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Inside DJTT Member Arkaei’s Championship Winning Setup

Earlier this week, we learned that one of our members, Arkaei, had not only held down his third winning title in the German International DJ Association championships, but also went on to compete in the World Finals. While he he didn’t make it onto the podium, he still rocked the stage with a wild setup: two Electrix Tweakers, a Moog Etherwave+ theremin, an Access Virus TI, a Kontrol Z2 and more. In today’s article, Arkaei himself breaks down his workflow and gear, as well as a few insider tips exclusive for DJTT readers!

Editor’s note: a quick bit of background – the IDA (International DJ Association) is a modern version of the former ITF (International Turntablism Federation) whose yearly battles were one of the major international competitions of turntablism. The IDA was founded to modernize the ITF’s contest, and has been in operation since 2007. 

MAKING IT BIG


On Nov 24th 2012, I managed to defend my title as German IDA Champion in the Show Category. This third consecutive win granted me the opportunity to compete at the World Finals in Kraków, Poland (see the set in the video above). Despite not being much of a turntablist, I managed to turn quite a few heads with my routine because of its sheer nerd power; the Show category is less about technical scratching and more about live performance, so I focused on that. In this article, I’ll walk you through my entire setup and workflow as a “thank you” to the DJTT community – I learned a lot from you guys, it’s time to give something back.

THE COMPLETE RIG

I’m using two Electrix Tweakers, a Vestax PDX3000 mk2 with an Ortofon S-120 OM, a Native Instruments Kontrol Z2 with DJTT Chroma Caps (represent!), an Access Virus TI with OS5 and a Moog Etherwave+ theremin. The IBM W701 (W7pro/64) is running both Ableton Live 8.4 (64-bit beta) and Traktor Scratch Pro 2.6.

PLANNING THE RIG

When working on new material, I always start on paper. It helps me get the basic stuff laid out before I go deep. As you can see below, I was planning to use an iPad running Lemur at first, but in the end I decided to drop it for the sake of physical pads and faders, of which there are plenty on the Tweakers.

Besides that, this crude scribbled draft is essentially the final setup; let’s take a closer look at it. The Z2 is the Traktor audio interface, the Virus serves both as a synth and as the audio interface for Live – it’s going into the B channel on the Z2, which is set to Live Input inside Traktor so I can apply Traktor’s FX to whatever comes out of Live.

The Tweaker on the left controls Traktor (FX macros, activation, wet/dry, hotcues, track key), the Tweaker on the right controls Live – but it’s also the unit I am using to send MIDI from Live to Traktor (the 5-pin MIDI ports on these units really come in handy). The big pads on the Tweakers are velocity sensitive and have aftertouch – so on the Traktor Tweaker, I am using them to control effects. On the Live Tweaker, they are set to full velocity and trigger one-shots from a drum rack. The theremin goes into the Virus’ input and is processed inside Live – we’ll get to that later on.

SET AND SYNC CHALLENGES

My set starts at 142 BPM and goes up to 174 BPM, so the first big challenge I faced was: how do I get Traktor’s internal clock (which affects the beat-synced effects) to stay in sync with the stuff that’s happening in Live? On Windows machines, getting Traktor to slave-sync to external MIDI clock input is literally impossible; I even talked to NI support about this and they couldn’t help me, so I had to find another solution. Turns out there is one, and it’s not that hard once you figure it out.

First set up Traktor to send MIDI clock and activate it in the Master Tempo tab . A clock signal from Traktor isn’t necessary when slaving it – but when it’s activated, it enables you to retrigger the internal clock.

There’s just one simple command that you need to map: “Clock Trigger MIDI Sync”. Next, map “Set Master Tempo” with fixed parameters of 142 and 174 BPM respectively. Finally, set up a MIDI track in Live and have it send the appropriate notes. I chose to trigger both commands on the first hit of every beat; this may be a little over the top, but I didn’t have time to test it thoroughly and this way it’s always tight.

Check out what DJTT’s Mad Zach did with Ableton and Traktor synced. 

I also had to consider MIDI offset; since there is a slight delay from Live (the Virus is set to a brave 128 samples) and the sound is going through Traktor instead of regular input on the mixer (which is set to 256 samples and 2ms USB latency to rule out dropouts), you’d think you have to send the MIDI from Live to Traktor a few milliseconds earlier to compensate. However, to my surprise, the audio delay balanced out the MIDI delay perfectly, so I could immediately cross that off the list of possible headaches – but keep it in mind because it may be an issue on your machine when you attempt something similar.

Since I only have two hands, I had to automate some parts of the routine – like loading new tracks into deck A inside Traktor. This can be easily accomplished via MIDI as well – I had a sorted playlist inside Traktor, and at appropriate points in the set I triggered the “Load Next” command via MIDI clips; easy. But then I ran into trouble: with both program windows open, sometimes I had slight dropouts during track loads that I could neither reproduce nor fully get rid of – this forced me to minimize the programs, successfully preventing me from looking at the laptop at all during the performance, which makes the whole thing a bit harder but also kind of cool.

TWEAKER’S COLORED (AND PATRIOTIC) FEEDBACK

I wanted some kind of feedback from Live, to see where I am in the set – especially since I didn’t have enough time to practice it, and when you’re standing on stage at a world championship there is a bit of pressure no matter how experienced you are. Then I realized I have the perfect unit to make up for that: with its bright multi-color LEDs, the Tweaker can pull off quite a light show.

I made MIDI clips that trigger the LEDs on the right Tweaker as the set progresses, with specific colour bursts indicating stuff like “Traktor is about to load the next track”. This helped a lot, and I also used it to enrich my intro: even though I represented Germany, my nationality is Polish – and since the championship took place in Kraków, I decided to use edited quotes from a very popular Polish movie in the intro to win over the audience and also show the Polish flag (white over red) on the LEDs of the Tweaker. This little maneuver worked perfectly and the response was awesome! If you’re curious about the meaning of the samples, head over to my site for the translation. Shameless plug completed.

PERFORMING MODULATION

For the transition from 142 to 174 BPM, I decided to play a huge pad from the Virus, using three macro knobs to modulate the sound while the tempo of the set increases. During the Drumstep/DnB part, I’m mashing buttons on the grid of the right Tweaker; these trigger gated dummy clips that talk to Izotope’s Stutter Edit and Sugarbytes’ Turnado. Combined with Traktor’s internal effects, I can seriously mess stuff up this way. I admit I overdid it a bit in the routine, but as I said… standing on that stage is a little different than rocking a club.

WAVING YOUR HANDS ABOUT

The theremin is a wonderful instrument as is, but it has a rather simple sound and requires the player to stand absolutely still because the slightest changes in hand position are immediately audible in the pitch. That’s not really what you want as an EDM musician, so I had to make it more interesting and less restraining.

I ran it into Reaktor, using “The Mouth” which is set to beats rather than pitch mode and then controlled by MIDI notes sent in from another channel. In beats mode, if the key is locked by inputting a MIDI note, raising the pitch of the input sweeps through the formants of Mouth’s vocoder – which kind of makes sense if you think this mode was intended for beats rather than tones. The pitch antenna (the vertical one) controls the formant of the vocoder. The volume antenna (the round one) affects filter cutoff, because I’ve got an instance of SugarBytes’ WOW filter behind Reaktor in envelope follow mode. This turned out to be a slightly complex and CPU-hungry, but very playable beast, and I love the fact that despite the digital processing it still retains part of the analogue character – because the theremin sounds a little bit different every time, and that has a tremendous impact on the tones that “The Mouth” produces.

(DON’T) QUIT YOUR DAY JOB?

I only spent about a week working on this whole thing – including production, arrangement and defeating all those crazy technical issues; the theremin alone took forever to set up. This is the reason why I made a few mistakes during the performance – I just never got to rehearse it in full because I was still making final adjustments in the hotel room, which is of course my own fault for having a full-time job (I may have to fix that for 2013). I’m still very happy with how it turned out, and going to the world championships was crazy awesome; even with as many as 13 countries involved, there was NO hostility at all among the competitors – we were all having fun and supporting one another. Love and respect, this is how it should always be.

Got questions for Arkaei about his setup or performing in a major DJ competition? Ask away in the comments! 

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  • Hemoso!!!!

  • Hemoso!!!!

  • Adam Wohrle

    That is a badass rig sir. I am in awe lol.

  • Holy shit. Well played! Greetings from Puerto Rico!!

  • Albert

    Really love how into it he is from start to finish. Also, the composition of the set was quite eclectic, kept me on the edge of my seat. Bravo.

  • this is amazing, i don’t even have words right now, just awe. and also i just got a motivational kick in the pants to go back to building my lil 2 deck controller (just got arcade buttons from DJTT woo!)

    • awesome! make sure to post it on here, there’s no better place for constructive feedback 🙂

  • kebzer

    That was a very nice performance, but not in par with a DJ competiotin, sorry. Very few things were going on for a DJ routine, not a set. And this was a DJ battle after all.

    I would most definetely pay a ticket to see this guy live, but no way enter finals in an event like IDA, let alone place 5th.

    • thank you, I completely agree; even though the show category is less about turntablism, there is no way I will ever get onto the podium with a set like that – as you said, it IS a DJ competition and not a beat battle. I just focused on what I can do, but I definitely need a partner to complete the skill set (I’m pretty sure I’ll never be a very good scratch dj, but I’ll certainly do my best to improve). thing is, I’ve been looking for the last 3 years without luck. there aren’t many people in my area, and doing this over a distance just won’t work…

  • Sheepdog

    Pretty cool skills no doubt, but that is not DJ’ing in any way – it’s more like playing an xbox or something.Calling it the German International DJ Association Championships is misleading at best and just plain wrong – controllerism is not DJ’ing – it’s button pushing.

    • as I said to kebzer, I’m fully aware of the fact that a set like this will never get me onto a podium of a DJ world championship (unless I find a partner to complete what I obviously lack in scratching skills, but I haven’t been able to find one in 3 years). however, what I not agree with is your opinion on controllerism… it may seem like button pushing, but you’re just looking at the finished product. there is a lot of work involved in preparing your setup to do what you want it to do, not to mention the musical and overall composition. I’d say it is at least on par with the trouble a technical battle DJ has to go through 🙂

      • Sheepdog

        No doubt a lot of work went into it – I wasn’t having a go, you’re very talented, I just don’t see it as DJ’ing is all 🙂

        • all good mate, I accept and appreciate all kinds off feedback 🙂

    • Fingerface

      what an ignorant ass. what he did in the video was choose songs (DJ) manipulate them in a mix (DJ) to make something new (DJ). think scratching and beatmatching make you some sort of superior being anymore? no

      what do you think knobs and kill switches on a mixer do? are you such a DJ purist that you dont use your crossfader? thats a controller too… elitist record DJ… i bet your set sucks balls man.

      sincerely, a mashup xbox player

      ps arkaei your shit is not ‘pretty cool’ it is amazing; keep innovating and you will keep leaving stupid people in the dust.

      • Sheepdog

        You’re so mature in your response, your momma did well – the guy has skills like I said, but it’s not DJ’ing.

        • guys, guys… it’s all good, please don’t argue. as I said, I respect everyone’s opinion and I even agree that this is far from DJing. in fact, seeing as I produced the whole thing myself, this is more like a liveset. and I *do* lack the skills required to make it onto this podium because this *is* a DJ battle… but I’m not done learning yet 🙂

        • fingerface

          if you are convinced that tapping a drum button at the same rate/dexterity isnt the same thing as scratching with your hand at the same pressure/rate/dexterity then you need to go find a new forum to troll on; if you look at the title bar of your window it says DJ Tech Tools and they make and sell midi controllers for DJing…. wow you can hear the wind rushin over your head

    • GlassGodzilla

      I find the entire distinction moot. What I do find interesting is the importance you place the technicalities of the performance. The judges, crowd, and other performers thought his DJing was good enough to represent Germany in the World freaking Finals. No matter how hard I try to understand your point of view it just does not make sense.

      The fact that these superstar international DJs got together at a competition with no hostility and respected each other is whats important. They all understood that the music is about more than themselves or any recognition. That exact vibe, attitude, commitment to supporting creativity is what makes us DJs – not the techniques you used to get to that point.

      The entire nit-picking attitude you have is borderline ironic and detrimental to the entire “DJ” scene that you claim he is not a part of. There simply is no place for attitudes like this anywhere in the music industry. The fact that you dont even bother to explain why its not DJing besides “it’s button pushing” tells us all we need to know.

      I sincerely hope that no readers take your comment, attitude, or overall approach to DJing seriously. The distinction is beyond irrelevant. Shame on you, Sheepdog, for being a negative nancy.

  • rdale

    Big Ups! Congrats nice to see someone from the community doing their thing and getting some recognition.

  • Anonymous

    I am going to go look at places 1-4 and see what they did. Impressive stuff. I enjoyed your performance, because there were some nice WTF moments, like using the turntable tonearm to play a small melody thingy. Very nice touch!. And I really think if you had taken more than a week (a week only? really? honestly?:)), to make the routine a bit more complex in the sense that it is a bit more artistic (like hammering your own beats into a loop through a tweaker) and less playback (the polish voice/ lip syncing stuff), you probably would have finished a lot better. Keep up the great work!

    scamo

    • Anonymous

      Unfortunately, I can’t find the other championship videos. 🙁

      scamo

      • IDA world has a youtube channel, it’s the same my video is on 🙂

        • Anonymous

          Hey thanks. Maybe I should have reworded that. I can’t tell which videos are from the winning acts. 🙂 I can’t find the final results anywhere.

          scamo

    • you should really check out ALL the videos if you have the time, especially the technical category ones… all routines were ridiculously advanced this year! especially the Polish team (Steve Nash & Funktion) who took the world championship – pure awesomeness.

    • yeah, it really took a week in total – but that’s almost entirely my own fault. during the last two years I’ve had to juggle a lot of stuff (as mentioned in the article), so it was really hard to make time… but I’m super motivated to do better and put in more work next year. thanks for your feedback!

  • as someone who just got rid of 2 out of 3 controllers in their setup, this looks like beautiful overkill.

    • thank you! I just love gear 🙂 it’s bit of a hassle travelling with all this stuff, but man is it worth it in the end.

  • Gentleman Menace

    I was critical at first, not being able to relate to the music style. But geez! Your passion and technical excellence made me a believer! You are blazing new frontiers, and it excites me! You are an inspiration brother.

    • thanks for the kind words! I would love to see more people compete in this kind of contest so the community can grow… there are so many super-skilled people out there, but for some reason only very few choose to show what they’ve got. the best thing is that this doesn’t feel like a battle at all – people just give their best and the atmosphere is very much like a family meeting. this time we had people from 13 countries, but I hope more countries join in next year.

  • Duma rozpiera, wreszcie nasi. Gratuluje z ca?ego serca.

    • Steve Nash & Funktion wygrali! lepiej nie b?dzie 🙂

  • Much Love and Respect

    • thanks, same to you! 🙂

  • Tomek

    BRAVO POLSKA!

  • Spazer

    Very cool and creative. Great work on the flow and setup…. Maybe try a better genre and I would be really impressed, Ha. But that’s just me being biased about dubstep. Congrats though.

    • haha yeah, I understand the dubstep hate a bit. a lot of releases sound like entries in a contest who can cram the most bullsh*t sounds in 1 bar 🙂 there is a lot of crap out there, but I’m just learning myself. when I finally get around to releasing something, I welcome your judgement!

  • FAR TOO complicated for me. I am getting more and more minimal in my DJ setup. But congrats, this is bad fucking ass.

    • thank you 🙂 what can I say, I just like it complicated…

  • ‘Only spent a week’ on the set-up/routine whilst holding down a full-time job? Hats off to you man, that was fantastic.

    • thanks… but I’m very well aware that this is a world championship stage, and being unprepared is bit of an insult to everyone involved. if I want to get on the podium some time in the future, I really need to get a grip ony my time management… and I will. going freelance is crucial… possibly less food, but definitely more music 🙂

  • bissler

    he crazy.
    but, damn, son, he good!!!
    and he definately won the nerd-competition, hands down!!!

  • ham

    What in the actual heck was that thing with the hands, so damn cool.

    • arkaei

      the theremin is one of the first analogue synthesizers which was developed by Russian inventor Lev Theremin (hence its name) and patented in 1928, then produced by Robert Moog in the 50s way before he built his own synths that we know today. it was re-released a few years ago. its antennas control pitch and volume, it creates a simple, continuous sound and is VERY hard to play, because the slightest change in hand position is immediately audible – but when you process it, you can inject some proper funk into that beast. I’ve also managed to make it sound like a super-distorted electric guitar while messing with it, so this is just the beginning…

      • ham

        major props dude, it sounded cool as hell, I would love to give that a go someday!

        • if you happen to swing by hamburg some day, feel free to drop me a line. I like to have fellow geeks over, and I make pretty damn good coffee 🙂

        • Theramin’s are neat. The sound you hear is not the sound of the instrument as he states, he’s using the Theramins output to modulate a parameters. Check out some Theramin YouTube videos. To actually play one as an instrument is REALLY hard, there are Theramin virtuosos out there!

          I had bought one to play with one, I actually set it up to control my DMX lights. The closer you got, the more red it got. Very neat.

          • Hey, that theremin for lights is pretty clever!

          • thanks @facebook-600657967:disqus 🙂 the theremin I have does have CV outs and I’m looking to take advantage of that in the future as well. using it to control lights is a cool idea!

          • Yeah, it was kind of neat. I used a MAX MSP patch that translated the ptich to MIDI notes. The resolution was pretty poor, but it worked!

            Another control system I have is MS Pinky. I’ve been meaning to try to setup (using their SDK) some sort of control system (for non-music stuff). I haven’t quite figured out what I want to do yet, maybe visualation control.

  • you´re the man, ray!

    • I wiggle my ears in respect and gratitude, dear sir.

      • sandeep

        @arkaei:disqus just saw this post !
        you have been awesome consistently 🙂

    • Agreed!

  • Polacy na DJ TT, no no 🙂

    One question – isn’t there any easier way of syncing midi multiple apps under windows? Like midi ox? Or am I missing something?

    • arkaei

      yes, of course there is. but with all the stuff my machine had to deal with, I didn’t want to introduce additional variables at such a crucial point; an old-fashioned MIDI cable is a solid and reliable solution – and it’s super sexy, too.

      p.s.: nasi tu byli 😉

  • What a setup, and performance, very cool! But, was I the only one distracted by the red tassel on his hat? I was totally getting hypnotized by seeing it rocking side to side 😉

    • arkaei

      it’s just for decoration (bad hair day, too). most guys on stage did something like that… Indonesia’s Ethnictronic Crew wore traditional outfits, France’s DJ Topic even donned a wig mid-set. it’s all part of the show 🙂