S c r a t c h i n g

"Stretch your hand muscles to develop better dexterity"


Hip Hop has four elements: rapping/emceeing, breakdancing, graffiti art, and turntablism. Scratching records is a form of turntablism, which is the manipulation of a turntable, pre-recorded music, and mixer in a "free-form" manner (i.e., like jazz musicians that improvise). A turntablist not only scratches, but may also use the crossfader or upfader to add or subtract beats (i.e., beat juggling) and to transform (see below). Battle DJ's are the best example of turntablists. Often playing hip hop (it makes little sense for a trance DJ to be a turntablist), these DJ's have turned a consumer playback device (i.e., the turntable) into a percussion instrument.

Bringing these techniques to the next level, disc jockey's such as DJ Radar (see photo at right) are introducing turntablism to other musical traditions such as classical music. Radar and partner -- composer Raul Yanez -- are challenging the free-form nature of turntablism by writing musical scores for the turntable. To facilitate his work, he employs a Vestax PDX2000 Pro Direct-Drive Turntable because its pitch adjust has greater range than other turntables. As Radar puts it, "if you are using a tone in D on 33 rpm, the range (by using the pitch adjust) would then be from C# to G# of the next octave." As you can see, Radar is also challenging other turntablists to learn music composition and structure (which is a shift away from the free-form tradition). To read a Disc Jockey 101 interview with DJ Radar, please click here.


Before you start scratching, you must know how to cue a record. There are two ways to cue a record: (1) the old-style back-spin (radio station) method; and (2) the "slip-cue" method used by beat mixers and scratchers.

Method One

Even though this section is about scratching, you should familiarize yourself with the old style "back-spin" method of cueing a record. During the radio days, when jocks used vinyl, this is how DJ's cued records:

1. Listening through your headphones (the song you're cueing can't be heard on the radio or dance floor), place the needle on the record at the spot where you want to start the song (usually the first note of the song).

2. With the turntable's start/stop button on STOP, move the record back and fourth with your hand so that the needle is located exactly on the first note.

3. Once the needle is located above the first note, move the record about 4 inches before that note.

4. When it's time to play the song, hit the start button on the turntable -- making sure you time the start accounting for the one or two seconds that it will take for the needle to move across the 4 inches (thereby starting the song). At the same time, with the other hand, slide the cross-fader over so that the volume of the new song is up and the old song is down. The reason you start at four inches before the song is because if you were to start exactly on top of the note, the gradual acceleration of the turntable is heard (changing the pitch of the song for the first second).

Method Two

The "slip-cue" method (pioneered by DJ Francis Grasso) eliminated the problem of the delay, making it possible for a DJ to start a song exactly on the first note (without having to mentally calculate when the song would start).

1. First, remove the rubber piece that comes with your turntable and replace it with a slipmat.

2. Listen to the song through your headphones only (the song you're cueing can't be heard on the dance floor). With the start/stop button on the turntable on START, move the record back-and-fourth with your hand so that the needle is located exactly on the first note. However, because of the slipmat, you can leave the turntable in the "on" position and just hold the vinyl in place (making sure the needle remains slightly before the first note or beat, usually the downbeat -- i.e., bass drum). The slipmat will allow the turntable to continue rotating as you hold the record

As long as the turntable is a direct-drive, you don't have to worry about damaging the drive when you slip-cue. In contrast, the belt on a belt-drive turntable may eventually break because the belt builds friction and stretches over time.

3. Be sure your needle is weighed down properly. Before Ortofons, DJ's placed pennies on the cartridge shell to ensure that the needle stayed in place. However, too much weight will damage the needles and burn the vinyl (called "cue burn").

4. When it's time to start the song, just release the vinyl and the song should start exactly on the first note. At the same time, with the other hand, quickly slide the cross-fader over so that the volume of the new song is up and the old song is down. To be precise, you may have to slightly push the record (as you release it) to get the beat to speed. This requires practice because you may have to slightly "back-cue" when you push the needle into the beat. In order to mix, you must drop the first beat exactly on the beat of the song that's ending and then adjust the speed with the turntable's pitch adjust (and bring the cross-fader over gradually).

Basic scratching is therefore, slip-cueing back and fourth over a note (i.e., bass drum/snare drum) or sample with the volume turned up (i.e., the "baby scratch"). However, as you move the needle back and fourth, you create patterns (like a drummer) that compliments the song(s) you're scratching over.

Scratching Tips

But there is much more to scratching than simply slip-cueing over a note or beat while using the other hand to manipulate the volume. At the time of this writing, there are over 60 different scratch techniques (i.e., the "chirp," the "crab," the "flare," the "orbit," etc.). Unless you're an aspiring turntablist, it's not important to know these different scratch techniques (especially if you're not playing hip hop).

Here are five general scratch tips:

1. Do not scratch over the words/lyrics of songs (particularly songs with female vocals). Instead, you should consider scratching over instrumental portions of tracks;
2. Loud & excessive low-end scratching can damage the woofers and is annoying (especially in nightclubs);
3. Don't play the scratch louder than the song you're scratching over;
4. Unless it's expected by the crowd (i.e., you're a turntablist), don't over-scratch (it wears out the effect's novelty and you may appear to be showing off);
5. For new jocks, utilize 12" records that are designed for scratching (i.e., lots of samples). Scratch records are usually made with a better grade of vinyl (such as "regrind") and are less likely to become damaged.

Additional Considerations

* Use professional cartridges for scratching. The Ortofon "Scratch" with 7 Mv output is designed for scratching.

* The center piece in the middle of the turntable is called the "spindle." Some battle DJ's will stack a few records on the spindle for quick access.

* Remove the dust cover (which can get in the way) and store it in a safe place.

* Some DJ's "mark" their records. By placing tape on the label (or on the tail-out groove, spiral-in groove, or on the band itself), the DJ can visually locate the sample they want to scratch. The DJ may use the needle (or some other spot on the turntable) as a benchmark and compare that mark with the tape's location. This is how many "battle" DJ's spin without headphones (to find their cue).

* Placing the turntables in "battle mode" means placing the turntables on their side (vertically). Scratch DJ's do this to avoid contact with the tone arm and to improve their leverage vis-á-vis the turntable. "L-mode" means that the DJ positioned the left turntable vertically and right turntable horizontally (resembling an "L" appearance as viewed from above). "Reverse L-mode" means that the DJ positioned the right turntable vertically and left turntable horizontally (i.e., opposite of L-mode).

* A straight tone arm, such as the one on the Vestax PDX2000 Pro Direct-Drive Turntable, tends to give better scratch leverage than the typical curved tone arm.

* Be sure the turntable is properly "isolated" or stabilized. If the turntable moves while you're scratching, the needle may bounce off the desired scratch area. Remember that the turntable has springs (located at the base-feet) to absorb some of the shock.

* You must have slipmats to scratch (watch for static build-up). Also, make sure that the needles are weighed down properly and/or the tone arm is calibrated correctly. Some DJ's also place half of a plastic record sleeve (cut in a circular shape) under the slipmat to reduce friction. "Butter Rugs" are a highly recommended brand of scratch slipmats.

* "Transforming" is moving either the crossfader, the upfader, or the channel/toggle switch on the mixer back-and-fourth at a quick and constant speed. To practice transformer scratching, find a constant note (often found in made for scratch records) and while that note is playing, move the upfader on the mixer up-and-down as quick as possible. By slowly moving the vinyl back and fourth with the other hand, the effect should sound like scratching.

* Borrow or purchase scratch and battle videos such as DJ's Guide to Scratching:

Related Disc Jockey 101 Articles

DJ Radar Interview

Old Skool Trick: Playing A Record Backwards

Intro to Tricks with Two Identical Records Part I: Phasing, Braking, and Back-Spinning

Intro to Tricks with Two Identical Records Part II: Echo/Delay and Triples/Looping

How Vinyl Records Are Manufactured/New Products: The Vestax Samurai Series Mixers

Cartridges: Do Not Lick the Contacts

Straightening Warped Vinyl

Pioneer of Cassette-Turntablism: DJ Ruthless Ramsey Interview

Video Turntablism and the Future of Clubbing

Elliptical versus Spherical Styli

Crossfader Curve Settings


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