During the past couple of years, MP3-player programs aimed at desktop DJs have been springing up like weeds. The companies all promise the same thing, “Buy our software and start remixing your MP3 files like a real DJ!” Most of the programs work well enough, and a few even sport cool onboard effects and looping features. But all of them seem to fall short in one critical area: They can't output a headphone mix independent of the main mix.
Without that basic feature, it's impossible to cue your next song “like a real DJ” does. Even if you know your MP3 library like your toes know your favorite pair of kicks, your segues will, at best, be hit-and-miss operations. However, in order to have a discrete headphone mix, the program must be able to address sound cards with at least two stereo outputs (a pair for the main mix and a pair for the headphone mix). Because multi- output sound cards are beyond the scope of most desktop DJs, it is not hard to figure out why this feature has not been implemented — no demand, no supply.
But as desktop DJs grow hip to how turntablists actually spin and the pros integrate computers into their live systems, the need for an MP3-player application with a headphone mix is impossible to ignore. Enter EZ-Mixer by IK Multimedia (the Italian company that manufacturers Groovemaker and SampleTank). This program has the ability to output a separate headphone mix (which IK calls premonitoring) on the stereo outputs of a single audio card. It also has features for triggering custom samples and bpm matching. It reads MP3, WAV, AIFF, Qdesign and QuickTime audio-file formats.
EZ-Mixer works with either Mac or Windows platforms (both installs come on the same CD-ROM). I gave Version 1.0 a spin on a Mac G4/450 MHz with 704 MB of system RAM. One hundred MB of free hard disk space is recommended, though the program, along with it's royalty-free MP3 songs, ate up less than 50 MB.
MIX IT UP
A playlist with a maximum of 100 songs, divided into four banks of 25 songs, makes up the left third of the user interface. Adding songs to a bank is a piece of cake: Just click on the Load button, and choose the track you want to add. My only gripe is that you can load only one song at a time, which can get tedious when creating an extensive playlist. You can play songs from different banks simultaneously, easily rearrange track orders within a bank and name and save the entire playlist for later recall.
A track or parts of a track can be looped indefinitely. Unfortunately, there is a slight hesitation in audio playback at the loop turnaround, making this function useless for looping a beat — a major bummer. Getting looping to work smoothly would be a big improvement and would greatly enhance EZ-Mixer's usefulness for full-on remixing.
The program has dedicated channel faders and a master fader, too. All of the faders have pan, and the channel faders also sport high and low EQ. The EQ is fine for subtle tweaks, but don't depend on it for major cut and boost moves.
Curiously absent is a crossfader, which really confounded me at first. Instead, crossfade-enable buttons are on the side of each channel fader. Click on those buttons, and when you throw one fader, the other moves in the opposite direction. That tactic works well enough, but I missed that satisfying horizontal motion of an actual crossfader (even with a mouse). With crossfade enabled, you can also automate crossfades. Crossfade time is set in the Preferences menu. I found the automated crossfade too linear for my tastes. (Crossfade curve selections would be a nice addition.)
Premonitoring on a single stereo sound card is accomplished by splitting the main and headphone mixes between the left and right outputs. This is an innovative way to provide two feeds, but, of course, it is not ideal, because the main mix is mono. (The fact that the headphone mix is also mono is not so important.) Sending stereo to the mains (the house speakers) always sounds better than mono. That problem aside, you do get a headphone mix — and for $39.99, you won't hear me complaining.
EZ-Mixer has taken the first step toward a real headphone mix. The next obvious step is to support multi-output sound cards. The software is designed to do this, as evidenced by the Preferences menu, which allows separate output choices for the main and headphone mixes. I spoke with the program's developers at the 2002 Winter NAMM conference, and they said that ASIO and Direct I/O drivers (for Digidesign's interfaces) are in the works. With those drivers and the proper sound card, you'll get two discrete stereo feeds just like with an actual DJ mixer.
My only real gripe about the headphone mix's functionality is that switching a channel to this bus takes it out of the main mix. Real DJ mixers allow the blend of a channel's main and headphone mixes — if you want to check your cue, mixed against your currently playing track, through your monitors, for example. This feature is a must when multi-output sound cards are supported.
To help make your segues smooth, bpm-matching controls are provided. They function well and are easy to operate. Tap the bpm keys to calculate the tempos for each track. Then, hit the Adapt key on the channel you want to adjust. Its pitch control moves to match the target bpm (the other channel's bpm). It is that simple, and it is as accurate as the initial tempo you tapped. A Reset button snaps the channel's pitch back to 0.
A song that is loaded to a channel (that is, moved from the playlist to the channel for playback) can sport multiple markers. A song's start and end points can also be designated. Controls for jumping to the next or previous marker are available, and a Clear key erases the marker to the immediate left of the current playbar position. The marker feature is excellent for quickly locating points within a song. However, on those occasions when you spend some time setting marker points, it would be nice if you could somehow save markers. Going back to the loop-playback problem, the ability to skip between markers while in play, without hearing a pause in the audio, would be way better.
With EZ-Mixer, when you have a hankering to drop some sample hits over your mix, there's no need to reach for that hardware sampler. At the bottom right of the interface are nine Sample Hit keys divided into four banks: choose a bank, click on a key and hear a sample. A set of rather cheesy sounds comes stock, but you can swap those sounds with custom samples. There's even a global pitch control for the samples. That element could use a value display, and some sort of level adjustment for the samples would be appreciated.
Even for desktop DJs, remixing with a mouse gets old fast. Happily, EZ-Mixer can have many of its elements controlled from a standard QWERTY keyboard, including channel play and stop, tap tempo and sample triggering. The only thing I really wished for was a command to reset the pans, EQ and sample-hit pitch controls (something like, hold down Option and click on the element).
You can record your live mix straight to disk. The final output file can be MP3, AIFF, WAV, µlaw or system 7 sound. Sample-hit performances are included in the mixdown. Unfortunately, IK Multimedia made a huge oversight in the mixdown feature: It records the headphone mix right along with the main mix, in split stereo. Obviously, at mixdown, you only want to record the master stereo output, not the headphone mix — and not in split stereo. All I can say is, oops.
It's easy to see that EZ-Mixer still has a few rough spots to work out — seamless looping, better EQ, multi-output sound-card drivers, the flawed mixdown feature — but, this is only Version 1.0. Once those difficulties are ironed out, EZ-Mixer could easily become a favorite remixing platform for desktop and pro DJs alike.
Pros: Headphone mix independent of master output. Multiple marker support. User-definable sample-hit keys. Good bpm matching. Supports multiple mixdown file formats. Mac and Windows compatible.
Cons: Weak channel EQ. Looped playback not seamless. Mixdown feature records headphone mix and main mix. ASIO and Direct I/O drivers not yet implemented. No snap-to-zero command for pan and sample-hit pitch controls. PDF-only manual.
Overall rating (out of 5): 3.5
MINIMUM SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS
MAC: G3/266 MHz; 64MB RAM; 100 MB free hard disk space
PC: Pentium II/300 MHz; 64MB RAM; 100 MB free hard disk space