The following article arrived as a letter to Tape Op. After reading I contacted Jack and asked if his letter could be used as a short article, an introduction to working with turntables and samplers. I know this is basic but we gotta start somewhere. Plus, I hope inspires some non hip hop recordists to try some of these techniques.
Hip hop is great, because you can toss all notions of traditional composition and technique out the window and craft the sound to suit your ears. Probably the two key instruments in hip hop are the turntable and the sampler and these can be obtained on a budget.
For turntables, one model is the king of all kings, and that is the Technics 1200. This baby sports a strong direct drive motor that can stop on a dime, and start back up to speed with the press of a button. Also, it has 8% graduated pitch control (crucial for mixing) and the arm can be fine tuned so that your needle doesn't bounce around while you're hacking away, scratching and cutting that perfect break. These models retail at around $450, which is pretty pricey for entry level experimentation, but is well worth it if your goal is to rock crowds of thousands. Fortunately, these are not necessary for basic 4-tracking. All you really need is a turntable with direct drive (belt-drive will not work!) and pitch control (a must for mixing). It is advisable to get a stylus and cartridge designed for back-cueing (the 'proper' term for scratching) and some slipmats, which are felt discs that go on the turntable instead of the rubber mat that usually comes with the turntable. These can be obtained at you local D.J. record shop. (STANTON and ORTOFON are the names to look for in cartridges.)
To accompany your turntable, you need a mixer. These control the volume of two turntables with a cross fader. You can plug some headphones in and listen to the record (cueing) while controlling the signal going out with separate volume controls. The retail price of these mixers start at around $100, but you can find them for much less used in pawn shops and electronic surplus shops. Radio Shack also makes an inexpensive model.
Once you have these, just throw on an old record and start hacking. Sounds with a sharp percussive attack are great for scratching. Stuff like a snare or a cowbell. High pitched noises really cut through also. Scratching a bass drum hit is how you get that deep 'wooba-wooba-wooba' sound. To see some great technique demonstrated, check out videos from a company called DMC. Every year, they hold the world battle D.J. contest, and on these tapes, you will see and hear sound creations that you never dreamed could be possibly made with just some turntables. Truly amazing stuff indeed. Thrift shop record bins are an excellent source for samples. From KTEL disco versions of Broadway hits to children's fairy tales to freaky religious spoken word records you'll find a treasure in every bin.
In the days before the sampler, there were essentially four ways to provide beats:
1. A drummer: Not cost effective, but sounds good.
2. A beat box — Roland 808 & 909 models being the kings here — cost effective, clean and fat-sounding, but also lacking a 'human' feel. These are still a prime source for beats today.
3. Cutting breaks off of records. Basically, you get a record with a cool beat on it, get two copies, and do it like this: On turntable #1, let the beat play (well say it lasts four bars). As the fourth bar ends, switch to turntable #2, where the same sequence on the same record is set up ready to play. Let turntable #2 play, and while it is playing, spin #1 back to the beginning of the break, and when #2 reaches the end of the fourth bar, switch back to #1 and start rewinding #2. You can repeat this process endlessly, and do some cool shit with it. This method is the classic hip hop method, and sounds cool as shit. However, it takes a lot of practice, and you pretty much have to have some 1200's (because of their quick-start capabilities). This method is most definitely 'old school'.
4. Human beat box — made famous by such practitioners as Doug E. Fresh, Biz Markie and the Fat Boys. This method takes some practice, but is fairly easy to do. When I was in grade school, almost...