The turntable has been a staple in the music industry for decades, but the question remains: is it truly an instrument?
Some argue that it’s simply a playback device with added settings for mixing and changing music. However, others believe that turntablism is an art form in its own right, with skilled DJs manipulating sounds and creating music using phonograph turntables and a DJ mixer.
In this article, we’ll explore the history of the turntable as a musical instrument, examine landmark innovations in turntable technique, and offer a framework for understanding the musical and social basis for its instrumentality.
So, let’s dive in and answer the age-old question: is a turntable an instrument?
Is A Turntable An Instrument
The answer to whether a turntable is an instrument is not a straightforward one. It depends on how you define an instrument. If you define an instrument as something that produces sound, then yes, a turntable is an instrument.
The use of the turntable as a musical instrument dates back to the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s when experimental composers used them to sample and create music that was entirely produced by the turntable. However, it wasn’t until the advent of hip hop in the 1970s that turntablism as we know it today surfaced.
Turntablism is the art of manipulating sounds and creating music using phonograph turntables and a DJ mixer. Skilled DJs use techniques such as scratching, needle-dropping, and mixing to create unique sounds and beats. The term ‘turntablist’ was coined in 1995 by DJ Babu to describe the difference between a DJ who just plays records and one who performs by touching and moving the records, stylus, and mixer to manipulate sound.
Some argue that turntables are not true musical instruments because they use pre-recorded sounds on vinyl. However, turntablists disagree with this statement. They argue that they deal with measures, notes, timing, and melody – all things required for classical instruments.
The History Of Turntables As A Musical Instrument
The history of turntables as a musical instrument can be traced back to the early 20th century when gramophones were developed, allowing people to record and play music on wax cylinders. The Edison cylinder turntable was introduced shortly after, which allowed for multiple recordings to be stored on a single cylinder.
However, it wasn’t until the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s that experimental composers such as John Cage, Halim El-Dabh, and Pierre Schaeffer began using turntables to sample and create music that was entirely produced by the turntable. This school of thought and practice is not directly linked to the 1970s-2010 definition of turntablism within hip hop and DJ culture, but it has had an influence on modern experimental sonic/artists such as Christian Marclay, Janek Schaefer, Otomo Yoshihide, Philip Jeck, and Maria Chavez.
In the 1960s and 1970s, examples of turntable effects could also be found on popular records produced during that time. This was most prominent in Jamaican dub music among deejays in the Jamaican sound system culture. Dub music introduced the techniques of mixing and scratching vinyl, which Jamaican immigrants introduced to American hip hop culture in the early 1970s.
The pioneers of turntablism were Grand Wizard Theodore and Grandmaster Flash in the Bronx, New York. They cut up samples, scratched records, and invented a genre that still dominates pop culture today: Hip-Hop. It was these pioneers and those that followed, such as DJ Premier, Eric B and DJ Polo, that revolutionized both music and the record itself.
The modern turntable was first developed in the 1960s and was equipped with a variety of features such as adjustable speed and the ability to connect to amplifiers and other audio equipment. This allowed DJs and other music enthusiasts to mix and manipulate music in ways that were not possible before.
The advancement of digital technology in the late 1980s and early 1990s saw the emergence of the digital turntable, which allowed for a much more precise level of control and manipulation over sound. This technology has continued to evolve and has become an integral part of the music industry.
Turntablism: A Unique Art Form
Turntablism is a unique art form that has evolved from the traditional use of turntables as playback devices to a creative musical instrument. It originated from the hip hop culture in the late 1970s when DJs began manipulating vinyl records to create new sounds and beats. Turntablism is regarded as one of the foundational pillars of hip hop culture, alongside MC-ing, breakdancing, and graffiti art.
One of the most important techniques in turntablism is scratching, which involves manipulating a spinning vinyl record to create unique sound effects. DJs use their hands to move the record back and forth, creating a rhythmic scratching sound that has become synonymous with hip hop music. Other techniques include beatmatching, where DJs manually match the beats of two different records to create a seamless transition between them.
The use of turntables as musical instruments has led to the development of new technologies and equipment that cater to the specific needs of turntablists. For example, manufacturers have created turntables with adjustable speeds and audio mixers with pitch correction capabilities, allowing DJs to manipulate sound in more creative ways.
Turntablism has also become a competitive art form, with turntablists competing in competitions to showcase their skills and creativity. These competitions often involve advanced techniques such as beat juggling, where DJs manipulate two or more records to create complex rhythms and beats.
Innovations In Turntable Technique
In the early years of hip hop, turntables were transformed from playback devices to musical instruments. This transformation was made possible by landmark innovations in turntable technique. Grandmaster Flash developed the clock theory method of mixing records, which involved using a marker on the record to keep track of the beats and measure the time between them. This technique allowed DJs to create seamless transitions between tracks and keep the crowd dancing.
Another innovation was introduced by GrandWizzard Theodore, who developed needle-dropping and scratching. Needle-dropping involves placing the stylus at a specific point on a record to start playing from that point, while scratching involves moving the record back and forth under the stylus to create a rhythmic sound. These techniques allowed DJs to manipulate sound in new ways and create unique beats and sounds.
Changes in turntable and mixer technology also contributed to the evolution of turntablism as a musical genre. Direct-drive turntables became popular among turntablists because they could be stopped, slowed down, or spun backwards without damaging the electric motor. DJ mixers with crossfader controls and gain and equalization controls allowed for even more precise control over the sound.
The Debate: Is A Turntable Truly An Instrument?
Despite the arguments made by turntablists, there is still a debate over whether a turntable can be considered a true musical instrument. Critics argue that an instrument should be able to produce sound on its own, without relying on pre-recorded sounds. They also argue that turntablism is not a true musical genre, but rather a collection of playing styles and techniques that can be used in any music genre.
However, proponents of turntablism argue that the turntable is just as much of an instrument as any other musical instrument. They point out that turntablism requires skill, practice, and creativity, just like any other form of music-making. They also argue that the turntable allows for a level of expression and experimentation that is unique to the instrument.
Ultimately, whether or not a turntable is considered a true musical instrument is a matter of personal opinion. While some may argue that it is not, the fact remains that turntablism has had a significant impact on music over the past few decades and has inspired countless musicians to push the boundaries of what is possible with the instrument.
Understanding The Musical And Social Basis For Turntable Instrumentality
To understand the musical and social basis for turntable instrumentality, we need to look at the history of turntablism. The turntable was initially designed as a playback device for recorded music. However, experimental composers in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s began using turntables to create music entirely produced by the turntable. This approach to music-making became known as musique concrète.
In the 1970s, hip hop emerged, and DJs began using turntables to create beats and sounds for MCs to rap over. This marked the beginning of turntablism as we know it today. Grandmaster Flash developed the clock theory method of mixing records, while GrandWizzard Theodore introduced needle-dropping and scratching techniques. These innovations transformed the turntable from a playback device to a musical instrument.
Turntablism is not just about creating sounds and beats; it’s also about the social context in which it developed. Hip hop emerged from marginalized communities in New York City, and turntablism became an essential part of hip hop culture. DJs used their skills to entertain at parties and battles, gaining respect and recognition from their peers.
The turntable’s instrumentality lies in its ability to create music through manipulation of pre-recorded sounds. Turntablists use their skills to create new sounds and beats that are unique to them. They also use their knowledge of measures, notes, timing, and melody to create music that is on par with classical instruments.
The Future Of Turntables In Music.
The future of turntables in music is bright, with new technologies and advancements making turntablism more accessible than ever before. With the rise of digital DJing, turntables have become more versatile and can now be used alongside digital equipment to create a unique sound.
One of the most significant advancements in turntablism is the integration of digital vinyl systems (DVS). DVS allows DJs to use traditional vinyl records in conjunction with digital music files. This technology has opened up new possibilities for DJs, allowing them to access a vast library of music while still maintaining the tactile feel of vinyl.
Another exciting development in the world of turntablism is the rise of portable turntables. These smaller, more compact turntables are perfect for DJs on the go, allowing them to perform anywhere, anytime. Additionally, many manufacturers are now producing turntables specifically designed for scratch DJs, with features such as high-torque motors and adjustable pitch control.
As technology continues to advance, we can expect to see even more innovations in the world of turntablism. With new software and hardware being developed every day, the possibilities for creating unique sounds and beats are endless.
In conclusion, while the debate over whether a turntable is an instrument may continue, there is no denying the impact that turntablism has had on music. As technology continues to evolve, we can expect to see even more exciting developments in this field, making turntablism an essential part of modern music production.