Gear News. Panasonic To Relaunch Technics Turntables.

Technics_SL-1200MK2-2

As exciting as today’s news – via Wired – concerning Panasonic’s apparent change of heart over the fate of their iconic turntable brand is, it can hardly be that unexpected. Although there have been plenty of pretenders to the Technics’ crown, most recently Pioneer’s resolutely old school PLX1000, nothing seems to have scratched the TT itch quite like a pair of the original bad boys. And even taking into account the number of units still available from Ebay and a billion other places, demand for the original decks remains incredibly high. This demand, coupled with the fact that sales of vinyl are hitting twenty year highs, makes it just about the best time Panasonic could hope for when it comes to bringing Technics back from the dead.

On the surface, it’s a great idea. Although never the most outstanding of turntables from a hi-fi point of view, the Techies garnered themselves a reputation as the deck of choice. The term ‘industry standard’ is one that is almost as overused as the term ‘underground’, but if anything can lay claim to that label, it’s Technics. Simple, built to survive a direct nuclear strike, and with a direct drive motor that would probably outlive you as long as you didn’t hit it with a hammer, you can understand why clubs were so willing to get their hands on them.

But here’s the thing: We don’t know if Panasonic has any interest in catering to the sort of freaks who mostly spin weird beats. The first photos of the prototype that are doing the rounds shows something that might give a Dalek a hard-on but looks uncomfortably austere. Sure, the damn thing doesn’t even have a tone arm just now, let alone pitch control or anything else, but there is already a rumour that the new Technics might not be the descendent of our beloved club-ready decks, that it might – whisper it – actually be aimed at the poncey Hi-Fi market instead.

And that’s a worry if true. For a start, direct drive turntables have long been frowned upon in the sort of circles where it’s considered cool to spunk ten G on a cartridge carved from sentient wood and coral. Belt drives have long been considered the better choice because of, I don’t know, something to do with magic or ghosts or Jesus or whatever. (Personally speaking, if your want to spend £50,000 on a super-duper system to hear the Budapest Symphony Orchestra play Mahler’s 9th ‘like they’re in the room with me’ I don’t know why you wouldn’t just hire them instead. I know, I’m a philistine.) Should Panasonic decide that the Hi-Fi market is the one they want to court, those of us who still hold fond memories of the Silver Brick would probably be left high and dry. These are two markets that are ships in the night and what works for one probably won’t work for the other. Have you ever tried to DJ on belt drive turntables? Try it once, if only to shut yourself up about how hard it is not to use the sync button on Traktor.

The vinyl sales thing is deeply misleading too. Mostly, those sales aren’t going to DJ Chucklebeard’s terribly cool and underground label. Those sales are going to the huge bastards they always did for the simple reason that EMI, Sony and the rest of them have seen yet another opportunity to flog us the same Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Roxy Music albums once again. They love format changes, remember; they loved CDs, they loved tapes. They loved selling us the same crap over and over and over. Most of the rest of the sales are going towards things like Sam Smith or Ed Sheeran 12″s because, and I can’t overstate this enough, people think that if the music is on wax it is more authentic and people are sometimes very, deeply, thick.

Of course, it could all work out nice. Pioneer got a bit of moaning aimed at them for the pretty old-fashioned feature set of the PLX1000 (it played records. Apparently some folks expected more). One wonders whether Panasonic have cast their eye over the changed world of music technology and decided to do something different. If they simply wanted a cut of the money currently going to people selling second-hand units on Ebay all they needed to do would be to relaunch the 1200/1210 and have done with it. But the fact that they are building the new turntable from scratch suggests changes are afoot. Will we see removable leads and wires? a greater pitch range? Will we see USB connectivity allowing greater and easier integration with digital systems, even a built in soundcard? Possibly, but I doubt it.

What I expect, and I do hope I’m wrong, is a very expensive high-end turntable which will be a thing of beauty and contain a level of sound quality that will make choirs of angels cry with envy, and which will trade heavily on the Technics branding for sales. What I don’t expect is a club ready slab of pure functionality that can withstand drum’n’bass spinbacks, gubbed DJs and spilled beer in equal measure. I really hope I’m wrong about that, but I have a feeling I won’t be. All we can do is wait and see. Whatever happens, expect the eventual delight and outrage to run parallel. Keep your ears pealed. It’s going to be interesting.

Gear: Kontrol S8 – Native Instruments.

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Native Instruments new flagship DJ controller, the Kontrol S8, is a big and meaty looking beast. A full 20% larger than the already hefty S4, and boasting more blinking lights than that UFO at the end of Close Encounter, it is probably best viewed as another attempt by the German company to further rewrite the DJing rule book. Or as their own press blurb puts it: “..the advanced DJ controller signals a milestone in Native Instruments’ vision of the future of DJing.”

The S8 itself is the third all-in-one controller NI have so far released, and it is probably best described as something of a hybrid. The most noticeable change from the entry-level S2 and the four channel S4 – and the thing that the peanut gallery seem to have already picked up on – is the complete absence of jog wheels. in their place we have touch sensitive strips, two high quality LCD screens and a number of features designed to make their vision of looping and live remixing a darn sight easier than it was previously. Also included for the first time are dedicated buttons for Freeze and Flux. How well the screens work will be interesting to see. Anything that takes a DJs eyes away from the laptop screen has got to be good. It also promises a MIDI I/O which should allow Maschine users to sync with Traktor. This itself will be a reason for some people to shell out the not inconsiderable asking price; syncing the two bits of software up until now has proved something of a right bugger for most people. let’s hope they finally got it right.

Interestingly, NI seem to be pitching the controller not just at the sync and loop gang, but at those who have a more traditional ethos. They seem to be making things of the fact that the mixer section is able to function in a stand alone capacity, and with a built-in Traktor Scratch certified sound card and four line in/phono in jacks it is a pitch well worth making. It’s here, though, and with the £900 odd quid price point, that questions need to be asked.

With the other two controllers there was an obvious market. The two channel S2 was an obvious entry-level product. It came packaged with a full copy of Traktor and was subject to various sales. It was a decent enough DJ system that contained almost everything you needed to get going in a box. I’ve got one. It feels a bit Fischer-Pricey but it does the job. The S4 was the four channel big brother that, due to the fact you could jack turntables into it, became the cornerstone of many more experienced DJs systems.

The S8 seems to have a less natural market for it. Surely anyone with a pair of tables or CD players who wants to go down the DVS route would be better off buying a proper stand alone high quality mixer and running it through one of NI’s top end sound cards? Are they going to be that interested in the bundled controls for the remix decks? I suspect that many DJs who are going the DVS route are probably more interested in a more traditional method of playing. In fact, how many DJ’s really bother with the remix decks? One suspects that when you cut out a lot of people who crow about ‘remixing on the fly’ being the future the number is probably on the low side. Most people, regardless of the capabilities of the software, simply use it for straight-forward A-B mixing.

The crux of the issue is this: Given that they seem to be making great claims for the mixer section, would NI not have been better finally going down the modular route and creating a high level four channel digital mixer that would have given the Allen and Heaths and Pioneers of the world a run for their money, that could be used both with Traktor or away from the laptop, or used as the heart of a genuinely modular set up along side a variety of NI’s X1 or F1 controllers for remixing and transport control? I worry that Native Instruments dedication to realising their own vision of what DJing should be blinds them from how things actually are. Whether it comes back to bite them, or they convince enough people they are right, remains to be seen.

Gear: Allen and Heath Xone K1

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The market for USB DJ controllers would seem to be reaching something of a saturation point just now, especially compared to the amount of new vinyl turntables coming on to the market. Pioneer, Native Instruments, Behringer and others have all joined the battle over the last few years with devices that range from the very, very good to the not so wonderful and when you add in the fact that the bulk of CD turntables are able to play your downloads via software or USB stick, it is increasingly difficult for any DJ to ignore the wind of change.

Allen and Heath’s Xone K1 is essentially a modified version of their older Xone K2 unit – a small stand alone USB powered device that packs in a huge amount of features for the price: A sound card, 4 line faders, 12 analogue pots and 6 endless rotary encoders plus the ability to program latching layers that greatly multiply the potential controls to ever greater (and slightly unwieldy) heights. The K1, whilst being virtually identical to the naked eye, makes several small changes that, depending of how important you find them, either cleverly reduce the price whilst still keeping the superb functionality or neuter your ability to do great things with it.

Firstly, the soundcard that was integral to the K2 has been removed which, in my eyes at least, is probably a good idea. Having used the K2 for the best part of two years now I can say that I have never been tempted to use this feature. For a device that I use mainly for transport control and EQ in Traktor (amongst other things) I never saw much use for it, doubly so when I heard the reports of the devices very low output volume. Also gone are the latching layers which allowed you to increase the amount of controls at your disposal. The jury is still out on whether this is a good move or not. Some like it, loving the power it gives them. Others found it too fiddly. I think I’m properly in the second camp. I am easily confused and liable in the depth of a mix to hit something by mistake that sends the music scuttling away from me. Also removed is the case that doubled as a stand, although it seems this will be available for a price later on.

Regardless of what Allen and Heath have removed, it’s what they haven’t that makes the K1 attractive. The build of the K2 is fantastic – weighty, solid and professional feeling with virtually no unnecessary bells and whistles which puts it ahead of a lot of the competition these days. It’s also software agnostic; you should be able to use it with Traktor, with Live, Serato and virtually any other DJ software or DAW without issue. One of the issues I have with the controllers Native Instruments (and to a lesser degree Pioneer with Serato) have been producing is that they are built for Traktor – increasingly so. I understand the reasons for it, it keeps you tied into to both the hardware and software and stops you moving to something else, but as someone who has found Traktor more irritating and troublesome than fun recently it’s not a philosophy I’m keen to buy into.

The only thing I wasn’t really fussy about on the K2 are the line faders. There is nothing wrong with them as such, they just sucked for pitch control, being nowhere sensitive enough for the job. Now this is small beer, and there are ways to program the device so that the various pots can be used for this function instead. But I always found it fussy and tricky to do it right which meant I tended to rely on the dreaded Sync button when using it. Your mileage, though, may vary.

Whether or not people will flock to the K1 remains to be seen and a lot of decisions will rely on exactly how much cheaper this new unit is over the old. If, as seems to be the case, the difference might be as little as £20 or £30, i suspect people may still gravitate to the older unit. Should it be a more substantial discount Allen and Heath may well have a winner on their hands. Lets hope so. Competition in the digital realm is something that can only push innovation, and that’s never bad.

Random thoughts on Pioneer’s New Turn Table.

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When confirmation came last week of Pioneer’s PLX-1000 Turn Table, the first from a company best known for its extensive and ‘Industry Standard’ range of mixers and CD decks, certain sections of the peanut gallery went predictably mental. A clever move, they said, given the rising sales of vinyl and lack of any real competition in this specific section of the market since Panasonic stopped manufacturing their iconic Technics decks a couple of years ago. It would, the thinking went, lead to clubs across the land embracing real DJs playing real records once again. In one swift move Pioneer have probably sealed their dominance of the booth for the next decade.

They look exactly like you would expect: Like a Technic SL-1200. That is no bad thing of course, (although, lets face it, how different could it have been?) and the feature set is paired down to pure functionality: variable pitch speeds running from 8% through 10% up to 50% and a reset switch give it a slight advantage over Techies, and the removable cables (RCA, grounding and power) are an excellent move as is the concept of a rubber insulated tone arm to isolate and cut out problematic feedback and frequencies. Coupled with a strong magnetic engine, low wow and flutter (although at .1% compared to the .01% of a Technics deck) Pioneer have definitely come up with a nice looking and rather old school bit of kit albeit with a price point of £600 or so (although, at this time, I’m not sure the UK pricing has been confirmed.) Personally, I think I would have liked to see a USB cable in there too. A top quality turn table with a digital interface would have been very interesting, especially considering how many tables are used as part of a DVS system nowadays.

As a way for clubs to replace knackered old kit with something brand new and capable, I can partly understand Pioneers move, but aside of that I can’t help feel a little bit confused about who else is likely to be buying them. The much vaunted rise in vinyl sale is – however welcome – not entirely applicable to those of us primarily listening to electronic music. The bulk of all those new sales are to be found in audiophile, remastered pressings of classic albums and a bunch of contemporary big sellers. That is not to say that there hasn’t been a notable rise in the number of underground labels that deal all but exclusively in vinyl, but the numbers are still tiny in comparison, and the ranks of vinyl only DJs aren’t about to return to the levels of the mid nineties either. People have slowly begun to see advantages to playing with their music on a lap top or a memory stick (even CDs have benefits) and I wonder how willing any of them are going to be to spend £600 on a deck, even if it is just one for ripping vinyl from?

The fact is that on Ebay today you can pick up a second-hand Technics 1200 for £300 and as little as £100. Even taking into account the possibility that the unit will need a service it’s unlikely a pair of them are going to set you back anywhere near as much as a pair of Pio PLX-1000. Of course, One of Pioneers main advantages is it’s marketing and PR machinery, and the desirability that any bit of kit with the logo on it has over a large section in the market. No other company could get away with charging £1500 for a single CDJ 2000 Nexus no matter how good it is. But Pioneer have arrived at this point as Industry Leader, and to do it a time when – unlike in the days of Technics dominance when there really only was once real choice – clubs can furnish their booths with plenty of equipment that does the same job cheaper, better or both is a real achievement. It’s partly down to the gear, but it’s heavily down to the PR machinery too. The logo on the kit has a quality all of its own.

Even saying this stuff, I’ll be more than happy to see people snapping them up for use in clubs and at home. It’s indicative of a different approach to DJing and we should surely be happy to see as many different ways of doing the thing we love as possible. As for myself, I’ve spent the last couple of days trying to get to grips with a pair of CD decks and I realised what it is I really miss about vinyl DJing: The immediacy of it. CD decks there is the hassle of getting your music into the correct format and then onto a memory stick or CD. Even with software like Traktor there is the beat-gridding and all that rigmarole. How much better for creativity to drop a needle onto the wax and just go? Maybe there are a whole bunch of people out there who feel the same way. Maybe Pioneer do to. I guess we’ll find out in August.

In Defence of Boys and their Toys.

As I sit here writing this, I have another couple of tabs open on my browser. One of them is a window onto the DJ gear section of Juno, the mixer section in fact. Occasionally I’ll swap over to it, gazing with longing at an Allen and Heath Xone 92 six channel mixer and imaging the fun we could have together. A while ago I mentioned to my girlfriend that I was thinking about buying a new mixer and she asked how much it was. When I told her she simply asked another question: will it make the music sound any better? Well, no, I grumbled, but that isn’t the point.

The other tab opens onto a YouTube demo of Elektron’s brand new drum machine, the Analog RTYM. It sounds amazing. It looks amazing. It has the price point too – I could comfortably buy a crappy second-hand car for that. My brain keeps telling me about how much fun it would be but I know that I don’t really need it, not least because I already own an Elektron drum machine, the Machinedrum which I bought second-hand a couple of years back and still haven’t fully and permanently introduced into my production set up because I simply don’t have the space to do so.

My list of toy wants is as long as it is unobtainable: At the top are a 303 and 909. Below that are CD decks, half a dozen synths of various sorts and assorted other gubbins that would simply devour vast amounts of money from my bank account. I’m happy enough with the day dreams, solvent enough to occasionally indulge myself (after months of ‘research’ that is simply a way of convincing that nagging doubt that I am actually right) and positive of one thing: I know none of it will turn me into Theo Parrish or Pete Namlook, just as I knew when I bought a butterscotch coloured Fender Telecaster for my 21st birthday that it was never going to bestow the strutting, hollow-cheeked cool and arrogance of Let It Bleed era Keith Richard upon me. I still played the hell out of that guitar, though. That was the important thing.

There are terms for it, chief amongst them G.A.S, or Gear Acquisition Syndrome. It’s the name for the inexplicable need to hunt out the Newest Shiny Toy. The more sanctimonious souls out there are always ready to smugly point out that the latest equipment isn’t going to make you any better at what you do, that its – at best – a panacea and at worst an expensive way to attempt to buy your way out of a lack of talent. The names of producers who are known to rock it with a couple of third hand sound boxes are always dragged out as if this is the damning evidence, the magic bullet that can kill any argument dead. The problem is, everyone knows this. Nobody seriously believes spending 5 grand on an antique piano is going to turn them into Beethoven. Nobody thinks that purchasing a room full of rack mounted modular gear is going to transform them into Van Gelis. A new bit of equipment might, at best, allow you to overcome some mental barrier, forcing you into some change to your workflow that might be beneficial. But this is just an outside possibility. Probably not something you’d want to throw a couple of grand at.

The thing is that all of this misses the point. None of this cuts to the heart of the issue. In fact, the explanation for the desire to buy some new gizmo is much simpler than all of this, and its to be found in many of us: It’s all about kit.

Kit is the great obsession of men and boys. Kit has been at the centre of the psyche of the human male since we first twatted a rabbit with a bit of wood for our dinner and wondered aloud whether we should get a bigger and shinier rabbit-twatter, before Ugg from the cave up the hill told us that his brother had just got a new rabbit-twatter that he could also use on ducks and it was the dogs bollocks.

My Father and his best friend are well into road cycling. They’re shortly going to be cycling from one end of Ireland to the other. They’ve already done Lands End to John o’Groats and France from the North Sea to the Med. They know their stuff, they’re both adults, but put them in a bike shop and it’s like taking my little nieces to Hamleys. They can probably talk for hours about the ergonomics of a bike seat that cost several hundred quid but does little more at the end of the day but stops you sitting on a sharp sticky-up piece of metal.

In his brilliant book ‘The Angry Island’ the writer and journalist AA Gill writes in passing about his time with a bunch of Soldiers at the Army’s sniper school. They talked incessantly about their gear, about their kit; all the little extra bits and pieces they had spent money on over the years – some vital to what they do, others not so much. Soldiers are famously obsessed with kit for the simple reason that it might help save their life or, just as importantly perhaps, might add a crumb of comfort in a situation that would otherwise be unbearable.

The bulk of the chapter (called Memorials, if you have read it) is about a statue at Paddington station called ‘Soldier Reading a Letter’ by Charles Sargeant Jagger which was commissioned to commemorate the Great War. A picture of the statue is at the top of the page. The striking thing about it is that it breaks with tradition. This is no memorial to the glory of war, this is a remembrance of ordinary men thrown into the horrors of a war that should never have been allowed to happen. This is a statue of a man reading a letter from home as he waits for a train back to the Hell of the Front. This is a man weighed down by his scarf, the heavy greatcoat, his boots bound tightly against the mud and the filth. This is a man weighted down by his kit, by the things small and not so small that might just give him enough hope to survive what he knows is to come.

I don’t suggest that buying a Moog Voyager is going to save your life, that a Minibrute is as important as a warm coat to a soldier in a trench but that too is to miss the point. What I do suggest is that it’s something within all of us – an ancient, inherent call that has been translated into modern language. In its tiny and unimportant way G.A.S is about survival. It’s about finding that distraction and that crumb of comfort that will help you get through the day regardless of what flavour it comes in.

So next time someone has a go at you for buying kit, wagging their finger at you and telling you it that synth won’t make you Juan Atkins, you can strike a flinty pose and tell them that what you are doing is nothing less than remembering the sacrifice of those ordinary men, with ordinary interests who fell in combat to secure our right to buy overpriced soundboxes from boutique Swedish electronics companys. That should shut them up.

Or get you punched.