To Sync or Not to Sync? Human Vs. Machine

Words by: Polly Lavin
Posted: 17/11/11 12:30

To Sync or Not to Sync? The Human Vs. Machine debate @ AdeIf 1995 took one glimpse at the DJ equipment of 2011 would it have rubbed its eyes in disbelief or awe? Technics have been replaced by CDJs and laptops and vinyl replaced by USB sticks. Now, the newest contender eroding the history of mixing and the physical element associated with being a DJ has arrived. The SYNC Button a ‘one click perfect mix’ button that tech-heads want you to buy into and thus render beat matching obsolete. Wonder what Francis Grasso would think of that?

As Dave Clarke broached the topic “Does Mixing No Longer Matter? Push The (Sync) Button: Yes or No?” he admitted this was a contentious issue for DJs and that in the early days of his career he “used a record deck and a 4 track with a vari-speed“. So, what is the sync button all about? Does it sabotage everything traditional about the scene and make the term ‘DJ’ redundant, creating a new generation of DJs who will learn little technical craft and be turned into mere programmers?

Sync, seems to be another bash at ‘invasion’ by the technology companies into what is the creative and music sector not the IT sector. Most creative’s use their ears, hands, voice and eyes as a way to generate their output. Yet in DJ-land the ‘less effort the better’ mantra seems to be winning, an even greater way for lazy famous DJs to get paid fat wads of ‘performance’ (?) money whilst standing about guzzling champagne on stage with their mates.

Paul Hamill of Psycatron answered that “I’ve went from vinyl to CD to Serato then went to Traktor and Ableton for live sets. The one thing I have found with a sync button is once you hit that button you are standing on stage and wondering what do I do now? It’s very boring.”   Hamill also advised those “lazy” DJs to beware of thinking easy work/easy cash “Using the sync button and Ableton at ADE last year my set crashed twice. I learnt a lot of lessons from that.

The human element and the industry are being affected by technology but whether it will end up with more DJs like Theo Parrish admitting they are “anti-technology” or the scene becoming less precious about an innovation that cannot be stopped as the ‘tech’s’ take-over by continuously modernising and simplifying equipment so they have a wider market reach to achieve more sales/profit rather than allowing creativity and the craft to be the majority component in output is the real question.

Terry WeerasingheTerry Weerasinghe head of marketing for Native Instruments took the hard sell approach as he told the audience why he believed the sync button was relevant to DJs in 2011 and crediting the Swedish House Mafia as he said SHM play “CDJs not Traktor” a trio whose individual members have made no qualms in admitting the impact marketing and major label backer EMI had on their career  and that it did not matter how you DJ as “there had always been ways of cheating” and sync is a “technological update not cheating” Apparently, if you press sync at the wrong time you are not going to get a mix that goes in at the right time, so that clears up his justification as to why we should all get in line.

Baptiste Grange who looks after the Serato brand in Europe had a different take as to why the next generation will embrace sync “People have more music and a culture of mixing everything the attention span is reduced and all this combines to bring new performance. Technology is giving too many options, so many instruments invented in one time, we are going away from DJ-ing and analogue and now just a computer with a mouse on stage.

He also admitted Serato having no sync button was a marketing move “Serato has been conscious of that as the sync function has been regarded as cheating by people” but later said “You tend to think Serato is a non-sync software but it has 2 products ‘Itch’ which has hardware controls and midi controls and sync in one product which is great for beginners and provides instant gratification and satisfaction.

Weerasinghe and Rik Parkinson product executive of Pioneer who develops DJ hardware then went onto tell us they design their products through “R&D feedback from customers” and “work with DJs who tell them what they want”. Parkinson also stated as a manufacturer Pioneer does not currently support sync but introduced CMX 3000 which had auto mix before sync happened as they were “all for helping the DJ” stating “technology is here to aid our performances, you have the ability to turn it off and on it helps those who are not DJs become DJs.” The technology companies efforts on the one hand are making inroads as Weerasinghe admitted he was ‘unsure’ what the future held but that “syncing is here to stay” as “It’s an immensely popular feature” whilst on the other DJ Dave Clarke stated that technology and music are “constantly battling against each other” and that “computers are a pain in the ass”.

Baptiste GrangeWhilst Baptiste Grange stated SYNC was “creating a bridge between 2 worlds” what the tech heads missed when they designed the button is that the youth in the electronic scene are also producing and SYNC is not going to be interpreted by all producers positively. Paul Hamill commented “There is a blur in the line between DJ and production” and “10 years ago a DJ could become an international star now they are DJs and producers.

How the sync button is going to affect the output and lively-hoods of producers become evident as Gregor Thresher proclaimed “I’m a producer I don’t want people to mess up my tracks with 1000 loops on top” and added “Producers don’t need to make arrangements anymore.” When asked by ClarkeYou’ve seen how technology has changed over the years would you not feel it’s a natural progression to bring that into club?

Thresher stated “I’m not against it, the main problem is I haven’t seen that many good performances when people use the sync button, it depends on the music you play, but how could you layer 10 tracks?” and was not positive towards the mis-use of terms such as playing ‘live’ saying “People playing other peoples tracks when they play live and saying they play live. I hate that.”  

As companies like Apple have moved in on hardware territory with IPads being able to be integrated into the back of mixers is it ultimately going to end up even more technical? Dave Clarke asked “Are we going towards you [hardware companies] guys not being necessary eventually?” and asked if they will be making product in 3 years. Rik Parkinson advised “We talk about hardware and discuss what we are going to create then IPad creates something straight away with an app.

So, let’s look at why the IT sector and technology has invaded electronic music and almost turned it into their vehicle. A lack of investment by the industry due to decreasing margins, non-promotion by peers on the benefits to learning the principles behind production, the craft of acoustic instrumentation and the history and heritage of the scene such as tape, vinyl etc for DJs. A lack of understanding and awareness of the crossover points between acoustic musicians and electronic producers. Pressure on musicians to conceptualise new albums/singles at the speed which technology moves at, without considering creating artistically merited pieces of work. A general slide in EDM sectors production standards {and no real movement towards setting an industry production standard} which led to an ease in production since the onset of digital. 

Rik ParkinsonWhat’s also wrong? Lack of awareness around heritage and not enough mentoring in the scene and creation of platforms for a younger generation to get to DJ unless it is alongside producers/DJs who still tour and are marketed as ‘elders’, ‘baron’s and other tosh labels. Maintaining and passing down of heritage in any tradition and any community starts with elders being mentors and taking acts under their wing to promote them and teach them without self gain or benefit for themselves being the primary purpose. There is a graceful esteem in passing the torch onwards.

One of the pleasures of ‘mixing’ music, rhythms, beats, sounds and layering 2 records so that they seamlessly merge was the physical contact with a slab of vinyl and the manipulation of the mixer. Isn’t there something about ‘creating’ a hypnotic mix through this rather then clicking a mouse trying to micro-size your pupils to squint at a screen? Isn’t it about dragging and pulling vinyl, counting beats, tuning your ear, practising and then to attain the art of picking the right record at the right time when playing in clubs.

There is also some element of being human in being imperfect, in messing up a mix, in taking pleasure in spending 6 months practising your ‘craft’ to finally have that eureka moment where 2 records blend seamlessly in time with each other. The other pleasure was in the physical contact with other DJs and people into dance music with the regular Saturday jaunt to go record shopping and listen to new tunes that had arrived that week. It was a way to network, make friends and dialogue about tunes. But does coming from a vinyl background mean those who have heritage are superior to those who do not? If DJs embrace technology such as sync or other technology related software will that make them a good DJ? What happens if a DJ still selects poor tracks?

Rik Parkinson offered his take on this “Technology is offering us too much choice but ultimately it’s about the clubbers on the floor. 95% of them don’t care and don’t know what you are doing. People care what you have sequenced and the tracks you have selected.”

Hamill stated what he liked to see was “Someone using 4 decks to their potential” and “anyone can go up there and push a button” but admitted “We started from vinyl but things move on, kids of 15/16 have a much easier route to market” and he blames “Playstation” for “pushing the sync button”.

Push The (Sync) Button: Yes or No?Back to mentoring. Case in point Mick Huckaby teaching a new generation the principles of electronic production in Youthville in Detroit and explaining what instruments the acoustic sounds contained within equipment relate to. What’s interesting is the growing trend of teenagers who have turned to instruments, youth orchestras or community music bands such as www.cboi.ie www.nco.org.uk rather than electronic technology.

What’s also refreshing is the high amount of classical and acoustically trained musicians who are fusing electronic production with their output. The next generation bands such as young electronic band CAPAC from Liverpool are there with instruments not solely machines.

Have the technical companies with SYNC and more really done their homework as to where the kids are at? If it is good enough for the EDM scene to promote acts like Carl Craig, Luciano and Ricardo Villalobos cross pollinating with classical elements should the sector be trying to engage the next generation that are engaged in orchestras such as above instead of looking forward should they be looking at the past and acoustic principles and making the technology compliment that.

The elitism that DJs used to project that electronic production allowed those who did not have access to music tuition or an instrument is what allowed the technology element to try take over.

Has electronic music now become the snobs when they snub instruments or is it just that the kids don’t relate to men who are old enough to be their dads standing on stage as role models and who like, Clarke admit “If people said tonight is a Dave Clarke unplugged concert I would be sh*tting myself ‘cos I cannot play a musical instrument. Computers gave me a career.

We’ve actually eroded the art from electronic music and the use of the ‘hands’ which are central to learning instruments from the piano to the decks by turning it into this ‘technology’ driven entity and part of me wants to tell the guys from Pioneer, Native Instruments and Serato you are looking the wrong way. Instead of looking at instruments and acoustic principles we are looking to technology not to support DJ-ing and music but to take it over and become more important then the music.

But Clarke took the neutral approach throughout this debate and summed it all up as to where the majority of DJs will probably end up on this debate when he deflating-ly concluded “Well if this is where the kids are at, rather than the generation who grew up with me, I am surely there to stay relevant.” Soon everything and everyone in dance music will be assimilated into one giant collage of each other. It’s clear the value of being a DJ is clearly being decimated and removed from its once high status by the technology companies even though everyone in the room placed their hand in the air when asked if they had touched vinyl and maybe the guy in the crowd who said syncing is fake if you are a DJ you are playing with your mind and your heart, a DJ is a DJ it’s a job” summed it all up for the heritage lovers in the room.



Dave Clarke | Baptiste Grange | Paul Hamill | Rik Parkinson | Gregor Tresher | Terry Weerasinghe

Serato | Pioneer UK | Native Instruments | ADE


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