Wednesday, December 15, 2010

DJs' darkest hour: Indestructible eventually meant irrelevant for Technics turntable

The Technics SL-1200 turntable is to dance music what the Fender Stratocaster is to rock: the key to a musical and cultural explosion. There’s even a pair of the iconic decks on display at the Science Museum in London, where they’re hailed as an invention that shaped the world.

It’s weird to think that hip-hop, house and techno wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for some Japanese engineers on a quest to build a hi-fi for the audiophile market. But the uncluttered Technics SL-1200, with its high-torque electromagnetic motor, pitch adjust, precision tone arm and ability to take whatever abuse was thrown at it, was form and function in harmony. From its 1972 debut on, the SL-1200—particularly in its MK2 incarnation—became the bedrock of sound systems at the world’s best clubs. It served as a platform for people like Grandmaster Flash to discover how to scratch records, and folks like Larry Levan to beat-match them.

When CDJs established themselves in clubland in the mid-’90s, rumors began to circulate about the imminent demise of Technics turntables. It would end up taking a lot longer than that, but after 38 years and 3.5 million units sold, the day that vinyl DJs and turntablists always feared has finally come: the SL-1200 range is going the way of the dodo.

In a sad irony, the sheer durability of the decks has meant that they’ve outlived the companies that manufacture their otherwise redundant parts. Manufacturer Panasonic cited the increasing difficulty of sourcing analog components—the same ones it had been using since the beginning, in order not to compromise on quality—and a 90% drop in sales over the last decade as reasons for discontinuing its iconic product.

If the Technics SL-1200s and their accompanying 10kg record bags are the Sony Walkman and cassette box, then the laptop and its Traktor DJ software is the iPod. The latter is smaller, lighter, more convenient… but does it really sound better? And more importantly, has it got soul?

That’s a question which will soon have to be answered. Jeff Mills will be deftly mixing three decks at once for a few years yet, but the next generation of DJs won’t be starting out on turntables. In the hyper-competitive world of DMC scratch contests, the DJ Kentaro-style champion of the future will be cutting up a selection of digital WAV files on a virtual “scratch pad.”

Ultimately, Technics turntables were a victim of two things: the digital revolution and their own success. They’re so good that if you buy a pair, you’ll never need to replace them—and therein lies the problem.

1 comment:

60Hz said...

nice write-up but are you sure panasonic set out to make an audiophile turntable and not a club turntable... every aspect of the 1200 screams durability over fidelity (number one being a direct drive motor is the noisiest way to make a turntable, a big electro magnet right under your needle produces quite a noticable hum...)... belt drive would have been a better choice for audio fidelity but a horrible choice for torque... where torque is unimportant to an audiophile it is paramount (beyond paramount) to club djing... but yeah i agree it's still amazing and a kind-a agree that it's durability may haev brought about it's demise but i think a bigger factor was the switch from analog to digital and the benefits that that brought (portability vs sound quality)...

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