Awesome Stuff: One Tiny Crossfader

from the mixed-opinion dept

Smartphones and tablets have had a huge impact on the world of DJing and music production, with pro audio companies racing to provide high-end accessories and software lest the new devices replace their pricey standalone synthesizers, samplers and the like. This has drastically brought down the barrier to entry for would-be DJs, but there’s still a wide gulf between amateurs and pros when it comes to basic gear. For this week’s awesome stuff we look at the Mixfader, a bluetooth-connected crossfader that serves as a stepping stone between those two extremes.

The Good

For the uninitiated: a crossfader is a bidirectional slider that controls the balance between two audio signals, and it’s one of the most critical tools in DJing and lots of electronic music, used for everything from simple fades between songs to the most elaborate acts of turntablism. It’s one of the first things you need if you want to explore that world, and an on-screen simulacrum (even touch controlled) is a poor substitute. But, usually, getting a good crossfader means buying an entire DJ mixer, which is not cheap. So as a standalone unit, the Mixfader is automatically appealing: a relatively affordable way to take a small but significant step from playing tunes towards mixing them, and potentially even a useful addition to the complex audio workflows of pros. The fact that it works by bluetooth makes it somewhat less daunting for the newbie, too — pro DJ gear generally assumes a reasonably solid working knowledge of audio signals and hookups (and can be damaged by mistakes) — and allows it to be treated as much as a fun toy as it is a foray into the world of DJing.

The Bad

Once again, we’re tied down to proprietary apps on iOS and Android. Why? It’s beginning to get infuriating how many otherwise-cool devices are drastically limited by this choice. Firstly, forget everything I said about the Mixfader having appeal to pros as well: though many DJs now work with iOS, none are going to be limiting themselves to a single proprietary app. And if it doesn’t work with your average laptop — a.k.a. what the majority of DJs at all levels use as their central device these days — it’s definitely relegated to the level of “toy”.

This is especially galling for a piece of audio gear. Compatibility and interoperability are extremely important in the world of pro audio, and there’s already a simple and well-established standard for digital devices like this: MIDI. No, MIDI is not just the thing that makes beepy-sounding music — it’s a robust standard for digital instruments that supports a huge amount of detailed information beyond just notes, and it’s been the standard for linking up various digital input devices and sound generators for some 30 years now. Pick up anything from an early-90s BOSS drum machine to a cutting-edge Korg synthesizer and you can plug it right into your MIDI workflow. The standard is pretty much perfect, it’s everywhere, it’s easy to implement, and it works over Bluetooth (or USB, or WiFi, or Thunderbolt, or an old 9-pin serial cable if you like) — so why the hell doesn’t Mixfader use it?

I can’t answer that question. In the Kickstarter comments, they do note that their crossfader has a higher resolution than the MIDI standard for crossfaders — which is nice, but not really that important, as amateurs aren’t going to need that, and pros aren’t going to buy this if it’s entirely proprietary and locked down. Beyond that, they simply say they’ve passed the “request” on to the development team — but i find the fact that MIDI wasn’t the obvious choice from day one (or there’s no upfront explanation of why they didn’t use it) worrisome.

The Impermament

There’s one other thing I worry about with the Mixfader: durability. DJing is notoriously tough on crossfaders, and they are known for wearing out quickly — which is why they are actually removable and replaceable on most DJ mixers (and often the only component that is). Unfortunately, there’s no getting around this. Assuming the Mixfader uses high-quality components, it’ll probably last a very long time with just casual use, but anyone who finds themselves addicted to the act of rapid-back-and-forth-fading might find their new toy breaks pretty quickly.

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