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Scratch Live with Rane SL 3
June 30th, 2010An excellent hardware/software USB-powered DJ solution.
Serato Scratch Live is one of those products that users feel passionate about, because it is so good.
Serato Scratch Live (SSL) is a hardware and software solution originally targeted at professional DJs who desired to make the move from traditional music media, vinyl records and CDs, to the world of digital music formats. The concept of Scratch Live is to carry your music library on your computer and manipulate it just like the traditional musical formats you have grown accustomed to over time. Although Scratch Live was not the first to the marketplace with the technology or the concept, it is now an industry standard based on ease of use and stability.
Scratch Live was developed out of a partnership between a New Zealand based software company, Serato Audio Research, and Rane, a US based hardware company that is best known for high-end musical equipment. Like some of the other music oriented Macintosh-based software and hardware solutions, Scratch Live uses a dongle system that unlocks certain software features when connected to the hardware. The Scratch Live software doesn’t require a serial number, but only works with specific Rane hardware, such as the flagship DJ battle mixer Rane TTM-57SL, the rackmount Rane MP 4, the Rane SL 1, the newly released 4-channel DJ Mixer - Rane SIXTY EIGHT, and the Rane SL 3; used for this review.
The Whole Package
The Hardware - Rane SL 3
The Rane SL 3 retail package ships with a pair control CDs, a pair of control Vinyl Records, four RCA cables, UDG carry case, optional Power Supply with international plugs, and an installation CD with a PDF manual. The slightly smaller RANE SL 3 is an alternative, but not a replacement, to the Rane SL 1. In addition to the better sound with 24 bit instead of 16 bit, the RANE SL 3 offers ease of use by minimizing the connections needed to get up and running. Instead of multiple RCA cables for line/phono by pass connections, the Rane SL 3 uses dip switches that you can set during the initial set up. It uses a software-based bypass (THRU) when working with a Time code signal or real Vinyl or Audio CDs. The simplification of the connections and improved labeling almost make the Rane SL 3 worth the price of admission over the older Rane SL1, with Right Deck, Left Deck, and Aux In and Out, simple and easy. The USB 2 Rane SL 3 is also backwards compatible to the speed of the original Rane SL 1, i.e. USB 1.1.
Rane SL 3
The Rane SL 3 package that I received included Scratch Live Software version 1.8.4, but you should visit the Serato web site to check for the latest software. The current Scratch Live version 2.0 came out in April. Version 1.9 released last year added some groundbreaking features, but version 2.0 pushed it over the top to be on par with competing professional DJ software.
Version 1.9 of the Serato software offers the ability to play full songs in the SSL 6 Bank Sample Player, but no way to control or manipulate the songs other than Play and Pause. The Rane SL 3 offers a fully functional third deck that you can control with the time code vinyl or CDs, just like a traditional pair of SSL decks.
Rane SL 3 Plugged
Although Rane hardware, like the SL3 or SL1, is not a true MIDI device, the software is fully MIDI mapable within the SSL software. This allows you to use MIDI controllers to load songs, control playback, and trigger Cue-points with MIDI.
The SL3 is USB powered from the Mac but if you unplug the SL3 from the USB port, the whole sound goes down even when playing real CDs or vinyl. The included universal power supply allows for switching DJs by plugging and unplugging respective computers without a loss of sound.
The Software – Scratch Live v2.0
Serato Scratch Live is one of the more popular DJ software apps on the market for a reason–the layout and functionality of the software appeals to DJs on all levels and styles. The software uses time code vinyl or CDs to sync the playback of MP3s and manipulate songs as if you are using the original vinyl record or CD. The latest version of the software supports WAV, AAC, Ogg Vorbis, and AIFF as well as MP3, and Serato proprietary Whitelabel.net files. The software has three playback modes: Absolute (ABS), Relative (REL) and Internal (INT), plus a THRU setting with the RANE SL 3.
A unique feature of Scratch Live is that all the software updates are free. The idea is that you buy the Rane Hardware and the Serato Scratch Live software updates will always be free. Rane and Serato took an Apple-like approach with the recently released Rane SL 3 by offering better features over the SL1, which makes you want to upgrade to newer and better hardware by adding the 24-bit Soundcard, improved dynamic range (120db), and the ability to control and use a third deck.
Many DJs coming over from vinyl or CDs usually start in Absolute mode. This makes the Time Code Vinyl or CD just like playing an actual record. If you pick up the needle and drop it to the center of the record, the software skips to that point in the MP3, which makes the conversion from real vinyl to the world of digital almost seamless. It is so much like real vinyl that new DJs often find themselves trying to remove the Control Vinyl from the decks, to switch records many months after using the software.
Most DJs opt to use Scratch Live in Relative Mode, which gives the feel and control of real records or CDs but also enables extra features built into the software, such as looping, instant doubles, and cue points. The absolute position of the time code is ignored in Relative Mode and it becomes a way to manipulate, track, or control the MP3s.
Interface from Serato
Internal mode can be very useful at times. Scratch Live is dependant on external decks for controlling the music, but you can use Internal mode with cue points and laptop or midi controllers. Since SSL doesn’t offer any auto mix or auto sync, it is more of a chore to actually beat mix or control the music. The Internal mode has some uses, such as dinner music, with an auto play feature, or if you have issues with a problematic deck, which uses instant doubles and INT to bypass a nonworking deck. My personal favorite – when breaking down at the end of the night, the last few songs can play in INT while I pack up my decks. Internal Mode also has a software pitch control and pitch blend if you do want to mix songs.
The Scratch Live user interface of is very clean and efficient compared to other digital DJ products. Although SSL 2.0 has been tweaked from previous versions with a GUI update and a refinement to make the text somewhat easier to read, the basic layout remains the same, clean and efficient. The play decks are two large white circles with a rotating swing arm that shows the current Beats Per Minute (BPM), the percentage of Pitch adjustment in relation to the original speed of the track, plus the elapsed and remaining time of the respective decks. The outer ring display circle darkens as the track elapses, which gives the DJ a visual clock-like representation of the track time.
Each track can have up to 5 Cue-points, which can act as start points for the track or as digital time or event markers. Cue points can be color-coded and in REL or INT mode, the playback or start point can advance to the Cue-point with a keyboard command or by clicking the Play icon next to the Cue-point.
Looping is also a cool feature that gives the DJ more creative control. You can trigger loops in increments of 32 beats down to 1/32 of a beat. Looping is ideal for adding beat intros/outros for mixing or to be able to echo out of a mix. You can also save loops, embedded into the track, so they don’t have to be created on the fly each time.
One of the recent software updates also introduced a 6-bank trigger sampler to SSL called the SP-6. This allows the DJ to load Sound Bites, Vocal Drops, drum snippets, or even whole songs and play them on command with a few keyboard stokes.
Scratch Live 2.0 also allows for displaying artwork within the program. Old school DJs would often recognize an album cover or label of a record before they would know the name of a track. The addition of album and label art lets you browse visually instead by text. Scratch Live 2.0 allows multiple library views to accommodate how you can view and search your music library.
As mentioned above, some DJs like to browse by album artwork while others like to view track titles as text. One of the new library views allows you to eliminate almost everything except the text including waveforms. The visual multicolor waveforms give a wealth of information about the track (different colors for Hi, Mid, Lo) but can also be used for visual beat matching. Some DJs like to hide the waveforms and SSL 2.0 allows you hide the waveforms and other items on the screen with the new library view features.
The Scratch Live software is also device aware, if plugged into the Rane SL 3 you can enable control of a third deck. If plugged into the TTM-57SL or the Rane Sixty Eight, a whole slew of features are enabled that allow many of the software features to be controlled directly from the mixer without ever touching the keyboard on the Mac. The Scratch Live software is available for both Windows and Mac, but you need individual device drivers for Windows (57SL or SL3, etc.). In the Mac version, you simply plug in the USB cable and the software sees the device and enables the proper features. This is great for DJs who travel and play at various nightclubs, one version of the software works with all Serato hardware and you need no special drivers.
Scratch Live version 2.0 adds new features that veteran SSL users have wanted, such as Sound Effects (DJ-FX) and Smart Crates. SSL’s major competition has always had Effects that enhanced the program, but some say made it less stable and more crash prone. SSL 2.0 adds an array of Sound Effects like Flanger, Echo, Phaser, Delay, Reverb, Breaker, Lo Pass, Hi-Pass Filter plus more; 12 DJ-FX in all. You can stack three effects per deck, which allows you to play or layer 3 effects at one time. The well-designed on screen visual of the DJ Effects keeps the interface un-cluttered by hiding the adjustment knobs until needed and allows you to set and adjust the parameters with a Super Knob or with individual knobs for each layered effect. It is a little cumbersome to use, but I hope Serato improves it in future updates.
Scratch Live has always tapped into iTunes, which allows you to organize and tag your music library. One of iTunes best features is the ability to create Smart Playlists that update live based on criteria you set, depending on your music tags. Many SSL users hated depending on iTunes for organizing their music, so they opted to manually make crates and organize music by hand. SSL v.2.0 adds Smart Crates, similar to iTunes Smart Playlists, where SSL users can make native SSL crates based on “smart criteria” or keywords from your music library.
With the new Smart Crates, you can become a more organized DJ. Another new feature lets you share your music programming skills with the world. The new Serato Playlists taps into the history feature of SSL. Anyone with a Serato.com account can create a track list of what they play at an event either in real time with a WiFi connection or offline with uploads hosted at the Serato website. Club patrons or potential clients can see what you play, song for song during your DJ sets.
Another perk of registering at Serato.com is access to the Whitelabel.net Music Pool. Serato made a deal with major and Indie record labels to allow SSL users to be able to download special DRM music releases free of charge for play in the application. The Whitelabel.net DRM recognizes the SSL Hardware/Software dongle system. Whitelabel tracks playback at a low bit rate (32kbs) in the Finder or iTunes, but with the Rane hardware attached, the DRM unlocks the track at 320kbs for playback in the SSL software. Much of the music serviced through Whitelabel.net is on par with what is serviced through many commercial Digital Record Pools, but like the SSL software, Whitelabel.net is free while other Record Pools charge monthly fees.
The latest trend in the DJ world is mixing music video. Scratch Live offers a DJ the ability to mix and manipulate video just like audio with the Video SL Plug-in. Previously, DVD decks with adjustable pitch control for mixing video used to cost $2500 or more. Coupled with the other needed hardware, the system could run upwards of $10,000, but with the VSL software add-on, it offers SSL users a low cost way to enter the world of video mixing.
Overall, Serato Scratch Live is an industry standard and the first choice of many club, radio, and mobile DJs worldwide. Many use SSL for the simplicity of the interface, while others like the stability of the program. Rane and Serato telephone support and the online help compares to what Mac Users expect with companies like Apple, plus an active User Forum usually yields answers to a question within minutes. The recent addition of DJ Effects and multiple decks close the gap with competing products while maintaining the stability that Serato Scratch Live users expect.
Although the name Scratch Live implies the target market is for Scratch DJs or Turntablists, the recent addition of effects and multiple decks address the complaints and reasons many other DJs had for migrating to other competing products. The low latency makes it ideal for scratch DJs but Version 2.0 of SSL levels the playing field by allowing DJs to play with multiple decks. This in turn opens the door for multiple layered sound effects.
The cost of admission for Scratch Live seems high because you need the Hardware ($699 US for the SL 3), but the SSL software updates are free. SSL also gives you the opportunity to step into the world of video mixing at low cost with the Video Plug In ($199.00). Also looking towards the future, Serato announced the collaboration with Ableton on a project called The Bridge that will link SSL and Ableton 8 to allow DJs to do live remixing on the fly.
Serato Scratch Live is one of those products that users feel passionate about, because it is so good. Sometimes they are slow to release updates and features, but when released, users know that the feature is stable. If there is a problem, usually it is handled quickly with a software update. While I reviewed the Macintosh product, it is also Windows compatible.
Overall Serato Scratch Live is an excellent product that I recommend to anyone who seriously wants to enter the world of a Club DJ.
Minimum System Requirements
- 1 GHz G4
- 1 GB RAM; more recommended
- 1024 x 768 screen resolution
- OSX 10.3.9 or higher
- Intel Macs require Scratch Live version 1.5 or higher
- Available USB port (USB 2.0 required for SL 3)
- Intel processor, 1.5 GHz or better
- 1 GB RAM*
- 1024 x 768 screen resolution
- Windows XP with Service Pack 2 or higher, Windows Vista, Windows 7
- Available USB port (USB 2.0 required
for SL 3)
Edited by Ilene Hoffman, Reviews Editor
7/1/10: Corrected pricing information
Improved Sound Quality (SL3 hardware).
Free software updates.
Whitelabel Record Pool supplies music.
Good tech support and customer service.
Expensive initial investment.
Hardware needed to take full advantage of software.