M-Audio Torq Xponent Video
In this video, DJ and Remix writer Ean Golden demonstrates a few key features of M-Audio Torq Xponent.
When M-audio first introduced the Oxygen 8 25-key MIDI controller, few could have predicted how widespread and popular it would become. By all accounts, that early model looked like a toy keyboard aimed squarely at bedroom producers. The strange thing was, it worked well, lasted forever and seemed to creep into just about everyone's collection. So when I heard that M-Audio would be releasing a full-size MIDI DJ controller, it did not surprise me that it also looked a tad bit toyish. The only question was if it would be as handy and reliable as my Oxygen 8, which ironically was recently retired to keyboard heaven after nearly three years of destructive use as a dedicated DJ controller. Although it will take a few years and a lot of gigs to really put an Xponent to the test of time, first impressions are good, and it appears that it is just the tool to have in your arsenal of DJ weaponry.
With so many M-Audio products and several other digital-DJ offerings, it's easy to see that some might be confused as to what exactly the Xponent is meant to be. From the outset, the Xponent was designed to be a dedicated control surface for M-Audio Torq software, which is the latest program to offer control over your digital files through an analog turntable. The Xponent controller, however, is meant to replace both turntables and the mixer all in one portable package. Also, a built-in soundcard boasts three stereo outputs for headphone, master and booth connections, which is basically all you would ever need for any party situation. Not only that, but the product for sale is called Torq Xponent because it includes the $300 Torq DJ software with it. All things considered, the street price tag of about $600 starts to look like a steal.
Xponent is bigger than I imagined. It's a few inches longer than a typical laptop, meaning it may poke out the top of your DJ travel bag. The weight is on the lighter side, but when placed on a countertop, it feels sturdy enough to not slip around with heavy play. Of course, like the excited child in everyone, I want to twist, turn and play with every knob and slider. The commanding jog wheels grabbed my attention first. They are large, easily gripped and have a smooth, natural feel. The faders, although solid, did feel a bit plasticlike for my taste and led me to wonder if they would hold up under rigorous use. The pitch fader in particular was a little disappointing. It's extra long, which is great for more precise adjustments, but with very little resistance and felt a tad wobbly. The knobs, however, have a nice even action and are well spaced for trouble-free playing.
Powering up the unit results in a vivid display of color — all the knobs and buttons are backlit with a rainbow assortment of colored LEDs. Unfortunately, with all those dancing lights, the Xponent does require external power. Digital DJing is all about traveling as light as possible, so the fewer cables you have to lug around the better. Luckily, M-Audio made the power supply lightweight and extra long, so you can reach just about any outlet available.
Rocking tunes for your friends is really simple; all you need to do is connect Xponent to a pair of speakers or mixer via the two RCA outputs labeled Booth and Master Output. Don't have any speakers? No problem — a ¼-inch TRS headphone jack on the front supplies audio for mixing on your own or for previewing tracks. Xponent's soundcard has universal drivers, so you can use it as an output for anything on your computer, including iTunes or other DJ software. The Master and Booth outputs are the same channel; so running separate channels of audio to an external mixer requires using the headphone output as the second channel. The soundcard itself is decent quality with good levels that should be sufficient for most situations. Surprisingly, the drivers are good as well, allowing for scratching at the lowest buffer settings with no audible break ups.
To try and emulate the typical user experience, I wondered how hard it would be to mix unknown songs on the fly without any prior analysis or customization. At first, it was difficult to keep two basic house tracks in sync. The jog wheels were far too sensitive for gentle pitch nudges. Fortunately, you can dial those settings into a more playable range because scratch sensitivity, tempo-nudge sensitivity and tempo faders are all adjustable within Torq. For example, the default setting for the pitch faders is ±8 percent, but you can set it for up to ±50 percent, at which point riding the pitch faders effectively was impossible but still a potentially useful setting. After making some adjustments, I was able to mix more naturally; however, needing to wait for Torq to analyze each track before I could play it broke my flow. On a MacBook with 5,400 rpm hard drive, the analysis engine either interfered with the soundcard or eats up all the available CPU strength, causing irregular playback. However, M-Audio told Remix that if you stick to the recommended system specs of a 7,200 rpm hard drive and a G5/2 GHz or Intel Core Duo/1.83 GHz (Mac) or a P4/2 GHz (PC), that shouldn't be a problem.
For all that CPU power, the analysis engine analyzes the tempo and waveforms in advance so it can assist you in making your mixes tighter. The success of that analysis determines how well Torq can help you keep tracks playing in sync. Torq seemed to do a fairly good job of quickly determining an accurate bpm for dance tracks with straightforward rhythms, but more complicated tracks heavy on the swing seemed to throw the engine for a loop.
Once Torq has analyzed a file, which can be done in bulk, it is ready to be mixed, and you have the option of engaging three types of automatic sync: Beat, Bar or Tempo modes are each available depending on how much you trust “DJ autopilot.” Tempo is the most basic; when engaged, it locks one track's tempo to the other. That is great when Torq guesses the bpm accurately, but if the analysis is off, then you will have to disengage Tempo sync and use the pitch faders to fix the speed. Herein lies one of the few troublesome flaws when controlling Torq with the Xponent. For example, let's say you have two tracks playing at 127 and 120 bpm respectively; both pitch faders are in the center, so you use Tempo sync to make up the difference quickly and accurately. If the tempo match is still not quite perfect, then sync must be disengaged and the fader moved up just a touch. Unfortunately, the virtual pitch fader is fixed to the physical one, so any movement will result in a tempo jump back to center, ultimately throwing off the mix.
The same problem exists with Beat and Bar modes. If the computer does not get the mix quite right, you're going to have to turn the Sync mode off and possibly make it worse by trying to fix the difference. Ultimately, I can't complain too much because if you're relying on the computer for beat matching, it's no surprise that the mixes will be only as good as the computer's algorithms. On the positive side, the controls of the Xponent are precise enough that if you learn to keep tracks in sync the old-school way, they will stay in perfect rhythm for a lot longer than turntables possibly could. M-Audio told Remix that this problem would be fixed with Torq 1.5, but the company won't release the update for another few months.
Torq Xponent includes several original features that you may find either helpful or completely unnecessary. One obvious, “Duh, why didn't anyone do that before?” feature is the MIDI/mouse pad. Basically, the touch pad and two underlying buttons play dual roles as a fully functional mouse and an x-y MIDI controller. There is a logically placed and easy-to-spot MIDI button that lights up below to indicate the current state. That simple but effective addition made it easy to almost completely abandon the keyboard, and the x-y function is great for controlling dynamic effect builds such as stutters and echoes. Should you desire, it's possible to engage a mode that visually helps beginners keep beats synced. When engaged, this feature causes all the controls on each deck to blink in time with the tracks' rhythm, helping to ease the hard transition into beat matching.
Finally, M-Audio placed a useful Bank switch on the front of the Xponent. The switch toggles between banks A and B, which each send out completely separate values for all of the controls on the Xponent. One logical application of this simple tool would be having full control over all four decks inside Native Instruments Traktor 3.
BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY
Using Xponent with software other than Torq is a cinch because it's a general MIDI device that should be recognized by any MIDI-supporting software. I tested it extensively with Traktor 3.2 and had no problems connecting all of Xponent's controls to their likely software counterparts. The only drawback to using Xponent without Torq is that you appear to lose the responsive LED functionality of the backlit buttons. With Torq, all the functions, such as EQ cuts, loop status and effects switches change color or brightness to indicate a clear visual reference of their status.
Although Traktor is set up to send out MIDI data to just these kinds of switches, Xponent's don't seem to want to light up for anything but Torq, the software it was designed for. Apparently, it will be possible to control the Xponent's LEDs from other programs but will require some extra behind-the-scenes programming from outside developers before you can enjoy that functionality. Connecting all of the available controls to Traktor's four decks took hours, so to save you the trouble, you can find my TKS file for using Traktor with Xponent on remixmag.com.
If you're interested in the Torq software but can't spend the chunk of change for a pair of decks and a mixer, this may be your ticket to instant DJ nirvana. Xponent will also work wonderfully as an alternative MIDI controller for your software, but if you don't also want it as an audio interface, it is pricey to use just for MIDI. It's a lot of fun to play with a combination of Xponent's intuitive controls — which match Torq's software controls almost exactly — and Torq's endless supply of internal and VST effects. The hardware may not have the professional finish that some competitors are offering, but it's a useful tool that would fulfill most average DJs' needs at a price that is within their reach. The only remaining question is if it will last for years to come.
For Remix's Xponent video and a TKS file for using Traktor with Xponent, go toremixmag.com.
TORQ XPONENT > $749
Pros: Well-lit and nicely laid out controls are easy to find and use. Plug-and-play connectivity with M-Audio Torq makes setup a cinch. Built-in soundcard means saving some cash for other toys. Two full banks of MIDI settings.
Cons: Slightly wobbly pitch sliders feel a bit weak. LEDs won't accept input from programs other than Torq. Problematic Sync modes.
Mac: G4/1.5 GHz, 512 MB RAM; OS 10.4.9
PC: P4/1.4 GHz, 512 MB RAM; Windows XP SP2