Deckadance 2: Stanton’s DJ Software
It was just before Christmas back in 2011 that Gibson—best known as the maker of guitars of the same name—went on a little holiday shopping spree, and came home with three well-known brands in its shopping bag: KRK, Cerwin-Vega, and Stanton DJ. All three were collectively the “Stanton Group,” and today are part of a large and growing family of music and audio brands under the Gibson umbrella.
It’s probably not overstating things to suggest that Stanton has not been the main focus for Gibson in intervening years. A recent peek at the brand’s web site seem to reflect that; product information has seen some updates, but the news section’s most recent post was in 2013. That may be the bad part.
The good part, however, is that the rumor mill is rife these days with talk that things at Stanton are shifting, and in fact, there are tangible signs of movement on that front. For starters, late last year, Gibson announced that it had acquired Deckadance, the digital DJ software product developed and previously marketed by Image Line (makers of the popular FL Studio DAW), along with the product’s development resources, and a commitment to continue to support and expand the software’s capabilities. The company logically placed Deckadance under the Stanton banner, did a quick rebranding of the software itself, and grafted in place a new software registration system tied to functionality provided as part of Gibson’s primary music software brand, Cakewalk.
It is, in fact, the newly rebranded and recently updated Deckadance 2 that is the subject of this review.
For the review, I decided to try Deckadance primarily in its DVS (digital vinyl system) mode. In this mode—which will be familiar to users of other DJ applications with so-called “scratch” support—the software uses unique media, either CD- or vinyl-based. The media is encoded with a specially designed audio signal. When played from a CDJ or turntable, the audio output of that special signal is in turn used by the software to control the transport within the DJ software. (The music, incidentally, is provided through digital files housed on the computer.)
Using DVS mode requires something beyond run-of-the-mill audio interfaces, because in addition to a way to get your actual music audio out of the computer system, you also need a way to get the audio signals into the computer from the decks playing back the encoded media. While other “scratch” DJ applications typically have a specific, logical path for those connections, or perhaps even offer dedicated hardware for that purpose, Deckadance takes a different route that’s apparent not only with the DVS mode, but throughout the software: one of flexibility to be configured in myriad different ways.
That approach has its plusses and minuses. Of course, the plus side is exactly that: extreme flexibility. The down side, however, is that connecting and configuring Deckadance can require a bit more technical depth of knowledge, and the need to have a few hardware tools in your closet to support the effort. In my case, I happened to choose a multichannel audio interface from a competing DJ software company that provided enough ins and outs to do the job quite nicely.
The next step was getting the DVS media. Here, too, Deckadance takes an über-flexible, vendor-agnostic approach to the problem, supporting a wide range of DVS (“scratch”) media from a range of other parties, including competing DJ applications. It even includes a “learn” mode to enable the software to figure out scratch media it’s not otherwise familiar with. But in a unique twist, you can actually burn your own DVS media to CD; Deckadance produces an audio file to the hard disk that you can, in turn, burn to CD-R media. Honestly, it’d been so long since I’d burned any CDs on my computer (years, actually), I had to re-learn how to do it, and burned a few duds before getting a pair of CDs that worked properly. (The CD must be burned as an audio CD, not as a CD-ROM, for starters.)
Once I had a couple of successfully burned CDs, I inserted them into a pair of older CDJs, and with everything cabled together (along with a standard DJ mixer) and properly set up in Deckdance’s configuration, I was off to the races (although getting to that point required a couple of full evenings’ worth of effort).
On the surface, Deckadance looks much like any modern DJ-software application, with virtual decks (either two or four) positioned on the top half of the screen, and your song library on the bottom half. The default configuration and screen layout will be familiar to any experienced digital DJ. Indeed, getting material into the library was a simple matter of drag-and-drop from Finder on my Mac system (the file management utility of OS X) into the library panel in the software. Then, I just dragged tracks into the virtual decks, and voila—music!
Using Deckadance from that point was intuitive and simple, but I did find a few more rough edges than I might otherwise have liked. Thankfully, all are just small “nit” or polish issues, not major showstoppers. For example, I found that BPM analysis was frequently 1/100th of a BPM shy, such as a 128 BPM track displayed as 127.99 BPM. Additionally, loading a new song into an already playing track seemed to confuse the DVS system about the actual start point of the song. (Stopping playback and reloading the track worked around that easily.) And finally, while mostly just cosmetic, the pitch slider goes to the full “up” position when the media player is paused in DVS mode.
However, one not-so-small issue was that there is no key lock in Deckadance when it’s operating in DVS mode, which strikes me as a not-so-logical design choice. That’s fine if you’re pitching a song up or down by a couple of BPM, but any farther, and you’ll end up with either chipmunk vocals, or slug vocals, depending on the direction of pitch. Hopefully, this will be addressed in a future update.
In any case, in virtually all other areas, Deckadance has attempted to achieve feature parity with its competitors, and in many cases, has worked to reach beyond that bar. Its frequency-isolated effects (i.e., effects applied to different EQ bands), for instance, model the capability of some recent high-end DJ mixers.
Among Deckadance’s more interesting features is VST support—in both host, and client mode. What this first means is that you can bring VST plug-ins into your DJ workflow. And while the software includes a comprehensive, multi-effect plug-in called Effector that covers all the usual DJ bases (delay, flanger, phaser, filters, etc.), you have the freedom to bring in other favorites you might use in your studio DAW workflow today. But you can also do the reverse: bringing Deckadance into your DAW as a plug-in. I didn’t actually evaluate this functionality for this review; perhaps more innovative thinkers than I can fathom how this might come together in terms of overall production workflow. Kudos for out-of-the-box thinking in any case.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Deckadance’s hardware controller support is fairly limited at this point, and given its new ownership, it’s seems a bit far-fetched to think that much time would be invested in broadening that support to any great degree. For most users of hardware DJ controllers, this means that MIDI mapping of the functionality of one’s controller of choice will be a part of the mix in terms of setting up the software; the mapping capabilities in Deckadance reflect the same flexible approach as the rest of the software, making the job as simple as possible. And while I’m purely speculating here, it seems logical to imagine that as Stanton receives more of Gibson’s attention, Deckadance might be married to some future new hardware offerings with the Stanton nameplate affixed to them. We’ll see what the future happens to bring.
Conclusions: With its very attractive price point ($49 for the regular version, and $79 for the version with DVS support—and now available on Steam), outsized flexibility, and comprehensive feature set, Deckadance has already received a strong following—even before Gibson brought the software under the Stanton umbrella. But with the commitment to continued enhancement, including new features like configuration snapshots and flexible screen layouts, it’s clear that Deckadance will remain a real contender in the digital DJ application market.