The Serato Story
When you think of DJing, New Zealand doesn't spring to mind as a great powerhouse of the craft. America, yes. England, definitely. But New Zealand?
Surprisingly though this is where the story of the company renowned for changing the face of traditional DJing begins. But before digital DJing ever existed it was an elusive bass line that the company was founded on...
In 1997 Steve West, co-founder of Serato, was attending Auckland University and learning to play the bass guitar as a side interest. Steve wanted to slow down complicated bass solos in songs in order to hear each note and subsequently learn them.
He could alter the playback speed of audio files but this would alter the pitch of the music. The pitch of the notes was the most important part - Steve wanted everything to sound the same, just slower so that he could learn.
There were tools available that attempted to keep the pitch constant whilst changing the tempo but, as far as Steve was concerned, these were sub-standard. Not only did it take almost a whole day to process audio using these tools but the results sounded distorted and were poor imitation of their source.
After a little research and some incredibly nerdy mathematics Steve wrote an algorithm making it possible to change the tempo of audio independent of the pitch.
This resulted in a tool that could speed up and slow down any piece of audio (including the bass solos) without coloring and distorting the result. Conversely, it could also alter the tempo of a piece of audio without changing the pitch. Not only that, but it was all done in the time it took to make a cup of tea.
Steve's good friend, A.J. Bertenshaw, co-founder of Serato, suspected that Steve was onto something, and despite Steve's eagerness to give this algorithm away for free, convinced him to take a shot at selling it. With the help of Steve's Mum and A.J.'s Dad they set off to Japan to talk to the big electronics firms.
In Japan they met with resistance at every turn and came very close to giving up on the whole thing.
"We were essentially talking to the wrong people. At the time it was really hard going - we knew we had something that was useful and valuable but we hadn't quite hit our target yet." - AJ Bertenshaw
On a trip to L.A. in 1998 Alan Bertenshaw (A.J.'s Dad) read an article in the newspaper about Sony Pictures. On a whim he walked down to Sony Pictures and organised a meeting with an engineer to demo Steve's algorithm.
During this meeting he gave a demo of how the algorithm worked and the engineer was astounded. So much so that he kept pulling more and more engineers into the meeting to show them.
Here was a tool that would significantly decrease post production costs - no more re-shooting scenes, or re-recording whole orchestras or scrapping audio. Here, they had a piece of software that could revolutionize their workflow.
Serato had finally found its market. And so, Pitch ‘n Time was born; a plug-in for Digidesign (now Avid) Pro-Tools and Apple Logic for time-stretching and pitch-shifting.
The next couple of years were spent establishing Pitch ‘n Time as a marketing leading time-stretching and pitch-shifting plug-in. This involved literally putting CDs in boxes and mailing them from New Zealand all around the world.
All of their experience up to this point had been working with Digidesign and creating the Pitch ‘n Time plug-in for their industry standard Pro-Tools audio recording and editing platform.
But in 2000 Steve and A.J. began experimenting with the idea of scratching music with your mouse.
A.J. had a working prototype of a piece of software that allowed you to scratch audio off a CD with a mouse. After a bit of feedback Serato took this idea further.
They investigated using timecode pressed onto vinyl records to control the audio playback. This didn't work for Serato because it didn't sound right.
There was a big difference between scratching and manipulating digital music being controlled by timecode on a vinyl record compared with scratching and manipulating a vinyl record with music pressed onto it. The mathematics worked but the sound didn't.
Driven by this spark of an idea, Steve and A.J. investigated the nature of the RIAA curve on a vinyl record and how this responded to manipulation.
They asked themselves and other DJs over and over: How tight is this? How does it sound? Time after time they went back to the drawing board, reworking the software and repressing vinyl records until finally they had something that people were starting to talk about.
Through this research the Serato NoiseMap™ was created.
The NoiseMap is not based on standard timecode because, as the team had discovered, straight timecode was unsuited to very fast and slow record movements.
Instead, the NoiseMap control tone is based on a resonating frequency with multiple position indicators which dramatically reduce latency and allow for fast scratching, spin backs and stalls that sound and feel like real vinyl.
Serato had created Scratch Studio Edition, a plug-in for Pro Tools that allowed studio engineers, producers and DJs to scratch any digital sample or sound file on their computer using their existing turntables or mouse as the controller.
Serato went to the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) convention in Anaheim, Los Angeles in 2002 to show off their new Scratch Studio Edition system. Their booth was in the basement where all the small companies start.
Los Angeles had long been a center for DJ culture and turntablism. So once word spread about this new digital DJing system the best of the best rolled through to try it out. And the best were blown away by the feel and response.
DJs traditionally played off vinyl records which were heavy to travel with and expensive to manufacture and buy. The early 2000s saw the invention of the CDJ which let DJs play CDs instead of vinyl.
But DJs couldn't manipulate a CD in the same way they could a vinyl record. CDJ's were a great innovation but still not the best solution for DJs who wanted to balance their love of vinyl culture with their need for practicality on an international tour.
Scratch Studio Edition made a huge impact but it wasn't practical for live DJs - they couldn't take their Pro-Tools rigs on stage with them.
Steve and AJ knew they had a way to move with the current trend in evolving DJ technology whilst preserving the traditions of vinyl DJing. It involved making new standalone hardware to work with software based on the work they had done with Scratch Studio Edition.
After a long design process Serato made the first "black box" in New Zealand for a portable digital DJ system.
A beta tester that came to NAMM show one year to demo this new system took one look at the mis-behaving DJ mixer on the Serato booth and promptly headed off to the Rane booth to borrow one of their high end DJ mixers for the demo.
From this, Serato met Rane and talked DJing. At the time Rane had a firm foot in the DJ hardware market with their successful mixers, the Empath and TTM 56.
The two companies discovered that they shared some core values as well, including their dedication to high quality products and exceptional customer service.
Realizing that manufacturing hardware in New Zealand was unrealistic, Serato and Rane entered into negotiations to become partners in bringing Serato's ground breaking vinyl emulation technology to market.
Rane had invaluable experience making high quality hardware that sounded incredible and Serato had a window into the future of DJing.
A couple of months later contracts were signed and Serato Scratch Live, the ultimate solution for professional DJs, was released in 2004.
By connecting a piece of Rane hardware to an existing DJ setup, DJs can access and perform with their entire digital music collection using specially designed control records, control CDs or their MIDI controller of choice.
Serato Scratch Live hardware (chronologically):
Soon after the release of Scratch Live, Sam Gribben, General Manager of Serato at the time, was speaking on a panel at Remix Hotel in Miami. After the conference Sam was approached by Universal Music Group to talk about a problem they were facing.
Traditionally, all DJs had been serviced with promotional music on vinyl record (so-called 'white labels') so they could premiere new music in club sets and radio shows.
Now that digital DJing was become the norm in America, DJs were wanting digital promos rather than physical promos.
Promo music on physical media was expensive to manufacture and distribute every month - particularly for DJs who might not even use it. Also, physical promos had the unfortunate habit of being stolen off of doorsteps and desks by avid music fans.
After talking to DJs about this, Serato came up with the digital promotional music distribution service, Whitelabel.net. Using Whitelabel.net record labels could send promotional music to to DJs quickly and securely.
To ensure that music delivered via Whitelabel.net was accessible only to DJs, Serato developed the wl.mp3 audio file format.
wl.mp3 files play as a 32kbps mono MP3 file in a normal MP3 player. But when played through Serato DJ software with supported hardware attached, DJs could access a full 320kbps stereo audio file. In other words, only DJs could access high quality music.
And it was 100% free and legal.
After signing deals with three major record labels, Whitelabel.net launched in November 2008 and has had over 10 million downloads.
After a few years and some incredible word of mouth support from DJs, Serato had made a name for itself as innovators of digital DJing.
The Serato team toured the globe experiencing first hand the evolution taking place in clubs and radio stations around the world.
Digital DJing was taking over, and this small but growing team in New Zealand were a big part of it.
Serato saw the upsides for DJs during this evolution: multi-genre sets, receiving tracks from producers via email an hour before hitting the club, dramatically decreased luggage charges.
These were some of the benefits of using Scratch Live. But many DJs commented on the declining quality of in-house equipment like turntables, and also the reliance on a laptop screen that distracted them from the crowd.
In 2006 Serato started development on project "Skeletor" - an all-in-one compact DJ controller system that would put essential controls at a DJs fingertips, taking them away from the computer screen and keyboard.
There were already DJ controllers in the market but most came with software that DJs had to configure themselves and the experience was far from user friendly.
Serato's vision consisted of dedicated hardware units that, upon installing their software, would work straight out of the box. Simple.
They carefully chose hardware manufacturers to partner with and worked hand-in-hand to ensure that the hardware and software were integrated seamlessly.
"I guess we could see where the industry was heading back then. The controller market was very small at that time, but turntables in clubs weren't being serviced and the industry in general was shifting very quickly." - Sam Gribben, C.E.O.
In January 2008 Serato ITCH launched with its first supported hardware controller, the Vestax VCI-300. There are now ten controllers in the ITCH catalog and it grows every year.
ITCH controllers (chronological order):
Running alongside project "Skeletor" was a new project - "Gargamel".
Developers and DJs at Serato were interested in video DJing - VJing - and how digital vinyl systems could enhance this niche. DVD-based systems ruled the VJ market at the time and, although useable, were expensive and inflexible.
"Gargamel" was designed to be a simple addition to Scratch Live that would let DJs play digital video files much as they would their digital music collections. It had to be flexible, inexpensive and provide a familiar workflow for those experimenting with adding visuals to their sets for the first time.
By following this thought process Serato created not only a user-friendly, cost effective video plug-in for its existing product, but it had built one of the most portable and flexible audiovisual solutions on the market. Video-SL was born.
Video-SL quickly found a home in bars and clubs around the world. Headlining artists also adopted it for large scale visual shows at festivals and arenas, leaving behind the rigidity of VJ hardware for the flexibility of software.
"The philosophy we have when we develop products is that the software should have functional depth but be incredibly straight forward to use. Most of the time people don't need a million different options, just a few key layers and some rock solid reliability. We were blown away by the performances DJs made with Video-SL, and we still are blown away today by our Serato Video artists. That kind of creativity fuels our fire in-house to constantly improve and make new features." - Sam Gribben, C.E.O.
Serato Video-SL was released in 2008 as a plug-in for Scratch Live. In 2011, Serato Video-SL was retired and Serato Video was released as a free update for all Video-SL users. Serato Video is plug-in for both Scratch Live and ITCH.
After 10 years in the professional audio software industry Serato had amassed an enviable collection of business partners and strategic relationships.
This started with Pitch ‘n Time and the work involving Digidesign (now Avid), continued with Rane's involvement in Scratch Live and was further advanced with ITCH and it's numerous hardware manufacturers.
Serato had been regularly meeting Berlin-based audio software company Ableton at industry events since 2007. The companies discovered that they shared similar outlooks on software development, business and the evolution of the music industry.
Ableton had taken a different approach to software based music performance and had made a huge impact with its popular digital audio workstation, Ableton Live.
After a meeting of minds Serato and Ableton agreed to develop a high level of interoperability into their Scratch Live and Ableton Live products.
The result was The Bridge - Scratch Live and Ableton Live working in harmony together. Scratch Live DJs could sync Ableton Live sessions with their DJ set and record a mixtape as an editable Ableton Live session.
The Bridge was launched in 2010 and is a free add-on for people who own both Scratch Live and Ableton Live 8.2 or higher.
As the digital DJ industry grew so did the demand for an entry level software product from Serato.
Scratch Live, ITCH, Serato Video and The Bridge were all aimed at the professional DJ. But the Serato team knew the same plug-and-play approach used in their professional products was also well suited to those just starting out on their DJ journey.
Serato DJ Intro was launched in September 2011 and works with a range of controllers from a number of highly respected DJ hardware manufacturers.
Serato DJ Intro empowers anyone with a passion for music to take it one step further and start mixing.
Serato continues to develop innovative tools for digital DJs. Serato is dedicated to encouraging people everywhere to play with music.
Serato DJ Intro Controllers (chronological order):