A CD Holdout Finally Enters the Hard Drive WorldBy Stu Chisholm
One DJ’s journey from reliance on discs to playing completely digital music
More than a decade ago now, a new format called MP3, coupled with a new program called DJ Power set the DJ world buzzing. Colleagues told me how, one day soon, our CDs would be obsolete; how a DJ would walk into a gig with nothing but a laptop and powered speakers and be fully equipped to rock a party. As someone who takes pride in being on the cutting edge-or, more accurately, at least being aware of what that edge is-it came as a bit of a shock even to myself how quickly objections sprang to mind!
The End of the World as We Know It?
For one thing, MP3 meant bad sound. DJs, trying to fit entire libraries onto the meagerly sized hard drives of the day, usually ripped them at 128 kbps or less. This reduces the size of a music file by literally chopping out and tossing away digital bits. The lower the bit rate, the worse the sound. I could recognize the MP3 sound instantly, and I was far from impressed. Years of DJ work have left me with some measurable hearing loss, so I figured that if it sounded bad to me, it’s going to sound even worse to everyone else.
DJs would make excuses, the most popular being, “People at gigs are all drunk-they don’t care.” My rants about the bad sound became so well known that one day, the gang at DJ Supply, my local DJ toy store, set up a well-attended demonstration that pitted MP3 against CD sound. Once we were all seated, they played a few seconds of a song twice. Then we were asked, “How many people say that the first one was the MP3?” Nearly everyone’s hand went up. The difference was obvious. I got a lot of apologies that night.
Another objection was that hard drives were too small, too slow and too expensive. At the time, a gigabyte or two was the high end of both technology and price. When I mentioned to colleagues that a library the size of mine would require about a half -terabyte, I was met with blank stares. “What’s a terabyte?” (It was, after all, the mid-‘90s.)
Then there’s the problem of time. Ripping my music library, which is notoriously vast, would require a major time commitment. A little thumbnail math broke it down something like this: If each song took only two minutes to rip, including disc handling and entering data, my mobile library of 38,000+ songs would take 1,266 ½ hours to rip. If I did it for eight hours a day, seven days a week, the project would take nearly 5 ½ months. The real world, though, will include things like bad rips and computer glitches, lunch breaks, weekend gig days and other distractions. A more realistic timetable was about eight to ten months.
My biggest objection, however, was the computer itself. While we depend on them to do everything from running our offices to editing and burning our music, the thought of my entire show depending on a glitchy, balky, fragile, crash-prone computer left me cold. These were the days of Windows 95, after all, and we knew all too well the “blue screen of death.”
The way my fellow DJs addressed this problem were diverse and creative. Some brought their CD library “just in case.” (Not exactly a confidence builder!) Lane O’Neill of Acclimated Sounds came up with what I thought of as the ultimate solution: two separate laptops, both loaded with DJ Power and equipped with hot-swappable, redundant hard drives. But again, this was the ‘90s, and such a scheme required a huge investment. A bit too rich for my blood. (Unlike Lane, I don’t have a day job.)
I Feel Fine
Lucky for all of us, technology never stands still. Over the years my objections have been nullified one by one. The MP3 can now be ripped at higher bit rates that introduce no audible distortion. Hard drives have gotten much faster, bigger and cheaper. Today, a half-terabyte (500 GB) drive can be had for less than $250.00, and prices are in a steady freefall.
While computers and their operating systems have gotten much more robust, they still remain too fragile and expensive (not to mention very prone to theft) for many DJs. But a few companies are aggressively attacking this aspect by eliminating the computer altogether! So, in 2006, I finally decided to make the transformation from a CD to digital DJ.
First, Get Ripped
I first heard the name Cortex from my equipment guru, Steve at DJ Supply. Looking a lot like the control unit of a typical dual CD player, the first Cortex unit-the HDC-1000 Dual Digital Music Controller-allows a DJ to play music directly from any USB mass storage device. Other companies have promised and subsequently delivered similar units, but the HDC-1000 was the first to arrive in stores. When the Cortex people got wind of my digital transformation and that I’d be writing about it, they immediately sent one for review. Before I could use it, I had just a little work to do…
The problem of ripping my music still remained, and over the years my library has only gotten bigger. First I had to find affordable hard drives large enough to hold all my MP3 files at 256 kbps (320 for classical music), and then find a way to rip my library, FAST. I was going to need some help.
I started with Lane. When he does something, he tends to do very painstaking research, and he didn’t disappoint. He recommended one of the smallest, coolest looking external hard drives I’ve ever seen: the 500 GB Western Digital “My Book.” I bought two, for a full terabyte.
At this point, I have to confess how I actually acquired them! Jeffrey “J.P.” Pausch of Two Left Feet Productions is also a long-time friend and fellow single op DJ. We’re both subscribers to Top Hits U.S.A., a popular CD service. He had already purchased a new laptop, USB hard drive and DJ software, but he works long hours at his day job, leaving him no time to deal with a massive ripping project. He made the proverbial offer I couldn’t refuse: do it for me and I’ll buy your hard drives for you! (J.P., you drive a hard bargain!)
Drives in hand, it was now time to start ripping music. Friends recommended a program called Easy CD DA Extractor, which is inexpensive and can be purchased instantly online. I loaded it onto my two desktop computers and a laptop. I’m also lucky enough to know Monty Boleyn of New Concepts Software (another long-time friend) who graciously loaned me a fourth computer. Lastly, I recruited yet one more friend; fellow music maven and internet radio host, John Matthews (a.k.a. DJ Brick), who agreed to come over on a weekly basis and handle large sections of my library with his laptop. That gave me a total of five computers to get the job done! They would rip all day long, from noon until 10:00 PM and then dump the tracks onto the big external drive overnight. My “team” and I managed to complete the job just 53 days!
Checking the Tags
Murphy’s Law loosely states that anything that CAN go wrong WILL, and at the worst possible moment. Such was the case when I learned about the importance of ID3 tags. It seems that the search features of the Cortex (and most MP3 playback systems) depend on them for quick track searches. Naturally I had configured Easy CD Extractor to get the filenames the way I wanted them, but ignored the ID3 tags as I was in blissful ignorance. As a result, they were either wrong or non-existent! This would’ve been a huge setback if it weren’t for a program that DJ Brick knew about called ID3 TagIt, available instantly on the web. This allowed me to make corrections in batches, costing me only twelve extra days. At last, the time had finally come to get fully acquainted with the Cortex unit!
Just opening the box told me that the folks at GCI / Cortex have focused on detail. The packaging used pressed board, like a heavy-duty egg carton, rather than Styrofoam, which is sure to please the environmentalists of the DJ world. Cradled within, under a clear plastic protective cover, was the Cortex HDC-1000, a smaller box containing the power supply, tabletop stands with mounting hardware and a set of RCA cables. The workbook-sized instruction manual was well written and illustrated.
My first impression screamed “quality.” Its all-metal case has a lush, shiny gray finish and the controls have a solid, quality feel. The jog wheel is especially smooth. At the very center of the unit is a USB port. Flipping the unit over, another USB port is dead center, flanked by stereo RCA jacks on either side. The only other feature is the power inlet, which has a clever cord clamp to prevent the power cable from wiggling loose in transit.
As instructed by the manual, the first thing to do is to check the Cortex website (www.cortex-pro.com) and download the latest firmware. This is easily done using a flash drive. Once downloaded via your PC, you can pop it into the front panel of the Cortex, power it up, and one click later the unit is up to date!
Next, I powered down the Cortex to attach the USB hard drives. Just about any USB mass storage drive will work, including iPods, flash drives and even optical disc drives, so you can still play CDs without dragging along a player! You can use a USB hub to connect up to four different devices that you can switch between at will. A late breaking update also added USB keyboard support, which is essential for searches, especially with an extremely large library. Cortex also provides a database utility, so you can get up and running fast. Without a db file, the Cortex unit must do a “verify” procedure to be able to search through music files. This could take a very long time. Instead, let the power of your home PC create the database. (Mine took about two hours.) Once completed, the HDC-1000 is ready for action within minutes of powering it up.
A week before its debut at a gig, I set the system up in my home studio and encountered all sorts of problems. Songs would skip and sputter, a search on one side would alter the pitch on the other and, eventually, I got the whole unit to crash. It was looking as if all of my objections to using a computer were embodied in this device! After a long conversation with Cortex’s tech support wizard, Jason, we determined that the unit itself was bad. Within 72 hours a new unit arrived. Customer support is superb, and with their help, I had it up and running within minutes. The only remaining glitches were mainly due to my own hard drives.
With the HDC-1000, and I’m guessing generally with this new breed of digital controller, preparation is everything. If your music files are right, and properly tagged, then the unit will perform well. Even without the keyboard, I was able to locate and load songs as fast or faster than pawing through my old CD cases. Searches can be performed in several ways; a file browser, which displays your file structure as it looks to your home computer; by songs; by artists; by genre; by album; by string. I chose album, so the experience would be similar to the way I normally work.
Mixing was every bit as easy with the Cortex unit as it was with a standard dual CD player. The pitch control has a huge range and the start is truly instant. My only criticisms were that, when cueing a track and hitting pause, there is a small bit of latency, so that you have to backtrack with the jog wheel a bit. Also, when you load a track, it instantly starts playing. You can turn this default feature off by putting it in single mode. There is also no center detent on the pitch control, which I prefer.
Having gotten a good feel for the unit, it was time to take the Cortex on the road…
An All-Digital Gig…(Gasp) Without the Computer
As usual during November, my calendar was running light, so my friend, Brendan Pfaff of Best DJ Service, allowed me to tag along to a scheduled wedding. I had mounted the Cortex, along with a mixer, into a lightweight SKB console case and put both of my hard drives and a compact UPS (uninterruptible power supply) into an SKB attaché style case. These replaced my large console cube and five large cases of CDs!
Set-up was simplicity itself. Find power, connect the hard drives and you’re ready to go!
Unlike my tests at home, the unit performed flawlessly at the gig. Brendan and I switched-off, he playing CDs and me playing MP3s for about half the time. There were no glitches at all. It was as if the Cortex knew that it was show time! (More likely, though, it was my careful preparation of the hard drives.) Afterward, a very happy bride told me that she couldn’t tell when a CD or MP3 had been playing and was extremely pleased with the sound.
The New Species Evolves
Yes, there are a few drawbacks. While the Cortex does work well using a single source for both sides, you can sometimes cause a song to “hiccup” when searching and cueing files on the opposite side. I didn’t experience any of this using a separate drive assigned to each side. Then there’s the display. The white-on-blue text is easy to read, but the display overall is a bit on the small size, with only four lines of 20 characters, for a total of 80. When you consider the amount of information on your typical cell phone screen, this seems a bit retro, but it does get the job done. The display is also recessed, so if you’re looking at it on an angle, you might not see the last line, which has your elapsed time and pitch information. I’d like to see support for LCD monitors on future versions.
Even without the keyboard, I became very comfortable with the search features on the Cortex. The sound is superb, the controls and features are as good as or better than most dual CD decks and, although there’s a bit of a learning curve, it can be mastered in under an hour. I also had to remind myself that this is the first unit of its kind, and as such, will not do all of the things that DJ Power, PCDJ and other software based systems will do. I expect that successive generations will catch-up, and fast. Similar units are on the way from Numark, Denon and others, and a second generation Cortex unit, the HDC-3000 will soon be shipping. For those who don’t want to wait, the Cortex HDC-1000 has set the bar high, and its small price tag removes the final barrier to any DJ wanting to make the transition to a fully digital DJ experience. The journey continues…so far it has been quite a ride!
A whole lot of people contributed time, information and hard work to make this article possible. Special thanks to Lane O’Neill of Acclimated Sounds, John Matthews (DJ Brick, www.glowingdial.com), J.P. Pausch of Two Left Feet Productions, Brendan Pfaff of Best DJ Entertainment, Jason & Peter of GCI / Cortex, Monty Boleyn of New Concepts Software (www.NCSoftware.com), Steve Tighe at DJ Supply (Warren, MI), DJ Dr. Drax and Paul & Denise Regoni . Thank you all!
Improvements Announced at NAMM
At the 2007 Winter NAMM show, Cortex announced some improvements to the HDC-1000, along with a slew of other digital control products for a variety of DJing styles (see our NAMM report starting on page 8).
The V1.8.8 software update package includes: scratch capability; play list creation (using the new Cortex Database Manager V 2.4; improved cue functionality and accuracy; and greater USB keyboard support.
A few companies are…eliminating the computer altogether
Mixing was every bit as easy with the Cortex unit as it was with a standard dual CD player
Filed Under: Digital DJ, Issues from 2006
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