SCRATCH BY EAR - EMusician

SCRATCH BY EAR

Most DJs learn to scratch by observing others. As a budding turntablist, I obsessively watched video footage of scratching, eager to pick up some new
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Most DJs learn to scratch by observing others. As a budding turntablist, I obsessively watched video footage of scratching, eager to pick up some new skills. Early how-to scratch videos featured unscripted DJs vaguely explaining what they were doing, followed by footage of them scratching with a camera aimed at their hands. As the genre evolved, it incorporated more polished descriptions of techniques and improvements in video footage (like using fixed overhead cameras), reaching its pinnacle with DJ QBert's Complete Do-It Yourself DVD series. Although they were well-made, those DVDs have been criticized for creating legions of mini-QBerts who desire only to emulate the style and technique of the legendary turntablist. But, now, a new entry in scratch instruction, The Tutoritool, is changing that educational norm by removing the visual element.

ENTER THE NEW TOOL

The Tutoritool differs from other instructional de-vices in that it is audio-only and vinyl-based. Funded by Arts Council England and produced by Pedestrian — a voluntary British nonprofit that provides information, support and performance opportunities for young turntablists — The Tutoritool is billed as “the world's first interactive turntablism record.” And it makes a good first impression. The set includes two records in a gatefold sleeve, a four-sided card of how-to instructions and a set of stickers for marking your vinyl. The records are of high-quality vinyl, similar to that of better-quality battle-break albums.

The Tutoritool includes instructions, examples and samples to help you learn baby scratches, cuts, stabs, chirps, transformers, flares and crabs. Also included are composition tutorials for scratching drums, bass lines, vocals and melodic verse patterns. Rounding out the package are basic instructions on beat juggling and tips for using the included stickers to mark your vinyl — even how to use them to continuously loop a section of vinyl using a sticker as a needle jump.

THE COMPONENTS

The illustrated how-to card is designed like a tent that you can stand within view of your turntables to read along as you practice. Simple, clearly written instructions are provided for each tutorial, and some of the scratches have accompanying line-drawing-style illustrations that are easy to understand and provide relevant turntable or fader information to help master the scratch (such as fader-hand positioning).

The Tutoritool's vinyl, however, is its crowning achievement. Side A of each record provides the audio and samples for the tutorials. For each scratch technique described, the records include a “Scratch Sounds” track that contains multiple appropriate samples with which to practice the scratch and a matching “Tutorial” track that contains a locked-groove example of the scratch technique. What is both clever and innovative is that if a “Scratch Sounds” track is on side A of record 1, the corresponding “Tutorial” track will be on side A of record 2. This allows you to play the tutorial on one turntable while you scratch along on the other. Each record alternates between “Scratch Sounds” and “Tutorials,” with each track clearly separated by widely spaced grooves.

Side B of both records provides 10 tracks of carefully selected battle-break-style samples and beats. The tracks are designed in pairs, with the first track providing samples and the second track offering an appropriate beat. The samples and beats are categorized into hip-hop, rock, jazz and drum 'n' bass. Two tracks are included for practicing beat juggling — one slow and one fast — both of which are designed to be “skipless” (that is, they repeat every rotation). I did not find either to be a particularly good track for a beginner to learn juggling concepts, though the skipless design is a clever idea.

Overall, the samples and beats used on The Tutoritool are well-selected for the purpose of this device. And they are appropriately grouped into themes based on the scratch techniques for which they are well matched. The jazz, rock and drum 'n' bass sample tracks contain collections of more unique sounds. One improvement, however, would be to have the arrangement of the sample tracks on side B tempo-matched with the beat that they are paired to. This would make it easier for beginners to use when practicing and perhaps be of greater value to more advanced DJs for use in “real” battles.

HEAR THE DIFFERENCE

Obviously, turntablism is primarily an audio-based medium. Although some DJs use body tricks to impress the crowd, the sound of your scratching is what is most important. With video-based tutorials, budding DJs often focus on the way that a DJ is scratching more than the sounds he or she is creating. The beauty of The Tutoritool's audio-only design is that it instead encourages the creation of your own technique. If you can make the scratch sound the same, you've mastered the basics, regardless of how you made it sound that way.

Initially, I was skeptical as to how successful an audio-only tool could be. However, as a testament to the thought that has gone into The Tutoritool, the system really works. The excellent packaging provides clear and helpful information, and the records provide you with all of the tools you need to practice the techniques. I highly recommend The Tutoritool to beginner and even intermediate DJs. That said, I also recommend grabbing a video-based tutorial, as The Tutoritool doesn't replace the desire to see what the DJ is doing when performing certain techniques. If it's a video you seek, try DJ QBert's Complete Do-It Yourself, Vol. 1: Skratching (Thud Rumble, 2002). For more information about The Tutoritool, visit www.pedestrian.info.