The World of Turntables: Direct-Drive
Since the dawn of “turntablism”, and the uprising of DJ culture, the direct-drive turntable has been the most common phonograph of all the styles. Just like the belt-drive and idler-wheel turntables, the direct-drive gets its name from what type of coupling that is used in between the platter and the motor.
The Panasonic Technics series was the first of the direct-drive family and remains one of the most popular turntables on the market to this date. Check out our buying advice for direct drive turntables.
Purpose Behind the Design
With the motor being directly located right under the center of the platter, it’s easy to remember the name of the direct-drive turntable. When compared to older designs, like the belt-drive, the direct-drive offers many much-needed features that are a necessity for turntablism like being more durable and being quicker to start-up. Having the motor attached to the platter instead of a belt is crucial for being able to backspin, or “scratch”, which would otherwise totally wreck a belt-drive turntable. With direct-drive, the motor continues to spin at the proper RPM, regardless of how the DJ moves the record on the platter.
However, direct-drive turntables have their own set of drawbacks as well, including being susceptible to vibrations that the motor causes. The vibration is mainly caused by the high amount of torque that the motor puts out, which also makes the turntable less susceptible to being affected by outside sources (like the stylus or your hand). The higher amount of torque also means the platter gets up to normal speed much faster which leads to less distortion when the record first starts playing. In recent years direct-drive technology has advanced considerably and now most come with a shock-absorbing layer, but if you wanted a vibration-free experience then your best bet used to be a belt-drive unit.
Many of the latest direct-drive models take it a step further and get rid of the motor altogether by using the actual platter as the rotor, within the turntable’s synchronous motor. Simply put, this means that the platter is powered by the magnetic field from the stator of the turntable.
A basic mechanic of all turntables is a motor that spins a metal disk at a consistent speed. On top of that disc (the platter) lies a mat, and on top of the mat is where the record is placed to be played. In earlier years rubber mats were used so that the record wouldn’t rotate by itself, but now there are new slipmats made from a felt-like material. This new material allows DJs to scratch the record, and still have the platter to continue spinning at a constant speed. For direct-drive turntables specifically, the slipmat is also vital for reducing vibrations that would otherwise get picked up by the stylus.
Some turntables also have pitch control as a feature, which is used to fine tune to the exact speed needed. This is used in combination with a strobe light, allowing the DJ to use a mixing technique known as beatmatching. At the end of the 90’s many manufactures started to add new controls like reverse and nudge, all of which DJs utilize to add flair to their performances.
The Origins of the Turntable
The very first direct-drive turntable was brought to life by a Japanese engineering working for Matsushita, known now as Panasonic. Shuichi Obata had the original idea to eliminate the need for a belt by using a motor to spin the platter instead, and in 1969 Matsushita introduced the SP-10 (the birth of the Technics series) – the first direct-drive turntable to be sold on the market. Just two years later Matsushita introduced the Technics SL-1100, which gained massive traction in the hip hop scene due to its very strong motor and notable durability.
At the very forefront of early turntablism was the infamous DJ Kol Herc, who immigrated from Jamaica to New York City. Along with him, he also brought his technique for performs Jamaican dub music and fusing it with new techniques that were only possible with the new direct-drive technology. His bread and butter technique involved spinning two of the same records in alternation, in order to draw out sections that breakdancers liked to dance to. Essentially what he did was alternate between the two records to loop the breaks together and form a beat.
Fast forward to 1972 and Shuichi Obata and his team are back at it again with the introduction of the renowned Technics SL-1200. This model would go on to be the most widely used turntable in hip-hop culture for a couple decades, all because of how well the motor would spin at the same RPM, regardless of how the DJ wiggles the record on the platter.