Roland Aira MX-1 Review
MX-1 performance mixer from Roland is the final piece of the Aira jigsaw
Coming in around a year after the launch of the rest of the (existing) Aira range, the Roland MX-1 performance mixer should arguably have been there from the start. Positioned as the centrepiece of any self-respecting Aira studio, or any other hardware performance studio for that matter, the MX-1 provides a wealth of connectivity for your gear along with some interesting creative tools for the discerning electronic musician. We’ve put together the following Roland Aira MX-1 review to help you make sense of this exciting new bit of kit.
The other members of the Aira stable, including the TR-8 drum machine, TB-3 bass synth, VT-3 vocal transformer and System-1 plug-out synth, all work wonders individually. Each solidly constructed unit contains enough creative potential to make them stand out on their own merit. The TR-8, for example, has proven a hit on account of its pure beat simplicity, much the same as its predecessor did. The TB-3 harks back brilliantly to the acid house bass synths of decades ago, with a few modern touches in the shape of a touch-sensitive X/Y pad and modulation. The System-1 has found fans on account of its superior sound quality and the options for further sounds offered via its plug-out functionality. The VT-3 is a vocoder, and they never stop being fun. Yes, the range benefits from Aira linkup capability, which ensure MIDI messages are transferred from each unit, keeping everything in sync, but there was a definite space for a kind of musical, magical glue which binds everything together.
Step forward, the MX-1 performance mixer. Decked out in the same black and green colour-way, the MX-1 is unmistakably Aira. From its physical dimensions through to the psychedelic light show which accompanies lulls in activity, the MX-1 will sit proudly alongside any other bits of Aira gear you happen to have in your studio. There’s good reason for this uniformity too; while the MX-1 can work with pretty much any bit of kit you own, hardware or software, it’s clearly designed with its stablemates in mind. Much the same way as different bits of Apple gear, be that computers, phones or tablets, will complement each other perfectly, so it figures that the various instruments in this range will seamlessly work together. What makes the MX-1 a different beast to a standard mixer is the way in which it combines as both a high quality digital mixer, with all the audio routing you’d expect, with a tonne of genuinely interesting effects combinations. This elevates it into the realms of being a far more interesting tool for live performance.
The MX-1 features four USB inputs which remain dedicated for Aira units, including one bus-powered input meaning the TB-3 doesn’t require an external source of power. These Aira USB inputs not only route the audio coming from the different units, but also carry MIDI sync data allowing you to choose which unit you want as the master clock source. So, in effect, you can control tempo, transport and other information all from the MX-1. Again, this furthers its performance credentials by ensuring your entire activity is controlled by one central unit, making things as seamless and smooth as you could ever hope for. When used with a DAW, the MX-1 offers 18 channels of audio, all of which can make use of the unit’s built-in effects.
The effects are genuinely cool too. Each track, or channel, has two potential effect routes and each can be tweaked per channel. Master effects incorporates things like delay, filter, bit-crushing and flanger, along with Roland’s now trademark Scatter function which is perfect for any glitch-heads out there. These effects can be stacked in a number of combinations, again, per channel. Adding even more possibility to the mix is the separate beat effects; from here you can access a slicer effect, a side-chain (or ‘ducking’) effect and another filter. Now, the eagle-eyed among you may have noticed the TR-8 style step sequencer buttons across the top of the unit. This is where things get fun. Using the 16 buttons across the top, you can really drill down into your effects and start getting creative. Using the beat effects as an example; you could tap the button which corresponds to the first beat of every bar of your pattern, engage the side-chain and bask in the glow of your newly pumping drum track. Or, using the slicer, you could programme in patterns to mangle drone style sounds into something musical and creative. It’s a level of granularity and versatility which you don’t often, if ever, see on a unit which calls itself a mixer.
It’s worth pointing out how straightforward and easy to use the MX-1 is. Even if you’ve no experience of using a unit of this nature, it’s all well signposted enough that anyone understands basic audio routing can be up and running in no time. Say you’re running the MX-1 into Ableton – the unit comes with a free copy of Live Lite – you can set up 18 channels on Live and route each back into the MX-1. From there, you can start adding layers of effects before recording the combined output back into a separate track. This is perfect for those moments when you’re jamming something out and stumble across a piece of genuine musical inspiration.
The MX-1 would easily stand up to the rigours of live performance too. It’s built like the proverbial tank, and each button, fader and knob is lit up to ensure you can remain in control in a stage environment. The ability to save and recall settings make it perfect for musicians working from a set-list each night too.
If it was anybody else, you’d perhaps think the MX-1 was the answer to a question nobody had really asked before. It’s a high quality digital mixer, usually a set-and-forget component of any studio, yet the integrated effects and performance tools elevate it well above that and into something approaching, dare we say it, and instrument in its own right. Admittedly, there are probably mixers within the same price bracket which offer more in terms of pure audio routing, but if you’re looking at it for this purpose alone you’re probably missing the point. This is a creative tool which can become the brain of your live rig. Roland has played a blinder with the MX-1, and we can see it becoming a staple part of many musicians’ live arsenal for years to come.