Serato Interview - Sam Gribben - November 2006
While this might be called Rane Fest, the only reason for this is that "Rane and Serato Fest" doesn't exactly sound like poetry or a snappy strapline. But Serato's role in the development of the digital DJ scene is key to it's success and development. While other companies had digital solutions in the marketplace, the core foundation of Serato's software and Rane's established top notch name brought the digital scene into a new place. Bringing these companies together for Serato Scratch Live changed the scene forever. Like it or not, SSL is now the benchmark by which others are judged.
There's an interview with Rane elsewhere in this feature but this time
we got the lowdown from Sam Gribben at Serato as to how things started, how they've developed and where they're going.
Sam - can you give us Serato's history in a nutshell - the company, the people, the products etc.
Serato was originally conceived as a pure research company. The foundation was laid in the early 1990’s by Steve West’s research into advanced areas of DSP while studying at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Steve plays bass, and was looking for a way slow down music to learn the bass lines. Normally, when you slow down music, the pitch changes, which makes it hard to pick what notes are being played. Steve looked into the time stretching software that was available at the time and was horrified by the quality of the results they produced. This drove research into a breakthrough tempo-changing algorithm. Late in 1997 a colleague AJ Bertenshaw suggested commercialising the algorithm, and so Serato was founded early in 1998. The algorithm was offered for licensing, but it was determined that the quickest way to get the technology into user’s hands was to release a product ourselves. That product was Pitch ‘n Time, our first Pro Tools plug-in. Steve and AJ demonstrated Pitch ‘n Time at AES October 1999 and word quickly spread that these two young New Zealanders had finally come up with a solution to the problem of decent sounding independent pitch-shifting and time-stretching. Pitch ‘n Time has been recognised as the market leader in this area ever since.
How did the idea for SSL come about?
Rewind to 1996. Another colleague of Steve’s at the University of Auckland, James Russell, was researching methods of controlling digital audio playback using turntables. He was exploring all kinds of optical, mechanical and even magnetic methods of tracking record movement. Steve suggested that he could press a control tone onto the record. James incorporated the suggested method into his research paper, which was published at the end of 1996. It wasn’t until 2001 that Serato commercialized the method. The first incarnation was a Pro Tools plug-in, named Scratch Studio Edition, which was first shown at NAMM in January 2002. The DJ who was demonstrating Scratch SE was not happy with the mixer we had at the stand, and said “Screw this, we need a Rane mixer” so we went to the Rane stand and talked to the head engineer on the TTM 56 project, Rick Jeffs, about borrowing a mixer. Somehow, word got out to the DJs at the show that there was a couple of crazy kiwis with something that had to be seen to be believed. Lots of DJs came by... A-Trak, Babu, J-Rocc, Craze, P-Trix, Swamp, D-Styles... and all were amazed by how much it felt like real vinyl. Rick Jeffs came by to with a 56 for us to borrow and met Steve. The rest is history.
SSL was around before Rane came along - how did Rane and Serato get together?
The Scratch LIVE software and a working prototype of the hardware were developed by Serato throughout 2002 and demonstrated at NAMM in Jan 2003. Being a software company, Serato didn’t have the infrastructure to mass produce and distribute hardware, so we were actively seeking a hardware partner. We had spoken to a number of companies, but since that first meeting with Rane, there had been a real meeting of minds. Both companies have the same commitment to product quality and customer service. Neither of us make the cheapest products, but we both constantly strive to be the best. In the end Rane were an obvious choice to partner with.
How does the partnership work? Are Serato still independent or a subsidiary of Rane?
It works really well! The two companies are completely independent, but cooperate very closely on product development. Rane handle all manufacturing, distribution, and phone support. Serato constantly improve the software, including bug fixes, plus we run the web forum where support takes place in public.
Are Serato actively pushing development or is it Rane who tell you what they want?
Serato determines the priorities for the software development, but input comes from many sources – from Rane, from customers via the forum, phone support and email. We are always striving for a balance between improving the existing software and adding new features, but the number one goal is always “it’s gotta work”. Scratch LIVE is a tool that many people rely on for their livelihood. It could have all the fancy features in the world, but if isn’t stable and reliable, it’s no good to you.
I remember a conversation I had with Rane at MusikMesse 2004. I asked Dean how he could improve the might 56. Steve's voice chipped in - "stick a USB port in it". Was this the start of the 57 development cycle?
The idea of incorporating the Scratch LIVE interface into a mixer was there from the start, long before Scratch LIVE started shipping. It has always been where the technology has been headed.
The 57 is entirely digital. What are the possibilities for the technology?
The possibilities are HUGE! I can’t say too much about what we plan for the 57 right now, because we can’t be sure when the things we have planned will be ready, and as a rule we don’t like to talk about upcoming features until we have a solid release date. Lets just say it’s a good investment – like a fine wine it will improve with age. We have more effects not far off, and I think the advanced recording features we have planned will make it the mixtape DJs weapon of choice.
There's a school of thinking that the mixer is becoming the brains of the DJ setup. The 57 certainly heads in that direction. Will the DJs mixer become a computer operating independently of a laptop with its own screen and hard disk?
At some point, yes, I think it will, but I think it’s still a way off. A laptop gives you a lot of processing power and a very nice display in a relatively inexpensive package. Small companies can’t produce that sort of technology at a price that comes close to what a big laptop manufacturer can do it for. Think about what kind of computer you could have bought 2 years ago, compared to what’s coming out now. I would hate to buy a mixer and have it be obsolete in 2 years. Having said that, there will come a point where we have “enough” power to do what we need.
The digital market is exploding right now. What part do you feel has SSL played in this?
I think that Scratch LIVE has proven that there is a real market for digital. There are many products out there that do similar things, but (for whatever reasons) it seems that Scratch LIVE has been a driving force in changing the attitude of the market – digital is really here, and here to stay.
New products are coming out of the woodwork on a seemingly daily basis. With these new products coming in cheaper and often with more features than SSL, how do you think SSL can continue to dominate?
Competition is a good thing. It’s good for the consumer, good for the industry, and ultimately good for us. We don’t want to compete on price - quality is always going to be what separates us from the competition. No one company or product can satisfy every customer. Our focus is going to remain on perfecting the core of Scratch LIVE, before adding new features. Having said that, we have a few tricks up our sleeves. We’ve also been expanding our development team over the last year, so DJs can expect more frequent releases, with more updates per release.
New kid on the block is M-Audio's Torq and everyone is rushing out to buy it. What do you think of what you've seen of it?
I haven’t seen much, to be honest, but I’ve read a lot about it. It looks really good, with tons of new stuff. I’ve watched people on our forum switch to Torq ... and then switch back to Scratch LIVE! As with all new software, it takes a while to iron out the kinks. Ultimately, they seem to be going in a different direction to Scratch LIVE, which is good for DJs. Variety is a good thing!
What does the future hold for SSL? VST plugin access? Video? MIDI?
VST plug-ins – not in the near future. I’d rather build our own effects into Scratch LIVE, as I don’t want to be dependant on the stability of other people’s software. Video, absolutely, we’ve made a couple of public demonstrations of scratching and mixing video. A lot of our customers have specifically said that they DON’T want video, so we have to do it in a way that doesn’t compromise those that are all about the music – and we think we’ve found a way to do this. MIDI, yep. Not in the next release alas, but it’s working in the lab, so shouldn’t be too far off. Version 1.7 will be out early next year, and that will have Key Lock (long overdue!), subcrates, auto BPM detection, and a few other goodies. We’ve just announced that the Numark iCDX CD player can be used as a USB controller for Scratch LIVE – meaning that we don’t need to interpret the audio, we receive the commands directly from the iCDX via USB. I think there is a big future for products like this, and we’ll see a much bigger range of controllers come out over the next few years. I’m a turntable fan myself, I love my 1200s, but you can do cool things with controllers.
What about Serato as a company? What's happening with other products and new developments?
Ongoing Scratch LIVE software development is still our top priority, so our customers know that they’re buying a product that’s constantly improving. Rane aren’t sitting on their thumbs either…