How To Earn Your DJ Stripes Part 4: Learn To Scratch

Learn to scratch

Pic: tibchris

This is the final part of a fortnightly guest series by Chris Cartledge of

One thing that really separates turntable DJs and digital DJs is a fundamental difference in the tactility of playhead control. With a record, there’s a phenomenal amount of opportunity for a DJ to creatively manipulate the sound that comes from it – a technique that’s come to be called "scratching". It’s become, much to the chagrin of turntablists the world over, fairly popular to call just about any playhead manipulation "scratching". But regardless of any creative argument, the very core of scratching is that ability to manipulate the playhead organically, and in the analogue domain, via a turntable. Let's look a little deeper...

Scratching and digital DJing

Digital DJ equipment has approached playhead manipulation in a variety of different ways; all the way from DVS to motorised mini platters a la NS7 and Denon CD decks, the unmotorised yet tactile mini platters of Pioneer CDJs, down to high quality jogwheels seen on Vestax VCI-300 and NI’s Kontrol S4 and, at the bottom of the pile, mobile DJ rack mini jogwheels – and even the button-only approach...

Modern DJ jogwheel

A modern, hi-res DJ controller jogwheel (this is from the Reloop Contour) will allow you to perform most types of scratch and get the to sound convincing - but it will always feel different to vinyl.

All of the above facilitate different approximations of the art. And with low latency buttons, syncing, beat cueing and all the other helping hands that digital DJing gives us, it may feel like practising holding onto a "record" and letting go with the right touch is pointless. In fact, without motorised platters, it might not even be possible. That’s not to say, however, that using a platter, or a jogwheel, is obsolete. The best way to get those wheels spinning, certainly in a party situation, isn’t involved, phrase-based scratch noodling, but the little bits here and there that give a set a bit of extra flair. They’re all things that can’t really be done with buttons alone...

Scratching in the kick of a track before letting it go, a spinback at the end of a track, some simple baby scratches and transforms of your DJ name over the top of the tracks – they’re all things that can’t really be done with buttons alone, and all things that will get the crowd nodding. So let’s take a look at a couple of scratches and other platter tricks that we can port over to whatever equipment we’re using...

Four basic scratches to learn...

1. The Baby Scratch
The baby scratch is a simple but effective technique, and being called the baby is apt - it’s the foundation of all scratches. In order to do the baby scratch on a turntable, you place your hand onto it, stopping the sound underneath your fingers. From there, push forward and pull back in smooth, rhythmical motions. Try it just before the first downbeat of a song, and baby scratch that beat forwards and backwards. Do this in time with the beat of another song before letting go and allowing the track to mix, and with very little additional effort you’ve just increased your DJing palette and made a more interesting mix.

2. The Tear
"Tear" describes the function of this scratch pretty accurately; when moving the platter beneath your fingers, make a stop-start push or pull motion to tear the sound into two (or more!) pieces. A baby scratch goes forwards and backwards, a tear might go forwards, forwards backwards, or perhaps backwards, backwards, forwards, backwards, backwards, forwards... you get the idea. You can get some interesting rhythmical variations when using tear scratches – give them a try with a sound effect when playing another beat.

Optimus Prime

Optimus Prime: DJ in disguise.

3. The Transform
Transforming requires the crossfader. If you’ve been around long enough to remember Optimus Prime when he was a super tough transforming die cast action hero, not a cheap plastic wuss of a model, you should understand how the transform got its name; in the Hasbro cartoons, the transformers made a "wak-ak-ak-ak-ak" sound as they transformed. You can replicate this sound by clicking the crossfader open and closed to bring the sound in and out as you move the platter, and achieve a hugely rich variety of sounds by combining your babies and tears with them.

4. The Spinback
Okay, so spinbacks aren’t exclusive to records. In fact, CD decks have just as ubiquitous, yet totally unique a sound, and a lot of software has a simple, button activated spinback effect. However, there is a certain je ne sais quoi to a manually performed spinback. You get control over the speed and style, and also... it looks cool – and that’s important too!

Place a finger on the platter at the end of the beat you want to spin back from, and either flick it back as quickly and smoothly as possible, or, and this is my favourite, wind the track backwards rhythmically, trying to match the speed in reverse at first and gradually speeding up until the tension is at breaking point.

Understanding the limitations of your gear

The sliding scale of platter quality on digital DJ gear means that not all techniques that a turntablist does will be directly transferrable to your equipment. One of the biggest limiters will be the accuracy of your platter’s response.

Denon DN-HC5000

This type of mobile DJ controller, while still coming with jogwheels, is really not designed for scratching.

At the very bottom end of quality, you may find that you simply can’t get the accuracy needed to do anything more than the occasional baby scratch – but don’t forget that working within limitations is how all the most creative applications of technology arise!

The other big decider of your hands-on experience will be your software – try experimenting with any sensitivity settings. On a 12" turntable, standard scratching speed is 33.3 RPM – a single rotation equates to a bar of a 133BPM record.

Depending on the size of your platter/jogwheel, you might want to experiment with reducing this sensitivity so that small movements don’t spin the track into next week...

The bottom line

When all’s said and done, aping turntable effects with your digital DJ gear isn’t what we’re trying to achieve – if you want to get real turntable sounds, there are no shortcuts to simply getting a real turntable. No, the important thing in this piece, and indeed the entire series, is that you gain an understanding of the evolutions and, ahem, revolutions in DJing that have occurred and culminated in the shiny piece of equipment that you have in front of you today – and that you use that understanding to develop your style.

Why reinvent the wheel when you can build on generations of skill base and play your part in advancing the art of DJing yourself? Good luck!

Check out the other parts in this series:

Do you use scratching in your DJing? Does your controller sound great or is it not really up to it? Or do you think scratching is pointless and distracts from the music? Let us know your thoughts on scratching in the digital age in the comments below.

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  1. Phil Morse says:

    Thanks for the post, Chris! One thing that I find really affects my fun when DJing with digital DJ controllers is the inertia of the jogwheel.

    You know when you swipe-scroll with an iPhone and the scrolling continues, slowing down all the while, after you take your hand off the screen? Or when you time the throwing of a ball so it travels the right distance before landing? Or (to get to the point), when you spin back a real record and it slows down over a short while after your hand leaves it?

    These are all examples of inertia, and I think it's a fundamental for having fun with jogwheels.

    Curiously, it's something manufacturers are patchy in recognising. Some actually give you a control to decide how much "spin" is in the wheel, which is great - others have very high quality wheels but no actual spin in them at all - take your hand off and they simply stop, dead.

    Having a bit of "weight" in the wheel and control over how free spinning it is (my favourite controller, the Vestax VCI-300, does this well) lets you do some awesome scratching, spinbacks etc, even though it plainly is not a real turntable.

  2. I understand very well why controller manufacturers do not push for great, scratchable jog-wheels. In my opinion, the sound it makes is absolutely horrible. I've heard many forms and levels of scratching, both live and on Youtube, and none of them are ever any good. Unless you're a hip-hop DJ, learning to scratch is probably a waste of time that would be better invested in developing other skills.

    • Phil Morse says:

      There's no reason why digital scratching need sound any different from vinyl, with today's software and hi-res controllers. My VCI-300 sounds very convincing, for instance.

      • I'm saying I don't like scratching at all, be it on vinyl or on a controller, I hate the end result. When a DJ starts scratching in a club I plug my fingers in my ears because I find that it just wrecks the song that's currently playing.

        I've no doubt that digital scratching has come a long way to look and feel like vinyl, but I don't see the point at all. I'm only saying this because most of the people I know that go clubbing think the same way and this might be a trend, which in a few years time would make scratching quite obsolete.

        • Phil Morse says:

          Now I see what you're saying. It's personal preference, of course, but seriously there have always been people for and against it. Personally I love a the intelligent use of record manipulation - as Chris says, scratching in the odd kick drum, a spin back maybe ONCE a night at an opportune moment, some really clever stuff done with vocals - that kind of thing. But of course too much poor and inappropriate scratching by people who should leave it well alone is inadvisable. As always, it's about using scratching alongside the other skills to get where you want to go :)

  3. I scratch all the time. I scratch while chaning songs, on bridges, wherever the track demands 'em. When the MC is making announcements and everybody is looking at the booth/stage, i scratch at that time too.. it makes the party live... They love it. Its how you do it.

  4. I'm really enjoying and learning a lot from this "How To" series, thanks Chris and DDJT!

    On topic: I feel the whole scratch v. not to scratch all just boils down to genre and timing. You wouldn't dare scratch during an epic trance set, but you most certainly would expect scratching for a hip hop set. Personally I think scratching sounds great with hip hop, but not with any other genres. Although I'm mainly an EDM DJ I plan to one day learn scratching. I have an S4, the jogwheels are on the small side but from what I hear it has great resolution and latency.

  5. I think that most music styles can benefit
    from scratching. But the thing is, that
    even too scratch on point on a hip hop beat
    (in my opinion the easiest) you need some serious practice.
    It´s only after three years of hard practice
    that i start to feel good about my scratching.
    But once you start to master it, it´s an incredibly
    powerfull mixing tool, especially for mixing
    different genres or unquantised music. But
    I agree that it doesnt sound well with edm
    in most cases.

  6. A-Dag-Io says:

    All that scratchin's making me itch... 😉

    (Malcolm Mclaren)

  7. Chris Argueta says:

    First off, I have nothing against scratching, LOL. I think if done right, it looks and sounds great. I know some of the newer, more professional controllers really let you produce a quality "scratching" performance; a sound that the most loyal of vinyl turntablists secretly envy.

    I remember in the 90's the DMC Technics World championships. They were really cool to check out. But after about the third DJ set, I was like "ok, enough of that for me".

    I think as has been mentioned before by others, scratching is best left to Hip Hop sets. Also, I feel scratching should be a garnish and not the meat and potatoes. Too much of it and it will ruin the meal/set.

    Personally, I scratch very little. My equipment and style aren't really suited for it and my sets are way too long to scratch the whole time. None of my mixers have crossfaders and House and Disco sound like crap with scratching on it, LOL.

    But it does look and sound cool.

  8. DeeJay_GLI says:

    Scratching is powerful in the DJ arsenal---but like any other tool can be abused & over used---but if done right---it can be incorporated in ANY set---not only hip hop---i myself add abit of it to my house sets at times to add some additional flava

  9. looks sick! but I'm afraid what it would cost in $AUSD?

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