Vinyl versus CDs: The Great Debate

Newsletter Signup By Darrell Carter

Gainesville, Fla. disk jockey Steve Chadwick says he catches flack from his buddies over a picture shot of him while spinning at a huge party in Miami. There he was, grinning pimp-style at the camera – but that wasn’t the problem. What’s immediately noticeable about the photo is that there is no record playing on either of the two turntables. Huh? Must have been a weird moment in the party without tunes, right?

Actually, Chadwick was mixing CDs on his two - albeit less noticeable - Pioneer CDJ 100s, which allow him to manipulate the tempo and pitch of CDs and mix, similar to a turntable and vinyl records. Chadwick drew the friendly jabs and criticism of his DJ pals about mixing CDs, rather than the more traditional - and apparently more respected - medium, vinyl. But he wasn’t about to take all the negativity without defending himself.

“You still have to mix,” said Chadwick, attempting to dispel the idea that CDs are easier to use than vinyl. “Vinyl is my preference, but there are some tracks you can’t get on vinyl.” So Chadwick, like many modern DJs, has invested money on his two CDJs, and he takes them to most of his gigs. “I have to have at least one,” he said, calling them “a necessary evil.”

So, the main question that arises from this situation is: What are the issues behind the debate – mostly argued among DJs and dance music heads - regarding CDs versus vinyl? Like most disputes, there are positives and negatives to both sides, and the winning argument is not immediately apparent. There is one point that is largely agreed upon: The popular DJ image is that of someone standing over two turntables, moving the records with his/her hands, not of someone punching buttons or winding dials on a small box.

Perhaps it’s time to change that popular, yet outdated, image of a DJ. CDJs are becoming a norm in most DJ booths, and many headlining DJs require them via their performance contracts. Chadwick’s Pioneer CDJ 100 is actually a bit dated, as the company now offers the more desirable CDJ 1000. Indeed, it seems that mixing CDs in a DJ set has become not only popular, but as Chadwick says, necessary.

“It doesn’t matter what [medium] you use - it’s all about skill,” said Tainya Rios, a Key West nurse who also DJs as Madam Braidz. “I’ve heard a DJ spin on CDs, and he had more skill than the next DJ, who was using vinyl.” Rios said she doesn’t understand people who put a lot of emphasis on what medium a DJ uses, as it’s supposed to be all about playing good music and making people dance.

Chris Schnatz, a salesman and DJ from Pensacola, Fla. had similar remarks, commenting, “A lot of the controversy is really about the image. “Lets face it - working one’s magic on vinyl just looks cool. The fact is: No matter what the medium, good music is good music.

“Good mixing is good mixing, no matter what medium is used. Some would say that CDs are easier, even cheating, but the ability to mix beats seamlessly with skill should not be discounted on basis of medium. A lot of DJs prefer vinyl because you get more of a hands-on experience - manipulating the record with a little nudge here, or a rub there.”

Companies that produce CDJs have done their best to recreate the turntable feel. Most units feature pitch-control sliders, manual beat cueing and the ability to backspin and scratch – all widely used features on turntables. Adding to the desirability of CDJs are advantages that turntables cannot offer, such as sampling and looping capabilities, a much wider pitch adjustment range and sometimes a digital beats-per-minute (BPM) display.

With CDJs still being a relatively new technology, the prices are often high, with the rate dependant on the desired features. Planetdj.com, a popular online DJ equipment retailer based in Sparks, Nev., offers 18 different CDJ models ranging from $139.99 (Gemini’s CDJ 15) to $1299 (Pioneer’s CDJ 1000).

Another DJ equipment retailer, DJ Supply of South Florida (www.djsupplyonline.com), based in Sunrise, Fla., didn’t list CDJ prices online, but quoted a similar price range when contacted. The companies also offered similar prices on turntables, with Planetdj.com listing prices ranging from $149.99 (Stanton’s STR8-30B) to $999.99 (Vestex’s Pivoting Turntable). Lofty prices like these often push DJs to choose: either mix CDs or mix vinyl.

“It’s split down the middle,” said a PlanetDJ.com representative who asked to remain anonymous. “Some people are just old school. You still have some party DJs that only use vinyl, but for others, CDs are really convenient.” The representative went on to say that their company makes more money selling turntables rather than CDJs.

Spring Hunter, assistant store manager at DJ Supply of South Florida, said their company sells more CDJs – specifically the models that feature dual CD decks – than they sell turntables. She added: “For the most part, DJs that use turntables only use turntables.”

But why do some DJs choose to ignore or criticize the CD medium? Joey Amspacher, a four-year breakbeat DJ from Pensacola, offered an explanation. “Because they are purists,” Amspacher said. “DJing in the rave sense is relatively new compared to other forms of music. When it first started, vinyl was the only medium used because it was the only medium that had devices that allowed it to be manipulated as needed for our way of DJing.”

The difference between a “rave” or “underground” DJ and a “Top 40” DJ was brought up by several sources. The consensus opinion seemed to be that “underground” DJs are more apt to be criticized for using CDs – especially for using only CDs - than “Top 40” DJs. Sources said they didn’t think mainstream crowds, or even “rave” kids for that matter, care about what medium is used, as long as the music is quality.

“As far as the Top 40 clubs are concerned, the DJs who don't embrace the technology [by using CDJs] will be eliminated from residency consideration,” said Mike DeBrabant, a 24-year-old recording arts major at Full Sail in Orlando. “Top 40 club owners know that their clientele don't [care] about mixes or DJ skills anyway, so they won't feel like they need to pay for a proper DJ with actual skills.

“Those who don't respect DJs who use other mediums than vinyl are
either scared of change or misinformed about the skills required to operate
the other forms of technology. In either case, I cannot respect the opinion
of someone who formulates an impression based on fear or laziness.”

DeBrabant also spoke about yet another new technology, Stanton’s Final Scratch, that’s becoming quite popular among DJs. Final Scratch, which Chadwick described as “dope,” is an equipment and software package that allows DJs to mix digital files, such as MP3, WAV and AIFF, into their sets along with records. Basically, digital files are stored on a computer using the Final Scratch software, and by using specially designed vinyl records played on any DJ turntable, the music files can be manipulated – just as if the DJ was playing that record. PlanetDJ.com prices the Final Scratch package at $499.99.

“I think that Pioneer is at the forefront of CDJs because they feel the closest to vinyl, and I really like what Stanton has done with Final Scratch,” said DeBrabant. “It’s the future of MP3 DJing. [Former DMC World Champ] DJ Craze [at a recent show in Orlando] was scratching and all that with few problems. Final Scratch is definitely not perfect, but it has very few flaws, and I think the next generation will be as perfect as possible.”

There’s one point of contention among vinyl DJs and CD DJs that remains somewhat unresolved: Which medium offers the best sound quality? Dr. James Paul Sain, an associate professor of music at the University of Florida, is a specialist in electro acoustics. He offered an explanation of the difference between the mediums.

“[Vinyl] is an analog media that should more accurately represent the signal present at the performance,” wrote Sain in an e-mail. “It's just that the durability of the medium is questionable, and over time the noise increases, as not all turntables, needles and cartridges are created equal. Without a doubt, the sound quality is better with CDs [than with MP3s]. MP3s are compressed audio, which is done to reduce the size of the file and not to improve audio quality.”

Sain went on to say that both CDs and vinyl have some sort of noise. CDs have a 44.1k sampling rate, with a bit depth of 16 bits. Pro studios can now record at 192k with 24 or 32 bit resolution, Sain said. So basically, CDs could actually sound better than they do. Sain said that there are some “audiophiles” that believe vinyl is superior, but he doesn’t think that can be proved.

Amspacher made a comment that seemed to reflect the views of many in the DJ scene: “It’s only DJs or very educated patrons that notice [what medium the DJ is using], and it's usually only given away by seeing what the DJ is doing. I don't think anyone should care either. The only problem I have with CDs and MP3s comes from the fact that songs can be easily downloaded, rather than bought. This kills [electronica’s] already fickle end of the music industry.”

So, the arguments for and against using CDs and digital files rather than vinyl seem rather balanced. While CDs offer DJs the advantage of playing music not available on vinyl, sometimes that music shouldn’t be played (because of copyright privileges or because of poor sound quality). It’s true that more music can be easily transported from gig to gig in a book of CDs rather than a box of records, but many would argue that just the simple sight of a record box garners more respect.

Yet in this new modern age of DJing, with all of its technical advances, it would seem that those who choose not to embrace the available technology could be left behind. With the DJ scene growing exponentially by the day, and with many off those DJs lacking the skills to legitimately compete with the herd, there’s always going to be a demand for any kind of advantage. The only question that’ll be left to be determined is: Who will ultimately come out on top, the old school vinyl magicians, or the new school tech heads?
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