VIDEO: Pioneer DDJ-S1 | Ghostdad on Dumbo Rooftop in Brooklyn

We’ve gotten a great response from our Pioneer DDJ-T1 demo featuring special guest DJ Ayres, and we’ve had this Pioneer DDJ-S1 demo video in our back pocket for our Serato users out there.  The DDJ S1 is the same size and a similar layout to the T1 but works directly with Serato ITCH.  The obvious difference is the lack of two channels, but added are two mic channels, one switchable to an auxiliary input source.  This is convenient if you need a mic at the mobile gig, or want to run an alternative source like a CDJ, turntable, or iPod as backup.

If you’re used to playing on CDJ’s, then you’ll feel right at home on this controller.  It’s designed to get you away from the keyboard meaning you’re spending less time hitting shortcuts and more time performing mixes the way they were meant to be played.  The jog wheels are responsive enough to do some basic cuts, and the mixer feels just like being on one of Pioneer’s DJM mixers.  The built in effects are particularly fun to play with and can be assigned to any channel including the mic or auxiliary inputs!  Overall this is the most comfortable controller I’ve played on being that it has the look and feel of Pioneer DJ gear.

These aren’t shipping until March but we’re psyched to bring you this video of it in action.  Keep in mind that ITCH reads all your existing Scratch Live library crates and cue points so this is ideal for the Serato user who wants to transition to a full time controller or is switching back and forth between Scratch Live and ITCH in mobile and club situations.  The DDJ S1 is shipping now so hit is up if you want to go the four deck Traktor route, or call us for a special pre order price on the Pioneer DDJ S1.

Reloops On Order!

Vestax’s flagship VCI-100 MKII now sports on board sound card which may be convenient for some, but with this convenience comes a much higher price tag. Many users of the original Vestax VCI-100 used only  it’s MIDI functionality, relying on their own sound card to send main and monitor output. The trend in controllers may be moving towards all in one units that sport sound cards on board, but DJ’s already using their own sound cards at home or at the gig might not appreciate the price jump in this upgrade. The fact that the VCI-100 only offers RCA out is also problematic for those looking to run directly into a sound system or powered speakers without another mixer as a gain stage.

Reloop controllers have built a reputation in Europe for versatility at an affordable price making them a great mid range option for someone just starting out, or the experienced DJ looking for a portable controller to add to their arsenal. Without distribution or support here in the US they were hard to come by but Seattle based distributor Mixware has added Reloop to the line of boutique DJ products they support. The Jockey 2 Interface edition is the only one available for now, but it’s definitely one to consider if you’re looking for something like the VCI-100. At a fraction of the price this controller still has an audio interface incorporated which may be convenient for certain gigs or practicing at home, while you could also take advantage of it as a midi controller and use your own dedicated interface if you’ve got one you know and trust.  This same controller also comes in a “Controller Edition” at an even lower price sans sound card, and a “Master Edition” featuring quarter inch outputs and stand alone mixer functionality (!).

More options means flexibility in price so you won’t always break the bank on features you won’t need or use. You’ve also got more flexibility to customize your DJ setup, something a lot of Digital DJ’s hold fast too even with more all in one units hitting the market. Reloop has a few different modular controllers that are also worth a look for just this reason. DJ TechTools recently did a favorable write up on Reloop’s Contour Controller that’s a four channel sound card and single deck controller. Being able to pair a multichannel controller/soundcard with the mixer already at the gig is an ideal setup for a lot of DJ’s gigging today.

Customizing your digital DJ setups takes tech chops though so it’s important to remember that if you’re laptop is going to become your main tool for DJing, you may need to familiarize yourself with mapping techniques of Traktor, Torq, Ableton, or whatever DJ software platform you’re on. The Reloop Jockey 2 comes with a version of Traktor LE that will map automatically, but think of it also as an open interface that you can build your own mappings and controls around. We’ll have a limited number of the Jockey 2 Interface Edition in stock as early as next week so give us a call or chat at us right here on our website to find out more!

In Dev Review: RME Babyface USB Audio Interface

The RME Babyface

As I’m sitting down to write this review, my favorite album – Taylor Eigsti’s superb “Daylight At Midnight” – is playing through it on my vote for the best midfield monitors ever made: the Acoustech 8025s.  I’m writing more slowly than usual.  After every sentence I’m forced to stop, and sink a little deeper into the subtlety of what I’m hearing.  The spacious, enveloping, practically holographic imaging.  The powerful, controlled, deep bass extension.  The richness and detail of the mids.  The pristine treble, so effortlessly precise, and yet not fatiguing.  Out of curiosity, I turn the digital attenuator down as far as it will go, just to see how well it can maintain channel balance.  The stereo image doesn’t move a micron.  A smile creeps across my face, as I hear an especially tasty lick on the ride from the inimitable Eric Harland.  I don’t believe I’ve noticed it before.   My smile broadens as I anxiously anticipate hooking the Babyface into my Scherzo Andante and repeating the same process with my HiFiMAN HE-6 orthos.  And in the midst of this gleeful, childlike grin, Becca Steven’s haunting, smokey voice floats across the sound-field on “Between the Bars” and I literally start to tear up.  If this were a DAC and nothing more I’d tell you it was the bargain of the century.  Wolf will have to pry this from my cold, dead hands.

Of course, the Babyface is a whole lot more than a DAC.  It’s one of the most fully featured compact interfaces that has ever been made.  Fully balanced on both input and output?  Check.  Phantom powered pres?  Of course.  Hi-Z DI?  Yep.  Toslink I/O for both digital audio and ADAT, and support for up to an absurd 192khz sample rate?  You bet.  Dual headphone amps, each with a dedicated DAC, up to 8 configurable sub-mixes with simultaneous main and cue mix outputs, onboard DSP effects processing, 11 segment LED metering and fully recallable settings on nearly every parameter?  Why not.  Oh, and did I mention that the whole thing runs bus-powered via standard USB 2.0 protocol?  Only the Germans could possibly attire this with the epithet “baby” (I’m part Austrian, I get to make these jokes).  I have my gripes, especially with the ease of use and UI design, which I’ll get to shortly.  But it’s taxing the full extent of my willpower to refrain from just launching into a superlative-laden diatribe about the sickness of this unit.

A quick note before beginning, in the interest of full-disclosure, there will be many references and comparisons to the Apogee Duet in this review, because that’s clearly the competition here.  The Babyface looks like a Duet.  It has the same multifunction, all-purpose knob.  Many a PC-using friend of mine has been eagerly anticipating it as the ‘PC Duet.’  It even has the same ridiculous octopus-like cable assemblage attached to the back.  Given the price and corresponding feature increase, it would seem that RME designed the Babyface to one up the Duet.  My apologies for ruining the suspense, but I’ll tell you right now they’ve succeeded.  Don’t get me wrong: I love Apogee gear, and I especially love the Duet.  The Duet was the first interface I ever owned, and before it tragically died on me, it served my needs valiantly and with class and pizazz.  Apogee makes an excellent product, and their legendary converters need little introduction.  That said, this is hardly going to be a fair fight…

Design and Build Quality/Ease Of Use

Since pretty much everything else I have to say about the Babyface is laudatory, it’s probably best to get the monkey off my back up front.  The Babyface can be absurdly frustrating to use sometimes, especially if you’re trying to take advantage of its submix routing capabilities.  It literally took me an hour to figure out how to get the main mix to play on one HPA and the cue on the other.  The Total Mix FX software is confusingly labeled, and you’ll find yourself digging through the manual at first just to get around the basic functions.  Phantom power, for example, is enabled and disabled from a hidden context sub-menu on the input tracks.  There’s no hardware means to enable or disable it.  The list sort of goes on like this.

I give RME props for giving the Babyface so much functionality, and so many professional features, but at times it can all feel overwhelming.  The learning curve is too steep for what I imagine is its core use.  Yes, it’s very cool that I can create eight separate mixes, and dozens of groups, and rout them at will to any of the plethora of outputs, but in the vast majority of situations where I’m going to be using it, I’m going to have to have it set up and running as quickly and painlessly as possible.  To my mind, RME needs to take some of the baby fat off its UI, or at the very least create a more purpose-driven incarnation of the Total Mix FX software for the Babyface.  This is actually the primary area where RME could use to take a cue from Apogee’s Maestro software.  The Duet (which, in all fairness, has far fewer features), is entirely painless to use.  As a complete newbie six years ago, I never once struggled with it.

That said, a lot of what the Babyface can do that others can’t is incredibly useful.  For example, having two independent DACs for each headphone out, so that the engineer and the “talent” can have separate mixes, is an absolute Godsend.  So too is the I/O functionality for both S/PDIF and ADAT.  In essence, this feature lets me integrate the Babyface into a larger setup as a master clock, or for its excellent pres, at will.  It’s a seemingly small thing, but, as they say, the devil’s in the details.  And what’s important about these particular details is that they give the user immense flexibility.

As far as the physical plant is concerned, the Babyface is a beautiful unit.  It has a fittingly Teutonic heft in your hand and the fit and finish are stellar (I’m especially a sucker for the Blue color scheme). Small details, like the sexy metal flake finish on the primary knob, abound.  The LED metering excels in its functionality and elegance, and, while it might seem quite minor, I can’t stress enough how much I appreciate that RME includes a purpose-built padded carrying case standard, especially in light of its lone Achilles heel in the build department.  For those with any familiarity with the Duet, you know what I’m talking about already: the dreaded tentacle fetish cable dongle of doom.

Look, I understand why companies do it.  It helps keep the rest of the unit small and streamlined, and it’s cheap to make and cheap to replace if it ever fails (which I can guarantee you it will if you’re as rough on your travel gear as I am).  But I hate the breakout cables.  They look shoddy, they’re confusing, they have an infuriating penchant for getting tangled and, most importantly, they’re fragile, which is not a good for a unit that has to be roadworthy.  ALVA, the company RME has contracted out to build the Babyface’s breakout cables, has not even executed them well in my opinion.  The plastic tied, paper-printed indicators that let you know what cable corresponds to what function look like a DIY project, and the cable itself feels flimsy (though they seem to function without issue).  I’ve no doubt some enterprising folks will create an upgrade similar to the Breakout Box for the Duet, and I will begrudgingly go out and buy it.

Sound Quality

I don’t even know where to start.  So I’m picking the preamps at random.  They’re phenomenal.  My jaw is around here somewhere, though given how hard it hit the floor when I first heard these pres, I’m not sure it’s all in one piece.  Holy frackin’ schneikies!  Rich, subtle, enveloping warmth, beautiful top end air, clear and neutral but hardly cold or analytical sounding, detailed, musical … basically every superlative I can possibly think of.  For integrateds on a buss-powered interface?  You’ve got to be kidding me; it’s not even right how ridiculous these sound.  You’d be entirely justified in paying the $750 for the preamps alone.  For my personal musical palate, they have an absolutely perfect character.  They are immensely versatile, while still boasting the kind of depth and soul I usually associate with boutique standalone pres.  And they’re seemingly telepathic in terms of their response.  Want a fat, present sound?  Push yourself up on the mic and get a little proximity effect, and the Babyface pres will ooze with saturation in kind.  Want more air and delicacy?  Try a couple of small condensors as room mics with mid-gain.  You’ll think you were standing there.  And with 65 db of available gain, I can even push my pickier ribbons with them.  Suddenly, my Blumlein pair just became a viable option for room overheads on the go.  In case you’re wondering, this makes me ever so very happy.

And it only gets better from there.  In case my flowery intro didn’t clue you in to how wonderful the converters are, allow me to expound: these are hands down the best converters I’ve ever heard on a portable interface.  Ever.  They handily best the Duet, and they make the run-of-the-mill converters you’ll find on your average, big name, mid-price interface look a 6th grade science project.  They are as clear, detailed and resolving as their superb tech specs suggest they should be, but that’s only half the story.  Give the Babyface a spin around the block in the real world, and you realize that these are incredibly musical converters as well.  Just for giggles, I A/Bed the analog-to-digital converters against my Grace Design M201’s converter unit – which is something of a benchmark for me – using the M201 pres as the reference point.  Both excelled, but for my tastes the Babyface converters sounded richer and more natural.

As for the digital to analog converters, just re-read the intro if you need any reaffirmation of how heart wrenchingly beautiful they sound.  Even the clock on the Babyface is outstanding.  Just using the optical I/O to set the Babyface as the master clock for a friend’s system that centers around a Motu 828mkII (and I might note that optical is hardly as robust a word-clock signal path as BNC) made for a decidedly marked improvement in imaging and definition.

If I have any complaints at all here, it’s with the headphone amps.  Especially if you’re using both at once, they really don’t sport enough gain for pre-normalized tracks.  In a session I did with Jesse Mills, I was at or near max gain on every track.  The superb DAC still translates to fairly reasonable definition and clarity, but if you’re interested in the Babyface primarily for personal listening, understand that you will definitely want to invest in a quality dedicated amp.  As a point of reference, the integrated HPA on the Mackie Blackjack is considerably better.

Versatility

The flipside of the ease-of-use dilemma is that the Babyface does everything you could possibly want it to do short of making your coffee and washing your Pink Floyd pajama bottoms.  ADAT, S/PDIF and MIDI connectivity are all rarities in a compact interface, and the onboard DSP powered plugins that come bundled with the Total Mix FX software are surprisingly good, especially the reverbs.  And because they’re powered from the unit itself, you can expect next to no latency from them as well.  Yes, the Babyface is very complicated, but once you get used to it, you’ll realize that it’s capabilities rival that of much larger interfaces.  And thoughtful features like the aforementioned configurable cue mixes and recallable settings make the Babyface a very rewarding unit to invest the time into understanding.  The Babyface is equally at home nestling comfortably into a large existing setup, serving as the centerpiece of a growing one, or standing alone as a primary interface.  Its feature set is a genuinely versatile, useful one, that, combined with its superb sound quality, should make the Babyface an attractive unit for a wide range of users.

Value

The only other portable USB interface I can think of in this price range is the Sound Devices USB Pre2, which certainly has the features and pedigree to compete, though I don’t have any real experience with it beyond a few third party samples and word-of-mouth.  The Babyface is not a budget unit by any stretch of the imagination.  So it’s really a question of what you’re looking for.  You want the best possible sound quality you can get for $750?  As far as the gear I’ve heard, this is undoubtedly it.  But for that price you could get a full-rack interface, with 8 pres instead of two, many more inputs, bundled DAW software, etc.  If you need all of that, there are several excellent options in this price range.  But I can pretty much guarantee that none will sound anywhere near as good the Babyface.  I’d pay full freight for just the DAC.  Or just the preamps.  Hell, maybe even just the ADC and clock.  This is not quality you ever used to be able to get for under a grand.  The Apogee Duet is definitely the closest thing I can think of that I have any kind of real experience with, and this outclasses it in nearly every conceivable regard.

The Final Verdict

The Babyface is a knockout.  I was literally dancing around like a little kid when I first heard what this baby can do.  Sure, it’s pricey.  You could buy a legit full-rack primary interface for what this costs, and a good one at that.  Yea, it’s a royal pain in the padded petunias to get used to the maddeningly complex user interface.  If this is your first time around the block, get your feet wet with something like the Mackie Blackjack (which is a real standout for its sticker – you can check out my review of it here).  But the Babyface is in a class all of its own.  Every facet of its design – from the clock to the preamps to the converters – is stunning.  A number of my friends on Head-Fi have been asking me if I think this is a worthy PC counterpart to the Apogee Duet (whose converters have been, up to this point, the de-facto standard for the price point).  The answer is easily, and then some.  This is a straight up Duet killer.  Yes, it’s more expensive by a fair clip, but it does more, the converters are yet better, and the preamps are a lot better.  If I were Apogee, I’d be awful nervous right now.

About the Recordings: There are a number of competing schools of thought when it comes down to how to design the perfect preamp or microphone shootout. Converters, EQs, compressors and other pieces of outboard gear are fairly straightforward because you can simply run the same sample through each piece of gear you’re testing, but mic preamps, interfaces and microphones are a little more problematic. Ideally you want all your competitors recording the exact same source using the exact same ancillary equipment simultaneously, but that’s usually impossible. I’ve seen some shootouts simply mic their monitors playing back the same clip, and while that certainly helps to eliminate performance variables, I don’t think it really gives you a true and accurate sense of what a microphone or pre actually does on a given source. So I’ve opted to simply record the same short clip for each given sample, using the exact same settings and gain for guitar, and doing my utmost to maintain a consistent performance on vocals. There are definitely some slight variations, but most everything that can really affect the sonic signature – gain, tone, EQ, etc – was kept consistent.

Clean Guitar: This was recorded using an Epiphone Supernova played via a Marshall MG15CDR studio amp and recorded with an Avenson STO-2 microphone (an extremely neutral small-capsule omnidirectional pressure-transducer microphone that’s ideal for comparison testing because of how little it colors the sound on its own). All reverb and other effects were disabled, all tone controls were set at neutral, gain was attenuated at 75%, and Mogami Gold TS and XLR cable was used for all interconnects.

Overdrive Guitar: Same as above, except gain and volume were both set at 50% for the MG15CDR’s overdrive mode.

Male Vocals/Spoken Word: Using the same microphone and XLR cable as the guitar recordings, I sang a clip from the as-yet-unreleased song The Enlightened Paige, a piece I wrote for Wire Spoke Wheels’ upcoming debut release: After The World Ends, and spoke a short introduction to the Babyface test.

VIDEO: Pioneer DDJ-T1 | DJ Ayres at Public Assembly in Brooklyn

We gave DJ Ayres a the new Pioneer DDJ-T1 4-Deck Traktor Controller for a test drive. He is an experienced Traktor Scratch Pro DJ, and normally uses turntables with a Pioneer Mixer, so he was interested in checking out Pioneer’s new all in one solution. Instead of coming up with a crazy scratch routine we had him develop a condensed set with the Pioneer DDJ-T1. Most DJs are not doing full sets filled with scratching and crazy effects, instead its about developing a mix. DJ Ayres has been one of the top Djs in the city and is used to playing big parties for large crowds, and his known for his eclectic taste in music which he displays here.

The Pioneer DDJT1 features four decks for control. The extra decks give you the room to add additional tracks to develop the textures of your mix. DJ Ayres uses the extra decks on the DDJ-T1 to add extra drum grooves and effects to his mix.

The great thing about the DDJ-T1 is that it gives you the functionality of a basic CDJ/DJM set-up ready to go out of the box that works with Traktor which is becoming the standard DJ software. It really is plug and play and your ready to go. While nothing will ever get DJ Ayres to trade in his vinyl, he said it would be great for smaller parties, going on the road, and is the best option when bringing the full turntable and vinyl setup is not an option.

Check out the Pioneer DDJ-T1 at proaudiostar:
Pioneer DDJ-T1

Check out the Bottom Line in a BK Minute for the Pioneer DDJ-T1:
Pioneer DDJ-T1: Bottom Line in a BK Minute Video

Check out a comparison between the Pioneer DDJ-T1 and the DDJ-S1:
DDJ-T1 vs DDJ-S1 Side by Side Comparison Video

DJ Ayres:
Official Website of DJ Ayres

Public Assembly:
Public Assembly Website

What's Serato to do about ASIO (or CoreAudio) mixers?

With the announcement of Pioneer’s DJM-900 Nexus we see the standard pro mixer for club and touring DJ’s step fully into the digital world.  Four inputs and outputs hook up to your laptop via USB and let you use your DJ software without need for an additional audio interface.  Direct Traktor support makes this particularly amazing for Traktor users making it fully plug and play.  Even Virtual DJ and Torque users will be happy they’re able to assign their outputs to the four channels of the DJM-900 and map MIDI from the mixer back to their controls, not to mention the inputs avail for control vinyl and CD’s.  And for Ableton users this mixer can now add all the benefits of a four channel DJ mixer to a Live set.

But the elephant in the room here without question is Serato Scratch Live.  From the start Serato has offered their software for free download, only allowing it to open in multichannel mode with the proper hardware attached.  This was particularly convenient for the working DJ who has Serato hardware available at the gig but doesn’t necessarily need it at home.  I personally started as a casual Serato user, continuing to tote vinyl to my gigs alongside my laptop when playing with friends or at the venues that had a Serato interface before getting my own.  Serato entered the controller market with an adapted version of their Scratch software called ITCH, also free to download but again only fully functioning with one of their approved control interfaces attached.  While hardware restrictive, Serato’s software remains extremely plug and play and easy to use for those that don’t want to deal with routing and mapping under the hood of their DJ software.

But Traktor users, perhaps more adept at customizing their software setup, have found ways to take advantage of ITCH specific hardware, and now Rane, Seratos long time partner and makers of mixers/interfaces like the TTM-57 and Rane 68, are opening their hardware to work with ASIO and CoreAudio meaning these mixers can now double as soundcards for Traktor and other sofware.  So what is Serato to do?  The appeal of being able to work with any interface, including this now updated version of Pioneer’s pro standard, may make it well worth learning the ins and outs of Traktor or other software alternative.  Will Serato users jump ship given their software is not as flexible?  Can you sell a new version of software that’s already free without confusing users or seeming redundant to people who already own Serato hardware?  The solution, If I may be so bold, may be for Serato to offer a dongle that when plugged in would allow their software to function with any sound card.

Audio professionals have long used dongles, special USB keys that hold licenses, to authorize their production software and effects plugins on whatever computer they happen to be working on weather it be at home or at the studio.  If clubs start to adopt the DJM-900 or similar mixer that also functions as a soundcard (the Xone DB4 comes to mind), why be restricted to having to run everything through your SL box, or worse yet, have to set up your VCI-300 or Xone:DX in the same booth where there may not be room?

The use of a dongle has already seen some discussion in the Serato forums and the point is made that it’s already a pain for CDJ-2000 users to have to hook up a Serato box just so that the software opens fully (all the audio routing and control takes place within the CDJ-2000). Bundling a dongle with Serato hardware or requiring some sort of online authorization in addition to the dongle seem like reasonable ways to prevent piracy, but how do you keep a dongle from taking up your extra USB port? You’d probably be better off keeping your soundcard on it’s own dedicated port, but make the Serato dongle a high speed USB hub and now you’ve got available ports for your USB midi controllers:

Serato’s policy of free for download Software with hardware functionality has done well to get users hooked on their platform, and a great platform it is with samples, effects, and expandable video functionality. But Serato risks falling behind the curve with new DJ mixers that will act as audio interfaces, allowing novices and pros alike to fully customize their setup with their own mixer and sound card. There’s always the possibility Serato will get in bed with Pioneer on the new DJM-900 and eventually allow it to open Scratch Live or ITCH, but I think Serato has to do one better if they’re going to keep up with a mixer and controller product market that will inevitably grow beyond their reach.

Home Lab Life Ep. 5: Nick Chacona

After visiting DJ Ayres home studio he wanted us to meet Nick Chacona, the guy who mixes all his releases for T&A records.  Upon getting to Nick’s apartment we found a home studio well worthy of it’s own episode in our Home Lab Life series.  Nick started as a DJ and now produces deep house grooves solo and along side Anthony Mansfield for collaborations on their label Hector Works.  When not working on his own tunes Nick does post production for a variety of different producers and labels.

Nick’s studio is a balance of compact digital tools with just enough analog signal path to warm up the mix.  His laptop equipped with a UAD Solo card allows him to work on the road when traveling.  He tracks through an old Motu 896 with Black Lion Audio modifications that improve it’s sound quality ten fold.  Vintage console channel strips rehoused for the rack come in handy when he’s tracking new parts on his own songs, or for routing prerecorded tracks through when mixing for clients.  He monitors through a Benchmark DAC1 interface which also comes in handy for bouncing full mixes back through his rack gear.  Nick learned to mix on NS-10 monitors and keeps them handy for reference but finds his Dynaudio BM5A’s fatigue his ears less on long mix sessions.

Get the full scoop by watching the video above.  You can see Nick DJing in NY and abroad, and follow his releases for his own and other dance music labels on his website.  Thanks again to Nick (and Ayres who popped in for a cameo) and stay tuned for more Home Lab Life profiles here on our blog!

Home Lab Life Ep. 4: DJ Ayres

In this episode of Home Lab Life we check in with DJ Ayres, one of NYC’s top DJ’s to see what his set up is like at home. He keeps things simple with an Axiom keyboard and Event monitors when working on remixes and original tracks in Ableton. Ayres also admitted to us he often ends up on the couch with his laptop working on tunes in his Sennheiser HD headphones. Ayres started producing his own mashups to play in his sets and segued into producing full out remixes and tracks that reflect the electronic side of his repertoire. He made the switch to Traktor as his primary DJ software a few years ago and hasn’t looked back, finding it the perfect fit at both his hip hop party The Rub and his rave night Flashing Lights.

Ayres linked up with DC based DJ and producer Tittsworth back when the Baltimore club remix style was blowing up. Their T&A breaks records were a hit with DJ’s and they would eventually start releasing dance floor smashers under their own label also called T&A. Initially featuring Baltimore style remixes, T&A has grown to include a roster of artists who are break through the barriers electronic music often enforces. Their latest signee, Munche, has a mind bending EP of slowed down heavy dance music (a genre called Moombahton) out now and more genre defying material and collaborations on the way. Check out the video above to get a sneak peak of some of this fresh material coming to T&A as well as an in depth look at Ayres own remix and DJ style.

In Dev Review: Zoom H4N Handy Recorder

The Zoom H4n

About six months ago, my brother (a jazz pianist) asked me to record one of his sessions at Michiko to use as audition tapes for competitions and Grammy band.  He wanted to keep things organic, so I’d opted for a simple setup: a pair of Neumann KM-184s as ORTF overheads run into my Apogee Duet.  You would be amazed how professional a sound you can get with a quality portable interface – ideally something like the Mackie Onyx Blackjack or the Apogee Duet that sports very high quality converters and pres – and a matched pair of the right microphones.  As I was setting up, however, I noticed some very strange meter readings on the first channel for the Duet.  The input level was impossibly low and bizarre, random peaks kept popping up.  When I listened to the input monitor, my heart sunk.  The first channel was nothing but noise.  I tried restarting my system, cleaning the connections, even switching out the XLR cable, all to no avail.  The first channel on my Duet was dead.

As luck would have it, however, my brother had recently purchased an H4n to record some practice sessions and live shows.  To date, he had only taken advantage of its built-in small condensor mics, which, while very serviceable as far as onboard handheld recorder mics go, are most certainly not up to the task of a semi-professional recording.  However, the H4n also features a pair of external mic pres, replete with 48v phantom power.  I was dubious as to whether these would hold up well enough to power sensitive, highly detailed mics like the KM-184s, but with my Duet in the throes of a conniption fit, what choice did I have?  Well, to make a long story short(er), several of the recordings we did that day were of high enough quality that my brother included them in his debut professional release (a clip of which you can hear in the UAD-2 review sound samples).  Would it have sounded better with the Duet alive and well?  Probably.  Was I able to record something eminently usable with a battery powered box little larger than the palm of my hand?  You betcha.  Which makes the H4n a seriously useful piece of equipment, even if you don’t have to triage.

Versatility/Feature Set

The Zoom H4n is the swiss army knife of portable recorders.  The sheer amount of stuff it can do is staggering.  For starters, like most handheld recorders, it has a pair of reasonably high quality small condensor mics built in to the unit itself.  Unlike most recorders, however, these are mounted in an X/Y configuration (as opposed to the standard A/B), and can be rotated on axis to a 120 degree inclination to more closely emulate an ORTF configuration as well.  Both provide reasonably decent stereo imaging without inducing the kind of phase problems that an A/B cardiod pair often can.  The ORTF configuration can give you a fairly wide pickup angle as well.

Many a recorder would begin and end there, but for the H4n, that’s the tip of the iceberg.  Next up, the H4n also features two XLR combo jack inputs, sporting 48v phantom powered mic pres and Hi-Z DI functionality.  These can be used either in conjunction with or separately from the onboard mics, though if you use all four simultaneously, you’ll be capped at a 16/44.1 sample rate.  Using either the onboard mics or the external mics via the pres exclusively, however, the H4n is capable of up to 24/96.  The H4n also has three different limiter and compressor models that can be applied to the input source, about 50 or so effects, reverbs and amp models, and even a rudimentary onboard multitrack feature to allow you to track overdubs and to create up to four channel mixes with adjustable volume and pan information.  There’s even a mid-side decoder matrix!  I could probably fill this entire review with a laundry list of the H4n’s features.  To be honest, it’s maybe a tad overkill, but I’m not complaining.

Alas, all this goodness can drain your battery life pretty quickly; expect about 5-6 hours using the outboard pres and high sample rates.  However, if you only need to use the core functionality, an “economy” mode can extend the battery life to closer to twelve hours using only the onboard mics at 16/44.1 sample rates.  The H4n uses SD cards for storage, and comes with a 1gb card standard.  If you’re intending to take advantage of the higher sample rates, however you’ll definitely want to invest in a larger one.  An 8gb card should give you about 6 hours at 24/96.

Sound Quality

It’s worth noting up front that, for whatever reason, the H4n’s sound quality plummets when running off of AC power.  The pres, converters, even the DI all sound better when running off of battery power.  Bring some extra batteries if you need to, but basically forget that there’s even a power adapter to speak of.  I’ve also not had particularly good success running the H4n as an interface (which you technically can do).  So bear in mind that the caveat for all these notes is that you run the unit standalone, and off battery power.

The onboard mics are decent.  They’re clean and detailed enough for reference or maybe even a rough demo or practice tapes, but not really appropriate for any kind of serious recording.  You can use them in conjunction with a pair of external mics for added versatility, but given that you’re capped at 16/44.1 when you use four mics simultaneously, their value even as a supplement during any serious recording is questionable.  That said, they are very useful for jotting down rough ideas, recording a practice, even putting together a basic demo.  Compared to some of the onboard mics I’ve heard on other hand-held recorders, they’re definitely a cut above.  With the right placement and configuration, they’ll produce perfectly listenable takes.

The mic pres, however, are much more impressive.  No, they’re not really up to the same standard as a premium interface pre, like the Focusrite Saffire or the Mackie Onyx, but they’re relatively clean and neutral, and they have a respectable amount of headroom to work with.  They’re not the most detailed pres you’ll ever hear, but they don’t offend in any way, which is a feat unto itself given the size and cost of this recorder.  They do their job competently, which is all they have to do.  If you can’t get a good recording using these pres, the problem is probably elsewhere.

It’s hard to separate converter performance from mic pre performance on an all-in-one-box like this, but I’ve certainly not had any major problems to speak of.  As with the pres, the noise floor is acceptably low, and you won’t notice any major artifacts or intrusive distortion.  The digital to analog conversion and built in HPA are surprisingly clear and detailed.  Given that any situation that might call for the H4n’s use is probably not going to afford you a quiet booth to monitor levels in, this is actually quite valuable.  Paired with a decent set of noise-isolating IEMs, you can actually get a fairly accurate sense of the mix, even while standing in the middle of a live take, which makes tweaking microphone placement and preamp gain exponentially easier.

The combo jack inputs will also accept an instrument level signal, although, for whatever reason, true line level is a no-go (which I hope I’ve spared you from learning the hard way as I did trying to record the master line-outs from a live-sound mixer.  Not pretty).  And as DI’s go, these are not the strongest either.  My one experiment with a buddy’s Gibson SG-Z was mercifully brief.  The compressors and limiters are competent, but most of the amp models and effects are pretty amateurish.  You’re probably better off using your own plugins and processing in post if you have a decent DAW to import your recordings into.

Ease of Use

This is a bit of mixed bag.  The basic recording functions are pretty straightforward, especially if you’re just using the onboard mics.  It can take a minute for the unit to load up, especially if you have a larger SD card, but from there you can start recording with a single button press for quickly jotting down new ideas.  Of course, the H4n does a whole heck of a lot more than just basic sketch recording.  Some of the more advanced functionality can take a little bit of trawling and guess work to pin down.  However, once you familiarize yourself with the gestalt of the menus, switching modes, activating features, and even applying the DI models, limiters or compressors becomes pretty straightforward.  The one major exception is the multitrack mode.  To this day, for the life of me, I can’t figure out how to navigate it properly (although to be fair I haven’t really had much of a need for it as yet).

Value

The H4n is definitely on the expensive side for its class, but I really can’t think of another handheld recorder that does even a fraction of what the H4n does.  Two phantom powered pres, DI functionality (for what it’s worth), better quality onboard mics than most with more positioning flexibility and 24/96 capable converters (which are probably overkill given the quality of the pres and conversion itself, but still nice to have), is a lot of bang for your buck.  The sheer amount of stuff you can do with a Zoom H4n can be overwhelming at times, and I mean that in the most complimentary sense possible.  The H4n and a pair of decent small condensors are pretty much all you need to record a high quality demo.  People to play help too.

The Final Verdict

The H4n says in bold, italic script right on the front panel “handy recorder,” and I couldn’t agree more.  This is an incredibly valuable tool to have in a multitude of situations, and I make sure there’s one in my bag on pretty much every occasion.  You’d be amazed just how often you’ll find yourself with a need it can fill, and the sound quality is good enough to leave you with genuinely usable material for a wide range of purposes.  If you just want something slim and inconspicuous to throw in your bag as a sketching tool, this is probably not your best choice, but if you’ve been searching for the great pro-audio hobo-tool, you’ve found it.

In Dev Review: Zoom H4N Handy Recorder

About the Recordings: There are a number of competing schools of thought when it comes down to how to design the perfect preamp or microphone shootout. Converters, EQs, compressors and other pieces of outboard gear are fairly straightforward because you can simply run the same sample through each piece of gear you’re testing, but mic preamps, interfaces and microphones are a little more problematic. Ideally you want all your competitors recording the exact same source using the exact same ancillary equipment simultaneously, but that’s usually impossible. I’ve seen some shootouts simply mic their monitors playing back the same clip, and while that certainly helps to eliminate performance variables, I don’t think it really gives you a true and accurate sense of what a microphone or pre actually does on a given source. So I’ve opted to simply record the same short clip for each given sample, using the exact same settings and gain for guitar, and doing my utmost to maintain a consistent performance on vocals. There are definitely some slight variations, but most everything that can really affect the sonic signature – gain, tone, EQ, etc – was kept consistent.

All recordings done with the H4n’s onboard microphones were set at a gain of 40 (50%), and recorded in basic stereo pickup mode.  For the preamps:

Clean Guitar: This was recorded using an Epiphone Supernova played via a Marshall MG15CDR studio amp and recorded with an Avenson STO-2 microphone (an extremely neutral small-capsule omnidirectional pressure-transducer microphone that’s ideal for comparison testing because of how little it colors the sound on its own). All reverb and other effects were disabled, all tone controls were set at neutral, gain was attenuated at 75%, and Mogami Gold TS and XLR cable was used for all interconnects.

Overdrive Guitar: Same as above, except gain and volume were both set at 50% for the MG15CDR’s overdrive mode.

Male Vocals and Spoken Word: Using the same microphone and XLR cable as the guitar recordings, I sang a clip from the as-yet-unreleased song The Enlightened Paige, a piece I wrote for Wire Spoke Wheels’ upcoming debut release: After The World Ends, and spoke a short introduction to the unit.

Dev is a professional jazz-fusion composer, singer, sound engineer and front man for the band Wire Spoke Wheels, living and operating in beautiful Bushwick, Brooklyn. He’s also co-founder and co-chairman of Frost Audio, a small Michigan based audio company specializing in high performance cables and loudspeakers, all hand-made in the USA. He’ll be releasing his next studio album, Tears of Men, in early 2011. To learn more or hear his work, check out www.devavidon.com

Death By Audio Pedals now at ProAudioStar!

We’re excited to announce the latest addition to our boutique pedal department with local Brooklyn manufacturer Death By Audio.  These pedals have earned a cult following in the Brooklyn music scene for crushing distortion, fuzz, and octave effects you can’t get anywhere else.  Their custom screen printed casing and chunky vintage knobs also make them attractive in the setup, and are perfect for getting hands on with screaming washes of noise.

Death By Audio pedals are designed by Oliver Ackermann, who started making his own pedals to use in with his experimental rock band A Place To Bury Strangers.  Oliver is also co-founder of the DIY rock venue bearing the same name.  Death By Audio‘s converted warehouse space hosts live music almost every night of the week and is well known as a hotspot for up and coming bands in the Williamsburg area.  Deeply connected to the experimental rock scene, Oliver is in a unique position to design pedals that perform the extreme effects noise rock musicians are looking for.   Oliver has turned the manufacturing side of Death By Audio into a full line of pedals and also offers custom builds for musicians looking for their own custom sound and layout.

These pedals are the perfect addition for anyone looking for a unique distortions on guitar or bass, or complete sonic assault by patching in synths or vocal material.  We’re psyched to take these Brooklyn gems worldwide.  Check out our Death By Audio photoset on Flickr, read the descriptions on each product page linked below to learn more about what each pedal does, and stay tune for more content featuring these pedals here on our blog!


www.flickr.com

proaudiostar's Death By Audio photoset proaudiostar’s Death By Audio photoset

Mobile Sound in Puerto Rico

In Puerto Rico they do mobile live sound a little different.  Like the flat bed of a daully different!  We currently service three different mobile sound companies that are literally on wheels.  The speakers are often custom builds but they power everything with Crown XTI amplifiers which are absolute workhorses.  Many of these rigs are on hydraulic lifts that send them high above the parade, block party, or political rally they’re commissioned for.  Thanks to our customers in PR for sending in these photos of their systems.  Totally boss!