Test System Specs
OS: Microsoft Windows XP Professional Service Pack 2 (DirectX
CPU: AMD Athlon XP, 2166 MHz (13 x 167) 3000+
Motherboard / Chipset: ASRock K7S8X v3 / SiS 748
Memory: 1024 MB (DDR SDRAM)
Video Adapter: RADEON 9200 SE
Disk Drive: Maxtor 6Y120L0 (120 GB, 7200 RPM, Ultra-ATA/133)
Sound Card: Emu1820
Turntables: Technics SL1210mk2
Cartridges: Shure m35x, Shure m44-7
They just keep on coming! 2005 is surely the year of the emu (vinyl variety). People must be getting bored of reading my system specs now I'm sure. In the orange/grey corner is Mixvibes, an umbrella for a few different types of software for slightly different dj markets. With the launch of their new V2 package, the fearless team at Mixvibes felt it was time for us to have a real in-depth look at what they have to offer in their DVS product. The V2 refers primarily to the new V2 time-code vinyl, which is apparently more sophisticated and has better error reporting (read: more reliable). I have no idea how well the V1 vinyl works, so we'll just accept it's better and move on - no point dwelling on the past.
Everything comes in a smart record size thin box, and it includes 3 pieces of V2 vinyl (a handy spare), 2 time-code cds, install disc, quick start-guide and a group of connectors comprising 4 RCA splitters and 4 RCA-1/4" plug adaptors. The splitters are meant as a make-shift bypass option, and the 4 adaptors might not be enough if you have a soundcard with all 1/4" sockets (I think the choice of 4 is related to possible interfaces Mixvibes bundle the software with).
Installation and Set-Up
You can physically run DVS via a single stereo output - and could control just 1 deck via a single stereo input. Depending on how you want to use it, this might be acceptable - but it is quite limited. For a traditional 2-deck setup, you will need a 4-in/4-out soundcard (that's 2 stereo inputs and 2 stereo outputs!). You run your turntables straight into your soundcard, and then route the Mixvibes virtual deck outputs to the line inputs of your mixer. The good news is that you don't need phono pre-amps for your turntables. Mixvibes can handle very low input levels - it worked fine with my Technics using fairly modest output cartridges (Shure m35x) into a +4dBu input with a -30dB software pad (basically I fed it the weakest signal I possibly could). So no-one should have any trouble with signal strength. The included .pdf manual is o.k. - it's a bit thin on the ground and you feel like it is perhaps lagging behind the quick software revisions somewhat. The main avenue of support and help tends to be via the forums which are staffed very regularly by the Mixvibes team.
Main Software Interface
Upon first startup you are greeted with a default layout with
Skin". Ths consists of your two virtual players which have
typical transport controls and a waveform display. They also include
a 3-band eq with kill switches and a level fader (I guess there
might be some people running the software into a mixer with no
eq). There are also a handful of other racks; vinyl, gain, crossfader,
volume and auto bpm. The volume and crossfader racks are redundant
if you are using an external mixer. The gain rack consists of a
gain, compressor and limiter section. This seemed to work okay,
but considering you are probably playing already mastered music
it's not something I would recommend. I guess there is a demand
from those "louder=better" dj types. The auto-bpm section
is a kind of waveform overlay for each deck so could help as a
visual aid for mixing. Personally, I had absolutely no use for
any of these panels. The developers obviously want to capture a
larger target audience, and the easiest way to do this is to have
lots of features. The crucial thing for us lean & mean types
is that Mixvibes have allowed full customisation of the layout
and display. So you can toggle any extras you don't need out of
view and forget all about them. You can also rearrange the location
of all on screen objects to suit your own taste. The players also
come in a variety of skins, so if the default isn't to your liking
there are plenty of others to try (though they mostly resemble
cd player interfaces). There is also a forum section
over at http://www.mixvibes.com devoted to skinning - so you can
get involved yourself. It wasn't until I tried some other skins
that I realised that Mixvibes had a bypass feature and an effects
section. The effects section is barely worth mentioning, in fact
it's almost insulting! 3 'FX' buttons with just an engage switch.
Tragically funny, I felt like it summed up everything wrong with
the dj mentality. For anyone who cares, one is a flanger (yay!),
two sounds like an LFO-synced low-pass filter with a bit of resonance
and the final one is a bit of a mystery. It sounds like a gentle
filter style resonance on the high frequencies. I suppose you can
have fun trying to guess what they are if you get bored! I'm sure
you can get more control over them - but again it's likely to be
something you'd have to fiddle into the skin.
The more useful bonus section to appear on the non-default skin is probably the auto-loop section. This will loop either a 1, 4 or 8 beat segment based on the calculated BPM value. Also pressing the forward or backward transport controls shifts the loop in that direction. Some other skins have more choice of beat segments and I don't doubt you could manually adjust the skin .ini file to suit your needs. I actually found it quite annoying that the skins and software features aren't really aligned very well - it's not until you try some of them out that you realise things are missing or don't work properly. So you may find one you like the look of more but doesn't have the required features (like a control vinyl 'on' switch!). It's not like you have a huge amount of choice unless you get into creating custom skins. I suppose this is a natural by-product of the software not really being a 100% dedicated option simply for vinyl emulation. Also, although the whole waveform overview is adequate - it's not amazingly clear on any of the included skins.
File Management & Organisation
The approach to file management
can be broadly split into 3 sections. You have an explorer style
pane, a Media Base section and a Playlist/Sequencer window. The
idea is that you add files to your Media Base (you can drag and
drop from the explorer section or add whole directories) and you
can then sub-divide that Media Base into playlists. You can have
as many Media Bases as you like, but you can only load playlists
from the currently open Media Base. My Media Base was pretty small
so I didn't really need to subdivide into playlists, but it's a
useful way to grab a collection of tracks for a mix session, as
you can then hide the Media Base pane.
The Media Base is where you sort out all your tagging, and you can choose which fields to display and in what order. You can rename/associate tags directly from here, which is useful for .wav files which would otherwise need tags stuffed in their headers. The software supports .wav, .mp3, .wma, .ogg and also direct use of audio cds - so you have all the main bases covered.
Vinyl Control & Performance
Before we get into the full vinyl control, it's worth having a
small diversion on the subject of system latency and it's impact
on your vinyl control performance. This really is crucial if you
are to be scratch happy. The key aspects of this aside from the
time taken for Mixvibes to process the audio, is your soundcard,
it's drivers and your overall PC system performance. The basic premise is that
there are audio buffers in both directions on your soundcard. The smaller you
make these, the lower your latency. Easy - make them as small as possible!
But, the smaller you make them the harder your system needs to work to keep
going back and forth grabbing/giving the info more regularly. If it can't keep
up then you start getting audio drop-outs and clicks / crackles. More efficient
drivers will certainly help in this case too. ASIO buffers are usually specified
in samples (i.e. 44100 samples = 1 sec at 44.1Khz sample rate). So a typical
selection of a 64 or 128 sample buffer size equates to approximately 1.5ms
or 3ms respectively. This is just one ASIO buffer, so you need two of them
- probably a bit of overhead because of A/D/A conversion and then the software
processing time as well. This all adds up to make the total time from when
you move the control record to when you get audio through your mixer.
Overall the amount of latency someone will find acceptable is a personal issue. This is the same for things like MIDI keyboards & MIDI drumkits. It also depends on the final purpose and in what situation you will be using the kit. For mixing, latency is not really an issue - everything is delayed by the same amount and is easily responsive enough for pitch bending. For scratching it gets a bit more complex. Personally, I have found that you really need to be working at an ASIO buffer size of 256 samples or less - preferably 128 or less. Whether your system and soundcard can achieve that is the important issue. It should certainly be possible on the majority of modern systems provided your soundcard has reliable drivers. The easiest way to check is to run the demo without control vinyl and see how you fare - the ability to output clean audio stayed the same whether I was using control vinyl or not. This is fine if you have the soundcard you are going to use already - but presents a bit of a gamble if you are intending to buy a bundle.
Firstly, the control modes. They are absolute, relative time, all relative and jog-dial. The only mode which is guaranteed no real sample slipping is absolute, as it relates positioning as well as direction - so it can correct itself (this is the same for all vinyl emulation systems). So this is the mode of choice for accurate scratching. Features like looping are off the cards though. All relative is the skip-proof mode where you can't needle drop, and relative time is meant as a hybrid of the two. It works in the sense you can needle drop but it didn't seem any more skip-proof than absolute. The calibration of the system is fairly standard and involves getting a background and then a signal noise level. The only thing that seemed to repeatedly cause trouble was trying to switch between control modes. It's definitely clear that most vinyl emulation systems have similar pitfalls in trying to change settings whilst in use. So set and forget! It has been said that this will change in future software revisions. Also, there is an included master tempo (time-stretch) and key (pitch shift) control. These aren't really implemented properly as you need to adjust them via the software (they don't follow the pitch slider) and are really only intended for the relative time modes - though you can destroy absolute mode with it if you so wish. I'd just ignore them if you are using control vinyl - but again these should apparently be improved in subsequent updates.
The supplied V2 vinyl has one side of 12mins, and the other with three sections consisting of a 6min, 3min & 3min segment. These segments have silence between them and begin from the start of the time-code, so play really will stop and restart! They mean you can work within a certain area of the vinyl for scratching, which might help with skipping problems some people have in specific areas of the vinyl (like near to the lead-in). Also, there is no mechanism for automatically switching to non-vinyl mode at the end of the 12mins so you are kind of stuffed if in absolute mode. You can manually fiddle your way around this in all relative mode by switching off vinyl control and then placing your needle further back, but it's not ideal.
How is the sound and tracking? Really good actually. The baseline scratch sound and responsiveness of most of these vinyl emulation systems is a lot better than that of dj cd players. I didn't have any peculiar behaviour when I was using it and that tell-tale digital sound is only very slightly evident on some complex hand movements. It also manages well on higher pitched sounds. Any slight trade off in sound is really negated by the ability to manipulate any sound you want. For mixing it really feels no different from normal vinyl - you would never know if it wasn't for the rather annoying sound of the timecode. This is one of those little things that really drove me mad. I don't know whether a less annoying frequency could be used!?
The only other item of note is the ability to bypass Mixvibes in order to use regular vinyl or cds. You can do this from within Mixvibes (providing you are using the right skin!), but if you are using turntables you will have a weak phono signal going into the line inputs on your mixer. This is the reason for the supplied RCA splitters - you can split the original phono signal before your soundcard and route 1 back to your mixer phono inputs. This seemed to give patchy results for me, with some noticeable alterations to the vinyl sound when A/B'ed with non-split signals. Not much of a problem for me as I could use my spare soundcard outputs and Emu's Patchmix software to virtually route the signals. Obviously that won't work if my PC is off so there is a slight question mark over that facility. The only obvious alternative is to invest in a couple of switch boxes.
Like those before it, Mixvibes has the facility for things like controller and MIDI support - things us simpletons with 2 turntables probably won't ever get into. You can also map the keyboard to main functions. It's certainly handy to be able to control things like looping with a little controller, and you have to respect the fact that scratch monkeys make up the smaller segment of the market. There is also a 3rd deck available, but which CANNOT take a control signal input - but is still handy for layering samples or getting those name drops in.
Part of me wishes there was a 'lite' version of DVS which stripped
out all the superfluous features. But the demand for bells and
whistles is obviously there and it makes business sense for Mixvibes
to respond to these. However, for those who want simple 2 turntable
emulation the extras can be a distraction. More features invariably
means more bugs and resources spent trying to implement them
- perhaps at the expense of what purists might well consider
more important core features. The level of customisation means
you can forget they were ever there, but there still remains
the ability to try and force the software to do things it isn't
meant to do - which until you learn what these are, could give
a bad impression to the new user.
The bottom line is that the actual tracking and sound is very good, so once you have it set up how you want, it is relatively plain sailing. The fact that Mixvibes is hardware independent will be a positive point for many, putting Mixvibes in a distinct market position away from the higher priced likes of Serato and Finalscratch 2. Although we would not rate a piece of equipment based on what they say will be implemented in the future, Mixvibes is evolving quickly and they are intending to add the facility to use MIDI control to change the pitch of the vinyl - much like the new Vestax Controller 1 turntable. This could be a real coup for Mixvibes if the implementation is right, so we will watch closely with interest.
Rating - 83%
Thanks to Eric, Lionel and the rest of the Mixvibes
team, and all the users on the Mixvibes forum for their help