14 maart 2014

Allen & Heath Xone:DB2 Pro DJ Mixer


Allen & Heath’s Xone:DB2 is the smaller brother to the company’s flagship digital mixer, the Xone:DB4. While we haven’t reviewed the DB4 here, so I can’t give you a hands-on comparison, the DB2 looks and feels very much like it belongs to the same product line: It is well built but lightweight, and has the same focus on excellent mixer and FX functions.
Take on its own merits, the Xone:DB2 appears a versatile, modern mixer. There’s full Midi mapability (you can download a Traktor .tsi from the Allen & Heath website, for instance), a great sound card, excellent routing, and strong hardware effects. Let’s take a closer look and see if it might be about to claim a place at the heart of more than a few home digital DJ set-ups…

First impressions and setting up


It’s a lovely mixer; that much is clear the second you get it out of the box. It’s beautifully built, all the knobs, faders and buttons scream quality, and from the generous VU metering to the long-throw faders, it is clearly designed with the pro DJ in mind. While not by any means cheap, it is fairly priced, especially when compared to some equivalent products at this end of the market.
The first impression you have though, once you’ve got it plugged in, is actually how simple it is. It feels immediately like most four-channel DJ mixers – and to me, that’s a good thing.
While you can tell the effects are going to give you lots of options, they don’t dominate its faceplate; the non-conventional but practical off-centre mid-range knob is the only slight eye-raiser in what is otherwise a conventional line layout (input select, gain, EQ, fader, cue, crossfader assign); the headphones controls at bottom left and output knobs at top right are as you’d expect.
Top left is an auxiliary channel, which again is standard looking, though well featured: It accepts either a mono XLR microphone or a stereo line (switchable), with gain and two-band EQ plus its own cue.
Even round the back there’s nothing out of the ordinary, except perhaps two digital ins and a digital out, plus Allen & Heath’s own X-Link for daisy-chaining other A&H gear such as the modular Xone:K2 Midi controllers into the set-up.
Having said that, all the features I’ve just described do demonstrate best industry practice (XLR master out, TRS booth outs and RCA record outs, for instance), showing that while it’s a stripped-down DB4, it hasn’t stripped away the focus on pro quality. Just that it’s less immediately scary than some – and definitely less scary than the beast of a mixer that is the Xone:DB4!
Even the effects section looks, well, unthreatening; before you switch on, you can see a small screen, just two or three knobs, and what look like five effects selectors for each of two separate effects lines. It feels it’s going to strike like a nice balance between pro quality and friendly ease of use.

In use

The first thing you’ll do on setting up and using this thing is route your audio. Now we start to see the power of the mixer.
Analogue and digital routing

To start with, each line has a silver knob right at the top that lets you select which input is routed to that particular channel, at first glance from the four inputs available at the back. There’s actually nothing to stop you routing the same input to more than one line; we’ll talk about why you may want to do that in a second. There’s also nothing to stop you routing input four to channel one, input one to channel three, and so on. Up to you.

But then on closer inspection, there’s that little three-way toggle between analogue, digital and USB. Remember the two digital inputs at the back? They allow you to plug in anything with a digital out (such as higher end CDJs) in addition to the four analogue inputs. So you could have six sources plugged in all the time.
(By the way, while there are only two hardware RIAA switchable inputs for record decks, in actual fact, there is software RIAA equalisation too, so you could even have four record decks, Carl Cox style, and two digital CDJs if you wanted).
Xone:DB2 top Allen & Heath
The slightly off-centre mid knob in the EQs is the only major thing that breaks from a pretty standard layout.
USB routing

But the really cool thing is that the third setting on that little toggle, USB, lets you route up to four channels of USB audio from your DJ software through here too. So you could have all four decks of Traktor (or two decks and the new Remix Decks, controller by the new Kontrol F1, for instance) permanently plugged in and available via USB, and only the flick of a toggle away.

DJ sets based around real vinyl, CDs, and four digital decks including sample decks, could happen exceedingly smoothly with this unit at the heart of it all – you could even digitally record your master output via USB if you wanted to.
(Why would digitally recording the master output of the mixer be so cool? Because of its wonderful hardware effects, that’s why. While what you get is certainly stripped down fro the DB4, it still has over 50 high-quality effects built in. But more on those in a bit.)
A whole heap of filters

Each set of EQs is also per-channel filters, with this option selectable – as are so many others with this mixer – via a menu option. In filter mode, the “bass” or “low” knob is a hi-pass filter, the high knob is a low-pass filter, and the mid knob controls resonance, the feedback intensity. (By the way, you get two types of EQ too, which is nice; a “kill” EQ, and a softer, less abrupt variation.)

On top of that, there are post-FX filters for each of the two effects units, which if you set the effects unit to dry, can be used simply as additional straight one-knob filters. So you could have full kill EQ across four channels and still have decent filters on two of those. Pretty cool.
Studio-grade effects

So on to the effects. First, the limitation: Only two effects units, and no daisy-chaining.

So now, let’s talk about what you can do. Firstly, the effects can be post-or pre-crossfader (again, menu selectable). Then, you can utilise the switching versatility we spoke of earlier to put same signal through two lines, and thus apply complete different effects to each instance of the signal, mixing the finished results as you pleased. (Each line has an X/Y/thru toggle, which not only affects the crossfader but also the effects unit used.)
And what effects! Sound quality-wise, you’re getting stuff out of Allen & Heath’s pro digital live sound gear here; no half-baked “DJ effects”. Having said that, they are adapted for use in a DJ mixer, the main addition being a BPM engine per effects unit, allowing you to do the usual beatmatch FX cycling – although you can also apply absolute time to the effects cycles too if you wish.
While the effects look quite simple, each of those six buttons in fact selects a bank, not an effect; within each bank are ten or more effects, each with up to three parameters. There’s a plethora of famed Allen & Heath reverbs, lots of coloured echoes and delays, all the usual phaser and flangers style effects, and some rather more “out-there” stuff tucked under the umrbella label of “damage effects” – everything from bitcrushers to slice ‘n’ dice.
The effects can be routed to be pre or post-crossfader; great for the classic delay/cut dub effect (and an option often missing from software solutions). Being hardware, they can be applied equally to any of your inputs. If you’re using this to mix software channels, that means you have all these awesome hardware effects in addition to those available in your software.
Strengths and weaknesses of the menu system

The menu offers a lot of flexibility, but it also conceals some stuff that some DJs might want to see on buttons or knobs, out in the open. The effects stuff actually works really well, but also tucked away in the menu are things like crossfader curve, headphones split cue, and line fader incline – things that mixers from the likes Rane put right there on the faceplate for you.

That shows a difference in philosophies; whereas, say, the Rane Sixty-One (as reviewed here last week) is designed really to be used squarely at the heart of a Serato DVS system as the ultimate scratch mixer, this is more a digital EDM mixer, and its overall feature set – and more importantly the features they’ve chosen to bring to the fore – reflects that. (By the way, the crossfader wouldn’t be a scratch DJs first choice, either, being too long).
And while it may be a leap too far for some to have, say, crossfader curve tucked away on a menu, some of the menu items you wouldn’t expect to find on any mixer. How about the ability to reverse the phase of the booth output in case you happen to conclude it’s clashing with the main system? I’ve never seen that anywhere before and it definitely raised a smile in the Digital DJ Tips workshop!
Sound quality

But it was the sound quality that ultimately got us hooked on this mixer.

Real VU metering with additional peak LED lights right by the gains. Individual channel VUs. A master EQ that follows the cue source, old school mixer style. All of these things means gain staging through this mixer is a cinch – and as any DJ who’s really studied it knows. if your source material is decent and you get your gain staging right, you’re pretty much always going to sound good. the Xone:DB4 makes that easy to do.
Then you pile on the effects. We loved the filters. Of the rest of the effects, the reverbs especially were awesome. We didn’t really have time to start experimenting with the multi-channel FX routing we discussed earlier, but the potential for a lot of fun is clearly there – and thanks to the decent audio interface, digital USB audio was pristine.
The sound card, by the way, is 24-bit/48kHz, and we auditioned the unit through a pair of KRK Rokit 10-3s. Having reviewed the Rane Sixty-One last week and now this, frankly I’m scared as to what I’ll write about the next sub-$200 consumer DJ controller that hits the workshop. The Xone:DB2 is, like the Rane, a pro mixer, and you can hear it. It sounds great.

Conclusion


So who is going to use this? Well, to start with, it’s fair value, so it hasn’t been priced out of the market to become simply a trophy mixer. It’s a viable home option for the serious DJ.
Specifically, if you’re a digital DJ wanting a real hardware mixer in your set-up, and you see value in world-grade hardware effects, it’s going to be right up your street. And homing in still further, there’s one particular type of digital DJ I can see this appealing firmly to.
A home mixer for light-travelling DJ/producers…

Nowadays, some digital DJs are starting to use really stripped-down set-ups when they are out and about. They’re realising that a couple of X1s can control four tracks of Traktor, and that all nicely beatgridded, you just don’t need jogs and therefore a jogwheel (or CDJ, or timecode…)-based workflow.

Such DJs are turning up at their gigs, X1 (or two) in hand, a small audio interface and laptop too, and rocking it from a very small footprint. With Traktor’s Remix Decks and the new Kontrol F1, and the increasing number of Ableton Djs using similar set-ups, and I can see this style of minimal (in gear, not necessarily in sound) EDM DJing growing.
Of course, at a club, such a DJ plugs straight in to two (or four) channel on the house mixer. So what does that same DJ do at home? The answer is: they buy a modern digital DJ mixer.
Xone K2 next to DB2
Used with slimline DJ controllers and software like Ableton Live, this would make an amazing heart to a digital DJ set-up.
The Allen & Heath Xone:DB2 is just such a mixer. It sounds great. It’s not over-pricy for what you get. It has a capable eight-in, eight-out sound card that can thus be used for all your digital inputs, and for digital recording too. As we mentioned at the beginning, to boot the whole thing is Midi mappable.
But there’s more. A couple ofXone:K2s (Allen & Heath’s answer to the Kontrol X1) can be X-linked into it (X-Link being a proprietary network protocol) meaning the whole set-up only uses one USB on your computer. Now, you’ve got a huge level of Midi control, plus a top-notch the sound card, plus the hardware effects, plus the ability to mix in (and record) analogue sources too, but with the flexibility of two K2s, that offer multi-layered control, al nicely colour coded. Now if that’s not a genius Ableton Live set-up, I don’t know what is.
I mentioned Ableton Live. I think it’s true to say that most DJs at this level want to produce, and when they do, they’ll be experimenting with Ableton as they can also perform with it. Here, again, the DB2 shines, because it is going to be just as happy working as a multi-channel effects processor, digitally inserted into a DAW such as Ableton. You can offload much of the CPU-intensive FX work to the DB2, giving you a lot more power to play with as a producer.
DVS and scratch DJs should look elsewhere

If you’re a digital vinyl user, it won’t be for you. It’s not really made for scratch-style mixing that DVS DJs tend to do anyway, and it won’t currently work with Traktor or Serato timecode (it’s a certification thing, not a technical thing), so it’s not the obvious choice.

Otherwise, if you’ve read this far you’re obviously seriously considering it; I guess your real decision here is going to be if you want the extra features of the DB4. I think, for instance, I’d miss the ability to sample and loop within hardware.
Either way, it’s mixers like this that show such hardware still has a place in the modern, digital DJing world. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable piece of hardware that I suggest is going to encourage creativity rather than just perform reliably at the heart of your DJing set-up – whether that’s with Traktor, Ableton, CDJs, vinyl, other Midi controllers, or any combination thereof.

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