Roland Aira MX-1

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The world of mixers available to performing electronic musicians has, by and large, had a relatively conservative track record when it comes to innovation. Outside of the conversion from analog to digital and the ability to integrate with computers, the overall design of the average eight-plus-channel mixing console has stayed largely the same for the past 40-odd years. At long last it seems that someone is ready to start shaking things up, as shown by Roland's AIRA MX-1 Mix Performer. As the name implies, the Roland designers intended the MX-1 to be a "mixer you can play," taking on an instrument-like role and adding more to a performance than the volume, EQ and aux send features of a standard mixer.

One look at the front panel makes clear how much of a departure from the typical mixer the MX-1 really is—it looks more like a drum machine. In the place of long faders and the array of EQ and aux knobs you'd expect are short faders, lots of buttons and a 16-step sequencer. Indeed, when put side by side with the TR-8, you can see where the Roland designers took inspiration from. The dimensions of the two are pretty much identical, and their overall layouts share common themes. Roland must have heard enough complaints about the green paint highlights on the other AIRA units, though—they're largely missing on the MX-1, and the result is a much cleaner look.

Roland advertises the MX-1 as an 18-channel mixer, but the back panel yields only six analog inputs and one digital stereo SPDIF. So what gives? The rest of the inputs are dedicated to digital USB connections: one stereo pair for the output of a connected PC and four stereo pairs for USB audio devices. At launch date, compatibility for these USB device jacks was limited to the other AIRA units, but a recent firmware update expanded support to other Roland hardware like the new JD-XA and JD-Xi. The big question for anyone considering the MX-1, then, is whether Roland can and will add support for other manufacturers' gear in the future. Until that point it seems that the investment makes most sense if you own one or more of the supported Roland devices, because otherwise you're left with four unusable channels. In addition to audio, the MX-1 uses the USB for sending MIDI clock to the attached devices, and a computer connected to the MX-1 can also send MIDI notes/CCs directly to the individual connected USB devices. This is nice, but I also found myself wishing I could route MIDI to the Roland USB devices from the MX-1's hardware MIDI jacks, something that's not currently supported.

Moving back to the front panel, the MX-1 gives you 11 channels for those 18 inputs. The first four analog inputs can either be mixed separately in mono or linked as stereo on channel 1 and 3, respectively. Each channel has a short-throw volume fader, a dedicated mute button and a tone/filter knob that by default controls a Traktor-like filter (turning to the right for high-pass and to the left for low-pass). The MX-1 gives you a choice of ten tone-shaping engines assignable to the tone/filter knob, spanning multiple flavors of filter, EQ and isolation, and the selection is independent for each channel. Making this change is done by first pressing the Select button for the channel, which then allows you to make various changes (including gain, pan, aux send, fader curve, etc.) with the shared set of Channel Setting controls on the left of the unit. The decision to include only one tone-shaping knob on a mixer is a bold one, but I think for a large number of performing electronic musicians it makes sense—how many of us really need to be changing the width of the low-mid EQ band on a synth during a gig? If the flexibility to jump between filter and EQ for creative purposes is important to you, the tone/filter engine selection for each channel is one of the things stored in the MX-1's 64 possible scenes, so it's pretty easy to make that change as needed.

The other two buttons you'll find on each channel of the MX-1 are labeled BFX and MFX, and as one would expect, these let you enable/disable the Beat FX and Master FX routing for that channel. The Beat FX engine gives you the choice between filter, sidechain and slicer effects, which are driven by the step sequencer buttons sitting at the top of the MX-1. At first glance this seems pretty limited, but similar to the tone/effect knobs, each effect choice has five variations, chosen by holding the FX type button and turning the Channel Setting knob. Also, you're not locked into a 16-step sequence—you can easily shorten the sequence to introduce a polyrhythmic feel. As should be evident by now, every channel has its own Beat FX engine, and everything (including effect type, step settings and dry/wet amount) can be stored and recalled with the MX-1 scenes. The Master FX engine is global for the entire unit and includes six effects to choose from, including delay, filter, scatter, flanger, bitcrush and roll. These all have their own set of variations as well, and with a bit of digging I found that the last delay type is actually a reverb, which was a nice surprise. The Master FX section also gives you the ability to sequence its effects by turning on Combi mode, which activates the step sequencer and lets you pick one of the six master effects for each of the sixteen steps in a manner reminiscent to Sugar Bytes Effectrix.

Overall, I came away pretty impressed with what the MX-1 brings to the table. The obvious target audience seems to be electronic musicians who already own one or more of the supported Roland devices. The simplicity of hooking those up with audio and MIDI sync over one USB cable sans PC would undoubtedly be convenient for a touring musician. The design is bold but well thought-out, and although the effects can initially seem like the typical over-the-top fare meant for EDM artists, with a bit of practice and time invested you can find their sweet spots.