But never in my life have I met someone who vibes more intensely than Avalon Emerson. Her vibes have the capacity to exalt and to destroy. How did she not realize that she is a total vibewoman?
Sure, some have probably discovered any given facet of her organizational methodology. Others use many of the same rekordbox and CDJ functions. But they didn't create the mind palace that is Emerson's approach to DJing. I visualize her way of obtaining, organizing, editing, playing, mixing and archiving music as a Fordist factory designed like a panopticon. Although the individual tasks are simple, their integration into a logical whole is remarkable. It's a less romantic vision of what makes her a great DJ, but it's no less impressive.
Emerson's approach to hacking DJ technology's underused possibilities seems like an application of her knowledge of computer programming. It's probably her nerdiness—visual, intellectual and musical—that distinguishes her most obviously from the vibemen of DJ world. Vibemen preside over ecstatic dance floors, sweating and grimacing while they blend the old-fashioned way. Emerson leans in close to the screen with her fingers on the dial and squints through Navigator glasses, piloting the CDJ with the practiced ease of someone who types very quickly.
The whole tech whiz thing is ultimately a tool that allows her to devote most of her CPU to determining what to play and when, enchanting a crowd, making people dance—in short, delivering the kind of ecstatic communal experience that elevates playing songs to the art of DJing. Her entire process of organising and playing music is engineered to help her find and transition to the next song as quickly possible, which is key for someone who jumps between genres and tempos as often as Emerson does. Any given set might include shades of hi-NRG and New Beat, booming breakbeats or aquatic house rollers, but they always bear her pop sensibility. Many of the edits she plays occasionally appear as free downloads on her personal website under the banner of Cybernedits.
Emerson has taught me a lot of things about DJing and production. One of her most salient lessons was one she demonstrates more often than she articulates: a technological and rational approach doesn't eliminate an artist's creative juju—one can enhance the other. Anyone can learn Emerson's tricks, but the rest is up to you.
Let's start with how you developed your current style of mixing. You don't usually bring records to gigs anymore, but you used to. When and why did you phase out vinyl? How long of a process was that?
To be honest, like a lot of other new DJs, I felt like if I didn't walk into the club with vinyl then I was somehow or perceived to be "less" of a DJ. So I felt pressured to do so. But it's annoying to carry records around, and more importantly, you can do more interesting things on CDJs. I also edit a lot of stuff, and those edits obviously only exist as digital files.
Did you learn to DJ on vinyl?
Not really. I used iTunes the first time I played music for people in a party scenario when I was like, 19.
Was there ever a period where you played only or mostly vinyl?
No. I played CDs for a long time in San Francisco because USB CDJs didn't exist for the majority of the time that I lived there. Some bars had a Serato box, but I didn't buy one. Back then, whenever I encountered CDJs, they were usually these crazy wedding CDJs that are like, rack-mount units with CD trays that pop out like old desktop computers. The options were either vinyl, Serato or those CDJs, and no one used CDJs until the CDJ 1000s started popping up. I've made edits and produced music for longer than I've been a DJ, so I've always wanted to incorporate my original material. That's the main reason I've never been a vinyl-only DJ.
When did you decide that people who judged others negatively for not using vinyl were wrong?
When I started getting feedback that I was a good DJ. I was better than a lot of people who were playing only vinyl anyways.
You don't play vinyl anymore, but you do have a vinyl collection here at your house. Why do you still buy records?
Because that's still usually the most straightforward way to get a high-quality version of a track, and with old stuff it's often the only way. Buying and ripping is a massive part of being a DJ nowadays. Do I carry it in a Rimowa everywhere? No. But I still buy and rip constantly. I use a belt-drive turntable to rip records because the timing is more constant and they apparently transfer less noise to the needle. It's more of a hi-fi turntable. The signal goes through a Urei Soundcraft 1620 mixer, which has nice vinyl preamps in it and just sounds nice. That goes into my Soundcraft sound card, and then I record that in Ableton. Then I edit, EQ, decrackle, and remaster and normalize it.
When I first moved to Berlin, I didn't have a good set-up for ripping, so sometimes I brought a few records to gigs because I didn't have the track digitally or because I just wanted to play vinyl. But I stopped using vinyl at all as I started to prioritize archiving my sets. I save the history of my gigs so that I can look back over four years and see exactly what I played in the order I played it. You can't do that with vinyl.
Tell me about the pedals. What do you use the pedals for?
I used to bring an isolator and sometimes I bring two pedals, but usually I just bring one. Sometimes it's a delay, sometimes it's a reverb. I've tried different ones and switch them out when I get sick of them. If I'm using a rotary mixer, I usually don't use the pedals because most of them—except for some E&S DJR 400s—don't have an effect loop or it's not routed as a send/return. Most of the time when I use a pedal, I route it as a send/return through the Xone 92 rather than as an insert effect, which is a fundamentally different way of doing effects. It's like in Ableton: if you a drop a reverb directly onto the track, it's different than if you send the track's dry signal to a return, which is the way you do it on an Allen & Heath. I have the pedal plugged into a return on the mixer and have the fader all the way up with the signal 100 percent wet. That means when I chop something in, I send the track's dry signal to the effect return using the knobs above the gain, and that delay or reverb will remain in the mix even if I take the dry signal out.
If I want to mix out in a dramatic way, I can increase the wet signal from the outgoing track as it's fading out or coming to a point where I want to chop it out. I increase the effect on channel one until there's a snare roll or something and time that with some big, meaty change in the incoming track. I increase the effect wetness on channel one, and then drop out the dry signal of channel one by pulling down the fader. Instead of just having a silent void immediately following that cut, there's a nice little reverb or delay tail, and that passes the baton in a more musical way to track two.
What kind of reverbs and delay pedals do you use?
I use a bunch of different kinds. The Strymon blueSky Reverb is kind of a techno bro one, but it's nice. I also have a TC Electronic Hall Of Fame 2, a Teil1 Keinedelay and an Eventide Space, and a really cheap little Mooer Ana Echo, which is a little too gnarly for me, and it's in mono. Once I played with it at De School, and it self-oscillated in a very loud way. I was kind of embarrassed.
That's the same way you learned to do things on a CDJ, right? By trying things at a gig you haven't done before—and sometimes that doesn't go your way.
Yeah, for sure. Of course. All the time. If you're not going to try something because you might be embarrassed by it, then you should just quit trying anything in life, because you're gonna fail at it sometimes, too.
What CDJ functions do you use the most often?
I loop stuff. I use the track tag and parameter filters, and I use hot cues to break up a track's linear structure.
How much preparation does that entail in rekordbox?
It's easier to set hot cues if you do it ahead of time, but you can do it on the fly, and I do that sometimes. You have to set auto-loops in advance, so that once the playhead reaches the timecode you set, it'll automatically start looping there. Say there's a really chill part of a track before it goes into a hectic part with vocals and horns and all kinds of stuff, and you'd rather mix out before that happens—you can do that. Also, any notes have to be set in advance. A note that says "vocals" or "hit C to skip breakdown" helps me do some of my "live editing" and gives me flexibility and breathing room when it comes to how I play certain songs. The other functions I use most are beat jump, which makes the playhead skip a certain amount of beats ahead or backwards. I also use slip mode a bit, which lets you scratch or loop or do a goofy vinyl break without losing your place in the song.
You've mentioned chopping tracks in, mixing out in dramatic ways and rearranging tracks using hot cues. How would you describe your approach to mixing records? You're not trying to make long, seamless blends that are phrased well within the limitations of a track's given arrangement, which is often how people mix with vinyl.
I do a lot of cutting and quick mixes. I often layer two eight-bar loops on top of one another, and then I'll let one of the loops go so that the song can build while still maintaining some elements from the previous song until the main part comes in and I want the other one to get out of the way. It's about timing, bottling up energy from tracks and having them stack on top of one another and telling a story—not always in the DJ Harvey-style, vibeman journey way. I think of my "storytelling" more like putting a few words together into a clause, and that clause forms a sentence, then I string together sentences to say something in a passage. It's not just about playing songs that have similar-sounding elements in them or that would have been tagged as the same genre in rekordbox. It's hard to quantify.
Now you're talking about structuring sets, not the way you transition between tracks.
Yeah. I could probably loop all of my sets into a few different categories. The first is short festival sets that last an hour or two. Then there are four-hour headlining slots at a club, not on a stage. The last category is long sets, like eight hours closing Panorama Bar. Especially during festival sets, I don't really have a lot of room for indecision in the booth. I don't want to be in a position where I'm like, "Hmm, maybe I'll go in this direction," or, "Hmm, which one should I start with for this new direction idea that I have?" Also, to be totally honest, it feels pretty pointless to try and "read" a crowd of a few thousand people. So for those I have a playlist that's usually twice as long as the set's duration, and it's sorted roughly in the order I'd want to play it. In general I want to start with a pretty intro that's not really a dance music thing—like, if you look at my set from MUTEK a few months ago, I played a North Sea Dialect song before going into something that was still deep but more banging, so there was a contrast between the beatless intro and something that hit harder.
Do you usually have an opening track in mind before you start playing?
Yeah, pretty much every time. I want the DJ playing before me to be able to finish as loudly or as dramatically or flashy as they want. Then everyone claps, and it's kind of a reset. When two bands play one after the other, they don't try to groove into the previous band's track. It's kind of annoying when people try to mix in from my last track. It's like, "Hey, chill. You'll have your moment. It's OK, eager beaver." So even if the DJ before me plays a tool, I let it run out, we all clap, and then I start.
OK, so at MUTEK you wanted to start with something beatless to reset the vibe and then contrast that with something more hard-hitting.
I think for that one I was playing two hours, which for the festival's biggest stage is kind of long. So I didn't have to immediately start with the crazy vibes. I played some stuff that's more sparse and drummy and that had some more angular rhythms in it. I'm doing a shitty job at describing this.
No, you're doing fine. You're just doubting yourself because you're starting to use more "vibeman" talk rather than technical language to describe what you're talking about right now, but that's OK. I think you tend to downplay how much of your style is vibeman-related—we can get into that later.
That's true. OK. So yeah, after an intro you can really go hard and go kinda fast. But there's no need to rush into a crazy vibe. If you look at it like a graph of energy over time, you don't just wanna be at the top all the time. People get tired. So after I gave them the hardness and excitement of big-room rave, I did long blends for 15 or 20 minutes. There are times when I want to just stitch things together to build a monolithic, washing-over-you vibe by layering drummy acapellas and tooly tracks. It's about building pressure and using energy in a dynamic way instead of just going, "Here's a song, here's a song."
You mentioned earlier that you think about a rough structure for the set in advance and organize that in rekordbox. Can you explain a little more about how you use rekordbox?
I laid out some basic stuff in The Hour last year, but my process is a little more sophisticated now, so I'm going to explain it again. I've set it up for two situations to do with how I choose each next track: browse versus search. Browse is when I don't know what the next song will be, so I want to have my library set up in a way that facilitates me browsing and picking the next song. Search is what I do when I know what song I want to play next and I need my library set up to help me find it as fast as possible. Sometimes I turn into a big illiterate baby up there and I know what song I want to play, but I can't remember the name of the song or the artist that made it.
It's easier to recognize or recall a song based on the color of the record's label or something like that. That's another reason people like playing vinyl.
Totally. That's something I do appreciate about vinyl. A 12-inch record is a big, human-sized visual cue that you can hold. I'm often in the situation where I can't come up with the artist name or the track name—I just know that it had blue cover art and that I played it in Leeds last weekend. Because I have the history of all my gigs archived, I can go back and find it through those playlists. Since I've been DJing professionally for several years, I split those up; Berghain has its own folder, then I have ones for countries or regions. If I had every gig just sorted in reverse chronological order, I'd have to scroll back through months of gigs to get to my last one in Leeds. This way I can just go "UK > Leeds > Wire September 18." The most recent gigs are at the top. I still can't believe I'm doing an interview about this and that this is what I do.
Then I have my intelligent playlists. The gigs playlists are all manual drag-and-drop, but the intelligent ones are made automatically via tags or other attributes that I've set. I have tags like "techno," "club," "breaks," "acid," "trancey," "wavey," "drummy," "drone" and some others. And then I have tags for functions, which are more to do with energy or situations that I would play them in. Those function tags are: "deep," "glue," "dreamy," "poppy," "sunny," then the "tools" header, which indicates more functional things, like a stem of one of my own songs, an acapella, a beat or an ambient track. My last category of tag is "Played At," which I only uses for places that I play kind of often: Panorama Bar and De School. Since people go there regularly, I don't want to repeat myself too much from set to set, and this allows me to see what I've played there in the past.
Alright, then I better not hear 100 Hz's "Whisper" the next time you play Panorama Bar.
You love that song, and I only played it twice there. I import the history from my USB after I play. After a set, I highlight all the tracks in that playlist and attach the "Played At Panorama Bar" tag to it. Rekordbox writes a list of all the tags in the comments section of the file itself. That means that it'll show my "Played At Panorama Bar" tag no matter how I navigate to the track on the CDJ, so I can decide if I want to play it again.
What goes into that decision? How do you determine when to retire a track or whether to repeat it?
I'm struggling with that right now. Due to the size of my library I can only use 256-gig USBs, which is pretty big. Say I lose my USB and I have to go buy one at the airport or whatever; the 256-gig ones are often not available. That's why I'd like to keep my library under 128 gigs and why I should delete stuff that I don't use. But that would disrupt the archive I've made of all my gigs since 2015.
And even if I don't play a certain song anymore, maybe there are songs that I played two years ago and haven't played since, so it's time to bring it back. This is one of my more complex playlists: "Goodies from two years ago." The conditions are: the date the file was added to rekordbox is in the last 36 months but not in the last 24 months; the DJ play count is over two, meaning that I've played it a few times, but it's less than 12, so it's not one of my all-time classic bangers like one of my songs. I play those a lot because I feel like people come to hear me DJ because they like my productions. This Goodies playlist uses data I've been tracking for the last few years to pick songs that I like and that were legit parts of my sets from a specific time—two years ago—so that I can go back and find stuff I might have forgotten about. I have it for one year ago and then this year, too.
Most of my intelligent playlists listen for combinations of all the tags that I ascribe to a single song, because one song usually has many tags attached to it. That makes importing new songs and categorizing them easy, because when I add a new song, the only thing I have to do is listen to it and semantically define it. I don't have to remember all the playlists that I have and then decide which one goes in where. The other benefit is that rekordbox writes the tags I ascribe to it in the comment field of the AIFF file. So even if I'm scrolling by a brand new song and I'm not super familiar with it, I can look and say, "Well, the last time I heard it in rekordbox, I ascribed a 'breaks' tag, a 'deep' tag, an 'acid' tag and a 'techno' tag." That jogs my memory about what a song sounds like.
Then I have special little playlists of songs that are good for ending a set and an intelligent playlist that searches for my name, so I can find all of my own productions, demos, remixes or Cybernedits.
Since pretty much everything's tagged, I can basically create intelligent playlists on the fly by editing the track filter on the CDJs themselves rather than ahead of time in rekordbox. I've personally never seen someone use the tag filter screen before—it's hard to even find an image of it on Google, even though it's a really cool feature. I use it all the time during long sets. I can say I want something that is within six beats per minute of 130, I want things that are tagged "techno" and "breaks" and "wave." And then boom: the CDJ filters all of my songs to these 18 tracks that satisfy those requirements.
Another really useful thing is to have auto-playlists for things that I added in the last week, two weeks, four weeks and eight weeks. If I'm in a rush then I can just dump things in there, and I don't have to add them to any playlists or tag them at all and I can still access them quickly.
Why did you decide to develop this extremely organized method?
Like, why did I decide to get crazy about it? I don't know...
Yes you do.
Because it's "the best way of organizing your shit"? It was already there, and I just discovered it.
I guess I'm trying to lead you to articulate one of my own assumptions or observations about you, like all good interviewers do.
Is the observation that I shouldn't be a DJ?
Girl… no. I think it's related to what you've brought up about not being a "vibeman" or, "I can't believe I'm talking about this because it's so silly that it's my job to have developed this elaborate analytical method to organize it"—
Do you think it's that elaborate?
It's pretty elaborate. I mean, just describe how a track goes from being a Dropbox promo that someone sent you to being a part of your set.
Well, first of all, thank you for sending me a Dropbox link, because I can just add it to my Dropbox remotely. I have a folder on my computer that's in my Dropbox folder called "DJ Music Inbox," which is one place where I dump everything so that I can dedicate time to sit down and listen to and tag promos or rips or whatever. I don't put it on my desktop; I don't put it in my Downloads folder—don't do that. If someone sends me a bunch of music and I don't have time to go through it now but I will later—that's in my DJ Music Inbox on Dropbox.
I don't use WAVs because they don't support metadata. Anyone reading this: please don't send WAVs. Send AIFFs because they're still lossless but you can have metadata on them. If it's a WAV, I use XLD to convert the file. It's a nice program because if you have a photo in the same directory, it will automatically attach it as album art. I try to attach artwork as much as possible, even if it's just a press photo, so that I can connect a color visual.
After I drag something onto the XLD icon, it automatically moves it into the DJ Music Library folder, which is also on Dropbox. Anything that's in rekordbox is in here. I do that so that it's easy and straightforward to backup or restore a rekordbox library, because I have two computers that share the same rekordbox library. I look at rekordbox on my desktop studio computer and also on my laptop when I'm on the road, and I want to be able to have the same library on both computers. So if I'm done working on the studio computer, I back up the rekordbox library, export the library file—which isn't the music itself, but rather a 400-ish MG zip file—and restore it on my laptop from that data.
Once the actual AIFF file is in DJ Music Library, then I just highlight it and drag it into the Collection in Rekordbox. At that point I go through and tag each file or song. When I tag them, they automatically fly into the intelligent playlists that are looking for combinations of tags.