Review: Roland AIRA MX-1 Mix Performer

Review of Roland's AIRA MX-1 Mix Performer mixer/controller
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
0
Review of Roland's AIRA MX-1 Mix Performer mixer/controller
Image placeholder title

One of the biggest surprises at this year’s Namm show was Roland’s announcement of the MX-1 Mix Performer. I’ve been a diehard AIRA fan since the introduction, having used the System-1 on numerous tracks and performed live with the TR-8. But despite my adoration for the AIRA line, I’ve encountered a few snags when trying to incorporate multiple units. For example, all of the AIRAs operate at 96/24, which forces my DAW to work harder. What’s more, their signals cannot be merged digitally. So, more often than not, I’ve relied on their analog outputs when recording.

But when I got the full tour of the MX-1, I nearly soiled myself. In addition to being able to merge, mix, and sync up to four AIRA products simultaneously, the MX-1 can handle analog and digital audio inputs and serve as a full-featured audio interface for both studio and live rigs: And that barely scratches the surface of what this mixer can do.

In fact, calling it a mixer is a major disservice. The MX-1 isn’t just a game changer, it’s an entirely new product type that will undoubtedly have the competition figuring out how to get into this game.

Mixer Features

Fig. 1: With its wealth of analog and digital I/O, the AIRA MX-1 keeps you wellconnected onstage or in the studio. As a mixer, the MX-1 is perfectly suited to be the nerve center for small-to-medium sized home studios. The rear panel provides four 1/4" analog inputs, a stereo 3.5mm input for portable devices, a coaxial S/PDIF digital input, four AIRAcompatible USB ports, as well as MIDI I/O and a separate USB jack that connects to your computer. There’s even a set of stereo aux sends and returns for adding outboard effects (see Figure 1).

Image placeholder title

While the MX-1 doesn’t offer traditional three-band EQ, it delivers something that for many could be far more useful: selectable filters and tone controls for each channel. The filters work in a manner that’s similar to a Pioneer mixer. Turning the knob to the left engages a lowpass filter; to the right, highpass. The two Tone modes work like old-school shelving EQs, but if you need more specific control, there are dedicated bass and treble modes, as well as two isolator options that function like extremely narrow bandpass filters. All of the modes are selectable on a per-channel basis, so your TR-8 and TB-3 can have classic Pioneer filters, while your synths have standard shelving controls.

Using a combination of dedicated switches, these knobs can also be changed to adjust gain, pan, and aux sends, customize the Beat FX or even assign one of six different response curves to each of the faders. As a bonus, you can also cue up mixer channels DJ-style in your headphones via a simple combination of output knob and track-select buttons.

[BREAK]

Beat FX

The MX-1’s Beat FX are where Roland’s AIRA approach to production kicks in. Each channel can have its own step-sequenced effect, based on filtering, slicing, or sidechaining. Users of the TR-8’s external input have already had a taste of this type of processing, thanks to its collection of sidechaining and gating tools, but the MX-1 takes this concept much further.

Sidechain mode ducks the signal on selected pattern steps, allowing you to add specialized pumping to a given channel, while the slicer mode gates the signal according to your programmed pattern, allowing for intricate chopping effects. The filter mode is where things get really interesting, offering the ability to create 16-step wah-wah and swoop patterns, as each filter step also includes its own envelope. All of these effect types offer five different variations, which can be selected on a per-channel basis for further customization.

Using the Beat FX live is an incredibly powerful experience, since each channel can have its own pattern and effect type, which can be edited on-the-fly as you mix and play. What’s more, each mixer channel has a dedicated switch for toggling the effect, so you can apply the Beat FX to individual instruments as you perform. As I worked with the MX-1 for the first week or two, I was blown away by the complexity of the results. If you were to attempt these tricks with DAW automation or a modular rig with multiple step-sequencers, you could certainly pull it off, but it would take hours, maybe days, to get the results that the MX-1 delivers immediately.

Master FX

The Master FX section, while global, can be toggled on and off for individual channels, sort of like a Send bus. The six master effects are delay, flanger, filter, stutter, roll, and bit-crush. Each type has eight variations, some of which are quite dramatic, so it’s worth going over them in a bit more detail.

The delay offers tempo-sync and selectable note-values, while the flanger provides tempo-sync with sweeps as long as eight measures. Lurking within the flanger modes are some lovely phaser and high-feedback options that could definitely wreak havoc with your ears (and tweeters) if you’re not extremely careful.

The bit-crusher includes down-sampling along with granular resonator effects that are so unique I’ve included several in my audio examples for this review. The filter options are similar to the individual tone controls, but here they can be applied to the entire mix, which is great for French house transitions. There’s also a noise sweep effect included in the filter, which makes sense in the context of a club performance.

The roll effect offers the expected beat repeating functions, along with some pitch-shifted modes that re-create classic tape-stop effects. Finally, there’s the AIRA stutter which has finally hit its stride in the MX-1, featuring complex algorithms that can do highly musical tricks reminiscent of BT’s more complex endeavors.

Once an effect is selected, it can be performed in real time via a large central knob that delivers different results when turned left or right. Again, there’s a definite sense of déjà vu if you’ve ever used a Pioneer mixer, but to be candid, Roland’s approach to these effects blows away every DJ mixer I’ve ever used. No contest.

Which brings us to the Master FX step sequencer. When switched to Combi mode, the Master FX allows you to assign a different effect to each step in a sequence, allowing for absolutely insane results. For example, you can have a flanger on the first four steps, then a filter on the off beats, followed by some bit-crushing on the final sixteenth notes as a turnaround fill. Using the Master FX knob, you can vary the intensity and flavor of these effects in real time and toggle the processors on/off using a dedicated button on each channel. In 30 years of sound design, I’ve never heard anything like this. Granted, it will take some serious woodshedding to really get the hang of these tools, but it’s well worth the effort. And make no mistake, I am 100 percent certain that this aspect of the MX-1 will quickly dominate the dance music world within the year.

That said, these tools aren’t strictly for EDM; soundtrack work, experimental electronica—heck, you could even run a guitarist into it in a live setting for truly otherworldly results. Working with the MX-1’s Combi mode will likely be a paradigm shift for producers of all types.

Mastering

To give the final product a professional sheen, the MX-1’s main stereo output has a mastering chain that includes compression and a touch of EQ. All you have to do is toggle on the Mastering button and select from one of ten preset options and all of them sound fantastic. Each has a distinct flavor, so I’m a wee bit disappointed that the manual doesn’t include a simple table with descriptions. Of course, you can just use your ears to figure out what sounds best for your tracks. Bottom line, this feature works wonders to make your AIRA performances sound truly pro in a club context. All too often, DJs and electronic performers can sound a little “off” when mixing live instruments with recorded tracks, and the mastering options here really help narrow the quality gap in that context.

[BREAK]

DAW Integration

If all of these radical innovations don’t already have you reaching for your credit card, the MX-1 includes a few other niceties that make it irresistible for studio work and performing with Ableton Live. In a separate addendum to the manual, there’s a step-by-step guide for routing up to 18 channels of audio from Live (or any other DAW) into the MX-1 so you can use its processing tools to add impact to your productions.

With a little forethought (to avoid feedback loops), you can also route the results back into your DAW and record it on a separate track, which is how I created the audio examples for this review. In addition, the MX-1 can double as a MIDI control surface for compatible gear, so that’s covered too. With so many applications for a single piece of hardware, Roland wisely included the ability to save your effects and mix configurations in its bank of 64 scenes.

Conclusions

Having spent more than a month with the MX-1, I am completely hooked. As an AIRA user, it enables me to bring more than just my TR-8 to gigs, which is huge from a performance standpoint. As a producer, the sequenced effects allow me to quickly whip up sounds and grooves that would take an eternity to automate, much less conceive. As a gear junkie, I now have a second dedicated studio mixer to handle my collection of synths and groove boxes, all with seamless integration into my DAW.

As I became more familiar with all of the MX-1’s features, I felt the same goosebumps that I had when I first started using Ableton Live more than a decade ago. Calling the AIRA MX-1 a “game changer” underestimates its potential. Game starter is more like it. This is an entirely new category of product. And for those musicians who think they’ve seen it all, brace yourself, because the MX-1 is about to revolutionize the very definition of what a mixer can be.

Snap Judgment

PROS 18 inputs cover a wide variety of source types, including analog, digital, and AIRA. Integrated sequenced Beat FX (discrete, per channel). Channel tone knobs can serve as either filters or EQs. Master FX provides the ability to insert a different effect on each of the 16 sequence steps. Can double as control surface or external mixer for DAW outputs. Enables sample-rate conversion and sync for AIRA gear.

CONS Fader throw is a tad short for some mixing approaches.

Bottom Line

Redefines the word “mixer.”

$599
rolandus.com