If you're looking to dip your toes into the waters of digital DJing, the M-Audio Torq Mixlab package ($129) is a smart way to go. The package gives you a scaled-down "LE" version of their Torq DJ software and a beefy USB hardware controller. Used together, the Mixlab package is an affordable and approachable entry point for the aspiring MP3 DJ.
Choices for the digital DJ
Off-the-shelf digital DJ packages come in two flavors: systems that retrofit an existing turntable DJ rig (Final Scratch, Serato, and Torq Conectiv); and systems that don't assume you'll be using a turntable to control your DJ set (Traktor, PCDJ, and Deckadance). The Torq Mixlab package falls into the latter category. It's also the most affordable system in the bunch and offers the advantage of easily scaling up to a turntable-based rig by purchasing M-Audio's Torq Conectiv package.
Compared to the competition, the Torq LE software is relatively thin on features. Torq LE is a slightly stripped-down version of the fully loaded Torq software that comes bundled with the pricier Torq Conectiv system ($300). Clearly M-Audio hopes that Mixlab users will eventually upgrade to the more full-featured Conectiv package. In the meantime, Mixlab users should be pleasantly surprised at how much control the Torq LE software affords them.
Torq LE looks and behaves much like a classic DJ setup, with a few tricks thrown in for fun. Users have two decks on the left and right of the screen, where they can drag songs from their music library. If you have an iTunes library on your hard drive, Torq will automatically locate it and create a navigation shortcut within the software. Multiple audio formats are supported, including MP3, AIFF, WAV, WMA, Apple Lossless, and AAC. Once you have your music loaded, you can launch the tracks, automatically sync their tempos, crossfade between them, apply EQ, create multiple loops within a song, and even record the whole mix as an uncompressed WAV file.
Beyond the basics, there were also some professional features on Torq LE that we were surprised to see. First and foremost, unlike novelty DJ systems like the Hercules Mobile DJ MP3, the Torq LE software allows users to easily custom-assign almost any parameter in the software to the included hardware controller (or any connected MIDI controller). This means that if you want to go crazy and have your hardware EQ knobs control your software's headphone volume, you're free to reassign them. Another pro feature that M-Audio left in their LE edition of Torq is the ability to customize the sharpness of the crossfader curve. By altering the curve shape, you can use the crossfader for quick cutting effects or supersmooth transitions. We were also pleased to see built-in effects such as high-pass/low-pass filtering, phaser, and strobe (an auto-cut effect), as well as multichannel audio output support.
Of course, M-Audio doesn't want to give out all the goodies in their entry-level package. Features such as VST effect hosting, virtual scratching, line-input, and sample playback are only found in the full version of the software that's included with the more expensive Torq Conectiv DJ package. Beyond Torq, competing programs like PCDJ and Traktor offer options like running multiple decks (instead of just two), extended MIDI flexibility, and integrated music downloads. For the money, however, the M-Audio Mixlab and its Torq LE software can't be beat.
The sound quality of the Torq Mixlab package is only as good as the computer and sound card the system is hosted on. The included hardware is strictly a control interface and does nothing to route or process audio. The controller is very responsive, however, and any lag between the hardware and software was negligible on our system. Plugging the controller in over USB, we found that the M-Audio hardware was instantly recognized on both Mac OSX and Windows XP, without any hardware driver installation required.
If we have one complaint about the Torq Mixlab system, it's that the hardware controller is ridiculously oversized. The same configuration of knobs, buttons, and sliders could have been put together in an enclosure about half the size. M-Audio presumably beefed-up their hardware controller to deliberately match the size of analog DJ mixers and help bolster the self-esteem of nascent DJs. In reality, the reason most DJs are switching over to digital is because MP3-based systems don't require carrying around the kind of bulky equipment that the Mixlab controller is trying so hard to emulate. The issue is compounded by the fact that the hardware controller must be connected to your computer in order for the Torq LE software to launch--effectively making the controller into huge software security key. If you're looking for a DJ software solution that will allow you to sketch ideas on-the-go, the Torq Mixlab package might be too cumbersome.
With so many digital solutions on the market, it's easy to nitpick over features and lose sight of how liberating this technology is. A product like the M-Audio Torq Mixlab would have been unimaginable a decade ago, and certainly not at this price. This is a fantastic value for an entry-level system that will hopefully inspire a new generation of DJs who'll never know the back strain caused by lugging around record crates and a pair of Technics 1200s.