Click here for an MP3 demo of the Xone:3D by the author, Mike Hiratzka.
Welcome to the new world of DJ technology. In an industry dominated for decades by decks and vinyl, we now speak in terms of laptop DJs, MP3 support and digital downloads. Though it has taken a few years for the transformation to really take hold, it is now apparent that the modern DJ will not only have to constantly search out the best new music, but also stay current with the latest gear to make sure he or she isn't left behind in what has become a rapidly changing environment. As proof of this evolving landscape, British company Allen & Heath, which has established itself in the past few years as an industry favorite in the DJ mixer market, has introduced the next step in the integration of digital technology into the DJing lexicon: the Xone:3D.
Those already familiar with Allen & Heath's mixer line will recognize the Xone:3D as basically a Xone:92 with two additional banks of MIDI controls and a built-in soundcard. These additions allow for total integration with DJ-oriented software such as Ableton Live and Native Instruments' Traktor DJ Studio. There are even plastic overlays that designate specific MIDI controls for each of these programs; they make integration with the software easier and more seamless.
At the heart of the Xone:3D is a fully featured, awesome-sounding mixer based on the popular, industry-standard Xone:92. It features four audio channels, each with a 3-band equalizer that ranges from +6 dB down to a full cut on each frequency band. There are also two effects sends per channel, which allow you to send the signal out to external processing units. There are three phono inputs for turntables, with the capability for a fourth input by switching an internal jumper setting (more on that later). Each channel has a crossfader-select switch, which also doubles as a filter-select switch. There are two filters available, one on each side of the channel faders. You can select from three standard voltage-controlled filter (VCF) types: highpass (HPF), bandpass (BPF) and lowpass (LPF), with a universal resonance control that ranges from Mild to Wild. For most DJing purposes, the HPF with a resonance setting at about 1 o'clock is perfect for cutting out the lows on beats just before a transition or during a breakdown. There is also an LFO that you can assign to either (or both) filter, which allows you to modulate the filter frequency on whatever tempo you tap in with the Tap Tempo button. The Depth knob adjusts the sweep from completely off to an intense, very wide sweep.
The real innovations of the Xone:3D start with the bpm counter section; it not only auto-detects the tempo, but it also allows for manual tempo input as well as MIDI clock sync. That means you can start and stop an external sequencer with the push of one button and add an audio source from a computer into your mix with ease. If the tempo of your playback and your sequencer source are slightly off, there is a MIDI Clock push/pull switch that can be used to speed up or slow down the clock, similar to pushing or pulling a turntable or CDJ platter while beat-matching. This is a unique control that I haven't seen before on any mixer, but it is really only the beginning of the awesome MIDI implementation of this mixer.
The Xone:3D is designed for the digital DJ; if you don't plan on using it in conjunction with DJ-oriented software such as Ableton or Traktor, you may as well save your money and buy a Xone:92 or something comparable. Because this unit is packaged with a Lite Xone version of Ableton Live, when I initially set up the mixer, I placed the appropriate overlays on the board and ran the software on my laptop. I hadn't used Live before, so I ran the various tutorials for the program, which is capable of MIDI and audio sequencing, sample playback and audio processing and includes a wide variety of built-in effects. For the purposes of this review, however, I stuck to the basics of running Live in conjunction with the Xone:3D and how to add effects to the audio channels. The basic concept is simple: You can add any audio files (called Clips) into each vertical track on the Session view page, stack them in groups called Scenes and then manipulate them both from the Xone:3D and from within the computer. You then switch over to Arrangement view to record your Clips out along the timeline. There are default controls on the Xone:3D for pan, level, Clip start and stop, cue, loop functions and Scene control, with two additional rotary controls available on each of the eight MIDI channel strips. All of the MIDI controllers are assignable to different functions within Live, so you can customize the control surface to whatever you choose. The filter controls, crossfader and cue buttons on the mixer portion of the 3D can also be assigned MIDI control values.
To set up a group of tunes for a DJ set, you'll need to find your audio folder in the File Browser located on the left-hand side of the Live interface, which is designated by folder icons numbered one through three. That allows you to select three main folders from which you can choose your audio files, and from there you drag the desired file over onto a track in the Session view. After adding in a couple of audio tracks, I decided to add a delay and a flanger on each of my audio channels. Again, that is a simple process of dragging and dropping the desired effects from the Device menu over onto the tracks in Live. I wanted to be able to control the wet/dry balance of each effect, so I clicked on the MIDI button in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, clicked on the appropriate control on the effect and rotated the desired controller on the Xone:3D to sync the MIDI to Live. Since I had added in the delay first and the flanger second, I used the top row of rotary controls on the Xone:3D for the delay balance and the second row for the flanger balance. I don't ever use panning while I'm DJing, so that left another row of controls available for customization. I decided to try adding a Gate, with the Threshold assigned to the controller normally reserved for panning and the Gate on/off switch assigned to the top controller, which doubles as a push button for on/off messages. That allows turning on the gate when it's needed and then bringing up the threshold until the Gate kicks in and adds a chopping effect to the track. You can add effects until you run out of CPU power, so try different combinations of effects, as well as changing the order of the effects to come up with some really cool sounds. You can also automate practically every one of the mixer and effects controls in Live. Consider how much more manipulation that offers compared with normal DJ mixers with built-in effects units — most of which offer only one effect at a time with one or two adjustable parameters — and you'll start to get an idea of the endless possibilities available on the Xone:3D.
SOUND AS A POUND
The built-in soundcard offers high-quality, 24-bit converters and eight channels for additional routing flexibility to and from your computer. While you really need only the included USB cable to connect your computer and the mixer (it handles both the audio and MIDI), you could use the soundcard outputs, for instance, to send the audio to an additional processor and then return it back into the mix through the inputs. Using a software-configuration program, you may select two modes that change the soundcard from 1 stereo input/3 stereo outputs to 2 in/2 out. The software required to change modes is currently available only on Windows, however, so Mac users will have to stick with the default 1 in/3 out mode for now. There are also S/PDIF and optical digital I/O if you prefer to convert your audio from digital to analog through another unit.
While the ideas behind the architecture and design of this unit are outstanding, I did run into a few slight problems with MIDI latency. However, just before press time — too late to test unfortunately — Allen & Heath released a v1.1 driver that is supposed to improve MIDI performance. This update also includes a configuration utility for Mac OS X. With a unit this complex, a few glitches can be expected, but it's nice to know that the company is attempting to sort out its product's problems as soon as possible. My only other complaint is that the headphone and microphone jacks are located on the front of the mixer, which might be a problem for some club installations where the booth has already been built and doesn't provide access to that part of the mixer once it has been rackmounted.
Not only was I impressed with the features and creative possibilities of Ableton Live, but it also interfaces so easily with the Xone:3D. Once everything is set up properly and tunes are laid out appropriately in Live, you can almost DJ an entire set without having to look at the computer, which is a huge plus. Unfortunately, despite all the cool things you can do with the Xone:3D and Live, you can't save your session or export your work as an audio file in demo mode, so the Lite version of Live really is just for demoing. You'll pay a minimum of $249 for a downloadable upgrade to the full version of Live in order to access the full capabilities of the software — a potentially stinging bite considering the cost of the mixer already hovers around $3,000.
To all but the most alpha of the top dogs, this will seem like an expensive system, especially since you need to have a laptop to run the software in a club environment. If you tally the cost of a pair of turntables, a pair of CD players and a normal mixer, however, you're probably going to be in the same price range or even higher, depending on the quality of the gear. Considering the endless mixing and effects possibilities, combined with a world-class DJ mixer with integrated controls, this is an excellent solution for DJs looking to take advantage of everything the world of digital audio has to offer.
ALLEN & HEATH
XONE:3D > $2,999
Pros: Excellent construction, sound quality, features and flexibility. Controls DJ software over USB (MIDI). Top quality, professional unit.
Cons: Expensive. Some MIDI glitches. Headphone and mic jacks on the front may be a problem for club installations.
Mac: OS X; available USB port
PC: Windows 2000/XP; available USB port