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ARTICLE
Format Wars
DJing used to be a fairly simple business. You had one format and two sizes – 12” and 7” – both of which played on your decks. The only tricky bit was ensuring you played the records at the correct speed, which, as we can confirm from bitter experience wasn’t as easy as it sounds. If any DJs out there need help with keeping their egos in check we can recommend playing an import 12” single at 45RPM when it should have been 33.3RPM in front of a packed dancefloor. Even when CD came along, it was still simple, stick the CD in the slot and off you go, you didn’t even have to remember to select 33 or 45, the thing was inside the machine revolving at god knows how fast, safe from any fat-fingered DJ making a mess of things.

The advent of digital, however, has introduced another element: choice. By choice, of course, we don’t mean the choice of what tunes to play. That is the essence of DJing and above every other skill is the most important thing a DJ possesses. The choice that digital offers is a plethora of software options: rekordbox, VirtualDJ, Serato and plenty more. They all aid in achieving the same end result, but they offer huge choice in how you actually get there.

The other element of digital choice is the question of sonic quality, but before we discuss that let’s take a time machine back to the end of the 19th Century. From the very beginning, the music industry has always been terrified of change. So, when the phonograph – a new invention that enabled the recording and distribution of musical performances – was first introduced, the industry recoiled. Fat from selling millions of pieces of sheet music, publishers thought this new business was a threat to their very existence. Instead, by licensing the new format, they made even more money! To our modern ears these early formats sound appalling. Scratchy, muffled, barely audible. To the average Victorian though, they were yet another miracle in an age of rapid technological change and as the 20th century dawned the quality gradually improved.

Then, in the '40s, along came a format that most of today’s DJs would still recognise: the album pressed on vinyl. Containing roughly twenty-two minutes per side it represented a quantum leap in quality, better than shellac, better than the 78RPM format it was to eventually replace. Fittingly, one of the first albums released was from one of the giants of the 20th Century, Frank Sinatra, although it was a re-issue, thus inviting fans to buy an album they already had, a trick the music industry has pulled off many times since.

And there we were for roughly another fifty years or so. The quality of the vinyl improved and the 45RPM and 12” single were introduced but vinyl was still something the owners of that first Sinatra album would recognise.

Cassette tapes were first introduced in the late ‘60s and enjoyed popularity right through to the end of the 20th century. More portable than vinyl and less affected by vibration, they were ideal for portable personal listening and use in car stereos, but not practical for DJing

The next big revolution was, of course, the CD. Ever since those small plastic discs arrived DJs have argued about the sound of CD versus vinyl. To us, this is purely a matter of taste. Sonically the CD is superior but whether you prefer the warmer sound of vinyl or the crisper sound of CD is entirely your choice.

Where vinyl enjoyed around fifty years as the dominant format, the CD would enjoy less than half that time. Having spent the late eighties and nineties persuading their customers to buy music they already owned in ‘upgrading’ from vinyl to CD, the music industry was in for a rude awakening when an American student called Shawn Fanning launched a website for his friends and fellow students called Napster.

Shawn Fanning created Napster as a way for his college pals to share their own music, a kind of online lending library. What he, and certainly the music industry, did not appreciate was that the advent of file sharing was going to turn the music industry upside down and provoke a crisis from which it has only recently recovered.

How did this impact on DJs? As we all now know, there was a fundamental shift in the kind of skills required to DJ as the change from physical to digital gathered pace. As with all revolutions, it started slowly. After all, a lovingly assembled physical collection of music is not something to be thrown away easily and the early kit was expensive and ripping all those CDs was time consuming. But with the major DJ equipment manufacturers improving the quality and lowering the price of the new equipment, the MP3 quickly became the dominant format. But here’s the thing. For the first time ever, a new format was introduced that was sonically inferior to the one it was looking to replace!

As DJ Brian Mole observed in an article for ‘Pro Mobile’ some years ago:

‘the advent of the digital age has damaged music quality, and people have forgotten how to listen to music as a result. The reason for this is compression of music into digital files which means vital bits of music are lost and go unheard. When digital storage technology first emerged and internet bandwidth was woeful, it was necessary to compress music files in various formats such as MP3. The lower bitrates enabled expensive disk drives to be stuffed with a good number of music files. Over the years, as disk sizes grew and costs dropped due to the evolution of technology, higher bitrates and therefore lower compression ratios should have meant better sound – however this has often not been the case.’

This observation came about as Brian attended an event at PLASA in 2009 hosted by Tony Andrews from Funktion-One. As Tony articulated and Brian observed, what was happening was that DJs had sacrificed quality for convenience. Those boxes full of vinyl might have sounded great but they were heavy. CDs were light but you had to carry lots of them, thousands if you were a mobile DJ, and if someone asked for a tune you had to have an encyclopedic knowledge of your collection and a brilliant filing system in order to find a specific track. However, with the advent of digital formats you could turn up at a gig with a vast collection of music carried in your laptop bag and be sure that if Uncle Tony loved Country and Auntie Beryl loved Reggae there was no reason why you couldn’t find tracks by Billy Sherill and Peter Tosh in super quick time.

With the advent of faster broadband speeds and wider bandwidth, lossless formats have now – finally – become a realistic possibility for all DJs and the question of whether to play music using MP3 or WAV or FLAC is simply down to personal taste and the type of gigs you are playing. For an average-sized hotel function room MP3 is perfectly adequate, if you’re playing larger venues however, the lossless format is a must. Turn it up as loud as you like, there won’t be any compression artefacts, your bass will be beefy and your top end shiny. As we’ve already observed, the endless discussion of vinyl versus CD is one of personal taste but actually there is no argument that WAV and FLAC are superior to MP3. It comes down to a question of what gigs you do now and whether you feel you need to futureproof your collection, who knows what kind of gigs you’ll be doing in a year or two? Is lossless worth the extra investment in money and storage? That’s for you to decide.

Here at CD Pool we’re format agnostic. What we’re about is supplying the very best music in the formats that DJs need and currently that means CD, MP3, WAV and FLAC. We don’t favour one format over another, we leave it up to the DJ to decide what suits him or her. One thing is certain though, we’ve not seen the end of the format wars. Somewhere, in a university dorm in Manchester or a Silicon Valley think tank, someone is coming up with something. We can’t wait to see what the future brings!
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The full review can be found in Pro Mobile Issue 92, Pages 50-52.
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