In The Cut: A Composer’s Guide To The Turntables
Vinyl is no longer the dominant form in which people listen to music, and DJ culture has responded in a variety of ways. In recent years digital technology has emulated the physical interface and many of the features of sound transformation that were first created with the turntables. Some recent products, such as Final Scratch and Serato, plug traditional turntables into a box that communicates with a computer to control mp3s via time-coded records. Other technologies provide simulated turntable surfaces to control CDs or iPods or a bank of mp3s stored in the mixing unit itself. The size of the “turntable” surfaces range from full LP size down to wheels measuring less than 3 inches in diameter. A modern DJ’s setup options range from a condensed all-in-one DJ/production station to a sprawling system connecting a conventional turntable setup with a laptop, mixer, external effect boxes and pedals, through a vast network of FireWire and RCA cables.
Controversies on the merits of digital media versus vinyl have continued to rage in the DJ community, focusing on issues of sound quality as well as physical properties. The impact of these technologies on the sound of turntablism is debatable, but it is clear that the physical relationship between the performer and instrument is affected in at least several key ways. While cueing with traditional vinyl depends on following visual marks on the surface on a record, whether by observing the groove spacing or the position of a mark on the label, cueing with digital DJ technology depends on following time markings or a waveform on a screen. This has certain advantages in providing a larger view of a track’s shape, and providing an exact guide to timing. At the same time, it leads to less of a visual connection with the disk that is being moved by the hand. In some cases, the digital disconnect can make it more difficult to find one’s place quickly on a record to cue a particular sample. The immediacy of dropping a needle at a particular place on a record is also compromised with a digital interface. Even with a digital interface using actual turntables, movement of the needle to a different spot on a time-coded record sometimes requires a moment of processing time before the computer can recalculate where it is. In exchange for these kinesthetic losses (mainly a concern for DJs accustomed to an analog turntable setup), digital interfaces do present an array of new musical possibilities. I will summarize some of the features found in one such interface, Traktor Final Scratch 2, many of which are common to most digital DJ systems.
In place of heavy crates of records to cart around, the DJ using a program like Final Scratch can import any .mp3 and .wav files on his or her computer into the track collection of the mixing program. From there, the sound files can be organized into playlists, ranked, and labeled with information on BPM (beats per minute), genre, etc.
Any sound file can be set to loop continually as long as the needle is on the record moving forward. The looping file is subject to any changes in speed and direction that can ordinarily be applied by a hand on the record.
A group of 10–15 samples can be assigned to different areas on the surface of the time-coded record, and set to loop for as long as the needle is within the particular segment.
With this feature selected, the speed of the turntable can be changed without affecting the pitch of the track that is being played.
Particular moments in a track can be marked and saved as visible cues on the waveform. This replaces the use of stickers on a record surface to mark the beginning of a special sound or section of music.
Through the specialized audio interface associated with the program, either the output of the DJ mixer or a microphone signal can be recorded within the same mixing program, allowing this recording to be instantly accessible for manipulation by the turntables. This enables an entirely new relationship between live acoustic sound and the sampling possibilities of turntablism.
The possibilities for sound transformation are extended further through the use of external effects units and samplers. These may include looping pedals for cumulative sound-on-sound sampling, guitar pedals for effects such as wah wah and delay, heavy-duty manual samplers such as the Akai MPCs, and hybrid effect/sampler units with innovative modes of tactile control like the Kaoss Pad series made by Korg. On most DJ mixers, the same PFL buttons used to preview an audio channel in the headphones can be used to send a particular channel to an effects unit or sampler. While this arrangement allows for isolated audio channels to be processed while leaving other elements of the mix unaffected, it also bypasses the faders that would typically be used for scratches such as the transformer and flare. If a DJ is to use effects processing on fader-dependent scratches such as these, the entire output of a DJ mixer would be routed through the external effects unit. Another option is to route an individual turntable through the effects unit before it reaches the mixer, although any effect such as delay would of course be cancelled out when the fader for that mixer channel is down.
Amid all the blossoming diversity of instrumental hardware, there are no indications that any one DJ interface is destined to dominate. Vinyl continues to endure even as sound recordings become less materially tangible and listening devices become smaller. Given the great variability in performance setup, it is important that any composer wishing to write for the turntables consult and collaborate closely with the DJ who is to play the part.