In Defence of Turntables
An article on the relevance of turntables in the Digital Age
In November 2010, Panasonic announced that it would be discontinuing its line of turntables, relegating that veritable stalwart of the DJ’s craft, the Technics SL-1210Mk2, to the pages of history. Indeed, in this age where burgeoning DJ’s can download a piece of software and start producing mixes, record them and upload them to the World Wide Web with the mere click of a few buttons on their laptops, the turntable must seem like a fairly archaic piece of hardware.
By my own admission, this was my particular inroad into the world of DJing. Getting into the world of EDM occurred incrementally for me; starting off I didn’t know anyone who owned a pair of turntables and a mixer and it would prove to be a few years after that initial introduction before I finally got the opportunity to mess around with a pair of decks.
My poison is Techno and as such, the main technique I wished to learn was that of beatmatching, correcting the pitch of one track so that it plays at a similar BPM as the record playing, allowing for a seamless transition from one track to the next. Of course beatmatching is just one of the tools of the trade of the turntabalist and for those people who have a great deal more patience than me, there are other techniques to master like that of beat juggling and scratching.
At the time of writing this, my mixer is damaged and there are no turntables in my house. If I’m making sets at the moment, it is happening on my laptop with some software controlled by a Allen & Heath Xone:1D while cueing and audio output functions are being handled by a Native Instruments Audio 10. Having just read this you might be asking yourself: “Why is the guy writing a defence of turntables when he doesn’t even have any?”
The reason for that is because I believe that in this digital age, a pair of turntables connected to a mixer is still stands as the lingua franca by which to measure one’s talents as a DJ; after all, any chancer can press a button on a computer.
The advent of cheap, readily available digital technologies has resulted in a paradigm shift, not only in the world of music production but also the worlds of video editing, image manipulation etc etc. The real problem that many DJ’s would have with software mixing is the fact that much of the work can now be done for you by hitting the sync button and as such, many of the skills that defined a DJ before the advent of computers have been now made redundant. Who needs to actually learn any new skills when the machine can do it for you already?
Such is the issue that exists at the heart of any analogue-over-digital argument you care to name, not only for DJ’s but for many other skilled individuals who have found the old way of doing things replaced by the type of streamlined services that computers can offer.
The case I wish to make is that anyone who wants to call themselves a true Disc Jockey should be somewhat proficient at at least one of the skill sets that turntables demand of the individual. After all, the title is “Disc Jockey”, not “Hard Disk Jockey”
And if you’re reading this and believe that software alone is sufficient to make you a DJ, then you really have missed the point entirely. A DJ isn’t just responsible for playing music in front of an audience; any credible DJ is also a keen critic who knows not only how to evaluate the songs they wish to incorporate into their sets, but can also read the audience for whom they are playing. In the dialogue that occurs between DJ and audience, the DJ needs to be able to tap into that collective energy of the crowd and decide what track would go down well next and sustain the set they are performing. For all its technical nuances, there still isn’t a “get the dance floor filled” button you can press on your keyboard.
The kernel at the heart of the “Digital vs. Analogue” argument becomes a question of degrees: in a fundamental sense, turntables and laptops share a similarity, in so far as they are both pieces of technology and at its simplest, technology is merely an extension of our physical being, a tool that makes it easier to perform a specific function. The question of degrees here is the question of when is technology too much technology?
In answering this question, I would appeal to the law of parsimony: the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. With two turntables, a mixer and some records one has everything they need before them in order to engage in the task of DJing. As computers are designed to perform a seemingly limitless amount of tasks, one needs to refine the parameters of the machine in order to allow it to focus on playing music. More often than not, this involves the use of additional hardware so as to allow for headphone cueing, as well as software that can play more than one music file at a time. Some knowledge of computers is also helpful in this instance, so one knows what services/ drivers can be deactivated so that the CPU can concentrate on audio processing.
So as to mix a set on a computer, we have already have spent a noticeable period of time preparing the system specifically for the task of DJing; time that need not be expended on preparing turntables, due to the fact that they exist merely to facilitate the task of DJing.
Perhaps the argument that computers allow one to do more than just mix two tracks together is one that can be made. In saying that, parsimony still allows for a less complicated manner in which to operate. Turntables don’t break down. They’re comprised mostly of electromagnets and for the most part are built to last a lifetime; something that cannot be said of computers, who adhere to Moore’s Law, one that ensures that today’s most powerful computers will be half as powerful as the next most powerful systems produced in roughly eighteen months.
In DJing, the model of dialectic is immutably apparent. The thesis of a record on one deck, combined with the antithetical record on the second deck, through the applicable frequency sculpting provided by the equalizers on the mixer, coalesce to produce a new synthetic object: the mix. Turntables facilitate this dialogue, due to the essential economy with which they operate: with turntables this parsimony provides the minute number of rules that govern the mix and highlight that essential play at the heart of DJing, akin to the play that governs other activities. Consider a game of soccer, in which the main rule is that players must pass the ball with any part of their body asides from their arms. With this guiding principal, play occurs in the engagement of the players with the game. No one can ever be sure of the result of a soccer match, much in the same way that neither DJ nor audience can be sure of the resultant mix.
DJing with a computer is akin to adding more rules to the game and as such, reduces the freedom in which the play that governs DJing can move freely; restraint is one of the things that no worthwhile set should have to concern itself with. Even with digital vinyl systems like Traktor Scratch Pro and Serato, the generally large amount of technical problems to overcome can make even starting a mix a cumbersome challenge; timecoded vinyl’s are only as good as the calibration they have achieved with the software.
Here I will take this opportunity to state quite clearly that I am not adverse to the idea of using computers in order to DJ. I myself am quite pleased with my vinyl emulation software and will continue to use it for the time being. What I would like to preserve is the talents and techniques that are fundamental to our understanding of DJing; talents that, more than ever, need to be handed down and preserved, so that an entire mode of being need not be subsumed in the relentless progression of technological “advancement.”
In closing, I shall present a hypothetical situation: you are a DJ who is comfortable with turntables. You walk into a house you have never been in before and find some turntables, a mixer and records in one of the rooms. The owner of the house sees you admiring the turntables and asks you if you’d like to go for a mix.
If you answer “Yes” and then proceed to play a competent set in which you can demonstrate your DJing abilities and produce a mix and not just a muddled, sequential amalgamation of individual tracks then I consider you a DJ.
If you answer “No” and explain that you can only DJ with a laptop then you still have some work ahead of you before you can call yourself a DJ.
Speaking for myself, I can safely say that I’m glad I took the time to familiarize myself with turntables and am pleased that I now possess a new techne which I will have for the rest of my life; one that comes me wherever I go; not just my computer.