Mixxxing It Up

In the Free Software arena, the terminatorX application (GNU/Linux, download from www.terminatorx.org) has offered entertainment by way of scratching and mixing for some time. Cross-platform upstart Mixxx (GNU/Linux, Windows, Mac) has the edge for the beat-matching style of mixing, where two recordings are synchronized together to create seamless fades or cuts. Mixxx has support for most popular time-coded vinyl formats and hardware control surfaces, offering a choice of interface, but you can also use it with QWERTY keyboard shortcuts on a standard PC or laptop. If you're running Ubuntu, you can download Mixxx using the Add/Remove Programs application; many other GNU/Linux distributions also have packages available. For Windows or Mac versions, visit the project homepage at www.mixxx.org—that's spelled with three Xs.

If you've checked out Mixxx before but decided it wasn't ready to replace an analogue setup, it's well worth looking at the application again. A bunch of new features have been added recently, including native Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) format support, which is useful if you care about sound quality. Some laptop-based DJs include in their mixes MP3 files they find on the Internet, and the degradation in quality is all too obvious when the computer is connected to a large sound system. If you're going to build up a substantial collection of music for digital DJing, it makes sense to start out with a lossless format like the Free Software FLAC standard, which doesn't throw away any of the audio data. FLAC files are typically much larger than MP3 files but remain significantly smaller than WAV files copied from audio CDs. If stereo WAV files use up roughly 10MB per minute, an MP3 made from that WAV may be only 1MB per minute, and a FLAC file converted from the WAV is half way between, at around 5MB per minute. This extra storage space required by FLAC isn't much of a problem now that even small, mobile computers have many gigabytes of disc or memory card space.

You can use any ordinary PC or laptop soundcard to DJ with Mixxx. However, for beat matching, most DJs rely on a stereo headphone cue output as well as the main stereo output. This separate headphone output helps the DJ make sure the two recordings are synchronized correctly before making the crossfade from one piece of music to the other. Unfortunately, most computers have only one independent audio output, which has two channels for stereo. The main exceptions among PCs are those machines designed for home cinema, which can have separate front and rear stereo output sockets, designed for connection to a 5.1 speaker system. You can often configure these audio cards to provide main output and cue outputs for DJing with Mixxx.

Some digital DJs invest in a specialized audio interface with at least four output channels, but these aren't strictly necessary to get started. A cheap trick is to use a pair of USB headphones for monitoring the music, because Mixxx is happy to use two different hardware devices for main and cue outputs. The kind of USB headphones sold for voice-over-IP (Internet telephony) and gaming use will do the job as long as they go loud enough, although specialized USB headphones for DJs are starting to become available. Without the extra volume, it may be difficult to hear the cue output in a noisy club environment; but of course, there are limits. You have to look after your hearing, because tinnitus or even permanent hearing loss will shorten your DJing career significantly.

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