Sunday, October 11, 2009

Thoughts on the VCI-100 vs conventional MIDI controller for Traktor

In this post I'll compare and contrast my experiences mixing with a piano-style MIDI controller vs. my recently acquired Vestax VCI-100. I've rocked the last few podcasts with my trusty Radium 49 MIDI controller which features 8 vertical sliders and 8 rotary knobs in its arsenal of effects-tweaking controls. Mixing with dinky little faders proved to be of little interest to me, so I spent all my knob-twiddling energy in the mix tweaking out the effects. I managed to program all the piano notes to do useful things, but I never quite figured out what the ideal layout was for these controls. I focused on the loop controls and efx parameters I didn't have room to map to the knobs and sliders. I definitely found the knobs lent themselves to more musical tweaking, while the faders, as mentioned, were just too dinky to do anything real useful with.

The first thing I thought once I started mixing with the VCI-100 was: THIS feels like DJ'ing. It made me realize (at least for me but I think this applies to us all) that DJ'ing is partially the act of compulsively adjusting anything that has a knob on the mixer. After about 5 minutes of being in the groove using the long-throw 100mm vertical faders, I craved more action than was possible with the default Traktor VCI-100 settings.

I headed over right away to the DJ Tech Tools custom midi maps and installed Ean Goldens VCI-100 map for Traktor. With a screenshot of the controls on one monitor screen and Traktor on the other, I was able to pickup the new mappings within one mix session. The solid, professional feel of all the knobs and sliders made me feel a lot more musical. The jog wheels are a nice touch for beat matching, and I found that I could beat match entirely by ear like an old school DJ should. Between the tempo sliders and the touch sensitivity of the jog wheel, you can get your mixes tight without relying on the auto sync behavior of Traktor, which doesn't always work that well especially for disco and other non-compute rbeats. I still find that the software locks in your beat matches a lot more tightly than two 1200s will, but I look at this as a benefit: you can focus a lot more on the fun creative aspects of mixing, instead of expending all your concentration on just keeping the groove locked and maybe tweaking the EQ a bit.

I've now gotten into the groove of using the custom map, such that I can flip between using the left-hand EQ knobs as EQs or as parameter tweaks for chained effect unit 1. The only drawback of this layout is that you don't get a dry/wet mix knob for effect 1, but if you need to adjust this you can always cycle the dedicated effects knobs for unit 1 and adjust. There are a few defects with the firmware, but I'm not trying to install firmware 1.3 just to get rid of them; they just aren't worth the hassle.

I've got at least one confirmed club date coming up Nov. 12th in Vancouver. I'll be using this rig for sure. My only fear is that I'm still using my aging M-Audio firewire audiophile interface, and the driver obsessionally acts up and causes total signal loss from Traktor. Bottom line is that I think this unit will allow me to rock the crowd in a way that reminds me a lot more of what DJ'ing was like for me in the days of 2 1200's and a mixer with some fat EQs on it. The tempo-synced effects with auto-detect tempo accuracy means that the creative possibilities with this stuff is just a lot deeper than what is possible with a single hardware effects unit as found on the Pioneer mixers. Combine this with the looping capabilities of Traktor and you can really go nuts.

Stay tuned for podcast 6, which will be the first to feature the new hardware. I did podcast 5 as a special episode for my friend Bob who shares my birthday. It is a pretty deep and banging club style mix that I'm not sure my listeners will dig as much - there is pretty much no disco on it, and I'd like to keep the more upbeat and fun vibe of the other mixes. If you like super deep clubby chicago-detroit style house mixes (ie no commercial jingle crapola) check it out on Soundcloud.

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