No, You Don’t Need To Learn On Vinyl To Be A “Real DJ”

| Read time: 5 mins
vinyl vs digital
Last updated 2 December, 2015

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Vinyl ruled DJing for decades, but is is still important to learn on vinyl if you want to be a “real” DJ?

The world, as we know, is full of people very happy to inform you that unless you’re learning to DJ on vinyl, you’re not really learning to DJ. There was an article by David Ireland over at Magnetic Mag recently that argued just that. But is that really true?

Even today, as we head towards 2016, it sometimes seems that if you dare argue against this line, you risk raising the ire of a vocal hardcore of people who appear to gather all their disdain for how DJing has gone in the past 15 years and distil it into this one, simplified argument: Vinyl is good, and its demise IS the problem.

It’s true that vinyl DJing is something many DJs are rightfully proud to be able to say they can do, and yes, vinyl DJing is also something many beginners do decide is important for them. This is all good, we have no issue with it at all. But… having taught 12,000 people digital DJing in the last five years, we think it’s time to draw a line under the supposed necessity to learn on vinyl. In this article, I want to explain why.

(As this article was inspired by the Magnetic Mag piece, maybe you’d like to browse that first. Here it is: 5 Reasons you Should Learn To DJ On Vinyl. However, David’s five reasons are repeated below, too, so you could also just read on…)

Should you learn on vinyl?

1. “Learning to DJ on vinyl helps you to understand touch, back cueing, and scratching”

Yes, it definitely does, and yes, being able to manipulate music on platters is a lovely thing. Is it essential? Probably not any more, at least for many DJs (see the Traktor Kontrol S5, Traktor Kontrol S8, and indeed the Novation Twitch).

Personally, I come from that earlier age, and I love “touching” my music. To me, just like to the Magnetic Mag writer, it is indeed an integral part of DJing. That said, jogwheels are frighteningly accurate ways of emulating turntables; indeed, we teach a whole course on scratching with DJ controllers, and so we argue that you could just as easily substitute the world “jogwheels” for “vinyl” in the sentence above.

Witness too how quickly 90% of DJs jumped from vinyl to CDJs (ie jogwheels) a decade back – they transferred the skills in no time at all.

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Learning to DJ on any gear, including rubbish old belt drive turntables, could indeed improve your skills as a DJ – but does that mean you HAVE to do so in order to learn properly?

2. “Learning on vinyl helps you to hear the mix”

“Your ears are always right, if it sounds like shit, it is shit, and you should always trust that instinct” says the writer.

No arguments from us there. He also says that in the old days, you never knew if the club’s gear would be great or awful, and you just had to make it work, hence, apparently, that also forced you to listen better to the music.

Huh? I agree completely that we need to trust our ears as DJs, and that sync (and keymixing, and file quality…) can indeed let us down, so we should be listening out for all of those things… but I fail to see how “not listening properly to the mix” and “not DJing on vinyl” are in any way related to each other.

Producers, for instance, develop great ears for what’s right and wrong, and they manage it without the help of manually beatmixing their sounds on a pair of Technics 1210s. And if dodgy gear somehow makes you a better DJ, there’s plenty of scope for clubs to provide dodgy CDJs and mixers in this day and age, just like they often had broken turntables in the past. (And have you ever tried to DJ on a Behringer BCD2000?)

3. “Learning on vinyl helps you to be selective”

Agree completely. This is one of the big traps of digital – too much music. Abundance, not scarcity. That’s why we teach that you should have a shortlist, then a buy list, then an actual collection, all of which allow you to filter down and down again what you “let in”. Futhermore, we teach that from that collection, you should formally “pack a crate” for each and every gig you play.

This is all teaching that comes directly from our days as vinyl DJs, and many DJs who either have started with digital, or switched, have told us it’s one of the biggest lessons in our training. With you there, David. But it’s a discipline, not a necessity, nowadays. Which is actually a good thing.

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Well pressed pristine vinyl sounds great, we agree . But digital files stay pristine forever. And any working DJ 20 years ago would have told you for sure that records don’t… plus, who remembers acetates? Now they really DID degrade fast…

4. “Vinyl has better sound quality”

Nah, nah, nah. Good quality lossless files are what left the studio, before the audio got pressed to vinyl, in the first place. You can buy them nowadays if you really think anyone can hear a difference – they’re usually sold as WAVs. If not, 320 MP3s or 256 AACs will do you fine. Your choice.

Truth is, it’s all about the mastering, the equipment quality, and understanding gain staging after that. True story: Record company execs actually didn’t want to press to (digital) CDs “back in the day” because they felt they were “giving away the masters” – ie the best version possible of a recording – before it got degraded pressing it to vinyl.

“Analog (sic) sound lets you truly understand the foundation of what music should sound like at its best and you can work backwards from there.” says the writer. Try telling that to the producers of all your favourite dance tracks, who’ve been busy recording digitally to hard disk in Ableton for the last decade. It’s a misguided and redundant argument, academic at best.

5. “Vinyl shows commitment”

“Vinyl weeds out people that don’t really want it.” says the writer. Logical conclusion: Everyone DJing digitally “doesn’t really want it”. Which is maybe just a bit insulting to all the great digital DJs out there?

Yeah, lots of people have the chance to dabble in digital DJing nowadays, and that’s a great, great thing. I for one am very pleased so many do. Why the hell shouldn’t they? And you know what? Some of those digital DJs will go all the way (there is always room at the top). They’ll do it through blood, sweat and tears. Professionals need never fear amateurs.

Also, it could be argued that the type of dedication you need to master beatmatching using vinyl is actually the wrong type of dedication, not really very much to do with music or DJing at all.

You see, rubbish DJs always existed – trust me. I have endured countless poor vinyl DJs in my time. And in a way, they were worse than your typical half-baked digital DJ. Why? Because not only were they rubbish, but they were weird enough to spend a couple of years practising behind locked doors, getting themselves to the stage where they could be rubbish in public! At least you can “fail fast” with digital, and realise early on that maybe it’s not for you…

Finally…

We are not about knocking vinyl DJs or vinyl DJing. You can do the job no matter what you use. And I DJed on vinyl for the majority of my professional career. But we are saying there is no need to feel inferior if you want to learn to DJ digitally. Quite the opposite: You’d be silly not to learn digitally nowadays.

Frankly, if you learn on a laptop and controller, and later learn to use CDJs to round out your skills, you’ll be DJing how the vast majority of the world’s DJs do, right there. Spend your time learning the real skills of DJing: “The right tunes, in the right order, for right now”. And if you want to learn vinyl down the line? Go ahead and have fun! Just don’t be fooled that you need those skills any more.

Do you think it’s essential to learn to DJ on vinyl? Is it even necessary at all nowadays? Or has DJing moved on, and it’s time we put this argument to bed? Please share your thoughts below.

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