kit in the middle of the night between DJ sets. Added to that is PC woes most of us are all to familiar with. The software is first generation, and although it missed a few features I would have liked, it has a very clean and easy to use interface. However it's a conceptual breakthrough that opens many doors.

One possibility is for clubs or sound hire companies to invest in permanent PC installations, so when the DJ arrives all they have to do is load up their ‘box of tunes' from CD, DVD, FlashCard or what ever type of digital media finds most popular use at that stage. Another development might be that the system gets integrated into the mixer, with a flat LCD touch screen rising from the rear and CD-Drive and other Input Ports in the front. And if the mixer becomes a PC, that means its programmable, which opens the door for a range of other audio tricks. Hopefully the mixer fx section will be open-source, so one can roll ones own audio tricks, or download and install, much like (or maybe even) Cubase VST plugins.

There are other implications of this technology. Up to now, the release of music has been strictly controlled, this being possible because vinyl culture is so entrenched. Generally a new tune comes out on acetates and is distributed to a select few. Then there might limited release via White Labels. Only months later will it be commercially released in the record shops. And this is only in the UK - the rest of the world has to wait, and deal with shipping delays, random custom duties not too mention lost post. Now, despite a heavy-handed record industry (re)action, a culture of music sharing via mp3 files has developed over the Internet. Although many associate this with piracy, it can be shown that this does not preclude collectors from purchasing the physical entity once they become available. With a system as Final Scratch, new music will proliferate to the dance floor at a much higher rate, although this might mean a shorter shelf live. Whatever happens, there is no turning back.

Many thanks to Dave Hann (aka D-Frost) for his assistance.

 

More details on Final Scratch here:
http://www.finalscratch.com/fs2/start.asp


Author's note: I do not have any commercial interests in this product or the associated industry, however the interests I do have is as a historian of technology, not too mention long-time party animal and would-be DJ :)

 

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