By Brandon Smith
In the last blog post we looked at how the turntable came to be. Although the basic principles of how records work haven’t really changed in over a century, the equipment and techniques used continue to improve. These days, a turntable is not hard to get a hold of. Every so often a half-decent deck pops up in thrift stores or Kijiji. Many record stores also sell used home stereo decks on consignment. There are also tons of currently produced models ranging from the cheap $130 belt drive deck with built-in USB converter from Best Buy to the opulent (but probably very satisfying) audiophile hi-fi decks. The ones listed here start at $100,000 US! Of course, none of these are suited for the demanding rigours of DJ’ing. For that purpose there are many new models to choose from like the Stanton ST-150.
When the phonograph was first commercially produced by Thomas Edison, it cost $150 in 1891. That may not seem like a lot, but in 1891 it was the equivalent of about $3,000 in today’s money. So they weren’t exactly fixtures in every household – just the really wealthy ones. By 1899, the Edison “Standard Model” had gone down to $20 or the equivalent of $500 today. As electrical recording took over and radio became the new must-have toy, the first radios were sold with built in phonographs. The big horns of the phonographs and gramophones were replaced by the radio’s amplifier and speaker. Some of the fancier models even had automatic record changers for loading up your own custom “playlist”. The mechanical spring-wound motors that you had to manually crank up were also starting to be replaced by electric motors, making it a snap to put on a record.
Pretty soon there were plenty of turntables on the market – from cheap self-contained suitcase models to expensive hi fi ones. These were, for the most part, consumer devices intended for home use – with radio DJs using much more expensive and robust industrial-grade models. This began to change in the 1970s, when disco came onto the scene – bringing with it a new breed of disc jockey. Back then, a club DJ would most likely be using the same type of turntable that would be found in a decent home stereo setup. Eventually, all-in-one options came to market that featured two turntables, a mixer and sometimes even built-in lights or a microphone to hype up the crowd.
The biggest issue many DJs had with using home stereo decks was that most of them were automatic. On many decks you would flick the start lever, then the tone arm would hover over the record and plop the needle down on the run-in groove to start playing. Once the record reached the end run-out groove, the tone arm would raise itself up and return to its rest position. This is all fine and good in a home listening situation but annoying for a DJ who wants to quickly cue things on a record without accidentally bumping the tone arm and having it automatically return. Motor torque was another big concern. Some turntables used belts or idler wheels to drive the platter rather than the much more efficient and powerful direct drive system. The non-direct drive decks often took some time to get up to speed and would be utterly useless for developing techniques like slip-cueing or scratching. What was needed was a DJ’s turntable – one that was durable, dependable and flexible enough to DJ with, without any of the extra mechanical “fluff”.
In 1972, DJ’s prayers were answered with the introduction of the Technics SL-1200. Originally intended as a home stereo deck, it quickly became a favourite of club and radio DJs worldwide. It featured totally manual design, powerful direct drive motor, and quartz-lock pitch system that enabled DJs to mix records quickly and accurately. The SL-1200 MK II made it much easier to cue tracks with the start / stop button that would get the platter up to speed almost instantly (0.7s) and a handy target light to illuminate the stylus in a dark nightclub. Not only was the SL-1200 a proven club workhorse, it was built like a tank – which is why many of these Technics decks are still in use decades later. The SL-1200 series were easily one of the most successful and widespread turntables ever made. It was only recently (2010) that their production run officially ended. This provoked an outcry from the DJ and vinyl enthusiast community – so much that Panasonic (Technics’ parent company) announced plans to re-issue new versions of the deck in 2016. The influence it has had on turntable designs by other companies like Stanton, Vestax and Numark is also undeniable.
The turntable is just one part of the equation in the arsenal of a DJ. The next blog post will look at the evolution of DJ mixers and how they have helped shape the art of DJ’ing.
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