6 Reasons Why Digital DJs Should Learn To Spin With Vinyl

| Read time: 5 mins
analogue Club/Festival DJing Pro Turntables vinyl
Last updated 25 June, 2019

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I started out DJing with CDs and vinyl back in the late 90s, but the bulk of my DJing today is with digital. I got a chance to revisit my turntable skills (or what’s left of them) this past weekend, dropping some disco 45s and 12″ remixes of my favourite 80s pop at a vinyl-only gig.

My set began with an empty room and the bartender, so it gave me a chance to acclimatise to the DJ booth and the monitoring set-up. My beatmixing was a bit shaky, especially in the beginning (a combination of nerves and the “getting-to-know-you-again” phase) but things got smoother as the set wore on. 

Preparing for an all-vinyl set forced me to be ruthlessly selective about the music I’d be taking along, even if it was a two-hour performance. I didn’t have any room in my bag for “what if” records, nor did I have the strength to carry any more records (my shoulder is still a bit sore as I write this!).

People started trickling in, so I did my crowd-reading and adjusted based on what records I brought. Eventually it turned into a packed room that was heaving and moving (segueing from Chaka Khan to Daft Punk does that) despite the sweltering heat and humidity that soon overwhelmed the inadequate air-conditioning.  

After my set, everyone was sweaty, smiling and, most importantly, ready to be handed over to the headliner. Job done!

Spinning with actual vinyl is challenging because of the kinetic nature of the entire analogue beatmixing process coupled with the moving parts on a turntable that make it possible for sound on a record to be played back. But here are six reasons why I think knowing how to DJ with records helps you in your Djing, whatever you normally DJ on.

1. You become intentional with your selection

There’s no room in your bag for “what if” records. Every single piece of vinyl you add has to be killer. Otherwise, it’s just dead weight you’re carrying around with you. Shifting your playlisting mindset to this will be tough in the beginning because you’re bound to make difficult music decisions (kind of how it feels to pick which artist to watch at a festival when they both share the same time slot in different stages).  Having that mindset when you fill a digital crate, though, will go a long way in making sure that you’re not packing any throwaways. 

Also, you can only carry so much vinyl! This physical carrying capacity means you should only pack songs that you’re most likely to play during your set. It’s no coincidence that in our training courses, we encourage our students to “pack twice the amount of music you need in a playlist for every gig” – that advice comes straight from the days of vinyl.

Requests? Well, you’ll have to anticipate what they are ahead of time if you plan on granting them during your set. On the flipside, at least you don’t have to play requests you don’t like – you can’t download a piece of vinyl! Just don’t hand them an aux cord…

2. You’re forced to really listen to your music 

Want to play a particular song during your set? Well you’re going to have to listen to it first to know its structure and how it starts and ends. Apart from the spacing / width of the grooves looking at the vinyl itself (which still provides some but not much information about a tune), there’s practically no way to find out how a tune will play out just by looking at the record. Since there aren’t any waveforms to look at, that means you’ll have to (gasp!) listen to a song in full and be familiar with it before playing it – lest you risk a train-wreck during your set. Knowing your music is ALWAYS a good thing.

3. Your beatmixing has nowhere to go but up

If you’re already great at beat matching and tempo matching using CDJs or software, that’s awesome. Now take that skillset and try it with two pieces of vinyl. If you started DJing with vinyl way back, it’s like riding a bike and it’ll come back to you in no time. But if you started with digital or CDs, you’ll find that it’s actually quite difficult because there are, quite literally, so many moving parts: 

First off, there’s no tempo reading so you have to figure it out by listening and slowing down or speeding up one deck. Second, even if you’ve already locked in the tempo (or even if you know the tempo by heart), there’s also the matter of dropping the track on the “one beat” using your hand. There are no cue points here folks – if you miss it, you’ll have to start over. 

Even if you get it on the one beat, you’ll probably still need to do a bit of work to get the beats lined up properly. You do this by either using the pitch / tempo fader (called pitch riding) and making small adjustments until the record catches up, or by dragging your finger along the platter. You can also twist the spindle to make slight speed adjustments.

Can you apply these tricks to digital? You sure can: pitch riding works long as you’ve got tempo faders, and while you can’t drag your finger or twist a spindle on a controller, you can do it with devices that have moving jogwheels like the Rane Twelve or the Denon DJ SC5000M Prime. Why do that when you can just hit the sync button? No reason other than the fact that it’s extremely satisfying to pull them off, and that in itself is a lot of fun. 

4. You’ll improve your jogwheel proficiency

Why do DJ controllers have jogwheels? They’re meant to emulate the large jogwheels of CDJs. Why do CDJs have jogwheels, then? Because they’re meant to emulate the feel of a vinyl record on a turntable platter. Spending time learning the craft of spinning with vinyl (or DVS) further encodes the movements needed to line up a beat, drop a cue by hand (instead of using a performance pad), and scratch. 

It’s sort of a one-way thing though: improving your feel for vinyl makes you more adept at using controller jogwheels, but not the other way around. And you’re going to feel that in a big way.

5. You’ll be occupied fully by the task

Thinking about using your phone to post a Facebook status or to send a couple of tweets while spinning? Good luck with that – unless you’re playing a long-ish track where you’re allowed to “check out”, there’s a chance you’ll miss an important cue or you won’t have enough time to search for and prep your next track. 

This is especially true if you’re just starting out with vinyl because it does take time to build the motor skills needed to operate a turntable and beatmix with finesse. So the next time you complain about being “bored” behind the decks, try spinning with vinyl in front of a crowd.

Being fully occupied = being forced to be in the here and now. This is a very good place to be when DJing.

6. You’ll appreciate how far DJing has come

We’ve become so desensitised to the availability of music that we take for granted the fact that we can gig with thousands of songs in a device the size of a pack of gum. Pack a crate for a three-hour DJ set (say 20kg of vinyl) and I guarantee you’ll have a newfound appreciation for how portable and versatile your laptop + DJ controller combo or headphones + thumb drive are. 

Finally…

Vinyl has been around for a century now and while digital has taken over, there’s still a lot of fundamentals and skills that you can learn from spinning with records which you can apply to your own DJing. Peggy Gou, pictured above, can switch effortlessly between CDJs and turntables, giving her maximum flexibility during shows.

The key takeaway here is that all forms of DJing (eg digital, CDJs, vinyl) have their advantages and disadvantages, so it’s worth learning all of them because they all have great lessons that you can integrate into your own skillset that will make you a well-rounded DJ who not only has an eye and an ear toward the future, but an appreciation for the craft and history of the art as well. 

How did you start out DJing? Do you know how to spin with vinyl? If not, do you want to learn how? If you already know, do you think new DJs should still try to learn even if they’re spinning with media players or controllers? Let us know below.

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