A brief history of big beats: DJ equipment through the years

From as early as the 1940s, DJing has been a staple of our culture. From the first introduction of music during radio shows to the huge DJ sets you see at festivals today, DJing is used as a format for us to consume music in new and exciting ways.

This all started when radio hosts decided they needed something to break up the chatter and conversations they were having while on the air, and music instantly became a massive hit amongst listeners, prompting the need for new equipment which could allow radio shows to segue from one tune to another with ease.

The birth of the Disc Jockey

Early DJing in its most basic form required the use of vinyls, which presenters used to ensure that their audience would always be listening to a steady flow of new music. Naturally, the methods for playing these discs were pretty archaic, with the discs being spun using a rotating unit that operated on a belt system.

How do vinyl turntables work?

This essentially means that a compact motor inside the unit rotated, causing the belt to turn. This belt was connected to a platter which held the current records, allowing the needle to move across each groove and bring the music to the people.

However, as you can imagine, this method wasn’t the most effective, and radio shows soon found themselves needing a quicker, more efficient way of changing from one record to the next with greater precision, which saw the creation of a more improved style of turntables which made use of direct drive motors.

These turntables were essentially manned by an electromagnet, cutting out the middleman and allowing the records to start up almost instantly with much more accuracy, which in turn opened up turntables for performers who wanted to do more exciting things with their tracks. This style of turntable was in production for many years and was seen as the industry standard, until they finally discontinued it in the 2010s. Some DJs still prefer this method or others similar to the more modern DJ equipment we see around today.

The rise of the CDJ

At the turn of the 20th century, CDs overtook vinyls, and as such, DJ equipment needed to adapt, resulting in the launch of units such as the Pioneer CDJ1000. This allowed DJs to find a happy medium between the old and the new, letting them use the skills they had learned on vinyl machines and pairing them with the flexibility that came with utilising CDs. Machines similar to the CDJ also opened up the world of DJing to the average person, allowing more people to experiment with and explore DJ equipment, and more technology to be created for those DJs to use. 

DJ Software

And then came the digital age, which many agree works in favour of DJs as it gives them access to thousands of songs at their fingertips, all of which are guaranteed to be of the highest quality. All of a sudden, there was no need to physically carry around the music you wanted to play for people, that you wanted to change and manipulate to add to their enjoyment – instead, you could double click a file and the music would be right there, ready to play for the world.

This opened up what could only be described as an endless world of possibility when it came to the capabilities it presented for DJ equipment, and as such, there is a huge range of software packages and new units available such as Traktor and Ableton Push.

Where next for the world of DJing?

With all these possibilities at their fingertips, and people being able to test out DJing and create new and exciting music almost instantly, many people have brought into question the validity of DJing as a type of music. But what is clear is that as time has gone on, and DJing has become more experimental with more potential than anyone could have imagined, DJs are no longer having to spin other people's music. They can create their own.

Some of the most successful musicians in the modern world – take Calvin Harris, for example – perform to hundreds of thousands of people with nothing more than a DJ booth and a pair of headphones, playing the songs they once made in their garages on the world stage.

With this knowledge in mind, it seems pretty obvious that DJs have now become musicians in their own right, creating new and interesting sounds that inspire other artists, and will probably inspire them for many years to come.