The Evolution and History of DJ Technology

If you go to any club today and take a look at the DJ booth you will probably see a variety of devices, levers, wires and machines that the DJ skilfully uses to get the club jumping night after night. You may not recognise every piece of equipment each DJ uses but the modern, highly technological set up definitely marks a huge departure from the simple two deck vinyl record based systems that were used right up until the 1980s.

DJ technology history has come a long way in recent years, moving from simple turntable systems to modern DJ Midi Controller Technology and you can track it from it’s earliest origins right here!

Laptop DJ Midi Controller by AskDaveTaylor

Laptop DJ Midi Controller by AskDaveTaylor on Flickr

The Earliest DJ Decks

Did you know that the history of DJ technology can be traced right back to the 1890s? Well, 1892 to be precise when Emile Berliner first introduced gramophone records to the world. Thomas Edison had been the first man to create the phonograph cylinder in 1877 but the competition between the two ultimately saw the German-American inventor win out. His records, which were later to be commonly referred to as “vinyl” after manufacturers switch to vinyl from shellac, allowed people to buy music and provided the technological advancement that gave rise to the first DJ.

Old School Gramophones - Early DJ Technology - by CLF on Flickr

Old School Gramophones - Early DJ Technology - by CLF on Flickr

The very first DJ, Californian Ray Newby, actually used a small spark transmitter to broadcast over radio waves in 1909. This allowed him to play a record here and there in between news items and discussion. However, technology moved on rapidly between the 1910s and the start of World War II. By the 1940s, instead of using basic spark transmitters to play records in between discussion, turntables had been introduced.

Turntables changed the face of DJ-ing. Using two turntables allowed for the very first DJ dance party in 1943 and the use of twin turntables allowed for the opening of the very first commercial discotheque, Whiskey a Go-Go, in Paris during 1947. More followed in the United States and Europe so DJ technology essentially changed the face of entertainment.

Revolutionising the Decks

Two deck vinyl systems were commonly used from the 1940s right up until the 1970s. During that time, a variety of new techniques and new technology ensured that the role of the DJ was constantly changing. For example, the 1950s saw the introduction of sound systems, whereby the DJ would play records through huge speaker systems in clubs and in the streets so that they were able to interact with the crowds during songs as well as in between records.

DJ performance styles also evolved in the 1970s. For example DJ Grand Wizard Theodore accidently invented scratching in 1975, using the turntables to create a unique sound that has become iconic over the years. Tempo also became a tool that DJs would used to create transitions between songs on the turntables without any hesitation or jumping. This seamless manoeuvring from one song to the next is taken for granted by clubbers today but it was a major technological innovation at the time, and all made possible as a result of Technics.

In 1972, the Technics SL 1200 was released. A Hi-Fi turntable it has +/- 8% pitch and a direct drive motor that allowed DJs to beatmatch. It also had features that meant it was highly reliable, maintained speed and made DJ-ing much more flexible. It allowed DJs to develop signatures and cutting edge techniques that revolutionised the art of DJ-ing. The Technics turntables became a staple of the DJ-ing scene and were heavily used until the turn of the Millennium and beyond.

Technics SL1200 Turntable - Closeup by marcoPapale

Technics SL1200 Turntable - Closeup by Flickr

Spinning the Discs

DJ technology undoubtedly placed the turntables at the forefront of the music world but it did eventually move on but this time towards a different type of disc. Vinyl was out and CDs were in. The very first controller that allowed DJs to use CDs was the Pioneer CDJ 1000. Allowing analogue control, the digital turntable was released in 2001 and emulated the vinyl turntables of the day. It also allowed DJs to use various techniques, such as scratching and adjusting the tempo.

Pioneer introduced a range of CDJ models, all of which had various features that allowed DJs to make the transition from vinyl to CD. Until then, most clubs had been resistant to it because of the lack of DJ functionality the existing CD players allowed them. However, CD machines have not had the longevity that turntables had in terms of the durability of the technology. Why? Because controller technology has taken over.

DJ Booth Decks, Mixer and Speakers

DJ Booth by kayintveen on Flickr

DJ MIDI Controller Technology

DJ MIDI controller technology has revolutionised DJ-ing in recent years, adding a digital dimension to sets and employing computer technology that allows DJs to play music from a wide variety of files, from MP3 to .wav, and deconstruct and edit songs as and when they like. Software did not immediately take off as a result of the sound quality of the tracks but, as it improved, DJs have increasingly turned to DJ MIDI controller technology.

DJ MIDI controller technology incorporates computers, digital musical instruments and various other devices as a single entity. MIDI is short for Musical Instrument Digital Interface and it allows each of the elements that are connected together to communicate with each other and integrate together seamlessly.

Incorporating a range of features, software elements and hardware machines, turntables and CD decks, the most up to date DJ controllers allow the individual DJ to inject a little creativity into his or her set, providing a simulated vinyl experience without the limitation that laptop DJ software often provides.

Native Instruments Traktor S2 DJ Midi Controller by sebilden on Flickr

Native Instruments Traktor S2 DJ Midi Controller by sebilden on Flickr

Choosing Digital Vinyl Control Systems

There are numerous DVS, or Digital Vinyl Control Systems, available today but two are more popular than others. Serato’s Scratch and Traktor by Native Instruments. Scratch was released in 2004 with the label of vinyl emulation software.  It is designed to offer DJs the option of manipulating tracks and is compatible with most digital audio file types. It utilises CD players or vinyl turntables so as to combine the versatility of the software and the control of the hardware.

Serato also released Itch in 2008, which is an integrated hardware and software that links directly to hardware controllers. It is also simplified as compared to the Scratch system and connects to compatible hardware via USB.

Native Instruments’ Traktor is also a software package that offers a massive range of options, from seamless looping, advanced beat detection and track beat gridding through to automatic synchronisation of tracks. It uses the MIDI clock functionality to sync hardware and gives the DJ the ability to layer four sound sources via the four playback decks feature. There are associated Native Instruments Traktor hardware products that are optimised for the software but there are numerous other hardware options that are compatible with it.

Serato Scratch DJ Setup

Serato Scratch Live 2 DJ Setup

Getting the Best Hardware for Your Software

Of course, there is plenty of hardware available to use alongside the Traktor, Itch and Scratch software. For example, the Numark NS7 USB DJ controller is an intuitive controller that comes with a two-channel scratch mixer, a responsive turntable and high torque motor, amongst other features. Alternatively, the Vestax VCI-300 MkII offers functional simplicity. Both are optimised to work with the Serato Itch software.

But some manufacturers of hardware also offer their own software. For example, M-Audio created the Xponent, an all in one DJ MIDI USB DJ controller to work seamlessly with their own software, Torq. Although it is not the most intuitive combination, it is highly reliable and has all the features you would want in such a system.

If you did want to enjoy DJ techniques like scratching during your sets then you may opt for the Hercules DJ Control Instinct instead. The pressure detecting jog wheels feel incredibly natural and mimic the way in which you would scratch a vinyl record. They also bend the pitch within tracks. The mixer area is clearly separated from the deck area too so you can make the most of every track.

There are also other elements of hardware available, such as the Akai APC40 Ableton Live Controller, a dedicated performance controller that has high quality controls, 16 endless encoders, 9 45mm faders and 109 buttons overall, all of which are designed to give the DJ complete control over real time mixing, production and remixing.

Akai APC40 Live DJ Set by stevedocious on Flickr

Akai APC40 Live DJ Set by stevedocious on Flickr

As you can see, DJ technology has come an awfully long way in a very short time. Although history has proved that DJ technology has always opted for quality over innovation and so only embraced CD and digital technology widely when it’s been highly developed, it is advancing more quickly than ever before today. With version after version of software being released with more features than ever, it will be interesting to see what the next developments will be!

Check out this live Tech House DJ set from Matt Akita using an Akai APC40, Native Instruments Maschine along with a Macbook Pro and iPad.

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