Weapons of Choice: vinyl vs Serato vs Rekordbox

Pictures by Red Bull Elektropedia archives


DJs, why do you play the way you play? Seriously though, why do some DJs prefer vinyl over digital methods? Why does vinyl emulation software like Serato or Traktor still manage to survive in an age that’s destined to be dominated by Pioneer’s very own Rekordbox? Surely, each of these ways has its benefits. But is the choice a DJ makes one that is based on convenience, personality or principle? In order to find out, we asked the same set of questions to a handful of Belgian DJs, each of which has made his pick for their particular reasons. By comparing the answers and highlighting shared opinions, we hope to summarize the pros and cons of each of these main three approaches to playing music in nightclubs: vinyl, Serato and Rekordbox.

In our personal experience, friends and DJ’s around us refrain more and more from using Serato in favour of Rekordbox, while the number of vinyl users has remained quite steady - maybe even increasing a little over the last few years. A first, but nonetheless crucial step before we advance, is to define these methods exactly for what they are, without delving much deeper. Obviously, ‘vinyl’ (in this article) is everything we understand under physical music records: 12-inches, 10-inches, 7-inches, dubplates (i.e. in the short sense: an acetate disc used for test recordings), etc. You must have been living under a rock for the last 5 years if you haven’t noticed the resurgence of vinyl in popular culture (with all its positive and negative consequences). For simplicity’s sake, we’ll use the word ‘Serato’ as a catch-all term for all vinyl emulation software. ‘Serato Audio Research’ itself is actually a New Zealand company that popularized this method of signal processing as a performance tool for DJ-ing. Their famous competitor, Traktor, did in fact pioneer this method, but overall lost a big part of their market share over time. What vinyl emulation does exactly is quite simple: it allows the user to physically manipulate the playback of digital audio files on a computer, using the turntables or CDJ’s as an interface, thus preserving the hands-on control and feel of DJ-ing with vinyl. In simpler words: it projects your digital music files on a control vinyl record, allowing you to play your mp3’s on a record player. Finally, Rekordbox is a music organisation software made by Pioneer, the company that produces virtually every CDJ on the market. The Rekordbox software is available for free – and it allows its users to organize their music collection on their laptop, USB-sticks and SD cards, in a way that it’s compatible with the decks present in virtually every DJ-booth around the world.

Weapon #1: Vinyl

Let us start with the oldest of these methods. The whole concept of DJ-ing as we know it today is undeniably intertwined with vinyl records. The primary reason it’s still a much used way of playing music today is its authenticity: the physical feeling of searching, owning, holding and playing an actual object on which the music is pressed – as opposed to a seemingly impalpable mp3 file. “Music becomes real”, says the Antwerp-based Vice City promoter Arno Lemons (in the picture below). Karawane (in the picture above, next to Kong), another DJ of the younger generation, adds to this sentiment: “The crackling sound it makes when you put the needle on the record, finding a lost gem in a random thrift shop or reading the backstories on the sleeves; there’s a lot more personal satisfaction to be found in this, compared to searching digital music online”. This argumentation goes a lot further. Vinyl allows record labels and record stores to form a more distinct identity. Its relatively limited supply of music (compared to digital music), which could be seen as a disadvantage to many, is exactly what many vinyl fans value. With vinyl, it’s crucial to dig deeper in order to create your signature sound. “The process of digging for new music, listening to records you’ve never heard of without any prejudice, is a necessary part of music education for any DJ or music fan”, adds Arno Lemons.

Arno is a young DJ that grew up in the middle of the current digital age and therefore chose it consciously over other options. For many, like Kong – known for his work for Studio Brussel, The Vinyl Frontier and Listen! Festival - this option was not available at a young age. “I never ‘chose’ to play vinyl; I started DJ-ing at the end of the 90s, so there was really no alternative”. Karawane, for example, never even bought vinyl for the purpose of playing it out. “I was collecting vinyl before I was DJ-ing, it was a natural progression. For me, it’s not some kind of nostalgia, I have the feeling that I experience the music the way it’s intended to be experienced: slower and deeper”.

This brings us to the next point: once you get comfortable with what it takes to play vinyl in nightclubs, it shapes your identity as a performing DJ. All the vinyl DJs we’ve spoken to, admit it takes more effort, but that this is one of the reason they like it so much. Kong elaborates on this: “I tend to find my personal favourites, my discoveries and my standout tracks more on vinyl than on digital formats”. Arno Lemons even goes further, saying that: “my vinyl collection is a big part of who I am”. More than any other method, vinyl clearly evokes a strong and personal connection between the DJ and his or her weapon of choice.

Vinyl would sound warmer if the whole production process is done analogue: from producing the track to the mastering procedures – but that’s rarely the case anymore. - Thang

As beautiful as dancing to a set filled with forgotten cuts and B-sides can be, clubs need to have the right set-up in order to get the full potential out of a vinyl DJ. This is where things get a little tricky. “You need to carry your heavy record bag around; you need to triple-check your DJ-booth; communicate with the sound engineer and so on”, admits Kong. Nowadays, it’s hard to find clubs or festivals (even among the ‘big’ ones) where the set-up is suitable for vinyl DJ-sets. This is by far the biggest reason why many vinyl DJ’s switched to more convenient options in the last few years. But again, that’s only a matter of perception to the fans. “I will always try to play some vinyl – sometimes that creates really stressful situations, but it usually pays off, in the end”, says Karawane. “I don’t see these facts as disadvantages, they are just part of the deal. The rise of digital counterparts only made me realize I prefer this more”, adds Kong.

At one point, during the preparations of this article, we were expecting to hear at least one person say that ‘vinyl sounds better and warmer’ than digital music. That argument was subverted by Belgian hip hop DJ legend Lefto, who said that “vinyl nowadays sounds like any digital method”. “It would sound warmer if the whole production process is done analogue: from producing the track to the mastering procedures – but that’s rarely the case anymore”, added Thang, a DJ who is celebrating his 20th year behind the decks.

Something that hasn’t come up in any of the interviews, but that’s important to mention nonetheless, is that vinyl only really creates added value in the strict sense of the word for certain genres of music. Most vinyl DJs play variations of 4X4 music (like house, techno or electro) or music that mostly came out on vinyl only (like soul, funk, jazz, etc). It’s very rare (but definitely not impossible) to see vinyl DJs play fast-paced eclectic hip hop, or versatile modern club music: music where the value in DJ-sets is placed more on the novelty, as opposed to the history behind the selection. Sure, you can press white labels, dubplates or limited edition cuts – but digital means do allow for a more reactive selection. That’s why many vinyl DJs complement their sets with the occasional digital track. After all, how else are they going to play that new track by their friends that hasn’t come out yet?

Weapon #2: Serato

Before you go all “there are plenty of hip hop DJs that play vinyl” on us: yes, there are. But they are slinking in numbers. On the subject of methods pairing easily with particular genres, in no such case was this more apparent as in the second half of the 00s with the rise of Serato, when a large portion of hip hop DJs switched to vinyl emulation software. “When Serato was released, it was a revolution – it totally blew our minds”, remembers Azer (in picture below), resident at All Eyes On Hip Hop and editor-in-chief at Chase. “It’s basically the best of both worlds”, adds Lefto, who is not only the most iconic hip hop DJ in our country, but also a devoted Serato enthusiast. “I can keep mixing with my turntables, only now I have thousands of records in my bag”.

The fact that you could suddenly bring your entire (digital) record collection to every gig was a game changer. DJs with heavy tour schedules and many flights could now leave their valuable vinyl records at home, eliminating the risk of damaging or losing them. CDJs – although not in their modern, more convenient version – were already around at that time, but in music scenes like hip hop, where speed is a crucial factor in live DJ-sets, the switch to Serato was an obvious one. “We come from a generation of DJs that mix fast, sometimes 30 to 35 tracks in an hour; in pre-Serato times that would mean I had to carry several heavy crates around”, explains Azer. 

Having this software on the spot also meant that you could organise your music in crates and playlists, bookmarking loops and hot cues – all before the gig, saving you a lot of time on the spot and giving you more freedom to play around with these new possibilities. DJ-sets became faster, more creative and above all, more surprising. This comes in handy when you’re playing an all-nighter, for example. Any way you want to go: house or hip hop, easy bangers or special cuts; you can make the switch instantly without much effort. That would have been virtually impossible before Serato. It could also save you from awkward situations, when a certain dancefloor behaves completely different than you expected.

However, there are downsides to this method. We challenge you to find any Serato DJ that doesn’t have at least 10 stories about stressful club situations. “In clubs where they don’t take care of their gear it can happen that the cables of the turntables give a weak signal, thus resulting in a shaky connection”, says Lefto. But he continues to explain what is probably the biggest obstacle for most users: “Every time you need to install the interface between the mixer, laptop and the turntables”. In situations where you have to take over from another DJ, without disturbing their flow too much, in a tiny DJ-booth, in front of a packed dancefloor, that can be a very stressful experience. We’ve seen DJs pulling out the wrong cables on a handful on different occasions, resulting in total silence and a thousand soul-killing stares, not in the least by the next DJ who’s start of the set was just ruined completely…

Then there’s the fact that you bring an expensive laptop to a not-so-ideal environment, full of dangers like spilled drinks, drunk folk and – if you’re really unlucky – thieves. Azer is keen to share another horror story: “The worst thing that happened to me playing was this drunk dude that poured his beer over my laptop. It died instantly – and I was forced to spend over €2.000 on a new one”. Lastly, another big issue many have with any vinyl emulation software is that you will have a laptop somewhere in front of you while you are performing. “I loved having my entire collection at the tip of my fingers, but I usually felt that a laptop interrupts the contact a DJ has with his or her audience”, says Trillers DJ and promoter Eagl. Whole blogs have been made for a phenomenon that’s called the ‘Seratoface’: the blank expression on a DJ’s face when he/she’s in the middle of a full club, softly lit up by the white glow of the laptop screen amidst a dark environment. Whether you actually look at the screen or not while mixing, there’s no denying it just sucks your attention away more than you would like to admit.

You could argue that Serato improved recently, striking a deal with Pioneer to include the Serato interface in the new Nexus 2 mixer – meaning you only have to connect your laptop with one USB cable – but over the years, their downsides were left unaddressed for too long and a new weapon was taking over. A new revolution was coming, and it was about to beat Serato in its own game.

Weapon #3: Rekordbox

“It took me a while to get used to this feeling, but I love the fact that I can show up to a gig with just my headphones and a USB stick”, admits Azer, who has switched to Rekordbox over 3 years ago. That turned out to be yet another game changer. Already producing virtually every CDJ and mixer in every night club around the world, Pioneer found itself in a privileged position. Rekordbox, in its essence a similar music organization software like Serato, allowed its users to update their USB-sticks or SD-cards accordingly, allowing for a minimum effort switch between DJs on the spot. Suddenly, every modern CDJ in the world could directly read your library – all without the hassle Serato had become notorious for.

Less things to worry about means more fun in the DJ-booth. “Being able to prepare my music in playlists and (virtual) crates beforehand is just extremely convenient, it saves you a lot of time in the club”, says Thang. “I play a lot with loops and hot cues, so the combination of the CDJs and the software makes working with these super easy; it can give each track a different dimension, basically making edits on the fly”. For Belgian DJs like Faisal, known for their fast and playful DJ-sets, this technology is decisive. Eagl points out the fact that you don’t have to bring any valuable vinyl or laptop to the club: “When you get a little too ‘turnt’ (when you party too hard, ed.) and you forget your gear, you’re only losing a USB-stick. Your music is still safe on your laptop at home”. But that advantage works in reverse too: “As I have a USB attached to my keychain, I’m always DJ-ready, wherever I go”. Plenty of spontaneous B2B sessions could only have taken place because of this.

Then again, saying Rekordbox doesn’t come without any problems is a little overstated. “My last software update deleted all the information on my USB stick”, admits Thang. In our own experience, we’ve seen that CDJs (or the link cable between them) don’t always process your data correctly. However, these hurdles pale in comparison to the issues you encounter on a more frequent basis with Serato. It doesn’t come as a surprise then, that Serato is losing a growing part of their market share to Rekordbox. With more and more clubs straight up deleting their pair of Technics as a standard piece of equipment in their DJ-booths, artists are virtually forced to adapt Rekordbox.

Lessons learned

The question here is not if playing with vinyl or CDJs makes you any more or less of a ‘real DJ’. All the people that have been interviewed agreed on this matter: "It ain't what you got, it's what you do with what you have (…) and it ain't what you do, it's how you do it!" – a Moodymann quote cleverly pointed out by Arno Lemons. Beatmatching is in fact easier on digital means such as Serato or Rekordbox - and it does take a lot of time to truly perfect this technique, but as Eagl puts it: “it’s maybe only 1% of what DJ-ing is about”. Thang goes even further, saying that “a DJ only becomes a good DJ in my opinion if he or she knows how to tell a story, how to create a communal vibe amongst the entire audience, selects the right tracks, bringing them to the table in a creative manner”. A DJ that plays a technically perfect set on vinyl might receive more credibility from certain folks, but if the selection and crowd-reading skills are sub-standard, then what’s the point? The commonly used critique against vinyl emulation software and CDJs, is that ‘it can turn anyone into a DJ’. It definitely can. But isn’t that a good thing? If DJ-ing used to be available to only a limited number of people that were prepared to spend a lot of money on turntables and records, then I’m sure we missed out on a lot of talent that could never pass this threshold. Laptops and CDJs really do offer technical advantages over record players – and that can result in a lot of uninspired sets when the DJ in question doesn’t want to put the work in. But as long as DJs try to use their maximum technical potential, it can only lead to more interesting DJ-sets (think: fast mixing, on-the-go editing, creative use of loops and cues, etc.). As Arno Lemons said, “you just have to watch out you’re the one in control. From the moment you start using the notorious ‘sync button’ on a CDJ you’re not playing it – the CDJ is playing you”.

The vinyl record environment (and economy around it) however, does a way better job at preserving a culture that laid the base for DJ-ing as we know it today, which is incredibly important. It also allows artists, DJs and labels to form a distinct identity more easily, standing out from others – which only becomes more significant in digital times like these where the amount of tracks released rises every day. Playing with vinyl requires more practice, money and back problems – but for many this is exactly what drives them. DJs that master the art of vinyl mixing should get the respect they deserve, but this should not influence the way we judge other, non-vinyl DJs. In the end, there are many weapons of choice, but then there are many different types of ways of experiencing music. Each method suits a certain type of DJ-set, and that is why (as long as the DJ him/herself is conscious about its technical potential or its limitations) you must find a way that matches your approach to music and the set you want to bring.