In our previous articles, we covered the history of music recording and reproduction. We looked at how vinyl records have been made throughout time, and dove into the different technologies used for music reproduction, from the very first milestones up to the gear we can enjoy right now.
Today, we are going to complete the DJing trinity by having a look at the quintessential piece of equipment in any DJ setup: the humble mixer.
Basic features of a mixer
Before moving on to the history of DJ mixers over time, let’s understand what they are made of and, more importantly, what they are used for.
What is a DJ Mixer?
A mixer — or mixing console — typically consists of a collection of digital or analog knobs, inputs, and outputs, and is made to be used together with an audio player that can be connected straight to the console.
This audio connection allows any sound produced by the music player to be heard through the mixer’s audio outputs, which are in turn connected to the loudspeakers. This enables the user to control the audio coming from the music player with the mixing console, and blend it with audio coming from other connected sources.
Social groups and the music industry
Users have had a significant effect on the development of the DJ mixer. They invented the need for a DJ mixer, and the manufacturers in turn created the DJ mixer. Its invention was a cooperative effort by multiple social groups.
As we’ll see, the story of the DJ mixer is less about the machine itself, and more of a story about the people who made it and what it has become. This means that various social groups’ interpretations of the role of the DJ mixer in DJ culture have been fundamental in determining the characteristics of mixers over time.
Shaping the mixer’s features to the perspectives of DJs created a convergent building path for their techniques, philosophies, and ways of mixing different styles of music. By developing their craft and accepting or denying certain features, DJs have determined key features of DJ mixers throughout its history.
The early days of the mixer
Rosie Mixer (1971)
It all started with audio engineer Alex Rosner and his three-channel device with sliders and a cueing function called “Rosie”. This primitive device was idealized and developed for DJ Francis Grasso to easily switch from one record to the next during his residency at NYC club Haven.
Working at The Haven, a dance club in NYC’s Greenwich Village, Grasso pioneered beatmatching and slip cueing, two techniques that are now essential to the art of DJing. Inspired by Grasso’s style, Rosner set out to create a headphone cueing system that would allow one record to be played only to the DJ, while the other was simultaneously played to the dance floor speakers. This device allowed the user to crossfade from one sound source to another without using two separate mixers.
Bozak CMA-10–2DL (1971)
Rosner’s fellow engineers were mostly audiophiles, including Louis Bozak of Bozak Inc. Bozak was also working on a mixer for DJs and turned to Rosner for advice, as well as another industry expert, sound engineer Richard Long of the Paradise Garage and Studio 54. Then, in 1971, Rudy Bozak created the first mixer designed for commercial use: the Bozak CMA-10–2DL rotary mixer. This spurred the arising of many DJs, each with their own mixing style.
The emergence of mixer technology
GLI PMX 7000 (1977)
The introduction of faders to the DJ mixer market originally came from the GLI series of consumer mixers. This series offered a much lower price point in comparison to the commercial Bozak club mixer. In fact, the GLI PMX 7000 was known as the ‘poor man’s Bozak’. Up until 1977, the U.S. market hadn’t seen a mixer with horizontal crossfader control — that is until the GLI PMX 7000 was introduced. This mixer replicated the Bozak and gave American DJs a taste of what was to come.
Hip-hop DJs in the 80s were using GLI mixers to create the breaks-centered style of hip-hop DJ mixing, which was inspired by the early experiments by DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash. This type of mixer usually had only two channels and a few basic features. It was focused on durability and space around the crossfader to allow for the chopping, scratching, and cutting that defined hip-hop DJing. The standardization of this layout over the next two decades can be seen as the “battle” where mixers were favored by scratch DJs.
Different techniques were used by the two DJs to create their music. One pioneer would use GLI mixers while the other preferred to rig up his own tools to produce the beats for their hip-hop style of DJ mixing. This approach of rapidly switching back and forth between records demanded a special kind of slider known as a crossfader.
Crossfaders had also been around on radio mixing boards for years, giving DJs the power to switch audio sources using only one hand instead of two. However, in the hands of these musical innovators, the crossfader and the vinyl on the turntable became a dexterous art form on its own.
Rane — MP 24 (1986)
The mixer scene remained fairly stagnant for about a decade, with companies like Pioneer trying to replicate the Bozak without much success. In 1986, Rane introduced the MP 24 club mixer, which featured superior sound quality and state-of-the-art components like studio-grade faders, LED output displays, and assignable crossfaders. This marked a significant departure from the traditional mixer design and set the standard for future models.
The market for mixers has become increasingly divided in recent years, with some companies catering specifically to DJs who scratch (Vestax, Technics, and Rane) while others (such as Pioneer and Numark) focus on mixers for club use.
The release of Pioneer’s DJM series of digital mixers in the mid-90s called the cost-to-capabilities formula was a huge deal. The DJM offered an array of effects processing built into the mixer, including delay, reverb, and flanger, as well as an automated BPM counter that would sync the effects to the beat.
A&H’s Xone 62 (2002)
The first DJ mixers were created inspired by Francis Grasso’s early experiments with musical sequences. In recent years, the idea has been taken to the extreme by the proliferation of DJs involved in the design process, leading manufacturers to add features and develop new products. Most commercially produced music equipment, including A&H DJ mixers, undergo years of development and testing before being released to the public.
Allen & Heath’s David Morbey, senior product manager for the company’s Xone line, once said that “Many of our design teams have DJ experience. Initial concepts are born from an internal idea and then are driven by their input, as well as input from our end users.”
And then, he emphasizes: “We spent a lot of time refining the shape and sound of the equalizer on the Xone:96, mindful that sound systems have evolved dramatically over the last 15 years. We wanted to offer the best sound possible, without losing the character of the :92 that users love, and has become an industry standard.”
A&H’s Xone range is renowned for the Xone 62 mixer, which is still considered one of the best Dj mixers available. The 62 is designed for superior sound quality, with no unnecessary effects, except for their world-famous VCF filters. The main competitor to Allen and Heath was Pioneer, who had been making DJ mixers for years with their popular DJM-500 and DJM-600 mixers. However, clubs quickly began to realize the superior quality of Allen and Heath and they began to take over.
Review of the emergency up to the current mixers
We can see that the functionalities of mixers have been molded to the different social groups that were active in the practice of DJing.
Each mixer has had its subjective development, based on a plurality of ideas and mixing practices by DJs, who, over the years, have refined their mixing techniques and molds to their primary musical styles.
The companies have been molding themselves to the demands of the DJs, and the ones that are still going strong today have embraced well the DJ perspective with technical knowledge in audio engineering.
In the next chapter, we will take a closer look at the technical features that make up a mixer. We’ll also cover one type of mixer that, since its appearance, has won admirers from specific scenarios, be it for its aesthetics, philosophies, or range of operation.
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