Fastidious Fidelity: Mr. Scruff Squeezes Every Last Band Out Of His Grooves

In this age of portable music collections and ultra-compressed mp3s, the life of a fastidious audiophile is a tricky one—especially if you happen to be a DJ like Andy Carthy (a.k.a. Mr. Scruff). Known as much for his relentless pursuit of high fidelity as he is for his love of cartoons and a good brew—he moonlights as CEO of his own organic, fair-trade tea company— Carthy’s soundchecks run longer than most DJ’s actual gigs. But it’s exactly this keen attention to detail that separates him from more plug-and-play performers.
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“In order to be made well, tea, beer, or anything has to be made by very obsessive, geeky people who really love what they’re doing,” says Carthy. “It’s a blend of being very serious, but also being light-hearted and relaxed.”

Vinyl is Carthy’s weapon of choice, and his entire DJ setup is perched atop a rumble-free steel platform bolstered with huge concrete slabs. He uses a Formula Sound PM-100 mixer— a modular system more commonly found in broadcast studios—hooked up to three Vestax PDX-2300 turntables outfitted with Rega tonearms and Grado 200i cartridges. The decks are modified with custom-made Isonoe preamps with single-ended transformer outputs. Isonoe Isolation Feet—reinforced with Sorbothane shock and vibration absorption material— cut down on resonance, and external power supplies are encased in separate boxes to cut down on any unwanted hum picked up by the ultrasensitive tonearms and cartridges. Supplemental outboard gear includes a TC Electronics D2 Digital Delay on an auxiliary send, and a Drawmer 1961 EQ on the master effects loop. Everything is connected with loads of posh Van Damme cables, and Carthy’s personal engineer is present at every gig to ensure sound quality is up to snuff.

“I don’t want anyone to have sore ears after hearing me play,” Carthy says. “The system also helps me bring different genres of music together— some old Latin stuff, some Northern Soul, or some dubstep—so that a thin, old pressing can stand up to a very modern and well-mixed one. I’m sure in three or four years my entire DJ setup will be up to mastering studio standards—never mind the basic recording studio standards.”

Due to a perpetually flooding basement, Carthy’s living space isn’t able to accommodate much of a home studio, so most of his tinkering occurs via his laptop and a pair of headphones. To record Ninja Tuna [Ninja Tune], his fourth full-length release, Carthy transplanted all his outboard gear to Manchester’s Zombie Studios, which is owned and operated by Andy Kingslow and longtime friend Phil Kerby. Like his DJ sets, the album is a festive experiment in groove, ranging from the Latin swing of “Stockport Carnival,” to the disco house of the Moog-infused “Get On Down,” to the haunting organ-driven funk of “Music Takes Me Up” (that features singer Alice Russell). Elsewhere, “Whiplash” starts off with a frenetic jazz beat accented with muted trumpets and a twittering Roland SH-5 bass, but then Carthy cuts the tempo in half to transform the song into head-nodder.

“I like to separate and individually process my drum loops,” says Carthy. “For example, on a one-bar drum loop, I’ll typically put the bass drum, snare, and hi-hats on their own tracks. Then, I ensure that the only sub lows are coming from turntable rumble in order to leave space in the groove for bass, percussion, and other stuff. To do this, I might set a high-pass filter at about 25Hz on the bass drum, at about 80Hz on the snare, and then at around 150Hz—or as high as I can get away with—on the hi-hats.”

Mixing the fluid energy of live music with the relentless predictability of repetitive programming gives Ninja Tuna a heavy yet natural feel, and even though it took nearly three years to come to fruition, Carthy is proud of the final result.

“I was curious to see what type of music I’d come up with if I didn’t put any restrictions on myself,” he says. “I was totally at the mercy of the groove.”