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Tuesday, August 06, 2002
New on the club scene: hard disk DJs "spinning" MP3s

"...Attractive hipsters fill the high-ceilinged space with laughter and cigarette smoke, bopping their heads to the beat as they order dlrs 7 gin and tonics. They come to meet friends and hear the disc jockey spin the week's worries away. What most don't know, however, is that this DJ's turntables are empty — all the music comes from two 10-gigabyte disk drives, each smaller than a pack of cigarettes..."

Ben Kirkendoll leaves the records at home in favor of his iPods, Apple Computer's disk-based music player, which he simply plugs into an audio system's mixer. He's part of a small but growing number of DJs who have turned to MP3 music files for their accessibility and convenience.

Some equipment manufacturers are even getting hip, offering specialized products beyond the iPod, a general usage music player. A few digital DJ systems are already available, and one due in September promises to combine MP3 technology with old-fashioned mixing capabilities.

New York ad salesman Michael Parrish, who noticed the BQE's DJ was turntables-free when he requested a song, says anyone can be a DJ now. "When I was younger I felt like there was a talent to it because they were spinning records backwards and forwards and really cutting it in and overlapping songs," Parrish says. "It doesn't take much talent to be a DJ anymore. You just have to have a good flow of songs."

Kirkendoll, by day an artist at a New York advertising agency, acknowledges that plugging an iPod into a sound system and cueing up tracks doesn't require even a fraction of the skill needed to spin records. And he can't use iPods to match up beats, alter the pitch of music or spin records back and forth for a scratching effect — all things that professional club DJs consider essential.

But Kirkendoll, who calls himself "The Podiatrist," was hired for his collection of music and penchant for feeling the vibe of a crowd, not his ability to mix or scratch. "I love that you can walk into a bar with two little gimmicks in either pocket and have over 4,000 songs to play," says Taya Pocock, booking manager at the BQE.

Part of the beauty of MP3s, Kirkendoll says, is that a regular guy with a day job and a passion for music can be a DJ without years of practicing and thousands of dollars scouring record shops for those rare must-haves.

Peer-to-peer networks and Internet download sites provide Kirkendoll with a hefty supply, though he still relies heavily on CDs from his own collection, which he converts into MP3 files.

Manufacturers are starting to recognize that DJs are obtaining more of their music from the Internet — some legally, others not so — or converting their CD tracks. And they're responding with products.

Pioneer is promising for September the DMP-555, an MP3 player it says will include scratch capabilities and pitch controls normally available only to conventional DJs. And Gem Sound has the MP3X-Pro mixer, which allows digitally downloaded music to be stored in the unit itself.

There are also software-based programs, such as PCDJ by Visiosonic and DJPower by DJPower International LLC, but they require a computer.

Gerald Webb, a DJ who switched from vinyl to CDs eight years ago, thinks many manufacturers have been reluctant to offer MP3 devices because they fear copyright lawsuits.

Pioneer's response is the Secure Data Card, which stores and transfers digital files for the DMP-555. The SD card allows the same song to be copied only three times and permits transfers only to computers from which a file originated.

But as for assuring the digital files were legally obtained to begin with, "there's really no way that we can regulate what our users are doing," Pioneer's Brian Buonassissi says. "They have to cover themselves."

Gem Sound takes a similar stance.

"MP3 is definitely legal," marketing manager Barry Seiden says. ""There are ways to do it that are illegal. The person that's using it has to decide."

A 1998 copyright law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, bans circumventing anti-piracy measures built into software and devices. But it does not require manufacturers to incorporate such measures. A bill pending in the Senate would. That proposal, from by Sen. Ernest Hollings would "shut down electronic DJ culture," said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a University of Wisconsin professor critical of modern copyright laws.

Further, manufacturers are increasingly placing controls on CDs so that they'll play in a CD player but can't be converted to MP3 format. That means some legally obtained music already can't be transferred to iPods and other MP3 devices. For now, the digital movement's effect on DJing is limited largely because many longtime DJs still frown on the technology.

"I think we kind of tend to stick to the tried and true stuff. Not that we don't embrace technology, it's just very new," says Brian Pember, co-founder and creative director of Groovetech, a Seattle-based Web site that broadcasts live DJ sets and deals electronic music.

He says DJs who use laptops, MP3 players and digital turntables in clubs get scoffed at by the "purists." "You'll definitely see a lot of snickering and sneering," Pember says, "but really it's out of a sense of fear."

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