For a long time, Serato users could only look at their Traktor-using friends’ X1s and X1 mk2s with envy – there simply wasn’t anything like that for their platform. With the arrival of Akai Professional’s AFX, however, that time is officially over.
When my AFX got delivered, I was about to leave for a little tour through Poland (IDA World DJ Championships) and Finland (Biohacker Summit) – although I didn’t have any real hands-on time with it, I couldn’t resist this perfect opportunity to give the unit a proper real-life test and took it with me.
My setup for this trip was rather simple: a Rane Sixty-Four mixer, a Pioneer RMX-500 effects unit, two laptops and an iPad Air 2 running Lemur. When I arrived in Poland and hooked up the AFX in the hotel to try it out, I quickly realized my Lemur template wouldn’t get much attention – here’s why.
The AFX has 8 bright RGB-backlit pads – indentical to the ones found on the Numark NV – that cover all current Serato DJ functions and also offer the same colour feedback as the NV: coloured hot cues, auto loops, loop rolls, manual loops, flips, slicer, slicer loop and sample triggering both with and without velocity sensitivity. The difference to the NV is that the secondary layer of the cue buttons doesn’t trigger cue loops (set/trigger hot cue and set auto loop at the same time), but replaces 4 of the hot cues with basic transport controls: play, cue, sync and stutter.
Looking up from the pads, you will find two shift buttons, Flip record/playback controls and a big push encoder with a bright blue numeric display just above it. This encoder controls multiple parameters, depending on which mode the pads are in – for example, in auto/looproll mode it changes the loop length (shown on the numeric display – very useful because the Serato DJ interface doesn’t handle that well at all) and moves the loop with shift held down, in sample mode it controls sample volume and switches banks with shift held down and so forth. What’s notable is that when the pads are in transport mode, it switches to library navigation control – you can browse, load tracks and toggle between the crates and their content. I’m stressing this because I keep seeing Serato users reach for their laptops just to load tracks… it doesn’t have to be that hard, guys.
The center section of the AFX is dedicated to effects control. You can assign effects units to decks (unless you have a mixer with post-fader inserts which makes this option obsolete), tap BPM and switch effect unit modes (chained for three basic effects and single for one effect with advanced parameters) as well as select individual effects from the customizable list. The feature that makes this section fun to work with are the capacitive knobs, again same as those found on the Numark NV and the NS7 mk2: when activated, touching a knob will also automatically trigger the effect assigned to it, speeding up combo performances a lot. If you’re not 100% tight on triggering hot cues and loops, there’s also a quantize button to help you with that.
Finally, at the top of the AFX there is a touch strip with indicator LEDs underneath. For those familiar with Numark gear, this is nothing new – the fírst NS7 already featured a touch strip like this one, albeit limited to rough needle dropping functionality. On the AFX, the touch strip has more functions, accessible via the buttons underneath. One is the aforementioned needle drop, the other is pitch bend and the third one is effect parameter control.
When you DJ using vinyl in relative mode, being able to quickly skip to a specific spot in a track that doesn’t have hot cues comes in really handy, whereas pitch bend is only necessary when you DJ in internal playback mode. While you can use pitch bend even with timecode control, touching the record is quicker and more precise. The effect control mode is where things get interesting because it adds another layer of interaction. It’s basically slip mode for effects: you can tweak the parameters of all active effects at once, but when you release the touch strip, their values reset to whatever the current position of the corresponding knob is. This allows for instant parameter jumps that are simply impossible to do with rotary controls.
HOW THE AFX SAVED MY LIFE
Imagine you’re booked to play a party, you brought your gear, but due to an unlucky coincidence there are no turntables for you to use. This happened to me on the last night of the trip. Of course, without the AFX I could have quickly and easily mapped one of the Sixty-Four’s MIDI layers to at least have transport controls, but that would force me into a constant back-and-forth between layers which is prone to error – I don’t like it. With the AFX, I was able to play comfortably for 6 hours straight without a single hiccup – but only because my tracks are painstakingly gridded and I’m not afraid to push SYNC. If I were to beatmatch manually, the lack of a pitch fader would’ve required another custom mapping on my mixer.
Aside from pitch bend, the AFX doesn’t have pitch controls because it’s designed as a companion unit to the AMX which has them (albeit rudimentary) – but when you’re working with another mixer and turntables like I do, you won’t miss anything at all.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT?
There’s always room for improvement. I would’ve loved a high-res mode on the touch strip to really nail a specific spot on a track (the AMX has a solution for that), but after speaking to Akai I’ve learned that this will be part of an update that’s coming in a few weeks. So is a carrying case that will double as a stand raising the unit to mixer/turntable level – definitely high up on the “want” list, although in my opinion it should’ve been included in the package in the first place. Then again, NI made us buy them separately too, so you can’t blame Akai here. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Electrix absolutely nailed this with the Tweaker by including both a carrying case and four screw-on legs. Until official accessories hit the streets, you’ll have to improvise – I found that a Magma needle case works pretty well as a makeshift stand.
In terms of features, one thing I miss on the AFX is a button to trigger Slip Mode or Bleep (momentary reverse playback, a function found on most higher-end Numark controllers) – let’s hope that at least one of those makes it into a future update. After all, there are two shift buttons on the unit… redundancy is good, but on a small controller like this – why not use one of them for something different?
The AFX is still an excellent add-on unit to a Serato-based setup that I can recommend with no reservations whatsoever. It’s very portable and you can use up to four of them at a time – while that’s a bit overkill, I can see myself using two of them to control decks 3 and 4 without having to switch layers too often.
LAST MINUTE UPDATE: A SNEAK PEEK AT THE CASES
We’ve just received three shots of the upcoming official carrying cases. No word on the price yet, but it’s probably safe to assume they’re not going to break the bank. It seems the cover has holes to fit the small rubber legs which will help keep the controllers in place – looks promising.
– Almost all relevant Serato DJ features covered
– Capacitive knobs
– Bright RGB-backlit pads
– Useful touch strip, although the resolution of search function could be better (we’re told it will be improved soon)
– No pitch controls aside from pitch bend (this will also change soon)
– No slip mode button (yet?)