Mixing with Records


1"Doesn't that wreck your records?"

This is one of the first things I generally get asked when someone watches me at work in my home or while spinning at a party. It reminds me of a different but related question I once asked someone who worked at Rotate This!, a particularly popular Toronto DJ refuge, a few days after I had bought my first turntable:

DJO: "How do you stop that popping and crackling sound your record gets when you scratch back and forth on the same spot for a while?"

CLERK: "You buy two copies of everything, one you keep at home all wrapped-up nice and never use, and the other you mess with."

2My last $150 had just managed to pay for an old Dual direct drive record player. The precious few recently-released records I had were gifts. I nodded my head and made my way over to the rows of disks which I flipped through to make it look like I was maybe going to buy something. Lp cover after lp cover stared back at me all with names I had absolutely never heard of before, organised according to a hyper- hybridised classification scheme that completely escaped my dictionary-honed alphabetic expectations. Worst of all, there seemed to be only single copies of everything left! A sort of outsider's vertigo washed over me, and 3 minutes after walking into unfamiliar territory, I zipped back out onto the street. Thus was to begin my love/hate relationship with the source of all DJ sounds, surliness and misinformation--the independent record shop. My query had (without my planning) boldly pronounced my neophyte status. The response it solicited challenged my seriousness. How much was I willing to invest in order to ride "the wheels of steel"?

Sequence 1

3Will Straw describes the meteoric rise to prominence of the CD format, If the compact disk has emerged as one of the most dazzlingly effective of commodity forms, this has little to do with its technical superiority to the vinyl record (which we no longer remember to notice). Rather, the effectiveness has to do with its status as the perfect crossover consumer object. As a cutting-edge audiophile invention, it seduced the technophilic, connoisseurist males who typically buy new sound equipment and quickly build collections of recordings. At the same time, its visual refinement and high price rapidly rendered it legitimate as a gift. In this, the CD has found a wide audience among the population of casual record buyers.(61)

4Straw's point has to do with the fate of musical recordings within contemporary commodity culture. In the wake of a late 70's record industry slump, music labels turned their attention toward the recapturing of casual record sales (read: aging baby boomers). The general shape of this attempt revolved around a re-configuring of the record- shopping experience dedicated towards reducing "the intimidation seen as endemic to the environment of the record store."(59) The CD format, along with the development of super-sized, general interest (all-genre) record outlets has worked (according to Straw) to streamline record sales towards more-predictable patterns, all the while causing less "selection stress."(59) Re-issues and compilations, special-series trademarks, push-button listening stations, and maze-like display layouts, combined with department store-style service ("Can I help you find anything?") all work towards eliminating the need for familiarity with particular music "scenes" in order to make personally gratifying (and profit engendering) musical choices. Straw's analysis is exemplary in its dissatisfaction with treating the arena of personal musical choice as unaffected by any constraints apart from subjective matters of taste.

5Straw's evaluation also isolates the vinyl record as an object eminently ready (post-digital revolution) for subcultural appropriation. Its displacement by the CD as the dominant medium for collecting recorded music involved the recasting of the turntable as outdated and inferior, thereby relegating it to the dusty attic, basement or pawn shop (along with crates upon crates upon crates of records). These events set the stage for vinyl's spectacular rise from the ashes. The most prominent feature of this re-emergence has to do not simply with possession of the right kind of stuff (the cachet of having a music collection difficult for others to borrow aside), but with what vinyl and turntable technology can do.


6In Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige claims that subcultures are,

7cultures of conspicuous consumption...and it is through the distinctive rituals of consumption, through style, that the subculture at once reveals its "secret identity" and communicates its forbidden meanings. It is basically the way in which commodities are used in subculture which mark the subculture off from more orthodox cultural formations.(103

8Hebdige borrows the notion of bricolage from Levi Strauss in order to describe the particular kind of use subcultures make of the commodities they appropriate. Relationships of identity, difference and order are developed from out of the minds of those who make use of the objects in question and are not necessarily determined by particular qualities inherent to the objects themselves. Henceforth a safety pin more often used for purposes like replacing missing buttons or temporarily joining pieces of fabric can become a punk fashion statement once placed through the nose, ear or torn Sex Pistols tee-shirt. In the case of DJ culture, it is the practice of mixing which most obviously presents itself as definitive of subcultural participation. The objects of conspicuous consumption in this case--record tracks.

9If mixing can be understood as bricolage, then attempts "to discern the hidden messages inscribed in code"(18) by such a practice are not in vain. Granting mixing the power of meaning sets a formidable (semiotic) framework in place for investigating the practice's outwardly visible (spectacular) form and structure. Hebdige's description of bricolage as a particularly conspicuous and codified type of using, however, runs the risk of privileging an account of record collecting and mixing which interprets it entirely on the model of subjective expression.(1.) What is necessary is a means of access to the dialogue which takes place between a DJ and her records as such. The contents of a DJ's record bag (like Straw's CD shopping bag) are influenced by more that just her imagination, pocket book and exposure to different kinds of music. They are also determined in an important way by each other. Audio mixing is not one practice, it is many, and the choice to develop or use one sort of skill over another is intimately tied up with the type and nature of track one is working with.

Sequence 2

10The raw practice of DJing relies heavily on a slider integral to DJ mixers known as the _cross-fader_(ital). With the standard DJ set up, when the cross-fader is all the way to the left, the left turntable track plays through the system; vice versa when the fader is all the way to the right. In between is the "open" position which allows both inputs to be heard simultaneously. The most straightforward mixing technique, "cutting," involves using this toggle to quickly switch from one source to another--resulting in the abrupt end of one sound- flow followed by its instantaneous replacement. This technique can be used to achieve a variety of different effects--from the rather straightforward stringing together of the final beat of a four bar sequence from one track with a strong downbeat from something new in order to provide continuous, but sequential musical output, to the thoroughly difficult practice of "beat juggling," where short excerpts of otherwise self-contained tracks ("breaks") are isolated and then extended indefinitely through the use of two copies of the same record (while one record plays, the DJ spins the other back to the downbeat of the break in question, which is then released in rhythm). In both cases timing and rhythm are key. These features of the practice help to explain DJ predilections for tracks which make heavy, predictable use of their rhythm sections.

11"Blending" is a second technique which uses the open position on the cross-fader to mix two inputs into a live sonic collage. Tempo, rhythm and "density" of source material have an enormous impact on the end result. While any two tracks can be layered in this way, beats that are not synchronized are quick to create cacophony, and vocals also tend to clash dramatically. Melodic lines in general pose certain challenges here since these are in particular keys and have obvious starts and finishes. This is one reason why tracks produced specifically for DJing often have such long, minimal intros and exits. This makes it much easier to create "natural" sounding blends. Atmospheric sounds, low-frequency hums, speech samples and repetitive loops with indeterminate rhythm structures are often used for these segments in order to allow drawn-out, subtle transitions when moving between tracks. If an intro contains a fixed beat (as is the case often with genres constructed specifically for non-stop dancing like house, techno and to some extent drum and bass), then those who want seamless blends need to "beat match" if they want to maintain a dancer's groove. The roots of this technique go back to disco and demand fairly strict genre loyalty in order to insure that a set's worth of tracks all hover around the same tempo, defined in beats-per- minute, or BPMs. The basic procedure involves finding the downbeat of the track one wishes to mix through a set of headphones, releasing that beat in time with the other record while making fine tempo- adjustments via the turntable's pitch control to the point where the track coming through the earphones and the track being played over the system are in synch. The next step is "back-spinning" or "needle dropping" to the start of the track to be mixed, then releasing it again, this time with the cross-fader open. Volume levels can then be adjusted in order to allow the new track to slowly take prominence (the initial track being close to its end at this point) before the cross-fader is closed into the new position and the entire procedure is repeated.

12Scratching is perhaps the most notorious mixing technique and involves the most different types of manipulations. The practice is most highly developed in hip hop (and related genres like drum and bass) and is used both as an advanced cutting technique for moving between tracks as well as a sonic end-in-itself. It's genesis is attributed to a South Bronx DJ known as Grand Wizard Theodore who was the first (1977) to try to make creative use of the sound associated with moving a record needle back and forth over the same drumbeat, a phenomena familiar to DJs used to cueing-up downbeats through headphones. This trick is now referred to as the "baby scratch," and it along with an ever-increasing host of mutations and hybrids make- up the skills that pay the bills for hip hop DJs. In the case of many of these techniques, the cross-fader is once again used heavily in order to remove unwanted elements of particular scratches from the mix, as well as adding certain staccato and volume-fading effects. Isolated, "pure" sounds are easiest to scratch with and are therefore highly sought after by this sort of DJ--a pastime affectionately referred to as "digging in the crates." Sources of such sounds are extremely diverse, but inevitably revolve around genre's which use minimal orchestration (like movie-soundtracks), accentuated rhythms with frequent breakdowns (like funk or jazz), or which eschew musical form all together (like sound-effects, comedy and children's records).


13To answer the question which started this investigation, in the end, how wrecked my records get depends a lot on what I'm using them for. To be sure, super-fast scratching patterns and tricks that use lots of back-spinning like beat-juggling will eventually "burn" static into spots on one's records. But with used records costing as little as $1 for three, and battle records (2.) widely available, the effect of this feature of the technology on the actual pursuit of the practice is negligible. And most techniques don't noticeably burn records at all, especially if a DJ's touch is light enough to allow for minimal tone-arm weight (a parameter which controls a turntable's groove-tracking ability). This is the kind of knowledge which comes from interaction with objects. It is also the source of a great part of the subcultural bricoleur's stylistic savvy. Herein lies the essence of the intimidating power of the indie record shop--its display of intimate, physical familiarity with the hidden particularities of the new vinyl experience. Investigators confronted with such familiarity need to find ways to go beyond analyses which stop at the level of acknowledgment of the visible logic displayed by spectacular subcultural practices if they wish to develop nuanced accounts of subcultural life. Such plumbing of the depths often requires listening in the place of observing--whether to first-hand accounts collected through ethnography or to the subtle voice of the objects themselves.

14(1.) An example of such an account: "DJ-ing is evangelism; a desire to share songs. A key skill is obviously not just to drop the popular, well-known songs at the right part of the night, but to pick the right new releases, track down the obscurer tunes and newest imports, get hold of next month's big tune this month; you gather this pile, this tinder, together, then you work the records, mix them, drop them, cut them, scratch them, melt them, beat them all together until they unite. Voilà; disco inferno." Dave Haslam, "DJ Culture," p. 169.

15(2.) Records specifically designed by and for scratch DJs and which consist of long strings of scratchable sounds.