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UBC Reports | Vol. 48 | No. 5 | Mar. 7, 2002

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 operation.

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 records.

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 with."

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 available.

And in the summer, Beamish returns to Newfoundland and performs for more receptive crowds than he ever found during his teenage years.

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 music."


Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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