How Do DJ Turntables Work?

Most DJ turntables feature a direct-drive design that allows a record to be scratched and otherwise manipulated. DJ turntables also often have two platters and other settings to let multiple records fade into one another. 

My name is Donovan, and I’m a music lover at heart. I spend most of my free time writing and recording music, and I also have an extensive vinyl collection. I know through first-hand experience how DJ turntables work. 

This post will explain how DJ turntables work. I’ll highlight what distinguishes DJ turntables from a standard options and break down all the features and functions DJs look for. I want to ensure you understand the difference and what you might be looking for. 

Let’s get to it. 

Key Takeaways

  • Most DJ turntables have a direct-drive design rather than a belt drive. This allows a record to be spun or scratched without damaging the turntable. 
  • DJ turntables usually feature two platters so you can play and sync records while DJing. 
  • DJ turntables can have features such as special slip mats, faders, and other EQ parameters that help facilitate the DJ process. 
  • The skills of a DJ are more important than the actual turntable itself, but knowing how to utilize various features on a turntable can certainly help. 

How Do DJ Turntables Work?

If you have ever watched a DJ in action at a club or a music venue, you might wonder how their turntables work. While they might appear similar to a turntable you have at home, there are a few key differences to know about. 

First, nearly all DJ turntables have a direct-drive design. This means that the motor which spins the platter to turn records is directly underneath the platter. This allows the record to be spun in either direction, effectively creating the scratching technique that DJing is known for. 

A standard turntable has a belt drive design. This means there is a belt running between the motor and the platter. You can damage this turntable if you try to scratch or spin records, so it’s not ideal for DJing. 

Most DJs use multiple turntables simultaneously, which is another critical aspect of their setup. I’ll break down some DJ setup examples in the sections below, but just know that you need multiple turntables to get started. 

Using multiple turntables allows the DJ to cue the next song while the current record is playing. Since the needle needs to be dropped at a very specific position on the record, syncing this up ahead of time is critical for seamless transitions during a set. 

In addition to two turntables being played at the same time, a DJ turntable setup will have a mixer or fader that helps connect these together. This is another essential aspect that helps make it possible to play songs from vinyl with a flow. 

These mixers can have a lot of features for the DJ to use while they’re in action. A fader is a must. This is a nob that dictates which turntable is sending out signal to the rest of the sound system. A fading effect is why you sometimes hear multiple songs simultaneously. 

Other features of the setup can include EQ and speed controls. Speed control is essential because it will help you sync a track from one record to that of another. And this is another reason why direct-drive turntables are ideal for the task. 

A slip mat is another essential aspect of a DJ setup that helps make things work. This is typically a felt pad that sits on the platter below the actual record. Just as its name implies, the slip mat helps the record slip, which improves the ability to get a scratch effect.

On a basic level, a DJ turntable functions just like a standard record player. You place a record on the platter, drop the needle, and listen to records. But the difference in design and features allows a DJ-specific turntable to function as intended. 

It’s also important to know that DJing is an art, just like any other aspect of music creation. Getting a DJ turntable doesn’t automatically make you a DJ, just like buying a guitar doesn’t make you a guitar player. 

Good DJs spend years perfecting their craft, and this is what makes them so good and capable in a live setting. Good equipment is great, but a skilled DJ can make a crowd groove even when using a basic setup.   

Vinyl DJ Setup

The vinyl DJ setup is one of the most basic setups. While there are other ways to DJ with digital music, the classic vinyl setup is still preferred by most DJs. 

A standard vinyl DJ setup includes two turntables and a mixer. You also need all the cables to connect all of these together. Some DJ setups can be purchased as a complete set with everything you need. 

You also need speakers and/or headphones to listen to music. I’ll break this down more in the Live DJ Setup section below. Without a way to monitor what songs you are playing, a DJ couldn’t do their thing properly. 

Your vinyl collection is just as important as any other piece of equipment you use for your DJ setup. If you don’t have the songs at your disposal, you won’t make it far as a vinyl DJ. Most vinyl DJs have an extensive collection that is pretty impressive. 

DJ Turntables and Mixer

The most common setup, no matter what type of style of DJ is at work, features two turntables and a mixer. This allows the DJ to play two records at once and quickly and easily transition between the two. 

The two turntables operate at the same time. While the DJ has one record spinning and playing through the system, they cue the other on the second turntable. The mixer lets them switch between the two. 

A DJ will also use the mixer to make any major or minor adjustments to the tracks being played. They might speed up or slow down a record to match the tempo of another. They can also tweak the EQ to make the bass or treble stand out more. 

Some mixers have many effects and features, while others are pretty basic. It really just depends on what the DJ wants and what style they operate in. 

Live DJ Setup

A standard live DJ setup includes two turntables, a mixer, headphones, and a sound system to amplify the signal. Some DJs purchase all of this equipment to have so they can work anywhere. Others will use the sound system provided by the venue they are playing. 

The turntables and mixer of a live DJ setup are used to play, cue, sync, and adjust tracks. If you watch a DJ closely, you’ll see them making all sorts of adjustments when the music plays. This is to keep the set’s flow going so you don’t notice any transitions. 

You’ll also notice the DJ wearing headphones, and usually, they will have only one ear on. This is so they can hear the songs being cued up on one turntable while still hearing the current music played on the other. 

There isn’t one exact setup that every live DJ uses, but virtually all of them will have the elements that I just mentioned. Some might make additions such as effects units or even a third turntable, and those decisions are personal preference. 

Many live DJs today also live stream their sets, which requires the use of video gear. I won’t go into the details of that here, but it’s something to consider and is another good way to promote yourself as a DJ. 

DJ Turntable for Beginners

If you want to start learning how to become a DJ, you should consider getting a very basic setup. To do this, you should get two turntables, a mixer, headphones, and cords to connect them all together. 

If you just want to learn how to scratch records and are on a budget, you can get by with a single turntable. You don’t technically need a mixer and a second turntable. But using two will allow you to learn how to make transitions. 

There are some DJ turntable kits for beginners that can be useful. These often feature the two turntable and mixer setups as a single unit. You won’t need to purchase additional equipment if you go this route, but you won’t get customized sound or features either. 

You also need to consider how you will amplify the sound. Many DJs get started by playing at house parties and other smaller events. You might need to invest in a PA or sound system if you go this route. 

DJs are the life of the party, even if they are beginners. Learning how to perfect and craft your set at house parties or just in the comfort of your home will give you the necessary skills to rock larger stages when you are more skilled. 


Here are a few quick answers to some of the most commonly asked questions relating to how DJ turntables work. 

What is the difference between a DJ turntable and a record player? 

The main difference between a DJ turntable and a record player is the drive design. A DJ turntable has a direct drive design, which allows the DJ to spin or scratch records without damaging the unit. A record player has a belt drive design that’s better for overall sound. 

Why do DJs have two turntables? 

Most DJs use two turntables to easily transition from one song to another without interruption. This allows them to sync up another song on one turntable while the other still plays. Then the DJ can fade between the two for a seamless transition. 

Why Do DJs use turntables?

DJs use turntables because this is how the genre and skill of DJing began. While it’s possible to use more modern musical equipment, most DJs like the sound and feel of turntables because it allows them to scratch records and easily make transitions. 

Why do DJs prefer vinyl? 

Most DJs prefer vinyl because of the improved sound quality, tactile feel when scratching records, and homage to classic DJ setups they provide. Vinyl is the ideal media to use for DJing, even though it’s possible to use other digital music media.  

How much do DJ turntables cost?

A beginner DJ turntable might cost a few hundred dollars, while a higher-end professional setup will cost significantly more. It depends on the model of the turntable, what features it offers, and its condition. There is a wide range of costs for DJ turntables.  

Do DJs still use turntables?

Most DJs do still use turntables, but there are other, more modern approaches to this art. The classic DJ setup using two turntables and a mixer is still prevalent today, but some people use digital music and a laptop instead. 

Final Thoughts 

A standard DJ turntable setup lets the DJ quickly switch between songs on different records. A direct-drive design also enables them to scratch records without damaging the turntable. Nearly all DJ setups utilize two turntables and a mixer. 

A big key to becoming a good DJ is spending time learning how to do it at a high level. In that sense, it’s just like learning an instrument. While you might not think of DJs as musicians, they certainly have many of the same skills. 

Have you ever played around on a DJ turntable? What type of setup did you use? Let me know in the comments below. 

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