Review: djay for iPad
Guest review by Tom Duncalf.
It’s been nearly 8 months since Apple’s iPad was released, and in that time it’s made its mark on many areas of content consumption and creation - not least of all, music making. Early apps such as Korg’s iElectribe and TouchOSC hinted at the potential of having a large, responsive multi-touch display coupled with relatively powerful hardware in such a portable device, but it’s with recent releases from big-name companies and bedroom programmers alike such as Korg’s iMS-20, Rebirth and Jasuto that the device has started to demonstrate its true potential.
It has now become an extremely desirable tool for anyone involved in computer music (almost single handedly killing off Jazzmutant’s Lemur, and becoming the performance device of choice for artists such as Richie Hawtin).
DJing is getting more portable...
As you might hope, the iPad has plenty to offer digital DJs, and we’ll be covering various apps and uses of the device in future posts, but today we are looking at the iPad version of Algoriddim’s djay, the Mac version of which (reviewed by Digital DJ Tips last month) is a popular alternative to Traktor and Serato.
djay isn’t the first DJ app to be released for the iPad, but it has gained plenty of pre-release hype, and is seen as having the potential to be something of a milestone for iPad DJing.
Why? Well, partially because the other apps currently available are somewhat uninspiring in the user interface department when compared to djay’s photo-realistic graphics (see Red Bull’s BPM HD or Sonorasaurus Rex). But it's also because djay takes advantage of a key feature Apple has introduced with the new 4.2 version of its iOS operating system (released last week) - the ability for apps to manipulate music directly from the iPad’s iTunes library, where previously they have had to maintain their own library or use a lengthy import process.
So, how does djay measure up?
Your first impression of the app is the aforementioned user interface: just like many of the best iPad apps, djay looks stunning, with an elegant layout and beautifully detailed graphics. The middle section of the app is taken up by 2 virtual turntables (complete with strobe lights and animated platter dots!), 2 pitch faders and a few buttons.
The bottom section contains a crossfader and play/pause and set/jump to cue buttons for each deck, and the top has small volume faders for each deck and a couple more utility buttons, with the rest of the space initially taken up by branding.
Getting your music into it
Before getting started mixing you'll need to get your DJ tracks on to the iPad, which couldn't be more straightforward - just upload through iTunes as you would for the rest of your music.
It can be useful to keep your tracks organised in playlists (see our feature on organising your music collection), which is fully supported - the only slight quirk being that unlike iTunes, the iPad doesn't support playlist folders.
It should be noted that the only way to get music onto the iPad is via iTunes, and your own iTunes at that (unless you're willing to hack your iTunes library file), so it's not possible to get new tracks from the internet, a USB stick or a CD in the spur of the moment unless you have your laptop with you.
Two ways to browse your collection
Once you have some music to play, touching the track select button in the top left of the appropriate turntable opens an iPod-style music browser, allowing you to navigate through your collection.
While this interface works, it's a bit lacking in features, so the first tweak you'll want to make is to enable the "full screen library" option in djay's settings. This enables djay's own browser, which features playlists down the left side, the option to group by artist, album or genre and a search box - much more suitable for selecting tracks from a large library.
Two features missing from the browser in the initial version are the ability to view other metadata fields (eg comments and grouping), and the ability to preview a track without loading it into the deck, but I'm assured that there are improvements planned in future updates.
Putting records on...
On selecting a track, a vinyl record animates on to the turntable, complete with cover art (which is guaranteed make you want to find artwork for your entire library if you don't already have it!), and djay starts analysing the track to get the waveform and BPM data if it hasn't been loaded before.
The speed with which it performs the analysis is really quite impressive, given that previous iPad DJ apps have required pre-processing on a computer - for a typical 8-minute, 320kbps MP3, it's about 6 seconds before the track can be played, another 12 seconds to analyse the BPM, and a further 18 to finish drawing the waveform, which takes the place of the logos at the top and is cached for next time you load the track.
To find your cue point, you can either touch the waveform or move the tone arm (nice touch!) to jump to the right part of the track, and then touch and move the record itself to fine tune.
It's now that you encounter 2 impressive features of djay: first, the realistic vinyl feel and sound of moving the record; and second, the zoomed-in waveform view that animates in on touching the record and out on releasing it, allowing you to visually locate the downbeat.
You then hit the "set cue" button and your cue point is stored, with the "jump to cue" button jumping back to the cue point and continuing to play if the deck is playing (allowing you to repeat a section), or playing from the cue point for as long as the button is held down if the deck is stopped (allowing you to repeatedly trigger a cue - great fun for bringing in a snippet of the next track!).
Syncing and riding the beats
djay has a sync feature to get your tracks in perfect time with each other, and the good news is it's generally very accurate, with tracks staying in time for well over a minute, and coping even with more complex rhythms such as hip hop and dubstep. The bad news is that, as with all software, it sometimes gets the BPM detection wrong (for example, twice as fast or as slow as it should be), and the initial version of djay has no ability to change the detected BPM.
A future update will bring half/double/tap tempo functions, but for the time being, if djay gets the analysis wrong, you'll have to manually beatmatch the tracks using the pitch bend +/- buttons and the pitch fader (which can be set to +/-8, 10, 25, 50 or 75%).
The complete lack of latency makes this quite straightforward, although there are a couple of niggles: the bend buttons are a little too sensitive for my tastes - it would nice to be able to adjust their strength; and it can be a bit fiddly to make small adjustments with the pitch fader.
There's also no CDJ-style pitch bending by moving the "record" - it always stops and scratches it - which would be a great feature for a future version, allowing more gradual control of pitch and potentially freeing up the +/- buttons for pitch fine tuning.
On the whole though, djay would be perfectly suited for a beginner DJ wanting to learn to beatmatch, and indeed some basic knowledge is required as the track start isn't quantised, so if you start the track off beat (which you should be able to avoid with some practice - again, there is no discernible latency when pressing play), you'll need to use the pitch bend to bring it back in time.
This calls for a cue output to preview the 2 tracks playing together before you start mixing them.
Monitoring and cueing
Unfortunately (although not surprisingly), the iPad only has one audio output, and even though it supports some USB sound cards through the Camera Connection Kit, it can still only output one stream.
djay's solution is to offer a "split output" mode, in which the master output is sent out through the left channel and the cue output is sent through the right. You then connect a stereo to 2x mono audio splitter to the iPad's headphone socket, and voila - 2 separate outputs!
Both outputs are mono, but this shouldn't matter in a party (or even club) situation, and the software supports recording in stereo while using split output if you want to capture your set in full quality.
Cueing headphone options need improvement
However, there's a fairly big flaw in djay's current monitoring solution: there are no "cue" buttons or a separate crossfader to select what is played through the headphones when split output mode is enabled - instead, the headphones always play the opposite of what the master output plays, so if the crossfader is fully over to deck A, the headphones just play deck B; and if the crossfader is in the middle, the headphones play a mix of both decks.
This does make some sense, as some DJs prefer to listen to the incoming track in their headphones with one ear off while listening to the current track through the speakers, but being unable to hear the 2 decks together in headphones makes setting levels (there is no auto-gain feature) and beatmatching much harder than it needs to be, particularly in a party situation where there aren't likely to be any monitor speakers for the DJ.
Hopefully this lack of manual control of the cue mix will be addressed in a future update, as it would make it hard to use the app live, or indeed when trying to record a mix without using speakers.
Mixing and EQing
For mixing between the 2 tracks, most are likely to use the crossfader rather than the volume faders, small and tucked away in the corner as they are (it would be nice to have the option to make them more prominent for DJs who prefer to mix with them), which works well with a smooth (non-adjustable) curve.
There doesn't seem to be a limiter on the master output, which means it's possible to distort the output when playing 2 tracks if you aren't careful with levels and EQ.
This brings us on to another issue with the current version of djay: the EQs suffer from a strange choice of crossover frequencies, with the low EQ creeping in to the low-mid range (so cutting out too much of elements such as vocals), and the mid EQ not having much effect.
I'm assured that this will be adjusted in a future update however, and otherwise the EQs work great - a set of 3 faders (plus one for gain) open in a pop-up over each deck on pressing the relevant button, and each fader can be double-tapped to reset it to 0db, allowing DJs to easily cut or swap frequencies.
Effects and scratching
There are no effects or looping features in the current version of djay (a dual-mode high/low-pass filter, as found in Traktor, would make a great future addition both for effecting and for quick mixing), so its final key feature is scratching.
Touching the record stops it turning and allows you to manipulate it by moving your finger backwards and forwards, and while I'm no turntablist, I'd say it sounds pretty good and is very responsive, with the zoomed-in waveform, "jump to cue" button and the white cue marker (and optional tape!) on the vinyl making it easy to scratch a cue point.
Quickly manipulating the crossfader on a touch screen obviously isn't ideal, but djay has a good workaround: tapping the crossfader anywhere along its length causes it to jump to the middle for as long as your finger is held down.
This means you can set the crossfader all the way over to the other side, then rhythmically tap it to cut the record in and out while you scratch - easier than learning how to crab! Another fun feature is using 2 fingers to scratch, which automatically cuts the crossfader between its current position and the middle at 1/16th note intervals of the current BPM, instantly creating a gated scratching effect - good fun, if a bit gimmicky.
It's also possible to flick the record backwards to backspin it, and while the iPad isn't about to replace the 1210 as a turntablist's weapon of choice, it is possible to have a lot of fun and pull off some reasonably advanced scratching using djay.
There are a few other features to note: as previously mentioned, djay can record your set, activated by pressing the record button at the top of the interface.
This works exactly as you'd expect, creating a CD-quality AIFF file on the iPad which can then be listened back to through the record window or copied to your computer using iTunes' file sharing feature.
Also, djay has an automix mode, which allows you to select a playlist and have djay blend the tracks together. There are plenty of options for transition length and style, and djay can even attempt to match the BPMs for you.
Human DJs needn't lose any sleep over this feature (it basically just crossfades from one track to the other), but it could be useful at a party, and thanks to iOS 4.2's multitasking it can run in the background, so you can browse the web or edit your photos while djay auto-mixes music for you.
If you have AirPlay-enabled hardware, djay can wirelessly stream audio to it.
I wasn't able to test this feature, although I'm told it's not really designed for real-time mixing due to the latency involved, but works well with automix.
Overall, djay has the hallmarks of many of the best and most enjoyable iOS apps: it is beautifully designed and incredibly easy to use, with a simple user interface that hides plenty of nice touches and offers enough depth for advanced users to pull off some great mixes without overwhelming beginners.
It performs well and, more importantly, is a huge amount of fun - it's easy to spend hours playing around, whatever level you're at. It may lack advanced features such as effects but these will doubtless arrive in future, and I'd much rather have an app as well thought and usable out as djay with the all the core functionality, rather than one full of features and options but lacking in design flair and ease-of-use.
Once a couple of issues are addressed (manual cue mix control and the EQ frequencies), I'd love to use djay to play at a party and can actually imagine people being more receptive to its easy-to-understand interface than they would be to something more cryptic like Traktor.
For DJs who already own an iPad, djay is an essential purchase: whether you use it out or not, I guarantee you'll have a huge amount of fun with it.
Is it worth buying an iPad for?
For those who don't own an iPad, is djay incentive enough to purchase one? When you consider that for under £400, you can get a device that can operate as a touchscreen Midi controller and music production environment, as well as a general purpose tablet computer, and carry out the same role as 2 decks and a mixer while fitting in a small bag, it might be hard to resist.
It will be interesting to see what competitors bring to the scene (for example, Mixr is due to arrive soon), and the future of DJing may not lie in an interface which simply reproduces the traditional decks-and-mixer layout on a touchscreen - but particularly at this price, djay is too good to miss out on.
What do you think? Would you consider buying an iPad just for this app? Do you see a great future for ultraportable DJing or do you think this is too far removed from "the real thing"? Let us know in the comments...