All Hail The SL1200 or The Majesty of the Direct Drive DJ Turntable
Since the late 1970s, conventional thinking – at least amongst the trendy hi-fi press - has been that the ultimate turntable design requires a belt drive and a suspended sub chassis. Coincidentally, this was also the specification of the Linn LP12 turntable, which was for many years regarded as the ultimate tool for vinyl playback. But such turntables, whilst fine for hi-fi use, were useless for broadcasting as they were too delicate and the start up time (the time spent by the deck to achieve playing speed from a standing start) could run into several seconds. And the Linn (and a few others) originally only turned at 33 1/3rpm, on the somewhat sniffy assumption that no serious listener could possibly want to listen to 45rpm singles.
It is important to understand the importance of start up times. Broadcasters, keen to avoid “dead air” and to make their programmes sound snappy and ear catching, require that music should start at the touch of a button. The exception to this is BBC Radio 3 that seems happy to allow a five second gap at the start and end of each record. Compact discs can easily be cued up for instant start (Technics and Denon broadcast CD players even cue straight to the start of the music, not the start of the tracks – there can be up to a three second pause on compact discs before the music kicks in). Prior to the emergence of CD, a DJ had no option but to drop the needle into the groove of a record, and with the turntable motor turned off, rotate the disc until the start of the music was found. Then, depending on the start up time of the deck the DJ would wind the record back a half or a quarter turn. A really good broadcast turntable (I.e. those custom built by Gale for The BBC) could achieve full speed within an inch or two of back cueing. Some later turntables were even self cueing. Once the fader on the turntable channel was opened up, the record would start almost instantly. Unfortunately, back cueing is not always kind to records and can leave a very slight audio trace in the groove (a gentle pop or two). Meanwhile, lightly sprung and delicate belt drive turntables were by definition not up to broadcasting nor nightclub use.
Really slick DJs, relying on a sharp pair of ears and good hand-eye coordination, could beat match records, i.e. play records sequentially, one straight into the next without missing a beat. Which was handy for keeping the dance floor full. This somewhat tricky and admirable task was made easier with a slip mat and a variable speed deck. In later years, beat matching (or mixing) dance tracks became the accepted norm in nightclubs and the like, made even easier with records that were designed for mixing. Not for nothing do contemporary dance tracks centre around a similar beat (120bpm) and have long percussive sections. Beat matching early Motown and Atlantic singles is highly skilled and I would wager that this something beyond the capabilities of most of today’s DJs.*
Heavy duty Japanese direct drive turntables arrived in the early 1970s, typically in the form of the Technics SL1100. Sony, Denon and JVC all launched heavy, solid and elaborate turntables that invariably were covered in brushed aluminium, featured stroboscopic markings on the turntable rim and had s-shaped tone arms as well as some element of speed adjustment. For tremendous speed accuracy, the motor was often quartz locked, a method of governing its rotational speed. Technics launched the SL1200 which featured adjustable tone arm height, a slider control for speed adjustment and also had an independent and large start button on the left front of the deck. Most such direct drive turntables were designed to start when the tone arm was lifted and moved towards the platter – useless for DJs. But the SL1200 had to be started via this conveniently placed and rather solid start button. By the late 1970s, this masterpiece of audio engineering was becoming standard issue in nightclubs throughout the world.
But the crown prince of the Japanese direct drive turntables was the Technics SL100. Originally designed as a HiFi deck, this monster was soon adapted for broadcast purposes. In studios, it would be built directly into the desk. It had a 78rpm option, and the time taken to flip between speeds was barely measurable. The start up time was so fast, a DJ could back cue a record by no more than one inch for the record to achieve playing speed by the time the music started. The playing speed was fantastically accurate – I once lined up a CD and LP of the same album and started them simultaneously. The music did not go out of sync for the whole side of the LP.** Rumble was immeasurable. The deck felt like it was carved out of solid marble, once fitted into the BBC desk, it felt as if a nuclear explosion would not move this turntable nor jog its tone arm. The Technics SL100 is the best turntable that I have ever used. The sound quality produced by this beast was shockingly good. Recently, one was offered for sale on eBay for $9,000. If you ever have the slightest chance of owning an example of this machine, just go ahead and do it. Do not think twice.
The principles applied in the construction and set up of broadcast turntables flew in the face of conventional HiFi thinking. For on the one hand, enthusiasts tinkered with fragile belt driven bouncy turntables, with tone arms tracking at 1.0 gram or less. Such equipment, whilst capable of exquisite sound quality, was often allergic to the task of playing records. Back in the record store, Linn owners would return copy after copy of the same LP because, for instance, “There’s a little click that you can hear between tracks 3 and 4 on side 2…”
I speak as the owner of an LP12***
A Technics SL1200 (or better still, an SL100) equipped with a DJ cartridge (Ortofon OM PRO) tracking at the recommended force of 3.5 grams would not hear such a tic, or much else in the way of surface noise. Nor would it produce much in the way of tracking error. I once invited two HiFi nuts into the radio studio to see and hear the SL100 in action. I asked them to bring along the noisiest, least satisfying LPs in their collection. The ones that they could not bear to listen to at home because the playing surface was so poor. The records, when played in the studio, were as quiet as CDs – with no loss in musical detail.
The SL1200 was a much imitated turntable – numerous cheap copies appeared, all of which featured the large start button on the front left. Most were too flimsy of build for beat matching/mixing/scratching and few had quartz locked motors nor accurate speed adjustment. But from at a distance at least, they looked the part. The also sold for a fraction of the £500 asking price for the genuine item.
Recently, the direct drive turntable has achieved a resurgence of interest amongst audiophiles. In particular, the Denon DP62L. And of course the SL1200.  In early 2016, Panasonic announced the return of the SL1200 in G and GAE editions. Early indications were that the starting price would be circa £2750 – well out of reach of all but the most dedicated DJs. This wallet worrying launch price suggested that the turntable was now to be aimed at the hi-fi market, rather than disc jockeys. This change in approach could possibly be attributed to recent interest in the SL1200 from audiophiles, combined with the domination of the dance floor market via Pioneer’s DJ CD machine and/or laptops and hard drives. 
I would, for the moment, suggest a visit to eBay/Gum Tree/Craigslist/HiFi Wigwam – and try not to buy anything which has been used day in, night out in clubs and pubs…
*The 12” single and disco mixed version of tracks partially have their origins in beat matching. American 7” soul singles of the mid to late 1970s were as likely as not to feature an instrumental mix on the B-side. Enterprising DJs, armed with two copies of the same record, learned how to create longer versions of tracks by seamlessly mixing together sections of the vocal and instrumental sides of the record(s). As often as not, the DJ would play an instrumental intro and verse first, then mix in the vocal side, at the end of which blend in the remainder of the instrumental. And on to the next record, all without missing a beat. DJ Tom Moulton pioneered this format; his mixing (and editing) skills were soon put to use in the studio rather than on the dance floor. To this day, you’re more likely to hear his mix of The Trammps’ Hold Back The Night (with the instrumental first verse) rather than the original mix, where the vocals cut in straight after the intro. His 12 minute remix and re-edit of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes’ The Love I Lost is a masterpiece – his mix sounds like it ought to be the original 1974 recording, from which other shorter cuts were edited down. But his opus was created 30 years after the original - a definitive version of an already perfect record re-created from sifting through and reassembling different sections and tracks from the original multi-track tape.
Recording studios started preparing Special Disco Versions (I.e. longer and substantially different mixes to the single and album versions) which would appear on 12” records, rotating at either 45 or (more commonly in the USA) 33 1/3rpm. The increased amount of space on the record allowed for the cutting engineer to really turn up the levels, making such disco 12” singles sounding incredibly powerful and LOUD (but more likely to skip on cheap turntables). Certain records are considered definitive in their disco mixes, indeed the corresponding album versions pale into insignificance and as a consequence are seldom heard, for example: -
McFadden & Whitehead – Ain’t No Stopping Us Now
Dan Hartman – Instant Replay
Roxy Music – Dance Away
**Speed variation (wow, and to a lesser degree, flutter) was once considered a big problem with turntables. Meanwhile, a radio presenter, keen to end their programme in time for the news or for the Greenwich Time signal, had to be sure that the decks would not add or subtract a few seconds from the record’s playing time.
***Reserved for ultra clean mint condition records. And it sounds fantastic. Everything else gets played on the Technics. Which also sounds fantastic, but even I would admit that the Linn has the edge in terms of finesse.