When I made my first attempt at capturing the world of the rock’n’roll DJ, I’d just embarked on my own quest to bring the cornucopia of music from the Big Beat era to the ears of my unsuspecting neighbours. With no turntables of my own, and with no real enthusiasm for DJ-ing from shaving mirrors in the shape of CDs, I’d been forced to compromise on authenticity by loading my record and CD collection onto the ageing but trusty laptop, and plugging into the mixer at my regular venue – a nicely original venue in the heart of Cheltenham with the equally authentic moniker of Smokey Joe’s cafe. I’ve got to confess that working from a laptop did spoil me in some respects – having instant access to everything in my collection, whatever the original format I’d acquired it on, searchable by title or artist, and sortable by as many genres as I chose to give it, gave me the confidence that I could flex my playlist infinitely, while dealing with pretty much any request that I’d want to entertain. The ability to queue up a string of records without having to dash back to change them was handy, too, giving me the opportunity either to nip out and chat to the assembled crowd or have a dance without worrying about the embarrassing silence as the record ended. But it just didn’t feel right – rock’n’roll isn’t the music of a digital era, and presiding over a record hop from a keyboard felt decidedly like cheating, certainly when I found myself amongst friends discussing acquisitions and the relative merits of repros, reissues, bootlegs and originals. Besides which, there’s a certain visceral connection with the music inherent in flipping slices of 7-inch vinyl that I believe translates itself to the audience, and something inside me was nagging to untie myself from the tyranny of the MP3 and get back to the physicality of a tiny piece of diamond wobbling its way along the endless groove of a proper record.
Fortunately, my spell as a digital DJ had given me the time to get myself up to date with the equipment available. A big part of me wanted to get back to the integral double decks I remembered from my occasional record-spinning forays in the 70s and 80s, but the realist in me cautioned that, unless properly serviced and updated, those would now be getting on for 40 years old and be prone to faults that would be difficult to fix without taking the whole unit out of action. Helping the boys set out the kit at Rockin’ Bones, and playing around with the house set up at the Betsey Trotwood in Clerkenwell had convinced me that the ideal combination was a pair of direct drive turntables and a simple mixer; after all, playing rock’n’roll records doesn’t need any sophisticated blending of beats per minute – just the ability to put one record on after another without leaving a big gap in between. The industry standard for direct drive turntables (the ones without a big rubber band inside that takes ages to get up to the right speed) has long been the Technics 1200 series. I’ve had one since my compulsory SOUP acquisition in the NAAFI in 1988 (Single Officer’s Unnecessary Purchase) and it has done me proud ever since, but checking the price of new ones – indeed, even good quality second hand models – came as a nasty shock and made me wonder if my ambitions as a vinyl DJ weren’t about to become a prohibitively expensive pipe dream. That’s where the lovely folk at Richer Sounds came to the rescue, with a lookey likey model under the suspiciously similar handle of Audio-Technica with the same functionality as the classic Technics at a far more accessible price.
When it came to a mixer, I’d been a bit overwhelmed by the varieties on offer clearly meant for small bands – lots of inputs but few of them meant for the jacks from a turntable. That was until we happened on a little retro cafe in Whitstable with decks out in the main seating area and a rather neat little Numark model clearly meant to cater for a pair of turntables, a CD deck or other digital input, plus a mike – perfect! So, that was my Xmas/change of jobs present to myself sorted. A Saturday afternoon with everything spread out on the dining room table and plugged into the home amp gave us the chance to play around with the pretty simple control mechanism and revive the some lost muscle memory skills. The physical art of DJ-ing isn’t difficult, especially when you’re not trying to ‘mix’ records or do anything sophisticated, but there’s an unmistakable rhythm about plopping down a 45, flicking on the headphone monitor to cue up the start of the track, sliding up the volume for that channel, then hitting the start button at just the right moment that right-clicking on ‘play next’ on i-Tunes just doesn’t give you.
The final item on the shopping list was some flight cases to get all this precious kit to and from gigs in one piece. A couple of enquiries led us to a supplier a short drive away, Music Sounds and Lighting, a one-man operation just the other side of town who had just the kind of turntable cases we needed and who took great pleasure in sourcing a separate case for the mixer that fitted it like… well, like the flight case for a mixer, really. A good hour spent nattering to him took me perilously close to an investment in a pair of powered speakers – a godsend to DJs with backs ruined from hours of humping lead-weight amplifiers and old-fashioned speakers in and out of battered transit vans. Fortunately for the family food budget, a rare attack of reality took hold, brought on by the knowledge that most of the places I was likely to work in the immediate future already had an amp or powered speakers that I could plug into, without adding to the cost and storage overhead I’d already committed myself to. As for the records themselves, I’d already worked out that I was never going to be able to keep track of my danceable 45s by moving them between a cupboard and various plastic storage boxes, and the ease of ordering both record sleeves and flight cases from the nice people at Covers 33 had seen my slices of stinky vinyl lovingly consigned to some shiny boxes, ready for action.
And so there we are – suddenly I’m a proper DJ, with turntables, mixer, records and everything. So, how to go about turning a car load of hardware into something approximating the magic of the record hops I’ve enjoyed for the past 40 years? Tune in to the next exciting episode in ‘Confessions of an Occasional DJ’ – same time, same Bat-blog…