New System Lets DJs 'Scratch' MP3s

Final Scratch hardware and software allows users to treat computer files as if they were records.

Drop 2,000 hackers into a field in the Netherlands late at night and what do you get?

Conceivably a very techno-savvy party.

But when just such a group got together for the "Hacking in Progress" conference in 1997,

someone showed up ill-prepared.

"We only had about 20 records to play -- and that had to be fixed," said Mark-Jan Bastian,

a conference attendee. What the organizers did have was a computer server with 20

gigabytes of music -- roughly 6,000 songs -- in the then-recently developed MP3 format.

"But controlling the MP3 player was very hard for the DJ to do," Bastian recalled from his

home in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. "The controls onscreen, using the mouse, just didn't

cut it. It was not intuitive."

Thus was born the idea for Final Scratch, a product that allows DJs to "scratch" MP3s by

plugging in a traditional turntable to a computer. The system, slated to debut in June for

$299, is manufactured by N2IT, a company Bastian founded last year.

The advantage for DJs is they no longer have to schlep crate after crate of vinyl records to

every gig. Final Scratch uses a "blank" vinyl record encoded with a special audio signal.

When a DJ places it on an ordinary turntable and scratches it by manipulating the needle

back and forth, Final Scratch software sends a signal to manipulate whatever MP3 is cued

up on the attached computer just as if it were an actual record being scratched.

While DJs traditionally have been on the cutting edge of culture, the jury is out on whether

they'll trade in their beloved records for computer files.

"I'd be surprised if it caught on among people who really manipulate their turntables," said

Dan "The Automator" Nakamura, who can be heard spinning the wheels of steel on Dr.

Octagon's "Bear

Witness" (RealAudio excerpt), and who more recently produced the track

"Do You

Wanna Get Heavy?" (RealAudio excerpt) for the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

"But on the other hand," Nakamura said, "to have something like that to play your stuff off

of and not have to lug around a million records would be pretty cool."

Nakamura said he takes about 50 records with him when he DJs 90-minute sets with Prince

Paul. Depending on the particular records, that amount of music, converted to MP3 form,

could easily fit on a hard drive with several gigs of memory.

MP3 (short for Motion Picture Experts Group, audio layer 3) technology compresses

digitally encoded music into small packages. It was originally developed for sending audio

over the Internet. While its popularity has exploded online, people are looking to move

MP3s into other arenas. Companies, including Diamond Multimedia, already make

Walkman-like MP3 players, and a British company, Empeg, plans to begin selling an MP3

car stereo in June.

DJs, however, in the past have resisted updates to their craft, Nakamura said. "For years

now they've been trying to get DJs onto CD scratching machines, and it's not the same,"

he said, referring to machines with a dial to manipulate compact discs.

Bastian said Final Scratch stands a better chance of catching on because DJs can use their

own turntables, needles and mixers with the MP3 equipment. For their $299, purchasers

get two blank Final Scratch records, software, audio cables and a hardware box. They

must supply their own DJing equipment and a computer running the Be operating system.

The product should be ready in June, with a number of improvements to come later,

Bastian said. DJs typically have two turntables in their setup; at this point however, the

Final Scratch software allows only one of those to manipulate MP3s. That means a DJ can

spin an MP3 and a traditional record at the same time, but not two MP3s.

Also, there is a slight lag time -- about 40 milliseconds -- between when the needle is

moved on a Final Scratch record and when the computer produces the appropriate sound.

The company is working to reduce that time, Bastian said.

The ultimate goal, he said, is not to bring on the death of vinyl, but to give DJs more

options.

"Real vinyl still has its advantages -- you don't need a computer, and it's more direct than a

computer will ever be," Bastian said. "But it's a nice add-on to have MP3 files. It opens

new possibilities."