The concept of a software-based DJ rig is nothing new anymore. The market is becoming crowded with hardware and software packages from the likes of Stanton, Rane and PVDJ as well as powerful software-only solutions from Native Instruments and Ableton. So to stand out in this field, you have to be doing something just a little left of center. Enter MixMeister Pro 6. Available in three flavors (Express, Studio and Pro), this package attempts to simplify the process of creating elaborate DJ mixes with a different approach than that of its competition.
BEHOLD THE MIXMEISTER
Traditional computer-based DJ tools use what MixMeister Technology calls a “hardware metaphor.” Packages like Visionic's PCDJ and Native Instruments' Traktor present the user with a dual-deck interface that emulates the traditional DJ's CD and vinyl decks. This interface prescribes that mixes are created on the fly: As each song plays, you can only cue up the next track. MixMeister presents an evolutionary approach that allows the user to create a playlist of tracks built into a beat-mixed timeline of music. This can be done ahead of time and saved for later replay or built on the fly during a live performance. (If your PC has dual audio outputs, you can even preview upcoming mixes without interrupting live playback.) MixMeister includes support for the mixing of video files as well as the creation of video collages to accompany audio-only tracks.
With many user-configurable features and effects, the MixMeister software is quite powerful. With a little investment in time, you can create professional-sounding mixes and burn directly to CD from within the software. If you are an obsessive tweaker, you can spend many hours perfecting and manipulating your playlists and creating custom remixes, all with impressive results.
The software installation is straightforward. Available as an electronic download from the MixMeister Website, it installs in just a few clicks and takes up less than 30 MB of disk space (minus your music catalog). When running the software for the first time, you'll be offered the opportunity to load some demo music and run a tutorial. I recommend watching this (it's only three minutes long), as it will quickly familiarize you with the basics of the software. Once the tutorial is complete, you'll want to import your music into MixMeister, at which point, it will process the files. MixMeister supports MP3, WMA and WAV audio files (but no Ogg Vorbis support). Additionally, MixMeister Pro supports AVI, MPG and WMV video files as well as JPEG and BMP still images.
Depending on how many files you import, the analysis can take some time. MixMeister calculates both the bpm and the key and generates a waveform plot for each song. Considering the accuracy of the results, the time required to analyze each song is impressive. On my Athlon64 3500+ with 1 GB of RAM, it averaged six seconds per MP3, taking about an hour to catalog just over 500 songs. Luckily, MixMeister will process them in the background, updating each song as it goes, allowing you to begin playing before this process is complete.
The interface is made up of three main panes: the Catalog, the Playlist and the Timeline. Additionally, there are Global Effects, VU meter and Video preview panes that can be turned on or off. The Catalog pane presents the list of imported music. You can assign a custom category to each song, allowing you to filter by the label of your choosing. The Catalog pane is a multicolumn view of your music library, with one song per row. The default columns are Title, Artist, BPM, Album, Time and Key. Other user-selectable columns include File Name, Bit Rate and Keycode (more on this later). You can sort the Catalog by any column. When importing MP3s, the title, artist and album come from the ID3 tag. MixMeister lets you edit the contents of these ID3 tags and save the changes back to the source file.
To create a mix, highlight the songs you want and drag them from the Catalog pane to the Playlist pane; the order in the Playlist pane represents the order in which they will be mixed. The Playlist features the same column and sort options as the Catalog. When building a playlist, MixMeister applies its default settings and adds the songs to the Timeline pane. As part of its initial processing, MixMeister detects the key of each song. As most good DJs know, the secret to great beat mixing requires more than matching tempos; aurally pleasing mixes usually require that the incoming song be in a harmonically compatible key. To assist the DJ in doing this, MixMeister features a Keycode column based on the harmonic mixing wheel from the Camelot Sound Easymix System (www.harmonic-mixing.com). As the Camelot Sound Website explains: “Each key is assigned a keycode number from one to 12, like hours around a clock. To select a compatible key from any origin keycode, choose a keycode within one number of your original keycode.” To use this in MixMeister, open the Keycode column and sort your Catalog by Keycode. Now, you can easily select harmonically compatible songs without having to remember the relationship between actual keys. Additionally, you can change the key of a track, at will, without altering the pitch.
The Timeline pane presents a waveform representation of each track in your playlist — one per row. If you have worked with any sort of wave-editing or workstation software, this will look familiar. Using MixMeister's mouse-wheel-controlled zoom feature, you can zoom out to view the entire mix or zoom in as close as one beat of a measure. When playing your mix, a vertical bar represents the current position of playback, allowing you to “read” the song as it plays.
Each song is added linearly along the Timeline. Based on its initial processing of the file, MixMeister will determine the song's “effective beginning” and “effective ending” (its best guess at where the song should be mixed in or out). These sections are eight measures long by default and will be highlighted by an orange section known as a Sprocket. The outro Sprocket of the first song is aligned with the intro Sprocket of the next song, and the volumes are automatically set to crossfade, creating an instant and seamless mix.
You can change the track type from Primary to Overlay. An Overlay track gets layered on top of the previous Primary track. With this feature, you can add sound effects, a cappellas or snippets of songs appearing later in the mix. Aligning Overlay tracks properly takes a little more work, especially if they are long. The Timeline pane's zoom feature is critical here because it allows you to focus closely on the section of song with which you are working. Once zoomed in, you can focus in on the waveforms of the two tracks and align them appropriately.
Initially, I was a bit disappointed with MixMeister's ability to deliver on its claim of automatic beat matching. Using various styles of music, from dance to hip-hop to pop, I found that the software often messed up the transition, either by miscalculating the first beat of the measure or by misaligning things so badly that the beats crashed all over each other. After reading through the help and online resources, I learned that MixMeister performs best when presented with “straightforward” songs with clearly definable beats. As the help section states: “Beat mixing works best on tracks that have long rhythmic beginnings and endings and use lots of drums. Dance tracks are often ideal for beat mixing thanks to the noticeable drumbeats.” By selecting only four-on-the-floor dance tracks and building a basic playlist, I was finally able to achieve impressive results. Simply put, when the software's beat-matching algorithm works, it works very well. If it fails, it fails horribly. But all is not lost if the tracks don't mix well on the first try. The software lets you tweak many things to perfect and enhance your mixes. The intro and outro Sprockets are adjustable, both in the number of measures they span as well as their alignment with the beats of the song.
Using the Snap to Beat feature, I discovered that although MixMeister usually correctly calculates the bpm of most songs, it occasionally aligns the Sprocket to the incorrect beat. When using a misaligned Sprocket to transition to a correctly aligned song, the resulting mix obviously does not sound right. Simply drag to the track to align the Sprocket correctly, and all is well. Once comfortable manipulating Sprockets and lining up songs, I generally extended most Sprockets to 16 or 32 measures, as the eight-measure default setting felt too abrupt.
Sometimes, Snap to Beat will not allow you to correctly align things. If this happens, you can turn it off and manually align the Sprocket by eye. Things get trickier here, and I found that some tracks required so much tweaking that I simply gave up and used a different song. The level of control the software affords you is great, but it can also become a time-consuming process — especially for the perfectionist.
In addition to perfecting your alignments, you can adjust the volume levels throughout the track with user-definable volume markers. Bass and treble levels can also be separately adjusted to drop or boost the high or low frequencies for all or part of a song. The Segment Break feature allows you to chop up and repeat elements of a track. On top of this, MixMeister includes the following effects: chorus, compressor, distortion, echo, flanger, parametric EQ and two different reverb effects. These effects can be layered and applied to part or all of a track. Furthermore, you can add additional effects with MixMeister's integration with DirectX-compatible plug-ins, which many users may already own.
Most important, using the Presets and Defaults feature, you can save your tweaks nondestructively. Each song has an accompanying MXM file that MixMeister uses to store your tweaks — the source file is left alone. By far, this is the biggest strength of the software, as you can create multiple presets and choose from them when adding songs to a playlist. You can even assign one of your presets as the default.
With all of these features, you are given enough power to create your own remixes. After using the software for a while, I found myself using the Timeline pane as a work space for remixing individual songs. Once happy with my tweaks, I saved them to a custom preset and set them as the default. Later, when working on a playlist, I could simply add my pretweaked songs and restore the desired settings to make use of them in a mix.
So what's not to like about the software? Manipulating the Sprockets sometimes generated unexpected results. When trying to extend a perfectly aligned eight-measure piece to 16 measures, the software would occasionally lose its alignment, requiring manual tweaking to bring things back in line. Thankfully, the software features undo. Also, more effects and plug-ins would be a solid addition. Lastly, there are no scratching abilities in MixMeister. Given its design, I cannot see how they could be included in any usable manner, yet they are a popular requirement in software of this type. If you are looking for vinyllike control of computer-based music, you'd be better off with Rane/Serato's Scratch Live or Stanton's FinalScratch.
Nevertheless, even though MixMeister's interface presents itself as a playlist creator, the software really offers much more. Essentially an entire remix studio, MixMeister gives DJs infinite possibilities for manipulating songs and tying them together into expert-quality mixtapes or live performances. Also, the ability to add video and still images to a performance is a feature that clearly speaks to the future of DJ performance. Although the software is not as easy to use as its marketing materials may imply, it is very powerful, and the learning curve required to maximize the value from the software is not that steep. I thoroughly recommend this inexpensive software to anyone looking for a computer-based DJing tool. It won't replace my turntables any time soon, but it is a well-designed package that offers a rewarding experience to anyone prepared to invest a little tweak time.
MIXMEISTER PRO 6 > $279.95
Pros: Price. Infinite level of tweaking. Nondestructive editing. Ability to independently adjust tempo and key.
Cons: Inconsistent video playback. Occasional interface quirks. No Ogg Vorbis file support. PC only.
Intel-compatible/600 (or higher); 256 MB RAM; Windows XP; Windows-compatible soundcard; second soundcard or ASIO-compliant interface for live monitoring