Serato Audio Research, an audio software specialist out of New Zealand, already have the highly regarded Pitch 'n Time and Scratch Studio plug-ins under their belt. They turn their attention to the competitive dj market, in conjunction with Rane, to bring us Serato Scratch Live - a means of manipulating digital audio files on a PC or Mac by using control signal vinyl or cds. So where do Rane fit in? They provide the hardware interface and handle the distribution of the finished product. With two such highly respected companies in their fields, the expectations are naturally high. Can they create a meaningful collaboration and live up to their reputations? Or is it destined to crash and burn as the meeting of hardware and software often can? Scratch Live was originally released in April 2004 and was the obvious competitor to Stanton's Finalscratch system. However, more of these style of products have appeared since then and there are now a handful jostling for position. As we all know, more choice is good for the consumer, so Skratchworx welcomes every new entry to the market with open arms. Scratch Live, like Finalscratch, is hardware dependant - meaning you can not use the software with any old soundcard you have lying around. One reason for this is to ensure the software product can not be pirated, which is an unfortunate reality of software that runs natively on a PC or Mac. Another more positive outcome of having dedicated hardware means they should retain maximum control over communication with the software to ensure high levels of compatibility and reliability.
Everything comes in a rather fetching 12" box, and includes the hardware interface + USB cable (known as the SL 1), software disc, 4 stereo RCA cables (for the output and thru connections) plus 2 copies each of the control vinyl and control cd. The printed paper manual is a welcome sight, but a .pdf is also included for those who love to stare at a computer monitor to read manuals (not me!). The software has obviously been revised since it's initial launch, so it's worth heading over to the Scratch Live forums to keep an eye on updates and to trouble-shoot any problems you might have - as they may well be known already. As you may have guessed, the interface operates via the USB 1.1 (full Speed) protocol and has two sets of RCA inputs as well as a 1/4" mic input. On the other side of the box there are the RCA line outputs, plus thru outputs for all the respective inputs as well as a mic gain control. The thru outputs mean you can effectively bypass the box if you want to use normal vinyl or cds during your set. However, if you want to use the thru connections when your computer is switched off, you will need to purchase an external power supply. So although the facility is there, it's not nearly as smart as the Digiscratch box included with Alcatech's Digiscratch package - which doesn't use up extra channels on your mixer and has the rather ingenious disconnect mode, allowing the use of phono pre-amps and virtual routing totally away from the computer. The box itself is typical Rane hardware, industrial strength black casing with white markings. Like most Rane gear, you get the impression it could take a knock or two.
I think one of Scratch Live's strongest points is it's simplicity, there are no overwhelming amount of settings, and it is reasonably light in terms of features. As such, the main program window is clean and you could probably guess what all the controls and icons do. The whole program only really consists of two different screens - the setup screen which includes the calibration settings and the main program window. From here, certain areas can be made to appear temporarily via program buttons. The program must be run in a resolution of at least 1024x768, and overall the elements of the interface are fixed in position in relation to one another. At the top there are program reverse and master gain controls, and below these are the two virtual decks. When a track is first dragged onto one of the players - a track overview is built up, which gives the layout of the waveforms and frequency content. Scratch Live will attempt to do this as quickly as possible, but it takes up extra processing power. If resources are thin on the ground you can choose to have Serato to not build them automatically, so they only appear as the track is played. Once they have been built, they are saved into the actual audio file so will never have to be created from scratch again. Things getting stuffed into existing audio files makes me a bit nervous, and might confuse some other programs. For example, Sony Soundforge v8.0 throws up an error reading embedded information once files have been used in Serato, but happily ignores it. Hopefully it won't cause any real problems with other software or hardware, and you can always make your files read-only if you are more paranoid than me. The virtual deck shows the track name, artist, length and BPM tags - if available. Again, there are 3 modes available for each player; absolute, relative and internal. Depending what mode you are in, you will have some extra options appear on the player. Absolute is the true vinyl emulation mode, skips and all! The extra controls for relative mode include those for moving around the audio file, as needle dropping is not possible. Dragging around the white play marker works just as well though. Internal mode has a pitch slider and pitch bend buttons, and I suppose is a last resort if all else fails. Maybe there are some crazy folks out there who prefer this mode though! Both relative and internal mode also have a 'censor' button. This is the same feature as 'dump' on the Denon DN-S5000 - whereby audio is reversed whilst play position progresses as normal. Good as an effect in it's own right or for protecting the poor minds of children who could otherwise be bombarded with swear words. Each mode can also share 5 cue points, but they have quite a neat visual twist. Wherever you set a cue point, the stripe on the virtual deck points at 12 O'clock - and you can choose a colour for every marker. But what it also does is that within each revolution in either direction the stripe loses a fifth of it's colour - meaning you can visually see how close you are to your cue point. A very smart way to visually reference where samples are, though not quite as useful if your cue points are within 5 revolutions of each other. I think multiple colour changing stripes could be quite confusing though! Each virtual deck also has a gain control, and this software gain is saved with the file like the track overviews. Potentially it's a handy way of normalising track volumes by hand, but this is something I would already have done beforehand when preparing the files - and would instinctively use the gains on my mixer instead anyway. The final area of interest is that between the virtual decks. This has the main track overview, a larger zoomed in version, and a tempo and beat-matching display. I think the whole track overview is a bit small, it's a shame you can't resize it. It can be quite hard to really spot where track breakdowns or major changes occur. The tempo and beat-matching display give visual representations of transients and their spacing. The idea is that you can visually make sure they are aligned and then you should be in business. Not something I find immensely useful, but it seemed to corroborate what I was doing by ear. It's not too instrusive but would be nice to have the option to use the space for the whole track overview instead.
The Scratch Live vinyl has one side of 10 mins control signal and a track/crate select section, whereas the other side is just 15 mins of control signal. If you run out of signal then the players switch to internal mode. Worst case scenario and you still need control of those 20min epic progressive house anthems, you can drop the needle back on the vinyl and click into relative mode. The vinyl itself is perhaps a little on the heavy side in comparison to a lot of scratch vinyl I seem to use, or maybe it's just not very warped so hasn't got a 'slippery' side! So, the million dollar question we have all been waiting for, what's the sound and tracking like? Everyone knows I am hard to please, but this really is impressive. No doubt someone will disagree with me, but I really think it is pretty much indistinguishable from normal vinyl. Yes, it's not real vinyl - and if you really want to show that it's not, you can do silly things like putting 10Khz sine waves through it and move the vinyl as slow as humanly possible (yes, I did do that). But for 99.9% of the sounds and techniques that your average scratch dj is going to use, I really can't see anyone complaining. I definitely think this is the best scratch reproduction I have heard so far on a digital system. The actual tracking has been 100% accurate the whole time I have used it so far. No funny slips, no strange garbled digital noises or other symptoms that you usually get on these systems. The only comment I'd make is that if you move the USB buffer size up you do feel the latency on things like chirps where they just aren't hitting in the same way your co-ordination usually does. I had no problems running my system at the lowest buffer size and CPU usage never went above 30%. Memory use was also quite light considering the size of the tracks I was using. So, providing your system is upto the job and you get your calibration right, the tracking and sound is amazing.
Scratch Live makes something which isn't a trivial task seem easy. It works so well to the point of being transparent - a good idea perfectly executed. Part of the attraction of Scratch Live is that they have kept the software simple and have resisted the temptation to stuff the program full of extras and endless options. Personally, I hope the software doesn't start adding things like virtual mixers, samplers, MP3 encoding etc. At the moment it's core strength is the effortless way it integrates into a typical dj setup, with no headaches and practically no learning curve. Part of me is a little disappointed that the SL 1 box hasn't got another input for live set recording, though this might not be possible using the USB 1.1 protocol. Although I am not doubting the quality of the box, it does feel a little like a large hardware dongle at times. However, Serato have recently announced that v1.5 will include the ability to record straight into Scratch Live via the SL-1- meaning users will be able to capture audio directly. It is a step in the right direction, but some ASIO drivers would be very welcome - and overall it doesn't feel as useful or slick as the RME Digiscratch box. But, given the stability and quality of the software and hardware you definitely won't feel short-changed if you decide to splash the cash. Probably the first bit of review kit I've contemplated stealing (Sorry Mark!). 2b1af7f3a8