Algoriddim makes DJ culture accessible with an iPad app. (December 26th, 2010)
iPad DJing has quickly become a popular if small subset of the music scene; artists like Rana June Sobhany have shown that one or two iPads and a mixer create an extremely portable deck and surprisingly varied mixes. Algoriddim is trying to take that one step further with Djay, where it's hoping to recreate much of the twin-turntable-and-mixer experience on a single screen. We'll find out whether DJs really can skip the notebook or the vinyl in our Djay for iPad review.
Product Manufacturer: Algoriddim
- Very easy introduction into DJing.
- Multi-touch input and scratching.
- Audio split for pre-cueing.
- AirPlay for Automix playback.
- Cheap compared to full DJ gear.
- Basic audio recording.
- No sampling or multiple cues.
- First-gen iPad hits memory limits quickly.
- AirPlay not useful for manual mixing.
- BPM calculations sometimes go awry.
Core interface: mixing, scratching and sound tuning
Anyone who has used Djay for Mac will be intimately familiar with the interface; it's virtually the same, just cut down to make every element fit on the 10-inch screen. That's not to say that it loses much of the original functionality, and if anything it gains from the direct, hands-on nature of touch. It's much more like manipulating a real DJ deck: you can very gradually shift the crossfader from one track to the other or quickly flick to a given position. Multi-touch is here and lets you move multiple controls at once as well as pull off special tricks that are noticeably harder to do with a trackpad, such as scratching and flicking the fader at the same time.
Nowhere is this better seen with the virtual turntables themselves. Apart from providing a handy visual reference for what songs are in the mix, how many fingers are on a given turntable affect what happens. A single finger will scratch one 'record' without affecting what's going on with the other. Put two on the record and it will auto-shift the fader to blend in the two tracks and try to match the scratching to the rhythm. It's not a solution for every mix and still requires attention to selections that blend well together, but it requires much less hand-eye coordination than moving both controls yourself.
Most of the extra mixing controls are basic versions of DJ industry staple features, although this includes a few surprising elements that wouldn't necessarily make their way to an iPad app. Each turntable has its own album selector, a three-band equalizer with gain, cue point buttons and sliders for pitch bending and beats-per-minute syncing. The interface for these is very natural if you've seen anything like them before, although you may initially overlook the track selector. One of our favorite tricks is the interactive waveform timeline. Along with giving an easy way to skip ahead to the core part of a track -- you can tap to jump to a point just before the beat drops in, for example -- it automatically distends the waveform when you're holding a turntable in place, so you can wind it to a more exact point or make note of when you need to let go.
The only glaring issue with the basic touch interface is precision. Much like physical DJ equipment, it's not always easy to be precise when you let go of a slider. There are pseudo-magnetic points to bring a slider back to neutral, and fine adjustment buttons for the tempo, but you may find yourself overshooting the BPM sync or your drop-in point ever so slightly.
Our main issues are simply with the complexity. You can't create or drop in loops and samples in the current version; it won't replace Ableton Live or Serato Scratch Live and let you create micromixes. Likewise, there's only ever one cue point per turntable at a time. Amateurs inspired by Cut Chemist or Kid Koala won't have the option of skipping from point to point in the record. And while the waveform is handy, it would be better still if you could place markers, color code or otherwise give a better sense of what will happen when you reach a given song section.
Track selection, beatmatching, recording and memory limits
If there's an area where Djay for iPad isn't as good as the desktop version, it's in finding tracks. You're given a fairly standard iPod library music picker to choose your songs, but apart from the smaller area afforded by the popover menu, the lack of search really hurts the ability to grab a track within a few seconds and get back to the mix in question. It might be faster than flipping through a box of CDs or vinyl, but the less time spent in the selection process, the better. Thankfully, there's the option of narrowing selections by playlists, so DJs with a specific set in mind can cull down the selection to just those that fit a particular session or style.
One big help in the app comes from automatic beatmatching, albeit with a few catches of its own. Djay scans a track and determines the BPM without needing that info tagged in advance. It memorizes that information so you won't have to scan again, but it also takes a significant amount of time, typically between 30 to 45 seconds, before it has an idea of how it works. We'd definitely advise playing all the tracks you want to use at least once before going into a live performance or recording. Also, and somewhat ironically for a company named Algoriddim, the algorithms for detecting beats sometimes fall apart. House, techno and trance all usually work seamlessly; however, you may see a fast drum and bass track incorrectly flagged at 87BPM or an unconventional beat structure on techno jacking up the calculated BPM beyond where it actually needed to be. You can adjust the tempo to better bring it into line, but if you're not careful the one-button BPM sync can lead to a track going very much off-pace.
For all the attention to manual control, there's an Automix mode for house parties and other situations where a manual mix would be too time consuming. Much of the time, it amounts to just a glorified crossfade effect, but it does offer more built-in control than simply setting a computer's music jukebox app on shuffle. You can set the length of the transition, whether it uses random track order and whether it applies any automatic scratching effects. Again, it's important to curate tracks that blend smoothly into playlists, but it's a good way to let guests choose the music or to keep the mix going if you need a break.
Regardless of how you mix tracks, though, you may find yourself running into memory limits. With just 256MB of RAM on the first-generation iPad, you'll periodically run into low memory warnings, sometimes just several songs in if a track's bitrate is too high or its length is too long. Music videos are similarly ruled out. It's virtually required that you close all other running apps before starting Djay, and we'd recommend fully closing the app after you're done. We couldn't help but get the distinct feeling that Djay was designed with the anticipation that the second generation iPad would have more memory and eliminate the problem. Since that's likely true, you may never encounter the warnings if you buy your iPad sometime in spring 2011. Before then, it would be smart to avoid volunteering for a two-hour DJ set unless there are significant breaks in between.
Pre-cuing, AirPlay sharing and recording
Conjure up the stereotypical image of a DJ and you'll often see a person with one headphone cup on the ear and another ear exposed to the open air. That person is often pre-cueing the mix ahead of what you're hearing, and it's often vital to creating a smooth mix when the DJ may be experimenting with the mix ahead. In Djay, you get a basic implementation of that through the headphone jack. If you have a headphone splitter, it can break up the normally unified audio field into separate cueing and master outputs on the left and right channels. You'll lose the stereo panning but can also produce relatively professional mixes without having to get it perfect on the first try.
Since Djay has full iOS 4.2-plus support, you get not only multitasking (to handle another task while the music continues) but the option of broadcasting over AirPlay. As convenient as it is, we only really found it useful for the Automix mode. The inherent nature of Wi-Fi hopping between the iPad, your wireless router and a destination like an Apple TV will introduce far too much of a delay to properly control the mix, and you can't currently pre-cue while AirPlay is active. This might need an iOS update or a future iPad to work smoothly, but having separate wired and wireless feeds would be invaluable.
If it's not a live session or you want to recapture the moment later, the app does have a recording feature. Given the lack of full-fledged file system support in iOS, it's pretty basic: it records the master track and uses iTunes' rudimentary file sharing to get the resulting titles off of the iPad. Djay captures sets in the AIFF format, which is good for producing a lossless copy but further compounds the memory limits. Trying to both capture the live audio feed and cue up several tracks is often difficult. We'd thus consider the recording more for composing individual songs or testing out ideas in mini-mixes that get joined together for the final result.
As you may have gathered, full pro DJs aren't likely to be satisfied with Djay. Some of this comes from the version one nature of the app, but other parts come just from the nature of a 10-inch tablet. It may be hard to completely replace a notebook or dedicated DJ hardware with a single iPad; Rana June and those like her often use two. Many of those skilled enough to make a living on DJing also won't consider the price gap between iPads and a MacBook all that huge.
Still, we're not sure it's the headliner or even the second-room DJ that Algoriddim is chasing after. Djay targets the house party, the wedding, or simply the rookie learning the basics. Here, the app excels: even with only a few hours under our belts, we were going from only a theoretical understanding of beatmatching, faders and cue point stabs to actually putting them into a decent practical technique. As that first step into DJing, it's surprisingly good and has the potential to get better in the next year.
Moreover, the financial investment is relatively light. A $20 iPad app may seem a lot by itself, especially if you need to buy the iPad at the same time, but it's actually a relative bargain compared to some digital DJ systems intended for computers; buy Native Instruments' Traktor Kontrol S4 or a refurbished Numark NS7, for example, and you've spent $999 even before putting the computer into the equation. Consequently, Djay can be a much gentler way to ease into DJ culture or just to explore your bedroom DJ impulses without having spend nearly as much as a veteran, particularly if you already have an iPad.