Scratching On Controllers: 5 Myths Busted

| Read time: 6 mins
Scratching on controller
Last updated 6 November, 2017

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No, this isn’t a mock up – you can actually buy this stick-on scratch set for your iPad. And while I wouldn’t recommend it as a serious options for digital scratch DJs, it does work!

As many of you will unfortunately be only too aware, there’s a whole army of haters out there, continually bashing digital DJs and controllerists because they don’t use vinyl or didn’t “come from” vinyl. And nowhere is this more true than among a certain section of scratch DJs.

As a scratch DJ myself since the late 1980s, I’ve never understood this. I earned my stripes in the vinyl days, and yeah it was cool – but you want to know something? It wasn’t cool because we used vinyl, it was cool in spite of the fact we had to use vinyl! We had no choice other than to deal with ridiculous prices, warping, jumping, hissy sound, the weight, the size, the excess luggage costs, the risk of damage or loss. If it could have been as simple as digital “back in the day”, would we have wanted it? I would have – in a heartbeat.

Just recently house legend MK laid into “DJs who’ve been playing 20 years who look down on anything else but vinyl”, in a promo video for Native Instruments. It’s what we at DDJT have always believed: that far from holding you back as a DJ, digital can make it all more exciting, interesting, creative and fun for you.

But what about scratching? You have to learn to scratch with vinyl, surely? Wrong… as someone who’s taught thousands of DJs to scratch in our Scratching For Controller DJs course, I know this to be untrue, and this is what I want to tackle today. Too many DJs feel restricted from getting started learning to scratch on DJ controllers because they think “you have to learn on vinyl first”. So, let’s deal with the most common misconceptions about scratching using DJ controllers:

5 Myths busted

1. Scratching on a controller doesn’t sound the same as on vinyl

Actually, that’s correct to a certain extent, but not for the reasons the purists believe. When you scratch on a controller the sound doesn’t jump and, assuming your track sounds clean to begin with, there are no hisses or crackles. The sound you are scratching will not degrade in quality the more you scratch with it, and you don’t get any bass rumble or feedback through the system (all these issues are common with vinyl).

So yes, it’s true, digital scratching doesn’t sound the same as vinyl – for all the right reasons. So what do the naysayers mean when they say this? They’re referring to the “warm” vinyl sound as opposed to digital, about how the digital processing takes the analogue identity out of the sound. Well, if using digital source material is good enough for Qbert, Craze, DJ Angelo, Shiftee and Jazzy Jeff, then this myth is most definitely busted. Check out scratch legend D-Styles using a Vestax Spin and Djay4 in a head-to-head battle with a vinyl DJ:

2. Latency means you can’t do really fast scratching

Digital latency can be an issue when you are using a controller that was not designed to be integrated with a particular software application, but if you’re using a controller / software combination that was designed to play nicely together, chances are this simply won’t be an issue for you.

For example the Traktor S4 or S2 paired with Traktor Pro 2 software has incredibly tight integration for super-fast scratches and cuts, same with the Reloop Terminal Mix series and Serato DJ – you get the idea. Put bluntly if your scratches don’t sound right, it’s because you’ve either got the settings wrong or you need to practise! Check out these scratch DJs from San Diego putting the S4 through its paces and ask yourself if you still believe this myth. As DJ Happee says himself: “I guess live shows will never be the same again…”

Also, check out this dude on the DDJ-SX:

3. You can’t scratch on cheap gear and/or small jogwheels

This myth applies to DJing overall, that you won’t be a “good DJ” if you only have entry-level gear. The manufacturers are clearly not going to do anything to talk you out of this mindset, hoping you will continually upgrade in the quest to be taken more seriously. I have found some of the best controllers for scratching to be some of the least expensive, the Mixtrack Pro 2 comes to mind as does the Denon DJ MC2000 with its small jogwheels.

As we saw when we busted myth #2, small jogs, like those on the S2 and S4, are no barrier to being able to scratch like a demon. If you’ve got a controller with jogwheels, you can scratch with it – period. Check out this guy scratching, cutting and chirping away on a Mixtrack Pro: You can pick these up for US$50 on ebay and the Mixtrack Pro 2 is also fantastically capable at around $200:

4. You can’t beat juggle without spinning visual cues

Beatjuggling is tricky, whether it’s on vinyl or not, it takes incredible coordination, rhythm and practice. When DJs beat juggle on vinyl, they use marks on the record labels to be able to give themselves a visual cue of the position of the record. And those records are constantly spinning. In general this is not available to controller DJs, it’s replicated on some DJ controllers, like the LED lights on Vestax VCI-380 and the spinning platters on the Numark NS7II, but is not the norm, and is mostly only available on more expensive units.

So can beatjuggling, and the more advanced techniques like “chasing” be done on a normal controller? You guessed it, absolutely yes, and DJ Wreckdown is going to bust this myth for us in the following video, with his awesome routine on the Denon MC3000 and Traktor (also proving that some non-native controllers work great with Traktor too!):

5. Scratching on a controller is not like “performing” on turntables

The extent to which you are “performing” depends entirely on you… it doesn’t matter what set-up you’re using. One of the best party-rocking performance DJs out there is DJ Angelo, and as part of his role of brand ambassador for Reloop he puts together mind-blowing routines using controllers that showcase not only his own abilities, but the capability of the gear too.

This landmark demo he did for Reloop at Musikmesse in 2013 is an absolute masterclass in music programming, scratching, beatjuggling, controllerism and DJ performance, not limited in any way by using a controller, or indeed limited in his mindset. His enthusiasm (even in the sterile environment of an exhibition hall during the day) is as infectious as his skills are impressive:

A word on DVS…

So what about DVS (digital vinyl system)? This is vinyl, right? Well yes, but with some significant differences that only digital can bring. Most of the top-flight scratch DJs use this system by default now, and why? Because they only need carry maximum of four records (one timecode vinyl for each deck, and maybe two spares), and if they get scratched, warped, broken or stolen, they are easily replaced while the music collection is not compromised in any way (always back up your music!) DVS even deals with jumping needles – the needle can be jumping all over the place but the audio stays solidly locked in the groove, opening the artform up to faster and faster techniques.

Another reason DVS is so widely used is it means the DJ can continue to use the medium he or she learned on. Think about it, if you drive an automatic car all your life, you can’t just jump into a stick shift manual car and expect to nail it straight away. DVS is “digital in the comfort zone” for scratch DJs, but as DJ Angelo (who also uses DVS) proved earlier, the skills are totally transferrable to controllers.

Check out Qbert & Revolution’s mastery of DVS here:

Finally…

For those DJs that want to be vinyl-only, who love vinyl and all its history… If it feels more “real” to you, that’s cool, follow your heart and spread a positive message about the thing you’re passionate about. If people concentrated more on loving what they do, and less on hating what others do, then a common respect among DJs would exist that’s sadly sometimes lacking.

And if you want to learn to scratch, but can only get your hands on a $50 controller and intro software, get started today… you have no excuse not to, especially now you know there’s nothing stopping you other that your own fears and the attitudes of a small number of “vinyl snobs” who will probably always be there. Why let such things hold you back?

Are you a controller DJ who’s learned to scratch having never touched vinyl? Or have you made the switch? Or, are you a vinyl DJ who never wants to stop using the “real thing”? Wherever you stand on the matter, let us know your thoughts in the comments below…