From Vinyl to Virtual

Here at Dela Buzz, our team of industrial designers and engineers are hard at work creating prototypes and concepts for clients. The ambiance is filled with clacking keyboards and mouse clicks. Now that it is summer, music festival is in full swing. Countless music lovers, like ourselves, will be flocking to see their favorite artists and DJ’s perform live.  We enjoy music as much as anyone else, so we decided to take a look at the machines which have shaped what we listen to. Only in the past few years has the music scene exploded with DJ’s because technology has made the hobby so much more accessible.

If you didn’t already know, DJ stands for “disc jockey.” Although it was first used in the 1930’s, the term became popularized by hip hop artists in the 70’s. The meaning came to life when New York pioneers such as Kool Herc, Grand Wizard Theodore and Grand Master Flash established the techniquesand tricks to spinning records and rocking parties. These early artists played vinyl records on two turntables coupled with a mixer to fade between tracks.

Through careful beat-matching (playing two records with the same tempo simultaneously) DJs were able to blend instrumental drum beats from funk and disco records. Kool Herc developed “scratching,” a technique used to produce a characteristic sound by moving a record back and forth. These tricks, two turntables and a mixer gave birth to turntablism. Turntablists prided themselves on being able to make new sounds and interesting remixes by manipulating old records. These DJs have become musicians in their own right – using their turntables as an instrument.

Early turntables used a belt to turn the platter which held the vinyl record. These belts could not stand up to the strains and abuse of scratching. Technics, a company specializing in DJ equipment, created the SL-1200 turntable. It was a milestone advancement due to its use of a motor to directly spin the platter (the plate which holds the record), eliminating the need for a belt. The SL-1200 was a sturdy machine. It was composed from metal, making it weigh over 26 pounds. Affectionately called “the wheels of steel”, it quickly became the industry-standard for turntables because of its durability.


The venerable Technic SL-1200 remained in production until 2010.


In order to spin at parties for hours, early DJ’s would have to bring heavy crates packed full of vinyl records. Long before the days of computer screens and LCD displays, these DJs would have to mark their vinyls to find the section of a song they wanted to play. In club settings, a DJ would have to drop the needle at the exact groove, while juggling the beat within a matter of seconds to keep the music flowing. It was not economical to carry around a whole vinyl just to sample a 10-second snippet of a song. These barriers made the art of DJing intimidating to newcomers.

This video from DJ Angelo is a perfect example of turntablism. He uses stickers and other marking tools to see where to drop the needle.


Through the 90’s as compact discs began to become the new go-to medium, Pioneer was developing a new type of turntable – the CDJ. Pioneer’s CDJ-500 (1994) was the first turntable of its kind to use CDs coupled with an analog control platter to control the cue points. This meant DJs could carry around a backpack full of CDs instead of crates of vinyls to their sets. Although it was controlled like a turntable and allowed for the continuous mixing of songs, it could not “scratch.”


Pictured above is the CDJ-500S 

In 2001, the updated CDJ-1000 let DJs scratch with the disc. Newer iterations, such as the  CDJ-2000 could read files from a USB drive. Although early MP3s sacrificed quality for convenience, increased broadband speeds have allowed aspiring artists to find a high quality version of a song.  One vinyl can hold roughly 20 minutes of music per side. A flash drive can hold thousands of high-fidelity songs while also being travel friendly.

With these progressions, DJing has gone digital. People did not have to go to the record store and buy a whole vinyls if they only wanted part of a song.



Pictured above is the CDJ-2000. In the upper left corner, there are ports for a USB or SD card. 


The 2000s were marked with rapid technological advancements in regards to software. With DJ-programs like Traktor and Serato, the hobby became more accessible to the masses. At this point, MP3s were becoming the main format of music. Digital files were ubiquitous and allowed DJs to use their computers to store a whole library of music.  This gave aspiring DJs the ability to practice their mixing skills. It was not necessary to mark cue points on a vinyl and drop the needle into the right groove. The visualization of the track made it easy to find cue points.


Traktor Scratch Pro

Traktor allowed one to control the music tracks with their computer keyboard. Although the program itself is not cheap, it was not necessary to buy more expensive hardware to start mixing and mashing songs together. Now there is even an iPhone app for Traktor which allows anyone to mix from an iOS device available for $1.99.

The 2000s also saw the emergence of what is being called “controllerism.” These MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) controllers gave a new depth of management to the way a DJ presents music to a crowd. A user can pre-program the buttons for different functions, effects and samples which would allow them to create and remix songs on the spot.

EDM artist Madeon uses a Novation Launchpad to mash clips of his favorite songs into his own creation. 


Technological improvements gave rise to the turntablist movement with the SL-1200. MIDI controllers are taking over and ushering in the age of controllerism. There may not be as many people looping, scratching and juggling break-beats on vinyl, but there has definitely been an increase in the number of hobbyist DJs.


This DJ battle features the use of Pioneer’s DDJ-SZ. Although the platters allow for scratching like vinyls, the button pads can used to program cue points and effects with the buttons below the platters. Developed to be compatible with Serato, it is designed to allow DJs greater control over the tracks they play – turntablism meets controllerism.

Yes, DJing is much more accessible than it ever was. Yes, you can pre-record a set and plug it into a USB drive on a modern turntable, press play and hype up a crowd. Is it a bad thing? No. Children are growing up with these capabilities on their iPhone. If they can master such an application to make their own music, then more power to them.

As long as people enjoy making music, democratizing digital instruments is a step in the right direction. The future of DJ technology is exciting, but even though we’ve moved from analog to digital, DJs will never be free from the cables and inputs needed to push sound through a stereo sytem… Unless you’re this guy:

As DJ technology evolves, so must the product design. We have seen the turntables go from vinyl to digital, from circular records to square buttons on a midi controller. Where will the future take us? Maybe making music will be as simple as playing with Lego blocks.

The video above features the Reactable a new digital instrument designed by a 4-man research team at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. Since its development, musicians such as Bjork and Coldplay have used the Reactable at their live performances. The revolutionary machine has garnered several awards including the Prix Ars Electronica Golden Nica for Digital Musics (2008), two D&AD Yellow Pencil Awards (2008) and more.

Watch the video below to see how it works!

What do you think the next big “thing” is for music production? Let us know what you think in the comments!

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