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.

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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.

  • Cillian Warfield

    Indeed, it looks like a sweet mixer for the studio too, loving the 2 auxs and drive features.
    As a non-dj I’m wondering about the fact that the main channels are all stereo. I get that most of your sources will be stereo (decks, samplers etc) but what do you do when you want to plug a mono source like a synth to one of these channels? Do you mult the source to both channels (I guess you don’t have any pan control then)?

    • Nope, that’s a really good point. Here’s what I think you might do at that point – mix line sources separately and use that DB-25 connector.

      I can see though that some wish it were a combination of stereo/phono ins and the ability to use the last two inputs as mono inputs.

      I could also imagine a Model 2 that had line ins; I’m probably not alone in that. I mean, if this thing is a hit being what it is, it’s easier to imagine variables. I do understand why they’d go this route – you have the DB-25 for connecting a computer (and anything connected to that computer), or the phono jacks for vinyl, with the ability to quickly swap to another record player if one dies.

  • Freeks

    If this would have modular channels with option to swap two channels to mono with proper jacks this could be great for live use.

    This would also make great match with the coming Toraiz SP16. Ok, maybe the combined price of 4,600€ is a bit too much, but it would still be nice 😀

  • Peter Principle

    Great looking layout, and smart ideas. I’m sure this will be a superb mixer. It’s about time the eqs on a dj mixer were sweep-able. Live Wild Pitch!

    I’m not sure an external power supply is really a great feature as it is much easier to find a spare IEC power cable. Due to the limited production run, this was probably to save manufacturing costs as running mains into a device means very expensive destructive testing concerning electrical safety standards.

    Same goes for the price. It could be a lot cheaper if the production runs were larger. Perhaps a 4 channel version could eventually be more mass produced.

  • chaircrusher

    I’d prefer rotary volume controls, especially with no crossfader. That would allow for a slightly smaller form factor.

    Here’s what I think is wrong about how this is aimed. This is pitched to professional full time DJs, who can travel with their own mixer. The operation of this is different enough from … oh, every other mixer on the market …. that it’s a tough sell to clubs as a permanent install. It’s something that would require practice, whereas the standard mixer controls are second nature to most people.

    I also think that something based on similar circuits and user interface could be made for less than a third of the cost, which would make it accessible to the semi-pro and home enthusiast market.

    It just goes to show that Richie Hawtin inhabits a world tangent to the rest of us. I expect 20 or 30 working DJs will buy this, and the bulk of the production will go to wealthy people who imagine they’re DJs.

    • Well, if this is a tangent world, I still like this tangent world. I said ’boutique’ – I’m all about interesting niche gear, as readers know.

      Could you cut costs? Sure.
      Could you simplify the layout and take out some of these more interesting features? Yes.
      Could you sell a lot more? Absolutely.

      But then… well, then you’d have the rest of the DJ market. Thing is, there are plenty of mixers that have standard layouts and make sense as club installs.

      So I’m not a rich DJ/producer by any stretch. On the other hand, if you start to push your booking fees just a *little*, it’s possible to imagine justifying this as an investment. As I said, I’m way more interested in what will happen for those DJs who ‘stretch’ to buy this than the ones for whom this is pocket change (lucky as those folks are).

      If it’s just a couple dozen of those doing really interesting stuff, that’s fine. And that’s why this is interesting in a way Allen & Heath maybe couldn’t make under their own name, let alone a Rane or Pioneer or other bigger vendor doing more volume.

      I don’t think they’re planning to do 50,000 units of this. 🙂

      • Robtronik

        For those of who don’t DJ, but rather want a DJ Mixer interface to play our drum machines and synths and stuff, this is an amazing development.

        The whole 20 or 30 DJs buying this misses that whole segment of us who are doing the Live performance thing, but need a mixer that is also an instrument.

        So far my weapon of choice has been the Xone:92, but this is an amazing evolution of that mixer.

        I’m in.

        • Absolutely! My thoughts exactly.

          And actually lots of overlapping circles. Some people are playing a mix of live and DJ sets out… etc.

          So in that case, you’re not bothered by the phono stereo connections on the back? (To be honest, with the gear you’re talking, it’s not such a big deal connecting phono/cinch cables in stereo pairs, actually…)

          • Robtronik

            yeah, not a big deal. It’s a bonus for playing records at home I guess. But for purposes of playing live with instruments, I’m thinking this is a great performance mixer – and fills a good niche for folks like me trying to get a “DJ mixer” to work for our live stuff. Already put my interest in for presale. I’m all in!!!

      • chaircrusher

        I don’t think they COULD do 50,000 units of this. It sounds like there’s a fair amount of hand work that goes into building it.

        I do like the idea of no comprimise engineering as well. I just don’t think this is going to be a real game changer. For one thing, most of the DJs who can afford one of these play boring music, and no amount of boutique RIAA EQ is going to fix that.

        As for Robert’s comment below, I think there would be a real market for a first rate mixer tuned to the needs of live performers. Something like a Mackie 1202 only not a Mackie 1202 😉

    • Martin Wilson

      Maybe it’s like the Tesla Model S and Richie will use the proceeds to bring out a model in a less astronomical price range. I have no evidence for this or any real reason to imagine it would happen, but… it’d be cool. Model 3?

      • chaircrusher

        Richie is a concept guy. He comes up with ideas, sells them, and moves on. There’s a long list of his “greatest things ever” over the years. This is just the latest.

  • It’s calling this a “DJ” mixer that makes me laugh. This seems like it would be great for live performances, but anything for “DJs” with those stupid low profile mixing board faders on it…smh. Nope. I HATE rotary mixers and even that would be better than this.

    But I am an admitted curmudgeon (although not a vinyl purist, strangely), so there’s that.

  • syntheticjuice

    I hope you get to try one out Peter. I’d like to see how it works in a live multi synth setup, especially with the two stereo? sends and cue’s. Also, I want to hear how those filters sound.

    that said, i’m probably getting a Mackie 1642 vlz4 . the price is kinda out of my range.

  • I already found my perfect mixer and it is cheap, flexible and easy to upgrade. Simply use an iPad with AUM, LaunchControlXL and a USB soundcard. Totally customisable and unique to suit your sound/style.

    • Polite Society

      I used AUM live the other day, it’s pretty solid.

  • This looks incredible, especially his special filters

  • wndfrm

    nice article, way out of my price range, but interesting layout. oh, i think referencing the DB25 connection as a ‘laptop’ thing is a misnomer, you can get a db25 to ‘something else’ breakout and do what you like with those connections.. no DAC/ADC involved. not sure if that was in the original copy, but might be worth mentioning.

    • wndfrm

      er, by ‘interesting layout’ i was referring to the mixer =D hehe

    • Absolutely! Yeah, DB25 to me makes loads of sense on this mixer, and it isn’t just a laptop thing. I referenced laptops only because I imagined that there were three popular use cases here:
      1. CDJs
      2. turntables
      3. laptops

      And sure enough, whether or not the genre was what people were into, they were clever to show all of those in the Boiler Room lineup last night.

      I do still think the DB25 connection in this case is going to be mostly used by computer-based DJs with a multichannel interface. In the studio, well, it could be anything. But it’s still awfully useful to have one cable, then an audio interface, then the computer.

      I forget which rack audio interface Rich had, but he was using one that way… I actually wish more audio interfaces had them onboard.

      • wndfrm

        nice. now if only it had an SCART breakout… 😉

  • kuehnl

    Hey Peter. I think the DB25 is really just a space-saving choice. Most likely, you’ll use DB25 to TRS (etc.) breakouts to get to your audio interface. Various flavors of these cables are readily available at any pro audio shop. The interfaces that feature DB25 outputs are generally not the type you’d bring to a gig (high-end stuff like Avid, Apogee, etc.).

    • genjutsushi

      Real shame they didnt include ADAT output / return so that a broader range of interfaces could talk digitally (like my MOTU!)

      • Dr Dopolopopadobbolopagoolagee

        then they’d need to build in a d/a … not the point. i think the db25 is a good if not great compromise.

  • The Fantastix

    I’m interested to know what “Integrated Mixer Linking” actually is. I imagine a way to connect two mixers, but with what purpose or scenario in mind?

  • Steve Cain

    Oh look, some DJ discovers regular mixing boards, slaps a logo on one and charges 5X what it is worth.
    I have a 20 year old Mackie I paid all of $10 that has more features easily.
    FYI Mr. DJ guy, the DJ mixer was developed because DJs wanted something small and quick to setup and with only the features they needed. What you have done is nothing more than return to a time before the standard DJ mixer had been developed, said a few fancy sounding words then jacked the price through the roof.

  • I think I’d be interested in a three channel matrix version with 6 channels on the back and without the D-Subs or extra power supply or maybe even extra cue system.