If a DJ mixer could be anything you wanted, what would it be?

That question isn’t actually that easy to answer. DJ mixers have a fairly defined set of functions, and not a lot of obvious room for variation. They have become more or less a commodity product as a result. And even as we’ve seen high-end mixers, those have tended to be simply a spendier version of the same commodity.

So, maybe the news that Richie Hawtin was working on a new mixer, teased out over the past few months, didn’t interest you at first. But, having had a look at it, it should.

And one reason is that Andy Rigby-Jones is part of the project. Apart from having the most English name this side of a P.G. Wodehose character, Mr. Rigby-Jones is essentially the Dave Smith of DJ mixer engineers. He’s been at Allen & Heath since the early 90s, and designed the legendary Xone set of mixers – one of the only designs, indeed, able to make something new happen in the DJ booth in this generation.

Andy isn’t working on Allen & Heath-branded mixers any more – and now we find out what he’s been up to. This.

DSC02319

I got a hands-on yesterday with Richie Hawtin, and I’m already liking the design direction.

The PLAYdifferently mixer is a high-end mixer, make no mistake – made in initially limited qualities in the UK. (Price: 2500 GBP before tax, so over 3000 EUR / USD.) It’s all analog, and Richie Hawtin tells CDM that the focus is absolutely on quality, for those who can tell the difference. (Rich mused that as clubs have invested in expensive PAs, the mixer often hasn’t kept up – whereas the speakers were once the weak link, now the mixer is.)

But what’s most significantly new about the PLAYdifferently MODEL 1 is that it’s really designed as a performance instrument. The name promised to do that, but the architecture actually delivers.

Photo courtesy PLAYdifferently.

Photo courtesy PLAYdifferently.

Sound quality

So, okay, the basic architecture: 6 stereo channels, 2 stereo sends, 2 stereo returns, and 3 phono pre’s. Nothing new there, though you do get an all-analog signal path. Andy was directly involved in that in collaboration with Rich, but so, too, was Richie Hawtin’s father, a robotics engineer with a background at GM who also collaborated on the last Hawtin/Allen&Heath project.

“All-analog” is not terribly interesting on its own; engineers, though, should take note that the power rail in the entire mixer is 12V throughout. Rich also tells CDM that a considerable amount of work went into the RIAA equalization circuitry for the phono pre’s.

But if this were just a sort of audiophile DJ mixer, I think it’d be a bit dull. Where the MODEL 1 gets interesting is what it adds in the “shaping” department.

Here's the bit where things get interesting. You have to give up the usual EQ you're used to - but in its place is something potentially more creative.

Here’s the bit where things get interesting. You have to give up the usual EQ you’re used to – but in its place is something potentially more creative.

Performance and shaping

This is where I get interested. The MODEL 1 doesn’t have conventional fixed-frequency EQs on each channel, for instance. Instead, you get a complement of features intended to encourage you to re-shape the sound with filters and sends.

Contour and sculpt. Each channel has a low-pass and high-pass filter dubbed “Contour,” with a fixed, low Q – so these cut sound gently, without boosting the signal. I couldn’t really yet hear the sound of the MODEL 1 without a connected PA, but I could hear the filters, and they’re incredibly smooth. They’re also being mapped so that you can sweep quickly to the 12-o’-clock position for an immediate impact on the sound, then get more nuanced control as you turn past that point.

“Sculpt” lets you sweep through a seven-octave range, then cut or boost a particular frequency with a high Q. Found a problematic frequency you want to notch out of a record? Want to creatively boost a particular frequency? This is where you’d do that.

And interestingly, that’s it – no conventional EQ on the channel strip itself. So the channel strip is more about “fixing” sound or creatively re-shaping it as part of a performance. This of course is naturally suited to Richie Hawtin’s playing style, in using minimal elements but then reworking the record dynamically as it’s played, but I can imagine other people might also perform with it to other unexpected effects.

Master EQ. If you do want a three-band EQ, that’s there on the master. You can then enable/disable that EQ on any particular channel you want.

Analog drive. Now we’re out of just audiophile pissing contests and have something that adds some dirt, too. The “drive” control adds harmonic distortion to a signal. It’s controlled by a very small, LED-lit knob (think the ones on the KORG volca series), but it’s terrifically fun. Now, crucially, this isn’t just the same as clipping your signal at the fader; it’s a feedback circuit in the pre-amp. So “trim” and “drive” operate independently on the channel strip. That lets you dirty up a signal independent of adjusting its level on the trims, which is critical on the channel strip.

There’s also a feedback Drive circuit on the sends, though that works differently – there, gain and “drive” are linked.

This bit. By providing a separate, feedback-based Drive circuit, you can adjust Trim and Drive separately for just a little extra punch or a lot more dirt, as you like. (Apologies for the actual dirt/lint in this photo. Let's assume it's metaphorical.)

This bit. By providing a separate, feedback-based Drive circuit, you can adjust Trim and Drive separately for just a little extra punch or a lot more dirt, as you like. (Apologies for the actual dirt/lint in this photo. Let’s assume it’s metaphorical.)

I think the combination of drive, the effects sends, and the filters mean that the MODEL 1 could be just as appealing in the studio as on the road. And given that it’s a significant investment, that helps justify the purchase – you’re potentially getting a creative stage and studio mixer all once.

So, to be sure, I’ll be testing both roles when we get one for CDM to test.

Pulling all this together, there are quick enable/disable switches for each of these. The intention is to make this fast, which Rich showed me in action – turn on a filter, make a quick sweep, and so on.

Gig friendly

The MODEL 1 have done a number of things to make this friendlier to the gigging DJ:

1. You can swap turntables.
2. You get loads of headroom – 28dB.
3. There’s a booth EQ – HF and LF – so you can assist your monitoring levels at those moments the sound tech has disappeared.
4. There are dual headphone cue outs. That’s advertised for two DJs playing together, but Richie noted he sometimes used the second cue out as an additional send for effects (see below and D-SUB).
5. The power supply is external.
6. There’s “zero crossing” circuitry throughout. Remember those kill switches for the filters? To eliminate pops and clicks, they’re constantly waiting for a zero signal.
7. Redundancy: apart from having extra ins so you get a backup record player, there’s a redundant power supply connection. Hey, even if we aren’t all Richie Hawtin, it’s nice to have a DJ mixer that has the amount of redundancy that you’d require if you’re Richie Hawtin.

It’s fairly easily luggable, too – pretty much like the previous Xone series, only in my opinion, more interesting.

Those D-SUB connectors make balanced I/O to the computer and even back again easy. That's Richie Hawtin, celebrity hand model to CDM.

Those D-SUB connectors make balanced I/O to the computer and even back again easy. That’s Richie Hawtin, celebrity hand model to CDM.

Computer connectivity

The other big feature on the MODEL 1 is D-SUB (TASCAM DB25) connectivity to a laptop, which provides 8 simultaneous balanced connections on a single cable. That could I imagine again justify laptop DJ performance onstage as well as make the MODEL 1 more indispensable when you get back to the studio.

In either context, D-SUB gives you multi-channel connectivity to a computer both in and out – so it’s powerful both playing and getting your returns.

It does mean I need to consult my spec sheets and remember which audio interfaces have DB25 on them, because they just got more useful.

Oh, and there were two extra pins, since the D-SUB is eight channels and the mixer is six. That means you can use channels 7 and 8 as a third effects send using the cue B phones and level.

You can also link two mixers together, but unless we’re all going on tour with Dubfire and Chris and Rich and Ellen and so on, let’s dream of the one MODEL 1 at a time first.

Finally, sticker shock time: the MODEL 1 comes in at 2500 GBP. There’s no question this is a high-end box, though it’s still shy of some boutique mixers (including a recent unveiling from Funktion One).

On the other hand, I do hope this isn’t just a tool for rich DJs. I think for DJs a couple of tiers down, who are investing more in synthesizers and gear and then differentiating themselves for higher fees, could use this creatively. In fact, I’m going to skip entirely over the celebrity endorsements for the MODEL 1, even though they’re people I generally like – I’m far more interested in what some unknown DJs will do with this.

With that audience in mind, we’ll get our hands on a model for review soon, and give it a workout both as a studio tool and connected to a proper PA.

To get some indication of that, we’ll be at Arena in Berlin tonight for the product unveiling later today. You can tune in on Boiler Room (not so much for audio quality, but at least to see how this DJ lineup uses it).

It’s another chapter in the new generation of analog. On the other hand, it also makes a computer more useful. And it’s not only that the MODEL 1 is analog that’s significant. It is significantly more focused – it’s not just a bundle of everything you might do, but rather the realization of the greatest capacity of what the designers believe you want to do most. That seems very much the present zeitgeist, so I look forward to testing it.

http://playdifferently.org/

This isn’t an Allen & Heath mixer, but it will be available via Allen & Heath distribution from the 30 of June. That initial run I think will sell out quickly, but more units are planned.

And see you on Boiler Room at 8pm Berlin time.

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