If you’re a DJ who wants to add extra digital control to an existing digital set-up, or who wants to use a slimline device as your only controller alongside a laptop, and you’re attracted to making a mapping that suits you, the Xone:K2 has got to be something you’ll want to look at seriously. The built-in sound card is a good option to have and what’s more, this Traktor Kontrol X1 alternative doesn’t have the Traktor focus as far as labelling and control layout goes, and so will be equally at home mapped to whatever software you choose. We think it’s a winner.
First Impressions / Setting up
In the box are the unit, a USB lead, a CD-ROM containing guides, drivers and so on, and an RJ45 patch lead for connection to other X:LINK enabled products (more on X:LINK later).
One of the things DJs love about the Traktor Kontrol X1 – on the face of it the most similar controller to this that’s currently out there – is how practical it is. As well as being small and slim, it is lightweight, and you can also buy a lightweight carry case for it to make it easy to transport. Allen & Heath has plainly seen this and taken the concept further with the Xone:K2, which is actually supplied in a snug-fitting, custom case from the off.
The case is “semi-rigid”, being nylon with an all-round zip but padded with hard foam. This, combined with the four indentations for the feet of the Xone:K2, means that once you remove the unit from its case, the case can be used to raise it to the same height as, say, a mixer in a DJ booth.
The unit is built to a high standard. It is black, with a rubberised base and sides but with a brushed metal decal down the left and right bearing the Xone logo. A gripe? The four feet are plastic rather than rubber, which means they are slippier than they would otherwise have been on some surfaces.
The top plate is slightly textured black painted metal, firmly screwed down. Allen & Heath made its name with pro mixers, and it shows: From the white rubberised buttons to the bolted-down pots to the quality faders, all controls scream reliability and longevity.
On the front is a single 1/8″ headphones socket, and round the back are a pair of RCA audio outs, the USB socket (it takes its power from USB) and two proprietary X:LINK sockets.
First things first: This is not meant to be a “plug and play” device. Sure, it’s class compliant (although you’ll need to install audio drivers for certain Windows sound card configurations), and it also wisely and quite cleverly comes with two Traktor mappings (a Kontrol X1 emulator and a sample deck control mapping, complete with printable mapping legends), but it’s ultimately meant to be mapped by the user to control whatever he or she is envisioning.
This is good. Just like Vestax with their VCI-400, Allen & Heath wants the Xone:K2 to sell to digital DJs and producers who are past the very beginner stage, and who want to customise their set-ups to do exactly what they’re imagining. As such, the unit will be a good companion to all kinds of software.
You could map it to Ableton Live, Traktor, Virtual DJ, MixVibes and so on, you might use it for VJing, for controlling lighting even. Midi mapping is not difficult and once you’ve created a mapping that works for you, you’ve effectively made a custom DJ controller for yourself. What you get here, then, is a lot of built-in flexibility. There are four faders, 12 standard pots, six continuous stepped rotaries with push switchers, 28 standard pushbuttons, and two large pushbuttons.
Both the layout and the sparse labelling do, however, suggest certain uses. There’s a button labelled “layer”, for instance (we’ll look at layer options later). There’s another labelled “shift”·. There is a set action for entering set-up mode. And the four “lines” suggest control of four channels, tracks or decks, complete with associated functions. As we’ll see shortly, the LED feedback is also skewed to help you use the unit in certain ways.
But basically, it’s as blank a page as any hardware can realistically offer: Free for you to do what you like with its 171 Midi commands.
Understanding the configuration options
Not only can the Xone:K2 be used to control any software that can receive or transmit Midi, the built-in audio interface means that, unlike say the Traktor Kontrol X1, there’s no need to carry a separate audio interface with you. This is one of its big attractions.
Two could be used together to double up (it’s possible to aggregate audio), or you could use one or two of them with an analogue mixer. If you do the latter, you can either use it with your headphones plugged in the front and take one channel of the analogue mixer, or plug both the headphones socket and the RCAs into separate channels of the analogue mixer, using it effectively as a set of transport / looping / FX controls for your DJ software and using the mixer to provide, well, the mixing bit of the equation.
In order to better understand how one or two of these units can work with each other or with either analogue or digital mixers, Allen & Heath has provided several simple set-up videos covering the possibilities on its website. If you’re considering the unit, it is a good idea to watch them, if only to familiarise yourself with what’s possible using it. You can find them here.
Working with layers
Imagine being able to press one switch on a Midi controller in order to move away from the current set of controls and activate a whole new set. If you’ve ever used a two channel / jogwheel but four-deck DJ controller, you’ll know what I mean; that’s basically an application of the concept of layers. It’s like a lockable “shift”.
The Xone:K2 has three layers, and to make things easy, the LEDs light red, amber or green to show you which layer you’re currently on. But you get more flexibility than just that, though. You can cycle between layer “modes”, something Allen & Heath calls “layer latching”.
In the first such mode, you can layer only the 16 (4 x 4) “switch matrix” buttons under the line faders. Everything else stays the same no matter what the layer is set to. This could be useful if you’re using the matrix to trigger samples or audio clips while the rest of the device controls four master channels of audio, for instance.
The second mode adds in the switches under the pots, and the top four endless encoders, but leaves the pots and faders unaffected. This gives you more options while still keeping a modicum of basic controls untouched.
Finally, it’s the all-out mode, where the layer button switches every single control to a new layer. Effectively, this is the virtual equivalent of three of these things all sat next to each other.
Sending and returning Midi
This will sound a bit complicated if you’ve never got involved with mapping controllers before, but really it isn’t – or at least, it’s as easy or difficult as the way mapping has been implemented on the software you’re using it with.
Allen & Heath provides clear, colour charts in the manual showing the exact Midi note implementations for all controls, so for instance when you want the aforementioned lights to come on and off to indicate the states of buttons, it’s not difficult to look up what to tell your software to send to the unit. By the way, it’s simple to change the Midi channel too with a two-step setup routine.
Midi mappings take time, but thanks to the clear guides provided with the unit and the nice, intuitive LED feedback, mapping the Xone:K2 is likely to be a fulfilling experience.
X:LINK – what’s it all about?
We said that this was a Midi controller and audio interface with a few cool features. Layering is one, and we consider X:LINK to be another major one. At its simplest, X:LINK joins up two K2s meaning only one of them has to be physically USBed to the computer. If you’re using a two-USB laptop and have another type of controller plugged into your other USB, you’ll instantly see the benefit of this.
Another use for X:LINK is to connect one or two Xone:K2s to a Xone:DB2 or Xone:DB4 mixer. Here, you can X:LINK two K2s together, and X:LINK one of them to the DB mixer – and that’s it. No USB, and both are powered by the mixer which effectively acts as a hub. Of corse, in this instance as the DB mixers have built-in sound, you’ll only be using the K2s ad Midi interfaces, not as audio devices at all.
In fact, under no circumstances will the X:LINK join or aggregate audio devices – for this to happen you still need to USB both units into your laptop. Furthermore, while you can create aggregate devices easily on a Mac, you’ll have to use third-party software to do so on a PC. So if you want to feed all audio outputs of a pair of K2s into a mixer to give you a four-channel stereo setup, X:LINK isn’t going to be part of your solution.
Using the Traktor mappings is simple; you grab them from the website (they didn’t seem to be on my CD for some reason) and import to Traktor, set your audio output routing, and all works. Allen and Heath has helpfully provided printable mapping information to keep to hand, and it is a canny move to provide an X1 emulation as well as a sample deck mapping, at least to get people started.
I am not going to go into too much detail about these specific mappings, as the whole point of this controller is that you map it to do what you want. Instead, I decided to power up Algoriddim’s djay software, mainly because it is ridiculously simple to map Midi controllers to. Within 10 minutes I had basic control over two decks, including pitch, and all EQs and channel faders mapped too. Assigning the bottom endless rotary to crossfader completed a basic mapping.
With a day or so, I am confident I could get everything else mapped and have a great little custom controller for that software, using at least one of the layers for effects (for instance).
I don’t agree with arguing over whether 16-bit or 24-bit audio is best – this is 16-bit audio, but other factors (rest of equipment chain, quality of recordings, understanding gain staging, venue acoustics, more esoteric technical info such as frequency range and response, signal to noise etc) have a much bigger bearing on sound quality from an audio interface than arguing over digital bitrates. Plus 16-bit has always sounded fine to me.
Instead, I’ll say this: I trust Allen & Heath not to put sub-standard audio interfaces into their gear. They’re a mixer company, after all. Suffice to say that the audio from the unit is perfectly passable, and crucially, it’s also loud enough for both headphones and feeding either straight to powered speakers/PA or into an external mixer. Good enough for me.
Kudos to Allen and Heath for taking the best parts of their nonetheless now dated and bulky Xone:1D and Xone:2D devices, seeing the success of the jogwheel-less Trkator Kontrol X1, and bringing it all together in a new device with built-in audio. Of course, it suffers from an inherent characteristic of this type of device: One size will never exactly fit all. You’ll always want a control where there isn’t one, or the ability to label up things once you’re happy with them (a wipe-clean overlay would be a nice accessory, guys).
But the flipside of this is that, assuming you can master the intricacies of mapping to whatever software attracts you, you can craft a controller that’s customised pretty much to how you want it to be.
The built-in sound card is a good option to have as it saves you taking an extra one, but it does mean that if you’re pairing one or two of these with a digital mixer, you’ve paid for a sound card you’ll never use. I guess it’s the price you pay for flexibility.
Speaking of flexibility, the X:LINK and layer options are for me ultimately what stand the Xone:K2 apart from some other Midi controllers, and coupled with its pro build quality, what make it a controller that could quite possibly do really well for the Allen & Heath.
I’m sure we’ll see some really cool mappings appearing for it in due course, and Allen & Heath would do well to foster an eco-system around what I am sure will become a fervent user community once these hit the streets in numbers.
Overall, then, if you’re a DJ who wants to add extra digital control to an existing digital set-up, or who wants to use a slimline device as your only controller alongside a laptop, and you’re attracted to making a mapping that suits you, the Xone:K2 has got to be something you’ll want to look at seriously.
Likewise, if you play in cramped DJ booths or in places where you never know how much space you’re going to have, and aren’t prepared to switch to CDJs in such circumstances, you’ve now got an alternative to using a Traktor Kontrol X1. What’s more, this alternative doesn’t have the Traktor focus as far as labelling and control layout goes, and so will be equally at home mapped to whatever software you choose. We think it’s a winner.