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Allen & Heath xone:DX Digital Controller
Reviewer: Gizmo • Date: June 2010 • Price: £999/$1299/€1149 • Link: A&H

Introduction

Allen & heath xone:DX review skratchworx serato ITCH

I do have a soft spot for Allen & Heath. Aside from making all manner of killer audio gear for a wide range of users with varying levels of pocket depths, just like me they're English and jolly nice people too. They were the very first people to give me a break in the industry in the shape of a xone:02 for review. But since then, I've not had anything else in since - bar the xone:XD-53 headphones seen in last week's mega headphone test.

So let's redress the balance. Back at PLASA 2009, I was ushered backstage (thinking back it felt like I should have been hooded) on the Allen & Heath stand and shown something very special indeed. Under a t-shirt and carefully masked from prying eyes was the prototype of the xone:DX, made even more special because it was Serato's Steve West that was showing it to me. I promptly teased info about the DX when I got back home, even using the line "absolutely itching to tell you" - which the internets stupidly morphed into it absolutely being a Traktor controller. I couldn't have made it clearer.

So the unlikely dream team was formed - Serato's ITCH pumping through the digital heart of A&H's xone:DX hardware. I just knew it was going to be good.

In A Nutshell

Allen & heath xone:DX review skratchworx serato ITCH

The Allen & Heath xone:DX is a 4 channel Serato ITCH based MIDI controller, complete with 20 channel audio interface, effects plus analogue ins and outs - all in a compact case. It runs natively on Serato's ITCH - a special v1.6 just for the DX, but can be configured via MIDI for any other suitable application that has MIDI learn.

First Impressions

Allen & heath xone:DX review skratchworx serato ITCH

The best way to describe the xone: DX - a xone:4D left in the hot wash really. It's a relatively minuscule 405 x330x55mm - considerably less than the usual A&H behemoth MIDI controllers, but seems to pack in most of the same features.

Allen & heath xone:DX review skratchworx serato ITCH

It has the oh so familiar look and feel of the Allen & Heath range - the same build quality and controls, but with a liberal amount of scaled down features too. The case is all in one with a metal faceplate - one which I fought and failed to resist the temptation to remove to have a peek inside. Thankfully I had the correct sized Torx screwdriver. And seeing as you're likely to be packing and unpacking it on a regular basis, it even has rounded rubberised corner bumpers. The only gripe is the gloss finish. While I was able to fit the DX into my office and use it with good lighting, a club might not offer the same luxury.

Allen & heath xone:DX review skratchworx serato ITCH

Sacrifices have obviously been made in the sizes of some features - the crossfader assign switches are really small, and many of the buttons are much smaller than many are used to to or might like. But when you open it up, it's clear that Allen & Heath haven't tried to make savings in the components. Rather than adopting a one board approach to manufacture, everything is modular and can be easily replaced. Even the faders look to be regular low profile faders that can be swapped out if they break. And even with so much being shoehorned into the faceplate real estate, there still seems to be plenty of air space - so hopefully the DX won't overheat either. It certainly never approached anything but lukewarm while I had it.

That said, Allen & Heath have done an amazing job of squeezing a full 4 channels, decks and ITCH controls into such a small space. There is a degree of adaptation from a full sized rig of course, but I has at home in no time.

Let's break down the hardware into its components.

The Mixer

Allen & heath xone:DX review skratchworx serato ITCH

With mixers being A&H's core business, you can be assured that they don't mess around in this area at all. And having to scale things down a bit doesn't seem to have led to much in the way of casualties.

Let me preface this by stating that the xone:DX can only be used as a mixer for external sources with ITCH running. You can't plug decks or external devices and expect them to work. The DX inputs are straight into the audio interface i.e the DX isn't an analogue mixer. If you wanted to take it with you sans laptop - forget it. I hope I've made that clear enough for you.

Allen & heath xone:DX review skratchworx serato ITCH

One exception however is the direct minijack input - should things go pear-shaped with your laptop mid set, you can simply plug in an external device (like your phone) and play music through the DX while rebooting ITCH. It would have been oh so nice to use the DX as a mixer on its own too without a laptop though, but I guess that would mean an entirely different set of components under the hood and possibly more cost.

Allen & heath xone:DX review skratchworx serato ITCH

So in ITCH, you get a full 4 channels to play with, but these can also be used with external analogue sources too. Each channel comes with a 63mm line fader and the tiniest crossfader assign switch. The crossfader is a 45mm affair and like the channel faders lacks curves or reverses. This reinforces the fact that the DX is made for mix DJs rather than scratchers. That said, I was able to pull of basic scratching and juggling with external turntables.

IDEA: Is it possible to have software curves? It might be nice to have DX wedged between a pair of decks for those than might want to drop some decent scratches into a set.

Allen & heath xone:DX review skratchworx serato ITCH

Each channel has the usual array of EQs - 3 bands that kill and adjust to 6dB. Now I did worry that some sound compromises might be made with a controller, but the sound quality is amazing, with a nicely balanced EQ that pumps audio out at ear bleeding volumes.

Allen & heath xone:DX review skratchworx serato ITCH

Metering is a different matter. Channel meters are just 4 post EQ LEDs. Now if you're like me and adjust levels so that they just occasionally nudge Red then you'll be OK. The master out does offer 8 LEDs so you have a degree more control. Sound wise, you get full master and booth control - and the DX belts it out at ear bleeding volumes with great clarity and zero distortion. No compromises here at least.

Curiously, the xone:DX is missing balance controls. All their mixers have them, but the controllers don't - the 4D and 3D before it didn't have them either.

Monitoring is fully featured too. Obviously you get to monitor each channel individually, or 2 at a time if you press 2 cue buttons. Thankfully the DX also offers split cueing too i.e. master out in one ear and monitoring in the other. I did however feel that the headphone output to be a tad quieter than I would like. Fear not, for there are software settings in ITCH to give both the master and headphones a little extra ooomph.

Overall, the mixer part of the DX is highly specced and worthy of being a product on its own - just needs balance controls though in my opinion. Slice off the decks and I reckon A&H would have a low profile winner on their hands alone.

Ins and Outs

Allen & heath xone:DX review skratchworx serato ITCH

Having a 20 channel audio interface embedded inside the DX, there's not exactly a shortage of ways to hook up to and from it. Being a 4 channel mixer as well as a controller, the xone:DX is very capable of taking inputs from external sources and applying them to the 4 channels. All are capable of line level input but 2 and 3 are phono switchable and 4 is mic switchable too. So you have the ability to mix and match inputs with ITCH channels too.



External sources also share the channel benefits too, so you not only get full EQ and fader control but also effects. A nice touch.

The front panel offers dual headphone sockets, as well as an XLR mic input with dual EQ and a gain control too.

Allen & heath xone:DX review skratchworx serato ITCH

Outputs are fully serviced beyond the call of duty with master balanced XLR, master unbalanced RCA, booth RCA, aux RCA and cue bus output too. If you can't hook the DX to something wherever you take it then you should hang your head in shame.

Complementing the huge array of ins and outs is the ability to use digital audio both for input and output. In all my time as a DJ and hack, I've never plugged anything into an SPDIF socket, and from my Twitter questioning, it seems that only a tiny number of you have too.

Power

I wouldn't normally detail this separately, but in the world of controllers, this is an important point. Unlike may other controllers, the xone:DX is NOT bus powered and must be hooked up to the mains via the supplied wall wart. So if you do play out and normally run your old controller from your laptop, be warned that you'll need to find an extra socket.

And I can only assume that A&H have a growing aversion to power switches, as like the 22 mixer before it, the DX doesn't have one. How odd.

Decks

Allen & heath xone:DX review skratchworx serato ITCH

One of the key factors of the first wave of ITCH units was the scene owning performance of the jog wheels and platters. Serato had properly nailed via this high speed communication doohicky to give controller rockers the performance they oh so craved.

Allen & heath xone:DX review skratchworx serato ITCH

And then Allen & Heath came along and effectively ignored one of the key features of ITCH. So... sorry to disappoint, but the xone:DX simply cannot scratch or juggle to save its life. The teeny weeny jog wheels are neither touch or pressure sensitive, which does rather rule out turntable trickery. But if A&H had gone down that route, it would be a bigger and more expensive unit. Given that the other xone units have the same wheel and still sell, it's clear that there is a market.

TIP: When paused, scrub mode does allow you do to basic wikki wikki cueing. And if you practice, you can cue and hit play to simulate real cueing.

Allen & heath xone:DX review skratchworx serato ITCH

Each deck is dual layer, switchable by the layer button to give access to decks 1/3 (on the left) and 2/4 (on the right). There is also a very visual cue in the the associated light show on the relevant deck changes from Green to Red. This is also reinforced on screen too with ITCH highlighting the focussed deck.

Pitch

Allen & heath xone:DX review skratchworx serato ITCH

One area of confusion for many people was the apparent lack of pitch control. See that knob labelled pitch? Bizarre I know, but the rest of the xone controller range work in exactly the same way - a notched rotary controller that steps in 0.01% increments - in any of the 8, 16 or 50% ranges - or pressing down steps in 2-3% increments. There's also a visual pitch light that illuminates up or down, but frankly this is eye candy rather than being anything useful.

Some might lament the loss of regular pitch slider, but look at it this way - the rotary controller gives you more precise control over the digital pitch than a linear slider ever could. Just imagine trying to control 0.01% increments with a 100mm slider. It would never happen, especially at 50%.

Hot Cues

Allen & heath xone:DX review skratchworx serato ITCH

With the xone:DX, ITCH gives you 4 hot cues alongside the usual tempporary cue to play with. You can set these manually inside ITCH or use the 4 diddy buttons on the DX itself. Shift and cue deletes the relevant hot cue. Each one has an LED to indicate if a cue point it set or not.

Allen & heath xone:DX review skratchworx serato ITCH

Like every other ITCH device out there, setting a hot cue adds it to the track rather than the deck, so if you have the track loading into other decks, the hot cues will appear there too.

In use, you might expect that the lack of pressure sensitive MPC style pads might prove to be a hindrance. But having already got myself into the mindset of scaled down operation, these little buttons work just fine.

FX Section

Allen & heath xone:DX review skratchworx serato ITCH

Each ITCH device seems to work in its own different way with effects. The DX however has to work in a different way to all the others because of the 4 channels.

The DX has 2 individual effects banks, each of which can be applied to the 4 channels by engaging the FX1 and/or FX2 buttons per channel - after you've switched them on of course. Given that you have to press buttons to apply the effects, this on/off button seems a bit redundant really.

These are global effects i.e. you select 1 effect for each bank and can apply them to the channels rather than being able to define lots of different effects for each channel.

Allen & heath xone:DX review skratchworx serato ITCH

The list of effects seems to fall in line with other ITCH units: Reverb, Delay, Echo, LPF, HPF, Phaser, Flanger, Tremelo, Bitcrusher, Repeater, Reverser and Breaker (shouldn't that be Braker A&H?). Each bank has a wet/dry control - here called depth - as well as 2 parameter controls for each effect.

Being proper digital effects, they're also BPM locked - well a lot of them are. The TIME button lets you expand or crush the effect at a beat level too. But if you want something a tad more freestyle, you can disengage the BPM lock with the Beats/Free and manually tweak the effect.

Overall, the effects are spot on. The quality is pretty good, and the control that you have over them is great. The processor in your laptop can get a little taxed though and you may need to tweak the USB latency to top glitches and pauses while you work.

Looping

Allen & heath xone:DX review skratchworx serato ITCH

Assuming that your music is analysed properly, looping is a no brainer and fully featured too. The easiest way to use it is by smacking the autoloop on/off button. Handily, this snaps to the nearest beat so doing so on beat means perfect instant looping, which I found especially useful when going for it on all 4 channels.

You can then do crazy thing like expand or contract the loop from an ear buzzing 1/32 beats right up to 32 bars, which is a big chunk of anyone's song. And you can also shift the loop around the song by the current loop length. And let's not forget the ever popular loop roll either. Instead of some hidden Easter egg, rolling is now alive in hardware form.

Allen & heath xone:DX review skratchworx serato ITCH

Fear not however, for as good as autolooping is, there are time when you need to operate outside of the strict 4 beat grid and define your own loops. Manual looping is fully supported, with full in and out point editing done via the jog wheel.

Finally, let's not forget that loops can also be saved and reloaded too. This is perfect for preplanning a complex set, or simply to save a bit of time in not having to make the same loop that you always make. That said, the autolooping is that good, that I never saw the need to save a loop - doing on the fly is pretty bombproof.

Looping was fun enough on 2 channel ITCH units, but with 4 channels to play with, it just got a lot more creative. But importantly works perfectly.

Track Loading

Allen & heath xone:DX review skratchworx serato ITCH

For me, part of the success of ITCH is removing the need to tamper with your laptop to do simple but distracting tasks like track loading. But the various hardware partners have developed ways to make this a hardware based task. Numark and Vestax's way is very similar - Denon's is about as fully featured as you can get. A&H however have stripped it down to the barest of essentials.

Instead of dedicated buttons, you get a simple small toggle button to navigate between different areas of the ITCH screen as well as back and forward buttons for column switching. There is a load button on each deck that changes colour with the layer as well.

This optimised feature set is understandable, given the highly condensed 4 deck experience. But once I'd got over the learning curve, everything was fine. A little condensed but fine.

MIDI

Allen & heath xone:DX review skratchworx serato ITCH

Like all ITCH controllers, the DX also doubles up as a regular MIDI controller too. And if ever there was a controller designed for Traktor use then the DX is it. A&H always said they saw the DX as not only an ITCH device, but also a full MIDI controller as well. And they weren't messing around and provide 3 whole pages of MIDI mapping detail in the DX manual. The good news is that the MIDI traffic is 2 way, so you'll be able to get LED feedback when mapping in other software.

I didn't spend time manually mapping other MIDI software as my primary purpose was the out of the box experience. but MIDI maps are trickling out on the numerous forums. I however still favour using ITCH - the lack of necessity for keyboard stomping is a real benefit, and the DX is designed for it from the ground up. And it just works perfectly.

ITCH v1.6

Allen & heath xone:DX review skratchworx serato ITCH

ITCH is ITCH is ITCH - well normally anyway. But for the xone:DX, a new v1.6 has been release, specifically to deal with 4 channels and the more mix based feature set of the DX. The core is much the same and I've covered ITCH several times over so I'm going to skim over the basics.

Allen & heath xone:DX review skratchworx serato ITCH

The top half of the screen is given over to your music - the library, crates, files and preparation, as well as a history of your DJ sessions. Below that are the effects banks and their settings, including which deck the effect is synced and and if the effect is being cued or not. See the effects hardware section for more info on how they work.

Allen & heath xone:DX review skratchworx serato ITCH

Then you get to the decks and multiple waveform displays. These are just the same as other versions of ITCH - just more of them. Decks 1-4 get the full waveform (with cue point and loop displays), as well as track name, artist, BPM and time displays. And if the deck is also focussed, you'll also be shown the loop amount, pitch range and pitch difference display.

IDEA: I can't help but think that the decks should be Red and Green - you know to match the actual hardware lightshow. Unless I'm colour blind of course.

Allen & heath xone:DX review skratchworx serato ITCH

Right in the middle is the bit that aids your mixing. The micro beat syncing waveforms sit on top of each other showing the hot spots of the tracks and just how well they're matching each other - and which decks are actually syncing too. Confession: I've never used them - ever.

allen & heath xone:dx review

Right below that is the small record section, where you can decide on exactly what to record (the master or individual channels) and set the record level too. I didn't record anything as I was having too much fun mixing so I can't comment on how well the DX and ITCH perform this task. The only thing I would recommend is that running 4 channels and effects is processor intensive, and adding recording into the mix might be taxing.

allen & heath xone:dx review

The lower screen (assuming you have the wave forms across the bottom like me) is where the expanded waveforms live. You get the familiar waveforms, but with the DX you also get the additional benefits of v1.6 of ITCH - namely...

Beat Grids

allen & heath xone:dx review

A core fundamental part of DJing is the ability to lock 2 beats together. Regardless of what many might think, in these strictly digital times it's not actually that hard to lock beats and keep them locked. So as far as I'm concerned, if software can take away the donkey work and free me up to get creative then that's just fine by me. And that's where beat grids come in.

The principle of beat grids is simple - where BPM tells you the tempo of the track on a beat by beat basis, beat grids are the actual bar structure of the track. Imagine counting 1-2-3-4/2-2-3-4 etc in beat with the track - that's the beat grid right there. And what ITCH does is to firstly analyse the BPM and then assigns a beat grid based on what it thinks is the first beat of the first bar. The bars are numbered successively with small markers for each beat.

IDEA: The bar number is one way to remember a point in a song, but I'd love to see this advanced a tad further so that the view can be toggled to show beats and bars in a 1-2-3-4/2-2-3-4/3-2-3-4/4-2-3-4 way. And this would also allow the beat grid function to match exactly the right sync in the song.

You're actually recommended by Serato to re-analyse your library because the engine in v1.6 has been tweaked to be even better. I can verify this as some of my old school tracks made with real drummers are a bit more accurate and auto loop properly now.

allen & heath xone:dx review

But as you might expect, things don't always go smoothly. So even with this improved BPM engine, the beat grid doesn't alway hit the bars exactly where you'd want them to. So you can edit the grids in 2 ways - ITCH lets you simply shift the grid left or right, or you can effectively stretch the grid relative to the first bar.

I'd say that the BPM analysis is a lot better in this version, especially with older tracks. But while the beat grids are amazing, I find that they need more manual tweaking than I'm happy with right now. As ever, newer quantised 4 to the floor stompers tend to work first time. But anything else does need careful preparation. I would heartily suggest that you take the time to reanalyse your library and make sure the beat grid actually sits where it should.

An interesting note - beat grids are only available to the xone:DX when running v1.6. I've run a Vestax VCI-300 successfully (although I don't vouch for full abilities), but the beat grids just don't show up.

Hammering this home - Preparation

allen & heath xone:dx review

The old adage of "fail to prepare then prepare to fail" has never been truer with the DX. To get the very best from v1.6, you need to spend time absolutely nailing the analysis of your tracks. I threw a variety of genres at ITCH and got generally good results, but did get a number of double time BPMs because I'd used the wrong BPM range for analysis. That said, if you're a specific type of DJ, you're most likely to have your music in a particular specific band.

And once you've thrown all your music through ITCH, I'd say it's best practice to take a look at your music before going live to see if the BPMs have been hit properly, but importantly to make sure that the beat grid is exactly where it should be.

With the best will in the world, software can only do so much, and it really does boil down to you dear DJ in making sure that you're properly prepared and really work the DX as hard as possible.

In Use

allen & heath xone:dx review

At the side of my desk are 2 sets of turntables which measure a not inconsiderable 7ft long. 7ft too long of course and is largely unusable in a practical 4 deck scenario. So you'd expect me to have some trepidation at squishing 7ft of hardware into a foot and a half. This soon dissolved as I set about disengaging my traditional A to B mentality and seeing what I could achieve with 4 channels, looping, cues and effects.

Well… I won't punish you with my efforts on video, but needless to say that provided you've spent the time to prep your music, the xone:DX is nothing short of amazing. Despite the name and origin of this humble site, I can actually mix music quite well. Indeed, the DX certainly forced me to disengage my established ITCH working practices and get back to some more creative ways of mixing.

The first thing I noticed was that unlike my other ITCH experiences, this was a much more hands-on staring at the screen affair. It's quite understandable as there's potentially a lot to contend with if you're working the DX hard. But at least you're only watching the screen rather than hammering keys. I hate that. The side effect is that your stage presence may take a hit as you hunch over your mini mixing marvel.

As previously mentioned, mixing with beat grids is easy - stupidly and ridiculously easy. Load up 4 tracks, hit sync for all 4 decks and press the play button for each deck. In return you'll get 4 perfectly synced decks, all on beat and locked. Some may feel that this takes away the skill of DJing, but I say that I'm now free to work on all the other stuff that goes into rocking a set.

So doing the House mixing that I was familiar with proved to be no challenge whatsoever, thus for the conventional A to B DJ, the DX is total overkill. But for those wishing to expand their creative horizons, the xone:DX is a magic box of tricks just waiting to be opened. Imagine if you will being able to load up your favourite beats, rhymes and basslines - loop them - add effects and create your own Hip Hop remixes and mashups. I'd started doing this just as I had to send the DX back. This was right after I'd experimented with loading the same track into all 4 decks and messing with all the tools at my disposal.

Summary

allen & heath xone:dx review

Firstly, I must talk about the price. Coming in at a smidgen under £1K (or $1.3K/€1145), the DX isn't pocket change by any means. I've read comments that this is too much money for a MIDI controller, but for me this is quite a lot more than just a simple MIDI controller. Sadly, the standard image of MIDI controllers in people's minds is a 2 deck semi plastic VCI-alike costing a few hundred of your local currency. But putting the DX into that category is quite wrong. You get 2 quality brand names on the box, 4 full channels, hot cues, looping effects and a 20 channel high quality audio interface in one bite sized box - all plugging and playing with zero fuss. You're paying for quality, features and user friendliness here. Not only that, but you get the added benefit of access to Serato's Whitelabel service - a growing library of online music exclusive to Serato customers.

If you've taken the time to read the review rather than just skip to the condensed version, you'll have missed the bit where this seasoned DJ cast aside his normal scratchy tendencies, rediscovered his House head and had a wail of a time mixing, remixing and generally enjoying an all new (well to me anyway) 4 channel experience. Some will of course hanker for scratchy jogwheels, but that isn't what the xone:DX is about. I didn't miss them at all.

allen & heath xone:dx review

The form factor is a real draw too. The simplicity of having the DX as hand baggage, turning up at a gig and plugging into the mains, into your laptop and into the sound system is ideal for the busy travelling DJ. It needs just a small amount of elbow room in the booth or equally your bedroom too.

But most importantly, the DX is a huge amount of fun, but at the same time is hugely creative and a professional tool. The union of A&H and Serato is a good one and has produced a gem.

Ratings

Build Quality
Allen & Heath only make good stuff.

Sound Quality
The 20 channel interface pack some serious heat, and when backed up by the quality EQ and FX, there's nothing to grumble about at all.

Features and Implementation
Squishing 4 channels into a small box like the DX was never going to be easy, but A&H seem to have done it with little in the way of compromise.

Value For Money
Yes, its a considerable sum of anyone's cash, but if you're serious about doing 4 channels then it's money well spent. You do get a lot for your arm and leg.

Bottom Line

The xone:DX is serious kit for serious DJs. Put in the time and you'll be rewarded richly.

Gallery

What would a skratchworx review be without a set of cool photos? Well here they are.



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