Battle Xone


 

 

The Xone range of club mixers from Allen & Heath is a remarkable success story - and there's more to come.

By Mike Mann

Andy Rigby-Jones and his babies

The guys at Allen & Heath pride themselves on being something of a bunch of mavericks. Their British-built live sound mixing consoles have won friends around the globe over the last two decades, and it was in the mainstream touring and installed PA market that everybody had them safely pigeonholed. Then in 1999, they brought out Xone, a range of dedicated club mixers that have given the Allen & Heath brand instant caché on the club circuit. Xone – based on high component quality and the kind of reliability demanded by busy commercial clubs and DJs – is the fastest growing line in Allen & Heath’s history. And they’re planning to augment it with a new piece specifically for clubs, the already buzz-heavy Xone:V6, still in the prototype phase.
One man in particular has been most instrumental in the line’s success, yet he is about as far removed from the hedonistic club guru image as one can get. The very normal Andy Rigby-Jones, creator of the Xone series, took time out from his latest design project to talk exclusively to Club Systems.

Allen & Heath has a long history in the studio and live markets – so how did you end up designing mixers for the club scene?

To be honest, it was personal: I’ve worked part-time as a DJ since 1980, and I knew that there was a gap in the market for a good quality mixer that had the right features for DJs. There are a lot of products out there that just don’t stand up to regular use, and that sound appalling. Initially, I persuaded the company to let me have some time to design an experimental variation on our MixWizard mixer, which we took to the Frankfurt Musikmesse in 1999. The reaction we got from that show led to the Xone:464, and we refined the idea to produce the Xone:62, which has been our most successful DJ product to date. Other mainstream mixer manufacturers had tried the same thing, but they had looked at it from a sound engineer’s point of view, and didn’t really understand how DJs work. It wasn’t all easy, though – some of our traditional distributors and dealers were very shocked. They couldn’t see why we had done it, or how they were going to sell to a completely different customer base. When they saw the reaction of the users, though, they got the message.

Xone mixers are among the most expensive club products on the market. How do you justify their cost?

They’re not intended for high school discos – these are hard-working mixers that have to perform every night to a very high standard. The component quality is as high as our most expensive touring live consoles, and as a company we know how to design a professional product that will last. That’s one of the reasons that so many major DJs have bought them for their own use – they know that they won’t let them down. Compared to many cheaper products, mixers might seem over-simple, but a good DJ doesn’t need the effects, the BPM counters, and so on. Instead, we concentrate on features that are sonically useful, like good quality filters.

You say that the mixers are not intended for wedding. So where do they end up?

Geographically, our home market in the UK was the first to take up the range. Fabric, for example, liked what the saw, and now they own every model in the range!
Now it seems that the word is steadily spreading across the developed world. Some of the club installations I’ve heard about recently have been in Taiwan, Australia, Japan, Germany, Mexico, and Israel. There are some really switched-on people in the US who got behind Xone from day one and we’re growing in strength there, especially now that we have the Xone:02 scratch mixer. It’s not just club installers who buy them; quite a few top DJs have made them their mixer of choice. In fact, we get a credit on Andy C’s album cover, and people like Richie Hawtin, he uses a Xone. These sort of people help us a lot: Not only do they raise our profile because of the huge amount of respect that they have as professionals, but they are an important part of our market feedback.

The V6 prototype

The most recent addition to the range has really caused a stir. What’s so special about the V6?

It’s something of a statement: “Look what we can do.” I wanted to design something that offered incredibly high audio quality, much higher than anything else on the market. There have been other expensive mixers, but they don’t really have the quality – it’s another case of finding a gap in the market. This project didn’t start out as an exercise in making money, we just wanted to show what could be achieved.

Is there some kind of history behind the new mixer?

Definitely. In the 1960s a guy called Louis Bozac designed some incredibly high quality mixers for the DJs of that era. They were unbelievably expensive, two to three thousand dollars even in those days, but they were the best. In the 1980s Urei produced a version of the old design, but it was designed using op-amps, which didn’t have the characteristics of the old discrete circuits. What we wanted to do was to set a completely new standard, using our own ideas and our knowledge of audio, but capturing the spirit of the old Bozac products.

So what’s in it?

At the moment we’re still working on the fine details, but it’s essentially a very simple six-channel rotary mixer, with valve pre-amps and big knobs! There are all sorts of details like the VU meters, which are a design that dates back to the 1930s. The front panel is machined from a block of quarter-inch thick aluminium, so the :V6 doesn’t just feel solid, it is solid. We’ve kept the circuit paths as pure as we can – we haven’t even included an EQ section. But each channel has an insert point, so DJs can add their own favorite processor if the feel they need to.

Valve pre-amps? Isn’t that kind of thing just for hi-fi audiophiles?

Well, considering the incredible amount of money being spent on club sound systems these days, it seems odd that there isn’t really a mixer that delivers a matching level of sound quality. Valves, in particular, have some wonderful characteristics for live mixing, because of the way that they soft-compress instead of distorting when they’re overloaded. Certain club owners have become wise to the fact that the quality of a sound system really makes a difference to people’s enjoyment of the music. Clubbers aren’t stupid or deaf – and in a big, high-spec club installation, you can hear the difference. It’s places like this where a really high-quality mixer is needed.

And the DJ’s – can they hear the difference too?

Many of the guys out there pride themselves on the quality of the tracks they produce in the studio – the US garage scene in particular has gone way beyond bedroom recording – and they put a lot of effort into music production. For the most part, the only time a DJ hears his or her music outside the studio is in clubs, so they know whether the system is doing justice to their hard work.

The rumor is that you’re using some extremely costly components in the V6. Is this just a bit of marketing hype?

In fact, this project is an enormous amount of work for us. Not only do we have to “go back to college” to re-learn all the traditional ways of designing good audio circuits, but we also have to source some very esoteric components from other manufacturers. Some of these are only made for top-of-the-line hi-fi, and none of them are produced in big quantities. The rotary faders, for example, come from Penny and Giles, and they’re a beautiful example of good engineering. The V6 will cost a lot, simply because it will cost a lot to make.

So far, the prototype has been shown in Miami and Frankfurt. What comments have you had?

It’s been absolutely staggering. As soon as we showed it public, people had taken pictures of it and were posting it on their own websites and forums, and two days after we got back from the shows we were getting calls from people wanting to place orders. Some of the most serious DJs I’ve ever talked to have said that they want to try one as soon as it’s available – and when you hear that from people like Timo Maas and Danny Tenaglia, you know you must be doing something right. We have never had such a reaction to a product that isn’t even finished yet.

So how long do we have to wait for the real thing?

Well, it will take as long as it takes. Even though I can’t wait to see the final version, the V6 won’t be appearing until we’re completely happy that it achieves what we set out to do – to be better than the best. Even then we’ll have a period of beta-testing before it goes into production. If you’re as passionate about what you do as we are, you want it to be exactly right – and it will be.

     
Copyright 2002 Club Systems International Magazine
Copyright 2002 TESTA Communications