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Give me music and give me noise....

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Jim's at the controls

“It’s not the equipment that matters, it’s the music that you play.” So said the music manager to me at a London venue the other week. He was talking about the DJing.

Fair enough. Tech fetishists do seem to risk missing the point - the music itself. The DJ equipment world is full of middle-aged salesmen fast-talking their way through promo videos for flashy new kit being sold at trade fairs. It’s the dials, responsivity, weight in the bag, the impression it makes. And, at the other end of the supply chain, there’s a busy little subculture of consumers who are showing off their new purchases on home-made YouTube vids (quite entertaining these, a peek into the cave-like bedrooms of self-absorbed teenagers from places like Thunder Bay, Iowa).

It’s a slightly weird, obsessive world (though I quite like this about it), and apparently almost totally male. In the past week I’ve watched dozens of videos - trade, manufacturer’s instruction flicks, people actually unboxing their new toys - and I’ve read a lot of forum threads and other online ephemera. I can recall only one female DJ making an appearance (and that was an almost self-parodying “feminine” post about DJing with two iPods, laid out on a white and pink page).

No, the DJ kit world is a man’s, man's world. It’s all about speed and size. Check out that hard disk. Flex those specs.

But I don’t dislike it (well, not much) and I must admit that the equipment is, to the extent that I understand it, amazingly impressive. And this is where I part company slightly with the view that “it’s all about the music”. Yes, I’d much rather hear something good on simple equipment (The Fall or Fela Kuti on a bog-standard DJ deck that just plays CDs) than something dull on a £2,000 Pioneer rig. But sound quality matters, and in addition DJing is inventive and enhancing as well. Even if you’re not beat-matching, sound wave analysing, and looping and scratching your way through complex musical sets, you can still be putting together interesting transitions and mucking about with pitch bending or throwing in a few effects.

Meanwhile, it seems that the indie music tradition (from where I hail, if I hail from anywhere) is sniffy about “real” DJs, and similarly the world inhabited by Norman Cook-like pro jocks is one where people who “just put music on at gigs” are little more than a joke. It’s a shame there isn’t more crossover. Cross-fade!

I always liked that story (from Dave Haslam's Superstar DJs book) about how Jimmy Savile claims to have single-handledly invented DJing in Britain when he rigged up some kind of ultra-primitive speaker to make his dance band records sound louder when he played them at lunchtimes in the upstairs room of a pub (in Barnsley?) in the 1940s. Great. I bet he wishes he’d been using an Allen & Heath Xone:DX loaded with Serato Itch though. 

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