The two channel mixer market is absolutely overflowing – and that’s just the crop currently sitting on shop shelves. Delve further back through manufacturers’ portfolios and there’s a near endless line of discontinued yet still perfectly viable mixers going strong in-between innumerable decks. Even though many DJs are moving towards all in one digital setups, it still pays to have a solid DJ mixer around for many purposes. How do you decide what’s right for you?
Why do I need a mixer, you might ask? Well for starters, anyone using DVS technology like Serato or Traktor Scratch needs a mixer for audio control. Then, for the controller only crowd, a mixer can actually offer a great value and a very tactile, high quality control surface. For less than $600 you can get 2 midi-fighters, and a decent 2 channel mixer, and as Ean Golden showed us in the video bellow- there is a lot that can be done with the combo. This set up travels really well too, as the critical software functions go in your bag but the spacious mixer functions are always available in a club.
To many a beginner, a mixer is a mixer (is a mixer). To a certain extent that’s true; bargain basement mixers tend to be much of a muchness, and that muchness typically isn’t particularly high fidelity. There are plenty of sub £100/$150 mixers on the market, but quite often it’s a better value proposition to scout the second hand market for an older, perhaps discontinued mixer with a good reputation.
Things start getting interesting when you hover around the £120/$180 mark. It’s at that price point where products begin to exhibit signs of quality and useful features. But what features do you need? These features, whilst not necessarily exclusive to two channel mixers, suit different styles – figure out what you want to do with your sets and buy based on what they can offer you:
Mic/Aux: some mixers have an entirely separate discrete channel for audio on top of the mixer’s standard inputs. It’s often got slightly cut back EQ capabilities, and volume will be a dial rather than a fader. If you want to drop samples while mixing or throw shout outs to your adoring crowd, though, it’s more than sufficient.
Faders: Unfortunately the days of the two-week fader aren’t completely behind us, and seriously low budget mixers tend to come with faders that don’t stand up very well to the rigours a scratch DJ might like to place upon them. There’s usually at least a half decent crossfader in midrange mixers, though, with channel faders’ presumed less vigorous usage affording them slightly lower faders. ‘Non contact’ faders should in theory last vastly longer than traditional faders, as instead of the fader relying on constantly wearing carbon tracks to tell its position, clever magnetic or optical technology does the same thing with nothing to wear down. A scratch DJ typically puts the crossfader (or its third party compatibility) at the centre of their purchase decision.
EQ: Not all EQ is created equal. A lot of EQ is similar, but some mixers stand out from the pack, for better or worse. ‘Full kill’, ie total frequency isolation, isn’t standard on all mixers and so the effectiveness varies amongst them. Some mixers, typically budget ones, only have a two band EQ. Some (like the Technics on show below) have a certain pleasant quality to the way they EQ the sound. EQ’s importance varies depending on your style – a sacrifice here could mean a bonus on one of the other functions.
Effects: You don’t need a four channel mixer to enjoy effects! That said, effects laden mixers do tend to come at a premium. If you’re a beginner it might be a good idea to concentrate on the basics when starting out. In addition, you might not see a mixer with the exact kind of effects you’re after; in both of these situations, a send/return could be the answer…
Send/Return: Does what it says on the tin – audio goes out through the send, at which point it’s connected to whatever you like – let’s say a reverb. The output from the reverb then goes into the return, and the signal is mixed with the original one. A mixer with a good send/return (sometimes called an effects loop) allows you to expand your setup with whatever effects you like.
Fader Start: Depending on your style and other equipment, fader start could be either be totally useless or, well, a bit useful. If your CD/media player also has a fader start function, moving the crossfader towards the channel it’s plugged in to can also start the media playing.
I’ve defined five price points for this guide; introductory, mid range, hybrid, prestige, and wait-a-second-how-much? Rather than exhaustively tackling every mixer on the market, I’ve picked some of the ones that stand out in each class. Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up…
INTRODUCTORY ( UNDER £120/$150)
The American Audio Q D5 MkII boasts EQs with full kill, an optical crossfader, mic and aux in, and balanced output. For the price, the Q D5 MkII is tough to beat. It’s slightly harsh sounding, but the crossfader’s optical design lasts a lot longer and feels a lot smoother than low quality contact faders, the mic input is good, and it’s got a sturdy, if slightly light feel.
Vestax’s VMC002XL is a beginner oriented mixer, with good looks and ‘new Vestax’ sound quality. Its barebones feature set doesn’t exactly have the wow factor, but it’s built to a higher standard than most budget mixers.
MID RANGE (UNDER £300/$400)
HYBRID (UNDER £400/$400)
Ecler’s HAK 360 and HAK 380 are similar mixers with different design choices. The 360 uses a horizontal layout for its EQ section, whereas the 380 opts for a more standard vertical layout, and slightly chunkier knobs. Both use the propietary Eternal magnetic crossfader, probably the lightest and most precise fader on the market, and unfortunately both also implement an FX loop in slightly clumsy ways. The 360 allows the effect to be simply on or off, with no wet/dry adjustment, whilst the 380 implements its FX loop globally, rather than per channel. Other than that, the HAK 360 and 380 have a mic/aux channel, full kill EQ and impeccable sound quality.
Blame, or depending on how you look at it, praise our fickle nature. Manufacturers are forever tweaking and tuning their product lineup, and over the past decade there have been a glut of mixers that manufacturers threw into the market to see what stuck. Most of them have been retired, but their ghosts live on in the second hand market, and if you’re on a budget then you could net yourself a huge bargain by going previous-season. As always, you need to be careful whenever buying second hand, and if possible get your hands on gear first before shelling out – but if you do decide to go down the preowned route, here are a few hot tips.
You’d be right to remark that there’s a void between the £120/$180 and £300/$400 classes of mixers. Whilst it’s not immediately clear why, the general industry move towards the forked path of four channel mixers/in the box mixing perhaps has something to do with it, but it also has a lot to do with the fact that real pro quality doesn’t come cheap, and manufacturers are a lot more cautious with their pricing and product lineup nowadays than they were in the mid 2000s.
It might not be a cut and dry decision, but if you make sure you don’t get swayed by flashing lights and too-good-to-be-true prices of budget models nor the best-in-class boasts of the prestige models, you can avoid buyers remorse and grab a mixer that’s just right for you.
About the author: Chris is a writer, artist and DJ who runs ohdratdigital.com, an online magazine for music and the arts.