Technics SL-1200 series 09.08.11

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The simplest DJ trick in the book can also be one of the most satisfying: just switch off the power on the turntable while the record is spinning and let it crawl to a basso halt. Now Panasonic is pulling the plug on its entire line of analogue turntables, including all the models in the Technics SL-1200 series. For anyone that has so much as set foot in a nightclub in the past 30 years, it's the end of an era – one so wholly dominated by the SL-1200 that it's hard to remember what life was like before it.

Introduced in 1972 and left functionally untouched since 1979, the SL-1200 has long represented the gold standard for DJs of every stripe. (Technics actually produced a gold-plated version to commemorate the line's 25th anniversary, and again in 2004 to celebrate 3 million units sold.) It has been name-checked in songs by rappers from Ultramagnetic MCs to A Tribe Called Quest. The techno producer Richie Hawtin named his Plus 8 Records label after the upper limit of its pitch control. A pair of Grandmaster Flash's decks resides in the National Museum of American History.

When the Matsushita Corporation (today Panasonic) rolled out the SL-1200 in 1972 it was dubbed "the middle-class player system", an aspiration borne out in its $350 price tag, clean lines and minimalist design. In 1975, David Mancuso installed a Technics direct-drive turntable in the booth at the famous New York club The Loft and, by the mid-1970s, the SL-1200 had become the default turntable in Big Apple's discos, knocking Thorens from its throne.

Technics really took off in 1979 with the introduction of the MK2, which Billboard magazine declared the first turntable specifically developed for the disco market. The MK2 boasted a number of improvements (the pitch-control knobs became a sliding fader) and was the first to have a die-cast aluminum and rubber chassis, an innovation that became one of the SL-1200's greatest selling qualities. Like Timex watches, the SL-1200 has become famous for its ability to take a licking. The winning routine at 1991's DMC World DJ Championships concluded with Germany's DJ David performing a handstand on a spinning turntable platter. Of course, this durability may have also played a part in the downfall: it's not uncommon to find a working DJ who has been using the same pair of decks for a decade or more.

DJ culture has changed as more spinners have adopted CDJs (CD players that function, in effect, like SL-1200s) and software applications as their instruments of choice. The humble SL-1200 has held on thus far thanks to bridge technologies like Serato and Traktor Scratch, which allow DJs to control MP3s using traditional turntables. But the spread of all-in-one controller devices means that we'll soon see a generation of DJs who have never touched a turntable, at least not on stage. Touring DJs increasingly complain that club turntables are rapidly falling into disrepair.

The SL-1200's user base may be shrinking but as long as there are soldering irons and jewellers' screwdrivers, there will be enthusiasts picking them apart, fixing them up and playing them out. Part of the appeal of the 1200 is its hackable nature: there's a trove of oral history and internet lore around customising the 1200 – extending its pitch range, making it run backwards, or swapping out the white lamps for blue LEDs. "With the 1200s, you have to be deep into experimenting, with taking it apart, going inside the motor, and adjusting the brakes," DJ Premier told Vibe magazine in 2004.

Maybe these DIY deck repairmen will even follow the lead of the group of former Polaroid employees that brought back instant film after the company discontinued its production. It would be a fitting tribute to another of the most popular tricks in the DJ playbook: the rewind.

 

Image

Panasonic

 

Words

Philip Sherburne

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It has been name-checked in songs by rappers from Ultramagnetic MCs to A Tribe Called Quest

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