The Akai Pro AMX is a high quality modular controller for Serato DJ software that offers full mixer control over two channels, plus transport, basic cueing, library access, VU metering (per channel and master), pitch control, and some well-chosen performance features including filter roll, touch-to-kill EQs, and crossfader curve/reverse. It has a built-in audio interface, and can be used with Serato DVS thanks to its twin switchable line/phono inputs. At US$249, it is great value and an insanely useful piece of kit.
First Impressions / Setting up
While the AMX unit bears the Akai Pro name, it feels more like a Numark device, mainly because its knobs are lifted straight from the NS7II. (Numark and Akai Pro are sister brands, anyway). It’s small and neat, squatter and wider than the Traktor Kontrol Z1, a controller with which it shares some similarities (both control their respective softwares’ built-in mixers, although the Traktor unit lacks DVS and transport controls). It is plastic but feels high quality, especially as it comes with a fantastic Mini Innofader built-in. It has a black top panel, with a bright red base and four thin rubber feet, and again like the Kontrol Z1, it is shallow; you’ll definitely want a stand of some sort for it if you pair it with turntables or CDJs, which will otherwise dwarf it.
The two line faders are recessed and have decent resistance, and all the knobs are properly bolted on to the faceplate. The switches are all flush to the surface of the unit, and the backlit buttons are hard plastic and have a firm “click” when pressed. The headphones socket front right is 1/8″ only, and the crossfader curve knob on the front of the unit protrudes and can’t be pushed in as with some designs, in order to tuck out of the way when not needed. The big central “browse” button is a stepped rotary encoder, and the gain knobs are also endless rotaries, although smooth, not stepped. The RCA ins for CDJs/turntables and the single pair of RCA outs from the sound card are all gold plated.
A mini Innofader sticker advertises the unit’s high quality crossfader, and the “Akai Professional” and “Serato” logos are printed on both the top and front of the unit. Overall, it feels like a neat, feature-packed and professional device.
Setting up on a Mac simply a case of plugging it in to a laptop with Serato DJ installed on it (1.7.1 or up), and the unit is recognised immediately, launching Serato in the corresponding two-deck mode. On a PC you need to install the unit’s driver first. On all systems, if you want to use it with DVS, you’ll need to buy Serato’s DVS expansion pack, which is an add-on purchase to the standard Serato DJ software that’s provided with the unit.
I’m going to say from the off that this is an awesome, groundbreaking unit for Serato users. One of the enduring bugbears with Serato is that you can’t “use” it without a controller plugged in; the offline mode only has one deck so while it’s fine for analysing tunes, setting cues and so on, if you want to work on your sets and practise your mixes “on the go”, you can’t. There are DJs who refuse to use Serato because of this fact. Now, with the AMX, there’s finally a small, lightweight control unit that “unlocks” Serato, giving you the ability to work on your mixes pretty much anywhere.
It’s bus-powered so no mains socket on the back (you don’t get a choice), but the LEDs are nice and bright on the VUs and the headphone amp drove my Ultrasone DJ1 headphones plenty loud enough. The overall output level is lower than, say, a CDJ, and so you’re going to want to make sure you’re plugged into a mixer with decent gain boost on it in order to “up” the AMX’s level to match other sources and shove enough volume into the PA amps when DJing out with it; anyone using this to DJ in a club will be fine, therefore, and of course at home again this won’t be an issue in a typical set-up. Definitely worth pointing out though.
Using as a standalone controller
My first hour or so testing the unit was simply using it as described above – as a small, modular controller for Serato, standalone. To load tunes, you select whether to browse a folder or the files within it by pressing the rotary, then scroll by turning it, hitting “Deck 1” or “Deck 2” buttons to load to the required deck. Once you’ve loaded a track, you can move through it to find a suitable cue point by holding the little “search” button for that deck, and turning the browse encoder. However, it takes a long time to move through the track this way and there’s no coarser seek mode that I could find, which is a shame; maybe that could be added to the mapping by Akai Pro, for instance, activating when you press and hold the browse encoder down and turn it?
You can easily enough set the gain of the track using its rotary encoder. In common with other Serato controllers, this doesn’t alter the gain control on the software screen itself, but you can use the VU meter to set the gain accurately enough, and unlike the endless rotary gains on the only other controllers I can think of with them – Traktor Kontrol S2 and S4 – which take an age to move anywhere meaningful, this is far more responsive.
The endless rotary that’s used for gain also doubles up as a pitch knob when you hold down the “shift” button and turn it, so if you want to manually alter the pitch of a track you’re covered, although it alters the pitch by 0.4 BPM as a minimum, which is too coarse for accurate beatmatching. I suspect most people will use sync anyway, if only to quickly get their tempos matched, but this needs improving by Serato; the gold standard for pitch knob implementation for me remains the Novation Twitch, which managed 1/100th of a BPM granularity coupled with clever “progressive” coarser variations depending how quickly the knob was turned. I would like to see that improvement made here in the software.
There are three extra rectangular backlit buttons per deck apart from the load button, namely sync, cue and play/pause. The mixer itself is a lot of fun to use. Everything feels “right”, from the gorgeously loose crossfader to the big, fat filter knob. One really nice feature (borrowed from the Numark NS7II) is “touch” mode. Turn this mode on by pressing the little “touch” button (it lights up blue to remind you it’s on), and the EQs all become touch-activated kills, the filter becoming an insanely fun “filter roll”, which loops the track in progressively shorter loops (starting at 1/2 beat) the further you turn the filter from central, and also applies either HPF or LPF depending which way you turn it. As soon as you remove your fingers from it, the track carries on playing from where it would have been. It’s addictive!
If you want to alter the track’s pitch temporarily (nudge it, in other words), you can do so by holding the “search” button and turning the pitch control (in other words, the same combination used when the track is paused to move through it); this is great for correcting the phase slightly on an otherwise perfect beatmix. Once a track is finished playing, you can jump back to the start of it by holding “shift” and pressing its cue button.
Using as a DVS mixer / interface
This get really interesting when you plug external decks or CDJs in to the unit to use it as a DVS controller. First you need to buy and install the Serato DVS extension, and once it’s enabled and your CDJs or turntables are plugged in with the appropriate timecode media in/on them, the AMX becomes basically the mixer part of your DVS set up. You need to set your preferred DVS mode (relative or absolute) on the software using your laptop, but when you’ve done that, holding “shift” and pressing the “search/DVS” button switches between internal mode (as if DVS wasn’t enabled) and your selected DVS mode. Everything works exactly as you’d expect, and the unit has a ground pin on it as well as the RCA ins so you can earth your turntables should they have a separate earth wire (ie Technics 1200s).
One interesting point here is that you can select “thru” mode on the software, and now, you can play “normal” CDs and/or vinyl on your decks too; the signal is still routed through Serato, meaning you can use all of Serato’s effects as well as the mixer, filter and so on. It’s important to point out, though, that the unit is in no way a “standalone” mixer; to start with it’s powered by the computer via USB, and Serato needs to be running and set to “thru” mode for any sound from your external sources to play. Pull out the USB, and everything stops.
This wonderful little unit does pretty much everything it’s designed to do, and really well. It’s unique at the moment in being the only “modular” software mixer for Serato, and it opens up use of the software for DJs who just want something small and simple to use with it, that’s portable and convenient. It does all of this in a pro-built, sturdy and clever way. You can pretty easily mix with this unit alone, anywhere you can find the tiny space needed to set it up, and I can see many a DJ perching this on aeroplane seat-back tables for a mile-high mix.
So there’s one solid use case: As a standalone Serato mixer/interface. The other, of course, is as the cheapest “DVS enabler” for Serato there is. Previously if you wanted to use Serato DVS your cheapest option was the Rane SL2 at US$500, which is of course only an audio interface; you’d still need to pair it with a hardware mixer. That’s fine for those wanting to “DVS enable” an existing non-laptop set-up, but not as cost effective for someone starting from scratch. Now, for $250 plus the $99 to enable Serato’s DVS software extension, you have everything you need to plug in a pair of turntables or CDJs, minus the physical timecode media of course.
Pair the AMX with the Akai Pro AFX (which we’re going to review separately), and you’ve got pretty much everything you need to turn a pair of turntables or CDJs into an awesomely powerful digital vinyl system, and all for the same kind of cost as a Rane SL2. Plus you can use it on its own when you want or need to as well.
There are a few issues: The pitch control needs some work, I’d like to see an easier way of moving quickly through tracks (unless I’m missing something), and it’s undeniably quiet, output-wise. Plus a mic input would have been neat, even if it were just a little 1/8″ jack like the headphones socket. But none of these are deal-breakers.
Overall this is a truly useful addition to the Serato hardware scene, both as the most cost-effective heart of a basic DVS system that currently exists, and used alongside the AFX for a more complete take on this. For me though, it’s the ability to use it as a useful second Serato controller, something portable to throw in a bag when travelling or heading off on holiday, that I think will shift most units. I can see it selling in droves.