Back in the 60s and 70s, DJs started looping the drum breaks in songs during their sets, effectively inventing both hip-hop and our modern perception of the DJ as a performer. Using pairs of turntables and a mixer, they hacked together rudimentary systems that let them cue material on one deck while a record played on the other.
Wind the clock forward 30 years and you can do the same thing on CD with Denon's DN-S3500 decks. Purists may feel that because the DN-S3500s do not play vinyl, they're inferior to a pair of classic Technics models like the SL-1200s, but we were pleasantly surprised by the DN-S3500's ability to simulate vinyl scratching and cueing. The system uses the same kind of high-torque, direct-drive platter you'll find in traditional decks.
Professional DJs will want to buy two decks, making this a hefty investment at around £600 each, but there's no reason you can't use one DN-S3500 in conjunction with a cheaper, traditional vinyl deck. There's also the option of using just one deck and setting up loops on the built-in sampler. The DN-S3500 is extremely capable, but has Denon really closed the gap between genuine vinyl mixing and a digital simulation?
A slot-loading drive at the front of the DN-S3500 accepts both normal and MP3 CDs. This means that you can pack a huge number of songs into the space in your bag usually occupied by one vinyl record. Anyone who's lugged around a bag of vinyl will appreciate this.
Unlike digital decks we've looked at before, such as the Hercules DJ Control MP3, the DN-S3500 requires some assembly before you can use it. The platter is manually attached to the drive motor by placing it on the spindle, then a slip-mat on top of that, and finally a sheet of translucent vinyl. The DN-S3500 is bundled with two slip-mats, one patterned with blue swirls, the other covered in little demon eyes -- we advise against using the latter, for obvious reasons. If you want to go for a retro aesthetic, you can even attach a 12-inch vinyl record to the platter and scratch with that.
The DN-S3500 uses a professional-grade platter assembly and drive mechanism. The variable pitch on the platter has a sensitivity ranging from just 4 per cent all the way up to 100 per cent (where the platter is entirely stationary). The deck will use the sensory data from the platter to instantaneously alter playback of the source material. In plain English, this means that the DN-S3500 allows you to interact with CDs in a way that's almost indistinguishable from the way you do with vinyl.
Pressing your fingers on the DN-S3500's platter lightly will slow rotation, and therefore lower pitch and tempo, in direct proportion to the amount of pressure applied. Rubbing your fingertips back and forth across the platter will cause the record to rapidly repeat the same section of song, first forward, then reversed -- the technique known as 'scratching'.
These vinyl behaviours are not simulated in a broad, generic way. Instead they are very specifically related to platter position, the speed of your finger movement and the pressure you apply. We're fairly confident that you could blindfold most DJs and they would not be able to tell the difference between this and an analogue deck -- the simulation is that accurate.
There's a range of cueing options on the DN-S3500, so you can select whichever is closest to what you're used to. Built-in effects include Flanger, Filter, Echo and Echo Loop. There are also three 'effects' available on the platter itself. These are designed to simulate features on a vinyl deck: Brake, Dump and Reverse.
Brake changes the behaviour of sound when the platter is stopped using the play/pause button. It causes the platter to slow gradually while the virtual needle is still down on the surface of the 'record', giving the impression that the song is slowing down like a tape recorder running out of battery power. Dump reverses the sound while the platter continues to rotate forward, and Reverse reverses the platter direction, playing the song backwards.
There's also a range of advanced sampling and looping functions. You'll need to consult the manual before you grapple with these, but they're powerful enough that a talented user could probably do without another deck if they were determined to get by with the single unit.
Perhaps the only major omission from the DN-S3500 is the subtle crackle and hiss of vinyl when run through a high-powered club system. Of course, you could add this to your MP3s yourself when you burn them to CD -- or you could rip your original vinyl collection, played on an analogue deck, to CD. Vinyl was never designed to crackle anyway, but traditionalists may miss this.
The DN-S3500 includes left and right phono outputs as well as an optical out, but it would have been nice to see balanced outputs in the form of generic XLR connectors. This would make it easier to rig a single deck up to a club PA system. Of course, if you're using two decks patched into a mixer, the mixer is likely to have these dedicated balanced outputs anyway.
One other small quibble is the power lead on the deck. This is permanently attached to the main unit. If the cord becomes frayed or damaged, it will be difficult to safely repair. We would have preferred it if Denon had used a standard, detachable kettle lead to supply power to the internal PSU. This is the de-facto standard for most club equipment.
While DJs at a competitive level will still lust after the performance and speed of a pair of analogue decks, two DN-S3500s could easily replace the decks of almost any other DJ. If you were dubious that digital decks would ever reach a point where they're indistinguishable from vinyl for most people, then you should definitely road-test the DN-S3500 before passing judgement.
This is an exceptionally impressive attempt to allow DJs to use music from a digital source yet accurately simulate the way traditional vinyl behaves. As with digital SLR cameras, it seems that the initial reluctance to adopt these new technologies will recede as the authenticity of the result improves. With the DN-S3500, Denon may just have signed vinyl's death warrant.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide