The Art of the Turntablist Page 2

Scratchers concentrate more on one turntable at a time. As the record plays, they'll use their hands to stop, start, and rock the platter or LP at various speeds, often with one hand on a volume fader to control the sound's attack and envelope. Though I didn't have the best view, it looked as if they also tap and drum on the LP with their fingertips. The result is a loud, rhythmic collage of sounds—called "forwards," "scribbles," "moving scribbles," "chirps," etc.—that grab your spine and rock it back and forth. It's hard to describe, but there's more than just rhythm in this wall of sound. A good turntablist creates tones, textures, and colors, and weaves them into the mix.

Is this a full-fledged paradigm shift? There's no question that turntablists are playing a game completely different from ours. If you haven't seen them in action, the way they manipulate platters and LPs will make you cringe. For audiophiles, turntables are delicate devices for extracting precious musical information. Good LPs—well pressed, well centered, and not warped—are rare and not to be drummed on. Once everything's set up, a turntable is a strictly hands-off affair. But for turntablists, it's essentially a hands-on affair. When I saw him, Q-bert (one of the scene's heavy hitters) hunched intently over an SL-1200. Sometimes he caressed it, sometimes his hands became a frenetic blur. He reminded me of Yo-Yo Ma making love to his cello. The sound was loud and bombastic, but just as riveting.

On the other hand, Kuhn's idea of a paradigm shift doesn't do justice to the logic and rationality behind this revolution in the history of turntables. In a way, scratchers and beat jugglers have solved basic problems in turntable design. From an audiophile perspective, these include pitch stability, surface noise, acoustic vibration, and noise from motors and bearings, all of which are based on one fact: turntables are mechanical devices. The point at which the music encoded on an LP takes flight into your system and begins its journey to your ears is a mechanical interface between a groove and a vibrating stylus. Designers strive to make this interface stable, and as immune as possible from interference. But sources of interference abound: bearings rattle, motors hum, and every part of a turntable vibrates, more or less. The ideal turntable is a paradox: a mechanical device that behaves (somehow) as if it were actually nonmechanical.

But if you look at a turntable as a musical instrument, not as a device for reproducing music, this paradox disappears. For turntablists, a turntable's parts buzz and vibrate just as they should. The stylus-groove interface shouldn't be purified and isolated—it should be skillfully manipulated and controlled, like the interfaces between fingers and guitar strings, or between a piano's keys and hammers.

A better metaphor is evolution, not sudden revolution. As turntables thrived in the land of audiophilia, some found their way into a different musical ecosystem, the land of hip-hop, where their musical potential was quickly recognized. The SL-1200 became the turntablist's standard partly because Technics put strobe markings around the platter's perimeter. Originally designed for monitoring platter speed and keeping it accurate, those raised dimples are a grippy surface for controlling the platter. All DJ turntables have them.

The SL-1200 may be the Adam and Eve of DJ turntables (to momentarily mix metaphors), but its progeny are mutating. Turntablists usually rotate their tables 90 degrees counterclockwise ("battle position"), so that the tonearm is out of the way of their busy hands. Some manufacturers have responded by moving controls to the left side, where they're more handy. Another issue is skating force—a real problem for scratchers. When an LP's normal rotation is suddenly reversed, the skating force that was tending to rotate the tonearm inward (toward the spindle) reverses and pushes the tonearm outward. With these forces changing direction so quickly, tonearms can easily jump out of the groove. (Think of breaking a string in the middle of your guitar solo.) Ordinary antiskate mechanisms are no help because they apply a torque only in one direction. So far, the solution is to track at very high weights, typically 4-6 grams. Cartridges, styli, and LPs aren't too happy about this, and die young.