Getting a new DJ controller this Christmas? Chances are it'll come with a "light edition", or "LE" version of one of the major DJ software packages. Designed to get you going right out of the box, these programs offer fewer features than the full versions, and are often customised to make your first experience with DJ software as painless as possible.
With Serato (Intro), Traktor (LE) and Virtual DJ (LE) all in on the act, we though it was high time to find out a bit more about how such software ends up on that DVD tucked in with your USB cable and quickstart leaflet when you unpack your brand new controller. So we took half an hour out of the busy day of Chris Stoll, who develops versions of Virtual DJ to be packaged "in the box", to ask him how it all comes about.
So Chris, how long have you been preparing LE software for Virtual DJ?
I have been with Atomix / VirtualDJ for about five years. I started by writing the manual for version 4 and providing technical support to our user community. We had already established a great relationship with companies like Hercules with our "DJ Console" product line from prior versions. And we had partnered with Numark to produce the CUE and VirtualVinyl products to support the new Numark hardware.
When we released version 6 in May 2009 with our improved scripting engine and the VDJScript language, I began writing the files for bringing native support of Midi and HID controllers that were already on the market. With the improved flexibility of integrating a controller into VirtualDJ, the manufacturers began requesting more and more of their existing controllers be supported by Virtual DJ Pro, citing a growing demand by users for compatibility.
Not long after, companies like Denon, Pioneer, Vestax and American Audio all started requested LE versions for bundling with their hardware - so now we have a team of developers that handles hardware integration.
Where do you live? How did you get into this game?
I live in the state of Virginia in the USA. My professional background is in computer programming, database development, and information / knowledge management. I currently provide hardware (controller) integration development for Atomix/VirtualDJ. And for over 20 years, I have worked also as a DJ, holding several different residencies, and also working a mobile DJ.
How it all starts...
At what stage of a product's design or conception do you get asked to develop its LE software?
It has varied over the years. With the exception of the Hercules products, it was typically after the hardware was already on the market and manufactures wanted support within our Virtual DJ Pro product line. Then it shifted to adding Virtual DJ LE as an alternative product to be bundled with existing hardware. But in the last couple of years, the manufacturers have started to include us as early as the concept phase.
Without breaking any confidential agreements, I can tell you that at least four of the hottest controllers on the market right now had influence from Virtual DJ working with the manufacturers at the concept or "alpha" design phase of the controllers. And there are more to come where we have worked closely with the manufacturer upfront.
Additionally, we are now sent almost every new controller developed, at the manufacturing sample stage, to ensure it works with Virtual DJ Pro right out of the box regardless of the software it may be bundled with. And, there are manufacturers that have changed their mind mere weeks before the first manufacturing run and made requests for bundling LE.
What are the "variants" of LE software? I notice some are skinned, some aren't, some have various features removed, some don't - who decides these things?
We offer as a design consideration the opportunity for the manufacture to request a custom skin that reflects the design of the controller shipping with the LE software. That design is customised to the controller functionality as well, so what the user sees happening on the controller happens on the interface.
As we all know, each hardware company has their own unique way of making their products function. For example, a Denon unit works a little different than a Pioneer product, which is slightly different from Vestax. We can customise the interface and functionality so that a previous customer of these products "knows" how to use it right out of the box. I believe this is one of the unique services we offer that makes the whole learning experience for the user more fun and exciting when they get their new hardware.
How long does it typically take to prepare a version of LE software for a company?
It can come down to a couple different factors. First being the custom skin, that can have an impact because not only does it take time to build the graphics (and in some cases get the graphics from the manufacture), but there is the entire review and approval process. We want to make sure the look reflects their product and represents their brand.
And just as critical as the skin is the complexity of the controller. I have turned some units around in a matter of just a few weeks because the controller had just the basic transport controls, a few knobs for controlling FXs and/or channel levels, a crossfader, and using our standard LE skins, with the extreme being about six months because the unit is very extensive in what it can control.
All that is just our effort on the Virtual DJ side - what really makes it go smooth and in a timely fashion is the manufacturer knowing exactly what they want, providing control code documentation early, and most crucial is getting us a working sample of actual controller as soon as possible!
On average if these ideal elements are in place, and no one has any last minute "Aha!" great idea moments; we can turn around a product in a couple of months. But don't think we only work on one hardware unit at a time. I have worked on up to five different controllers at once. Just this year alone, we have brought support to over 70 different hardware controllers and over half of those are being shipped with LE. Additionally, the majority of them have a customised skin to match the controller.
The team of people
How many people are involved in producing an LE software version, both at Virtual DJ and at a hardware company?
At Atomix / VirtualDJ, there are at minimum four or five people involved in bringing an LE product together per product, and we always have several projects running concurrently: software, hardware, and skin developers; contract management; logistics and operations management; and our general manager overseeing the complete process.
On the manufacturer's side it is about the same amount of people or more. There is always a product manager (or central point of contact), a product hardware expert or two, and a cadre of testers. And those from the manufacturer that are hardware experts or testers are typically also DJs. So, there are not just people turning knobs, moving sliders, and spinning jogwheels: There are working DJs which brings a lot of excellent feedback and helps in getting through the process of development.
Who does the actual skinning to make software look like physical products (I'm thinking especially of the Numark DJ2GO skin, which was very distinctive)?
The majority of skin development comes from our own own in-house graphic designers. Some manufacturers do provide finished skins to be bundled with LE however that is very rare.
Who does the testing?
We do testing on both sides. We’ll test what we create internally and then send that work to the manufacturer, which starts the back and forth process. Some of the larger corporations like Denon and Pioneer have entire divisions that handle Q&A for all of their product lines. That can sometimes be a very time consuming process but always a great experience for us.
But, being a DJ, and having used VirtualDJ since version 2, and doing the integration of the controller; I am not afraid to take a pre-production controller on a gig and use it! By the end of the process, every feature and function has been tested and re-tested on both sides.
The pros and cons of LE software
What are your views on the whole LE vs full version debate?
Limited Edition software has its place, but it is a "double-edged sword" if I can use that analogy. The primary purpose is intended to give the new hardware owner the opportunity to learn the features of the controller. There are plenty of features that a new DJ getting started has at their fingertips in the LE, but as they progress in their DJ skills they can only continue to grow by getting the full Pro version of the software.
And, the double edge is if a seasoned DJ picks up a new controller, then they will get bored with the limited features real quick. And, I think that is where a lot of the criticism comes from about LE versions. People think they should get the "whole" experience in the software that comes with their controller and quickly forget that what they paid for is the controller, not the software. The LE software is only there to give them something to use immediately, in order to learn the controller's capabilities.
How many LE versions have you worked on?
Honestly, I have lost count. I work on controllers and sometimes they will ship with an LE version and some don't. For me it is really about bringing as much support to the manufacturer's products as possible. If part of the deal is the packaging of the LE product then that is an extra perk for us and chance to get Virtual DJ into more DJs' hands.
What's the biggest problem you've ever had to overcome in adapting software for a manufacturer, and how did you do it?
I wouldn't say there have been 'problems', but more like challenges! Most can be resolved easily with good communication like design intent, clear explanation of features, and so on. The biggest challenge in the end is always making the customer happy with the complete package - and by customer, I don't just mean the manufacturer, but also the new or seasoned DJ that will be buying the controller.
What I don't want to happen is have the manufacturer like the integration we've done, the skin design, the software features and so on, only to have the DJs' not be happy and think that they made a bad choice. Sure it happens, and of course there is not one controller concept out there that will satisfy 100% of the market. So, it's is always about the complete package representing the both the controller and the software that is the biggest challenge to overcome.
Past and future...
Is there any particular adaptation of VirtualDJ you're especially proud of? Why?
Not that I take any of the LE development lightly, because I don't. But, when we can provide a level of support for a controller that doesn't have LE shipping with it, and that controller brings people to Virtual DJ, and potentially bring the manufacturer to us too; then those are the moments that make me proud of what I do and what we, VirtualDJ, bring to the DJ community.
Where do you see the whole LE thing going say in the next five years?
Wow, it is really hard to tell. I don't think very many DJs know where things will be in the next five years! If you just look at the last five years there has been so much change. There really wasn't anything like an LE DJ software product five years ago. Sure, you had "trial" versions but the hardware really wasn't there yet for DJs. Back then you had real-time FX processors, drum machines, etc. that DJs used but the features were limited to the product.
We are seeing the "CD vs vinyl" debate take over once again, but now its "analogue vs digital". But I think as long as there is hardware being made there will be a place for LE versions of software.
Have you been satisfied with the LE software that came with your controller? Or did you find yourself wanting to upgrade quickly? We'd like to know your thoughts in the comments!