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Louise - System UK

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A mix console maker from Cornwall became a DJ powerhouse in the 2000s, thanks in no small part to Richie Hawtin. Jordan Rothlein sat down with Andy Rigby-Jones, the mastermind behind the Xone series, to get the story on the DJ mixer that's currently ruling the roost.

In the first two pieces in this series, we delved into the only two decks you're likely to find in the booth: the Technics 1200 and Pioneer's CDJ. Each has become something like an instrument for DJs, engendering a whole set of gestures and creative techniques for manipulating the music they're playing back. The most musical thing DJs do—execute blends, either to keep the beat alive or create new sounds entirely—happens by way of a mixer. It's the center of the booth, the thing DJs spend more time tweaking than any other part of their kit.

While there's not much argument on the standards for vinyl and CD playback, settling on a mixer isn't quite as easy. Over the course of the 2000s, though, a mixer by Cornwall, England-based console maker Allen & Heath called the Xone:92 began worming its way into more and more DJ booths. In some ways it was simpler than the competition, with all-analog circuitry and no onboard effects save a voltage control filter (VCF). In others, it broadened our expectations of what a DJ mixer should offer, packing four-band EQ, effects sends and MIDI into its hefty metal frame. In terms of its full feature set, it almost certainly offers most jocks a good deal more than they'd need—but that doesn't make it an obvious crowd-pleaser like Pioneer's DJM-800. While it's obvious how something like the Technics 1200 became an industry standard, the Xone:92—an analog mixer built to accommodate a relatively specialized digital DJ setup—could seem like an oddball pick.
As Andy Rigby-Jones, the Xone line's design manager and creator, tells it, Allen & Heath didn't look like they were destined to become a player in the DJ world. Rather, the company was known for its mixing consoles, particularly in the context of live sound. "They did some little stereo mixers that probably found their way into some clubs and things," Jones says, but through the '90s the company wasn't really courting DJs. 

A look at Jones's biography shows he was precisely the guy to change that. A veteran of the shop floor who by 1994 had joined the R&D department as a junior engineer, Jones was also a DJ, and a resourceful one at that. "I set my own mobile road show up in the late '70s, back in the days of disco," he says. "Because I hadn't got any money, I had to learn how to build all my own kit. That's how I got into electronics—through building amps and mixers for my road show." So when Rigby-Jones approached Allen & Heath about building a DJ mixer, he did it out of a desire for something better than what he encountered in nightclubs throughout the '80s and '90s.

He says the spark behind the Xone, though, was an element that remains one of its signatures. "It was actually through playing around with circuits and coming up with a voltage-controlled filter design that was the inspiration for that," he explains. "It was such a cool sound that I thought it really should be incorporated into a mixer."

Selling upper management on such a deviation from their bread and butter wouldn't be easy. Jones built the prototype for the Xone line so that it would look familiar. "I did a half-way compromise by designing a DJ-style MixWizard," he says, referring to Allen & Heath's long-running line of small-format live mixers. "We showed a prototype at Frankfurt in '99, I think it was. The design manager named it for me—he called it the ClubWiz." It paired a six-channel DJ section—featuring Jones' VCF, a crossfader and Allen & Heath's now-standard four-band EQ—with four more standard mixing board channel strips. The prototype was well received, and the design still lives on more or less unchanged in the Xone:464. All the while, Jones was keeping a smaller, fully dedicated DJ mixer—what would eventually be the Xone:62—in his back pocket in case the prototype took off.

Reception had been great at all the European trade shows, so in late 1999, Jones took his mixer to the AES convention in New York to gauge interest among American distributors. "It was quite funny," Jones says, "because everyone was saying, 'Oh, it's not a DJ show, it'll be a bit of a waste of time.' So we went out there and had the products on display, and I suddenly saw Richie Hawtin and Jeff Mills walking up to the booth, and I was completely star-struck." Hawtin, who used Allen & Heath mixers in his studio, was thrilled to see they were developing a product he could use outside of it, and he ended up with a prototype.

A few years later, he sent it back to Allen & Heath requesting some modifications. "This was what, 2000 or 2001, something like that—and it was like, 'What the hell is Richie doing?' What does he want MIDI in a DJ mixer for?" The answer was that Hawtin was starting to incorporate Ableton Live, at the time an obscure bit of studio software, into his ever-evolving DJ setup. "That was completely lost on me," Jones says. "I couldn't quite see the relevance to CDs or vinyl or anything else. It slowly dawned on us that the power and the potential of this thing is huge."

Jones and his team took Hawtin's modification requests as the basis for an update to the now-in-production Xone:62. MIDI functionality would be one of the big additions, and that was no small thing—unlike digital mixers, where every knob and fader is basically just a freely assignable controller, this mixer was all-analog, so the team had to be judicious about figuring out what bits would send MIDI messages, and exactly what they'd control. It was also unclear how many other guys were out there using setups like Hawtin's. "It was definitely a leap of faith," Jones says. "At the time people were considering software slightly toy-like."

That the Xone:92 brought computers into the fold certainly helped set it apart when it hit the market a decade ago. (Hawtin was also using it—rather conspicuously—at the height of the mid-'00s minimal techno boom, making it themixer of the era.) But it was some of the other tweaks that probably gave it staying power. Since the beginning, the Xone line had used asymmetric EQ, as Jones knew from experience that DJs usually need to cut more than boost. The Xone:92 added total kill on the high and low pots and reconfigured the filter shape on the mids. "The idea behind that is that you don't get cumulative gain, so you can turn all the controls to max. If you did that on a conventional DJ mixer, something like the 62, you'll get more than 6 dB of gain overall, because you get overlapping bands." DJs could now go wild with the controls without blowing out the system—a nifty aide to jocks, and a welcome feature for the nightclub owners who were installing them.

Clubwiz

There’s more to Xone than the 92. Here are some of its siblings.

Xone:22
Two channels and three bands of EQ make it the simplest of the bunch. The VCF means it’s still a Xone.

Xone:42
The successor to the three-channel Xone:32, this Xone adds a USB port for the laptop-inclined.

Xone:62
This forebear of the 92 is still in production. You'll find a four-band EQ and the VCF, as well as quirk or two, like no cue/mix control for headphones.

Xone:464
The beast that started it all. With no fewer than six DJ and four mic/line channels, you can DJ and play live simultaneously.

Xone[biggrin]B
Allen & Heath's answer to Pioneer's DJM line. The DB2 and DB4 boast a horde of effects, multiple EQ modes, MIDI and more.

Xone:V6
The 92's dearly departed Urei-style rotary mixer. Six channels, global EQ and VU mix level meters made it something special.

Xone:92 Rotary
Swaps the 92's linear faders for rotary knobs. You don't see these often, but they make for a pleasant surprise in the booth.


The Xone:62 had X and Y cutoff knobs on its VCF section, but you could only use one filter type at a time. The 92 featured two fully independent filter sections, meaning you could low-pass on one channel and high-pass on another. If this mixer completes a very particular sort of instrument, then it's here that DJs really play. The Xone VCF is almost certainly the line's most recognizable feature, a known quantity to DJs (and a sweeping sound that plenty of punters know, even if they couldn't point out exactly what it is). "If you go into a booth," Jones says, "everyone that I've watched, they all use it in a very similar way. The way the channels are set up, the way the filters are set up—it seems to be almost a standard." The sort of hybrid Ableton/vinyl future that Hawtin presaged may not have come to pass on a mass scale; some of the more adventurous additions he suggested, though, like aux sends and effect-return channel strips, still get plenty of use from DJs who bring their own loopers or delay pedals into the mix.

The Xone line has expanded considerably since the introduction of the 92, with digital mixers (the DB2 and DB4) and DJ headphones bearing the brand name. But the tweaks made to the flagship mixer have probably gone unnoticed. "The only changes we've made on the 92 have been those forced upon us by component obsolescence," Jones assures, even after Allen & Heath moved production of the mixers from England to China. He's aware that there's been some level of consternation in the DJ community about the move and the effect it's had on the products, be it their durability or sound quality. "There is still prejudice—'I want a UK-built one, they sound better.'" But he's adamant that any change to the line has been for the better. "The quality control is absolutely spot-on. The thing with a lot of the China manufacturers is that all of their tooling is brand new. [With] things like the metalwork, the finish is at a higher quality than you can generally get in the UK because they're using older techniques and older tooling, so some of the folds and things are crisper and sharper, and the finish on the paint is better." I ask if this extends to what's going on inside, and thus to the mixer's sound. "It's identical," he answers. "We don't use any different components in the China plant."

On the strength of its most familiar elements—four channels with four-band EQ, twin VCFs—the Xone:92 has had surprising staying power. It's got plenty of competing claims to the throne, of course. Some DJs swear by the Pioneer DJM line, with its less-than-subtle but admirably creative bank of effects. Others prefer the simplicity of battle mixers like Rane's classic TTM56. Funktion One, the famed loudspeaker maker, threw a mixer made in collaboration with Formula Sound into the ring, which they say helps their rigs hit all the right notes. There's also Electronique Spectacle's compact rotary dark horse, theDJR 400, whose proponents say makes other mixers feel like toys. Even when DJs have a preference, they're probably more willing to be flexible with the mixer than with decks, especially if a club has a classic Bozak or Ureiinstalled. 

Still, it's impressive to see a mixer outlive the sound that brought it to prominence and become an anchor regardless of genre. Wherever trends are taking DJ mixers, Jones can't imagine a major redesign at this point. "Even small changes tend to freak people out because they're not familiar with it. So changing it is almost—I wouldn't say it's been a victim of its own success, but because it has become a standard, it's going to take very careful thought before we replace it."


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