The History of DJ Gear Part 1: Ancestors of the Turntable

By Brandon Smith

Take moment and think about how music has changed in your lifetime.  Now try to imagine what that music would sound like today without the influence of DJs.  It's hard to even conceive what modern music would sound like without them.  Join me as I investigate the history of the tools that DJs used to build their craft and how those tools altered the course of music history.  Like any good story, this story has a beginning and it all started with the most important tool in the DJ's arsenal – the turntable.

EDISON AND THE PHONOGRAPH

The phonograph was the first ancestor to the modern turntable and the first device that could record and play back sound. That last part – the playing back part – is what inventors before Thomas Edison struggled with when trying to invent sound recording devices. The first phonograph made by Edison in 1877 used a rotating cylinder covered in tinfoil that a needle attached to a diaphragm would etch the sound waves into. This is where the word Phonograph comes from – the Greek words for “sound” (phonē) and “writing” (graphē).

Later Alexander Graham Bell and his team at the Volta Laboratory made improvements like changing the cylinders to cardboard covered with wax (which was later replaced with hard plastic). Eventually it became practical enough to mass produce the cylinders – and by 1889 the commercial record industry was born.

WHY THE WORLD IS STILL FLAT

So why are modern records flat and not cylindrical? The biggest reason is mass production. By 1888 a competing disc system invented by Emille Berliner was starting to gain traction. The “gramophone” as it was called used lacquer master discs that were silvered and electroplated to create a “mother” disc and then used to press copies using a type of shellac compound. The PVC vinyl that records are made from today didn’t come into use until the 1930s.

Gramophones proved to be a more commercially practical system and once the kinks were worked out became superior to phonographs. They had better sound quality, more playing time (2 songs instead of 1), were easy to mass-produce and the discs themselves were less fragile and easier to store than the cylinders. Even Edison knew the Phonograph’s time was up and resorted to producing his own version of the disc machines. The only remaining advantage of wax cylinders was that you could buy blanks and do your own recording.

Eventually, acetate disc recording machines took their place and the wax cylinder phonograph was all but obsolete. It is amazing how many intact wax cylinder phonographs still exist, some even working still to this day. Somehow I doubt most CD players will function after 100 years

All early phonograph and gramophone recordings are acoustic – meaning the grooves are cut just with the power of the sound waves hitting the diaphragm. Electrical recording was the next big step – using microphones and vacuum tubes to electrically amplify sounds and cut them onto records with a magnetic cutting head. Not only did the sound quality improve (once consumer phonographs caught up with electrical sound reproduction), but more music could be squeezed onto the records since the groves could be a lot smaller and spaced closer together.

Take a look at an old 78 RPM gramophone record and compare it to a more modern 33 1/3 RPM LP (long playing) record. The grooves are visibly smaller on the LP, allowing half an album of songs on one side. The slower rotation speed of LPs also contributed to the amount of material that could be squeezed on to the discs. The LP grooves are so small; this picture of them was taken with an electron microscope!

Electron micrograph of a 33 1/3 RPM LP record and needle.

PIRATE RADIO

The term Disc Jockey originally referred to radio hosts who played recorded music on the air. Arguably the first DJ ever was a Canadian inventor named Reginald Fessenden. He did some of the earliest experiments in broadcasting sounds of voices and music. Before this all radio traffic was just telegraph beeps. He played the first recorded music (an opera piece) on the airwaves in 1906! A few years later in 1909 a 16 year old radio student from California named Ray Newby started regularly playing records on the airwaves. By 1910 it had become standard practice for radio stations to have a disc jockey commentate, read the news and play recorded music. Radio stations in the early days still did many things live on the air – but they also had the ability to transcribe radio plays, commercials etc. onto records for seamless un-interrupted programming. For those who couldn’t afford radios or phonographs (which were very expensive in those days), “juke joints” had also started to become popular - featuring coin operated phonographs where people could put a stethoscope-like tube on and listen.

DIGITAL AIN'T NO THANG

Records remained the most popular commercial music medium into early 1980s when compact discs started to takeover. The terms “phonograph” and “gramophone” were eventually replaced by “turntable” or simply record player. Without DJ culture, the turntable may have been relegated to something only audiophile enthusiasts use in the digital era. But honestly, who knows? The appeal of records goes beyond “warm” analog sound or collectability – they have proven themselves to be the most long-lived and durable recording format to date. Want your music to still be around in 100 years? Vinyl is still probably your safest bet. If you want to learn more about how records are manufactured check out this article. The process hasn’t changed much over the years, except nowadays many engineers use computers to transfer the final product to the cutting lathe. If you live near Calgary and have always wanted to press your music onto vinyl, you’re in luck! Canada Boy Vinyl provides all of the necessary services and even has a studio fitted with vintage tape machines if you’re really going for the authentic old school sound.

"Check my new mixtape. It's fire!"

"Check my new mixtape. It's fire!"

In the next blog post we will look at the creation of the modern DJ turntable and the genesis of the most popular piece of DJ equipment of all time: the Technics SL-1200.

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If you want to learn how to DJ look into our DJ Certificate Programs taught by DJ C-SIK.  

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