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Alexandre Bellenger

I first discovered turntables as a musical instrument by listening to a recording of Yoshihide Ōtomo and Martin Tétreault. I loved it! It was called 21 Situations and it was released in 1999. The music there was so fresh, intuitive, direct, emotional, funny and cleverly played, and it still is today in fact! At the time I really thought that I wanted to try this out myself while I was then mainly still using prepared guitar for my music.

So very soon after that discovery I bought a pair of second-hand Technics MKII turntables from a local music shop, a very cheap mixing board and a pair of loudspeakers. It was then, in the turntable field, a transition period between playing with records and playing without records. For anyone not familiar with this stuff, playing turntables without records might seem a little funny, or even absurd: “What do you do with it then???” In fact, it was possible to build your own equipment to create new sounds that could not be achieved otherwise. It meant changing the needles for springs (Fig. 8), changing the cartridges for contact microphones (Fig. 6) and using a piece of cardboard or a bit of plastic instead of a record!

I had just discovered this new world, so I went for a bit of everything: records, no records, and modifications. I started to customise vinyl records, to create my own turntable individual arm, my own needles, and even my own turntable! I remember once sawing an old turntable in half and sticking on it the arm from another one! It is also possible to use the usual guitar stuff for the turntable — the cables, the pedal effects and even the amplifier — so it was quite easy and natural for me to build this new “instrument”.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Alexandre Bellenger (Trio BTR) performing a fast record move at the Festival Meteo 2010 in Mulhouse (France) on 27 August 2010. Trio BTR is Alexandre Bellenger (turntables), Arnaud Rivière (electronics) and Roger Turner (drumset). [Click image to enlarge]

Today I play turntables mostly through a guitar amp but I am not reluctant to use a good PA system, when one is available. I still use records, but sometimes, in a set, I use the turntable without records. Sometimes I use a bow which I rub on a spring (Fig. 12) — Yoshihide Ōtomo used to do this, I got that from him. I also use a very sensitive Sony tabletop microphone onto which I have stuck a stiff piece of cardboard: when pressed onto the side of the platter of the turntable, it creates a very high sound, like a saxophone… or like a train braking when stopping in the station (the kind of noise that is normally very irritating but that I am kind of happy to create!).

For a while I used some small Chinese type cymbals a lot. This also came from watching Ōtomo’s playing! He has been my master for turntable playing, for sure! For a while also, I really just used the turntables as a percussive instruments. When played with a quite strong distortion pedal effect, the whole turntable becomes very sensitive and every part of it makes its own specific noise. Erik Minkkinnen once told me that I was playing “drumtables”! Another performance technique that I really like is the one I call “fast records”. It consists of making the record spin as fast as possible with only one finger (Figs. 1, 11). It seems easy at first but once the record is spinning very fast, it is getting very hard to keep the needle on it and it gets very hard to keep spinning it so fast. It often ends in some kind of “screep, chhhhhrrrritttt, ffffrout” sound! That is also the fun part of the thing, no? Another really special technique, even more difficult to do, consists of rubbing the record very gently up and down on the spindle in the middle of the turntable platter (Fig. 10). This creates a very interesting sound which is then amplified by the needle.

Equipment in Detail

So now let’s have a look at the equipment and the performance techniques I use a bit closer.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Performing with a very simple setup at this gig, I installed the turntables and their travel cases and nothing else! [Click image to enlarge]
Figure 3
Figure 3. Turntable trio with Martin Tétreault (left), Yoshihide Ōtomo (centre) and Alexandre Bellenger (right) performing during the 13th edition of the Festival Densités in Fresnes-en-Woëvre on 25 October 2005. [Click image to enlarge]
Figure 4
Figure 4. This tone arm has undergone a lot of heavy playing and banging! [Click image to enlarge]
Figure 5
Figure 5. Some of the classic turntable cartridges: from left to right, exchange cartridges (in the plastic bag), 2 Ortofon OM (one with a Vestax phosphorescent cartridge holder) and 2 models of Ortofon Concorde. [Click image to enlarge]
Figure 6
Figure 6. A modified cartridge with a contact microphone taped to it. [Click image to enlarge]
Figure 7
Figure 7. A cartridge modified with the addition of a contact mike and a piece of rubber from an old inkjet printer. A bit of tape holds everything together under the rubber and a piece of a spring completes the design. [Click image to enlarge]
Figure 8
Figure 8. A Technics cartridge holder with a modified cartridge that has a very, very powerful level because of its ceramic components. I bought this cartridge long ago on a Canadian internet site and then dismantled and rebuilt it with some plastic paste to hold everything together. Three springs are attached to the cartridge holder. [Click image to enlarge]
Figure 9
Figure 9. Equipment box containing various lengths and gauges of springs, extra wire for repairs or new connections, rubber bands… [Click image to enlarge]
Figure 10
Figure 10. Technique of rubbing the vinyl record up and down the spindle, using more and less pressure applied by the fingers to push the centre down and release it upwards; a high squeak results. [Click image to enlarge]
Figure 11
Figure 11. The “fast record” move, spinning the record as fast as possible using only one finger. [Click image to enlarge]
Figure 12
Figure 12. Using the bow on the amplified springs: the vibrations — sounds! — made by bowing are transmitted via the spring to the cartridge and picked up by the contact mic. [Click image to enlarge]
Figure 13
Figure 13. Using a cymbal and a modified cartridge together to create new sounds. [Click image to enlarge]
Figure 14
Figure 14. Percussion effect made by striking the screw of the bow on surface of the cymbal. The cymbal’s edge is pressed against the springs, which transmit the sounds to the cartridge. The platter is also spinning, causing the springs to bounce around chaotically, with everything together combining to make a very interesting and complex sound texture. [Click image to enlarge]
Figure 15
Figure 15. Rubbing the bow onto a record on the slip mattress and cymbal. Again, the sound is transmitted via the springs. [Click image to enlarge]
Figure 16
Figure 16. Playing the turntable without records. The cartridge is pressed directly on the spinning platter, which provokes random movement by the springs. [Click image to enlarge]
Figure 17
Figure 17. Using a cymbal, a Slinky as spring, some additional wire and an additional tone arm to create sound. [Click image to enlarge]
Figure 18
Figure 18. A very used and worn “45 tours”, as we call them in French. Records are marked with notes to be able to recognise them more easily while playing. [Click image to enlarge]

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