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The History of DJing: From Vinyl To Digital

Turntable - Top View
Technics Style Turntable

DJing is an art form that has undergone a remarkable evolution over the years, it’s the art of selecting, mixing, and sequencing recorded music together to create a seamless flow for a party or an event. As an art form (and it is an art) it has come a long way since it’s inception in the 1940s and has undergone a remarkable evolution over the years. From turntables & vinyl records through to the digital media of today DJs have used various techniques to create their mixes.

The history of DJing from vinyl to digital is rich and rewarding and In this blog post I will take you through the fascinating history of Djing. We will take a trip back in time and explore the progression from its roots in the early 1900s and stopping at its pivotal milestones, where we will examine the transformative impact of technology on the craft itself.

I learned to DJ on turntables using vinyl records and I would always describe myself as a “vinyl junkie”. Do I still do so? Read on to find out.

The Early Days

DJing can be traced back to the 1940s when radio broadcasting began and broadcasters started to use turntables to play records on the air. The radio DJ, or Disc Jockey, was responsible for selecting and playing records for their audiences, although they played single records one after the other it gave the listening audience the impression of being at a live concert or event.

It wasn’t however until the late 1960s or early 1970s until DJing as we know it today started to take form, when DJs in the New York began to experiment with using two turntables to mix records together. This allowed the DJ to create new sounds by blending different tracks together, sometimes blending different genres creating completely new soundscapes. “Kool Herc” is generally recognised as the leading influence of this era, where he isolated the “breaks” from funk records, creating the “break beats”, with funky drums beats that were later used as the basis for both hip hop and rap.

Technics were there from the start

The introduction of the Technics SL-1200 turntables in 1972 was another step forwards and allowed further techniques to be introduced. Along with the introduction of slip mats - a felt or paper mat laid over the original rubber mats covering each platter, which allowed the records to be stopped whilst the slip mat and platter continued to rotate underneath (slip) - gave birth to fully mixing two songs together to create different sounds and melodies.

Grandmaster Flash, DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Chuck D
Grandmaster Flash, DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Chuck D

In addition to this the introduction of variable pitch control, allowing the records to be increased or decreased in pitch, by increasing or decreasing the speed each platter, allowed DJs to discover new ways of manipulation like scratching, beatmatching and sampling, which rocketed the whole movement towards turntablism being an art form in its own right and allowing pioneers such as the aforementioned Kool Herc and of course Grandmaster Flash to create the basis of hip-hop and rap music. Again Technics were forefront with the technology and the SL1210’s MK2 (SL1200 Mk2 in the US) introduced the pitch fader, which replaced the old speed dial and in my view was the start of beat matching techniques as we know them today.

The Technics SL1210 MK2 introduced shock abosrbtion for the first time

The Rise of Turntablism during the 80s and 90s

The use of vinyl records allowed DJs to scratch, mix and manipulate sounds in new ways and turntablism emerged as a new art form. This morphed the turntable from basic tool which allowed play and stop to nothing short of a musical instrument in its own right. The DJs created new techniques of complex beats, rhythms, scratching and beat juggling to create completely new compositions and confirming the art form as a permanent presence in the field of music.

Hip Hop and Rap played a major role in the rise of turntablism and DJs were an integral part of the Hip Hop culture from the outset. DJs used their skills to isolate and beat juggle backing beats for rappers and as a result the DJ became the backbone of Hip Hop. In fact, it can easily be argued that Hip Hop and Rap may never have come along if it wasn’t for the new role and abilities of the DJ.

Enhancements created new musical genres

As the popularity of Hip Hop grew and was pushing the boundaries it became more polished and professional and so did the need for new technology. The sampler and sequencer allowed DJs to manipulate sound in new and creative ways and the era of electronic dance music had arrived.

Stack of Records
Stack of Records

During this time Club DJs had continued to evolve with mixing and beat matching becoming a staple of the “new sound”. Pioneers such as Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles pushed the boundaries of dance music and the birth of “House” music coming out of Chicago, before expanding out to New York and the U.K., was the start of the “Super Star DJs” we see today.

The Digital Revolution

In the late 1980s and early 1990s digital music arrived and started changing the way in which we stored, listened to and played music. The invention of the MP3 format, which compressed digital music files so they could be easily stored, transferred and shared for the first time, gave rise to the first digital DJ systems. These allowed DJs to play MP3 files form a computer, which made it easier for the DJ to carry their entire music collection with them, making it easier for them to travel and perform around the world – another step towards the global DJ industry we see today.

The early 2000’s saw the true rise of digital media and the technology to manipulate and play them. CDJs (CD players with speed controls and jog wheels so you can move and scratch the track like you would with turn tables). MIDI DJ controllers (like CDJs but for MP3 only and needed a computer) and USB sticks, replaced a bulging record bag and analogue turntables. DJ software began to arrive, with such computer programs as Serato, Traktor and Virtual DJ (all still alive and going strong today).

Vestax VCI 100
Vestax VCI 100

This software used a MIDI controller as the input (turntable) and a pc or laptop as the way to manipulate the music, whilst offering the ability to analyse each track for the key of the music and speed (BPM) of the original recording. This software also allows you to see the live BPM and song key as you increase and decrease the speed of each track. Add to this the waveform display (a visual representation of the music) and it made beatmatching and song selection more proficient and professional and with the ability to mix with 4 or even 6 decks the new of Digital DJing had truly arrived.

Digital DJing arrives

During this time time-code vinyl was invented. This allowed hybrid setups, using turntables connected to a computer to play MP3s. As you manipulate the time-code vinyl on the turntable it produced the same movement and effect on the MP3 loaded on the computer or laptop attached. This was especially good for scratching techniques.

MIDI controllers and Laptops eventually replaced CDJs and came with different options for live sampling, loops, drum samples, effects and filters (CDJs needed a mixer to do this) and gave birth to new techniques such as live remixing, and controllerism replaced the art of turntablism.

CDJs and Mixer
Current CDJs and Mixer

Current Trends

In the last few years CDJs still remain the industry standard, although now only play from USB, no CDs in the sight and “All In One” controllers arrived which combined a MIDI Controller, Internal laptop, digital touchscreen displays and mixers and contain everything you need to DJ in one unit.

Prime 4+ All In One DJ Controller
Prime 4+ All In One DJ Controller

We have also begun to see the popularity of DJ controllers with powered jog wheels, to mimic the movement of turntable platters. Again, these are especially useful for Scratch Djs and allow full feedback through the fingers as you manipulate the track.

All-In-One controllers combine the controller, mixer & laptop & are internet enabled

The rise of live streaming services is one of the more exciting trends right now in Djing. DJs are now able to broadcast their sets in real time to a global audience and I imagine as the technology is perfected that we will see new avenues in live streaming collaborations - A DJ in the USA mixing live with A DJ in Ibiza – the possibilities are endless. I am sure we can expect to see more live streaming and it becoming a more integral part of the Djing experience.

The future of DJing

The future of DJing is likely to be a continuation of traditional mixing techniques and new technologies. We are already seeing hybrid setups containing full sampler and loop generators, keyboards and drum machines which the DJ uses to create new tracks live by layering or adding to their mix. This will continue to grow and become a staple of every “Superstar DJ”, not least because of the performance value. The legend that is Carl Cox is especially prolific in this area and is constantly pushing the boundaries of what is possible during a live event.

New "Phase Technology" units have recently been released that don't require a stylus anymore. The wireless unit sits on the turntable and sends a signal to a USB receiver as the platter rotates, which in turn manipulates the music file loaded on the laptop.

New Phase Technology
New Phase Technology

The use of artificial intelligence will never, in my opinion, fully take the place of any of the arts, but it may change the way DJs

DJ with Virtual Reality Headset
The Future of DJing

work. We already see AI present in the DJ software we use, for identifying such things as the BPM and Key of each track and it’s becoming increasingly easier to have the software select compatible tracks for you – this will at least make the art from more accessible to those starting out and I would suggest this is used as a learning tool, rather than the future.

The future of Djing is bright and moving at a quicker pace than ever – watch this space!

In conclusion

The history of DJing has always been one of experimentation, innovation and evolution. It’s about pushing boundaries and creating

new sounds to evoke new emotions and from its humble beginnings on radio to the high-tech world of today, Djing has certainly come a long way (baby). The transition from vinyl to digital was fundamental in the way the DJ operates and as new technologies evolve, new opportunities will emerge and new genres of music are likely to appear. Whilst this evolution happens the essence of Djing will always remain the same; it’s the ability to curate, mix and manipulate music to create unique, unforgettable experience. As the future rolls on DJs will always be in time with the beat and be at the forefront of music for years to come.

So, what about me

As I mentioned at the start if this, I learned to DJ on Vinyl and I love the whole experience of taking a record out of its sleeve, wiping it down and spinning it in my hands, before placing it on the platter, setting the speed and finally dropping the needle on the record (whilst the drum beat goes like….) I love twiddling the nipple to just ever so slightly slow the record or gently increase the speed. All of it, from the start to the end, it is the purest way to DJ….. but as a performance medium for professional gigging DJs - it has its limitations.

Coins on top of the stylus

I had coins on the top of each stylus to provide some additional weight to try and stop the needle skipping and even then, slight deformities in the shape of the vinyl gave variations in the speed.. There is no pitch lock like modern controller, you speed the record up and the key goes higher, slow it down and the key lowers and finally any shock at all would likely skip a mix you’d spent the last 5 minutes preparing. Over zealous dancers causing one or both needles to skip mid-mix was a real issue and this is before we get into the limited number of records you could literally carry with you.

OK so you can use timecode vinyl to avoid some of these issues, but it doesn’t seem the same. So, for me, whilst I sit here wistfully remembering the old days, I will keep my 4 deck all-in-one controller for gigs, thank you very much. I have the ability to view the waveform of all 3 tracks, negating the need somewhat to use headphones to mix each track, a collection of nearly 30,000 songs on a drive the size of my thumb nail and access to another 650 million tracks online, plus all the effects, filters and loops I could ever need. If God is indeed a DJ, she’s got a special room only for vinyl.

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