MixMeister is a program for disk jockeying, but not as we know it. DJs use devices that play songs, and add a mixer in order to make transitions. No spinning turntable, no sound. Stop the turntable to throw on another record and you’ve got to have something else playing to avoid the dreaded silence.
MixMeister does away with this interface ‘metaphor’, and adopts a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) approach to DJing. Instead of a ‘deck’ playing a track, you lay out tracks in a beat-gridded display (“timeline” in DAWnese) and use traditional multi-track DAW transport controls to navigate, balance and transfer between songs. Each track has a segmented line following it for each of volume, bass, mids and treble – adjusting their respective volumes.
So what MixMeister is in essence is a DAW for DJ sets. And that turns out to be really awesome.
Always Read the Label
MixMeister comes in three flavours: Express, Studio and the full-caffeine Fusion – which is the version we’re looking at today. A breakdown of the differences can be found here. In summary, Fusion is the all-singing all-dancing live-performance and webcasting version that is also compatible with the video module, Studio is full-cream but lacks the live performance features, and Express is the light version lacking all but the basic features of MixMeister.
Are U Being Served?
The community support for MixMeister is excellent. BeatMixing is a large community devoted to MixMeister and its use, with extensive tutorials, an active forum and five 24-hour MixMeister-powered webcasts.
The community built around the product is encouraging and means help will never be far away. It also gives a good feeling as to the longevity and continued development of MixMeister.
From an engineering standpoint, MixMeister is an impressive achievement. The interface is intuitive, easy to use and attractive. The software is rock-solid, packed with features without glomming on the kitchen sink (holy crap glomming is a real word) and the sound quality is truly top notch.
It remembers where it was when it was closed, how you had your menus and tools laid out, it loads what you were last working on, and it does it all seamlessly. The engineering and usability analysis that’s gone into this product is excellent and it pays off by providing an interface second to none.
Those of you who are annoyed by the profusion of low quality software in the DJ industry - complicated or counter-intuitive interfaces, instability, slowness or dropouts - will be more than happy with MixMeister. It stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Serato Scratch Live and Propellerhead Reason for quality design and production values. It’s rather well made, in other words.
When Fusion Ruled the Earth
So now that the meta-information is done with, how does MixMeister work when it comes down to it?
The basic interface is intuitive, and adopts a top-to-bottom work flow. The top-left section is the music library. Top-right is the playlist. In the middle is the nice big timeline (the guts of the program) and down the bottom is the effects rack and Song Slicer. A simple, but extraordinarily powerful layout.
The library is where the process starts – to add more tracks, hit the big plus button and MixMeister analyses BPM and key in the background, adding them as they’re calculated. There’s a nicely labeled “SEARCH LIBRARY” field to search tracks in-line, using the Mac convention of an appearing X to clear the field – a nice touch. Tracks can be previewed here by simply double-clicking. They automatically sync to the set as it’s playing, which is a very cool feature; if the transport is paused, tracks play at their standard BPM. You can seek by adjusting the bar that appears under the previewing track. It’s pretty thin, so it can be a trick to hit it. Missing stops the track, but for a quick preview this isn’t such a big deal.
Once you’ve picked a track, you can drag it across to the playlist in the top right, allowing you to select where in the set it should fall by dropping it where it should go in the set, or you can drag it to the timeline, which appends it to the end of the playlist.
Once a few tracks are in the playlist it’s time to get them arranged. MixMeister defaults to eyeballing the transition and applying an eight beat beatmix. You can swap in other preset transitions in the playlist area by adjusting the appropriate transition drop-down for each track. These can sound anywhere from “alright” to “egads my ears” based on the genre of music. They work acceptably for music that has been designed with DJs in mind – 4/4 club track in other words – but for most other music some human intervention is required. The auto-pilot works in a pinch during a live set if you’ve got to leave the booth in a hurry, but don’t expect it to give you a perfect mixtape.
Luckily, adjusting the sequence is the heart of the program and is actually very intuitive and enjoyable. Tracks have transition markers, an orange line with inward-facing arrows at either end, that dictate where the two tracks lock together. Dragging these along in either track adjusts that track’s lock point, and the two tracks will move along so that they line up appropriately. Thus you can pick and choose where the transition point is in each song.
Tracks are laid out top-to-bottom on the timeline, just as with separate tracks in any DAW. Conveniently, it recycles the top tracks when it runs out at the bottom, so you can scroll left-to-right with no need for a vertical scroll – this works very well for long sets.
MixMeister will automatically lock these transition markers to beat boundaries (you can turn this off with the magnet in the top left if you like) and align the default transition to this marker.
Once you’ve got the transition point about where you’d like it, it’s time to bin the default transition and get into volume markers. Each track has four segmented lines running along it, though if it’s flat at 0dB it’s not drawn: volume (blue), bass (orange), mid (purple) and treble (vomit yellow). To adjust the line you add points to it, either by right clicking where you’d like it and selecting the marker from the context menu or by hitting a key (V, B, M or T). Once the marker is down you can drag it around to reposition it, and the line automatically draws between it and the other points on the segmented line. Right click and select to get rid of a line segment. You can also drag line segments in addition to points, which can be very handy. The height of the line at any given point is the volume for that element.
Using this very intuitive interface you can create basically any transition in a precise and controlled fashion.
Modifications made to tracks can be saved in something called a ‘tweak’. The volume and EQ levels, loops, chunked out sections, transitions – the whole lot can be rolled up and saved for later. Right-clicking on a track and selecting ‘Tweaks’ brings up a context menu with a list of tweaks available for the selected track. You can save, load, delete and rename tweaks from here. This allows you to store multiple ‘canned’ modifications of a track, anything from track-specific transitions to full-blown remixes can be performed with the tweak system, making it a versatile tool.
In addition to the core functionality, the timeline has a few other tricks up its sleeve. At the bottom of the timeline is a slim grey bar with little numeric markers indicating the BPM. These guide the tempo of the set. MixMeister is pretty good at keeping these sane, but can get a bit aggressive with BPM changes once you’re outside about 10BPM difference between tracks. It’s very easy to manually adjust though. Simply click and drag the marker. Left-right motion moves the indicator, and up-down changes the BPM. Right-clicking the bar allows you to add more markers and right-clicking a marker allows you to delete it. The transitions of BPM between these markers work very well and sound natural as can be – twenty BPM transitions are a lot more palatable when they’re executed with perfect timing over 128 bars.
The usual volume monitors, amplifier knob to adjust master volume, master tempo and various feeds are also present and correct.
The top-left of the timeline also has a little magnet widget for toggling locking to beats, and a list that lets you change how many tracks MixMeister uses in its timeline. Two, four, six or eight tracks are available - though the Express version of the software is limited to two, reducing its power considerably. Understandable given its budget price-tag.
To the left of the tracks there are also traditional rotary knobs for volume and equalizer, as well as a looper. Both work as expected, but when preparing mixtapes, using these tends to just create a complete disaster; the volume knobs drop a point on their segmented line every half-point of kill or so, and manually deleting these later if you want to change the transition is a pain. These controls are mostly for live use (covered later!) and can be quickly tucked away with a click should you be using MixMeister to do production and planning instead of performance.
The song slicer is the tool you use when MixMeister’s (very good) BPM and downbeat detection falls over, and is the last remaining piece of the interface – the bottom section. This bottom section has a dual purpose – song slicer and effects rack. Both are capable of operating in parallel, but only one can be displayed at a time.
So, when a song just isn’t lining up, or the BPM seems wrong (a rare event) you can select it in your playlist or on the timeline and the song slicer lights up. If MixMeister picked the tempo, but got the wrong downbeat, you can just drag the whole grid into line with the top bar. You can also add and adjust measure markers with the panel to the left to manually select tempo and alignment, and change tempos mid-song. This is truly invaluable for mixing rock music.
As the beats are adjusted in the song slicer, changes automatically appear on the timeline. MixMeister will move all transitions to fit on the newly corrected grid. This makes adjustments immediately apparent and the playing monitor or live marker picks up changes on the fly.
Echo and Bounce
The other use of the bottom panel is for effects. Simply click the appropriate wave icon in the top-left swap modes. Once you’re in effects mode you need some effects – to get them you can click the (matching) icon in the library panel to swap to the list of effects. Drag and drop into the rack to add an effect. You can add as many effects as you like, there’s no ceiling other than CPU time.
The effects can be bypassed, deleted and adjusted in the standard fashion. You can also open up the effect’s original VST window with a button instead of using the massive-rack-of-labeled-knobs approach.
The effects can be assigned by dragging and dropping onto to either the timeline background, binding to master out, or onto a track, binding to that track only. MIDI-learn is also available, which lets you assign things to your controller of choice for live or studio use. It works well, and lets you get away from the mouse a bit.
Effects can be ‘played’ in a similar fashion to a normal DAW. Changes are persistent, and jumping back in time leaves a ghost track adjusting settings. Adjusting a dial where a ‘take’ is already in control cleans the slate for that particular variable for the rest of the tune leaving your change to fill the gap. It’s often a few takes before something sounds ‘right’, but effects function in the standard fashion and there’s no shortage of available depth.
The included VST effects are very impressive. Two all-in-wonder effects are included, the CamelSpace from Camel Audio and the iZotope OzoneMP, a very slick tube and room emulator which can give a very full sound to a mix. In addition to these two biggies, a majority of the basic effects from NewBlue are included for all your filtering, compressing, panning, delaying and even stereoizing needs.
MixMeister has a full VST subsystem to support all of this, so you can add your own VST effects, extending the already impressive array. The included effects, while not comprehensive, are very high quality and are likely to cover the gamut of needs of all but FX-fiend DJs. They’re an excellent deal sweetener and they cover most conceivable FX needs with plenty of feature headroom to experiment left over.
So in addition to MixMeister’s offline chops, the Fusion version can be used to DJ live. Well, after a fashion.
Comin’ Up From Behind
MixMeister in live mode basically works like the impending doom in a sci-fi thriller. Once you press the red play button in the top right hand corner of the GUI, a new line is added to the timeline – a sweeping red line leaving darkness in its wake!
This represents what your audience is hearing, and if you’ve configured your sound card correctly, MixMeister’s normal transport controls will work as usual, but the transport monitor will play only through your headphones. Using this, you can keep ahead of the wave and keep the mix rolling. It works surprisingly well – the only downside is that as the red line reaches the end of a song, it gets permanently removed from your playlist. There doesn’t seem to be any way to recover it, so there’s not an easy way to store your live set, or tweak it after the fact, which is a shame.
This live mode is very logical given the DAW ‘metaphor’ used by MixMeister, and gives the DJ that edge of modifying their set based on live requests, all with the added power of not screwing up everything else that is to come later, transitions and all.
So the live set feature works very well. It’s easy to use, keeps all of the perks of using MixMeister’s interface, and by the time your audience hears anything you’ve had plenty of time to tweak it to perfection. It all works more than satisfactorily.
The problem is that as far as your audience is concerned, you could have prepared the set before you came, pressed play and then spent the rest of the night slacking off in the DJ booth. Kraftwerk had this problem with one of their live shows a few years ago; the audience basically complained that they paid good money to see four blokes standing around behind laptops checking their e-mail.
Now for any performance where the DJ is very secondary to the music being played, and like as not that’s most paying DJ jobs out there – this honestly doesn’t matter a damn. If you think the wedding party or café patrons notice or even care about how the DJ makes their favourite songs come out of the speakers, you’re likely mistaken. For the hum-drum DJ tasks, MixMeister in live mode is a great tool. It reduces the chance of dead air to almost nil, trainwrecks are non-existent if you’ve prepared your tracks correctly, and it gives you the ability to hit the bathroom without having to worry about doing so in under sixty seconds.
MixMeister strikes me as an awesome tool for the day-to-day DJ. It’s reliable, fun to use, brings the music and makes everything super-simple. Bring along a Behringer 10” mixer for show and a Mixmeister Control for the real work and your audience won’t know the difference.
Weapon of Choice
That said: would you use MixMeister in a situation where the whole crowd is looking at you?
Not a chance in hell.
One of the major reasons people go to see super-star DJs is because they are there, experiencing the music live, with the DJ. When the DJ drops that fat tune, the crowd is right there with them – and that’s exhilarating, not just for the DJ, but for the crowd. The farther you get from the act of playing the music, the less interesting it is to watch. There’s not a lot more boring than watching a guy sit at a laptop clicking a mouse – it doesn’t matter how smooth the mix is, the crowd is there for the show as much as the smooth mixing talent. Watching a guy perform the ritual of digging for a record, grinning when he’s got the right one, lovingly unwrap it, cue it and then bring it into the mix – now that’s something people want to see.
Digital vinyl systems such as Serato and Traktor tread that fine line between live and laptop show, but they don’t mix for you on command, they’re really just really complicated phonographs, so you’ve still got that connection of a live mix.
And that’s why MixMeister is a tough sell to those DJs who’ve progressed to having their name on the handbill. The DVS is still probably what’s going to end up in the backpack.
Oh, but that demo CD that got him the residency? Produced in MixMeister.
UFOs Are Real
It’s precise. It’s slick. The transition is perfectly executed every time. If you don’t like something, a few button presses and you can go back and change it. Hear it again and perfect it.
MixMeister is a truly formidable tool for producing mixtapes or demo CDs, planning sets or just having a great time mixing music. For day-job DJs, MixMeister is a great choice for producing slick sounding mixes with ease. It sounds great, it’s easy to use, and it’s not nearly as likely to break down as a cheap CD mixer or one of those dinky iPod mixer things.
Professionals will love it for planning and production. It really is second to none for making that professional demo to land a residency or to hand out in search of more gigs. MixMeister Studio is a very solid purchase for the pro DJ or those wanting a tool to help them prepare demos or sets.
DJs who have audiences that don’t actually care about the method behind the music and don’t need to put on a show will want to check out MixMeister Fusion. It’s an innovative, powerful tool for live sets and reduces the DJ’s workload while increasing the quality of the mix, a potent combination.
There’s also the other side to this – I haven’t had this much fun mixing music at a PC, well, ever. It removes the frustration, mistakes and clunkiness associated with using a program like Traktor or Scratch Live without a “real” interface, i.e. decks and an analog mixer. There are no problems with the low resolution of an entry-level MIDI controller, since everything is handled in pure software, no problems with cueing and starting a track by reflex with a high-latency sound card… It all just works.
I’ve learned more about music composition from a DJ’s perspective from two days with MixMeister than I have in the last two years of futzing around with DVS and vinyl, because whenever I think “oh man, that doesn’t sound right” instead of just being annoyed at screwing up, I can immediately hop the set backwards two bars, with the transition intact and hear it again, then adjust, and listen again, and figure out how to make it sound right. And that ability to learn from my mistakes and learn about the music makes me a better DJ, both in this environment and on the live decks – making MixMeister an excellent learning tool.
Oh, and MixMeister makes crafting seriously awesome mixes a complete snap. That’s pretty cool too.
Produce flawless demos with ease
Excellent learning tool
Great live for basic gigs and webcasting
Plan and lay out sets for live performance on DVS
Weird transport control location
Adjusting balance points is a bit twitchy at the high-end
But really, it’s all nit-picking
Better than: For what it does, everything. Top-notch software, well worth a look for any DJ.
Worse than: For in-front-of-an-audience performance, most any quality DVS.
But: They’re really geared for two different things.
With apologies to:
MC 900 Ft Jesus, Spiderbait, the Beastie Boys, the Propellerheads, Radiohead, the Avalanches, Regurgitator, Fatboy Slim, John Wozniak, the League of Gentlemen and, er, Kraftwerk.