Looking like a 23rd‑century Minimoog pumped full of anabolic steroids, Yamaha's sequel to the hugely successful DJX offers more of the same sampling, sequencing and performance features. Paul Farrer doesn't want to rock, DJX — but it's making him feel so nice...
Amazingly, it's been over two years since I reviewed the original DJX keyboard [see SOS September '98 or https://web.archive.org/web/2015..." target="_blank — Ed]. I noted then that while it was almost certainly destined to win mass appeal in the home‑keyboard market, there were more than a few features that would interest pro users as well. Since then, you wouldn't believe the number of places where this astonishingly comprehensive little piece of kit has crossed my path. I've been to three pro studios in the last 12 months that have all proudly had DJXs as part of their MIDI setups, and yet only last week I spotted a DJX being pointed at by a 'female assistant' in a frock as a prize on the cheesy gameshow Wheel of Fortune (alas, the contestant opted for the fridge‑freezer instead, the fool). The DJX must surely still be the only piece of equipment reviewed in Sound On Sound that you can buy in any branch of Dixons, but this hasn't stopped it causing something of a sensation; and in the music‑retail industry, as in Hollywood, if something is successful, you don't have to wait too long before a sequel goes into production. Hence the 300‑quid DJX II, which has taken the look of the original DJX and headed out on a mission to the furthest reaches of the seriously weird.
Yowsa! What Is This?
If you've ever seen any of Alesis' keyboards you'll know all about the tasteful elegance of keyboard housing. Gentle curves and discrete control surfaces join together in a soft if somewhat bland symphony of understated technological sophistication. Now forget all that and imagine Johnny Rotten's great‑grandchildren have been sent from 80 years in the future with the sole aim of making a keyboard scream 'Buy me, you bastards!' and you'll have some idea of the aesthetic agenda at work on the DJX II. To say that it's an eye‑catching piece of kit would be the biggest understatement since the surrendering Emperor Hirohito declared at the end of the Second World War that "the situation has not necessarily developed to our advantage". Of course, such boldness is not always popular in design — one acquaintance of mine has already been heard to marvel that it looks as though the DJX II's designers simply vomited on the front panel of the original DJX and called it a day — but I like it.
It's a close‑run thing, but I reckon the DJX II's most striking visual feature is, initially, the two‑tone grey‑on‑grey keyboard [not the 'half‑turntable, half‑wolverine bat‑like creature' logo on the rear panel, then? — Ed]. The idea behind this colour scheme will become clear later on, but your eyes don't have time to dwell on such monochromatic matters, because the instant you power up the DJX II, the whole front panel lights up like a Christmas tree. Gone is the original DJX's non‑backlit LCD screen; instead, there is a large, easy‑to‑read seven‑segment LED system next to which lives a decently sized data‑entry wheel surrounded by a host of oddly shaped buttons activating the keyboard's various modes. The festival of LEDs continues throughout; most buttons on the front panel and even the central three octaves of keys on the keyboard have an associated LED indicator.
As on the DJX, a built‑in six‑Watt speaker lurks on either side of the DJX II and, as before, these pack a mighty punch; when cranked up to full power they would probably fill even medium‑sized rooms with sound. The rear of the unit is more comprehensively stocked than its predecessor, hosting Left and Right phono output sockets, mono line and mic inputs (for the built‑in sampler — see the 'Sampling' box on page 186) and MIDI In and Out sockets (more on these later, as they're not what they seem...). There is also a socket for the supplied 12V DC power unit (although the DJX II can also run from 6 'D'‑sized batteries) and a standard quarter‑inch stereo headphone jack.
Returning to the front, we find a centrally mounted ribbon controller that is switchable between two types of vinyl‑scratching effect (both great). The ribbon can either act in the same way as a standard pitch‑bend controller — thus taking the place of a pitch‑wheel, which the DJX II doesn't have — or behave as a pitch and tempo warper that allows you to make an entire sequenced pattern grind to a halt just like a vinyl record. And just like a turntable, when you release your finger the sequence resumes playing and the tempo quickly picks up again. Clever! To the right of the ribbon controller lies a three‑band graphic equaliser which allows you to tweak the basic EQ (Low, Mid and High) of the keyboard's main output, three blue Part knobs (Level, Cutoff and Resonance, which control a basic resonant filter — more on these in a moment), an Input level controller and, of course, the master volume knob.
In essence, the DJX II is all about performance patterns, and most operational aspects of the unit centre around triggering, effecting (see the box on page 188), mixing and performing these ready‑programmed MIDI masterpieces. There are no endless edit pages and MIDI control data functions; instead the DJX II assigns nearly all mix and performance operations to the actual keys of the keyboard itself. This is where all those LED indicators and the two‑toned key colouring system comes into its own. Each of the five octaves of the keyboard is assigned a set of functions relating to the pattern's performance, starting with the fourth (C4‑B5). It is here that the different elements of each programmed pattern are triggered. Hitting any key in this octave starts the internal sequencer running a variation of the 'song', and there are 10 different variations to each pattern. This is more than enough for any song, and as each of the 10 variations is usually programmed with drums, bass, keyboards, strings and guitars, you won't be stuck for ideas in a hurry. The tempo of each pattern is displayed on the LED readout in beats per minute (bpm) and can be altered using the data‑entry wheel, tapped in via the Bpm Tap button or sync'ed to an external MIDI signal. The DJX II can also sync to the detected incoming tempo of an external sound source (see the 'That Sync'ing Feeling' box, right).
There are 70 different patterns to choose from, and you can either select your pattern using the data‑entry wheel or from the top B flat and B keys in octave four. These act as toggle switches, changing the pattern forward to the next set of 10 blocks or back to the previous set. Where the DJX scored so highly and DJX II does even better is in the programming quality of the patterns. If you thought home keyboards were all about bossa novas and crappy disco beats, think again — the DJX II offers some incredibly inspired and highly usable house, garage, R&B, techno, trip‑hop and drum‑and‑bass song forms, and is helped in no small part by the impressive sound palette it has to draw from. Yamaha have assembled an up‑to‑the‑minute collection of current drum, bass and synth sounds that are hard enough to keep any dance floor pumping (yes, there are tons of TB303 and TR909 sounds).
Unfortunately, the DJX II doesn't have anything to latch patterns together, so triggering one song block after the other requires fairly tight timing and at least a passing sense of rhythm. You do get fine levels of control over the mix elements of each pattern, though; the third octave of the keyboard handles the switching on and off of the various rhythmic and musical parts. There are eight different parts (or tracks) to each pattern; Kick, Snare, Hi‑Hat, and Percussion are assigned to the grey keys, while the Bass, Phrase One, Phrase Two and Phrase Three parts are assigned to the black. Hitting any of the keys in this octave switches each of these parts in and out of the playing pattern. C#3, for instance, solos just the musical phrases, and C3 gives you just the Kick and Bass playing. Obviously, there are many combinations of parts that you can choose to bring in and out through a performance, and hitting C3, C#3 and D3 at the same times gives you all the elements playing in full. This might sound like a complicated way of working, but in practice, it's difficult to imagine an easier way of experimenting with song arrangements on the fly.
Keys in the second octave of the keyboard (C2‑B3) allow you to select parts or groups of parts and adjust their volume, cutoff frequency and resonant‑filter settings using the three blue control knobs mentioned earlier. It's even possible to select all the parts of the performance pattern and send the entire track through this filter. Analogue heaven! The function of the bottom octave of keys will be familiar to anyone who remembers their old Casio synth's auto‑accompaniment feature — it's concerned simply with transposing the key of the pattern in semitones from C to B and can, of course, be adjusted while the pattern is playing. The only remaining keyboard feature to mention is the top octave (C5‑C6) which houses the 'Activator' section. This is an independent playback sequencer that includes some excellent sampled drum and percussion loops, along with some 'one shot' vocal and effect noises; it's triggered and controlled in much the same way as the patterns and automatically defaults to the same tempo and key as the currently selected pattern. This allows you to add to and augment the basic pattern elements with a few wild drum loops, vocal hits, stabs, guitar effects and percussion noises, all perfectly in sync and all accessible on the fly.
While on the subject of the drums, it's worth pointing out that the loops in the DJX II (unlike those found in the original DJX) appear to be chopped up into their constituent sections rather like the Groove Control system featured on Spectrasonics' latest sample CDs or files in Steinberg's Recycle. This allows you to make fairly radical tempo and groove changes to the drum loop without suffering the usual granularisation problems of conventional sample pitch‑shifting.
It's A Keyboard (But Only Just)
With so much fun happening in its other areas, it's easy to forget that the DJX II is also a keyboard. Hitting the Voice/Keyboard button on the front panel switches off all the pattern‑performance features and allows you to flick through the unit's impressive 192 onboard sounds. As already mentioned, these include large numbers of vocal shouts, analogue synths, drum kits, basses and so on. Unlike the 1998 DJX, this keyboard steers clear of any General MIDI sounds or patches. Unfortunately, it seems that the designers at Yamaha spent all their time and energy on the pattern functions of the DJX II and completely forgot about the keyboard, because there are some startling omissions. This leads me sadly on to describe the first way in which the DJX II is actually inferior to its predecessor; the keyboard is non‑velocity‑sensitive, and is therefore little more than a series of keyboard‑shaped switches. Secondly (and again in contrast to how things were on the older DJX), the excellent frequency cutoff and resonance controls that work so well on the constituent elements of the pattern performances have no effect on sounds that you play on the keyboard. But this isn't the biggest flaw either.
No, ladies and gentlemen, the Yamaha DJX II keyboard, for all its bells and whistles, cannot transmit MIDI note messages. Yes, you read that correctly: you may have spent 300 quid on the thing, but despite having a MIDI Out socket, all it can spit out of it are some rather pointless MIDI data dump commands. If you attach this keyboard to a sound module or any other MIDI device it will happily tell them how fast it is playing (it does at least stretch to sending MIDI Clock messages) but that's about all. So forget any notion you may have had about seriously integrating the DJX II into your MIDI or live setup — a spot the beloved DJX MkI occupies for so many — because the MIDI implementation chart at the back of the manual is so peppered with Xs — ie. No Can Dos — that MIDI‑wise, even my toaster would give it a run for its money.
Even at the DJX II's unreservedly budget price, I think it's pretty shameful that it can't transmit note data — particularly as it does actually have a MIDI socket ready and waiting. This is a keyboard released in the 21st century by one of the world's biggest manufacturers, after all. What is even more incredible is that the original (and slightly cheaper) DJX had quite a tasty MIDI implementation by comparison. Weirdly, the MIDI In socket does work; you can play the sounds and tweak their frequency and resonance controls with the appropriate MIDI command via sequencing software or a suitably 'advanced' keyboard (like the original DJX, for instance...!).
I've been a fan of the DJX concept from the start; I fell in love with the original DJX in as much time as it took to get it out of the box, and I even played one live on stage at last year's Glastonbury Festival — but that's another story. Even though I only ever really use about 30 percent of its features, it has proved itself time and again to be an invaluable — and therefore much loved — studio tool. The DJX II promised to top that by giving me more of the features that made me enjoy the DJX so much, and in many ways I admit it has succeeded — just as I have to admit that by ripping the MIDI heart out of the basic design Yamaha have done themselves one of the greatest disservices imaginable. For my money, the whole appeal of the DJX was that, while it was an unashamed home keyboard, it had just enough hi‑tech features to pique the interest of serious users and encourage MIDI virgins to delve deeper into the world of studio technology. Sadly, the DJX II takes a slightly different approach, offering you more patterns and more control, but at the same time dumbing down the MIDI spec that helped to make the original unit so appealing to an SOS‑type musician in the first place.
The DJX II remains a miracle of design and ergonomics, cramming a huge number of features into a visually stunning, easy‑to‑fathom package at a ridiculously low price. If I was 14 again, nothing would give me greater pleasure than finding one of these beasts at the end of my bed on Christmas morning, and it's a testament to how good everything else is on the unit that I'm probably still going to buy one anyway. But the biggest flaw is still the biggest mystery. Yamaha have polished this package to the extent that you can even go to the dedicated DJX web site and download more user patterns — so why not go the extra mile and include a keyboard at least as good as the one on the DJX?
The DJX II is a solid, fun keyboard which will, I'm sure, exhibit all the mass appeal of the original, but perhaps at the expense of more serious users. In other words, I'm sure Yamaha will sell thousands, and plenty of Wheel of Fortune winners will be taking them home — but you may be less likely to run into them on your trips round pro studios.
That Sync'ing Feeling
One of the most advanced features of the DJX II is the tempo‑detection software that allows you to feed an external sound source from, say, a CD player into the back of the unit and synchronise the tempo of the performance patterns. To do this you simply connect your CD player to the line‑in phono socket, press and hold the Audio BPM Counter button and gradually adjust the Input level knob until the BPM LED flashes in time with the incoming rhythm. The tempo‑detection software works best on tracks with a strong beat (ie. any type of dance music) and it can help if first you make a rough guess at the tempo by tapping in the approximate speed using the BPM Tap key.
The DJX II comes with a basic but serviceable mono sampler with 128K of RAM — which, at its fixed 22kHz, 8‑bit resolution equates to roughly six seconds of sampling in total, although no one sample may be longer than three seconds. There are six sampling trigger pads on the front panel, and each sample must be assigned to one of these. Recording samples is easy enough and can be done via the mic‑ or line‑level inputs on the rear panel, while the input level can be adjusted with the knob on the front panel. You assign the sample to a pad before commencing recording and you can either specify that this is a 'Looping' or a 'One Shot' sample. Samples can then be played back via the pads or from the keyboard. Unfortunately, you can't trim the start or end of your samples, or adjust the loop points, so more professional users may find it a bit hit‑and‑miss.
In keeping with all other aspects of the DJX II's operation, the effects section is instantly accessible and offers a high instant‑gratification score.
You get 10 effect types: Distortion, Auto Pan, Ring Modulator, Flanger, Phaser, Slice, Delay, Echo, Lo‑Fi, and Wah‑Wah. You choose the effect you want using the Select button, whereupon triggering it is simply a matter of hitting the silver effect toggle switch. This activates the effect for as long as you keep the switch depressed, cutting off as soon as you release, but you can keep it on permanently by holding the effect selector button and then flicking the switch.
There are two real‑time control knobs in this section. One permits you to tweak a main parameter for the currently selected effect (for example overdrive amount, phase intensity and so on), while the other sets the ratio between dry original signal and the output of the effects unit itself. It's all fairly cheap‑and‑cheerful stuff, but as long you aren't expecting to find a Lexicon hidden away inside the casing of the DJX II, you won't be disappointed — the choice of effects and level of control that you are permitted over them is perfect for the gritty, full‑on sound required by dance music.
Iib Or Not To Be?
Released at the same time as the DJX II is the 200‑quid DJX IIB, a non‑keyboard version of the DJX II that basically features all the same pattern and tempo‑detection features, but minus the sampler. I wasn't able to get my hands on the DJX IIB for review, but given the excellent pattern and effects functions of the DJX II, it would seem sensible to me that a lot of more serious users will opt for this unit, rather than fork out an extra hundred quid for the keyboard version. After all, if you have a serious MIDI studio and want access to the fun features of the DJX II, why bother with the extra expense of the keyboard version when its MIDI Out is about as much use as an ashtray on a motorbike? One feature that the DJX IIB boasts over the keyboard version is a dedicated scratch pad. I imagine this assumes the role of the keyboard's ribbon controller, allowing flexibility over the tempo and pitch of the performance patterns. The DJX IIB also comes with a handy carrying strap and a built‑in speaker system, and weighs just 5lbs.
- Amazing features for the money.
- Very easy to use.
- Wonderfully programmed patterns.
- Huge range of sounds.
- Virtually useless MIDI transmit implementation — doesn't even transmit note data!
- Non‑velocity‑sensitive keyboard.
- Cutoff and Resonance controls don't work with the keyboard sounds.
A hugely enjoyable, if slightly lo‑tech approach to making great dance music. For the money, the DJX II still has to be one of the most desirable pieces of gear to be released in the last 12 months — but many SOS readers could find the lousy keyboard and non‑existent MIDI spec restrictive.