MIDI MACHINE > The VF-1 includes a MIDI I/O section that enables the unit to work as a slave device or send control messages from its knobs, allowing users, for instance, to record filter sweeps in their DAW software.
Allen & Heath's V6 mixer was the apple of many a DJ's eye when it first hit the scene. It was the pinnacle of DJ-mixer design, a unit designed without regard for the cost of components or manufacturing limitations, and the audiophile-grade sound that the beast pumped out was second to none. A lot of DJs gazed upon the V6 with longing in their hearts — even some who normally eschew rotary mixers — but most choked at the wallet-searing $6,000 price tag that put it far out of range for all but the most well-heeled DJs. Many wondered if it would ever be possible for the working DJ to get a taste of the high life.
Enter the VF-1. The latest entry in Allen & Heath's Xone lineup is the first nonmixer unit to join the family, but it lives up to the pedigree and inherits many of the features beloved by Xone users worldwide. The VF-1 brings the Xone filter section to the masses, adds a touch of audio gloss reminiscent of the V6 and kicks in a whole new bag of tricks that make it a compelling purchase for DJs and studio producers alike.
DIPPED IN SILVER
The VF-1 is a solid, all-metal beauty with a compact footprint that fits in a standard 1U rackspace. As mentioned previously, the VF-1 bears a striking cosmetic resemblance to the V6 mixer, sporting a combination of knurled black knobs, metal toggles and illuminated push buttons all set against a silver faceplate that adds up to a decidedly retro look. Ergonomically, the VF-1 is clearly designed for lots of hands-on use. There's plenty of space between controls for hard tweaking, so your fingers won't ever nick an adjacent knob. The filter-resonance and frequency-cutoff knobs are oversized for easy handling during heavy tweaking, and the unit's three toggle switches have a firm, reassuring feel to them that gives you the impression they won't snap under duress.
Flipping the unit around reveals a rear panel that's every bit as professional as the front. With a full complement of XLR, RCA and ¼-inch inputs and outputs, this baby slides just as easily into a bedroom setup as it does a professional club installation. Balanced inputs for professional gear are provided via XLR and ¼-inch jacks, with RCAs and an additional pair of ¼-inch connectors offering unbalanced connectivity for pairing the VF-1 with low- to midgrade equipment. There's even an extra ¼-inch jack that provides direct access to the VF-1's effected output even when the unit is bypassed, offering a great way to preview filter settings on a separate channel. Rounding out the rear panel is a pair of MIDI connectors for hooking up the VF-1 to external control surfaces like Allen & Heath's Xone:92 mixer or MIDI keyboards and fader boxes.
The VF-1's filter is similar in many ways to those used in Allen & Heath's Xone-series mixers. The desired filter type is selected from a standard bank of 2-pole highpass, lowpass and bandpass settings by using illuminated push buttons on the front of the unit. Four additional filter types, including notch and allpass, can be activated by pushing two or more of the buttons simultaneously. If you prefer a sharper rolloff on your filters, you can switch the VF-1 into mono 4-pole mode using a switch on the rear panel.
If you've had any dealings with old analog synthesizers, you're probably well aware of the tweeter-shattering effects that high resonance settings can have on loud signals. Given the full-range nature of club music, the danger of broadcasting earsplitting resonance over a loud club P.A. is very real when you route sound through an external processor. The VF-1 solves this problem by incorporating a unique feature called Automatic Resonance Control (ARC), which monitors the resonance in real time and pulls back if it senses a dangerous peak.
Because I tested the VF-1 along with a Xone:92 mixer, it was easy for me to compare and contrast the 92's built-in filters with the “improved” filter on the VF-1. At first listen, the basics are largely comparable, with the VF-1 offering the same core filter types and sounding quite similar at low resonance settings. As I increased the resonance to higher settings, however, I noticed that the ARC circuit really does make a difference: The VF-1 offered a much sharper and squelchier sound than the 92 without ever sounding harsh or shrill. If you've been itching to get Xone-style filters on your mixer, the VF-1 will get you there with ease.
The VF-1 includes a simple but effective envelope filter that pumps up even the most basic tunes with an instant shot of funk. Think of a wah pedal that responds automatically to the volume of the incoming signal, opening and closing the filter as the music gets louder and softer, and you get the idea. It's a great effect that's pervasive throughout dance music, and the VF-1 puts the power in your hands.
Using the envelope follower is easy — and lots of fun. Simply set the Decay toggle to Fast for complex music or Slow for slower, quiet passages. Pick a filter; set the starting frequency using the VCF Frequency cutoff knob; and gradually turn up the Envelope Follower knob until you hear the filter pulsing along with the music. From there, it's up to you how far you want to push it.
WARM AND TOASTY
The VF-1 is a great filter unit sporting plenty of features, but the one that impressed me most profoundly was the valve overdrive section. The VF-1 has a tube of its own, and adding a little of its valve overdrive to your master signal works magic on the thin audio pumped out by cheap mixers and digital audio sources.
The VF-1's valve overdrive works as a sonic airbrush for any audio that it touches, smoothing out harsh high end and beefing up lackluster bass with a subtle grace that's typically reserved for pricier gear. Turning up the Valve Overdrive knob gradually applies more signal to the tube, offering subtle analog compression and distortion that sounds warm and thick but never muddies the sound. It's the perfect tool for boosting quiet recordings and helps to even out disparities in gain between different tracks.
The LFO on the VF-1 is the sole weak link in an otherwise extraordinary product. The LFO section comprises two knobs for speed and depth, along with a single switch to select either a square or a triangle wave. The speed can be varied from 0.2 Hz at its lowest setting to 16 Hz at the top of the dial, which equates to a bpm range of approximately 12 to 960 bpm.
As a basic modulator, the LFO is decent, but it suffers from one major flaw: It cannot be synchronized to the tempo of incoming music. That's right — no tap tempo and no MIDI Clock. Given that other units in the Xone series offer tap tempo and most modern MIDI equipment will sync LFOs to MIDI Clock, I was disappointed to see that the VF-1 does not.
YOU KNOW YOU WANT IT
So, at the end of the day, it's debatable whether you really need the VF-1. But you absolutely will want the VF-1. If top-notch audio fidelity and creative hands-on tools are important to your DJ style, then the VF-1 is without a doubt a worthy addition to your kit. The VF-1 is a cost-effective way to add the Xone sound to your existing setup, and the valve overdrive alone is invaluable for adding a full, rich and ultimately professional sound to mixers and other audio components with inferior audio fidelity.
Studio producers will also find the VF-1 a solid addition to their arsenal of outboard gear. The combination of MIDI control and balanced I/O ensure that the VF-1 will deliver audio of uncompromising quality under the most demanding studio situations, which more than justifies the $699 price tag.
ALLEN & HEATH
VF-1 > $699
Pros: Phenomenal audio quality. Spectacular tube-overdrive section. MIDI control. Big, well-spaced knobs. LFO and envelope follower for filter modulation. Automatic Resonance Control prevents damaging transients from high resonance settings.
Cons: No tap tempo or MIDI sync for LFO. Limited options for envelope-follower speed. Few options for LFO waveform type.