I work in a constantly changing landscape, one that has been repeatedly revolutionised by technology. The hottest newest game-changingest shiny comes around with alarming regularity, designed explicitly to extract serious wads of money from you, and channel it in the general directions of a dwindling number of DJ manufacturers.
Every year, a new mixer or controller comes along that fights to make use of the real estate at hand. The tops and backs of such things are an explosion in a MIDI factory, positively stuffed to the gills with features that the industry tells you that cannot do without until the next revolution in DJing is proffered, rendering last year’s model to be the equivalent of eBay leprosy.
And then there are turntables. The recent resurgence in vinyl… no Mark, don’t attempt to write a paragraph that hasn’t been written before about this subject. Needless to say turntables are back on the manufacturer maps, even if the resurgence is nothing to do with DJs.
But turntables appear to be standing still. I find myself in a particular circumstance where sat side by side in the Worxlab is a borrowed a Technics SL-1210 MK5G, and the new Rane Twelve — effectively the old dog next to the new digital kid on the block. But bar the USB and the ability to actually make noise, it’s clear that things haven’t moved on in four decades.
Well when I say haven’t moved on — actually they did. The likes of Vestax (PDX range), Numark (my favourite TTX), and more recently Reloop (RP-8000) pushed the idea of DJ turntables forward with fingerprint removing torque, ultra pitch, extra start/stop buttons, variable start and break speeds, straight arms, reverse, key lock, hot cue buttons, line out, switchable controls, digital displays, USB connectors… you get the idea.
And I’m very careful to say “did”. Because what I’m witnessing with recent releases is an apparent dumbing down of decks. It’s not so much that new things aren’t getting added, but absolutely a case of existing useful features being unceremoniously removed, yet incongruously the price is going up for what is arguably less of a turntable.
Thus to this old hack and DJ, the turntable appears to be regressing and devolving. And I’m not at all happy about it.
Yes indeed. Let me give you clear examples of what I’m talking about:
The new and not at all publicised Stanton STR MK2 range
The original ST-150 and especially the STR8-150 were seen by many to be the logical successor to the 1200 when its demise was announced. And with very good reason — it had everything you could reasonably need on a turntable. And then the ST-150 M2 replaced the original but dispensed with astart/stop button, brake controls, and reverse and key lock controls. Granted, it was a slicker design, but it is considerably less of a turntable for the same money as before.
The Denon DJ VL12 Prime
This is undoubtedly a capable turntable, but it is also the most expensive on the market. And while it has some brilliant (feedback killing feet) and fun (LED ring around the platter) features, it lacks things that we have become used to and doesn’t quite achieve the potential it had. The second start/stop button, 78rpm (I use it to clean vinyl), and brake speed are all MIA and I don’t know why.
The Rane Twelve
As a right hand dominant, I have become used to flicking the second start/stop button on my TTX and STR8-150 with my thumb. But all my thumb hits now is a Rane Twelve logo, where a second start/stop button really should be. You have no idea how annoying that is, especially coming from an all new digital turntable designed for turntablists. And on a related note,
Side note — I cannot for the life of me work out how the power switch/strobe thingy has made it this far in turntable design. The very idea of combining a redundant strobe light (the stylus light can and does do the very same thing on other turntables) with a hard to operate rotating slider of a power switch, making it taller than it needs to be, and putting it right in the way of hand movement beggars belief. It is, to quote a famous speech, a monstrous carbuncle that needs to be excised from the face of every single turntable. Oh wait… the 1200 has it so it must be good. Silly me.
IT’S NOT JUST FEATURES
Apparently the new Reloop RP-7000MK2 is the best damned turntable in the market according to reviews. Indeed, looking at the specs, it has everything bar a straight arm and USB out that I might need. It is the most modern turntable with the best specs around.
So why oh why oh why must it slavishly look like an almost 40-year-old design? Is it a genuine belief that the design cannot be improved on? It is a genuine fear that trying to be anything but a homage to the 1200 is destined to fail? Yes it is a classic, but it’s a Technics classic. Reloop et al need to be brave and stamp their own identity on their products, and stop trying to be someone else.
To be clear – it’s not that turntables can’t do the task of playing records. For me, it’s the systematic devolving of features and utterly stagnant aesthetics that are my issue. I don’t want pointless features adding, but I do want those useful features that we have become comfortable with to remain, and ideally added to with some original and useful thinking.
The ethos of portablism
There is something very interesting about portablism. I’m talking about the modding culture of taking the standard portable turntable and doing more with it. This often means taking a Dremel to the unit, but when done properly, those cottage industry third-party products make their portables better and more than it was.
The Numark TTX hinted at the possibilities of this approach. In the box were straight and s-arm interchangeable tone arms. You could also swap around the locations of the pitch and speed controls. You could, to a degree, customise the TTX out of the box to suit your needs.
Perhaps an idea would be to make turntables with parts that can be easily interchanged. Essentially, provide a base unit that works to a reasonable spec, but generate a third party market that — just like portablism — can provide higher spec parts like pitch faders, buttons, and tone arms, and let the user make the turntable they want.
AN OPEN CHALLENGE
Here’s an idea — the industry finds it all too easy to drop significant amounts of R&D money pumping out biennial iterations of controllers with minor updates, wrapped in suitably worded PR that gives your insecurities a beating, and makes your GAS reflex throw money at the screen. Instead, how about looking past the Hanpin/Yahorng super OEM models and sitting down with a blank canvas and designing a turntable that doesn’t remove features, doesn’t look exactly the same as a 1200, and importantly moves things forward with some fresh thinking and innovation. Hell I’ll even send the Moleskines and Rotrings to get it started.
For a while, turntable design pushed a significant distance away from the 1200 blueprint, and delivered genuinely useful features with paradigm challenging aesthetics. But now, the industry is reverting to type, with features being systematically taken away, industrial design becoming industrial-already-designed, and at the same time the customer is expected to pay more. Is it a bean-counting thing? Or just pure fear of doing something that is not a 1200? Where are the good people at Vestax when you need them? And Chris — it’s time to pull out the old sketch books and carry on what you started.
But it’s not just the industry that needs to pull their collective finger out — it’s you lot as well. It amazes me just how vocal people get when their existing expensive and still perfectly capable controller gets an update, but not quite the quantum leap in stuff that your GAS makes you believe you need. “EPIC FAIL — I need more than 12 channels and 8 band EQ and filters per band and effects per filter per band and 24 USB ports for me and everyone at the festivals I hope to get invited to play” or similar usually accompanies controller and mixer releases. So why don’t you get as mad a hell when new turntables short change you for real?
Bottom line — if the DJ industry can extract £1K every few years for a controller that becomes landfill in less than a decade, then they can damned well sit down and make us a modern turntable that we can hand down to our kids if we want. Don’t worry about the cost — if people will pay £1500-2000 for a single media player or controller that they know has a lifespan shorter than your average goldfish, then they’ll pay for a turntable that delivers on features, quality, and aesthetics, safe in the knowledge that it’ll be relevant long after they’ve spun their last floor filler, and said goldfish has been flushed down the loo.
Consider this me throwing down the gauntlet. Are you up to it industry? I know I am. And I have a lot of Moleskines and a shitload of pens too.