UBC Reports | Vol. 48 | No. 5 | Mar.
The right mix
Who says you can't DJ with CDs ? Not graduate student Tim Beamish
by Helen Lewis staff writer
Tim Beamish was the only kid in Trinity, Nfld., with a passion
for hip-hop music in the early '90s -- he knows that for a fact.
After all, even in a busy summer there are only 200 people in the
tiny fishing village where he grew up working in his family's whale-watching
Living three hours from anywhere, Beamish got his DJing start
when he spent every cent from his eighth-grade summer jobs on two
turntables, a mixer and a rare second-hand drum machine, and began
scratching records in his room.
It was hard to keep the dream alive, being the 0.5 percent of
the population who shunned Bryan Adams and Mötley Crüe
in favour of Public Enemy and Rap City.
But now his obsession is set to pay off for DJs everywhere.
These days Beamish is combining DJing -- his passion and part-time
job -- with his talent for Computer Science in a unique master's
degree project at UBC.
His thesis involves creating a new DJ set-up to mix and compose
music in a digital environment.
"I'm looking at ways of incorporating the standard DJ setup (two
turntables, a mixer and a crate of records) into a digital realm
where the DJ can use digital MP3 and CD music and effects without
losing the performance aspect," he says.
"DJs currently use vinyl records largely as a means of control
-- it's really important that they can use their hands to get an
instant reaction in what happens to the music. I want to make a
direct, hands-on approach to digital music possible."
Beamish studied the tasks a DJ performs in the traditional setup
and then set out to make those easier through his research.
The result is D'Groove, a digital turntable system that allows
DJs to play digital music while keeping the look and feel of a traditional
turntable and offers more creative options than traditional vinyl
D'Groove uses two turntable devices attached to a computer running
a media player. Two-way communication between the turntables and
the computer means both devices can "talk" to each other.
MP3 and other digital music from the computer is controlled by
the turntable. The turntable, in turn, can be controlled both by
the computer and the DJ's hands.
"The software I developed can make the turntable stop, or spin
at a certain speed, or spin backwards, or spin to a specific position
and then stop and spin back," Beamish says. "This means the music
will stop, or spin at a certain speed, or play backwards because
the action of the turntable controls the music.
"This system also uses haptics, a new form of Computer Science
that provides information from the computer through the sense of
touch," Beamish adds. "D'Groove gives haptic force feedback to the
DJ, making the turntable harder or easier to move, or giving bump,
bounce or spring-back effects. I can also keep my hand on it and
whatever I do with my hand happens in the music."
D'Groove aids DJs by helping complete highly complex but essential
processes such as beat-matching and record selection, leaving the
DJ free to focus on more creative mixing.
"I want to give DJs more options and help increase their level
of creativity so they can express themselves better," Beamish says.
"I don't want to fully automate what the DJ is doing. It's possible
to get a computer to mix music accurately, but you miss out on the
little human nuances and the flair, which is an important part of
why we love to see DJs perform.
"I don't want to take the process out of the DJ's hands -- I'm
a DJ and I don't want to become obsolete. I like what I'm doing,
but I want to overcome the limitations and give DJs more to play
The work has been challenging -- Beamish had no previous experience
in hardware elements so he had to learn about circuitry, optical
encoders, motors, input/output boards and writing software drivers
in order to bring his vision to life.
He is closely in touch with the music scene outside the lab, DJing
in clubs on Commercial Drive and dealing with the deluge of e-mails
from DJs giving feedback and asking when D'Groove will be commercially
And in the summer, Beamish returns to Newfoundland and performs
for more receptive crowds than he ever found during his teenage
He still spends the days guiding whale-watching tours and helping
his father, a UBC Marine Bioacoustics PhD alumnus, to conduct research
on communication with humpback whales.
"It's the best job in the world," he says. "You get up around
5 a.m. and you never know what you'll do that day -- you could be
hiking, or going out in the boat, or helping rescue a humpback whale
from a codfish net. You do all kinds of crazy stuff."
Beamish is constantly improving D'Groove, sharing the progress
through his Web site (www.cs.ubc.ca/~tbeamish)
and researching the many other facets of DJ work open to improvement.
"I'm overflowing with the number of things I can work on in this
area," he says.
"I could spend a lifetime working on cool toys to improve a DJ's