1998the spacedeck project
here’s the dirt on my 1998 prototype vinyl emulation system. a patent for the same concept was later obtained (dubiously) by some men of low moral character, who proceeded to take legal action against other manufacturers of similar systems. you can read more about that here if you like.
anyway, as for my part in it…
part one – the project
‘spacedeck’ was my major project for MA digital arts at middlesex university’s centre for electronic arts. it used a 12″ vinyl record as a control surface for manipulating digital audio on a computer.
i had been thinking about building a turntable-like device for controlling midi hardware for a while, and had put the idea down as part of the MA application process. when it came to proposing our major projects, i realised that actually a vinyl record was the ultimate control surface for manipulating the playback of audio, as it was a tried and tested interface, and was extremely tactile and intuitive. i knew about timecode from video editing, and the concept just came into focus – ‘put timecode on a record and use that to control the audio’. like all good ideas, it was so obvious i wondered why no-one had thought of doing it before. more on that later…
it worked like this – the record had SMPTE timecode pressed on it, which was played on a regular turntable (phonograph), the output of which was amplified through a phono pre-amp (e.g. a dj mixer) and fed into a macintosh computer. the software component of the project would then ‘read’ the incoming timecode signal, and calculate the time, direction and speed (pitch) of the signal. a digital audio file (music) was then played back according to this data. if the speed of the record was slowed down, the playback of the audio file slowed down, if the record was stopped, so did the audio, if the record was spun backward, the music played backwards… and so on.
the system created the illusion that the music being heard was actually on the record. and any piece of digitised music could be ‘played’ using this one special record and the spacedeck prototype. the system was fairly crude, but was certainly a working proof-of-concept. you could also perform needle-drops, and very rudimentary scratches. both of these techniques are essential for djing with vinyl, as this is how djs cue and beat-match the records they play.
the main steps of development were as follows:
1. research timecode. it soon became evident that SMPTE timecode would probably be the easiest to work with.
2. burn CDR with SMPTE and write code to ‘listen’ to it and get the speed, direction and position of the code.
3. research and write code to manipulate the speed, direction and position of digital audio files. i used quicktime.
4. write code to playback an audio file according to the incoming timecode data
5. get acetate record (dubplate) with SMPTE timecode on it, test with the system and and fine-tune timecode reading routines
surprisingly, there were no major problems in development. this is probably due to the concept being very simple.
a london-based reproduction house called key production sponsored me for the manufacture of the vinyl record/s. my contact there started spreading the word about my system amongst her friends in the music industry and music technology magazines.
the project was a success. i wrote a technical report as part of my MA thesis, and also exhibited the project at the MA digital arts final show, which took place at aldwych underground station, london, from 18-22 september, 1998.
lots of people thought it was a great idea, and i was urged to develop it further, consider patenting my invention and so on. however as the course ended, real life closed in and i had to get a job. this is where the ‘fun’ part of the story ended…
part two – timeline
initial MA project proposal, start work, research, development.
secured sponsorship for record-pressing from key production.
MA digital arts show ‘digital underground’ at aldwych underground station. the project is displayed to the general public. there is also a CDROM produced for the show which has a screen-only version of the project on it, with details of the vinyl control surface.
MA course finishes. my thesis (including project technical report) is published in the university library.
project dormant due to work commitments. time passes…
i start to hear rumours about another digital vinyl system. jockey slut magazine confirms this when it publishes an article about Richie Hawtin, with much emphasis on the final scratch prototype he is using in his live set-up. seems like i’ve missed the boat if i wanted to amaze the world with my ‘invention’.
build website to document my project, with the intention of kick-starting things again.
i contact the ‘inventors’ of final scratch, a dutch company called N2IT. i’m interested to know if N2IT are intending to try and patent their system, as our projects are so similar. i refer them to the spacedeck project website and they confirm that they have filed a patent application. they did not seem willing to discuss much else. i also send messages to richie hawtin/plus 8 records, who appear to have some kind of business relationship/sponsorship deal going with N2IT. no response from them.
after looking up the patent, it seems that it was first filed in the netherlands in feb 2000
the music tech/dj magazines start getting very excited about vinyl emulation (also referred to as DVS – digital vinyl systems). more time passes. thorin sits down and starts singing about gold…
the buzz around final scratch continues to build. even some turntablists are using it. cripes. i decide it is time to do something. N2IT’s patent is not yet granted. i contact a patent lawyer, who writes to N2IT and tells them that unless they wish to start a conversation with me regarding their patent application and my project, i will make objections/observations to the EU patent office, citing my project and MA thesis. N2IT do not respond, so objections/observations are made, to the effect of the patent should not be granted as the invention is not novel.
N2IT’s EU patent is rejected, but they appeal and it is eventually granted. it puts emphasis on phase-shift between the left and right sides of the vinyl groove as a unique feature.
i quietly fume at the injustice, and then get on with my life. occasionally i think ‘what if…’ and do a bit of research on the web. it’s still impossible to find anything that definitively shows that N2IT built/exhibited their prototype before mine.
create digital music publishes an article ‘digital vinyl’s twisty urny History‘, detailing the known history of vinyl emulation, and the legal wrangling between N2IT and other DVS manufacturers.
i read the article a few months later, and also read an interview with steve west from serato, in which he states that a research project at the university of auckland in 1996 also proposed a similar vinyl emulation concept and demonstrated it publicly.
i post a comment about my 1998 project, and the 1996 project mentioned by steve. i’m actually relieved that someone else did it 2 years before me or N2IT. seems like N2IT won’t be suing anyone else.
i’m contacted by scott wardle (ms. pinky) and steve west (serato) regarding my project, after they have seen the comments on the CDM post. both have been researching the history of vinyl emulation, and wish to add my thesis to their collections of prior art, in case N2IT choose to take legal action against either of them. after some discussion, i send them copies of my MA thesis and other ‘evidence’ about my project.
N2IT starts legal proceedings against m-audio, who license their DVS technology from ms.pinky.
i talk to various lawyers representing m-audio, regarding my MA thesis and possible subpoenas or depositions.
dj techtools publishes an article suggesting that N2IT and m-audio have settled out of court. the case was ‘dismissed with prejudice’, which would appear to indicate that N2IT will not be allowed to pursue a similar case in the USA. it seems like this might be the end of N2IT’s quest to make everyone marketing a vinyl-emulation system pay them royalties…