The Evolution And History Of DJ Equipment
Two turntables and a microphone
DJing has come a long way since its humble beginnings in the 1940’s. As music was introduced into radio stations as a way of breaking up the talking, there grew a requirement for specialist equipment on which the radio presenters could play their tunes. As the musical element grew in popularity, so too did the need for equipment which could segue easily from one tune to another.
Soon, two such devices began to be incorporated into the ‘Disc Jockey’ workflow, and the touch paper was lit for an entirely new genre of musical expression. Let’s take a brief look at the history of DJ equipment and its evolution.
(image used under Creative Commons, courtesy of 32bitmaschine)
The vinyl frontier
It would be impossible to talk about DJ equipment without referencing the importance of vinyl record decks, or turntables as they’re more commonly known, and the records they played. These famous black discs were the first way that music could be properly reproduced and sold on a mass scale. As a result, radio stations could ensure a constant stream of new music to play for their listeners.
The equipment used to play these discs was pretty archaic at first; the discs were spun on a rotating unit driven at the time using a belt system. This meant a small motor inside the unit rotated, which in turn caused a rubber belt to turn. This rubber belt was connected to a platter, on which the record sat, thus allowing its grooves and indentations to be read by a needle. While perfectly functional at the time, certain characteristics like the slight delay between starting a record and a signal being heard meant it was unsuitable for a growing number of DJs who required a far greater degree of precision when switching between decks.
Enter the new breed of turntables, which incorporated a direct drive motor. In essence, this meant the entire platter was one half of an electromagnet, powered directly by the second half within the base unit. Direct drive turntables effectively cut out the middle man and their increased torque allowed the records to start up immediately with greater accuracy, perfect for performers looking to do things like beat matching or scratching. The Technics SL-1200 is perhaps the best known direct drive turntable, and was seen as the industry standard until production ceased in 2010.
Nowadays, there is still a certain fondness for a good direct drive system, with units like the Pioneer PLX-1000 offering vinyl traditionalists the levels of precision and reliability they need.
The CD revolution
As we moved into the latter part of the 20th century, the music world was changed completely by the introduction of the CD. Compact Discs offered far superior – in terms of numbers, anyway – audio quality, and they were more robust and much smaller than the vinyl discs of old. So it figured that DJs would want to try and incorporate this new format into their rigs, which resulted in the launch of units like the Pioneer CDJ1000. The CDJ range offered the best of all worlds, allowing DJs to utilise the skills they’d learnt on vinyl machines but in a much smaller and, in theory, more reliable package. It was undeniably easier to turn up for a set with a couple of CDJs and a wallet full of discs than it was with two decks, a mixer and a crate of vinyl.
Understandably, purists bemoaned the ease with which any old chancer could now get in on the act without putting in the hard yards. Many of the techniques required to be a vinyl DJ of any standing could be approximated using just a few buttons and a rudimentary knowledge of rhythm. There was also criticism about the way CDs and CDJs removed much of the tactile pleasure that could be gleaned from manipulating vinyl, despite the inclusion of platters on these newer units.
Regardless, this new breed of DJ controllers lowered the barriers and opened the gates to a new generation. The CD love is still seen in today’s scenes, as units like the Pioneer CDJ-900 Nexus remain popular by incorporating more modern technologies like computer connectivity and a wider range of media compatibilities.
The digital realm
As in all walks of life though, things change. Music fans know their world has evolved; physical media as a product is slowly but surely dying off as fans migrate over to digital, intangible formats like MP3. In many ways, this works in the favour of DJs. After all, a digital music file doesn’t weigh anything, offers theoretically the highest levels of audio quality and is (almost) completely reliable. It figures therefore that DJ technology has not only moved to embrace this new frontier, but has positively taken the ball and ran with it.
Consider ‘standard’ DJing, i.e. mixing two tunes in its most simplest form. One finishes, another starts. This most basic of functions can now be pretty much automated using little more than a laptop and the right software. What’s more interesting nowadays is the ways in which DJs can use existing songs almost as a foundation for more exciting areas of musical expression. Software packages like Ableton Live and Traktor offer DJs the ability to do all kinds of sonic manipulation quickly and easily.
New levels of control have been found, both within the software and also physically using units like Ableton Push, Native Instruments’ Traktor Kontrol S4 or Pioneer’s DDJ-SX2, ensuring that the physical relationship between performer and equipment isn’t lost.
Bridging the gap
There has long been debate within the music world about whether DJs can be considered musicians. After all, they just play the music made by the real musicians, right? Maybe once upon a time, but as the technology has developed so too have the opportunities for DJs to blur those boundaries.
The creative potential on offer with today’s technology means DJs are able to do so much more than simply play other people’s music. Now they can quickly and easily begin composing their own tunes in the same way garage and covers bands do on their way to the top. And anything that encourages people to create their own spin on music has to be a good thing, right?