There has been some controversy in the last few years over the question of who actually invented the concept behind the Digital Vinyl System (DVS) currently on the market today, which was first launched as Final Scratch). You can read about this Here, Here, Here, Here, Here, and Here, and you can see a small list of some of the various versions on the market today Here, Here, Here, Here, Here, and Here.
This is primarily because the original claimant of the invention a company called N2IT or those who bought the rights has sued a number of companies accusing them of copying 'their' invention and are possibly suing or extracting royalties from others who they claim are in breach their intellectual property and patent filled in 2002 for the concept now widely used for all digital vinyl systems.
I have a unique insight on the history of who really invented the first digital vinyl system which could be brought to market, more importantly I can add a new twist to this already controversial saga.
My name is Steven Carroll, I was the primary electronic engineer / main designer / sole director of Intimidation and during the nineties I designed 4 Intimidation DJ mixers which were renowned for their unique and innovative features (the most notorious feature probably being 'Kill Switches' and 'Rotary Kills' a concept now used everywhere) and each of my designs and features were widely plagiarized by the rest of the audio / DJ manufactures in this space. To get a historical sense of how unique my designs were at the time, lookout for the reviews which document the excitement with which they were received.
Click on images for brochures and reviews
I am not a lawyer but IMO the new evidence I can add to this saga would (if used in court) nullify the patents granted to Mark-Jan Bastian of N2IT - Patent Number: US7,012,184B2 issued on the 14th March 2006, filling date 26th April 2002 along with prior patents filed in Netherlands patent number NL1014526 (C2) filled on 2000-02-29 would also be rendered null and void!
There are many who have claimed this invention was theirs but where there is innovation there is also a trail of supporting evidence and history which surrounds the environment in which the pieces come together to bring about that 'aha moment' where the inventor realizes the solution to the problem. I will now take you back through these events and give you the real history about the origins of this invention.
This story started for me and probably everyone else when Andre Rickli from Bern Switzerland demonstrated (I think it was) in 1996 at Frankfurt Musikmesse (probably the largest exhibition for music equipment in the world) a device which caught the attention of many and it was one of the most talked about products at the show (along with my products of-course ;)) a device which had a large arm and a rotating disc which lowered onto the center of the turntable and was used to capture the movement of the disc. As the DJ moved the disc back and forth so would the sample being played from his computer. Accompanying it was a little black box with lots of silver buttons, no legends as to what they did, and when he touched the buttons and moved the turntable disc it made some amazing sounds.
picture from Andre Rickli's 1996 patent
He wanted 10K for one unit at the time and he had a little brochure, yellowish in color, I had one of his brochures and may still have it in a box somewhere? He's main ambition I believe was to find a manufacturer to take his concept on and help him bring it to market. It was to early in my carrier to help him and the other players didn't bite which is not at all uncommon because they never operate like this anyway, their (other manufacturers) preferred modus de operandi is to just steal the best ideas and develop their own emulations!
This was the last I saw of his product, but apparently Andre Rickli continued to develop the concept and it appears he may have gone into business with Wu Tang's RZA who claims in this video (below) to be the investor who finally backed him in 1997 with some serious investment (2 million) and founded a company for it called Wu electronics and then 'allegedly' his business partners took the product to AES without him in 2001 and according to RZA he got stiffed by them for more cash, then to top it off 6 months or a year later Stanton/N2IT launched the Final Scratch system which was much more elegant and instead of using a hardware device which Andre Rickli had done (image above) to capture the movement of the vinyl, they instead used another method, that of encoding a time code directly onto vinyl then collecting this via the stylus to control the digital samples.
Lets back up a little to look at other attempts to solve this problem.
In 1997 at Frankfurt Musikmesse two German developers who I knew from previous years who had some minor successes previously with a handheld bpm counter which you tapped to give you the BPM had a prototype of a concept which used a coded slip-mat and a reader which sat on the side of the turntable which read these black and white lines on the edge of the slip-mat and they suggested it would also allow one to control the speed of digital music via a turntable disc. It didn't function well, but it deserves a mention. However I never saw their mockup or them again.
Now another attempt to invent a digital vinyl system came from a London based music / video creator Chris Bauer who developed a project called the Spacedeck project. He claims to have started work on his project in march 1998 and launched a demo on 18-22 september, 1998.
Chris explains on his blog how he invented a similar digital vinyl system to that of the N2IT Final Scratch one in which he encoded his disc with an SMTPE time code (commonly used in midi systems and video controllers).
As chris bauer explains in his own words: "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."
Chris then pretty much abandoned the project, but after seeing all the attention that Final scratch was getting he decided in 2003 to attempt to negotiate with Stanton/N2IT. They refused to enter into talks with him and so he hired a patent lawyer and filled to prevent N2IT being granted with a patent for the concept. In Chris's words:
2003 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.
The N2IT EU patent was originally rejected in 2004, but on appeal it was eventually granted, chris sites "it puts emphasis on phase-shift between the left and right sides of the vinyl groove as a unique feature"!
This (phase shift) part is important and we will come back to this difference between the Spacedeck project and the N2IT patent in detail shortly!
Now there is yet another claim upon this invention made by Steve West of a well known company in this space (one of the biggest in the DVS market) who probably has the most to loose from any claims of patent infringement called Serato who have many partners in this sector, who they support with their Scratch Live DVS technology.
Steve West has claimed in an interview in 2006 that in 1996 he suggested an idea to a fellow student at the University of Auckland "James Russell" who was researching methods of controlling digital audio playback using turntables (record players). "He was exploring all kinds of optical, mechanical and even magnetic methods of tracking record movement. Steve suggested that he could press a control tone onto the record. James incorporated the suggested method into his research paper, which was published at the end of 1996. It wasnít until 2001 that Serato commercialized the method."
However, there are a number of oddities around Steve West's claims which I find strange.
1) The first and most obvious question is why didn't Steve West and James Russell ever apply for a patent for such a novel concept. Steve West claims to have been involved in research of advanced areas of DSP since the early 1990s and would have been aware of the commercial viability of such a novel concept immediately and no doubt aware of the importance of IP.
2) Given Serato commercialized the method in 2001 they would have been well aware that N2IT had already filled a patent in NL in 2000 and also in the USA in 2002 for the DVS invention which they developed. Therefore as a company with a serious investment and an ongoing business interest in this concept why did they not attempt to thwart the patent from being granted like Chris Bauer attempted to do with a similar claim of 'prior art'?
3) Given also that Chris Bauer actuality went so far as building a prototype in 1998 which proved his concept worked and that he did hire a patent lawyer and did file objections to the N2IT patent application, which were originally successful but on appeal were overruled based on the unique feature of the phase-shift between the left and right channels, thus granting N2IT the patent in 2006. Therefore it is most unlikely that Steve West would have been successful in objecting to the N2IT patent if he had tried on the bases of a suggestion he made to a collage to put a time code on a record disc who included it in his research paper which he claims was published at the end of 1996.
4) Steve West has claimed to have a copy of the James Russell research paper and he claims further that James Russell even made a prototype in 1996. Now I find this all very hard to believe at first hand and I find it extraordinary that Steve West has not published hard evidence supporting these claims. Even Chris Bauer who has no commercial interest in this market has put up a blog post showing his plans and provided evidence proving his own claims.
Steve West absence of hard evidence to support his claims casts doubt on their validity and more importantly given the N2IT patent has already faced substantial challenge and yet still succeeded I suspect that there is insufficient evidence in his claims to make a strong case for a defense based on 'prior art' and should the N2IT intellectual property holders make a claim against Serato for patent infringement they would most likely win.
Now to take you back to around the time of 1996 or so there was many companies like Pioneer with endless resources who didn't yet have a DJ mixer launched but who had launched their dedicated DJ CD player, with the digital scratch discs on top. It was a time when vinyl and traditional vinyl Djing was under attack from all these dedicated DJ CD players threatening to push vinyl into the abyss.
For a company like Intimidation going into designing CD players was not attractive for a number of reasons not least artistic. It was completely against the spirit and ethos of Intimidation which was firmly dedicated to supporting vinyl and saw DJing with CD players to be somewhat as bastardizing the art.
Ever since I had seen Andre Rickli digital vinyl system and scratch device I knew this was the way digital music should be combined with the art of Djing, placing the hands on control that vinyl provides with digital music. The only question was how to do this elegantly.
Now before going further I have to also describe the actual environment in which Intimidation was operating. I have only once before told some of the history of my personal quest with Intimidation and you can read that original forum post Here.
So to put this in context, Intimidation was one of the most controversial DJ Mixer design companies about and within a very short period it had totally shaken up the DJ world. Launching new products every 12 months or so and with each one being a runaway success, the competition was totally aghast. Despite their best efforts they simply could not compete on the playing field, every time they launched a copy of my previously successful features or product, I too launched another product which totally replaced it.
Intimidation was a hotbed for innovation. More importantly every company under the sun was trying to get a piece of the action. When I first started making DJ mixers there was about 5 manufactures, by the time I was in full swing just a few years later there were more than 50 competing companies. Each one looking closely at what I was doing, some more closer than others!
They call it competitive intelligence in the corporate world. This ranges from private investigators going through your rubbish, to double agents working in your company and I had it all from launch day. Everything from sending my very first product off for review to an industry magazine who passed it directly on to a competitor. This sort of nonsense continued throughout the entire time I was in business. I even had my first drafts and drawings for the follow up to the widely successful Blue (Blue 2) being stolen from my office and then sold on to my competitors! I even had a call one day from Mike Garish (MD of Citronic's) who explained that someone had phoned him and offered to sell him my latest inventions and he told them that is not how Citronics operated! I never continued with Blue 2 after this, but some time later Gemini launched a Green monstrosity which they called the 'Executioner' which was a direct copy of my Blue and more importantly had incorporated one new concept which was only ever featured on my original Blue 2 drawings! And this was only the tip of the ice berg.
Another case which deserves a quick mention is of the digital BPM monitor I invented which was a star feature on The Don. This was a unique concept and prior this time the only things on the market were hand held BPM tap devices (tap on it for the BPM). My system had 3 LED bars, each deck had a bar which would rise automatically with the beats and a green LED bar in the middle would then light when both tracks were in sync. A great aid to beat matching and technically a complex project because we had to isolate the fundamental beats only (like the human brain does) and ignore double beats etc.
Pioneer were just getting into the DJ market and had just launched their CD players but had not yet released a Mixer, when I got a call from the MD of one of the biggest retailers in the UK for DJ equipment, he told me the Pioneer sales guy had asked to buy a Don. All stock was on backorder at that time and the waiting list was typically 4 weeks for an Intimidation mixer. It was inevitable that they would get one so I told him I would make a special one caked in resin so it could not be easily reverse engineered (to have some fun with them so they would have to buy at least two). A year or more later Pioneer finally launched their first DJ mixer with automatic BPMs! It was their main selling feature and a big success:
Let the digital readout confirm what you already know by ear. The Beat-Per-Minute Counter measures the BPM of virtually all kinds of dance music, enabling you to check the tempo at a glance. Linking widely differing types of music is easier then ever with the Auto BPM Counter.
There are far too many cases of IP theft against Intimidation to list here, though for historical record, Intimidation was the first to launch a DJ mixer with Kill Switches for each deck and Rotary kills, a concept which has widely been copied by many companies. I filed a patent for this concept GB9205279.4 filing date 11.03.1992 (Patent Granted with effect from 11.10.1995). However, my preferred method of counter attack against the rip offs was to win in the market place and I taunted my competitors at every opportunity.
During 1997 I was in talks with my major competitors and other companies interested in this space about forging a partnership in which I continued to design products but outsourced the manufacturing to them since I wanted to focus less on the business aspects of running a company and spend my time purely designing. These companies were Mackie, Roland, Gemini, Numark and Eclair among others.
At the beginning of 1998 it came to light that my bookkeeper Antoinette (Tony) Cole was embezzling funds from my company (I believe it was excess of £100k) to which she pleaded guilty to in criminal court but when charged was only given a 2 year suspended sentence! There was also another senior member of my staff who was also caught along with her at the same time though not enough hard evidence could be found to prove his guilt in a criminal trial, however it was evident to me he was complicit all along and more importantly I suspect he was involved in other aspects of skullduggery too!
This gives you a little taste of what was going on, on the inside of Intimidation at that time.
Now getting back to the story, I started in about September or October of 1997 to develop a new invention I had just conceived. It was indeed a digital vinyl system and the entire concept was based on the unique idea of encoding a record with a time code and then picking this up through the stylus, then decoding this and using it to control digitally stored music or samples in a computer!
The guru who taught me electronics (was also my mentor and whom I ran to with my crazy ideas) was a renowned electronics engineer and wizard called Bill Kelsey. In the late 60s & 70s Bill used to design and build all the sound equipment for Pink floyd along with a host of other famous bands and you can read about Bills antics with Pink Floyd Here and Here.
Bill Kelsey was one of the most respected audio electronic engineers in the country and it was Bill who was the real brains behind the wizardry of the electronic circuitry (which he often invented specially) for my ideas and which made the Intimidation products so renowned. I would go to him with drawings and rough prototypes and in minutes this guy would have half the concept solved in his brain (if not quicker). I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Bill and I am very proud to have had the privilege of being his friend (sadly Bill passed away in 1998).
The digital vinyl system was the last project me and Bill would work on together and Bill thought it was a crazy silly idea which would never take off and no one would use... :) He was most unenthusiastic about it, but anyone who knew Bill will know he was often like this :).
Despite that he immediately thought of using an STMPE time-code but on reflection came up with a better idea. That was to encode both the left and right channels with a time code which was out of phase / sync thereby allowing for greater accuracy when detecting the direction of the record (when being scratched).
After a few trips to Bills home to hammer out the details I was ready to start preparing the patent. This is the first thing any inventor must do who wishes to prove later they were indeed the original inventor.
I had my patent agent begin to make some drafts for the patent application from the ideas we had developed at that time. No real prototyping had taken place at this stage, I was simply developing the basic concept and filling a patent so I could then approach third parties and discuss the idea with them knowing I had some form of protection. The final drafts were ready just before christmas but due to holidays and further unnecessary delays the patent was not filled until 25th of February 1998.
At this point I fired the patent agent who I no longer trusted, because of his odd delays and my paranoia which was quite justified given the recent events within Intimidation at that time. I then went into discussions with a number of third parties about developing the concept with them. Mostly software companies who were all bound by non disclosure agreements (NDA) and who were already involved in the digital music space.
I was also in discussion with Roland who was also bound by a signed NDA on the 1st of August 1998 to discuss specifically 'Information regarding a Concept Idea that involves DJ's Record Players and Digital Information" and on the 9th August 1998 I sent Roland a copy of my patent application to discuss a potential partnership.
I never had any intention of developing this product myself, it was a brilliant concept product but it was destine to ruin any small company who attempted to launch it. The reasons being the same old problems which I had witnessed throughout my already turbulent time in this business. Such a huge project would have taken 3 years or more to develop a commercially viable product. Incurred huge development costs, then when launch (as did happen) many other companies would copy the basic concepts and emulate it with their own cheaper versions.
To legally protect such a product would be almost impossible because the way this works (patent violation) is many many companies all copy at the same time, each being a separate court cost, which in many cases would need to be battled out in different countries. As many of the companies are front companies with no real brand value (like N2IT) so you could be suing a shell with no real assets and stand to gain nothing for the efforts.
To top it off it would inevitably be a very expensive commercial product and thus have limited sales initially, couple this with the anticipated problems with bugs and the potential for the usual errors with design problems etc. it would be a long time away from ever being a commercial success.
This was one journey too many for me. I had already seen first hand the nature of how this market operated and I was not personally prepared to embark on this journey alone. Thus without finding a partner for who was big enough to develop this concept and muscle through the tough years which would be required to develop a commercial viable product I would not continue to develop this concept product alone.
As often turns out, Roland liked the idea but also saw the inherent problems, they were also facing some challenging issues themselves with the Japanese economy in turmoil and the company was facing a downturn. The boss of Roland very graciously declined to embark on this journey with me, I had known him for some years prior by this time as Roland were the very first company to attempt to buy Intimidation in the early years. I accepted their rejection and decided also that this project was too problematic to continue with.
In 1998 both Bill Kelsey and Denis O brian both died. Denis was my right hand who worked with me on both Blue and Apex and whom I had worked with for 15 hours a day for the past 4 years. Denis was only 28 but had cystic fibrosis and died of natural causes (and over work) and Bill was about 60 (I think) and died of a heart attack. They both died in the same week.
After Bill and Denis passed away I decided to give up electronics completely, I had achieved everything I had hoped to in this market and there were few challenges left which would result in a product which was orders of magnitude better than the status quo and was realistically within reach. Also designing, manufacturing and distributing electronic products is probably one of the most challenging business models in the world.
I could also see that the computer revolution was just arriving and I figured I would carve out a new career in this new high tech world and so I would stop waving my soldering iron around and leave electronics behind me. I slowly wound up Intimidation, at this stage I was about 28 years old and the last 7-8 years had been one hell of a journey.
I closed Intimidation and moved on with my life, but for a few years I still visited the Plaza music exhibition in London (just to taunt my old competitors and have some fun). In 2001 was the first I heard of Final Scratch and when I looked into the company behind it N2IT I saw their website had only been registered in 1999. They launched with Stanton in 2001 (who was a new kid on the block in the DJ sector, prior that they had been the exclusive distributor for Vestax in the USA) and the Final Scratch product was priced at about 3k.
As a designer I was pleased to see my idea had been born despite the fact that it didn't have my logo on the box. I knew however who ever had developed the product would have had to slog it out for years to have gotten it to that stage and would continue to have to battle it out with all the inevitable clones that would emerge. Evidently both predictions latter proved to be correct.
In hindsight people ignorant of the challenges of inventors always look back and claim that the innovation was easy and coincidental and not that special (who cares!), yet anyone who has been involved with inventing truly ground breaking ideas will know only too well such claims are always made after such events. In actuality the ingredients needed to innovate ground breaking concepts require many foundations, skills, insight and awareness. Innovation looks easy, but it never is...
I do not know how N2IT developed the idea or where they got the impetus for the idea. Nor anything about their history in this market. It appeared to me to that they came from nowhere but somehow had managed to team up with Stanton to bring this to market, after-which they appear to have vanished.
However I do find some aspects of the story very strange (especially that they were announcing press releases for the concept along with apparently demonstrating an early prototype in 1999 before they applied for a patent for this concept in 29 February 2000).
What is totally clear however, is that I filled a patent on the 25th Feb 1998 for the invention of placing an out of phase time code on both left and right channels of a record disc to be used to manipulate digital music and I had obviously been working on the idea for a months prior to this filing date.
N2IT claimed themselves on their own website to have been formed shortly after this time on 6th July 1998.
My patent was applied for a month before the Spacedeck project had been started and 5 months before the N2IT company claims to have been formed, and two whole years before they finally applied for their first patent!
During the period of February 1998 to August 1998, I had been in talks with a number of third parties who had signed NDA's and I discussed openly with them the concept and invention with a view to developing it as joint venture.
I would like to state categorically I do not believe for one minute that Roland betrayed my trust. But it is very possible one of the other companies who I was in talks with could have breached my trust. It is also possible that another breach occurred stemming from clandestine operations directly targeted upon or from within the Intimidation offices however farfetched this sounds (IP theft is remarkably common).
However, my patent application GB9804037.1 filed on the 25th Feb 1998 well before any of the other claims shows the concept clearly outlined as being the original and final solution which has gone on to be widely adopted by the many companies who have brought commercial copies of this concept to the market.
In a brazen further twist, one company has gone the extra mile! They have in fact also stolen my brand name 'Intimidation' and named their company 'Intimidation Touch' and sell 'their own' Intimidation Touch DVS system. This company is in no way affiliated with the original Intimidation company TM or LTD and I the creator of the Intimidation brand of DJ mixers and inventor of the DVS system have never had any dealings with them. Truly remarkable.
One may ask why I have not intervened before or announced this information prior to this time. I have not been involved with this market since 1998 and have not been following the events in this industry, only recently I was going through some old boxes and found the original patent application that I made in 1998 which I had not seen for years. I then went online to show someone the actual product and then I discovered there was all the controversy over who originally invented the concept and learned about the court cases which have followed.
I was not at all surprised this product is now widely available and is being produced by many other companies which have all emerged to muscle in on this concept nor was I surprised to see the controversy over who first invented this idea and the court cases which have followed. I was however surprised to see one such company had even stolen the Intimidation brand name and brought the concept to market under a knock off of Intimidation...
In summery, my original invention did make it to market despite I was not the one to develop it and ironically one version of it did end up baring the Intimidation brand name despite the fact I have no connection with the current company who have plagiarized my brand and the considerable brand loyalty I developed. Though apparently they are not alone in stealing the Intimidation brand name!
I have a few pieces left of the authentic Intimidation Apex gold limited edition DJ Mixer which are still boxed & in brand new condition with the conductive plastic voltage controlled crossfaders in place and power supplies for every country. The original retail cost of these was about 349€ Euros and I am going to sell these limited edition pieces direct on a first come first served bases for the special price of 100€ Euros which includes normal registered post to the UK, Europe, USA or Japan.
This is your last chance to get your hands on a real piece of DJ history and a quality product which still rivals the products on the market today directly from the original designer who made the blue prints by which the rest of this industry has since used as the template for their own designs.
Click on image for brochure and see Review Here.
See the specifications and instructions Here.
From an engineering perspective Apex was one of the most elegant and solid designs I ever produced. The reliability of the product is fantastic, you still see working versions being sold on ebay today after more than 13 years of hard labour. The conductive plastic VCA crossfader in this unit will probably never break. In the time we sold them we never sold a spare fader and we had only a handful of units ever come in for repair, they had a two year warranty which was another first for a DJ mixer at the time.
Buy with confidence - a piece of design which is as fresh today as it was when first launched and unlike other mixers in this class it was built to last, not made to fade :)
I gave away my very first ever Challenger 1 off the production line in a competition I ran in DJ Mag in 1993. I would like to also give away my very last Intimidation Apex Mixer and I am running a competition on this site. You can find out the details Here.
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Steven Carroll 20th September ©2010
In memory of Denis O'Brian and Bill Kelsey