It was all a dream: The brief history of audiovisual DJing

With the help of Sander Kleinenberg and DJ Yoda, two leading AV DJs, we look back on the products that attempted an ambitious evolution of DJing that never quite materialised.

Between 2003 and 2008, Pioneer DJ released a small range of products that attempted an ambitious evolution in DJing. The DVJ-X1 and DVJ-1000 media players, along with the SVM-1000 mixer, were created so that DJs could also be VJs—and that VJing would be more like DJing. The idea was that having total control of both the audio and visuals would offer artists unprecedented creativity. They could select and manipulate visuals in the same way they could music, giving audiences immersive experiences like never before. 

But, for a number of reasons that we’ll explore in this article, the dream of widespread audiovisual DJing never materialised—at least not in the way its early practitioners imagined. Visuals are now integral to some of the biggest and best-loved spectacles in live electronic music. It’s just that the DJ is rarely the person who is in control.    

Sander Kleinenberg, the Dutch artist who gained global recognition for his progressive house sound in the late ‘90s, and DJ Yoda, AKA Duncan Beiny, one of the UK’s leading hip-hop DJs and advocates of sampling culture, were two figures at the centre of audiovisual DJing. They were among its earliest adopters, both immediately using the DVJ-X1 upon its release in 2003. Sander and Duncan both advised Pioneer DJ in the development of the SVM-1000 mixer. And they both spent years figuring out the pros and cons of DJ-AV setups in clubs and festivals, continually gauging and responding to audience reactions. 

So to tell the story of these products, we turned to Sander and Duncan. We wanted perspective from DJs who explored AV DJing, and to better understand why this practice, whatever its possibilities, never achieved liftoff.

It was the early 2000s. As the digital revolution in music gathered momentum, DJs began to miss the exclusivity they’d enjoyed playing promo or dubplate records. Sander was looking for new ways to stand out. On tour together in South America, he and a fellow producer had an idea. They could “sync video and music in a more profound way and in a way that it was also obvious for the crowd,” Sander said. “That would be a really great leap forward.” 

Within a week, there was a twist of fate. “Pioneer sent a press release out to the world saying that they would develop the DVJ-X1, the first generation of these players, and I just went, eureka!” said Sander. “This is what’s going to change the world because I felt that music had been devalued because of this new way of distribution. I thought with the addition of video now we can have more depth to the creative experience.” 

Released in 2003, the DVJ-X1 aimed to do for DVDs and visuals what the CDJ-1000 had done for CDs and audio two years earlier. It functioned in much the same way as the CDJ-1000 but also allowed users to manipulate DVDs as though they were CDs or vinyl—scratches, loops and instant cues—with the video and audio remaining in sync. “Crossing the boundaries between the once-separate audio and video domains,” is how Pioneer DJ billed them at the time; they would pave the way for “a new breed of performer—the DVJ.” 

Duncan had experience combining audio with visuals. As a dedicated follower of film, he’d sampled plenty of movie audio and re-soundtracked films with DJ sets. But he could sense a new creative path when he first tried the X1s. “I put my hand on the platter and scratched the video and was like, OK, this is what it’s all been leading towards. This is perfect for me. As soon as I started I was like, this is the tech that I need for creative ideas.” 

However, the initial excitement over the X1s gave way to technical and logistical challenges. There was no video mixer on the market that functioned in the way DJs like Sander and Duncan needed, so they made do with workarounds. Sander assembled a setup where the video was blended separately by a simple mixer, with the audio handled by a standard DJ mixer. Duncan did something similar, with a regular turntables setup alongside a “big clunky video mixer with just a crossfader to move between the two different video sources.” 

“I teamed up with a video artist,” said Sander. “We both figured out a template from which we wanted to work. Let’s say I had 200 records that I wanted to have a choice in playing during any significant night. I would decide that for about 20% of those tunes I would create specific video content for when it had a vocal that we could express on the screen. 

“In essence, we wanted to take over the club experience and make it super in-sync with the energy that was coming from the music. The music was always obviously leading, and we wanted to enhance that with visual experiences. So drops would be dark, or breakdowns would be dark and mysterious. We figured out lots of themes and loads of directions that we wanted to use to express a certain emotion from a video.” 

“I started thinking about buying DVDs in the same way that I’d been thinking about buying records for 15 years,” said Duncan. “It’s like, I’ve got to start digging for DVDs now. At the time I had a tour in China, just when the X1s came out, and I was digging in all these Chinese DVD shops, buying bootleg copies of every movie, and also weird Chinese folk DVDs—just anything that I could find that might be rare. These weren’t the days of YouTube, you’d have to find DVDs of stuff to get the material that you wanted.” 

Duncan described working with DVDs in the live environment as “clunky.” He remembered that on some DVDs it wasn’t possible to skip past the adverts or trailers before the film, meaning he’d have to “cue up” the disc and wait for them to finish. “It was actually a really stressful way of doing things,” he said. “It was innovative and fun and breaking new ground but also tricky to set up and you had to work out a lot of problems.” 

There would also be a learning curve as both Duncan and Sander figured out the venues and crowds that would be suitable for visual sets. With a style that drew more from movies than visuals, Duncan concluded that clubs weren’t suitable for what he was trying to do. “I figured out pretty early—it’s amazing, but people cannot dance and watch a screen,” he said. “With my show it was always like, ‘Look at the screen, there’s something going on here that you need to see.’ So sometimes I’d do shows in cinemas, where people sit down and eat popcorn and watch me DJ. And that’s way more exciting to me than trying to get someone’s attention in a club at two in the morning.” 

Sander recalled having a huge range of different experiences. “At some moments it was incredible,” he said. “I had a record back then called ‘This Is Miami,’ which was 2005, I believe. I did various versions for various cities where I would play. I remember doing SW4, a huge dance music festival smack in the middle of London. I remember playing the “This Is London” version… and I mean, the crowd just exploded. But in an underground club in, say, New York with ravers who really wanted to get totally locked into the music—this maybe wasn’t the best idea because I was more busy with making sure that everything worked than being fully focused on what actually happened to the dance floor.” 

In the meantime, Pioneer DJ had been working on the next generation of DVJ products. In 2006, the DVJ-1000 replaced the X1 by adding updates like a redesigned jog wheel, improved loop functionality, expanded mp3 and DVD compatibility, and 96 kHz / 24-bit audio. However, DJs were still having to use what was essentially a hack to preview video content: DVD screens that were repurposed from Pioneer’s car audio department. So it’s perhaps no surprise that when the SVM-1000 mixer was released in 2008, it felt like the full DVJ setup had finally been realised. “The doors to full-on AV freedom are now fully open!” read the Pioneer DJ release text. “A major stumbling block for many was the lack of a simple and easy-to-use AV mixer… Now the super-versatile SVM-1000 has the power and technology to change all that.” 

As DJs who were pushing the DVJ technology to its limits, it was natural that Duncan and Sander would be involved with the development of the SVM-1000 mixer. “There was a need for a crossfader that controlled the video and audio at the same time,” Duncan said. “And then I guess everything else was built around that. It was a much needed gap in the market at that point for the few people who were like me out there doing that stuff. 

“But the fact that it had the colour touchscreen on the mixer, and especially all the effects—the video effects tied in with the audio effects—was really forward-thinking, innovative, and allowed me to do some really creative and cool stuff. Even to add the text as well, because that was a useful thing—to be able to throw words up on the screen. So it was really exciting. For me over the years, the best technology gets my mind firing creatively. As soon as I’m aware of what it does I’m like, ‘Oh, well, I could do this, I could do that.’ And the SVM totally did that.” 

In this short video recorded in 2009, Sander explains how the manipulation of EQ could be assigned to the colour of visuals. Killing the bass, for example, could be linked to a colour of the user’s choosing. He also covers the “kill switch” (or “video trim” as it’s labelled on the SVM) a feature Sander insisted on in his discussions with Pioneer DJ. “The video gain was something unparalleled, because if you blew up the gain you would get a big, bright flash. So I would use that a lot to just light up the room and something exciting would happen. I would intuitively be in control of the lighting system itself. This tool became a lighting system in its own right, and it gave me tremendous power.”

“It was really exciting,” Duncan reflected. “But the downside was it was huge. So heavy and so large. So not the most portable of options.” Duncan said that it took two people to carry the coffin case he toured with at the time. “I had a tour manager with me, and we used to have to lift that thing together. We had real problems getting it on flights. There was one flight to a festival in Jersey, and they wouldn’t let us get on the plane because the thing was too big and too heavy, and the baggage handlers refused to carry it.” 

Sander’s DVJ setup also necessitated him hiring someone, in this case a videographer, which is partly why he thought his setup wouldn’t have been accessible to most DJs. He pointed out that if a DJ had wanted to learn video editing back then, a powerful computer was needed. This was a time before social media, smartphones, high-speed internet and video streaming had become the global phenomena they are today, which made getting hold of suitable video content a consistent challenge.   

For Sander there was also the effort it took to keep his DVJ sets fresh, which he thinks impacted upon other areas of his craft. “The intention was 100% to create something extremely memorable,” he said. “But I think I may have focussed a little too much on the technical side… then maybe forgetting the reality of what the dance floor actually wanted at that moment… Working on [the DVJ set], fine tuning it and spreading it around the world meant that I wasn’t in the studio making hit records, you know? 

“Looking back at it, maybe I should have been more clear on where I would and wouldn’t use the video setup. But back then it was like, ‘No, I want to do it everywhere. I’m so excited about this.’” 

So was it too ambitious to think that DJs could simultaneously be VJs? From a practical and technical standpoint, perhaps it will always be a stretch (although Duncan has spent the past couple of decades continuing to make a strong case for it). But it is worth remembering that, as Sander and Duncan presumably imagined back in the day, visuals are now central to some of the most popular and technologically ambitious electronic music shows on the planet. From Daft Punk’s pyramid, to EDM mega festivals, and the shows of artists like Eric Prydz, Tale Of Us, Aphex Twin, Deadmau5, Amon Tobin and Max Cooper, there is clearly an enormous appetite for audiovisual experiences. The key difference, of course, is that these shows are a collaboration.

The SVM-1000 and DVJ-1000 were produced until 2012 and 2013 respectively. Duncan kept hold of his SVM-1000. “I’ve got rid of a lot of the mixers that I’ve had over the years,” he said. “But that’s something I could plug in and still do some cool stuff with… It would have been really cool to see Pioneer do more products like that. But I understand that the market is small, you know, there’s not that many people doing it. I look around for other DJs who are doing AV shows, even now, to compare what I’m doing. And it’s still the case that you can count on one hand the people who are doing interesting stuff.”

He went on, “It surprises me that so few people want to take things in that direction. I mean, I have the luxury that I spend my days trying to work out interesting DJ stuff to do… Maybe people don’t have the time, or they’re too busy thinking about the audio side of things. But my interest has always been video anyway. So it kind of came naturally to me.

“I did a thing this year that was designed entirely for domes, for immersive 360 environments… There’s so much to explore. And we’re still in the early days of it, I think.”

Despite feeling that he could have handled his processes and strategy differently, Sander was upbeat about his audiovisual adventures. “I’m not going to say that I shouldn’t have done it, because it was incredible,” he said.

“With four years of international touring, it really gave me this idea that I could be the first one in something… That I was actually bringing something to the table instead of repeating things that other people had done before me. And apart from the fact that maybe I didn’t get the worldwide recognition and the fame and the whatever, it doesn’t really matter. I did it, you know, and for me personally that really is all that counts.”