The Great Debate: Sync
You knew I was going to dive into this topic.
I started with the discussion over media, but now I want to stop beating around the bush and go right into the bigger point of debate that has been endless for a few years now - the sync button. A mainstay of most DJ software titles, with improvements being pushed on every update, it's a function that's become the black sheep child of DJ midi controls, and yet while many admonish its existence, many more are using it, even if they won't admit to it.
Is it cheating as some DJs insist? Or progress? Down the rabbit's hole we go...
Sync is merely a sequencer
For those who might not know, back in the day before DAW's like Ableton Live and Logic, most dance music was made with hardware. I'm talking about drum machines like the Roland 808 and 909, bass machines like the 303, and other synthesizer tools found in keyboards. Sounds nowadays that you purchase as VSTs for a DAW were components you connect up to a keyboard.
The sequencer was either a separate device or sometimes one of the devices in your studio setup. So the producer could be using a Roland 909 drum machine for beats, but also as his sequencer. All the other devices are hooked up to the 909 and it would keep all the pre-programmed melodies and parts in sync. Thus you never hear things "off" in dance music.
Nowadays, you do it all in a DAW, but even then, the internal clock is the sequencer. When Traktor and other DJ software titles came up, they simply brought the idea of a sequencer into the DJ booth.
The reality on what sync does, and doesn't do
I've seen many ignorant folks who seriously believe the sync can do the job 100% for a DJ. The hard reality is that sync only matches up beat grids the software makes based upon where it believes the bass kick drums are. Here's a short list of what sync cannot do:
- Select what tracks you should play
- Mix the next song in at the right time
- Blend the sounds based on the volume levels and EQs
I know that some titles have attempted this. Deckadance does have a feature where you can set up a set and have it play, but based on my own actual observation, it's really a very basic ideology that pales in comparison to an actual DJ. Even then, the program cannot improvise or effectively blend. It just matches the beat grids. You could even set up a whole set in a DAW like Ableton, but then in the end it's still a human being doing the work.
So forget what others tell you. All sync can do is match and hold the beats for a DJ, and believe me, if you don't know what you're doing in the booth, it won't help you sound like a champion.
My experiences with sync
It might seem strange that someone like me who has been doing things manually for years would now use the sync, but I'll admit it has come in handy for many occasions. How I got here though was purely on accident.
A few years ago, I came out to a local bar to start up a resident night with a colleague. I was led to believe they had turntables and/or CDJs installed at the club, but I found out that they only had a mixer. DJs would bring in their own decks to use.
Now I know some of you would love to get smug and say you would refuse to play, but this was a night I promoted, so it was my reputation on the line. With only my laptop, sound card, and timecode that I couldn't use, I decided to just wing it on my laptop. Coming from a vinyl background, it was hard to me to match beats and hold them using the touchpad and buttons of a laptop. Finally when I saw a blend coming apart, I hit the sync button and they held. It honestly saved my butt that night. The next week we started to bring in CDJs, and this experience even led me to invest in a midi control.
Since that night, I still kept doing things manually. It wasn't out of some feeling that sync might be considered "cheating", but mainly because I was comfortable with spinning the old fashioned way. However, the sync function did help again with some dead time at work where I'd be sitting at my desk for several days with nothing to do.
I thought about making the most of that dead time by trying to make or plan out new mixes. Since I couldn't bring a full setup or even a midi control to work, the sync yet again came in handy. I could sit at my desk, or outside my home or work, and simply open up Torq and work on new mixes without the need of anything else. I'll even confess many of the newer mixes I've posted used sync, because I made them outside of my home studio setup.
Is it cheating?
For those who think no one used studio trickery before DVS, you're wrong. I remember back before I started DJing, many DJs would use reel to reel tape recorders to make mixes. They would slice up tape and edit and make things solid. At one point earlier in my DJing life, many would purchase multi-track recorders so they could piece together a mixtape by recording each song in a different channel. If you messed up a blend, you can rewind and do it again.
I also remember many radio DJs in the 90s would use Pro Tools to piece together their mixes for the week. They would literally get new tunes, record them to digital, edit them all to play short and simple, then every week quickly piece together a mix with little effort. Some of these same guys would then take all their music and save it at one unified speed onto CDs. So they walk into a gig with books of CDs where all the tracks are at 130 BPM. They would manually beatmatch on the first tune, match the pitch on the other CDJ, and literally be set for the night.
So I'm sure now plenty of vinyl purists are chiming in saying how you can't sync with vinyl. That's partially true if you're speaking of analog vinyl. Regardless, I don't believe using sync is cheating. My reason is that those who believe it's cheating seemingly think most of what DJing is about is beatmatching. I wholeheartedly disagree. In my eyes, beatmatching it only a fraction of it, and it's why I push DJs to also know how to do good BLENDING. That means you work the volumes, gains, and EQs to make things meld fluidly. Plus let's not forget good programming (in terms of track selection and set building).
I've seen even one opinion where someone on sync hasn't "paid his dues". Again, I disagree. In my book, paying your dues as a DJ isn't about if you know how to beatmatch and blend well. It's about when you're out there beating the streets networking, handing out demos, taking chances on promoting events, and going through all the hell many DJs go through to get to the point where it pays off in regular gigs.
You can't equate the technique as "paying your dues" simply because there are some who can pick it all up very quickly. Plus with the variety of methodologies in DJing now, it's gone beyond two decks and a mixer. Look even at the newer releases of Traktor and Virtual DJ, as well as Beatport's new site purely to buy sounds and loops. The DJ is growing beyond a music player into a music maker.
BUT...you should still know how to manually beatmatch
Surprise! You didn't think this would be a 100% support of the sync. Oh no. Forget what others tell you on "cheating" and such. As a DJ you should still know how to manually beatmatch songs simply because sync isn't fullproof and perfect.
Remember that one night I mentioned where I first used sync? That very night I had sync fail on me a few times. One problem is that in Torq, you can set up a BPM range when it scans tunes. For me, I had mine at 60-160 BPM. I pulled out some tunes and saw their BPM read as 63.0 or 62.5...and these were house tunes. What happened was the scan ended up putting the beat grid on every other beat, so when I tried sync, the song came in very fast.
When I made those mixes I posted using sync, I often times had at least one blend I had to do manually, and often times I had to recalibrate the beat grids. So I mix in, and at some point I stop the tune, recalibrate, mix it out into the next tune, and then had to piece all these recorded parts together in Sound Forge.
The big problem is that sync will mathematically determine the beat. So it'll scan the tune, see the usual pattern, and then lay the grid on it based on the first 1/4 of the song. What if the tempo slows down during the tune, and then speeds back up? What if the producer puts an extra four beats as a lead-in to get out of the breakdown? These factors will make sync fail for a DJ who relies on it.
I remember back in that gig at SubClub in Slovakia, I was put in front of a laptop with Virtual DJ on it. No decks, no controller. So I was on my own to make it work. Like I did in that other gig, I used the sync, but I do remember when I tried to mix in French Kiss by Lil Louis, it wouldn't work...so I just went manually and made it work using the pitch bend controls. Even the slowing down of the song through its infamous sexual breakdown will mess up the beatgrid, thus you have to go manual to mix out of the tune when it speeds back up.
As a DJ, you have to make it happen. You can't just decide to not play certain tracks or allow bad blends because you're unwilling to be able to handle any situation. What if your dog knocks over a beer on your laptop at home? You can't just call the promoter and tell him you can't play. You have to make it work, even if it means showing up with a book of CDs and using the club's equipment. If you want to be seen as a professional, then you can't have excuses, or else you won't get booked again.
The sync is not evil, it's merely a tool
I know that my topic here today won't make a sync-hater think differently. I simply wanted to disparage the lies many believe about it. I know some who believe they'll manually match things no matter what, but many of my recent gear choices have actually been reactionary choices based on what I see happening in DJ booths. Yes we always think of "proper" booths with a full setup and good monitors, but I think most of my gigs have had horrible monitors to no monitors, and even moreso I'll see venues not even bother to buy gear, as they'll put it all on the DJ. So when you're facing an empty booth and/or horrible or nonexistent monitors, you need to find the best means to do your job no matter what.
For me, what comes out of the speakers will always reign supreme to me over how we got there. I could stand in a club listening to a great set, and I honestly could care less if it's manual or sync. Programming and overall vibe and energy are what matter to me, and I believe this is what matters to most people who go clubbing. In the end, the only people who are going to care are DJs, and with the new innovations coming in software and gear, you can't afford anymore to live in the past.
The only rule is to play your best, and wow the crowd. Spend your time finding great music to play, and finding the best ways to make things seamlessly blend with one another. If that means using a sync sequencer, go for it...but that means you have to bring it when you come to the booth. If you go manually, more power to you, but if you used sync, then you had also be prepared to play great sets, because sync or manual, a bad set is the fault of a DJ...no one else.
Ok, share your thoughts here.