First Review: Serato ITCH 2.0 DJ Software
New DJ software is big news, especially when it is a new version of one of the big programs. After a long wait, Serato has just released the first public beta version of ITCH 2.0, and so this is the world's first chance to see the software the trade first saw at the Musikmesse Show in April, as reported by Digital DJ Tips at the time.
What follows is our first review of the ITCH 2.0 public beta, including some background for people who may be aren't familiar with ITCH, a look at the new features, and our thoughts on whether - with the onslaught of Traktor Pro 2 - Serato has done enough to keep ITCH as a contender at the forefront of professional DJ software.
ITCH is Serato's controller software, alongside Serato Scratch Live, its digital vinyl offering. Unlike Traktor, they're not the same program - with Traktor, Traktor Scratch Pro 2 is basically built in to Traktor Pro 2, waiting to be activated by the correct licence, but ITCH and Scratch are separately developed.
In practice, this has meant that features in Serato Scratch that ITCH users have longed for have sometimes remained on wishlists for quite a while! It has sometimes felt to ITCH users like it has lagged behind Serato Scratch, due to that program's more substantial feature list, and the fact that ITCH 2.0 was announced a long time ago and has been delayed.
Meanwhile, of course, controllers have moved on immensely. Traktor Pro 2 with the S4 has been a runaway success, coming right at one of the founding ideas of ITCH, which is that hardware and software should "just work".
The way ITCH approaches this is by only running on certain hardware (eight systems, to be exact), which is always sold with the full version of the program. Once you've got ITCH hardware, all upgrades of the software are free, forever. It's a bit like the iPhone and iOS - the deal is that because you've got the hardware, you'll always have access to the latest software, no upgrade fee required. Anyone can download ITCH from Serato's site - but it will only enter DJ mode when you plug an ITCH-certified controller in.
In the last few months, there have been several interesting new ITCH controllers. The [ddj-s1] aims to get CDJ and mobile jocks playing with ITCH, the [ns6] gives four-deck DJs who want to mix digital and analogue the perfect workstation, and of course the Novation Twitch (US$499 / £399) is the most controllerist-friendly ITCH controller yet.
So we're back to the question - is the holy anticipated ITCH 2.0 up to the task of pushing this platform forward? Let's find out...
Setting up and preparation
Download the beta, install it, plug in your controller, and launch the software. That's it. No changes there - it's as simple as it can be.
The first thing you notice is the new colour scheme, and the fact that there are now day and night modes. Day mode looks a little like iTunes with white and grey banded library entries, and night mode is darker than ITCH 1.7, with a completely black background. This is a welcome improvement for daytime DJs. The next thing you notice are the new ways of viewing your library. At the bottom of the screen are four choices. You can have list view (the current way of seeing your music), or three cover art views, which are list view with covers, and then two different views with the track information either to the right of or below the cover art. I love them.
All ID3 tags are editable, and apparently you can add cover art by dragging a jpg or png file onto the track in any album art view, but I couldn't get this to work.
The software now has "smart crates", which are the equivalent of iTunes smart playlists. This means you can set rules for what the crates should contain. For instance, list all tunes with 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991 or 1992 in the year, and "house" in the genre, and you've got an instant old school house crate, that updates as you rediscover and add classics to your library.
It's not quite as sophisticated as iTunes smart playlists, but it's good enough. This alone means it is now feasible to use Serato ITCH as your DJ music library software, and bypass iTunes altogether. It's the first mainstream controller DJ software that I've felt comfortable saying that about. I'm going to try and do just that for the next few weeks and see how correct I am here, but it looks promising from the off.
Of course, the advantage of using Serato ITCH as your library software is that when you're listening through a playlist, you can be adding cues and loops, and doing your beatgridding, as you go on.
Copying and managing files
Reinforcing the idea that ITCH can now be used as your DJ music library as well as your performance program, it is now possible to organise your music files from the software too.
In the Files panel, you can drag and drop files and/or folders around on your drives or between different places on the same drive, and ITCH will prompt you whether you want to move or copy the material, and whether you wish your library to recognise it in just the new location, or in both the old and the new locations (in the case of copying). This also works with smart crates.
Serato Playlists and Live Playlists
It is possible to submit your track history, or even what you're playing live, to your Serato profile at serato.com for editing and sharing - although doing it live latter would involve WiFi while DJing which can't be a good idea. I've not tested this but it's an interesting addition to the program. I'm curious to spend some time seeing how it takes off for ITCH users.
DJing with ITCH 2.0
So tunes imported, analysed, beatgridded, sorted into nice new smart crates (I just went for genres to start with) - now it's time to plug the hardware in and look at what's changed in performance mode.
Again, the first thing you notice is the new look. While there's still a view with two waveforms going the full width of the screen, and a view with no waveforms at all, there's now also a view with the decks "stacked" up on each other (good for four-deck DJing) and a more Serato Scratch-esque view with vertical waveforms and a gap in the middle of the screen, that just looks odd to me.
Still, the point is you have a choice. The no-waveform mode is Library Mode, and you can toggle between this and your currently set mode by pressing Space.
Several options are now in a new mini-menu - these are Record, DJ-FX, Mic/Aux (all from previous versions of ITCH), and the new SP-6 sample player. More on the sample player later, but the point here is you can switch all of these off entirely, giving you even more screen real estate for your library and/or waveforms, depending on the view you prefer. KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) survives to 2.0, and I'm glad.
The sync functionality has changed, with plusses and minuses to the way things now work.
With beatgridding on, when you load a track and hit "sync", a blue colour in new flashing bars at the top of the screen indicates a form of master tempo and track phasing, and then subsequent tracks will snap to that when you load those and hit "sync" too. They call this "Beat Sync". There's a similar function in Virtual DJ. Then when you start a track playing, the beatgrids will line up.
If you subsequently nudge a track off beat from the grid, the flashing beat indicators turn a light brown colour to indicate you're in "Tempo Sync" mode. Now, the software keeps the beatgrids relative to how you've set them. This makes it easy to adjust "groove" within beatgrids, and is particularly useful for DJing with more than two decks. It replaces the old "master tempo" system which was confusing.
The thing I don't like about it is you can't load a track and set Tempo Sync mode, and therefore then be able to drop the track where you want, as it will always snap to grid. If you want to do this, you have to load the track, nudge it off beat (to turn the markers orange), then return to where you want to start manually. I used to be able to match the BPMs on Twitch by pressing shift and sync, and on the VCI-300 by just pressing Sync, but it doesn't work any more like that.
This will take some getting used to. Fact is, if you're mixing into a badly beatgridded tune, you may get unexpected behaviour. You can, of course, turn beatgrids off entirely to solve the problem, but I like DJing with them, I just want the option to choose Tempo Sync mode over Beat Sync mode easily without having to do what I outlined above.
You could also simply match the beats manually when you load a track, but I liked the ease of loading a track and using a key to match the BPMs. I accept that I sometimes like beatgridding and sometimes not so maybe I need to get off the fence on this, but I think options are always good.
However, in doing away with Master Tempo, they've played a blinder - I never liked it and am glad it's gone. Jury's out on these changes overall though - I need to tighten up my beatgrids and play a set or two with it to decide.
The SP-6 sample player finally brings samples to ITCH. You can load full length tracks or samples and loops from your library directly to any of the slots (there are 24 slots in total, in banks of six, meaning you can play six at a time), and using sync (same colour coding system as the main decks), lock them to what's going on on up there on the main decks.
You can use "instant doubles" to throw a track from a main deck onto a sample deck once mixed in, in order to free up that deck for another tune. This alone is an excellent feature, especially for two-deck ITCH DJs.
There are various other playback modes including trigger mode and on-off mode (which are quite similar), and hold mode for momentary drops, and you can choose where to start from, such as cue points, loop-in points or just the start of the sample. Sample audio can be sent to SP-6 out (it has its own gain), any of the main decks, or straight to the master.
These sample decks are not the same as Traktor's: While in Traktor you can't play whole tracks, you do get filters and the ability to "sample" direct from what's playing to a slot. It would be good to lock a loop on a playing deck and throw that to a sample deck, for instance, and even get some use of effects down there too.
One good thing is the ability to add or remove features of the sample decks to suit what you need - you can choose to display or remove everything from mode, play from position, the pitch slider (yes, they have individual pitches as well as sync), the level meters and adjusters, and the output selectors, to trim them down and preserve screen real estate.
One not-so-good feature is that you often need the mouse and keyboard, as there are no assigned keyboard shortcuts for many functions. I think that Serato should look at shortcuts for more of the sample deck functionality.
It will be interesting to see how the hardware manufacturers and Serato together manage to incorporate sample deck use into the ITCH controllers (or not, as the case may be), as good mappings will make them a more expressive instrument than they are now. It would also be good to be able to save sample sets - that way you could have favourite loops, trademark vocal snippets, idents etc always ready for you.
However, all in all it's a great start, and I'm looking forward to having my favourite spoken vocal drops on sample decks instead of having to load then onto a spare main deck on my VCI-300 and then having to unload then again just to get the next record on.
There are lots of small changes, of which the biggest one is beatgrid lock - no accidental changing of a track's settings once you're happy with them anymore by engaging this. The ability to adjust the font size and album art size is also a nice touch.
In a way it's weird reviewing Serato ITCH, because on the one hand it's free to all owners, so there's really no debate about whether it's worth "paying for" like with other software - just go and get it! But then again, a lot rides on each new version, not least because the partnerships with the hardware manufacturers who are producing the only equipment ITCH will work on are dependent on people approving of the platform.
Also, as you can't remap stuff like with Traktor or Virtual DJ (for instance), the focus must be on how easy any new features are to use, and how they've been implemented in hardware.
Obviously the public beta has only been around for about 24 hours as I write this, so lots of questions are unanswered (and it's still a beta of course), but overall it looks good, works well (no crashes yet...) and personally I'm not intending on switching back (I may get jittery and return to 1.7 at my gigs, but I'm a bit happy-go-lucky like that, so who knows?).
The sample player is a plugin (as is the Serato playlists functionality, actually), so plugin architecture has been implemented, which hopefully bodes well for the future. More and better effects, video and The Bridge with Ableton Live do need to follow sooner rather than later (after all, it was 2009 when this version was first announced, let's hope there's now some more traction at Serato to keep ITCH up with the pack).
Simplicity and immediacy are also ITCH strongpoints, so it's nice to see that even within the sample player (our first real look at plugin architecture), elements can be displayed or hidden to keep screen real estate for what you want it for - be that waveforms, library, whatever. The player itself needs some usability changes, though, especially with regards to keyboard shortcuts.
I would have loved to have seen some kind of preview player like Traktor has, just to quickly play a snippet of a track in your 'phones before loading.
The offline mode is now lovely for browsing, mainly due to cover art (I "think" in pictures for lots of my music, especially the old stuff I used to actually own on vinyl), and smart playlists means I can organise within ITCH - something which as I said, I'm planning on doing.
So overall? Good, as long as it's the start of a road that will bring us some of the major features we're still waiting for.
• Go and get it and join in the beta testing: It's on the Serato website.
Are you an ITCH user who's tried the beta? Would you ditch iTunes for ITCH's library features? Any other thoughts? Please let us know in the comments.