Drumming with Vinyl

Bass, Snare, Cowbell - Remixed.

Scratch video clip: Drumming sample from 'Stop That Train' (2.8 MB DivX 5, 0:45) A "1200"-model drum set in action.

If you take a record that has a neat sample on it - whether it's a drum loop, a sound effect, a voice or otherwise - by the nature of the vinyl medium and the turntable it is played on, the sound can easily be manipulated by the hands-on technique of "scratching." This of course shouldn't be anything new to anyone born in the MTV generation, but this sentence also serves as a fail-safe one-line introduction in case you are not saying "I already knew that," as you read this.

That being said, I was playing around with scratching and looping some different drum and sound effect-based samples. A few short DivX video clips show the results.

But first, some basic theory.

Starting from Scratch.

The idea behind scratching is relatively simple to grasp; the effect comes from moving a record back and forth over a sound (or "sample",) while simultaneously switching on and off the sound (also called "cutting") by use of a mixer (essentially a glorified "left/right balance" control,) in a rythmic pattern. Taking this into consideration, you might start to see how a sequence of sounds could be arranged in order to make a rhythm or pattern which could then be repeated over time. In the same way a drummer might hit a snare four times in a row, a DJ or "turntablist" (one who plays the turntable as a form of instrument in this sense) could play one drum sample "sound", four times in a row to match. Appropriately enough, turntablists generally refer to this technique as "drumming".

The simplest type of scratch is the "forward", which is the sound given by a sample that is allowed to play through (or rather, forward.) To do this, the mixer's cross-fader is moved to an "open" position (so the sound from the turntable is heard) and the record is allowed to play. That's all there is to it. To play the same sound again, the mixer's cross-fader must be moved to a "closed" position so the turntable is muted, at which point the record can be "rewound" to the point where the sound starts again. The cross-fader is then moved to the open position again, and the process repeats itself.

Variations on a Theme

Advanced scratch techniques and the resulting sounds produced are built on this basic on/off pattern. Some of them can be very complex, requiring a strong sense of hand/eye-coordination. Like many other skills, practice makes perfect; I still have tons of things to learn, but have greatly improved my own abilities in mixing tracks and scratching since starting in 2000.

Scratch video clip: Drumming sample from 'Superduck Breaks', a battle DJ record (5.5 MB DivX 5, 1:28) A clip using "Superduck Breaks"

The basic intent in the case of the first clip was to loop a drum sample consisting of snare, bass and cowbell sounds. Said aloud the first bar would probably sound something like "Bass, Bass, Snare-Bass", the latter being said faster than the first two. By looping this for four bars, you now have a basic theme to build off of. That is, to improvise on.

In a sense, you have a limited range of drum set sounds within a few inches of your reach; the trick now is finding and playing them creatively, at the right time, and in the right order.

Oh and while you're at it, without any skipping of the needle (unlike the above.)

Now git.

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