The sheer number of 2-channel battle mixers on the market today speaks volumes about how popular turntablism and scratching have become. More and more companies are entering this burgeoning niche, attesting to the already huge and growing demand. Although household names such as Vestax, Rane, Gemini and Numark have been in this game for quite some time, the past couple of years have witnessed brands such as Pioneer, Stanton, Behringer and now Denon submitting viable entries into the scratch-mixer arena. Core functions of all battle mixers generally perform alike, but differences in price, features, sound quality and reputation often make choosing between them difficult, especially for people looking for their first boards. Features and personal preference are usually the first things to consider given the slight differences that are aimed at different kinds of scratch DJs.
During The Show nightclub and bar convention in Las Vegas this past spring, I was asked to judge a DJ contest. It was an honor, of course, but it was also an educational experience because I had never witnessed a DJ contest performed only on CD players. No, this isn't about to turn into a CD-player review, but rather a proposal to rethink the term turntablist. Yes, there are still, and perhaps always will be, certain maneuvers that can only be performed on turntables, but the same can be said of CD players. More scratch DJs are either trading in their decks or adding CD players to their section of instruments because features such as automatic fader start, looping and multiple cue points add so many exciting creative possibilities. So do you add the title of CD Turntablist to your vernacular? Perhaps not — CDs and music in general are still referred to as records, aren't they? What's even more interesting is how manufacturers have responded to this trend by designing battle-style mixing boards with added features that specifically cater to CD jocks, such as the automatic fader start on the Denon DN-X300.
For those of you who aren't familiar with automatic fader start, it's a feature that must be common to both your mixing board and CD player. A control cable is connected between the board and the player, allowing the CD player to automatically start from the cue point when the fader or crossfader is moved in the same manner, which makes cutting and scratching possible. When the corresponding fader is moved back to the original position, the CD returns to the cue point. So, in theory, DJs can have one hand on the crossfader and one hand on the channel fader or line switch, using one to start and recue the desired sound and the other to cut up the sound — without having to touch the player. The Denon DN-X300 accepts as many as two fader-start devices, with the connections in the rear of the unit. Four on/off switches on the front side correspond to automatic fader operation for each side of the crossfader and each of the two channel faders. Usually, boards with this feature only have it for the crossfader. Kudos to Denon for thinking outside the standard realm.
Overall, the DN-X300 is a 2-channel battle-style and scratch mixing board designed with a complete feature set for the modern-day turntablist at a reasonable price. Although it doesn't have the fancy auditioning features of other 2-channel mixers, the unit does include contour knobs and reverse switches for both faders and the crossfader, 3-band EQ, gain, balance, line switches, a world-famous Penny+Giles crossfader and a session input, giving scratch DJs everything they need. Weighing in at about nine pounds and measuring 9 by 13 by 3.5 inches, the unit is quite compact. It has a solid metal construction dressed in black and dark silver with white trim and lettering, as well as a cool blue backlit logo. Similar in layout and looks to the Rane TTM series and essentially the same size, the DN-X300 even shares the same Ethernet-style A/C power-adapter connection. Thankfully, the transformer box is in the middle of the power cord, with one end connecting to the mixer and the other terminating in a standard two-blade plug, saving precious outlet space. While connections are on the table, go ahead and swing around to the back and take a look.
In response to the demand for the best possible sound quality, manufacturers have been stepping up the engineering of battle mixers by providing balanced ¼-inch master outputs in addition to the standard unbalanced RCA outputs; the DN-X300 is no exception. Another standout feature of the mixer is that it has separate RCA booth output connections with independent control on the face, something some battle mixers surprisingly don't include. I've often wondered why a separate booth output isn't commonplace among scratch mixers. Sure, I can understand that it's not the most vital feature to have if your setup is at home, but turntablists have to be able to hear what they're doing and control their monitors in a live situation, especially when the main P.A. is aimed away from them. Thankfully, the folks at Denon were thoughtful enough to include these connections.
As for the rest of the rear connections, each of the two channels has enough room for two different devices, including a dedicated line and a switchable phono/line input. This means that you can hook up a total of two analog turntables and two line-level devices (such as CD players), four-line level devices or even three line-level devices and one analog turntable — quite flexible. Oh, and the DN-X300 has two separate ground posts: Hallelujah! Have you ever had to fumble with the tedious task of stacking two ground clips onto one post, only to have one or both of them slide off when you tighten the screw? Again, this isn't a big deal, especially when alligator clips work so well, but attention to detail is always a sign of a quality product. Furthermore, the DN-X300 accommodates stereo ¼-inch effects send and return feeds and RCA auxiliary inputs, as well as a ¼-inch balanced microphone input and a combined TRS ¼-inch effect-loop jack. The rocker-type power switch is also located on the back panel, as are miniplugs for the two fader-start connections. All connections are solidly constructed and logically arranged for easy access.
Turn the unit around, and the DN-X300's front side houses one ¼-inch headphone jack, three Reverse buttons, three contour knobs and the four fader-start switches. Contour knobs allow you to customize the volume curve from the maximum (fast or steepest setting) for cutting and scratching to the minimum curve (slow or gradual setting) for smoother blending and mixing and any setting in between. The Reverse buttons are used to invert the operation of the corresponding fader so that in the case of the channel faders, the maximum volume occurs when the fader is all the way down, with no volume at the very top when the button is engaged. When the Reverse button is engaged on the crossfader, channel 1 is controlled by the right-side fader and channel 2 is controlled by the left-side fader. A red light above each button illuminates when engaged. Although some battle mixers use a switch for the reverse and others use a button, subtle differences like this often come down to personal taste or what you're already used to, without one choice being the “right” one. Regardless, the Denon allows you to set the curves for each channel fader and crossfader, as well as the reverse operation, independently of each other for maximum flexibility.
The face is in line with standards for battle mixers and features a smooth, fairly uncluttered fader area, with line switches and EQ controls directly above their corresponding fader, output and cue controls in the upper-right and microphone controls in the upper-left. The DN-X300 sets itself apart by featuring 3-band kill switches for each program, or channel, allowing you to isolate and remove a certain frequency band. I'm not aware of any other battle mixer that has this. Low, Mid and Hi switches are pushed up toward the top of the board for a temporary frequency kill or pulled back where they lock in place. Each frequency band has its own red LED to let you know it's engaged. When all three are activated, the result is a complete kill of the audio signal with no volume or bleed. This opens the door to instantaneous creative tonal changes at the flip of a switch. You'll be happy to know that the 3-band EQ knobs produce the same effect when turned all the way counterclockwise. The Hi EQ offers a +10dB range centered at 16 kHz; the Mid has a +10dB range at 1 kHz; and the Low offers a +6dB range at 60 Hz, all with a complete kill at the lowest end of their ranges. The EQ on/off buttons for each channel also have their own red LEDs and control both the EQs and the kill switches.
The DN-X300 also sports high-quality VCA-controlled faders and crossfader. An abbreviation for voltage-controlled amplifier, VCAs change gain according to the level of control voltage sent to it; in the case of faders, they're arranged so that in manual operation, the slide of the fader controls how much control voltage is sent to the VCA, therefore controlling the channel's gain or volume. Eleven painted divisions mark fader positions with a pair of 10 VU-meter LEDs marking a range from — 20 to +10 dB in the center. The LEDs are green up to unity gain (0 dB); yellow at +2, +4 and +7 dB; and red at +10 dB, clearly indicating your output level status. Just above, a small recessed switch changes the LEDs to indicate a stereo master using both columns of lights, or PGM 1/2 mode, which uses one column of LEDs for each of the two individual programs or channels. Just above are the line switches, otherwise known as transformer switches. By removing the top panel's eight screws, all of the knobs and two more screws for each switch, they can be rotated in eight different directions to suit the user.
The microphone section in the upper-left is standard, with knobs for Level, Hi and Low EQ and a three-position switch that toggles between microphone off, on and talk-over, which cuts all other audio signals by 20 dB. The aux in (session input) volume knob is just above. Over to the board's upper-right is the output and cue section, with knobs for the master and booth output volumes, headphone level and cue pan. Otherwise known as “blend,” this allows you to control which signal is sent to the headphones, cue only, master only or a mix between the two. In addition, a button below allows for split cue, sending the cue to one side of the headphones and the master signal to the other. You can select cue between different signals by turning the knob to one of six positions: off, channel 1, channel 2, channel 1 and 2, effects loop return or aux in (session input). The cue signal is post-fader, meaning that any changes made to the EQs or gains will be heard in the headphones. Each channel has its own effects loop on/off toggle switch next to the EQ section, with a dry/wet knob just below.
FREE AND CLEAR
The Denon DN-X300 has all of the features essential for battle and scratch DJs and then some. The sound quality is excellent, remaining clear and virtually undistorted all the way up to +10 dB on the output meters for master and programs, and the headphone volume is also loud and clear. All knobs have a nice, stiff resistance and rubberized grip with a clear white line to indicate position. Although the 3-band kills are an added bonus, the location and size of the switches may prove to be a hindrance to turntablists who use the program faders a lot, especially if their hands are big. Red LEDs throughout give a quick visual reference to the status of many features, as well.
As stated before, subtle variations in the way different mixing boards perform basic functions — such as cue selection, cue pan and reverse operations — are a matter of personal taste; there is no right or wrong in these instances. However, if you're one of the new breed of turntablists who uses CD players, either exclusively or alongside turntables, you will definitely want to give the DN-X300 a test drive. The unit is also equally at home sitting between turntables, and the inclusion of two grounding posts makes it that much easier to do so. Overall, exceptional physical and sonic quality with a very affordable price tag make Denon's first entry in the battle-mixer market a great value.
DN-X300 > $399
Pros: Automatic fader start for both channel faders and crossfader. Three-band kill switches. EQs capable of completely killing frequencies. Excellent sound quality. Independent contour controls for both faders. Crossfader knobs, not switches. Separate booth output.
Cons: Kill switches may encumber fader movement for some users. No audition feature.