Time To Scratch That Itch…

DJ Hypnotize and Baby Cee
Creative Commons License photo credit: D.L.

You’ve probably been itching to get scratching from the first moment you decided to become a DJ, so here’s a rough guide to some of the scratching techniques that you should know about.

As DJs are a very experimental and individual lot, you will find that different DJs sometimes use the same terms to refer to slightly different techniques – there is no really definitive dictionary of scratch terminology.

If you find that you disagree with some of the descriptions here, don’t worry too much about it – the point of this section is to give you some idea of the type of thing that you can do as a scratch DJ.

Because DJs are constantly trying new things and merging techniques to create new styles, there will always be new scratches out there for you to try, and you can even come up with your own once you’ve gotten the basic skills down pat.

Basic Scratch

This is the very first step in learning to scratch (sometimes referred to as the baby scratch, possibly because even a very talented baby could do it).

This is a short forward movement directly followed by a backward movement, and you’ll probably do this instinctively the first time you try to scratch. The only trick to this is the timing – a common approach is to give about half a beat to the forward movement and half a beat to the backward movement. The only thing you need to do with the cross-fader is to drop the scratch into the mix and then back out again.

A variation to the basic scratch can be made by going backwards first, and then forwards. You can also vary the speed of each movement, which will change the sound you produce. Different approaches will work well depending upon the track you’re using – sometimes a longer scratch sounds great, and sometimes it’s better to keep it short and sweet.

Scribble Scratch

Moving on from the basic scratch we have the scribble scratch. This is a natural progression, and is nothing more than a few basic scratches in quick succession.

A good way of doing this is to use your fingers to move the record back and forth through the needle. This will take a bit of practise to get right, but is a very useful skill. As you go on, your level of precision will increase. What you want to do is keep the amount of vinyl passing under the needle as small as possible – try not to spill over the beat or sample that you’re scratching.

Some people find it easier to do the scribble scratch by using their wrist and arm rather than just the fingers; to do this you’ll need to keep your arm tense and stab back and forth. This way takes a bit more physical effort, as you sort of have to move with the scratch, but whatever works for you is the right way.

Tear Scratch

This is a bit more difficult to get the hang of, but it’s essentially a variation of the basic scratch. However, instead of having a simple backward-forward movement, one of the movements is split into two.

Here’s how it works. Say you’re doing a scratch where you go forward first, you do this as normal. Then, when you’re pulling backwards, instead of going all the way back, you go half the way back and then slow the scratch down. This creates a sort of tearing sound which gives the technique its name.

The tear scratch is obviously a bit tricky, and it will take a while to get the hang of the proper timing. What you want really is the first half of the backward scratch to be the same tempo as the forward scratch, and the second half of the backward scratch to be half the tempo. Once you get this down, you can try experimenting with other tempo variations.

Stab Scratch

This is actually the same as the basic scratch, except that you need to use the cross-fader to shorten the back-scratch. You’ll need to instinctively know where the cut-in point of your mixer is to get this right. What you do is this: position your fader just above the cut-in point (the point where your cued record starts to become audible in the mix), perform the forward scratch as usual – then, before you get to the back-scratch, fade the scratch out. This will give you a short choppy-sounding stab scratch.

Repeat Scratch (Forward Scratch)

This isn’t really what most people would describe as a scratch at all, but more of a sort of DJ sampling technique. Although it does involve scratching, the audience don’t actually hear it. All they hear is a particular snippet of audio being repeated.

What you do is position your needle at the start of the sample, let the sample play through – then, when the sample has ended, bring the fader below the cut-in point, pull the record back to the start of the sample, snap the fader above the cut-in again and release the record.

With a bit of practise you can do this really quickly, repeating your sample over and over again. A useful thing to do is to play the first section of a sample a few times before letting it go through the whole thing – this can be a great way of building energy and anticipation in your mix.

Chirp Scratch (Twitter Scratch)

The key to this is co-ordinating your scratching movement of one hand with the fader control on the other (unless you’re really awesome and can do it all on one hand).

Here you start with the fader up and make a forward scratch – but before you get to the end of the forward movement, you bring the fader down so that the scratch gets cut off. This creates a sharp chirpy scratch. You can also reverse this process to create a chirp scratch on a backward scratch movement.

Transformer Scratch

This is quite an advanced technique and is something to try once you’ve gotten really good with synchronising your scratches with your crossfader movement.

The basic idea is to scratch backwards and forwards repeatedly while rapidly cutting the sound in and then out again with the crossfader. The effect is like that of a gapper audio plugin, and it gets its name from the sound the Transformers make when changing form (in the cartoon series).

If your crossfader has a bit of a spring in it, you might be able to start by putting it at the cut-in point and then flicking it back and forth with your thumb or finger to achieve this effect.

Some mixers actually have a Transformer button, which makes the process a lot easier. If your mixer has an input select button, you may be able to use that to achieve a similar effect – that is, by switching between line and phono inputs very quickly.

You can also combine the Transformer with other DJ techniques (such as spinbacks, power cuts or whatever you like) to create more complex effects.

Flare Scratch

This is sort of like a reverse of the Transformer scratch, except you start with your scratch disc faded up and use the fader to cut pieces of it out. To do this you need to work on bouncing the fader off the cut-out side of the fader slot very quickly – this should create a clicking noise. Flare scratches are usually rated according to the number of clicks, so you can have a one-click, two-click or three-click flare scratch (or more if you’re aiming to be the best DJ in the world).

Orbit Scratch

When people talk about an orbit scratch, they are most likely referring to a sequence of flare scratches – for example, a forward flare and a backward flare in quick succession. However, any sequence of forward and backward scratches is technically an orbit.

With a flare orbit scratch, you can define it by counting the number of clicks – a two click orbit scratch would be a two click forward flare directly followed by a two click backward flare.

Tweak Scratch

This scratch is basically anything you do with the turntable motor turned off, as was popularised by Mixmaster Mike. When the motor is off, each time you spin the disc in a particular direction, it continues to move in that direction but gradually slows down – eventually coming to a complete stop unless you move it again. If the motor is on, the disc will quickly return to its set speed moving forward.

Decay Scratch

The effect here is quite similar to a short delay (or echo), but requires very fast hand movement. Basically, the right hand performs a backward pull on the disc and lets go. Then the left hand taps the disc to create a slight pause or break in the scratch, dividing it into two sounds or segments. Then, very quickly, the left hand moves to the volume fader and brings it down a notch. If you get good at this, you can create a scratch that seems to be repeating but with the volume getting progressively lower.

Loop Scratch

More of a general DJ technique than a scratch per se, but the idea is that you have two copies of the same track, one on each deck. You cue up the same section of the song on both discs, play the first one, then crossfade over to the other. When the second disc is playing, pull back the first disc to the start of the section – as the second disc reaches the end of the section, you fade back to the first. As the name suggests, this creates a loop effect where the same sound sequence keeps playing over and over again until you decide it’s time to move on.

Strobe Scratch

This is really a type of beat juggling, where you have beats playing on both decks and you tap one of the decks repeatedly to keep it in time and to create new beats. You can use the same disc on both decks, or two completely different records – by cutting back and forth between the two and tapping/scratching, you can create your own totally unique beats.

Wah Scratch

This technique relies on using the EQ section of your mixer. All you need to do is move the vinyl back and forth under the needle while simultaneously bringing the mid- to-high frequency EQ band up and down. This creates a wah-wah effect – which EQ band is best to use will depend on the sound on the disc and the type of mixer you have. If your mixer has very narrow bands, then you might want to use more than one to create the desired effect.

Crab Scratch

This is a similar technique to the orbit scratch – here you use your thumb as a spring to cut the fader back in as you tap it out with several fingers in quick succession. You can either start with your little finger or your ring finger, tap the fader with each finger until you finish with your index finger. This creates either a three- or four-tap crab scratch.

Hydroplane

A hydroplane is when you gently apply pressure to the spinning disc to create a bassy friction sound, but without stopping the vinyl from spinning. You can then bring this in to your overall mix as an effect, or scratch it in using a crab or whatever other technique takes your fancy. You may also hear about an ‘airplane’ – this is basically deliberate phasing (as mentioned earlier) where you take two copies of the same track and play them back on top of one another but slightly out of sync to create a flanger/phaser modulation effect.

Hamster Style

The standard way of setting up your mixer and decks is so that the turntable on your right plays through the right channel and the turntable on your left plays through the left channel. This, as many people might agree, seems entirely sensible.

However, as always, there is an alternative to this default configuration. The Bullet Proof Scratch Hamster DJs devised a method of setting up their rig so that the left deck plays through the right channel of the mixer and the right deck plays through the left channel. This set-up came to be known as hamster style, and many DJs find it particularly suited to doing complex crabs, flares and so forth. This is because it may be easier to bounce the fader off the side of the fader slot using your fingers rather than your thumb.

Some mixers actually feature a ‘hamster switch’ that reverses the routing of the decks so that you don’t have to go in and rewire the channels manually yourself.

Kel Tech Scratches Star Wars

After all that reading about scratches, it’s time for some actual scratching (and some comic relief) – here’s the Emperor’s March from Star Wars scratched like never before…