Mastering the transformer scratch is an essential skill for performing many of today's more advanced scratch techniques such as the flare and the crab. The essence of the transformer scratch is a rhythmic cutting off and on of the sound while moving the record back and forth or letting it play. Using that simple technique, you can create an amazing variety of sounds. Before I get into specific details about performing the technique, take a look at the transformer scratch's history.
SPINBAD, CASH MONEY, AND JAZZY JEFF
Philadelphia DJ Spinbad invented the precursor to the transformer scratch in the early '80s. His effect involved some simple crossfader movements that he used to cut up the classic “It's Time” sample by Hashim. DJ Cash Money heard Spinbad perform the technique and took the move to the next level, incorporating rhythmically intricate movements of the record and crossfader. Cash Money called that technique the transformer scratch in honor of its similarity to sounds he heard in the Transformers cartoon. DJ Jazzy Jeff further popularized the transformer scratch, becoming the first DJ to immortalize it on a record.
To hear a prime example of the early transformer scratch, check out Jazzy Jeff's amazing live performance on “Live at Union Square,” featured on DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's 1986 album, He's the DJ, I'm the Rapper.
HOW TO TRANSFORM
There are two main ways to produce the signature transformer sound. The first and easiest method involves using the Phono/Line switch found on most DJ mixers. On battle mixers, that switch is often called the transformer switch. Some mixers also have dedicated Transformer switches, which are simply on/off buttons located near the main crossfader. The second method, which is more challenging but ultimately more flexible, involves manipulating the crossfader. That technique is easiest to perform using a crossfader with adjustable cut-in (set it to the sharpest setting).
Although you can perform the transformer scratch using many different sounds, using a long, consistent sample is best while learning the move. For the purposes of this description, I will refer to the classic “Yeah Boyee” sample, spoken by Flava Flav at the start of Public Enemy's “Bring the Noise.”
Begin by performing the scratch using the Phono/Line switch. Start with the record cued to the start of Flava's classic phrase and the Phono/Line switch set to line (sound is off). Play a basic slow beat on the other turntable and simply let go of the “Yeah Boyee” record in time to the beat. Repeatedly flick the Phono/Line switch on and off. As you do that, you should hear the sound cut off and on. That is the basis of the transformer sound. Practice that a few times until you feel comfortable with your technique. At this point, concentrate only on playing the record forward and creating the chopped-up sound effect.
Next, play the record forward and flick the switch in a rhythm that matches the beat playing on the other turntable. Grab the record when the sample is halfway through the “Yeah” part (see Fig. 1). Pull it back a little and then play it forward again, all the while flicking the switch off and on in time to the beat. The sample should sound as though it is being extended during the middle part of “Yeah.” The goal is to rhythmically click the sound on and off in time with the beat, not merely to click as fast as possible.
Once you have those basics down, advance to the next stage. If you have a mixer with adjustable crossfader cut-in, set it to the sharpest or most rapid cut-in. Setting up your turntables hamster style may also be helpful (see Fig. 2). Many scratch mixers are equipped with a hamster switch that reverses the crossfader direction without affecting anything else. If you do not have a mixer equipped with a hamster switch, you can achieve the same basic result by hooking up your right-hand turntable to the left-hand mixer inputs and vice versa. Whichever method you use, moving the crossfader all the way left should turn on the right turntable and all the way right should turn on the left turntable.
THE NEXT LEVEL
With your turntables set up hamster style and with a quick cut-in setting on your fader, you can easily cut sounds off and on with the crossfader. For example, if the record you want to transform is on the left-hand turntable, hold the crossfader all the way to the left (only the right-hand turntable should be heard). Then, move the crossfader toward the center, past the cut-in point, and back again. You should hear a brief snippet of the sample played on the left-hand turntable.
Cue up the record again at the start of the sample on the left-hand turntable and play your beat on the right-hand turntable. With the crossfader all the way to the left, push the sample forward and rhythmically open and close the crossfader, attempting to re-create the sound you achieved previously when using the Phono/Line switch.
Once you have that rhythm down, leave the crossfader open for varying amounts of time while playing the sample. Don't go for speed; rather, go for diversity. As before, grab the record halfway through playing the sample and pull it back a small amount; then, move it forward again. Vary the sound by manipulating the sample at different points and in distinct ways. Also, push the sample faster and slower to change the sound even more. The goal is to create an extended rhythmic stuttering of the sample.
To take things even further, explore other options of the transformer technique by experimenting with different samples (snares, tones, spoken words, whatever). You should be able to create a variety of effects, as each sample results in a unique sound when transformed. Integrating the transformer scratch into other scratches will further expand your horizons.
The setup I described (rapid crossfader cut-in and hamster-style setup) is not the only way to perform the transformer technique, but it is probably the easiest way to get good-sounding results (aside from using the Phono/Line switch). Once you grasp the basics of the transformer scratch, you will not only add a new and exciting scratch to your set but also you will pave the way toward understanding the concepts behind many popular scratch techniques involving advanced crossfader manipulation.