Poor iPod. It's kind of hard to feel sorry for the No. 1 gadget of the decade (or any inanimate object, for that matter), but the iPod is sort of like a former Hollywood starlet who got pushed aside for the hipper, sexier new It girl — the iPhone. Now the iPod spends most of its time in a rocking chair in the corner, vigorously rocking the hours away, laughing under its breath and muttering incessantly, “Click Wheel navigation…Click Wheel navigation…”
In the meantime, laptop performance has fought its way to respectability in the DJ world, but DJing from an iPod (and other hard-drive devices) still has some work ahead of it to be taken seriously. More than a year ago, after an initial wave of iPod mixing products were largely written off as toys, a new breed will hatch this year to take iPod DJing into the realm of legitimacy. A key component to those pieces, including the new Cortex dMIX-300, is the streaming technology necessary to play two songs at once from a single iPod, change the pitch of those songs and digitally scratch them — all traits the earlier iPod mixers didn't share.
Like Cortex's other products, the dMIX-300 doesn't control any physical media or store its own digital files. Rather, it is simply a controller interface for digital music (MP3, WAV and CD-Audio) sourced from either an iPod or any other USB storage device: a thumb/Flash drive, external USB hard drive or even a USB optical drive for playing CDs. In short, it's meant to be an all-in-one system for people who want to DJ digital music files without a computer.
DECK, DOCK, DECK
There's no mystery to the dMIX-300's all-in-one physical layout. A full 2-channel mixer centers the unit, with two identical deck sections on each side for controlling music playback. A built-in iPod dock accommodates any iPod model with a dock connector — iPod 3G and later, iPod Mini and iPod Nano — and adapter plates for the Mini and Nano models are included. A single USB 2 Type-A port on the back panel labeled MSD (mass storage device) connects USB drives; you can also connect a powered USB hub to hook up a maximum of four USB storage devices at a time feeding into that one port.
As a bridge to the physical world, the dMIX-300 has two stereo audio inputs on unbalanced RCA connectors on its back panel. You can switch the inputs from phono to line-level to hook up a total of two turntables (grounding included) and/or CD players. At the top of each mixer channel strip is a switch to select either the MSD USB port or the analog input as the source for that channel.
The mixer also has a gain knob, 3-band EQ (with center detents), a 60 mm volume fader and blue-lit volume meter for each channel. A removable crossfader features a 2-curve switch to change from a smooth fade for blending or a quick-cut curve for scratching.
Two separate ¼-inch TS mic inputs — one on the front and one on the back panel — can be active simultaneously for dynamic mics or other mics that don't need phantom power. Both mic inputs share a mic volume knob and low- and high-EQ knobs on the front panel. The mic signals flow equally to each of the three stereo outputs on the back: master, booth and record, which all exist on a pair of unbalanced RCA connectors. Both the master and booth outputs have corresponding level attenuators in the mixer, while the record output has no volume control but is set to a consistent -10 dB level. Finally, there is a headphone cue section in front with a ¼-inch stereo phones jack, volume control and a cue fader that blends the headphone mix between Cue 1 (left channel) and Cue 2 (right channel).
Each channel deck includes a 20-by-4-character, blue backlit LCD with contrast control located inside the menus. Info, Play and Search buttons, as well as a set of arrow keys, help to navigate song databases, search for tracks and play them. Pitch-control “±” buttons and a slider can be turned to alter pitch at a selectable range of ±4, 8, 16 or 24 percent. A Jog Mode button accompanies each jog wheel to determine whether they perform scratching or a forward/backward nudging to assist beat matching. The wheels can also scroll through menu options instead of the arrow buttons in the interest of speed. A Time button changes the display from time elapsed to time remaining, and a Single button changes single-song playback to the continuous playback of a whole playlist or album.
While the dMIX-300 promises computer-free performances, it takes advantage of several conveniences that computers make possible. First off, before I ever played the dMIX-300, I updated its firmare to Version 2. To do this, I downloaded the latest firmware update from the Cortex Website, placed it in the root directory of a USB drive and connected that drive to the dMIX-300. The unit then recognized the firmware and performed the update. (Don't change the name of the firmware file or it won't work.)
Also, before using a USB device with the dMIX-300, the device has to be indexed to create a database for the Cortex. You can perform this task from the dMIX-300 itself, but it's loads faster to do it first on a computer. Download the CortexManager software from the Cortex Website. The program is simple to use. It lets you search your computer's directory for the drive you want to index, and then just click the Create DB button. Afterward, you can see all of the songs and playlists in the database, edit their ID3 tags and create a waveform for the track. When you create a waveform for a track in CortexManager, it shows up on the dMIX-300 display when you play that song. The waveform is the blocky, LCD-type similar to what you find on a Pioneer CDJ-1000. They are only mildly useful for beat matching; in which case, they're best for four-on-the-floor rhythms. But the waveforms are also useful for helping to set cue points. You can set as many cue points as you want per track and save them to the USB storage device. However, to save the cue points, a storage device must use the FAT32 file system. (Mac-formatted iPods can't do this.)
A second USB 2 port (Type-B) on the back links up to PC Windows XP or Mac OS X systems, so you can use the Cortex as an iPod dock. Before doing that, flick the switch on the back next to the USB port from “iPod” to “PC Dock” (and back again when you want to play music from the iPod on the dMIX-300). That works just like a normal iPod dock, so you can add or delete music, update song tags, etc. It's nice because I could add new music to the iPod in iTunes; launch CortexManager to update the iPod's database, create waveforms, etc.; eject the iPod from the computer; and then switch back to using the iPod with the dMIX-300 with all of the new music and information.
JACKIN' THE BOX
After setting up and familiarizing myself with the dMIX-300, I took it to a local bar to put it into action. It was a casual environment where there's always more sitting than bumping and grinding, and people would rather talk loudly over the music than shout. This kind of situation — or house parties, weddings, etc. — seemed like the right sort of environment for the dMIX-300. All I had to do was pull the RCA cables out of the usual mixer's master and booth output into the dMIX-300's, and I was set to go. Trying to take the dMIX-300 into a club where there is already an elaborate DJ installation may be more of a challenge. At about 10 lb., its weight isn't a big deal, but its 19-inch width made it tough to fit into any laptop bag, backpack or standard turntable case. You could probably find an Odyssey (www.odysseygear.com) case for a rackmount, dual-CD player that would work, and Cortex plans to make a custom case soon.
I mentioned earlier that the dMIX-300 can play two songs off the same iPod at once, pitch-bend them and scratch them, none of which earlier iPod mixers could do. Just to confirm, all these functions performed well and just as smoothly from an iPod as from any other USB Flash disk or hard drive I threw at it.
The Pitch Control section is very smooth; it instantly responds to even drastic changes and sounds excellent. Using Shift and the ± keys, you can cycle through pitch ranges. Even at the highest range — ±24 percent — you can adjust the pitch at its lowest increment: ±0.05 percent. Although, it takes a special touch to adjust by that much, even in the ±4-percent mode, and it gets even trickier at the higher pitch ranges.
While also very responsive, the jog wheels are not touch-sensitive like those on the CDJ-1000. So while they perform with no noticeable delay on the digital files, unlike a true turntable feel, in Scratch mode the jog wheels do not stop the music when you touch them; the music starts playing again at full speed when you stop moving the wheel.
Besides the hands-on manipulation of iPod songs and other digital music files, the most important convenience in my mind to the dMIX-300 is its display and database search system. You can search many thousands of songs on an 80 GB iPod or an even larger hard drive by song title, artist, album, genre or bpm. You can make your own playlists, or what I love is that the dMIX-300 reads and searches your existing iPod playlists, potentially saving you a lot of time. Also cool, the Search by String function is essentially a keyword search of all the ID3 tags in your device's database. You can enter the search words using the jog wheel/arrow keys to select letters and form words, or connect a USB keyboard to type in words much more quickly. The search will organize its results by category. For example, a search for “neon” separated Felix Da Housecat's “Neon Human” into the Song category and his Devin Dazzle & The Neon Fever into the Album category.
Overall, the experience of using the dMIX-300 felt natural and unhindered by any deep menu options. The all-in-one package may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it made for a very comfortable workspace, and the dMIX-300's straightforward and fast-moving menu system kept the inspiration of track selection flowing. The sound is also clean, and the EQ brings out some beefy bass, crisp hi-hats and other cutting high frequencies.
I encountered only a couple of small bugs. Occasionally, after selecting a song, the information of the previous song reappeared (although the selected song would play). Also, a set of MP3s ripped from the same CD would freeze the machine, but no other files I tried ever would. The beauty of easy firmware updates is that Cortex has been working on fixes for these problems and should have a firmware update by the time you read this.
My only complaint about the dMIX-300 is that it has fairly basic features without many fancy extras for overgrown kids to play around with. The features on top of the wishlist, which honestly are more than just trivialities, are full kill switches on each EQ band, bpm detection and key lock so you could change the tempo without changing pitch. I realize those are all “step-up” features that could logically be saved for a higher-priced unit. Not coincidentally, Cortex has such a unit, the dMIX-600 ($1,299) coming up, and it may be available by the time you read this. It will add touch sensitivity to its jog wheels, digital effects and more. Also, keep in mind that Cortex street prices drop quite a bit from published list prices, so shop around. The dMIX-300 represents the beginning of an exciting journey into convenient, all-in-one iPod mixing systems.
DMIX-300 > $999
Pros: Full access to pitch bending and scratching two songs at a time from an iPod. Easy to use all-in-one system with great menus and keyword searching. Quality sound. Smooth, responsive controls and pitch bending. Convenient software database creation, firmware updates and iPod docking.
Cons: Can only save iPod cue points to specially formatted Windows iPods. No bpm detection. No full EQ kill switches. No key lock.