Take Your Scratch Technique Into Orbit

It was 1998 in a club called the Unit in Sheffield, UK, when I first witnessed live scratching. Like many I was transfixed. I didn’t have a clue who the DJ was, but I remember how utterly amazing the noise sounded and how the fingers would move so fast they appeared to dance around the fader often in a ‘pinching’ motion. It was bemusing, fantastic, and mysterious all rolled into one.

Before the time of YouTube it took many years to understand why the hands and fingers moved the way they did. Partly by trial and error and partly by scanning a VHS tape of the 1998 DMC world championships and a Vestax Prime Cuts tutorial, I worked out that the key to it all was the ‘orbit’ scratch.

What is the Orbit Scratch?

The orbit was invented by DJ Disk, a member of the influential DJ crew Invisibl Skratch Picklz which also included DJ QBert and Mixmaster Mike, with the technique since becoming one of the bedrocks of the scratch DJ’s arsenal.

It is made up of two halves: first, with the crossfader open, the DJ moves the record forwards and at the same time closes the fader twice to chop the sound into three. If you do the same when you pull the record back, then you have six sounds.

crossfader-closes

It’s also known as the 2-click flare because the DJ closes the fader twice on the forwards motion and twice back – two clicks on each. It’s exactly the same as the 1-click flare but with an extra ‘click’. The advantage is that you are getting six sounds for the effort of only four clicks.

This might sound simple, but to do it at high speed is not. If you tried to grab the fader and move it rapidly with your whole forearm your muscles would tire very quickly and would most likely incur some sort of strain.

Instead, the fader is only gripped for one of the clicks. For the other click the hand opens, the wrist pivots, and the forefinger punches it to the other side. As the wrist pivots back, the thumb sends it the other way to close the sound off. This opening and closing of the hand creates the ‘pinching’ motion that is so fascinating to watch. To see this in action check out the video below of DJ Woody, filmed at 400 frames per second so you can see the movements.

For more DJ Woody, check out his interview focused on visual turntablism.

The correct terms for what the wrist is doing are pronating and supinating, according to Anthony Redmond, Professor of Clinical Biomechanics at Leeds University in the UK. When I asked him to analyze the above footage from a scientific point of view, he was surprised to see this motion, expecting mainly side-to-side movement – radial and ulnar deviation.

supination-pronation

He said:

“This is consistent with two principles: (1) that fast movements require minimisation of inertia and so are done by the smallest segments and (2) that rotation is less susceptible to having to overcome inertia than translation (side-to-side).”

This means the speed is created by the fingers (the smallest segments) and then maintained by the hand/wrist rotation.

Firstly, because it is an open-fader scratch (ie. it begins and ends with the fader open) it can combine easily with other elemental open-fader techniques such as the 1-click flare and Jazzy Jeff’s chirp. This allows you to flow from one scratch technique to the next – so important to this improvisational artform.

Secondly, the two-click motion is the same as a number of other advanced scratches including the boomerang, aquaman, O.G. flare, and prism. All of these techniques require 2-clicks of the crossfader in the same rhythm, it’s the record movement alone that makes the difference between these sounds.

The orbit is one of the reasons scratching is so fascinating, but if you’re just starting out, make sure you get the basic techniques down first. As 2011 WTK world freestyle scratch champ DJ Chile says:

“The process is a lot like learning a new language, so if we first focus on understanding the most used words and phrases (baby motions, tears, chirps, transforms, 1 click flares, etc.), later on we can embed the more complex words into the basic sentence structures we understand well.”

Further Reading:

Adapted from Macho Zapp‘s immersive multimedia article on the fascination of scratching – read Scratch Obsession here

  • Vekked

    Nice in depth article! Introducing non-hardcore turntablists to orbits is a bit frightening though haha… Honestly for any non-battle/scratch DJ I teach I don’t even tell them about flares, and if they ask I tell them to ignore the concept completely.

    Not that they aren’t useful, because they are, but unless you’re dedicating 3+ years strictly to scratching, they’re not going to become useful or tasteful.

  • Rasp Haunt

    the Slow Mo’ is a great Idea…However,after learning the basic movements….Do Not Turn Them into Drills’…It makes the Tablist seem stiff….remember to think inna ‘Jazz’ way….were sounds ebb and flow….you know how to release them….yet in the ‘in between’…learn how to bring them back….Scratch transcription has its place….but after learning your ABC’s…you need to go out and learn how to ‘Cuss and use ‘Slang,Jive,and Attitude in your Scratch Talk….D-Styles,who is in the top3 of freestyle gestural scratching,played against a software that transcribes,unless he is drumming-doesnt belong to any ‘Alphabet’…nor Q-bert,nor Radar,no MMM,etc….to teach the basic,absolutely….but none of the scratch laws are Iron Clad,and the Best,or better said,the Ones that make a Good Living at Only Scratching,Speak their own language,and like TigerStyle….we have yet to figure that out….so dont be intimidated by the Masters-peep-https://soundcloud.com/rasphaunt/jive-ass-djs-message

  • styles

    pretty sure the first scratch is a 2 click orbit, not a 2 click flare. an orbit is any scratch that has the same amount of fader movements on the fwd as the backward.

    • Dan Leach

      The way I have understood it is that a flare is any open-fader scratch with between 1-zillion clicks on forward or back motion and the orbit is 2 clicks on forward and 2 clicks on back.

  • TheQuakerOatsGuy

    Ok, so there was this HUGE discussion on what an “Orbit” and a “Flare” really were before. I was told that my explanation of an orbit (the one presented here) was wrong and that a flare meant one click forward while an orbit was one click forward and two clicks back. I stood by my claim, but didn’t argue it as everyone on the internet seems to be right. Has anyone else heard this before?

    • Dan Leach

      Not heard that one. My source for the explanation above is really QBert. Since he DJ’d with the guy that invented it according to him.

      No doubt other people might have invented it first and perhaps the way it was learnt was different for some people. So for that reason I would never say someone is wrong. Helps to have a common definition though! 😉

  • Pingback: Take Your Scratch Technique Into Orbit via DJ TechTools | MMP BLog()

  • here_comes_the_sheik

    I really would love to see more scratch videos in super slo-mo!

  • Unreallystic

    The timing on this is great, though still over my head. I’m literally putting out money now to get equipment with the purpose of scratching (for production), but have never done it before admittedly. Where would you guys recommend as a starting resource for ‘this world’ if you will – I respect it too much to think some wiggle and twist, will get me clean cuts like Premier.

    • Dan Leach

      Yeah I wouldn’t advise starting with Orbits or Flares. Babies and Stabs should be your starting point, then Transforms.

      QBert’s online ‘Skratch University’ is excellent and very friendly. You save yourself a lot of time and frustration if you join something like this. There are also loads on YouTube of course – Studio Scratches and DJ Angelo are good. Good luck with it!

  • Patch

    This is a great article – but really you should take one step back and explain the difference between open and closed-fader scratches. You said that the orbit was the key to it all – but for me, the original 1-click flare (the first open fader scratch that I learned) was the one that opened everything up for me.
    Still an awesome article though. Great work!

    • Dan Leach

      Thanks Patch! Yes that’s a good point. Didn’t want to overload it with explanations but perhaps did need something about that. 🙂 Yes I agree – the breakthrough has to be the 1-click but visually the 2-click has that pinching motion that is fascinating to watch – it’s what always amazed me about scratching. The visual element is actually one of the attractions of scratching and music in general – I mention it in the ‘Scratch Obsession’ article over on Macho Zapp.

      • kebzer

        You did the Scratch Obsession article?

        • Dan Leach

          Yep that’s me 🙂 This Techtools article is a sort of an adaptation but just focusing on the one scratch – the orbit was one of the reasons I became interested in scratching so I thought it would be cool to investigate that.

  • kebzer

    Nice written article on one of the most fundamental scratches, but to be honest, the orbit is still a really advanced technique for someone who just started scratching.

    One possible approach to scratching would be the following techniques (in this order):

    1. Transformer
    2. Chirp
    3. 1 click flare
    4. 1 click chirp flare
    4. 2 click flare

    You need fader control (from tranformers), record control (from chirps), coordination in irregular combinations between record and fader (1 click flare), combo coordination (chirp flare) and then you go for the 2 click flare. If you do not master the above techniques first, it is impossible to reach the levels of accuracy and speed required for an orbit. Especially in double timing.

    • Dan Leach

      Thanks for your comment kebzer – you’re absolutely right. The more basic scratches should be mastered first. Otherwise a lot of frustration will follow! 🙂

    • deejae snafu

      to some , the coordination of chirps can be harder to come by than 1 clicks. i did learn chirps first myself , but ive seen people master one clicks and crescent flares before chirps. IMO chirpflares on the other hand take MORE coordination than 2 clickers or orbits. in the end i wouldnt try to learn anything in order other than babys first and then probably tears since record hand motion is where the soul is. the real key to ANY scratch technique is to learn it painfully slow. its all about muscle memory. to learn any new scratch you should start with no song playing, and the platters off. then literally break the scratch into separate pieces. for a one click i suggest starting fader open and then :
      1. push record to middle of the sound, STOP the record motion.
      2. click the fader closed then open real quick.
      3.push the sound to the end.STOP the record motion.
      4.pull the sound back to the middle.STOP the record motion.
      5. click the fader closed and open again real fast.
      6.pull the sound the rest of the way back to the begining.

      repeat.

      literally any wrist scratch from chirps to 3-2 clicks, from 1 clicks to prism tears, can be learned in a couple days like this. you start with slow deliberate motions and SLOWLY build up speed until you fall off, then start back at super slow.

      once you get the sound correctly mastered, then play a song and learn to use the pattern over a beat, on beat.

      also i find it hugely helpful to practice in a mirror. it helps alot to see what your hands are doing, also make sure to bob your head while scratching , its like a natural metronome.

      • Dan Leach

        Great comments. Yeah chirp is damn tough – took me a long time to get that one.

        Like you say muscle memory is the key – slowing it right down is definitely worth it. Practising it backwards is also beneficial QBert always says.

        The point about the mirror is a great shout – not heard that one before.