Understanding Your Decks
Here at Digital DJ Tips, we have taught thousands of DJs to ‘scratch’. The skills of scratching involve rhythmic manipulation of the music, which in the case of DJs using today’s equipment is usually done via their equipment’s jogwheels rather than using real vinyl. One thing we’ve found is that we have to train DJs starting out today to get over the feeling that they shouldn’t be touching the music in this way; that they’ll somehow get found out; that it will sound terrible; that they might break something.
Well the truth is, as a DJ you absolutely must get comfortable with touching the music. You need to be grabbing hold of the jogwheels or platters. You need to develop a healthy curiosity for what things sound like when you use all the controls at your disposal to stop and start your music, and alter the music’s default state of simply playing from A to B. Imagine the track on your deck to be a car. You’ve got to grab the wheel and drive that baby!
How it’s done with vinyl
Let’s return for a minute to the days of turntables and real vinyl, because even the most modern DJ controllers usually use this paradigm as their starting point.
You may be surprised to learn that the first thing a vinyl DJ puts on a turntable when he or she wants to play a record is not, well, a record. No, it’s a slipmat, which is a thin record-shaped piece of felt-like material. When the record is placed on top of it, the slipmat reduces the resistance between the spinning platter and the piece of vinyl. This means that if the DJ touches the edge of the spinning tune, the vinyl stops moving, but the platter carries on spinning underneath as if nothing has happened. When he or she takes their hand off the record, it gets up to speed again pretty quickly. With a slipmat in place, a turntable becomes a sensitive music manipulation device, giving the DJ the chance to pause, start, scratch, and rewind any record with precision. Grab the vinyl firmly enough and you can even spin the record backwards, until inertia brings it back to playing as it should.
The traditions above are carried on today with digital vinyl systems (DVSs). You’ll recall a DVS is a kit that can convert any turntable set-up into a digital DJ system using special control or timecode vinyl that feels like the real thing, but actually contains computer code that can talk to DJ software, letting the DJ play digital music with existing gear.
When record decks were largely replaced with CD decks (and later DJ controllers), out went real decks, slipmats and vinyl, and in came jogwheels. While jogwheels do occasionally come with motors, slipmats and imitation vinyl to ape the feel of turntables, manufacturers quickly realised that this wasn’t necessary to give DJs the control they needed, and so the vast majority of jogwheels on DJ equipment are static. This is not in the sense that they’re fixed, but more in the sense that they don’t go around when you hit play any more. Apart from that, though, the way they behave is similar to turntables.
Manufacturers figured out that, when manipulating a piece of music, DJs basically do two distinct things. The first is ‘grabbing the track’ to stop it, hold it where it is, scratch it, rewind it, or do any other drastic action with it. The second is very different, and involves subtly nudging the tune momentarily faster or slower, almost always in order to keep it playing in time with something else. ‘As long as we can let DJs do both of these things,’ the manufacturers reasoned, ‘we can build all the functionality of a big, heavy motor-driven turntable into a small inches-wide static jogwheel.’
The way the manufacturers did it was by making the top surface of the jogwheel work in scratch mode (touch it and hold it and the music will stop; move your hand backwards and the track will go backwards at the speed your hand is moving; let go and it’ll carry on playing from there), and the edge of the jogwheel work in nudge mode (nothing happens when you touch it, but when you nudge it clockwise the track speeds up slightly until your movement stops, and when you move the jogwheel backwards, the track slows down momentarily).
When you see DJ gear – from kit in pro DJ booths all the way down to cheap home DJ controllers – with something round and bigger than the rest of the controls on it, but that isn’t a turntable, that something is called a jogwheel, and it nearly always behaves as described above. Jogwheels are uncannily good at giving DJs the vinyl feel without the weight, expense, and complication.
From jogwheels to touchstrips
This idea of manipulating your music by rotating something has been at the heart of DJing for so many decades, it’s hard to separate it from what DJing is. But there’s nothing to say it is an intrinsic part of DJing, any more than vinyl itself is (it clearly isn’t, as nowadays most DJs don’t use or even own any vinyl). So while most DJ gear does indeed still have something round on it to help you control the music, some doesn’t.
A while back there was a fashion to replace jogwheels with touchstrips. When you swipe your smartphone, you essentially perform the action a touchstrip lets you perform. Imagine a strip, about the size of a nail file, designed to let you control your music. You could perform the nudge functions described above by swiping your finger on it, one direction to speed the track up, one to slow it down. Sometimes, there was a toggle switch nearby that let you switch the touchstrip into scratch mode for the other type of movement.
The idea was that on a control no larger than a pen, you could do much of what you can do on a full-sized motorised turntable. The craze didn’t last though – there’s something about DJing and manipulating the music with something round that appears to be intrinsic!
The transport controls
Back in the days of cassette tape players, the transport parts were the parts the tape passed through, and when you pressed the play button, the transport physically moved to engage with the tape. The word has persisted, so today we use transport to talk about controls like play, pause, stop, and so on for our DJ decks.
While on a record deck all you get is start and stop, on DJ players with jogwheels, you usually get a few more controls. The most important one is play/pause. Touch this once, and the track starts. Touch again, and it pauses. Touch again, it starts from where it was paused. No surprises there, then. It is almost always alongside a button marked ‘cue’. This button adds a temporary cue point to the track, usually used to mark where you want to start your track playing from.
Here’s how this button works: with the track paused, you use the jogwheel to manipulate the track until, say, immediately before the very first beat of the track (often a good bet for where to start it playing). Then you press the cue point button to mark that point. Now, when the track is playing, you can jump back to the cue point by simply touching the cue point button.
Taken together, these two buttons – combined with using the jogwheel – give you all the manipulation of your music you’re ever likely to need, putting you in the driver’s seat of your mix.
So, armed with a working knowledge of your DJ mixer from the previous chapter and your DJ decks from this chapter, you’re ready to turn to that DJs’ holy grail, the science of beatmixing. That’s what the next two chapters tackle.