You want to be a DJ?

Get the right gear no matter what you can afford to spend.

The electronic music craze has spawned one of the fastest-growing markets in the North American music industry. In Europe, where the genre is already well established, electronic music is responsible for the conception of countless bedroom studios and such an explosive proliferation of DJs that you can’t swing a record bag without hitting a few. The fame of DJs in Europe is pretty much on par with that of pop stars in North America.

One result of this interest in making and playing electronic music is that DJs–whether in Europe or in North America–have more choices than ever when it comes to gear. The purpose of this article is to help musicians choose the right gear at the right price for the kind of work they want to do.

The first decision you’ll need to make is whether you want to mix records and CDs or whether you want to create the music yourself, taking it from your initial creative impulses to performing the tracks live or seeing them preserved on vinyl or CD. A lot of music producers especially in the dance genre, begin their careers as DJs, buying music produced by others and learning firsthand what makes people dance and what sends them off the floor to get a drink or visit the restroom. By contrast, other producers desire from the start to get involved in every stage of the creative process, making their own music from scratch. Either path you take will involve spending significant sums of money on the gear you’ll need to express yourself musically,

THE ENTRY-LEVEL DJ

When it comes to DJ gear, the beginner’s choices are pretty simple. The basic requirements are two turntables or CD players and a mixer with at least two channels. You’ll also need a sound system and a pair of headphones so that you can hear what you’re playing. (If you want to save money, you can use a pair of home-stereo headphones.)

A range of good, inexpensive turntables is out there. The ones to look for have direct drive and pitch control. Beyond that, just find a model that you like and can afford. You might want to check out the Numark TT1910 ($299), the Gemini XL-500 ($299.95) or the PT-1000 ($499.95), and American DJ TTD-2500 ($319).

To mix CDs, you’ll need two variable-pitch CD players; models to look at include the American DJ DCD-PRO200 ($699), the Gemini CD-9500 ($789.95), and the Next NCD-5000 ($549). Also, Numark offers the CDN-34 ($1,150), which consists of two CD players and a mixer in one compact unit.

The other essential piece of DJ gear is the mixer, You’ll need one that lets you crossfade one track seamlessly into another to create a sensation on the dance floor (of course). The bare-bones requirement is two phonograph channels, each with a level control–but even many inexpensive mixers come with three channels. Most also offer 2- or 3-band equalizers on each channel for more control over the sound. Different mixer-models have different feels to them, and each has-its-own sound. Some less expensive mixers are the Vestax PMC-03A ($160) and PMC-005A MKII ($250), the Next PDJ-22 ($125) and CMX-460 ($290), and the Numark DM2000-X ($240).

THE ENTRY-LEVEL PRODUCER/REMIXER

Novices who have no equipment and little or no musical experience will want gear that is easy to use, versatile, and inexpensive. If you aren’t familiar with electronic instruments, you may have a difficult time with even the simplest operations. Flipping through the user manuals of some synths, samplers, or effects processors, you’ll quickly realize that you might have an easier time reading the complete works of Shakespeare in Sanskrit. Fortunately, some manufacturers do provide user-friendly interfaces that make life easy for the beginning producer/remixer. The Roland Groove Boxes and the new Electrix products are machines that you can use intuitively with satisfying results. They provide a wide array of preset patterns and sounds that can be quickly spliced together into tracks. The WarpFactory ($499), FilterFactory ($479), and MO-FX ($499) from newcomer Electrix offer knobs and switches that you can use to manipulate sounds on the fly for instant results. The Roland MC-303 and MC-505 Groove Boxes ($695 a nd $1,495, respectively) will make you feel like a pro in no time flat.

If you happen to own a computer with decent speed and adequate memory, then you have one of the most versatile and powerful tools available to an aspiring producer. A wide assortment of software can take the place of hardware-based samplers, synthesizers, mixing boards, sequencers, and effects processors. One affordable example is Cakewalk Pro Audio 8 for Windows. For $319 you get a sequencer, a virtual mixing console, hard disk recording, and 32-bit effects processing. Steinberg Cubase VST (Mac/Win; $399) is another powerful tool that can turn your computer into a digital music workstation. Keep in mind that you may need to upgrade your PC’s sound card to make the most of any music software you install.

If you don’t already own a computer, however, buying one might be prohibitively expensive–especially after you factor in the cost of all the software and accessories you’ll need. One of the most versatile stand-alone machines is the sampler. Armed with a good sound library (or with a desire to invent or capture your own sounds), a sampler can replace many of the functions of a synth, a drum machine, a sequencer, and an effects unit. Not all samplers will be able to perform all of these duties, but most can tackle at least a couple of them. Two great all-around samplers that provide a multitude of tools are the Yamaha A3000 ($1,999) and the Akai MPC2000 ($1,599 base model). For a no-fills unit, check out the Akai U40 Riff-O-Matic ($239.95) or the Boss SP-202 ($395). For a sampler loaded with features, check out the Roland SP-808. It costs $1,695 but includes an analog synth simulator, an 8-track hard-disk recorder, a built-in lomega Zip drive, and effects.

Some affordable units, such as Yamaha’s RM1X MIDI sequence remixer ($899) and Korg’s Electribe. A and Electribe R modeling synthesizers ($499 each), provide remix-oriented, real-time controls. Such devices might include an analog-style digital synthe sizer, drum kits, a sequencer, effects, and more.

If you’re using more than one piece of gear, you’ll need some kind of mixing board to control the level, pan, and EQ of each sound. The Mackie MS1202-VLZPRO-($459) is a 12-channel board with a 3-band EQ and stereo bus on each channel; it should suffice for a small personal studio.

You must also consider what-you-will use to record your tracks. As everyone knows, cassette tapes are pretty noisy and lose a little bit of their fidelity every time you play them. You want digital recording. Again, if you own a computer you can take advantage of some excellent software that allows you to digitally record onto your hard drive. You may have to pick up a second hard drive to hold your recordings–digital audio takes up a lot of space. You may also want to investigate a DAT recorder or a CD burner.

THE NEXT STEP

When you’re ready to spend more money on your DJ rig, you’ll probably want to buy components that have better construction and superior sound. For the last couple of decades, the industry-standard turntable has been the Technics 1200 ($699.95). This extremely rugged, high quality deck is found in the vast majority of clubs and party venues. A recent entry that is challenging the 1200’s dominance however, is the new Numark TT-1 ($549) turntable, which offers similar quality and adds some new features, such as increased range in pitch control via a joystick controller, if you’re interested in mixing CDs, look for a professional-quality dual CD player, such as the Denon DN-2000F Mk3($999) or DN-2500F ($1,600). The DN-2500F even offers limited sampling capabilities.

When the time comes to upgrade your mixer, two top-of-the-line models are the Pioneer DJM-500 ($1,199) and the Roland DJ-2000 ($1,495). Both have four channels and allow the DJ to apply real-time effects such as delay, flanger, and filter.

Whether you’re just getting started in deejaying or personal music production or you’re expanding an already successful setup, it’s important to lay out your goals and then look for affordable equipment that will help you fulfill them. Don’t be afraid to talk to DJs, musicians, and equipment dealers, or to post questions on Internet forums. You won’t to talk about what gear they like and don’t like. Advice from other DJs can be invaluable. After all, even the biggest names on the charts were beginners once.

The future of Alesis

After acquiring the Technology Pioneer, Numark CEO Jack O’Donnell outlines his plans for the company.

As vice-president of sales and marketing for Stanton Magnetics and Picketing, two of the leading phono cartridge brands, Jack O’Donnell was one of the first to recognize the potential of the DJ market. Cassette tape and later CDs sent turntable sales into a tailspin. However, O’Donnell managed to soften much of the blow by aggressively catering to a growing DJ market. In 1990, he simultaneously helped persuade Vestax of Japan to create a line of DJ mixers and established U.S. distribution for the product.

Numark Electronics, one of the pioneers of the DJ market, ran into acute financial problems in 1991. While most industry observers gave the company up for dead, O’Donnell saw great untapped potential. In 1991 he acquired the company. Last year, Numark posted sales of $37 million. When Alesis Corp. filed for Chapter 11 in May, O’Donnell stepped in, initially providing cash to keep the company going, and then acquiring the company’s assets outright.

Alesis burst onto the scene in 1985 with a line of high-value signal processing products that utilized RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) technology. In 1991, the company virtually created the project studio market with the introduction of the ADAT digital multi-track recorder. Over the past few years, the ADAT lost market share to newer hard-disk-based recording products and Alesis was forced to dramatically cut prices. Declining sales ultimately coupled with operational ineffiencies pushed the company into Chapter 11. Alesis is in a turnaround situation, but O’Donnell is confident that the company can be restored to its former position as a cutting-edge industry innovator. “I was grateful for the opportunity to acquire Numark, and I’m equally grateful for the chance with Alesis,” he said. In the following interview, he elaborates on why he is optimistic about the future for Alesis.

What was it that attracted you to Alesis in the first place?

Jack O’Donnell: Alesis has great technology. Several months prior to the NAMM show, before I had any idea they were having any financial difficulties, I approached them about using some of their technology. I was very impressed with the AirFX unit and some of their chip technology, which I felt could be integrated into the Numark product line. We were in contact on a number of issues, and then the talks just went cold. After not hearing from them for a couple of weeks, they approached me about an infusion of cash to bring them forward. Looking at the core group of engineering talent and the products on the drawing board, I thought it was a great opportunity.

Are you planning to fold the Alesis organization into Numark Electronics, or will it continue as a stand-alone operation in Santa Monica, California?

JO: Alesis will definitely remain as a stand alone company. At some future point, we might consolidate financial, credit, and logistical operations, but I don’t want to dilute the Alesis engineering and sales and marketing effort. The best ideas come from sales and marketing people talking to end users. To get this kind of input, we need a core group focusing exclusively on Alesis. I have great confidence in the people at Alesis. They are one of the major assets that made the company successful in the past.

Will Aiesis founder Keith Barr continue to be involved with the company?

JO: We’re still talking, but at this point, his future with the company hasn’t been determined.

While the ADAT has been the highest profile Alesis product, the company has also been involved in the keyboard, mixer, and signal processing markets. Are you planning to continue addressing all these market segments?

JO: We are planning to remain in all the markets we are currently involved with: recording, keyboards, signal processing, and speakers. Actually, I would like to make the line even broader. The Alesis semi-conductor division has developed chips that haven’t been fully capitalized on. I look at some of these chips that are on the drawing board and I can envision all types of new product categories that we could tap into.

Could you elaborate on some of the new product categories that are under consideration?

JO: I wish I could, but right now it’s premature.

The Alesis ADAT HD, the hard-disk successor to the successful ADAT tape recorder was introduced at Winter NAMM. Do you plan to go forward with the product?

JO: The ADAT HD was certainly one of the strongest products that was introduced at the NAMM show. If it weren’t the financial difficulties at Alesis, it would probably have been in the market by now. We are very optimistic about the product and I fully expect to have it in the market very shortly.

Even though you plan to maintain Alesis as a stand-alone operation, do you envision any points of cooperation between Numark Electronics and Alesis?

JO: Alesis is dedicated to the recording musician with no particular interest in pursuing the DJ market. However, some of their core technology is applicable to Numark’s customer base. Just as we’ve partnered with Korg to include the KAOSS pad controller on some of our DJ mixers, I can seem incorporating certain Alesis products. The Alesis AirFX is a perfect example. It’s great technology, it’s value priced, and it has an interactive format that is a natural for DJs. On a less obvious level, the Alesis Semiconductor division is producing some outstanding chips that are waiting for broader applications. Some of the chips that have been designed for Alesis products are also applicable to some of the ideas we have for the Numark product line. So to answer your question, Numark and Alesis will be separate product lines with distinct identities, yet there will definitely be some technology cross over.

Are there any OEM opportunities for the Alesis semi-conductor division?

JO: People are just waking up to how versatile and inexpensive Alesis chips are. Right now, almost all the chips are going into Alesis products. However, we have some very well-known OEM customers within the industry. We haven’t fully exploited this business yet, but I think there is tremendous potential.

Introduced in january , the Alesis ADAT HD is a hard-disk based replacement for the ADAT. “We are very optimistic about the product and I fully expect to have it in the market very shortly,” says Jack O’Donnell.