They call it the Scratch Amp.
It's just a little Discman-sized gizmo, round and sturdy, with wires popping out every which way. In the DJ booth tonight, it sits underneath the Dell laptop, in between the Technics 1200 turntables, in back of the Rane mixer.
It's silver, compact, and through its inner circuitry runs -- just maybe -- the future of deejaying.
On a recent Tuesday, a noirish drizzle drums on the pavement outside Licor Lounge, a breathtakingly sleek bar shoved into a strip mall at the foot of downtown. The lounge's interior has that Tomorrowland utopia thing going for it: swirling kaleidoscope lights, pink and blue floorboards, über-IKEA bar seats, and everything so crisp and posh you expect Rosie, the maid from The Jetsons, to roll up with a tray of drinks.
Dustin Swint and Andrei Morant are here setting up Henry Chow's FinalScratch system for MetroNome, the weekly event that the three local DJ-producers host. FinalScratch allows the DJ to upload MP3 digital tracks to the laptop and play them as though he or she had the vinyl. There's still vinyl involved -- Swint pulls out two FinalScratch records from the case and sets them on the turntables -- but the records contain nothing in and of themselves. They are ghost records, vessels, musical terra incognita used only to mark the tics that match up with the digital tracks on the laptop.
Swint explains: "The [FinalScratch] record sends the analog data to the Scratch Amp. The Scratch Amp interprets the analog data for time and duration on the digital MP3 and then in turn comes out of the line into the mixer, so you can play it like an analog record."
"The first time I heard about it, I was like, 'Whoa,' " he says, no trace of intended Neo in his voice. " 'What are you talking about?' "
Um, what are you talking about?
When all the wires are plugged in and all the knobs clicked on, Morant demonstrates.
He surveys his playlist on the laptop, which, for tonight, boots up in Linux mode.
"This is my new track that I made last week," he says, cuing up an MP3 titled "Synthmaker." As Morant fingers the FinalScratch analog record on his left, he's marking the point at which the digital track will drop in. (And altering its playability however else he wants.) The Scratch Amp, by way of a USB cable connected to the laptop, plays middleman, juggling the analog timing with the digital material.
For jaw-dropping visuals, this tech advance won't go down alongside putting a man on the moon or cloning Dolly the sheep. But for a DJ who wants to try out new material right away or choose from an entire library of records without carting them to the club, it's pretty damn cool.
"I can carry 16 crates out to a club on a laptop. So somebody says, 'Hey, do you have this old song?' " Swint flashes a satisfied grin. "Yes, I do."
"I have probably, I don't know, 80 songs of mine on here," says Morant. "He has probably 200 or 300 of his own songs on there. Henry probably has something like the same."
"I make a track one day, the next day, instant gratification on deck," says Swint. "It's so awesome because you get to show up to a gig and play your brand-new fresh shit. I mean, literally hot off the press. Up until the gig, we're like, sitting there," he mimes logging on to a computer, " 'Hold on, I just gotta burn this last CD.' "
Morant unsheathes a record that contains three of his original tracks. He sent the material off to have the lacquer cut in January and just recently got it back.
"Eighteen hundred bucks and five months just to play it on wax," he says. Tonight, he can play seven songs he cut last week -- and he can play them as though they were on vinyl.
"We're no longer playing what everyone else has and what everybody else is getting. We're playing our own stuff," says Swint, speaking louder to be heard over the creeping heart-thump and spidery hook of one of Morant's homegrown numbers. "It's more of like an artist night so much as a DJ night where producers and everyone gets to come out and just hear fresh-off-the-fuckin'-press stuff."
The Tuesday-night affair, which began back in December, defies easy categorization -- gliding through broken beat, house, minimal techno and lounge-tempo tracks. Their goal is creative freedom, and since they provide what they describe as "background music" for the bobbing heads assembled, Swint says the DJ is free to experiment rather than being handcuffed to dance-floor favorites.
"You're going to see this trend grow. You are," he predicts. "Once people catch on to the fact you can make something and the next day play it at your residency "
He leaves that thought unfinished for a moment.
"Unfortunately, I don't see vinyl making it," he says, as if talking about an old friend with stage three pancreatic cancer. "I don't see vinyl being the core of a DJ's tools anymore," he says, pointing to the constraints of time and money. "It's just not going to happen within six months, but within the next ten years; vinyl's going to be on its way out."
On the flip side, FinalScratch technology now makes it easier than ever for a less-than-scrupulous DJ to sling pirated beats. (Which wouldn't really be an earth-shattering lapse of ethics -- Napsterites and their CD-burning ilk have long been obtaining music without paying for it.) Fittingly, the concept for FinalScratch started with a little band of hackers from the Netherlands in the late 1990s.
"They're software designers-slash-hackers," corrects Henri Cohen, vice president of sales and marketing for Stanton Magnetics, the Florida-based company that produces and distributes FinalScratch. "They were actually at a hackers' convention when they came up with the idea. And the way that it was described to me is that they were just in the middle of a farm field where they have those hackers' conventions, you know, in the big tents with the generators, with a bunch of computers and somebody was looking for a way to play music one night at a party."
He continues: "And somebody showed this device where you could hook up all your MP3 files that they had on your computer to turntables, and that's where it took off from there."
Cohen saw the product at a trade show in 2000 and snapped up the worldwide distribution rights for release the following year. The FinalScratch system retails for $500. Though Stanton, a private company, won't divulge any sales figures, Cohen says that "it's one of the most successful products we sell today."
According to Pablo La Rosa, Stanton's marketing manager, international DJ luminaries like Paul Van Dyk, Josh Wink and John Acquaviva use FinalScratch in their sets. It does not, in his opinion, signal the beginning of the end for vinyl. We're a long way past that.
"The first step was the CD player," he argues. "I don't think we're doing anything that hasn't already been done. I think the biggest threat to vinyl right now is just the fact that it's very expensive, and for smaller record labels who are typically the ones who put out dance music, it's a lot easier for them to distribute their music in digital format."
Chris Sill, a local DJ and the dance music buyer at Soundwaves, says there hasn't been any discernable effect on vinyl sales at the store. Yet.
"It's definitely going to be interesting to see how it affects the DJ culture," he says. "Technology is the biggest thing."
The DJs at MetroNome note that the biggest drawback might be logistical, the hassle of setting it up: Depending on the booth, it can be next to impossible to plug all the cables in while someone else is spinning. And even if more and more clubs and decknicians do convert to FinalScratch, you'll always have DJs out there proudly preaching the virtues of vinyl.
"I, for one, don't do CDs nor MP3s like that. And that's just a personal choice -- and I don't knock anybody who does. From my standpoint, I'm just stubbornly holding on to it," says DJ Sun. "The production value I wanna get is more of a warm analog sound."
Another DJ, Jeff McLaughlin, adds: "Some people, myself included, have a 'package fetish' when it comes to music. I want a physical product, something to hold in my hands. With digital systems, this element is lost and the music takes on a more disposable quality. Part of the mythology behind certain artists and music is a product of the way the music is packaged."
For some, it's a conscious choice based on style; for others, it's an emotional pull that goes beyond words. Andy "Champa" Moore, a resident at the Social, sums it up poignantly. He got his first record -- he laughs -- a Ted Nugent jam, in 1978.
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"It's like, that record has 20-some-odd years of wear on it and you can hear that," he says. "Each time you get a new scratch in the record, it's like flesh and blood, kind of, because it wears its wear well.
"There's not any gentleness to the aging process with digital," he says. "There's not the warmth in the ability to interact with machines."
It's far too early to tell if the cool sheen of MetroNome this Tuesday night is indeed the future. At the very least, it's one possibility.
"I'm not a Luddite," says Moore, who notes that vinyl has outlasted cassettes and the eight-track and still has a major place in mainstream culture. "The best is to respect the old and honor the new simultaneously."