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A few years ago, as a writer for an online magazine, I embarked on a written summary of the content from one of my music tech/DJ and business lectures – The History of DJ/Producer Technology & Musical Genres – 1980~2000. The magazine where this five part article appeared is no longer operating and I quite occasionally get asked about the very same, all encompassing topic either by email, by students or DJs who are just interested to know what [technologically, musically and culturally] shaped the current DJ world we know today. So, in its rather long, but quite in-depth full glory – here it is.
The journey begins from my perspective circa ’79/’80. My trip to a Leeds nightclub introduced me to US DJ’s, mixing one record into another in a continuous programme – along with an incredible sound system (based on the legendary Paradise Garage one) and a sympathetic and complex neon, strobe/light show. The beautiful people in attendance rocked sideways to the last (dying) breaths of underground disco. The DJ’s at the time were using a pair of Technics SL-1500′s, a direct-drive turntable, quartz locked and featuring a plus or minus tap switch to change the tempo of the vinyl playing.
Shortly prior to the above model I believe, the Technics SL1200 had appeared in its Mark 1 guise (image below). A somewhat inelegant forerunner to the ubiquitous MkII version, this model had clumpy feet and a 33 and 45 adjustment toggle dial to achieve the same tempo adjustment. The ultimate MkII design that was to last over a quarter of a century was soon to come of course.
One of the most popular DJ mixers around at this time came in the form of the GLI PMX9000 (below). This unit was quite advanced with regards to features, with 3 inputs, preset level references, 5-band global EQ and probably the best crossfader in the world at the time. Other major players were models like the cross fader free, rotary mixing concept, ‘Urei 1620′ (still used to this day in super clubs like the MoS) and the pioneering British company, Formula Sound were trail-blazing new DJ mixing tech too.
Club systems were dominated by a couple of major players during the early 1980s – Richard Long Associates (responsible for Levan’s ‘Garage’ system) and the UK’s Court Acoustic’s , famous for ‘flown’ tweeters above the club’s dancefloor, huge bass bins plus DJ booth mounted 30+ band equalizers and a flexible crossover unit that savvy DJ’s would use to great effect, emphasizing peak moments in energy fueled tracks. The late 70s Disco genre however was soon to make way to an all together more diverse musical and clubbing experience. In the UK, said Disco crowd turned their attention to the emerging Brit-Jazz/Funk and Soul groove. ‘Blues and Soul’ was the most read clubbing and DJ magazine and various UK labels appeared showcasing this talent. Of course, U.S. and other global artists were already on the case and a whole ‘Soul’ generation was evolving on the world’s dance floors.
The UK did a heck of a lot more though to lead the way musically for the night people of the time (so we’re looking now at ’81~’84). 80s Electronica (or Electro-Pop) birthed itself from the ashes of punk (and disco) and the ‘Alternative’ scene brought indie bands to pop stardom and dancefloor highlight as the Cure, The Smiths and New Order et al took centre stage. Of course the nation’s night-clubber’s we’re still force fed the early 80s pop too, but the more discerning and cool crowds knew which floors to hit and radio stations to ‘not’ listen to. Over in the States again, another form of electronic music hit the streets with Rap/Electro and ‘Breakdance’ offering urban vocalising over synthetic synth sounds and drum machine beats. The most ground breaking of tracks in this latter genre, and at this period would have been Afrika Bambaatta’s ‘Planet Rock’ and Herbie Hancock’s, ‘Rock-It’ I’d stick my neck out to say.
So, what of the technology that started to make the DJs of the time think forward to how they could progress their DJ/mixing and music production skills plus get [performance wise] more creative and diverse, perhaps even to be considered an ‘artist’ themselves?
The concept of the ‘Megamix’ became a hot DJ discussion topic circa ’83. The now famous DJ only organisation, DMC (or Disco Mix Club as it was known then by its full name), put out monthly mixtapes, but these cassette’s had exclusive mixes and remixes that no-one at the time was really doing (at least on a regular and such high profile basis). By definition then, a ‘Megamix’ was a selection of one band/artists mega-hits, sequenced into one, digestible mix (running anywhere between 8~12 minutes usually). What freaked most DJ’s out at the time was not only the deftly skilled mix transitions and edit sequences (which took some working out to the uninitiated) but the fact that mostly one verse and a chorus was visited by the producer then in came the next track. The novelty for the DJ’s dancefloor crowd then was to hear all their favourite artists hits in the length of time a normal 12″ single would deliver just ‘one’ hit.
For the DJ/Producers making these first steps (and of course for other innovators and pioneers across the Atlantic -such as Double Dee & Steinski etc), there was a specific workflow process, supported by some expensive gear at the time. Each section of each individual song would be recorded onto an open reel tape machine such as the Revox B77 (above). The recording would go up to and just past the envisaged point the DJ wanted to ‘cut’ to his next tune and the tape stopped. Then, the next section needed (usually a recording of the DJ performing a vinyl cross fade between the two tracks), would also be recorded (and re-recorded if the mix wasn’t 100% right). Rewinding the tape to make a chinagraph (white) pencil mark at the out and in points (achieved by locking the tape to the playback head mechanism and ‘rocking and rolling’ the tape back and forth until the dynamic of the sound indicated the correct mark point). The series of tracks and mix points would build up thereafter in a linear fashion until the Megamix was complete. What was to follow would change the DJ, music and studio world forever.
Consider that using today’s technology its very much a case of record, sample, drag and drop with digital files onto a digitally locked timeline – the above method therefore shows the actual origins of this contemporary methodology. This old school tape editing format also gave way to the more dramatic and exciting concept of ‘bullet editing’ which, in a nutshell, involved often hundreds of audio snippets (eg drums, synths and vocal bites), patched together in different musical/time steps, to create moments of excitement and aid more dynamic cross-over mixes between tracks. The calculation of what length to cut the tape was made by the crude, but effective method of measuring (in millimetres) the distance the tape travels between one beat and the next, then using simple math to work out the musical time divisions for the effect required.
For those, like me at the time, access to such sophisticated and expensive equipment was not feasible, so a similar method was worked out, believe it or not, using a cassette recorder with a physical and manual pause button. The method of constructing, mixing and sequencing a mix was the same as above, but instead of marking and cutting a piece of tape, the pause button was precisely engaged at the point of where the next mix would start to come in, and released back into record mode as the next section needed. The necessity for ‘getting it right’ therefore was much more amplified to say the least!
We’re still in the ’83~85 period then, and move onto what hardware technology was used to enhance DJ mixes and those wishing to make first steps into actual studio production (still of course, dancefloor/club based). Digital samplers had of coursed arrived, but primarily were in the form of such machines as the Fairlight, the Synclavier and Emulator III. It was the uber-rich artists and producers at the time who could afford these (price of a small house) luxury machines – Trevor Horn, The Pet Shop Boys, Peter Gabriel and Swiss band, Yello to name a few. Other alternatives at the more affordable end of the market were the [12 bit] Akai S612 sampler (above), the forerunner to the massively popular and ground-breaking S900, and the first steps into computer controlled sampling for the masses with the arrival of the Greengate DS3 system (image below and running on an early Apple MIDI capable Plus II).
My personal entry into this new world of digital sampling was using two identical units of the Korg SDD-1000 digital delay hardware (below). Each one could sample (wait for it..), one second of a mono signal at half bandwidth, or half a second at full bandwidth (quality) – I think you’ll understand then why I needed two units? To maintain an accurate loop of a sampled drum pattern, it was necessary to hit both units with a trigger of sorts – this came in the form of using the footpedal inputs to send a drum machine trigger in, repeatedly at a certain tempo. For manually single shot triggering, I used a box with a single tap button on, made for me by a friend who was a dab hand in electronics.
MIDI, Music & Other Tech
As for other technology at this time, and becoming increasingly accessible to DJ/Producers, were of course the plethora of analogue and FM synthesizers (being used to add keyboard lines etc to mixes and remixes – for the more adventurous and financially buoyant) and early drum machines, the latter used for adding more ‘kick a*s’ percussion to a DJ’s creative output. MIDI, as a globally accepted communication language between items of studio equipment, had of course been around since about 1982. Invented by Dave Smith (still active with his DSI company and inventor of the monumentally popular, Prophet synth), this synchronisation and control capability would have massive ripples for the DJ wishing to become an artist in his own right (more on MIDI and studio gear later).
Musically, 1985 saw a very significant shift in what would ultimately shape the dancefloor for the forthcoming decades. Once playful and not the least bit controversial, Rap music took a gear shift up as the socio-economic, politically outspoken tongue of America wrapped itself round minimal and hard hitting beats – enter the world of Def Jam for one. 1985 was pretty much when the UK became aware of House music too. The remnants of late 70s Disco had been re-energised, regurgitated and formed into the 4/4 dominant, electronic sound of Chicago, New York and Detroit etc with tracks such as ‘Jack Your Body’ by Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley and ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’ (Farley Jackmaster Funk) became massive hits on floors and radio. This House sound was quickly copied and pushed out mass market, and UK pop stylee by the likes of Pete Waterman’s PWL (Stock, Aitken and Waterman) team and then both cool and mainstream fraternities were on-board.
We enter the 1986~8 period then, with Akai samplers, namely the 12-bit S900 and S950 gaining popularity and ubiquity in small and larger studio’s alike. Soon to be followed by the 16-bit S1000 model (the mainstay hardware product that saw myself and many other DJ/Producers through thousands of sessions), these units took sample data read off floppy discs or via SCSI data dumps and the user formed these into programs containing applicable parameter info for each sound. It became a regular occurrence as each Producer started their day, to walk in with a treasured, protected and almost hallowed personal sample collection usually under lock and key in a plastic or metal case. Around this time, the primary way to sequence this musical info was via a hardware step-sequencer (such as the Roland MC-500), but of course, computer based sequencing programs were emerging and again, soon to become affordable and widely available.
DJ tech took a giant and significant step with the world’s first general production CDJ machine – the Technics SLP-1200 (above). This heavy and clumpy looking unit appeared around ’87 and I’m quite proud to say I was the first DJ to display it in full mixing mode at this time. CD’s we’re still relatively in their infancy and certainly not considered an option for DJ’s with regard to the dominance of vinyl and literally zero dance product (other than mainstream act remixes perhaps). Of course in years to follow, that would change and CD’s themselves would be a great option to burn demo’s and new production’s to play to a crowd (replacing the need for very expensive acetates, at around £60~£80 a pop!).
Late 80s Studio Developments
Back in the studio, young DJ/Producers like myself were beginning to gain access to more professional studio environments with larger, multi-channel mixing desks with effects returns, channel strips, patch bays, outboard FX and decent monitoring systems – well, Yamaha NS-10′s at least (!?!). I took my first steps using 2″ reel-to-reel tape machines, utilising a large chunk of 2″ tape holding 24 tracks of analogue information. Usually, 23 of the tracks would be the vocal, musical and rhythmic parts, with track number 24 reserved for SMPTE timecode. This droning synchronisation source was adapted from the movie industry and in essence was the ‘start, stop’ and general positioning code that told the rest of the studio’s gear where it was in regards to the song timeline. When a tape of this type arrived from a record company to be remixed, it was generally a dubbed 1-to-1 copy, so the original master stayed at the library, un-touched and no fear of a masterpiece vocal (or otherwise) performance being erased forever by a careless tape-op or engineer.
A general workflow developed then to assemble a ‘twelve inch’ remix from a standard 3 and a half minute pop song. This would involve recording say new drums, percussion, bassline and synth parts etc onto the 2 inch tape, but structured to the exact arrangement of the original song. This would mean then, that new programming would follow the verse, bridge, chorus journey of the original work. How then, you may ask did an extended club mix appear from this albeit new production, sticking to a song’s original radio friendly time length? The method then was to play back the multitrack tape (with more often than not, a plethora of samplers and keyboards running alongside in unison) and record separate, individual ‘passes’ from the main mixing desks, with tracks selectively muted and brought in at the required point. These passes would be recorded onto high quality, 30 ips (inches per second) 1/2 inch (stereo) tape, and all new sections of the Producers vision of an extended mix, spliced together to form a six minute plus version.
As the 90s loomed steadily, 1988~9 saw more musical shifts and developments – US and UK Rap/Hip Hop became massive and the birth of Acid House hit most DJ’s in the know like a sledgehammer. All of a sudden, the UK went ‘a-c-i-i-i-ie-e-ed’ crazy and the Roland 303 bassline was sought after in random second-hand shops and music magazine classified’s. Things also got very funky as the one and only James Brown was the recipient of a huge popularity burst, with most of his output joining the then emerging ‘Rare Groove’ movement (where previously obscure 7″ singles such as Oliver Sain’s ‘Bus Stop’ etc, were thrown into the DJ mix).
As a side and related note, Pete Waterman’s SAW (Stock, Aitken and Waterman) stable pulled a blinder ‘wool over the eyes’ scam on most of the trendy jocks, proclaiming their ‘Roadblock’ rare-groover an undiscovered gem from years gone by – in fact it was a contemporary production made that year in the style of the obscure, funky tracks already re-discovered. Another genre to spring forth was Oakenfold, Rampling and Holloway’s proclamation of the Balearic musical movement. ‘Jibaro’ was their re-discovered and subsequently covered production, with the Balearic tag wrapping itself around anything steady, electronic and occasionally indie styled. From this movement (if you’d call it that) ultimately came the integration of Belgium’s ‘New Beat’ sound, further amplifying the more alternative side of steady paced electronica. It was 1990 however that would usher in the most significant decade in dance music and DJ/Producer history..
As 1989′s dominant ‘Funky Drummer’ and ‘Soul II Soul’ grooves ushered in a new decade, the shape of how DJ’s were perceived and the massive cultural and technological shift’s that accompanied it, saw the dance music and production world change radically. Computers really stamped their mark on the music scene as units from the Atari and Commodore brands locked DJ beats and samples grid tight with software packages such as Steinberg’s Pro 16 (Cubase forerunner) and the early ‘Logic’ iteration, C-Lab Notator. The latter program migrated for me into C-Lab Unitor (similar but with built-in SMPTE timecode read/write hardware), a splendidly simple to use interface consisting of a vertical arrange stack of patterns (groups of 16 MIDI tracks) and a central window for individual track and associated parameter information. This was purely MIDI information though of course – the advent of affordable hard disc computer audio was at least five or six years away.
1990′s appearance of Breakbeat/Hardcore (plus of course other House related genres) led to 1991/2′s M25 ‘Raves’ such as Raindance and Fantasia (followed by the super-fast, meteoric rise of the Drum ‘n Bass scene). DJ’s were certainly the new cultural heroes, though the birth of the ‘Superstar DJ’ was still a few years away. Back in the studio, the more Producer oriented DJ’s were embracing the new software technology within Emagic’s Logic (the follow on from the C-Lab package) with the Roland S-750/70 and (the 16 bit) Akai S-3000 dominant as sample hardware and (again) Akai drum machine/sequencers gaining fast popularity as US jocks introduced the UK crew to what an ‘MPC’ could do. 1992 was of course the year that London’s south bank clubbing phenomena, the Ministry of Sound was born and its transition from underground (all-night) dance venue to record compilation, radio and brand merchandise business was similarly meteoric to the ascending popularity of the scene in general.
Around 1992, the music scene expanded even more as our beloved ‘House’ further engrained its claws into the clubbing populace with Techno and Progressive styles gaining profile, alongside uplifting, piano-driven ‘Italo-House’ and a slew of UK independent labels and product too. Jungle locked it’s jaws around the Hardcore scene with the slower sounds of Hip-Hop (R&B) and Rap still ever evolving in the sidelines. 1993 and ’94 were significant years for me as a DJ and record producer – Logic was now on the Mac platform in my studio and I was introduced to a future prospect of ‘in-the-box’ music production with the appearance of plug-in effects and virtual instruments within computer based sequencers. The possibilities also became apparent for using an internal, or external hard drive to record, store and [live] playback, actual audio content – not having the restrictions of an Akai sampler’s limited memory capacity or the luxury of an expensive, large 2 or 1/2″ multitrack tape system. Back in the domain of the DJ booth, vinyl was still the leading playback medium, though some club’s had started to install CD playback units (which many DJ’s took advantage of instead of expensive, acetate vinyl demos/dub-plates). I was DJ’ing for U2 at their Dublin based Kitchen club at the time, and recall having the luxury of the band’s Akai sampler and a DAT player (digital audio tape) at my disposal for live performance integration.
Oh, and did I mention 1994′s anti-criminal justice rally in London protesting against the act passed in’93? – though shalt not sing ‘n dance to repetitive beats in groups of more a hundred, you naughty people!
By 1995, the Superstar DJ culture was well in place – all of a sudden, this media elevated elite set of DJ’s would begin to command hitherto unheard of appearance fees. Dance music was not just a European, but a global phenomenon and the UK itself went potty importing American DJ’s into our clubs (their US style of soulful vocal-led house music was increasingly popular too). Literally, this year was possibly the highlight of mainstream dance music culture and popularity in this country. 1996 saw the year I started my professional relationship with the Ministry of Sound – my first performance in the club’s main room [the Box] was accompanied by another significant step forward in DJ hardware – the (yes them again) Akai Remix 16. This was a kind of blending of two main Akai technologies, the MPC drum machine and the S-series samplers. It afforded me the capability to physically trigger samples via the sixteen trigger pads, engage loops, filters, effects and more to effectively perform live remixing and mash-ups. This DJ set using this equipment ultimately landed me an MoS residency and the subsequent opportunity to tour worldwide for the brand.
The previous years death of teenager Leah Betts raised an anti-ecstasy campaign as mainstream UK became aware of its effects to their teenagers of the dance related drug whilst Trance music crossed over from the underground, ironically pegged on one moment of the [ecstasy fueled] ‘rush’ appearing in each record. Jumping forward to 1998/9, I and many other DJ/Producers made their first experimentation in switching off the mixing desk, hardware effects, synths, samplers and pulling out cables galore, and doing our first, truly ‘in-the-box’ music production. Using version 5 of the Logic software, I recall this set of notes from my personal blog about that first attempt – “One day then I embarked on a self-imposed production mission to do my next remix session totally within the Logic 5 environment – no hardware samplers, synths, effects or physical mixing desk would be used. Logic 5 had not only flexed its muscles in the sonic department but was also hinting that its automation and mixing possibilities were about to scare the livin’ daylights outta me! It was a memorable day and night for sure which filled me with excitement levels I’d not experienced for a long time prior”. Of course, many other huge changes were around the corner for the DJ and Record Production talent..
As often occurred during my time working with the Ministry of Sound, a select group of more technically savvy DJs were invited to do Educational tours around the UK’s College and University circuit as the 20th century came to a close. This led to a session in ’99 when I did my first MoS set (sunset, Cafe Mambo, Ibiza) using computer based DJ software, running compressed audio MP3′s, and a then primitive, but workable, hardware interface. It was quite a weird experience for me the DJ and any interested enough punters to watch a DJ work with no decks or physical mixer in sight. The MP3 was promoted to DJ/Producers as a God-send, being that one day in the future, we’d no longer have to lug twenty odd kilo’s of vinyl to each gig. In addition, we’d have the advantage of sending a demo of any production worked on, instantly to fellow DJ/Producers around the globe via the ever faster internet speeds becoming available. The more cynical amongst us began instantly to question however the big compromise in audio quality of this new, Saviour of a format.
In the very late 90s of course, Trance was still king of the world, but DJ and studio wizards such as Timo Maas and Pascal F.E.O.S. introduced the dance music world to the tougher sound of ‘Tech-House’, minimal in [musical and vocal] content, heavy on rhythm, and almost as hypnotic and euphoric as trance. Vinyl of course still held on as the main stay of DJ weapons (with Vestax keeping the faith with its PDX model turntables), but the CD was really coming into its own. The affordability and ubiquity of real-time (and computer based) CD burning opened the flood gates for DJ product manufacturers (Denon, Pioneer etc) to create ever more technologically advanced playback units – at the same time they were working on how to capitalise on the new compressed audio/computer based possibilities too. Back in DJ land, that cool as hell trance vibe got twisted harder by such new blood as Tiesto, Joshua Ryan (‘Pistolwhip’), Mauro Picotto (‘Lizard, ‘Iguana’) and even the mighty Oakenfold grabbing the mainstream crown (via ‘Bullet in the Gun’) from the likes of Hollands, Ferry Corsten.
1999/2000 saw a super speed up in computer capabilities, more affordable hard disc space for the masses and the stratospheric rise of new computer music ‘plug-in’ (virtual studio) technology. All of a sudden, more powerful and original synthesizer instruments appeared (with the likes of LinPlug/Rob Papen breaking new ground along the way) and emulations of long gone, analogue classic’s making an appearance in the virtual channel strips of many a producer’s DAW. The world of plug-in effects too got a vitamin boost as the standard delay, reverb and dynamic workhorses had a whole new generation of weird, wild and creatively awesome newcomers add themselves to the party. VST 2.0 technology opened the doors for DJ/Producers to be more expressive and imaginative, with better sampler and virtual drum machine tech also getting their juices flowing. Of course, different competing technologies enticed users to a variety of platforms – Apple’s Audio Units (helping to craft the Logic DAW into the powerful beast it is today), Digidesign (now Avid’s) TDM and RTAS, MAS, LV2 DirectX and more, competed for pole position with good ol’ VST. Whatever the choice of tech, studio engineers, musician’s and programmers had never had it so good; and so affordable.
One of the usual Monday afternoon conversations that DJ friends would have, normally started with, “Have you heard that tune..?”. Unfortunately, as the Millennium arrived and the year 2000 advanced further into the years this particular article doesn’t cover, that question became, “Have you heard ‘a’ tune.. any tune..”? House and dance music was changing. Vinyl was becoming more scarce as record pressing plants began to feel the effect of CD usage amongst DJ’s, added to the ever increasing popularity and interest in the MP3 format. The creative juices of the usual dance music innovators was seemingly drying out and, as the previous ten plus years of mass, mainstream UK dance culture had run its natural course, the cash feeding major labels cut the purse strings to their associated trendy dance labels. A&R guys lost their jobs, cash ran out for promised projects and contract periods, and even the all-powerful Ministry of Sound began culling label staff. Hope was not lost of course. Every cultural and technological movement sees one wave subside and a new one soon to replace it. The industry in all its forms needed this flushing out of deadwood in all arenas. What was to follow for DJ’s, electronic dance music producers and the general public though, was a completely new way of looking at and listening to the sounds they loved to make and dance to – Dedicated MIDI control keyboards became popular, Final Scratch appeared (though die hard vinyl lovers held tight) and controllers, laptop DJ software (Serato/Traktor etc), CDJ and mixer technology advanced significantly too. So 2003 (ish) to 2010 then? – now that’s another story all together.