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No Dancers Spared: Are rotary mixers the newest cult to replace black t-shirts for DJs?

Rotary mixers have gained traction over the past 15 years, is this just another esoteric DJ fetish, or are people fawning over them for the right reasons?

  • Arthur Kovacs
  • 26 October 2020

Mixmag Asia reluctantly welcomes Arthur Kovacs and his pessimistic, blunt and sardonic view of the modern dance floor and everyone in it. From dancers to DJs, no one is safe from his line of sight, not even himself. He’s a has-been DJ, a failed promoter, a long-time clubber and an armchair anarchist, and he’s also old, disgruntled, and bitter; constantly complaining at everything; an old man raver yelling at the sky. When he’s not moaning about something, he’s usually busy browsing through your social media posts, trying to find the next thing to complain about. So if you see him writing so much heat, and you start to cry each time you read… just scroll on by.

Five years ago, we saw phalanxes of DJs claiming to play techno, all clad in black t-shirts. The techno they claimed to play sounded more like tech-house, and the black t-shirts they wore looked more like my old school-dinner-lady’s tunic. If Wallace & Gromit were to make another movie, these DJs could definitely be in the extras as a herd of sheep. Today, one could replace techno with Afro, disco, and world music and replace black t-shirts for rotary mixers, and they would still fit the role of Shaun The Sheep.

It’s not that I don’t value the cultural significance of rotary mixers. Indeed, they are integral to DJ culture — not in modern times, but way back during the golden era of disco. Rotary mixers were at the birth of DJ culture, with models such as the Bozak CMA-10-2DL and UREI 1620 being adopted by the likes of nightclub stalwarts such as the Paradise Garage and Studio 54. What I don’t value, however, is people wishing to own one for all the wrong reasons.

To the average mortal, the only difference between a rotary and a normal mixer is one comes with knobs that go round and round, whilst the other comes with linear faders that go down and up. Despite its name, a rotary mixer isn’t just about the type of faders it comes with. Look under the hood and you’ll find less components as a means to reduce the signal path which will produce a more superior and transparent sound, with each component being more expensive than its mass-produced linear mixer counterpart. Some models come with a master Isolator and very few come with a cross-fader and none come with on-board effects. Some don’t even have a pre-gain trim control, leaving only the per-channel gain rotary knob to control the volume which throws off a few first-time users.

A typical rotary mixer strips away all of the bells and whistles that would otherwise come with a Pioneer mixer. It doesn’t have a crossfader nor an on-board FX unit. Some don’t even have per-channel LED indicating gain level, forcing DJs to use their ears (imagine that, a DJ using their ears!). Why then have rotary mixers amassed such a large following? Why are DJs willing to do away with all of the embellishments to which we’ve become accustomed from decades of having Pioneer shove their mass-produced mixers down our throats?

"Owning a rotary mixer has become just another bragging right – we certainly aren’t short of those in the DJ circuit. When DJs are dick-swinging at after-parties, boasting about who they’ve warmed up for, and which artists they’ve been on the same line up with, DJs can now casually drop that they have an ARS, or a UREI, or a Varia Instrument in their home studio."

I think the answer comes down to two main groups: In the red corner, we have DJs who genuinely care about sound quality. The red corner considers the entire signal chain of their set up from carefully selecting their needles and the mixer itself to the amplifier and the speakers. Usually, this group of DJs have already fallen into the esoteric and bottomless rabbit hole of audiophile systems — far too deep to be saved.

Then, in the blue corner, we have DJs who want one because they saw the likes of MCDE, Floating Points and Joe Claussell use one. These DJs will have their expensive rotary mixers sitting at home attached to a pair of KRK Rokits, clearly not giving an iota of fuck about sound quality. Nothing wrong with a pair of KRKs, most of us have them, but if you spend over $3,000 on a rotary mixer, citing its amazing sound quality yet have them attached to low-to-mid-range studio monitors, then you’re lying to everyone and also to yourself.

The problem I have with rotary mixers has nothing to do with the mixers themselves. My issue lies with its evangelical supporters who keep waxing lyrical about how amazing their mixer sounds when in reality they’re still hooking up their expensive, hand-made mixers to an underwhelming sound system. Those in the blue corner are as much of a knob as the knobs that come with their rotary mixer.

I have even witnessed a post made by a DJ boasting “analogue” sound when the photos from said event show they used a rotary mixer with a pair of CDJs; digital ain’t analogue bruv. And don’t even get me started on DJs not using their rotary mixers properly — too often have I seen DJs maxing their channel control, taking it beyond the eight – nine sweet spot, which shows their lack of understanding of unity gain. If you don’t understand unity gain, then you’re not ready to own or use a rotary mixer.

Owning a rotary mixer has become just another bragging right – we certainly aren’t short of those in the DJ circuit. When DJs are dick-swinging at after-parties, boasting about who they’ve warmed up for, and which artists they’ve been on the same line up with, DJs can now casually drop that they have an ARS, or a UREI, or a Varia Instrument in their home studio.

There is also the group of quixotic DJs who assume that by virtue of owning a rotary mixer makes them the next Theo Parrish or Floating Points. These guys would be better off spending their money on a better record collection than an expensive status-symbol toy. It’s as if they think that owning a piece of special equipment automatically makes them a better DJ, inflating their already-inflated arrogance. Owning a certain tool does not make you inherently better at a certain skill.

If you want to own a rotary mixer, then do so for the right reasons. Do it because you want to own a piece of DJ history; do it because you want to complete your perfect audiophile sound system; do it because it suits your style of mixing.

However, if you desire one because you want to replicate Joe Claussell cutting in and out of frequencies, contorting your arms, shoulders and wrists as you twist the ISO knobs, then I’m with you. After all, this is the reason why I bought my Bozak AR-4.

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