Putting tunes together requires at least two input devices. The two we’re going to focus on for this article are turntables and digital vinyl systems. Generally, a DJ will have two turntables, one on each side of a mixer that can also be used to add effects to the music. Turntables to use while DJing should be reliable, durable, and have additional features such as pitch control, speed control, and good design.
Nowadays, these turntables might be traditional turntables that use actual vinyl records or they may be Digital Vinyl Systems, that mimic the look and feel of a turntable, but run through a computer application.
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What is a Turntable?
Turntables were once the core component for a DJ, but have seen a steady decline in usage thanks to the portability and price of digital music. A turntable is the portion of the record player that holds the record and spins it while a stylus translates the song imprinted on the record vinyl through an output like a player, a speaker, or a mixer.
It is a source of music that can also be manipulated to make other sounds through scratching, speeding up, slowing down, etc. They usually have a fader (a sliding switch) that allows a DJ to increase or decrease the tempo. This allows for manual switching between songs with different beats per minute. Another good feature is the speed shift to let you change between 33/3 RPM (vinyl albums) and 45 RPM (vinyl singles).
Another thing you should know about a turntable is whether it is a direct drive model or belt-driven. There is a large difference in capability. Most DJs will not be using a belt-driven model. Direct-drive models have a platter (the circular piece you place your album onto) that is spun by a motor. This differs from “belt” driven record players, which have an elastic band around the side of the platter to spin it. The turntable’s USB port allows for easy transferring of vinyl recordings to your Mac or PC.
When it comes to vintage but practical, DJs go with the Technics SP line and the SL-1200s because of its upgraded direct drive. These babies come in around $1000. A lot of DJs don’t have a lot of money to drop on a turntable, and so they go with cheaper models. Of those, the Pioneer PLX-1000 keeps popping up.
What is a Digital Vinyl System (DVS)?
Because of the possible harm turntabling can cause vinyl, a system called a digital vinyl system (DVS) is used more often. With this system, one can transfer the music from a vinyl record to digital format to be mixed on a “deck” which is essentially a music source much like a turntable.
This DVS uses digital music from a USB or DJ software instead of the actual vinyl record, yet allows the manipulation – including scratching – of the music just like a standard turntablist.
Crossfader has a video about setting up a DVS system that gives you a very clear idea of what the components look like. “Serato DJ Pro – DVS Walkthrough & Setup Tutorial” was published in 2018, but I don’t think a lot has changed with set-up.
A record with an analog signal (a timestamp) is played on a turntable, which is then sent to the software. The software (controlled by the DJ) then assigns that signal a file – a song. Then, the contents of that file can be manipulated by the physical movements of the record on the turntable. This sound is then converted again and pushed through a mixer or speakers.
A digital vinyl system is a bit more complicated, but is explained perfectly in this video –
There are definitely some upsides to using these systems. You won’t have to lug around a ton of vinyl records for one thing. There are no worries over damaging those records. A DJ could literally have their entire collection with them on USB drives or already in the DVS software ready for a show.
There is no skipping or jumping of tracks in this technology. This also pushes a DJ to get better at beat matching by ear and helps build more skill. Because you can assign any digital sounds to the record being used, experimentation is easier with this system. By the way, you can use DVS with not only turntables, but with CDJs and Controllers.
The cons? The turntables are still turntables. They are large and heavy and can be damaged. Also, this technology is not common in clubs where you may have to DJ using the equipment provided. All systems have their own proprietary signals, and therefore cannot be combined.
You still need to make sure the needle and the record are well taken care of like any other turntable system. You also need to have a DVS-enabled mixer or controller that already has compatibility with DVS (and in particular your choice of DVS software).
Two popular digital vinyl systems are – Serato DVS Expansion which is usually used with the Serato DJ Pro System for the best quality. You can get it all for $100, just remember this is the Software and not the components you will need. The control records come in at around $30 each and the Serato DJ Pro applications are about $129. And you’ll need a DVS-compatible mixer.
What is a Cartridge?
No matter if you go with traditional turntabling or turntabling with a DVS – you will need spare cartridges. After all, a cartridge doesn’t always come with a turntable upon purchase, which is good to know.
A cartridge is a device that holds the needle (also known as the stylus) and transforms its mechanical vibrations into electric signals. These things are usually mounted with a pair of screws on the head of the arm but sometimes come integrated.
The various shapes of styluses determine sound quality. An elliptical stylus usually has a more robust sound, but can wear on your records quicker if there is a lot of scratching involved. They are also more expensive than round styluses.
No need to buy anything special for a DVS system, by the way. Also, you can just use rounded styluses, because this has no bearing on the sound quality.
The most suggested cartridge I’ve seen is the Shure M44-7 – which is known to be liked by DVS and scratch-DJs a lot for the way it rarely skips.
What is a Slipmat?
Slipmats are circular pieces of material that DJs place between the turntable platter and the vinyl record that is specifically designed to allow the record to move and be manipulated by the disc jockey while the turntable platter continues to move underneath. Slipmats can change the sound quality of an album, as well.
The slipmat was invented by hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash to improve the music’s sound and move the vinyl counterclockwise without causing too much drag or too much friction. As far as a turntable mat goes, it can protect a record from a hard surface, but can also damage a record if they are dirty, so keep them clean!
Because slipmats can come in all different colors or have designs printed on them, they are also very commonly used simply as decoration for when a record isn’t on the turntable.
Please do not confuse slipmats with the rubber mats that come with your decks. The rubber mats stop the record from slipping and dampen vibrations. They are meant for listening to music, not for DJing, and definitely not for scratching. Some slipmats come with additional mats made of shiny paper. If you’re a scratcher, those go between the platter and the slipmat to further reduce friction.
Most people choose Technics, Butter Rugs, Dr. Suzuki, or Ortofons. Cheap slipmats with excessive printing may reduce slipping and even damage your records. The average price range for these babies is $20 – $30. That’s not bad, so no need to skimp.
When used, slipmats do affect the sound and you should check on the weight and functionality before using them in a gig. The sound changes are based on the materials used.
From what I’ve read on the subject, it seems the materials matter. Cork tends toward giving the fullest bass but can be heavy, so turntable parts such as springs may have to be updated to use them. Leather has the next best bass sound and good clarity, not to mention it looks good on a machine. Non-abrasive, acrylic slipmat bass and clarity depend on the thickness and brand. Felt is the low-end model; usable but the sound is not as boosted.
If you are in the market and have plans to look into buying a turntable used, be sure that you always try to buy local so you can check out the product before purchasing.
Look to be sure the tonearm screws are tight or untouched. Make sure the base of the turntable has all of its screws there. Look for any missing or altered screws and material, because this could be a sign that the unit has been modified and possibly not long to run. Since a DVS is essentially a system and software, they are not bought used.