What we'd tackle in our first edition was a no-brainer. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more ubiquitous presence in the DJ world than the Technics SL-1200 MK2, the deck that started it all.
In 1979, the Japanese electronics giant Matsushita introduced an updated version of its Technics SL-1200 turntable. Since no official history was ever written, and Matsushita, better known these days as Panasonic, never made much of a fuss about its designers, we know very little about what went into this redesign. But the updates, however modest, made for critical improvements. The pitch adjustment, formerly controlled by two skinny rotary knobs below the platter, were bundled into a single slider next to the tonearm. A start/stop button now set the platter spinning without turning the unit on or off. There were also more subtle changes, like better dampening and a quartz-lock on the motor control circuit for more consistent speed (a weak point in the original model). The MK2 now came in two colors—matte black in addition to the familiar ashy silver—but otherwise looked even less fancy than the down-to-business original. Tweaks aside, Matsushita wasn't striving for anything more than the humble, middle-of-the-range hi-fi equipment they'd been marketing for much of the decade.
The Technics SL-1200 MK2 is unquestionably not the best turntable ever made. For great audio quality, you'll want a belt-driven audiophile deck. As for the height of direct-drive turntable design, it's safe to say the legendary EMT 950 will never be surpassed. And in terms of what you get for your money, it's not even best at its own tabletop mixing game. (A comparable Stanton deck gives you three playback speeds to the 1200's two, a line-level output and variable pitch control ranges for about half the price.)
But the decks known simply as 1200s—or 1210s, if you hail from a part of the world where the black model was more ubiquitous—went on to become something much more than turntables. Hook two of them up to a mixer, and you give synthesizers a run for their money as the key instrument of the 20th century. Developments in the digital world would of course make Silly Putty of sound, but the 1200s did much to unfix recorded music, opening vinyl up to whatever sort of wobbles, slow-downs and speed-ups dexterous hands could elicit from the platter. Hip-hop might not have happened without a record player that could be so thoroughly mangled and manipulated. And the dance floor experience as we know it, where the beat pounds away more or less uninterrupted for the entire night, would likely have taken a very different form.
Most critically, the 1200 was direct-drive, one of the hallmarks of the Technics brand for years prior. Most turntables employed belt-drive systems, which operate as the name indicates: the motor attaches to a belt, and that turns the platter. This means the motor can live far from the platter, which diminishes the amount of vibration that makes it into playback, and the belt itself helps with absorption. Audiophiles thus have a comparatively low opinion of direct-drive systems, where the motor operates directly to the platter and can more adversely affect the sound. But direct-drive's quick starts and stops made it the preference for broadcast DJs. And as more adventurous hands would discover, you could do some serious fooling-around with the platter without breaking the motor or something as flimsy as a turntable belt.
The MK2s, with their quartz-enhanced timing, proved especially good at this. You could run your finger along the platter to slow it down, and when you lifted it off, the platter would return almost instantaneously to its steady original speed without overshooting or otherwise wobbling back into place. You could do this for hours every day, and it wouldn't have any damaging effect on your deck. As anyone old enough to have gotten a scolding when trying to pull similar moves move on your parents' hi-fi can attest, this was no small innovation, and one that could seriously change your relationship with playing music.
Beyond a direct-drive platter, the 1200s really don't offer much in the way of features. They play records within plus-or-minus eight percent of 33 or 45 RPM, and that's it. The only obvious addition in models subsequent to the MK2 was a pitch reset button, but in eliminating the need for the "click" at the center of the pitch adjustment slider, this felt almost subtractive. 1200s, then, are as feature-rich as you make them. Learning the toolkit of vinyl mixing (cueing, scratching, beatmatching) very often means learning 1200s. There's a subtlety to how we play turntables, with little flicks of the wrist and precision nudges of the platter worked into our muscle memory. Unlike digital gear, which can "learn" these things and reproduce them at will, record players require some of the nuance—we might call it musicianship—that a guitarist or violinist brings to their instrument.
Though much of its charm is how little its design has changed since the '70s, the 1200 has been tweaked through the years. Here's what you'll find floating around.
The precursor to the legend, with a direct-drive platter and rotary pitch adjustment knobs.
1979: SL-1200/1210 MK2
Quartz-enhanced timing and a pitch adjustment slider defined the deck we know and love today.
1997: SL-1200/1210 M3D
A reset button replaces the "click" in the pitch adjustment slider. And in a nod to DJs, Technics scraps the dust cover hinges.
2002: SL-1200/1210 MK5
The tonearm gets some some slight tweaks, and the target light goes LED. A 30th-anniversary edition, numbered 1210 M5G, sports a shiny black finish, digital pitch adjustment and a few other high-end touches.
2008: SL-1200 MK6
As advanced as they'd get, with better wiring, pitch control, damping and LEDs.
The Gold Ones
The usual models too subtle for your taste? Hunt down the limited-edition decks Technics released in 1997 and 2004, where all the metal parts came plated in 24-karat gold.
"DJs all over the world know the 1210," says Christian Hoffmann, the head sound tech at Tresor in Berlin. "Most of them know how to handle them. They know how they react. They don't want to try new turntables they don't know, even if there is no big difference between them." Their continual ubiquity is, in a sense, the result of their continual ubiquity.
DJs make much of the 1200's tough-to-replicate tactility, but anyone who's owned a pair and really put them to work can attest to their near-indestructibility. Stories abound of the early days of hip-hop in the Bronx, where DJs would throw their decks in car trunks and plunk them down in whatever courtyard or gymnasium was home to the party that day. They can be covered in gashes, dents and cigarette burns and play just as well as one right out of the box. "I've heard of them getting run over by cars and still holding up," says Justin Carter of Brooklyn's Mister Saturday Night party, whose mobile soundsystem still uses half of his first pair, procured as an undergraduate at NYU from a scratch DJ in the South Bronx. "We have only ever had to get rid of one turntable. I can't remember what the specific problem with it was, but we were able to use it for parts, so it was still useful."
The machines aren't flawless, but their less durable bits—an easily broken grounding wire and RCA cables, pitch adjustment sliders in need of recalibration, connections in the tonearm that grow famously testy as they oxydize—are known quantities to sound technicians and come with their own unconventional fixes. (As a college radio DJ many years back, I was shown a workaround for the latter problem during a mandatory equipment training session: stick the eraser-end of a pencil inside the tonearm, apply pressure and give the pencil a few turns. The more common solution—licking the connections on the back of the headshell—would only worsen the problem over time and wouldn't be tolerated.) Some regular tonearm and tracking force calibration, and the occasional new set of cartridges, is basically all the TLC most 1200s will ever require.
As of 2010, citing poor sales and dwindling parts suppliers, Panasonic discontinued the Technics 1200, meaning our fetishization of the deck will likely only increase. One wonders if their epic lifespans are eventually what did them in—if very little about a product ever changes, and if the pair you bought ten years ago (off a DJ who had been using the pair for ten years before that) still works like new, why would you ever buy a new set? For the time being, nearly new decks are still common on Craiglist and eBay. (I recently bought a pair of well-functioning 1210 MK5s out of a basement in Berlin—and paid more than double what a box-fresh pair cost me in 2006.) But it seems obvious that one day these workhorses will cease to bounce back so effortlessly, that decades of spilled drinks and tumbles down stairs will take a toll. Daydreamers of a certain sort might revel in the thought of a few more fresh ones magically appearing on the shelves. Eamon Harkin, the other half of Mister Saturday Night, who I'd guess fits that bill, came late to the conversation Carter and I were having about the decks. "The piece sounds interesting," he said after getting up to speed. "Hopefully it'll inspire someone to start manufacturing Technics again."