PLAYdifferently: Richie Hawtin Leads DJ Evolution & its Next Phase with New Mixer
As befitting a guy who’s spent over a quarter of a century making and playing various strains of machine-tooled, systems-driven sounds, Richie Hawtin has always been fascinated by the ways that technology intersects with the creation and deployment of music. And he’s certainly not alone: “Most DJs and electronic musicians are very interested, excited and inspired by the equipment, the instruments that we use,” he’s said. (In other words, we’re tech geeks.)
But Hawtin takes that interest a bit further than most. There’s the music itself, of course: He’s one of the artists who ushered the steely techno sound of minimal into existence; his mixes, like 1999’s Decks, EFX & 909, were masterclasses in precise, fine-tuned layering and editing. And, with its pulsing synthetic grind, what could be more “technological-sounding” than Hawtin’s work under the Plastikman moniker?
There’s also his involvement with the methodologies of DJing and production—he was using Ableton Live as far back as 2001, for instance, and had a hand in the development of Final Scratch, the DJ market’s first digital-vinyl system; for years, he served as one of the latter’s highest-profile ambassadors. He’s tinkered with mixers over the years, too, having played a major role in pushing the Allen & Heath Xone:92—one of the first MIDI-capable units to hit the market.
Recently, interest among the tech-inclined was piqued when hints of a new prototype “instrument” called PLAYdifferently, being developed by Hawtin and former Allen & Heath designer Andy Rigby-Jones, began to filter through the digital grapevine, as well as at the annual NAMM trade show, and through a series of demonstration gigs dubbed the Prototypes Tour. That instrument, of course, turned out to be a new mixer, the PLAYdifferently Model 1.
The Internet being what it is, the online reactions included a bit of digital head-scratching, largely of the “do-we-really-need-another-mixer?” variety. According to Hawtin, the answer is “yes.” The Xone:92 was launched in the early days of this millennium, and as Hawtin tells DJ Times, “I was honestly getting a little bit bored.”
Those who have heard the mixer in action might also answer in the affirmative. One of the stops of the Prototypes Tour was at Brooklyn’s Output, where Hawtin was joined by DJ vets François K and Mike Servito. As Output honcho Shawn Schwartz recalls the night, there was a noticeable divergence between PLAYdifferently and its predecessors in sonic detailing and overall sound quality. “My analogy is that it’s like seeing an image at a higher resolution,” he says. “It sounds really good and mixes frequencies musically, highlighting dynamics and offering improved clarity.”
But Hawtin’s aiming for something more than just a great-sounding mixer. In an interview at this past March’s SXSW convention, he stated that “perhaps we’re at a point where convenience has outweighed creativity”—and he feels that PLAYdifferently will be able to tip the balance back towards the inspirational end of that equation. Among the steps taken to facilitate that aim, the fully analog Model 1 does away with the standard three-band EQs on each channel, opting for a pair of contour filters (low-pass and high-pass), sculpt EQs and overdrive effect. (Note to crossfader lovers: There isn’t one.)
Hitting the shops on June 30, the mixer will set you back a steep $3,650, so we wouldn’t expect to see the Model 1 incorporated into too many bedroom setups. “But I don’t want this mixer to be just for the big names,” Hawtin insists. “I want everybody to be able to play around with it.”
DJ Times: You’ve seemingly turned the cause of unlocking a DJ’s potential into one of the defining elements of your career.
Richie Hawtin: Yeah, definitely, and that’s part of what drives and inspires me. Part of it is to help unlock my own style and my own creativity, of course—but that helps others to do the same.
DJ Times: Why do you think you feel the need to continue to do that, rather than just rest on your laurels?
Hawtin: Well, just talking about myself, for the past couple of years, I’ve I was honestly getting a little bit bored.
DJ Times: Bored of what, exactly?
Hawtin: Of my own set-up. I was beginning to feel like I was now that status quo.
DJ Times: Which is not a familiar place for Richie Hawtin to find himself in.
Hawtin: Not at all. [laughs] I needed something. It was like, OK, I’ve moved from Maschine to Push, and I’ve updated a couple of plug-ins. I started to doubt myself a little bit—had I slipped away from technological development, or even from inspiring the next generation? But I’m feeling very, very excited about this current project.
DJ Times: That current project is a new mixer—but some people might say the ones we have now pretty much do the trick. Why go to the trouble of designing another one?
Hawtin: Well, I’d been on the Xone:92 mixer for 10 or 12 years now. It’s pretty much that simple. The things on the peripheral of mixers had changed; mixers themselves hadn’t changed for ages. And using this new mixer has been like getting a new bike, riding around with training wheels as I got used to it, and then finally seeing all these new creative possibilities. It’s not only exciting for the geek side of me, but it’s incredibly inspiring when I stand up in front of a crowd—whether it’s 200 or 20,000—and I’m using something that I know gives me new capabilities. It has really spurred my energy level on.
DJ Times: In what way?
Hawtin: This mixer’s getting back to the core of what DJing is about for me. And that goes beyond the actual equipment, or whether you’re a digital DJ, or a vinyl DJ, or if you are playing some instruments over top. This mixer allows you to plug in any assortment of devices, and that’s one part of the mindset behind it. This wasn’t built just to plug two turntables into… although if you do, it’s gonna sound fucking amazing.
DJ Times: How did you go about facilitating that sound quality?
Hawtin: Without getting too specific, the fundamental foundation of this was the idea that there is a bottleneck in the DJ booth regarding sound quality, and we really need to open it up. Years ago, the bottleneck didn’t make much difference; actually, it was kind of the opposite. The mixers that were around then—the UREIs, the Xone:62s and 92s—they were state-of-the-art, but on the systems that were installed in clubs at the time, the quality of the mixer probably didn’t make that big a difference. I mean, I played on so many inferior systems over the years, and the mixer was the least of the concerns.
DJ Times: But now with the modern-day clubland emphasis on high-grade sound systems, they do?
Hawtin: Of course. Over the past 20 years, we’ve had so much sound-system development, and all the manufacturers understand how big the electronic-music community is, with DJs playing in front of thousands of people. Sound has become such an important factor. You have clubs that wear the stamp of their brand very proudly: “We’re a Funktion-One club,” or “We’ve spent half a million dollars on our sound system.” We’ve come a long way. But as that’s progressed, there wasn’t the same kind of development on the type of mixers that were on the market. You had the Ranes, you had the Allen & Heaths and you had the Pioneers. Each of them has its own… opinion, I guess, of what good sound quality is.
DJ Times: But you wanted something more?
Hawtin: I would say that I had a different opinion. And it wasn’t just me. Andy Rigby-Jones, when he left Allen & Heath two years ago, was saying it, too: “There’s got to be something more.”
DJ Times: Can you describe the kind of sound you were looking for?
Hawtin: What I was thinking was that everything you plug into a mixer has certain characteristics. A turntable has certain characteristics, some of which is determined by what kind of needle and cartridge you use. Or a computer can have a certain analog-to-digital converter that will make it sound differently. Some people prefer their mixer to have a very transparent, pure sound—and therefore, what comes out of the mixer will sound different, depending on the source.