“Two turntables and a microphone,” might be the most famous saying in DJ culture, but what about the mixer? The mixer is the literal and metaphorical nexus, where sounds from a trio of devices come together to create a sonic alchemy that has moved dancefloors for more than three decades. And as those decades have passed, so too have multiple waves of technological innovation that saw the DJ mixer evolve from the bastard Frankenstein of live band mixers — MacGyvered together by early electronic enthusiasts — to a multi-billion dollar consumer electronics colossus of computer controllers competing for mass-market dominance and audiophile approval.
Through each iteration, the design of the mixer has been driven by the demand of the DJ, while allowing said talent to discover new levels of artistry that evolve from the tools themselves — a push-pull that has helped define each generation of devices. In what has become a quintessential study on the topic, “A History of the Development of the DJ Mixer: An S&TS Perspective,” Cornell University undergraduate David Cross makes the case that there are more than these two heavily-invested parties at play in the tale of the mixer’s evolution.
The story, in fact, seems to start with audio engineer Alex Rosner, who in 1971 built a primitive three-channel device with sliders and a cueing function called “Rosie” to allow DJ Francis Grasso to easily switch from one record to the next in his residency at NYC club Haven.
The idea of a tool for mixing audio signals together had of course been around for several decades by that point, both in radio and recording studios. But the notion of a tool specifically for DJs in nightclubs was a new perspective, one that accommodated both the space considerations of the DJ booth, and the new style of overlapping records (beat matching) that Grasso had developed in order to keep the energy up on the dancefloor.
At the same time, another NYC club audio engineer, Rudy Bozak, was preparing to unveil the first commercially available DJ mixer, the Bozak CMA-10-DL2. Bozak even consulted with Rosner, as well as another industry peer, sound engineer Richard Long of the Paradise Garage and Studio 54, to create the mixer which, unlike the one-of-a-kind hand-held Rosie, weighed 25 pounds and was soon being installed in DJ booths across the city.
The Bozak might have been made for DJs, but it took most of its cues from radio mixing boards, including the use of large knobs (as opposed to sliders) to control the volume of each channel. Knobs tend to sound better and last longer than sliders, an obvious concern for this trio of men who considered themselves sound engineers first and foremost. Knobs allow for smooth transitions between channels, which was already the dominant mixing style of the disco era. But knobs reinforced this way of thinking, leading to several generations of disco and house DJs who still fetishize the two-handed style of mixing (even if the mixer itself uses faders).
The introduction of faders to the DJ mixer market came with the GLI series of consumer mixers that offered a far lower price point than the commercial Bozak club mixer. Faders are cheaper and smaller than knobs, which allowed GLI to build the “poor man’s Bozak” for aspiring DJs (a new species which had not existed a few years earlier).
But it wasn’t just bedroom disco jocks who drove the market. By the early 80s, two other scenes were buoying demand for mixers. The first was hip-hop DJs, inspired by the early experiments by DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash. Both pioneers used GLI mixers (along with other home-rigged tools) to create the breaks-centered style of hip-hop DJ mixing. This rapid back-and-forth style between records required a special kind of slider, the crossfader. Crossfaders had also existed on radio mixing boards for years, allowing DJs to switch audio sources with one hand instead of two. But in the hands of these innovators, the manipulation of the vinyl on the turntable and the crossfader, became a dexterous art form unto itself.
The other community driving the DJ mixer market was the mobile DJ industry. By the early 80s, DJs had become the standard entertainment at even the most mundane social gatherings — school dances, weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc. While playing the Chicken Dance for 13-year-olds might seem miles away from Larry Levan at Paradise Garage, the two communities crossed over more often than one might expect.
Mike Fotias is production manager for the Movement: Detroit Electronic Music Festival, responsible for the dozens of DJ set-ups and festival-grade sound systems running simultaneously through the annual Memorial Day Weekend event. Fotias’ pedigree for powering DJ parties runs through the history of Detroit techno. But it goes back even earlier, to his days as a mobile DJ in the early 80s.
“There was a market for people to come play pre-recorded music at events,” Fotais reflects of his mobile DJ days. “Which spurred a market for equipment needed to do that job.” Like most music mixers of that era, especially those outside of the major club hubs of New York, L.A., or Miami, Fotais was forced to make due with a melange of early DJ equipment and homemade solutions.
“An original Urei rotary DJ mixer was something I had never seen. It was like a unicorn,” he laughs. “It was like $3,000 in 1980s money. You didn’t even think about it.”
Foton (as his old rave colleagues often call him), recalls Numark as one of the first manufacturers to get a DJ mixer in the hands of the masses.
“The first super cool 19-inch Numark DM1775 mixer had five sliders and four seconds of sampling memory. It was built like a tank. All the sheet metal was 1/8 inch-thick aluminum and steel. The sample had a big start/stop push button, and four smaller buttons that each represented one second of memory.”
Hitting the market in the mid-1980s, the sampling feature of the mixer might seem ahead of its time, but it came out during the same era as the the immensely popular Casio SK-1 sampling keyboard. Although mostly a novelty, these tools did offer an early glimpse at the digital domain that would eventually become universal in music playback and production. But while the 1775 offered the futuristic sampling feature, it lacked the far more functional separate EQs for each audio channel. Individual channel EQ were first introduced to the DJ mixer market in 1980 by U.K. company Formula Sound, but while considered utterly essential today (how else would one drop the bass?), in 1985, the feature still had not found its way to the Numark model.
It’s unlikely that Numark was unaware of the EQ possibility. The company simply considered the sampler to be a more important feature, given the size and cost restrictions of what feature sets could be put in a single unit for a reasonable price. This compromise between size, quality, and cost has shaped the DJ mixer throughout its history.
That cost-to-capabilities formula came into serious question in the mid-90s, when Japanese consumer audio company Pioneer entered the DJ market with its DJM series of digital mixers. Released around the same time as the company’s CDJ series of CD players for DJs, the DJM offered an array of effects processing built into the mixer, including delay, reverb, and flange, as well as an automated BPM counter that would sync the effects to the beat. Although a revelation for many DJs who were thrilled to have a new ways to tweak and toy with the music they were playing, the DJM-500 and 600 was a nightmare for sound guys like Fotias, due to its inferior sound quality — a compromise undoubtedly made to accommodate the new effects.
“They weren’t using the best components, they weren’t worried about sound quality,” Fotias recalls. “It was about how many mixers they could build and sell. It was our cross to bear, because all the the DJs had it on their tech rider, and we had to deal with it. How do we make this sound good?”
Jim Tremayne, the long-running editor of industry magazine DJ Times, sees the early DJM mixers in a more forgiving light. “The original DJM 500, even though it didn’t have the best preamp inside for clubs, had amazing features and effects. It was really fun to make mixtapes with those. It changed the game a bit. Took all those effects from an outboard unit and put it in the mixer. That concept still exists with the DJM 900 Nexus. It has all kinds of crazy onboard stuff.”
Tremayne is right that 20 years after the release of the first DJM mixer, the current line of Pioneer mixers continues to define the sound of many DJs. Along with the company’s ubiquitous line of CDJs (now basically USB-filled controllers with CD existing only in the name), the Pioneer digital DJ ecosystem is completely enclosed for many jocks. In some cases, the controller culture has brought into question whether or not a mixer is even part of the formula anymore. Native Instruments X1 controller, when paired with the company’s highly successful Traktor PRO software, means that DJs can control, mix, sync, loop, and process four “decks,” without actually having a turntable or mixer at all.
This has been a boon for bedroom DJs, who can now, for only a few hundred dollars, be mixing music in ways the club jocks of yesteryear never even dreamed of. It has also been liberating for many of dance music’s biggest star DJs, many of whom now see themselves as live manipulators of music, not just players of records. Both Fotias and Tremayne see the capabilities of these tools as altering the actual sound of the music being played by a younger generation of jocks. The “dreaded sync button,” as Tremayne puts it, allows for a much faster style of putting music together, one perfect for what Fotias (and many others) call the “ADD mixing style of the younger generation.”
Both of these veterans are eager to insist that they are not judging the current crop of rapid-fire DJs as inferior to the predecessors. It’s simply a sound that seems to sit better with younger fans.
“I saw with the onset of dubstep and bass music, it’s very short attention span,” says Fotias. “I’ve done sound at some pretty big shows and I appreciate it.”
On the other hand, there is also a resurgence in old-school analog DJ gear, seen most obviously in the success of Allen & Heath’s Xone 92 DJ mixer. Coming from a proud tradition of making high-quality mixing boards for recording studios, the U.K. company has gained almost equal footing with their all-analog mixers as Pioneer has with their digital devices.
“It’s 50/50 people wanting the Pioneer and wanting the Allen & Heath,” says Fotias, speaking of the 100-odd DJs who perform at Movement each year. He also rattles off a list of companies, both new and old, who are making audiophile quality mixers that offer the old-school style and sound.
“E&S [mixers] out of France are completely hand built,” he enthuses. “The size of a lunch box with 12 knobs on it. Hand-soldered, no machine-soldered components in it at all… There’s reissues on the Urei 1620 LE [another old-school disco mixer]. Bozak is back in business and is building almost its entire product line by hand. They wouldn’t be building this stuff if there wasn’t a market for it.”
So perhaps the slow-hands sound of a smooth analog DJ mix is coming back into vogue. It would certainly make sense considering that deep house is the new buzzword for fans becoming fatigued by the full-frontal assault of EDM. The introduction of this timeless style of sonic combination to more of the mainstream festival masses would certainly go a long way in assuaging the intense debate that has divided the dance music industry since the onset of EDM.
On the other hand, it’s not unreasonable to expect some upcoming technological innovations to drive things in as-yet unknown directions. Fotias points to some touchscreen DJ technology he’s seen in its prototype stages that far eclipse the current iPad mixing tools that have still failed to make much of an impact on the DJ market. But it is in the very DNA of dance music to march forward with technology.
“Our music has always been a function of the technology,” Fotias concludes. “The technology has pushed the music and the music pushed the technology. I think that’s the beautiful thing about electronic music, the symbiotic relationship with the technology that produces it, and vice versa.”
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Observations on the art and business of spinning from a Chicago pioneer with 30+ years of experiencemedium.com