Is it a mixer? Is it a controller? Is it a sonic mangler? Yes, yes and yes. And if you run Ableton Live you’ll probably want one.
Text: Anthony Touma
When you think of mixers, Korg isn’t a name that immediately springs to mind. Then again, this is no ordinary mixer. It’s a killer MIDI controller, FX unit and quality analogue/digital mixer rolled into a single unit… That’s what Zero is all about.
Marketed primarily as a DJ ‘core station’, the Zero8 allows anyone using a computer and outboard gear to seamlessly integrate them into a single mixing desk. Clearly, given the features and layout, the Zero is meant to work hand in glove with audio software, or more specifically, live performance tools such as Ableton Live or Native Instruments’ Traktor Scratch. There are two flavours of mixer: Zero4 and Zero8, each providing the same number of channels as its numerical tag suggests. I had the eight-channel version in my hot little hands for this review.
ZERO BUILD QUALITY
The Zero8 employs a sturdy metal chassis with the power transformer built in (great for gigging musicians). You’ll find vented plastic plates along the sides, which seem quite tough, although I suspect they’d be the first parts of the mixer to show signs of wear. The knobs are all very smooth and sturdy, and the faders relatively light and reminiscent of more expensive pro audio mixers. Saying that, Korg might meet some resistance from scratch DJs who are more accustomed to feather-light faders – it’s hard to please everyone on that count.
One of the most noticeable Zero features is the colour-coded lighting under the knobs. Eight well-spaced channels are highlighted, with orange for audio inputs and blue to indicate a MIDI channel. Depending on the input selection, each channel can behave like a traditional mixer, a MIDI controller, or a hybrid between the two. Not only are these lights very useful in the dark, they up the ‘bling’ factor of a performance no end!
Each of the eight input channels sports a clearly labelled dial that can be switched between phono, line, microphone, guitar (Hi-Z), aux, and MIDI input sources. It’s a refreshing change to other mixers in a similar class that are quite limited in this respect. Each channel also has a built-in selection of 12 different digital EQ types, which can be selected on a per-channel basis. There are three knobs on each channel, which can be used to control external sends or be used as assignable MIDI controls (depending on the channel setting). There’s also an internal send FX knob on each channel, which accesses Zero’s effects and filters (more on this later). Each channel includes an A/B press switch that can route the channel to either side of the cross fader. Rounding out the channel controls are the Solo and Cut switches above each fader for that truly DJ mixer feel.
The master section of the Zero8 houses a pair of funky little VU meters (a novel touch, but always welcome). There’s a booth and cue level, as well as a crossfade knob to fine-tune relative levels (great when mixing in clubs). There are eight MIDI assignable buttons and four banks of memory to house them. Beneath all of that, is a very slick LCD touchscreen…
The LCD touchscreen is one of the Zero’s more notable innovations. Thanks to this screen it’s possible to configure the curve types for the cross fader, modify the channel EQ types and utilise the five built-in internal effects. The graphics and menu displays are clear and very easy to use – kudos to Korg on the intuitive system. Being able to draw in your own EQ shapes and styles opens up a whole new range of filter options – the filter remains the most powerful tool in the DJ’s armoury and Korg’s are of geniune quality – fun and powerful. Of course, there’s more to the effects section than the filters, and nosing around the effects was ultimately a slightly stodgy experience on the Zero8 – I guess, I was expecting a few more radical effects patches than were evident in the presets. And in some ways it’s perhaps surprising that Korg didn’t simply go the whole hog and embed a Kaoss Pad into the Zero8, even though the X/Y touchscreen is a cool device. This thing would have been totally unstoppable if they had! A cost issue? Maybe, but I can’t help thinking there’s been a wasted opportunity here.
Spin around to the rear of the Zero8 and you’ll find more than enough I/O. There are no less than three phono RCA inputs (more than enough for turntablists); balanced and unbalanced ins for all channels (TRS, TS), XLR and TRS outputs from the master section as well as a pair of stereo (TRS) ins and outs for each of the two FX send/return channels. A dedicated Hi-Z input is also thrown into the mix for your guitar, and there are two Firewire ports for incoming digital audio and/or MIDI information. An
S/PDIF output is also thrown in just to make all your digital dreams come true.
Two preamps are also included, designed by Peter Watts (of Trident and Mackie fame). These include individual phantom power switches and hi/low gain pad switches at the rear.
Altogether, there are more than enough options for an eight-channel mixer.
I was impressed with the sound quality of the Zero8. The inputs are exceptionally clean. The specs on the preamps are great and when using them with a Rode NT-1 and a Neumann TLM193, I was satisfied with the result. I found all channels on balanced and unbalanced sources to be very clean and clear with low noise – in other words, it’ll keep its end up in the studio as well as in a club. For good measure I did some summing as well, running eight balanced inputs out of my RME Fireface 800 into the Zero8 and the mixdown was roomy, with space, depth and a decent amount of headroom.
ABLETON LIVE TAG TEAM
The Zero8 has been hailed the ultimate controller for Ableton Live and it’s not difficult to see why. Without using the manual – and in a matter of minutes – I had Live’s triggers mapped to the mixer. Switching back and forth between audio and MIDI sources was as simple as turning the selector dial with no unwanted noises or clicks. The MIDI controls on the mixer worked flawlessly and at lightning speeds, even when using the mixer with another Firewire audio interface on the same bus. Feeding Live’s effects into the mixer and back out was also a simple affair and there was no noticeable latency. The Zero8 really brings Live’s effects sections to life in that it provides a practical means of using those effects with external sound sources, all from the same mixer in a flexible and controllable manner.
The Zero8 really packs a punch – it’s a one-of-a-kind device with plenty of features, quality and connectivity. The future DJ and live performance scene will gobble the Zero8 up, and I suspect it won’t take long for other manufacturers to cotton on.
With a product that looks so amazing and has promised so much for so long, there’s always the chance of there being unmet expectations. And for me, I was a little underwhelmed by the intensity of the effects and a little peturbed by the price tag (a tad hefty if you’re not accustomed to pro prices). Still, it’s easy to see where your money is going. The Zero8 represents a lot of sonic firepower, and let’s not forget, Korg has stolen the march on the competition – this is a desirable and unique device, so if you need to save your pocket money, then so be it.
So, there you have it, the much-anticipated Zero8. It’s a beast, and anyone who relies on Ableton Live in the studio or in a club will want one – I guarantee it. The audio/MIDI integration is seamless, and it’s a joy to use.