6 Things you didn't know about the turntable

While you may mostly associate the humble turntable with 1970s hip-hop, you’ll be surprised to learn about the many other roles it can serve… Here, Mr Switch introduces us to some of these fascinating, little-known facts about turntables

Scratching was created by accident 

Grand Wizard Theodore  

One afternoon in New York, 1977, a 13-year-old DJ was practising in his bedroom. This was Theodore Livingstone, aka Grand Wizard Theodore, and he was already making a name for himself at block parties in the Bronx—as the prodigy of Grandmaster Flash!  

On this particular day he had the music on too loud. Theodore's mum came into his room to tell him off, so he stopped the music, and happened to move his hand while holding the record. The sound this created interested him—he experimented with it, tried using different records, and at a party a week later he demonstrated the first “scratch”. 


Experimenting with turntables began in the 1930s 

Christian marclay recycled records 

The idea of “Musique concrete” (musical compositions using pre-recorded sounds) was proposed in the 1920s, and the turntable was the best technology at the time to add sounds which couldn't be played by traditional musicians.  

The score of Respighi's “Pines Of Rome” (1924) requires a vinyl recording of birdsong to be played alongside the orchestra, although this effect is much easier to achieve with modern technology. John Cage's “Imaginary Landscape No 1” (1939) is a piece written for two turntables, string piano and Chinese cymbal, where the turntables play sine waves with altered speeds. This line of experimentation has continued to today, from artists such as Christian Marclay literally cutting and pasting different records together, to Shiva Feshareki's 3-turntable performance at the BBC Proms. 

Pierre schaeffer, early pioneer of music concrete 


There is a turntable made out of Lego 

The Lego turntable  

This extraordinary creation, named “The Planet” by its Korean creator Hayarobi, was built from over 2400 regular Lego bricks, and includes Lego-manufactured battery and motor; in fact the only non-Lego component is a standard vinyl needle.  

There have also been turntables that stand up and play records vertically, ones that levitate (the ML1—Magnetic Levitating Turntable), small toy vans that drive along the groove, and artist Evan Holm created an art installation featuring an underwater turntable. You can even make your own turntable at home using a couple of sheets of paper, a needle and some sticky tape! 


There are annual DJ world championships 

Roc raida body tricks 

Started in the mid-1980s by original pirate radio DJ Tony Prince, the DMC World Championship is the longest standing DJ competition out there. While it began as a mixing battle, hip-hop and scratching gradually took over. Over the years, DJs have thrown snooker cues, handstands and lighters at their records to stand out from the rest.  

The 1992 battle allowed DJ teams to compete, scratching instruments and playing together like a band. Past winners of the competition include MixMaster Mike, DJ for the Beastie Boys, and DJ A-Trak, who demolished the competition aged just 15, and among other things went on to be Kanye West's tour DJ. 


You can play melodies on a turntable 

In these competitions DJs kept trying to find new and innovative ways of using the turntable. They found that by playing a single looped note, and varying the speed, it altered the pitch and achieved different notes. Using the two speed controls present on most DJ turntables, it is possible to play a six-note scale. Bass sounds can be generated by holding the needle against the turntable platter, and “needle percussion” is where the cartridge is tapped on different parts of the decks to get different sounds. 


There is classical music written for turntables 

You may expect a classical concerto to feature a violin or piano in the soloist role; Gabriel Prokofiev's “Concerto For Turntables & Orchestra” (2006) puts a DJ in the lead. Although not the first piece of music to attempt this, it received its symphonic premiere at the BBC Proms in 2011 with Mr Switch as soloist, and was the first time that a DJ had ever performed in the event.  

All the sounds played on the turntables are sampled directly from the players—brass, strings, percussion—and played back on top of the orchestra. The samples are often transformed, slowed down or sped up, played in reverse, either complementing or combatting the orchestra. At one point the DJ samples the conductor's cough and scratches it back on top of a grinding hip-hop orchestral beat. 

Gabriel Prokofiev’s “Concerto for Turntables No. 1” featuring soloist DJ Mr. Switch with the Ural Philharmonic conducted by Alexey Bogorad is released alongside Prokofiev’s Cello Concerto with Boris Andrianov on May 22 on Signum Records. Pre-order the album here 

Read more: Album of the month: Gabriel Prokofiev  

Read more: 5 Classical albums to listen to during lockdown

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