Each month, this column tackles a different issue or topic relevant to turntablists and DJs, but, often, you readers have questions of your own — and, rightly so, you write in for answers. So this month, I will answer a couple of frequently asked questions regarding the maintenance and repair of your DJ equipment. Knowing how to look after your gear, as well as how to tweak things for optimal performance, can greatly improve your sets. Although you are responsible for bringing your skills to the show, the best performance can easily be ruined buy poorly maintained gear.
One reader wrote in with questions concerning his inability to successfully beat-match records on two turntables; he wondered whether his turntable's pitch control was faulty. To determine this, you must first confirm that the pitch is holding consistently through a couple of simple checks. The classic Technics SL-1200MK2 and many other turntables use a strobe light and a series of calibrated dots on the side of the platter to allow you to quickly confirm that the pitch is correctly calibrated. With the pitch fader in the center zero position — which often engages a quartz-lock feature — ensure that the dots are stationary. On the 1200, the large set of dots in the third row from the top is the one to check; this may differ on other turntables. If your turntable features the aforementioned quartz-lock setting, it should hold zero pitch perfectly unless something is seriously messed up with your turntable.
If your turntable is not equipped with the strobe feature, try to find a record that has a track with a constant tone. These can often be found on battle-break albums such as Super Duper! Duck Breaks (Stones Throw, 2000) and Hee-Haw Brayks (Dirt Style, 1999). Play the tone track, and listen carefully. The tone should play back at a consistent speed. The beauty of using a tone to check the pitch calibration is that any variation can be easily detected by ear.
After confirming the pitch when at zero or quartz lock, you next want to check the pitch control at a nonzero setting. Using the tone-record method, listen again for the tone's pitch to remain constant. You should check this using at least one positive and one negative nonzero setting. If, in either case, the tone does not sound constant, something is wrong with your turntable that will severely impact your ability to beat-match records, especially over more than a few bars. It is common for cheaper belt-driven turntables to have poor pitch-control performance — especially if they are older, as the belts stretch. Either way, if the pitch fader can no longer hold a constant tone, the best solution is to have your turntables serviced by a licensed dealer or repair shop. If the tone sounds constant, then the pitch control on your turntable is fine; it may be your skills that need some servicing.
You may find that the pitch settings differ from one turntable to the next; for example, +3 percent on one turntable is not quite the same as +3 percent on another. This is especially true if you have two different brands of turntable. On most DJ decks, the markings represent an estimation of the pitch adjustment as opposed to a tightly calibrated measure. Some turntables feature the ability to adjust their pitch faders; however, most of these adjustments will require you to access the internal circuit board — and void your warranty. (See “Turntablist Techniques” in the June 2004 issue to learn how to calibrate and match the pitch control on a pair of Technics 1200s.)
Another reader, a scratch DJ, wrote in to ask for tips to improve a sticky or bleeding fader. Scratch DJing is particularly abusive to faders — the wear and tear that rapid scratching places on your equipment can easily ruin your brand-new mixer's buttery-smooth fader movement. The first and most important tip is to keep your gear dust-free. Cover the mixer with an old T-shirt when not in use and either vacuum the dust or blow it off with a can of compressed air. Keeping dust away from your faders is seriously the best investment you can make in extending the lifespan of your gear.
Older-style electrical contact faders often bleed or create a static sound after a while due to a buildup of gunk on the contacts responsible for controlling the fade. If your mixer has this style of fader, you should invest in a cleaning solution that will keep the contacts free of dirt. Caig Labs makes a product, DeoxIT, that is an excellent contact cleaner. It is available in both spray and droplet formats. The company's 5 percent solution spray works well for a quick cleaning. Be sure to get the quick-dry formula that is safe for plastics.
In response to the bleeding problems experienced on old-school equipment, modern DJ mixers (especially those aimed at turntablists) feature what are called noncontact faders. These mixers do not require use of a contact cleaner, as the fade level is indirectly controlled by the fader movement (typically via a VCA, optical or magnetic sensor) and thus impervious to static or bleeding. However, whether you have contact or noncontact faders, you should invest in some form of lubricant to keep the fader moving freely on its rails. The best fader lube I have found is Caig Labs CaiLube MCL (now called DeoxIT Fader Lube). Caig's 100 percent solution is available in a 25ml bottle with a needle-dispenser tip that allows precise lubing without the need to remove the mixer's top plate. If the fader movement on your mixer feels sticky, this stuff will give it a new life.
With a little time and some simple maintenance, you can offset a major investment in unnecessary, costly repairs or replacement equipment and instead spend those hard-to-come-by dollars on some exciting new music and equipment. Furthermore, you can ensure that you have an audio system capable of showing off your skills in the best way possible.