• Published 9th Apr 2012
  • 1,736 Views, 27 Comments

Off-Key - chrumsum

A tale of Vinyl Scratches' journey to becoming the renown DJ-P0N3.

  • ...

Part 1-First Chord

“Stop fiddling with that outfit, dear. It’s going to get frayed by your constant fidgeting,” reprimanded Graffite Scratch.

The filly she was addressing gave her mother a pleading glance. “But it’s too tight, mom! I can barely breathe in this darn thing...”

“Come now child, listen to your mother,” interjected Acoustic Scratch, “and watch your language. Where you’re going, nopony is going to take any of that tone. Don’t forget that you are a Scratch, and that you have a reputation to fulfill.”

Giving up, the filly begrudgingly released the cream colored collar of her maroon uniform from her teeth and buried her head in her hooves. Her unicorn parents exchanged glances and sighed disapprovingly at their moody daughter.

Pouting, Vinyl decided that being a Scratch certainly wasn’t worth the trouble that it was putting her through. She didn’t dare say this to her parents, of course, and instead just stared out at the unchanging tree line as the carriage coasted along the well groomed dirt trail leading upwards toward the Hoofington Institute for Musical Excellence.

It was dark and bleak along the trail, the grey-brown trees creating a thick, verdant canopy that held the sun’s light at bay. The darkness put her in a foul mood. She hadn’t even seen this place yet, but she already absolutely hated it.

“You’re going to absolutely love it. There’s no better musical university in all of Equestria. I should know, it taught me everything I know to this day!” her father Acoustic Scratch had expounded so many times. And Vinyl Scratch had to agree, albeit reluctantly, that her father’s talent for the guitar was nothing short of spectacular. The pale green stallion’s playing was some of the most powerful, emotional music she had ever heard in her life. But even that started to get tiresome after a while.

Her mother, Graffite, had come from the institute as well. In fact, the two had met there, both being instructors at the school for a long time before falling in love. She took greatly after this white-furred, blue-maned mare, thought the filly as she smoothed her coat absentmindedly. Graffite was a skilled composer with more symphonies under her belt than Vinyl cared to count. Her pieces had been performed by some of the most illustrious orchestras in Equestria, presented to Princess Celestia herself, and brought prestige to the Scratch name that she married into.

Indeed, her mother, her father and his father before him, had all come from the Hoofington Institute for Musical Excellence, and discovered their cutie marks. Now it was her turn. And yet, it was impossible for Vinyl to muster the slightest excitement towards the whole thing. The further she got from her home and her friends, the more and more she hated her parents for forcing her into some dreary old school in the middle of nowhere. Her brow furrowed even further, and she blew a lock of her straight-cut sea-foam blue mane out of her eyes.

Casting a dismal look at her blank flank, she couldn’t help but wonder what would appear there in two years’ time. A clarinet? A tuba? Or maybe a French horn? Maybe a guitar, like her father, or a baton, like her mother? Not that it even mattered, Vinyl told herself. Whatever it would be, it would disappoint either her, or her parents. As usual.

Sighing again, the one lingering thought that made her despise the choice her parents forced on her grew even stronger than before. As the carriage rounded the bend, and the afternoon sunlight began creeping into the cushioned interior, she kicked a hoof in frustration.

She was a Scratch, and she hated music.


When the carriage suddenly halted, the white-furred filly bonked her head against the sill of the window. The hit shaking her out of her stormy mood, she looked around, confused. Nodding politely to the porter as he opened the door to the carriage, her father shot her a quick warning glance before stepping outside. Grabbing her saddlebag with her mouth and reluctantly clambering off the edge of their carriage, the filly turned and, despite herself, gasped.

No one in Hoofington remembers exactly when the institute had been built, but they all agree that there’s no other building in Equestria that quite matches it.

The building’s massive, sprawling facade was built with red bricks rather than the traditional white mortar used for most homes in Hoofington. Cracked and weathered, they were silent with the wisdom of a long-standing history that demanded respect. Great wooden beams intersected the structure in intricate geometric patterns, and the polished windows imitated this style, but with thin wrought iron grates. A similar metal composed the long fence that encircled the institution’s grounds, separating the wild, overgrown forest from the well-trimmed lawns, marble fountains, and manicured bushes. Wooden slats composed the angular roofing, and a single, lonely weather-vane creaked slightly in the cool spring breeze.

“Whoa,” whispered Vinyl under her breath. Her parents smiled slightly as they watched their daughter’s wide eyes flit across the spectacular structure. However, that smile quickly went from genuine to a practiced politeness as a newcomer came trotting towards them, not disguising the wide grin on her face.

“My goodness! Graffite, Acoustic, is that you? I came as soon as I heard the carriage had arrived! Good heavens, it’s been far too long!” she gushed, embracing first Graffite, and then Acoustic.

Vinyl, finally tearing her attention from the beautiful grounds, gave this unknown pony a quizzical look. The unicorn wore a crisp, pressed dress that kept close to her slim figure, and her graying mane was tied back into a bun with a light red ribbon. A silver flute was emblazoned on her pale peach flank.

“It’s indeed marvelous to see you as well, Headmistress Metronome. Simply seeing you again brings back so many wonderful memories,” replied Acoustic Scratch warmly, with a nod to his wife. Grinning politely, the elderly Headmistress Metronome now diverted her sparkling blue eyes to Vinyl Scratch, who was doing her best to not be noticed.

“Oh, and this must be the little filly. My, my, how you’ve grown! The last time I saw you, you were barely able to stand on your own hooves. You probably don’t remember me, though,” she said cheerily.

With a rehearsed tone of forced propriety, Vinyl shook her head and answered: “No, ma’am. Sorry, ma’am.”

“Oh, isn’t she polite!” laughed the elderly unicorn, shooting Acoustic a wry wink. “Nothing like this rapscallion back when I was his musicology instructor!” Vinyl’s father blushed slightly as he cleared his throat. Vinyl giggled before being silenced by her mother’s reprimanding stare.

“Right, well…let’s not forget why it is we’re here!” He nodded to Vinyl before wiping a bead of sweat off his brow with a handkerchief produced from his pocket. The young filly lifted the saddlebag and placed it on her back, as her mother turned to her and knelt so to look her in the eyes.

“Now listen to me, Vinyl. I know you’re not exactly overjoyed to be here. But you need to believe me when I tell you that this is all for your own good. You may not know it now, but I promise you that, one day, you’ll look back at this and realize we were right.”

“But...you’re leaving already?”

“I’m sorry, dear, but we have a very important recital to get to. You’re a grown-up now, and you don’t need us watching over you constantly. Be brave.”

Giving her a gentle kiss on the brow, and her father giving her a kindly pat on the back, the two unicorns bade farewell to Headmistress Metronome and entered their carriage. The puller stallions whinnied, turned around, and set off at a trot for the wilderness.

Watching the carriage roll out of the wrought iron gates, Vinyl felt a strange sense of relief and confidence overcoming her. A grown-up. So rare were words of inspiration and confidence, that suddenly she started to believe what her mother had told her. That sentiment quickly deflated to foreboding as Headmistress Metronome cleared her throat, and her lighthearted expression collapsed into a stern scowl.

“Now then, Ms. Scratch. Before we begin, I would like you to first be aware of a few rules,” she said firmly. “Firstly, you will refer to me as ‘Headmistress’ at all times. Make no illusions: simply because your parents and I have history does not mean that you will be entitled to special treatment! Secondly, you are never to leave school grounds unless you are given permission and accompaniment by one of the instructors. And thirdly, disobedience and bad behavior that reflects poorly upon our Institution will be met with dire consequences. Are we clear, Ms. Scratch?”

Ears drooping, Vinyl’s red eyes lowered as she mumbled a response.

“Yes, Headmistress.”

“Excellent. Follow me.”


The air inside the institute was notably colder than outside in the gardens. Warm brass and crystal chandeliers swayed slightly in a draft, their candlelit glow an apology for their homes’ chilly climate. Vinyl’s hooves clopping against the smooth marble tiles echoed inside the massive atrium, bouncing between the rafters and heralding their arrival to an earth pony patiently awaiting them. The gruff blue stallion had thin, well-kept stubble around his chin, and his bespectacled eyes were sharply analytical as he looked Vinyl over.

“This must be the newest and final student for this year,” he said in a controlled monotone, checking a pocket watch, “and she is late.”

“Indeed, Professor Fine Tune. This is Ms. Vinyl Scratch,” said the Headmistress, introducing the timid filly.

Replacing the watch into the pocket of his loose tweed vest, Professor Fine Tune adjusted his glasses. “Ah, a Scratch! It has been such a long time since we’ve had one of yours within these halls. I expect great things from this one.” He gave the Headmistress an expectant look. “Shall I give her the tour?”

“Please do,” responded the elderly mare, “I have a great deal of paperwork to attend to, a dinner with the mayor to discuss next year’s Grand Concerto, and at this rate I shall be late. Goodbye, Ms. Scratch. I hope you enjoy your stay at our fine university.” Making this sound more like a command rather than a suggestion, Headmistress Metronome trotted down one of the many corridors, leaving Vinyl alone with the Professor. With a dignified cough, he regarded the white filly with a thin smile.

“Now then. Shall we begin? The institute is large, and I have things to tend to myself,”

Nodding slightly, Vinyl followed the Professor Fine Tune as he directed her down the lonely, cavernous throat of the hallway.


“No one knows exactly how old the institute is, Ms. Scratch. Rumors have it that it was built by Princess Celestia’s ancestor long before she herself took rule over Equestria,” explained the blue stallion as they began their journey through the institute, the red carpeting warming their hooves with the day’s heat stored from the slowly dying rays of sunlight. “Historians are not sure if that is exactly true, per se. However, they have found documents to proving that the building was used as a temporary military outpost during the Princess Conflict. The architecture here doesn’t match that time period, though, and in my opinion the building’s history extends far past the Conflict.”

They stopped abruptly in the middle of the wide, windowed hallway, and Fine Tune scoffed to himself. “Oh dear, there I go again, blabbering like an intern. You will probably guess that I am one of the musical history instructors here at the institute. But anyways…” he coughed and swept a hoof across the hallway, “this here is the North Wing. Most of the technical music courses are located here, except for mine, which is further in the West Wing.”

Breaking her silence up to this point, Vinyl posed a question: “What is a ‘technical music course’?”

“You do not know?” said Professor Fine Tune, surprised, “Well, technical courses cover things such as music notation, terminology, as well as musical philosophy. They might not be the most interesting subjects, but they are invaluable for--”

The two ponies suddenly jumped upwards as a catastrophic crash ruptured the silence, accompanied by a slew of cymbals, drums, and percussion instruments pouring out of a flung open doorway. Vinyl had to do everything in her power to keep herself from laughing as a flustered Fine Tune slipped his glasses back onto his nose.

“Speak of the devil. I believe that is your music psychology teacher right now!”

Sure enough, a dust colored unicorn poked his head out of the pile of instruments, scowling in frustration. Suddenly realizing that he had an audience to his clumsiness, he blushed as he pushed his way out of the avalanche. This pony was completely different from Fine Tune or the Headmistress. He wore no suit; in fact, the only thing he wore was a dark red and black spotted bandanna that obscured his mouth, which he adjusted slightly as walked towards them.

“Professor Smooth Song! I take it that the movers mistook your office for a closet space yet again, hm?” said Fine Tune wryly.

Smooth Song snorted slightly in disapproval, tugging a drumstick out of his mane. Just noticing the filly accompanying Fine Tune, he pointed questioningly to the perplexed Vinyl Scratch.

“Ah! This is a new student, Ms. Vinyl Scratch. She is going to be one of your students, if I remember the attendance list correctly,” explained Vinyl’s escort. “Ms. Scratch, this is Professor Smooth Song.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” responded Vinyl with a slight curtsy. Smooth Song responded in turn with a kindly nod, and motioned with his head to the pile of instruments.

“Yes, well, we will leave you to figuring that out! Ms. Scratch, this way please. I will show you the West Wing, and then we shall see where you’ll be sleeping.” As Fine Tune trotted off down the hallway, Vinyl cast one last, lingering look at the strange pony. Sifting through the mess, he didn’t even give her another look as she galloped to catch up with Fine Tune.


Following the blue stallion through the labyrinth of high-ceiling corridors, Vinyl tried to memorize their path as best as she could.

“Mr. Fine Tune, where is everypony anyways? I haven’t seen a single other student so far,” said Vinyl, looking up at the instructor.

“Do not worry, they’re here. You’re actually the last student to arrive, and everypony else is in their dormitories, unpacking and preparing themselves for their stay. It’s one of the rare days of rest that you will be getting.” Just as she was wondering when she herself would get some rest, Professor Fine Tune began speaking again, indicating one of the many tall windows that lined the hallway.

“You will notice that the Hoofington Institute for Musical Excellence is shaped like a sort of square. In the middle are the inner gardens, where many festivities and concerts are held.” Vinyl Scratch peered over the edge of the window, amazed by the rainbow arrangements of flowers, the smooth grass, and the wide, circular fountain at the epicenter of the greenery. An antiquated gazebo, lovingly maintained with fresh paint and golden trim, was bordered by proud, dark trees. Moving away from the picturesque panorama, Fine Tune resumed his discourse.

“Now, the West Wing will probably become your favorite, if you ask me,” he explained as they entered a new, brightly lit corridor. “This is the applied music wing, where all the instruments and music classes are held. Students experiment, practice, and compose here with the assistance of our instructors. The myriad of music that fills these halls...” With an air of reverence, he stopped and stared at the heavy oaken doors that lined the hall.

“Legendary pony musicians have found their cutie marks within these very rooms, Ms. Vinyl Scratch. Everything we know and will know about music started here once, started as a young filly or colt with not a clue what they were doing here. You will join them one day.” Vinyl couldn’t help but snort slightly. As if not noticing, Fine Tune drew again his golden pocket watch.

“Hm…yes, I suppose we are a bit ahead of schedule. Follow me, Ms. Scratch. I am going to tend to something while I am here.” With a purposeful stride, he walked her to the end of the hall to a door labeled simply: “Recording Studio”.

“Let us try to be quiet. I do not know whether he is busy or not,” he instructed, before knocking.

There was a brief pause, and a muffled voice answered: “Yes, come in!”

The interior of the studio was covered with a strange fabric and bisected evenly. Vinyl looked questioningly at a large glass panel and door that led to a smaller room filled with instrument stands and microphones. In front of this window was a large panel that looked like a complex keyboard covered with switches and monitors. Sitting at its head was a pale magenta earth pony with a microphone cutie mark. A frazzled gray mane hung over the stallion’s weathered and pockmarked face. The pony gave Fine Tune a pleasant smile as a soft classical track spun on a player. Vinyl recognized it.

“Hello there, Fine! I’m guessing you’re here to pick up that disc. I just finished ironing out the last few flaws, and I think it should be set and functional,” he said. Standing, he put his hoof on the rotating record, stopping it with a sudden loud screech. Fine Tune flinched slightly at the sound.

And Vinyl Scratch froze in place.

Apologizing quietly, the bizarre pony slid the record into a cardboard sleeve, and handed it Fine Tune. He then turned his sparkling green gaze to the filly.

“Well now, Fine, you haven’t even introduced me to this young’un. A new student?”

Looking over the record, the Professor nodded.

“Indeed. This is Ms. Vinyl Scratch. Ms. Scratch, might I introduce Legato, our recording technician.”

Shaking her head vigorously to snap from her trance, the filly mumbled a feeble salutation. This made Legato laugh; it had a tinkling, musical feel that reminded Vinyl of a silver bell.

“Well, Vinyl, welcome to the institute! As Fine said, I’m the recording technician. I handle all the record production, music editing, and of course sound recording.”

Staring at the arrangement of switches, buttons, and sliders on the panel, and encouraged by Legato’s vivacity, she answered: “Looks complicated.”

“Oh, you bet it is! Want me to show you how it works?”

Before she could answer, Fine Tune harrumphed and slid the record inside his jacket.

“All in good time, Ms. Scratch. But, it is getting rather late, and I imagine you’ll want to see your dormitory…”

Vinyl nodded obediently, looking up at the Professor and shifting her saddlebag uncomfortably.

“Leaving so soon? Ah well... See you tomorrow then, Fine,” said Legato wistfully.

Legato waved a hoof in farewell, and as the door shut, he turned back to his soundboard, smiling sadly. Fiddling absentmindedly with the dials, he thought out loud:

“A Scratch, eh? Darn shame she should end up here.”


Vinyl had completely lost track of where they were, but she wasn’t exactly trying hard to pay attention. Lost in thought, she followed Fine Tune blindly through the halls, her mind elsewhere. Inattentive, the young filly bumped into the Professor’s leg as he stopped in front of a door.

“Come now, Ms. Scratch, pay attention. We’re now in the North Wing, where the dormitories for the students are. And this,” he said dramatically, indicating the door they stood before, “is yours. You will need to pardon my meager tour, but I think you are also probably content to retire.”

With another mumbled thanks, Vinyl pushed against the heavy door. Grunting in effort, she pressed her forehead against it to no avail, until Fine Tune intervened.

“It...opens outwards, Ms. Scratch,” he said humorously.

“Right. Knew that,” muttered Vinyl, finally managing to get it open.

“Enjoy your stay, Ms. Scratch,” said the blue stallion, allowing the door to shut behind him. And Vinyl was alone with her thoughts.

The room, like the hallways, was tall and well-decorated. A stained wood trim went halfway up the walls, the rest made of blue-painted bricks. A large wooden bunk bed occupied the left half of the room, while an old mahogany desk claimed the right. Tossing her saddlebag onto one of the several antique plush sofas, Vinyl sat in the center of the room, staring out the window as the shadows crept along her body in sync with the setting sun. She looked down at her hooves. The static tingle that she had felt in the recording studio was wearing off, and left her dazed and confused. She had never felt anything like that before, and something told her-

“You can’t just toss your things wherever you want!”

Vinyl jumped into the air in surprise at the unexpected voice.

“Whoa! Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you!” apologized the mysterious voice, “I thought you knew I was here.”

Looking upwards at the bunk bed, Vinyl realized she wasn’t alone in the room. A dark gray filly with her mane carefully curled into a neat bob was observing her from above, peering over the edge of the bed with her purple eyes. Vinyl looked at her skeptically.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“I should be asking you the same question. I was here first, after all!” replied the filly.

“I’m Vinyl Scratch.”

“I’m Octavia. Nice to meet you. Now put your saddlebag somewhere that isn’t in the way. Like the wardrobe.”

Complying, Vinyl shot Octavia an irritated look. “Is it gonna be like this for two years?”

“No, you could put it in the drawers if you’d like as well,” she responded sedately, “And try to keep it down a bit. Classes start early in the morning, and I want to be ready. You only make a first impression once, after all.”

“Snooty little goody two-shoes...”

“What was that?”

“Nothing. Good night,” said Vinyl Scratch hotly. She opened her saddlebag, digging around, and withdrew a smooth piece of gilded parchment. Reading quickly in the dying sunlight, she repeated her schedule under her breath, memorizing the classes, the teachers, and the rooms.

She revised this paper several times. When she could no longer make out the script with the little gray light the moon afforded her, she sighed resolutely, returned the parchment to its place, and pulled off her uniform, placing it in the wardrobe as well. She walked to the tall window, placing her hooves on the sill. Her eyes wandered over the lonely gardens awash with the silver glow of the full moon. An errant leaf carried by a breeze landed on a placid mirror-like fountain, and its rippling tough fractured the fragile reflection of the stars.

Vinyl’s heart felt tight in her chest as she sat in the dark, quiet room. A tear fought its way into her eye, and she vigorously scrubbed it away.

Silent, she undid the ribbon holding her hair, crept over to the unfamiliar bed, and slipped under the covers that didn’t smell like home. Vinyl curled tightly against herself, and it wasn’t long before she faded into deep sleep.