Ambivalent gets his hands on the DB4 for the first time – and doesn’t want to let go. Photo courtesy Allen & Heath, who snapped this while he was testing it out.

Can a digital mixer change how you work and perform? After getting a hands-on introduction to one, globe-trotting electronic DJ Kevin McHugh, aka Ambivalent (on m-nus), thinks so. I’m pleased to welcome Kevin to talk about why he’s so excited about this particular kit, not only for DJs but potentially as a useful tool for anyone who needs live mixing. And we hope he’ll come back and talk to us regularly, in the midst of that jet-setting routine. In the meantime, we’ll see if he starts a Pioneer/Allen & Heath flame war. Side note: yes, in response to those in comments, we have to get someone to have a look at the Rane / Serato Sixty-Eight, too. -Ed.

The art of DJing has changed quite a bit in the past decade, giving us a ton of new playback and effects options with digital technology. But strangely, the central instrument of any DJ, the mixer, hasn’t fully stepped into the digital age. If there’s a solution, I got a brief introduction to it at the BPM trade show in Birmingham a few weeks ago.

Allen & Heath unveiled the working prototype for their new digital DJ mixer, the Xone DB4. They invited me and a few others to take it for a few laps around the track in their booth at the show, so I figured I’d share what I learned. I played with a prototype model that is still in the process of being finalized, so please don’t take this as the final word on the DB4. Things change, and it’d be unfair to award or deduct points for something it might or might not be when it is available. Also, the ultimate test of a mixer is how it sounds. While I know that A&H mixers have always sounded better to my ears than any others, I was unable to judge in a convention hall.

That said, I got a pretty decent taste of what it should offer when it’s out. Here’s the key stuff to know about the DB4.


Full disclosure: I’m an Allen & Heath fan both in the studio and in the DJ booth. I love the Xone products, and the Xone 92 has been the essential piece of every technical rider I’ve had in the last 4 years. It’s packed with useful features, great routing options, and sounds fantastic. Before I saw the DB4, I was just expecting to smile and nod politely, as the 92 is a monumental classic, and nearly impossible to improve upon. Like a Deadmau5 remix of the Factory Records catalogue, some classics are just better left alone. I figured I’d make some curious facial expressions, tap some buttons, and make some clever observations about “the future” while remaining firmly planted in the present. What I didn’t expect was to go home completely rethinking my approach to routing, FX, and gear, or that I’d be anxious for more time with one of these freakboxes.

First impressions

The DB4 is fashionably black, and every single centimeter of it is covered with buttons, knobs, displays and lights. If the Death Star had a DJ booth, Vader would be rocking this one. They’ve stayed mostly true to the 92′s layout, with a portion of the real-estate shared for the digital effects section (more on that later).

Let’s start with routing, since that’s where any DJ will first encounter the new options offered by the DB4. The four main channels can be accessed using one of three different methods:

  1. Standard analog inputs with phono or line impedance
  2. Digital inputs via four S/PDIF connections
  3. USB 2.0 connection to the mixer’s internal, 24-bit/96kHz soundcard.

Inputs

This is where the mixer gets interesting. Yes, a digital DJ can solve all their cabling and I/O hassles with just one USB cable — that’s something offered by other solutions. But after you’ve done that, the DB4 still leaves room to be connected simultaneously to several of your closest friends, rivals, or strangers. I have to say this is one part that makes my heart spin. The stress of cabling and re-cabling, navigating the input, output, channels or effects of other cohorts can make a cozy DJ booth into a claustrophobic scavenger hunt. If you’ve ever had to decide how to route a vinyl setup on top of a digital rig without a break in the music, using only a flashlight, you know what this means.

Where A&H have gotten really clever is how to treat these inputs on the top of the faceplate. Each channel has the option to select which source it’s using. Select the source type, then which input you’re assigning and you’ve just rerouted without touching a cable. This means channel 1 could carry analog input 4 and switch to USB input 2 in two shakes. It also means I don’t have to memorize the schematic of this mixers connections or fumble in the dark for the proper insertion point. (No jokes here; we’re keeping this clean.)

Output

The outputs are pretty standard, with analog booth, main, and record outputs. The nice surprise is a digital record out, making it easy to hook up to any ADAT or other S/PDIF-equipped interface. Pioneer users might also like the four deck starts offered. Having never used them, I can’t offer much insight about them, but it may give the DB4 a shot at winning over Pioneer users who haven’t already seen the light. (Hear that? That’s the sound of my inbox bursting into flames…)

EQ

The next thing I noticed is a difference in the EQ section. Here again, I was in for a big surprise. My initial disappointment at the loss of my Xone 92′s classic 4-band EQ was replaced with shock at how many new options were in its place. The three bands each have 3 separate functions, switchable between standard 3-band EQs, isolators, or a filter section with Hi-pass and Lo-pass, with the Mid frequency knob shifting to a resonance pot. What’s more, the knobs have a special backlight, so that the white position-indicators glow in a dark club. The thought of all these different options gives me dry mouth and heavy eyelids. Imagine Homer thinking about donuts…

Loopers

Each channel has its own looper with BPM detection that automatically records a 4-bar loop. The loop length can then be played back anywhere from 1/16 to the full 4 bars. For Traktor users, this won’t be necessarily a revolution, but other setups could really benefit. Somebody clever will no doubt find a way to combine this feature with the routing matrix and/or the effects to tap some options that aren’t obvious at first sight. That clever individual will never thank me, and pretend he or she never read this, but will think of me when they lie awake at night. It’s okay. I’m used to it.

FX

Other digital mixers so far have ended up being combination controllers/audio interfaces, which is fine. To be honest, that’s about what I expected out of this unit before I saw it. But the FX section is where this thing becomes a wrecking machine. Powered by a quad-core DSP engine, linked to the BPM detector, and inserted on each channel, there is a big beefy ton of readily-accessible power here. Steroid-abuse level power. Sounds hot, right? Gets hotter. It’s actually the effects themselves that are so damn sweet. These are literally studio-quality effects. I’d normally use a UAD2 Quad to run an EMT 250 reverb emulation in my studio. Now it’s available across up to four instances on a DJ mixer. That’s one of a huge batch of reverbs and there are even more delays (ping pong, hi-pass or lo-pass filtered, matched to bpm or delay in milliseconds), resonators, modulators and damage (distortion, bit-crushing).

One of my favorite features of the effects is how the Dry/Wet knob’s maximum position transforms it into to a Kill Send mode. This is great for building a nice big rush, and then dropping it off by killing the signal while the effects decay out. Another enterprising reader will note this feature, and also never thank me. They will think of me when they are posing, arms spread, Tiesto-style on a festival stage in front of 50,000 people. It’s okay. I’m used to it.

MIDI

Add to this the fact that nearly every device on the unit can function simultaneously as a USB MIDI controller, making your faders and knobs into encoders, assignable to any software you’re using, and you’re into some serious hot cocoa. The MIDI Shift button also disconnects the FX controls from the effects and the loop encoders from the looper, adding more MIDI-assignable functions.

Ed.: Allen & Heath sends along some additional details on just how MIDI works on this mixer.

MIDI Shift mode disconnects the FX buttons from the FX units so they can be used to launch clips in Ableton, or control transport in Traktor (or whatever the user requires). It also disconnects the loop encoder from the looper enabling this to be used for browsing etc.

Pretty much all of the other controls on the surface (there are a few exceptions) permanently send MIDI (this even includes the EQ Mode, X-fade assign and filter assign switches).

Specs

From Allen & Heath:

  • Quad FX Core DSP, providing separate effects bank, BPM detection and tempo adjustment on each channel
  • Five FX types – delays, reverbs, modulators, resonators and damage – plus variations, expression, wet/dry
  • One looper per channel, loop length from 1/16 beat to 4 bars
  • Xone dual filter system.
  • Sources: analog Line 1-4 (switchable to Phono on 2 – 3), Digital 1-4, or USB 1-4.
  • 3-band EQ, configurable as standard asymmetric EQ (+6/-25dB), Isolator (+6dB/OFF with a 24dB/octave slope), or reconfigured as a High-Pass/Low-Pass filter system with adjustable resonance.
  • Mic/Line input with 2-band EQ, gain, cue, and mix level, routable to channel 1 for adding FX.
  • Sound card: 24-bit / 96kHz, multi-channel, fully patchable USB2 soundcard ,4 stereo sends and 4 stereo inputs
  • USB patch storage: Meter mode, BPM range, USB audio routing scheme and display brightness can be saved to a USB key for recall on another :D B4.
  • MIDI control without changing mixer settings
  • Output: Booth, record and phones – source selectable and level trim. Booth and main – phase and level trim controls.
  • OLED display, visible even in bright sunlight
  • Lightweight aluminium chassis

Ambivalent, doing his thing. Courtesy the artist.

Bad Cop

Here’s the part where I act real mean and try to break down the witness by showing them scary pictures and punching the table. Okay, I can’t really do that. Most of the differences between the DB4 and my beloved 92 are a positive improvement, or an worthwhile compromise, given what’s offered in return. There are definitely going to be risks in using a digital mixer. Digital devices can crash. But analog devices have their issues, too. It’s what Depeche Mode says, a question of lust, a question of trust. If you lust for serious options and DSP firepower, and trust that Allen & Heath have it worked out, you’re ready to start a beautiful relationship. Of course, there’s also a question of cost. This is definitely not priced for entry-level incomes, but chances are no one serious enough to consider this unit will be able to find something comparable.

I think it’s fair to say I’m enthusiastic about the possibilities created by this mixer. Much of it comes from the fact that it crosses beyond a passive audio summing device, and into a performance tool. Like any great design, it solves problems and opens doors. But even more than that, it moves us in the direction of a common platform where any DJ setup can cooperate and where the booth gains some of the power of the studio. Some DJs might blanch at the idea of having so many options and such a complex tool. I’d counter that if you believe DJing is performance, why would you limit the power of your instrument? And if you’re serious about meeting the musical future, you’re going to be looking right down the barrel of a device like this sooner or later.

I, for one, welcome our digital overlords.

More from Ambivalent, if you don’t already know and follow his body of work and DJing:

facebook.com/AmbivalentBeats

twitter.com/AmbivalentBeats

XONE:DB4 Mixer [A&H Product Page]

  • Kris

    "Nothing to compare,"  what about the Rane / Serato Sixty-Eight?

  • midihendrix

    apart from maybe better fx on the xone…..the rane mixer offers a plethora of other features which really "dont compare"

  • Peter Kirn

    Yeah, I'm keen to have us look at the Rane / Serato Sixty-Eight, too. A comparison, even, may be in order.

  • http://noisepages.com/members/gavin/ Gavin Burke

    "Some DJs might blanch at the idea of having so many options and such a complex tool. I’d counter that if you believe DJing is performance, why would you limit the power of your instrument? "

    Easily the best DJ set I have seen was DJ Harvey in Panorama Bar over the summer. He was using a simple 2 channel bozak mixer from the 1970s. Dixon, Radio Slave, Daniel Wang…just to name a few were all present and at the end bowing in front of the DJ box. Its not the tools, its your track selection and how you put your set together that matters most.

  • Peter Kirn

    @Gavin: right, so in other words, both arguments are right. ;)

  • http://noisepages.com/members/gavin/ Gavin Burke

    Exactly!

  • http://noisepages.com/members/andycartridge/ tekkaz

    nice to see abit of oldskool faderfox action in that pic

  • Moon Man

    Hoping this will bring down the price of a Xone 92, So I can finally pick on up.  I have no interest in this thing, but I do not run traktor and probably never will.  I can see why someone would love this mixer,  I am going to check out the pioneer 2000 mixer soon, (a friend picked one up), and see what the all in one fuss is about.  

  • James

    I'l look through this article more thoroughly, and you're certainly welcome to steer me, but one aspect to mixing that I think would really, in truth,  revolutionize the portable mixing board is if the control was separated from the patch bay. Roland had a very esoterically, unergomatic attempt at this with the VM-7100 and 3100, and I haven't seen much in this approach since. The concept of keeping your snakes as short as possible while running only communication to your mixing position is an improvement on signal, and a savings in heavy cable. But am I off base here, or is this product revolutionizing with a different intent?

  • http://www.milanminimal.com Milan Minimal

    No 4 bands EQ, WTF A&H….Only 4 connections????, in clubs I like to be able to plug in my traktor scratch and have the vinyl people be able to play aswell. (2xlaptop switchable with2xvinyl + 2 cdj's = 4 channel = 6 inputs) What for 6 channel (4deck+maschine etc) setups.

    Only 1 USB channel, so thats it for swapping in the future. Sorry guys, the new DJ is plugging in to the setup the sound will return after a hard blop and some minutes.

    While I do like to try it out some time. I still think the Xone92 is a better mixer for most, 6 channel vs 4, 4 bands eq (halleluja) vs 3, effects on Traktor or Serato vs inbuild stuff. Sure, good mixer, but worth it…..

  • http://soundcloud.com/donfuan donfuan

    "It’s okay. I’m used to it." hmm, the typical m_nus crew attitude going on, still managed to get through this. Sounds interesting. Although with 2000, quiet pricy. Hope the EQ's will make it into the smaller mixers as well.

  • Mat

    Probably not comparable but inspired by : http://www.vestax.com/v/products/detail.php?cate_
    (PMC-580Pro)

  • http://www.twitter.com/OSXyZ OSXyZ

    @Gavin

    *bows*

  • http://www.inthemix.me Paz

    As a long time A&H fanatic, I'm super excited about this. I thank the author specifically for a realistic approach and especially to thank him for the bits he didnt think we would be thanked for, just because he thought he wouldnt be thanked. (or something or other). Not all of us are cheesy retards ;-)

    For all you Rane fanatics, great great mixers. However the sound pales in comparison to A&H. I seriously hope the DB4 continues that mentality. 

  • alexiobeez

    guys,rane mixers are good mixers,but a&h is way better,just admit it.

    no other mixers has the sound of a&h filters,and 4 band eq`s.

    for me the features that the sixty-eight uses to beat the crap out of db4 is the the 2 usb 2.0 ports and the ready for serato scratch live controls.

    so people who uses serato will find this mixer dedicated for them,but who uses traktor and live will not find it so cool..

    the “bad“ thing about db4 is the eq part,im used to 4 bands .but,the fx section is what makes this mixer wanted.

    allot of people`s techniques are based on fx`s,so i guess that this mixer will be a icon to all fx addict freaks out there.

    and btw,like gavin said,its not about the tools

  • http://www.soundcloud.com/something-wicked Vincent

    Korg Zero4 did this already… but I am REALLY excited about this new A&H… It looks amazing.

  • http://www.soundcloud.com/fernandocristian ominim fer

    amazing ! Mixer º.º

  • http://www.soundcloud.com/aquinox Aquinox

    “Nothing to compare,” what about the Rane / Serato Sixty-Eight?

    How about Denon X1700? 32bit FP DACs, ADCS and DSP + more lights than you'd ever wish for.

  • http://www.soundcloud.com/secretstash ad8

    just wondering why no one talks about the inside of these "digital" mixers…. How does the "soundcard's" converters compare? While they are billed as "digital", are the filters still analog VCFs? the EQs? do they still have true VCAs? how do the pre-amps sound?

  • http://regend.com REGEND

    i'm going to play d-man advocate…someone should compare this to the Behringer Digital Mixer with all the buttons.

  • http://moodle.irrelombardia.it/user/view.php?id=10087&course=1 eynbr

    Google http://moodle.irrelombardia.it/user/view.php?id=1… guy forced to cum under table in bar video sarinatje http://moodle.tstboces.org/gjr/user/view.php?id=1… sissy cum eating ingosur http://pnep.ese.ipp.pt/moodle/user/view.php?id=22… friend cums in wife hubby films serret http://psicologiasocial.uab.es/campus/user/view.p… ass to mouth orgy lots of cum swapping free video rokee http://saladeaulainterativa.pro.br/moodle/user/vi… jack off eat your cum qler http://tps.ac.th/~webmaster/moodle/user/view.php?… hot teens swapng cum and plwng cum bubls mathilde

  • http://www.mastermusicproduction.com Aquinox

    What about the x1700? it has 32 bit DSP DAC & ADC, numbers don't say everything but combined with the R-Core transformer you can say it has better sound. Only thing why I'd take a DB4 over denon x1700 is the effects which are more elaborate and probably sound better.

  • B3RT

    the equalizers are on the vinyl attachments that go on each side

  • B3RT

    wait nevermind just looked at the picture again lol. But i think there are more controls on the vinyl attachments

  • http://. 5 mistakes

    Your blog is really cool to me and your topics are very relevant. I was browsing around and came across something you might find interesting. I was guilty of 3 of them with my sites. “99% of blog managers are guilty of these five mistakes”. http://is.gd/jhKkC5 You will be suprised how easy they are to fix.