The art of DJ-mixing has climbed to the top of the mythical pyramid in certain scenes. For many people, it’s a subliminal art that carries a message of nonstop dancing. Different sources credit different DJs as leaders in the field. The story of how DJs started mixing records for clubs is actually not so much about which DJ deserves the most credit, but about the development of new technology and how it played into the evolution of electronic dance music.
Prior to the introduction of compact discs in the early eighties (circa 1982), everybody listened to music on turntables and cassette decks. By 1977 the cassette had become half as popular as vinyl. By the end of the eighties the cassette had surpassed CDs and vinyl in sales, although CDs would take the lead in the early nineties.
The main drawback about cassettes was hiss and stretched tape, but many consumers still saw the cassette as better than vinyl because the stylus that played the record, was also wearing out the record every time it got played. That’s because the weight of the tone-arm was so heavy on most turntables. Records easily got scratched as dust added to pops and skips while trying to enjoy the record. Besides, a cassette could fit a lot more playing time or “extended play.”
The cassette revolution had been brewing since the early sixties but really took off in the seventies when consumers became more aware of sound quality. FM radio began to overtake AM radio because of better fidelity. The record industry moved away from mono recordings and concentrated on cleaner production of multi-track stereo recordings. What caused a small culture of club DJs to hang on to the turntable and vinyl records was a company called Technics. While the consumer turntable manufacturers were giving up on making the vinyl record experience as enjoyable as possible, Technics catered to the professional user. In 1972 the Technics SL-1200 turntable became the model turntable for the DJ world of radio stations and mobile DJs.
Technics had introduced the first direct drive turntable, the SP-10, in 1969. This was important because turntable motors were otherwise driven by a belt, which after time became worn out, causing records to turn in warped rotation, adding to the machine noise working against the music. The SL-1200 was an improvement on the SP-10. Between 1972 and 1984 Technics began to add features suited for the needs of DJs to the SL-1200, which inevitably evolved into the SL-1200 MK2, the all-time definitive DJ turntable, in which a pair was widely referred to as “Technics 1200s.”
Some of these features included pitch control and a light tone-arm so that the stylus didn’t grind into the record. Vinyl sounded more dynamic and true to the analog recording on such turntables. The fact that pressing the start button immediately started the turntable at the desired speed, allowed the DJ to have more power over the delivery of music than with common consumer turntables, which had “latency” flaws or a delayed start. While most belt-driven consumer turntables did not naturally spin backward, Technics 1200s spun backward to accommodate the DJ who needed to spin the record forward and backward to hear the cue position through headphones.
The experienced DJ, however, also uses padding under the record called a “slip matt” and holds the record over the spinning turntable and pad until the desired moment. The more savvy DJs put an anti-static plastic pad under the slip matt for even more control. With the record cued up through headphones, the DJ releases the record and it starts playing instantly. Another reason for padding under the record, from a musician’s point of view, is that it creates more control for moving the record backward and forward for generating the “scratching” sound effect. For scratch, skip and pop reduction, a DJ trick is to spray cleaning fluid or wood alcohol on the record while playing.
The most creative use radio stations found for pitch control in the mid-seventies was speeding up records so they could get to the commercials quicker. AM Top 40 stations tried this approach in an effort to create an accelerated upbeat sound. AM stations had to do something to still seem exciting against an emerging backdrop of better sounding FM stations. But increasing the tempo turned out to not help AM overcome the massive sweep to FM in the late seventies. What AM top 40 did in its final years of influence on music fans, however, was popularize disco music. Video