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Audio Innovate AEM-100 Mixer
Reviewer: Deft/Soba • Date: March 2006 • Price: $499 • Link: Audio Innovate

Soba's Review

Now a familiar sight to Skratchworx regulars, Audio Innovate's unique 2-channel mixer has undergone numerous changes since its first appearance on the trade show circuit last year. Creator Elliot Marx has combined his experience in DSP and audio electronics with an openminded attitude to design suggestions and user feedback, and the AEM-100 is finally finished and available to a curious public. Based around a layerable effects section and including a controversial row of pads around the crossfader dubbed 'Fader Cuts', does this newcomer provide usable new tools or is it more gimmick than substance?

First to get it hooked up.... Inputs

The back panel sets a theme for the mixer by supplying as many input options as you could realistically need, with a generous 3 sets of RCA line inputs for each channel. All offer basic line input with one set switchable to phono and another designated auxiliary lines and accessible via the front panel as well as the rear RCAs. Two grounding posts are available for turntables and CD deck users are catered for with fader start sockets. The main output section is also well-stocked with Master, Booth and Rec outs on RCA as well as the usual set of balanced XLR master outputs. Power is supplied via an external transformer with a DIN plug, similar to (but not compatible with) some Stanton mixers.

The front panel adds more connectivity with two mic inputs on 1/4" jacks and a pair of 1/8" stereo sockets for connecting your favourite portable devices to the aux line inputs. The on/off switches for fader start are located here as well as the crossfader curve control dial and a switch to reverse or bypass the fader. Finally both 1/8" and 1/4" headphone outs are supplied to cater to both popular jack varieties.

Build and Sound

Any concerns about build quality were laid to rest right out of the box....the casing is sturdy and thick and the whole unit weighs more than you would expect. The knobs are plastic but don't have an overly cheap feel, the toggles are solid with nice positive clicks and the EQ sliders are no less secure than any of the competition. Overall it feels more like a hand-built piece than a mass-produced unit, in a good way, and i was pleasantly surprised. The manual is also well thought out and easy to read, and actually worth having a flick through before setting up as well as having some nifty hints for use of the new features. Soundwise the AEM is loud and clear. Unlike the recent trend towards digital signal processing Audio Innovate designed this mixer with a totally analog signal path including the effects, using VCA faders to control the analog signal. AI also mention that should the worst happen and the digital section crashes the audio will not be interrupted, a nice touch for those concerned about digital equipment's reliability.

The headphone amp is powerful enough to push out louder volumes than i could comfortably listen to with no noticeable distortion. Separate level meters for each channel and the master are also a very welcome sight.

First Impressions

AEM-100 First impressionsWhen you first set eyes on the AEM you are confronted by a sea of knobs and faders, almost every inch of space on the faceplate has some kind of control on it. I counted 33 rotary knobs alone! Basic layout has the two channels running down the middle with the mic and master/cue sections in their usual top left and right positions respectively. The effects section takes up the middle of the mixer and the linefaders have been squeezed upwards and outwards of their usual position by the Fader Cuts pads.

The number of controls on the AEM require some familiarisation, and at first expect to have to look around a bit for each control as you need it. With the effects section effectively cutting the mixer down the middle it isn't immediately obvious where the basic controls are and it was a few mixes in before i comfortably knew my way around. Perhaps a system of colour coding or using different sized/shaped knobs would have helped here, there are a few knobs all marked 'Gain' for instance around the left channel and i grabbed the wrong one a couple of times in the beginning. Once you are used to the layout however this ceases to be an issue, although it is still a trickier mixer to move around quickly than most.

All the basic mixing duties are handled here without any real complaints. I particularly like the Split Cue feature, extremely useful in the event of bad monitoring and also allowed me to mix all night in headphones without waking the house up. I've never understood why this feature hasn't caught on. The EQ doesn't quite kill but cuts enough that that you can effectively pull that band right out in the mix, and the fader-style controls lend themselves to tweaking with the effects quite well, although i found them a little touchy for small changes in the mix. Separate cue buttons for the effects allow you to get things sounding just right before you mix them in but their position directly above the regular cue buttons lead to a few confusing moments from badly aimed fingers. Maybe i just need to work on my coordination.

The Faders and Those Infamous Buttons

The AEM comes stock with the 'fader of the moment', Eclectic Breaks' Pro X Fade in the crossfader position, definitely a nod to the scratch fraternity. This was my first hands-on experience with this fader and it lives up to the hype, very smooth and solid and generally a pleasure to mix and scratch on. The fader also features adjustable tension and lag time which require removal of the one-piece faceplate to access, which is not something you'll want to do often with so man knobs to remove/keep track of! The usual fader adjustment tools are not included unfortunately, and although the fader feels great out the
box it would be well worth the time to get it feeling exactly to your tastes. The curve adjust provides a good range between a cut with a very slight fade to a centre-dip style full fade and and everything in between. Curiously this ships as just a metal dial without a plastic knob on it, but this actually works pretty well as it doesn't get knocked around. The only downside is there is no visual representation of where you have it set.

The upfaders are a basic VCA design that feel smooth and sturdy and should give a fairly long lifespan, especially given the fact there are no curve control or reverse options. The fade is bang-on for smooth mixes. Unfortunately the area around the upfaders is extremely cluttered, and combined with the lack of curve options basically rules out any real upfader cutting. This is kinda a shame considering the quality of the crossfader, but i guess those knobs had to go somewhere.

Now for those Fader Cuts buttons, probably the most talked about section of this mixer. There are four for each channel, laid out in a semi-circle which lends itself to using four fingers, crab style, and differ from your classic transform switches due to the extra controls 'Cut Time' and 'Cut Slope'. To clarify, when you push and hold a Fader Cuts pad the sound cuts out for a set length of time and then comes back on. You can set how long it cuts for and whether it cuts straight out or fades out and in gradually, just like a crossfader. By turning the Cut Time to its maximum setting the sound will cut for as long as you hold the button down like a traditional transform and the minimum setting effectively turns the pads off. You can also swap around which set of pads work which channel and whether they cut in or out.

I spent quite a bit of time trying to get the most out of these. You can crab on them with a similar sound to a fader or run your finger along them all in succession for an 'auto-crab' type effect, i also had a bit of success using just the bottom two pads for flares which can be easily done quite fast and sounds dope. Combining the pads with the fader takes a bit of practice but after a while you get used to alternating quickly, another variation is working the fader with your thumb and forefinger and hitting/rubbing over the pads with the middle/ring fingers.

The big question is, just how useful is all this? To be honest, I didn't find a huge number of things i couldn't do just as easily and more intuitively with the fader. Most cuts on the pads came out sounding quite mechanical, and generally after i worked something out on the pads i could adapt it to the fader pretty easily and pull it off with a bit more 'funk' and control. This is bearing in mind of course that i have a few years of fader experience and only limited time on the pads, but i expect most scratchers would approach this product in a similar situation. The real opportunities here come from combining the Fader Cuts and the fader, things like transforming using the pads and fading in with the upfader with one hand and rubbing a spare finger over one of the pads to add a click to chirps on the fader. Bottom line, i'm sure if enough time was invested in learning the pads some unique sounds could be created, but it's really up to the individual whether the opportunities the Fader Cuts add are worth the loss of upfader options. For straight crossfader cuts the pads sit low enough as to not get in the way, so you are not at all forced to use them.

The Effects Section

The effects section in the AEM takes a different approach to most DJ effects. Instead of a bank of preset sounds, Audio Innovate provide a series of basic analog-style effects in sequence designed to be layered and combined to build your own. Both channels have their own identical section so you can effect both decks independently.

From the top left (in the order the effects are wired, as well as laid out) we have:

Noise: A white noise generator, good for use with the oscillator
Oscillator: Generates a square wave, adjustable pitch and gain
Stutter: Similar to a transform, this effect cuts the sound on and off ranging from quite slow to very fast
Digitize: Samples and holds the sound, effectively lowering the sample rate/bit depth.
Phaser w/engage switch: A classic sweeping phaser
Filters: Low Pass and High Pass, with notch and band pass options

On their own i found each effect to be a little limited, save for the filters and the phaser. But once you've spent a bit of time with them and get comfortable with what each knob does, you can start working them together and more and more possibilities present themselves. They feel more like working a synth than DJ effects, even without the oscillator. Perhaps faders similar to the EQ would have allowed more tweakability, because of the range of possibilities I was running out of fingers long before I ran out of ideas!

The filters in particular were useful, i was using them instead of EQ once i got used to them for cutting frequencies. You could look at them as a single extremely flexible parametric EQ in conjunction with the wet/dry slider. Combining Digitize and the phaser made for some
nice dirty sounds too. The oscillator made me think of the old headphone out to line-in feedback loop and was fun for jamming over the top of scratch loops. I found it a little difficult to hit the right notes enough to use in a mix set but you could layer it up with
the other effects and get good results as a background pad, also as all effects are pre-fader it allowed you to add a background tone to beef up your cuts. The Stutter worked well with Digitize too and let you build the effects to somewhat of a climax.

I think these effects will have a bit more 'staying power' than preset patterns which tend to get a little old after a while, but you need to invest a bit of effort into learning them in order to get the best out of them. The more I used them the better they got and overall this was my favourite section of the mixer. Due to the channel insert-like implementation the effect routing is a little limited, i would have liked to be able to effect the mic inputs and some way to apply the same effect over the whole main mix would be nice, possibly a link button between the two sections similar to the stereo link found on compressors? As previously mentioned the effects are pre-fader only but as there is nothing here that would suit post-fader (except possibly the oscillators) its no problem. There is no external effects
loop so your options for adding additional effects are limited.

So to conclude...

AEMIt's very seldom you see a mixer that strays from the safety of the pack as much as the AEM-100. Aside from the unique features, its the layout that really defines this mixer in terms of usability and is somewhat of a casualty to cramming so much functionality in a 10" wide space. The Fader Cuts triggers and excellent crossfader appeal to the scratch set but the cluttered area around the faders and the lack of upfader controls are a definite turnoff, this is certainly no battle mixer. Likewise the strictly mix crowd may struggle with the fader-style EQ and deviation from the usual top-to-bottom 'channel strip' style layout. Even after you are familiar with it this mixer is difficult to work quickly, not to mention not a unit you want to meet for the first time in a dark club!

That said, a very large chunk of the DJ population do not fit exactly into those two categories. If you invest the time in learning the nuances this is quite a rewarding piece of equipment which offers a lot of opportunities others don't, and in spite of everything i was
still itching to keep playing on it. The fun factor is quite high and after a while i was chucking effects and scratches into mix sets and having a ball. For the DJ that mixes things up and tends to stick to the crossfader for cuts as well as liking something a bit different this mixer could be just the ticket. The build and sound quality are both great and there's enough ins and outs to keep you hooked up well into the future. Definitely an interesting addition to a marketplace crowded with lookalike clones and one worth a look if you're uninspired by the current crop from the big manufacturers.

Final score: 80%

Deft's Review

AEM-100 Deft's ReviewSeemingly out of nowhere came Audio Innovate, with that mixer with those buttons. Well, that mixer is actually the AEM-100, and frankly has a lot more going for it than a mere row of buttons that cause controversy amongst the feeble minded. Most notably, a Pro X-Fade comes fitted as standard and you also get an onboard analog effects chain for each channel. At first glance there is an almost comical amount of rotaries, due in part for the need to have effects control duplicated for each channel and individual rotaries for all parts of the chain. It doesn't actually feel that cramped in use, and considering the amount of hands-on control it affords - it's a much better idea than a dull rotary encoder for 1 traditional DSP effect on 1 channel.

Main Interface



The AEM-100 has a remarkably comprehensive set of ins/outs for a 2-channel mixer, effectively 3 inputs for each channel; 1 phono/line (switchable), 1 line & 1 aux. Even smarter is that the aux input for each channel shares an 1/8" jack input on the front of the mixer - great for hooking up portable units. There are a pair of 1/4" microphone inputs on the front panel, with separate bass/treble/gain/talkover controls for each. There are balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (RCA) master outputs (shared level control), plus booth and record RCA connections too.

Those looking for a purist scratch-orientated mixer plus effects may be a little disappointed, the AEM-100 hasn't got the layout or adjustable upfaders that some may want - and although the upfaders have a nice enough feel to them they are definitely not in the same league as the Pro X-Fade. A quick diversion on the Pro X-Fade - this was the first opportunity for me to spend any length of time with it, and I was impressed. The feel is spot-on, and after having a close-up peek inside, you feel reassured with the build quality of the fader itself. You don't get any of the associated adjustment tools with the AEM-100, but it was perfect straight out of the box for me (lag distance set to 1-2mm with a low resistance feel). The crossfader curve is adjustable via the front panel and goes all the way from a sharp scratch taper to a very dipped blending style profile. The scratch curve takes a couple of mm of very smooth fading sound to get to full volume. I'm perhaps used to a more switch like sound from my Stanton SA-5, but after a short adjustment period I found it no problem - as is usually the case when you change faders / mixers. My only small gripe with the adjustable curve on the fader being the misleading diagrams on the front panel. It gives the impression that when set to 12 O'Clock, you would have a standard dipless mixing curve - when in fact it dips well before that. As mentioned previously, the fade profile for the upfaders is not adjustable or reversible, and has perhaps too much emphasis on the final few sections of it's travel (i.e. it reduces volume quickly when moving downwards from max to min). I'd personally prefer something a bit more linear sounding for echoes and suchlike when scratching, and I expect people who like to mix with the upfaders might too.

Fader Cuts

AEM-100 FadercutsNo doubt some readers here may be disgusted that I have even touched the fader cuts buttons, let alone dedicate valuable review space to them. But, I'll try anything once, and that includes some strange buttons flanking the crossfader. So, what do they do? Well, they are like a bank of transform buttons but with a lot of available customisation around their use and the way they cut in (or out) the audio. You can change the time and slope of the cut sound - swap it from an 'in' to an 'out' cutting effect and also swap them to the opposite mixer channel. The customisation has been well thought out, with the ability at either end to effectively disable the buttons or make them like traditional transform buttons (i.e. no automatic release of the audio).

After having the mixer for a few weeks, I'm still not sure about the buttons. I certainly wouldn't ever use them for scratching (though I did manage to do things like orbits and flares with them). As a means of tapping audio in or out for mixing they work pretty well, but I can't personally see me using them very much. It's in the hands of the end user, and there is a certain ability there to add elements to a performance - but not something I would invest much time in trying to do. The buttons aren't particularly intrusive, though I have caught my fingers a couple of times on them whilst scratching.

Effects Chain

AEM-100 EffectsThis is where the real fun starts, a very unique analog effects chain for each channel. In fact, probably the most original set of knobs I've ever found on a dj mixer. There is probably a part of me still missing my Electrix Mo-FX from years back, and the AEM-100 goes quite a long way to filling that void.

The AEM-100 has in total: a white noise generator, a square wave oscillator, a stutter effect, a digitize effect, phaser, and band-pass/band-cut high + low pass filters.

Superficially, the white-noise generator and oscillator seem rather silly - but you'd be surprised what you can get out of them once you have chained them with a bit of digitization or filtering. The fact you have a separate set for each channel means you can create sounds on the empty channel and cut them in with the crossfader or fader cuts buttons. They are very basic, but depending on what sort of music you play can really merge well - and can be used quite delicately if needs be. For glitchy, stuttering electronic beats they are perfect. Needless to say, something like the digitize effect (like bit-reduction/digital distortion) works great when tweaked doing faderless scratching (or with fader scratches if your hands are quick enough!).

For more traditional tweaking of audio, the phaser and filters sound really natural and when combined with the wet/dry fader are capable of being very subtle. The scratchers favourite, the faithful delay, is not present. There are also no effects sends/returns or insert points to add external units. I think the onboard effects should keep most happy for the time being - but a simple post-fader insert for each channel would be really useful. Also, although part of the fun is tweaking the knobs in real-time - a way to sync to a BPM would be cool for some of them. The effects are cueable before you flip over to wet, and overall the section really lives upto the name Audio Innovate.

Bread & Butter Features

Aside from the unique fader cuts and effects section, the AEM-100 still has the usual features you would expect from a modern two channel dj mixer. There is a 3-band fader based eq for each channel, rated as -30dB/+10dB for each band. The eq doesn't quite totally remove all audio when set to full cut, but does have a pleasing sound and a well judged response and frequency placement. Some may demand a full cut to their eq, but with the onboard high/low-pass filters this becomes a moot point in reality. I'd forgotten how natural mixing with high-pass filters sounds, so my traditional use of eq for mixing became redundant. I'm not a big fan of fader based eq anyway, and the sliders are quite small even for my midget hands. There are push button cue selectors for each channel, a master/cue rotary and also a split cue function - so monitoring is as comprehensive as you can get for a 2-channel mixer. There are also nice clear 10-segment LED meters for each channel and the master output.

With respect to build or sound quality, I have no complaints in either department. I did actually hook it up alongside my Ecler Hak320 and Stanton SA-5 to try and judge any subjective differences in sound output. I really couldn't tell them apart if blind through my relatively modest monitoring system (chained into an Emu1820 and then Alesis M1 mk2 Actives). I'd be happy to have this as my main dj mixer.

Final Thoughts

It seems people's first impressions of the AEM-100 are dominated by the fader cuts buttons or the aesthetics, but to get too hung up on these is to do the AEM-100 a considerable disservice. It is a comprehensive, well thought out mixer with a top-notch crossfader. Not only this, but an effects section that is a breath of fresh air compared to your run of the mill DSP effects found on the majority of other mixers. I challenge anyone to say that it's not a fun or original set of knobs to twiddle.

Rating - 86%






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