What’s in the DJ booth when two of the world’s biggest DJs play back to back?
Sasha and John Digweed’s DJ set up for their tour around America is pretty impressive.
Sasha uses Ableton Live when he plays out and for this 2008 tour he’s running the software off an Apple MacBook Pro.
He was one of the first DJs in the world to abandon the traditional mixing tools of vinyl and CD to delve into the uncharted waters of digital DJing.
And he has caught his fair share of criticism for doing so.
“It’s not ‘real’ DJing,” some people whine, like Sasha still has something to prove when it comes to beatmatching and mixing.
We may be a technology based community, but electronic music fans can sometimes act pretty luddite when it comes to change.
Change, whether good or bad, is inevitable for a music scene crafted by machines in the age of digitalization, so the sooner we all realize this, the less energy will be wasted trying to stop it.
Of course, when artists play off Ableton they aren’t DJing, but rather they’re live remixing, as the software takes care of the beatmatching, allowing the artist to concentrate on the music rather than the timing.
The funny thing about when Sasha and John Digweed play back-to-back is that in order for Sasha to mix into Digweed’s music, he has to beatmatch to Digweed’s CDs.
That means good old fashioned mixing, so every time Sasha takes over the decks from John Digweed, he has to mix into his music.
How does he do this with Ableton?
“I have the BPM [beats per minute] clock of Ableton assigned to a fader on a MIDI controller, and then I use that to mix into John’s tracks,” says Sasha.
“You can control the parameters of the BPM range quite easily in Ableton, so for instance, if John’s track is playing at 127 BPM, I set the range of the MIDI fader between 125 BPM and 130 BPM and then I can mix into his music.
“The good thing about using a fader as opposed to a rotary knob on the controller is that it feels and acts like a pitch control on a deck.”
Talking of MIDI controllers, Sasha probably owns one of the most expensive MIDI controllers ever made – the Maven.
In order to fully realize the live remixing potential of Ableton, Sasha had a custom MIDI controller built for himself, which he named the Maven.
Sasha has been using the Maven for the last few years, but on the first night of this tour it died.
“I’ve never ever had a problem with the Maven, but in Miami after sound check, I took the Maven back to the hotel to work out my set,” explains Sasha.
“When I tried to turn it on, it didn’t do anything.
“I think one of the power parts in it blew up.”
The Maven has been sent to MIDI hospital, and since then Sasha has been using a couple of different MIDI controllers.
For the Boston and Philadelphia gigs, he was running off an Evolution UC-33e, a rather cheap and flimsy controller compared to the Maven.
Then in New York at Webster Hall, he played off the much bigger and more impressive Korg Zero 8 controller, which Sasha has been using ever since.
“The Korg is really great actually,” says Sasha. “It is really nice to play off.”
The Maven might catch up with the tour at some point, but for now the Korg is Sasha’s tool of choice to control Ableton.
Playing off laptops does have certain risks though.
“At the New York gig, on the very last track my laptop crashed,” he says.
“I was doing some filter effects, and the laptop just died.
“It was really, really hot in the venue, and the fact that Webster Hall didn’t have any air conditioning meant our equipment was cooking.
“Plus I’ve got a 7200 rpm hard drive running in the MacBook Pro and maybe that produces a lot more heat than the 5400 rpm hard drive.”
Just in case the laptop dies, Sasha has a second MacBook Pro in the DJ booth as back up.
All his music is stored on a LaCie hard drive so swapping laptops is possible if he needs to.
John Digweed’s set up is not so complicated.
He has three Pioneer CDJ-1000 MK3s in the booth, all connected to an Allen & Heath Xone:92 mixer.
There’s also a Pioneer EFX-1000 which he uses occasionally for FX.
Digweed plays CDs, and for the tour he’s brought about 150 CDs with him, with eight tracks on each.
“I also use a SoundBITE Pro, which I use for looping records,” explains John.
“If a record is about to run out, it’s nice to be able to loop it and keep the energy level of the track going, as you bring in another track.
“This loop sampler is the latest version from Red Sound but I haven’t had the time yet to explore its functionality.
“Playing around with it in the middle of a club is obviously not a great idea, so I’ll have to wait till the tour ends before I can work it all out.”
With John Digweed’s three CDJs, a Pioneer EFX-1000, an Allen & Heath mixer and loop machine, plus Sasha’s laptop, hard drive and MIDI controller, the DJ table stretches about 7ft.
To make the DJ booth easier to transport, Sasha and John’s tour manager Patrick Tetrick had a special flight case built for the tour, so at each venue all they need is power and an input into the venue’s soundsystem.
After every show, they just unplug the two wires and then wheel the booth back onto the bus.