Co-designed by Richie Hawtin and built in the UK, this fully analogue, pro DJ mixer dares you to “play differently”. Aimed at DJs who play more minimal styles (think tech house, techno and so on), it eschews the crossfader, on-board effects, and many of the usual “standard” controls (like per-channel three-band EQ and one-knob resonant filters). In their place come single parametric EQ and subtle LPF and HPF per channel, a master filter section, a master three-band EQ, two FX send/returns cueing for two DJs independently, and multi-channel I/O via DSUB connectors for attaching an external audio interface. This is now nothing new, as it all came out in 2016 with the Model 1, the six-channel older brother to this mixer. Consider this a cut-down, four-channel Model 1. It’s notable that literally nothing else has changed apart from that – we seem to have a timeless design on our hands here.
First Impressions / Setting up
The PLAYdifferently Model 1.4 is a four-channel version of 2016’s Model 1 mixer, a singular, professional, analogue DJ mixer designed for a very specific type of DJ. It is the brainchild of veteran mixer designer Andy Rigby-Jones, and Richie Hawtin.
It is a slim device, slimmer even than the Traktor Kontrol Z2, but doesn’t feel cramped, and the all-metal build quality is superlative, as you’d expect for a $2,300 mixer. It feels like an instrument you’d buy and want to keep for life.
That said, I want to make clear that we only just got our hands on this, a couple of months after launch, and it has to go back early next week. So while I get to spend a few hours with the mixer, I suspect my opinions would coalesce a little more if I the chance to spend a little longer with it.
Still, as I am familiar with the ethos of the Model 1, and this is – as I say – pretty much a four-channel version of that mixer, I have a pretty clear idea of what it is and who it’s for.
How it’s different
So as the name suggests here is a mixer that dares to be different. It has no crossfader. No mic channel. It has no standard EQs per-channel. There is no resonance on the channel filters, which are themselves split, with separate controls for low-pass and high-pass.
The list of idiosyncrasies/unique design elements continues: Two send/returns. A two-knob master filter (here you do get resonance, but only on the high-pass filter). A three-band master EQ across the summed output. Cueing for two DJs. A “Drive” knob for each channel, which introduces subtle distortion when pushed hard, and can act a little like a compressor/limiter.
Remember this mixer is 100% analogue, and so it has big, wide DSUB connectors on the back that can carry multi-channel balanced audio to or from pro audio interfaces.
A nice touch is an 1/8″ Record Out socket on the top panel by the master VU meters. The two headphones monitor circuits – designed for two DJs to use the mixer at once – have both 1/4″ and 1/8″ jack sockets. (They’re positioned bottom left and bottom right of the top panel of the mixer.)
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The power supply is an external brick which surprised me and I’m not normally a fan of external power supplies, finding them flimsy and an unnecessary extra item that could have been built-in.
I guess it has been done to keep the transformer away from the audio circuitry, and in this case, there is nothing flimsy about it at all, being comprised of thick cables and a sturdy “brick” plus a well-fitting connector, so it’s fine by me.
Overall, one’s first impression is of an uncompromising, singular design – just as the original Model 1 was – only smaller.
As it’s an analogue mixer, set-up is as with any analogue mixer across the decades: You plug your kit in, and get going. There are no USB sockets, digital ins, or any of that – just four sets of RCA ins (two with switchable high-quality RIAA phono stages), balanced master (XLR) and booth (1/4″ jack) outs, and two balanced stereo send/returns plus an aux in, all also 1/4″ jacks.
But what’s it like to use? And who is it for? Let’s dig deeper.
For me the easiest way to understand this mixer is to see it as an instrument, designed to craft four sources into a finished sound. It is not a mixer for playing songs on as such, rather a mixer for tech house, techno, minimal, and electronic DJ/producer types who want to play with loops and create completely new soundscapes from their source material, on the fly.
So some of the functions you normally find on each individual channel are pushed to the side of the mixer (filter with resonance, three-band EQ). The idea as I read it is that only when you’ve chosen and crafted your source material into something coherent wold you want to make sweeping filter and EQ changes to it.
That means that on a per-channel basis, the controls are far more granular – and unusual.
To start with, you can think of the high-pass and low-pass filters for each channel a little like high and low EQs, as they have no resonance to give that familiar filter “whoosh/swoop”, and so they don;t in any way boost he volume when used. In-between them (literally) is the single parametric EQ per channel, which can be adjusted to cut or boost any frequency of your choice from 70Hz to 7kHz.
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With two independent send/returns (one of which is switchable post/pre-fader) and the aforementioned analogue “Drive” controls per channel, there is ample scope to sculpt basslines, drum patterns and melodies across four channels, for smooth, seamless tech house/techno-style DJ sets, with the finishing touches being added by the master filter and EQ controls.
That’s why there’s no crossfader (and why we’ll never see a Model 1.2) – because this is a mixer designed for blending and sculpting your overall sound from multiple sources, not mixing from finished track to finished track.
It sounds amazing. While I didn’t test the phono stages in the time I had, I have it on good authority from my friend Mojaxx that they are superlative. I almost felt like I was sullying it connecting it up to a computer (DVS via Serato, since you ask) and using digital music with it!
Never mind playing across four channels – with a simple drum loop running through one channel of the mixer, I found myself fascinated by what it was possible to do to alter just a single input. For the types of DJs I mentioned earlier, this mixer is going to be nirvana – just like the Model 1 that came before it.
It is actually perfectly possible to “DJ normally” with this, although the channel faders don’t do an awful lot until they’re near the top of their sweep, and many DJs would miss the EQ and crossfader – but that isn’t really the point. I just wanted you to know it isn’t so far removed from being, well, a mixer, to be used as such if need be.
The PLAYdifferently Model 1.4 is not for everyone. Really, it’s not for most DJs. But for those whom it is aimed at, it’s great.
If you want a modern digital mixer, packed with effects and control over your DJ software, on which to play “finished” tracks primarily, it isn’t for you.
If you want to scratch, it isn’t for you.
But if you’re interested in creating sonic performances that are different every time, based on minimal, “unfinished” input material that you craft and shape, you’ll already probably have twigged that it’s you this is aimed at.
If you also are happy adding your effects externally (there are no effects as such except filter on board this), and want to incorporate musical instruments, it’s definitely talking to you, too.
And if you’re a DJ/producer who works with another DJ/producer, in both making and performing your music, you’re probably noticing the two independent cue circuits and realising how much fun you could have as a duo playing with the Model 1.4.
I think the decision to make the three-band EQ across the master output a non-isolating EQ stage is curious (after all, EQ at this stage in the mix is often referred to as “isolator” EQ, and for me, this is the preferred type for the kinds of music that’ll be played on this mixer), but it’s a small criticism, and I am sure Hawtin would have an answer for that.
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In a way, to conclude a PLAYdifferently Model 1.4 review is hard, because it’s pretty pointless to judge this mixer on what it does have or doesn’t have, or the ways it deviates from the norm – that is, after all, the point of it (it’s in the brand name…).
Instead, know that a mixer like this is really an instrument, and both its features and its limitations actually suggest ways to play, things that are not possible with other gear.
As such it’s a pretty unique bit of kit – it’s nearest competitor is the original Model 1. But you do need to be sure it’s for you, because if it isn’t, it frankly doesn’t give a hoot! It’s a no-compromise piece, that at the end of the day forces you to – ahem – PLAYdifferently.