Union Audio Elara.4

Union Audio’s Elara.4 is a small window into Andy Rigby-Jones’ legendary career in DJ mixer design

We speak to the Cornwall-based mixer guru about his latest brainchild and the journey to bring it to life.

Union Audio Elara.4. Image: Simon Vinall for MusicTech

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Andy Rigby Jones has been silently helping shape the modern DJ booth for almost 30 years. He’s not a household name for the casual DJ, nor likely known by many superstar DJs. But the artists who are deeply dedicated to their craft will be familiar with his vast catalogue of influential DJ mixers.

His expertise and passion led to a collaboration with techno titan Richie Hawtin on the PLAYDifferently Model 1 mixer in 2016, and to his key contributions to MasterSounds, a UK-based luxury rotary mixer brand. He’s also one of the people you can thank for conceptualising those filters on your favourite DJ mixers.

READ MORE: Union Audio’s Elara.4 is an analogue DJ mixer that’s “tiny but mighty” with “exemplary” build quality

But, much like fellow Cornishman Aphex Twin, Rigby-Jones tends to keep his head down and focus on creating what he loves. His latest wonder is the £1,800 Elara.4, released by his Union Audio brand. It’s a compact and understated DJ mixer with an emphasis on high-grade audio, supreme durability and straight-up fun. “I’ve based all of the Union Audio products on what someone else isn’t doing, rather than copying a trend,” he says from his Cornwall workshop. “We’ve always looked to innovate something; to find a niche that we can excel in.”

Union Audio Elara.4. Image: Simon Vinall for MusicTech
Union Audio Elara.4. Image: Simon Vinall for MusicTech

As soon as we unbox the Elara.4, we realise we’re holding something special. It might not be perfect to all (some MusicTech readers bemoan the RCA record outputs instead of quarter-inch TRS outputs) but it is beautifully made. The faders are smooth but firm; the pots and dials are strong and responsive; the design is elegant and not overdone; just how Rigby-Jones wants it.

He wants users to “have the enjoyment of a nice aesthetic, good sound quality, and have it fit within their lifestyle… it’s designed as more of a lifestyle product than it is a club installation product.” He teases that a club-grade mixer from Union Audio “might come later,” but we immediately understand why the Elara will work better in plush listening bars or treasured home setups. You’re not exactly going to want an IPA spilled over this during a set.

Union Audio Elara.4. Image: Simon Vinall for MusicTech
Union Audio Elara.4. Image: Simon Vinall for MusicTech

As classy and coveted as the Elara.4 might be, we’re curious to learn how Rigby-Jones arrived at the design. With over 40 years of DJing under his belt and three decades in the mixer-making game, he clearly knows what to strive for in a new product. And it must be nice to be able to make equipment that’s almost custom-built to his needs – “It is a bit cheeky,” he laughs. But it turns out he’s been doing that since day one.

Rigby-Jones happened across DJing in 1970s Cornwall, around the same time the rest of the world became accustomed to headphone-wearing tastemakers commanding the music in clubs.

“I was a teenager in the 70s, when the disco explosion happened,” he explains. “We used to go to the local disco and everything else; I loved the music. DJing was suddenly starting to become a bit of a thing. For some reason, I decided I wanted to be a DJ. But equipment was so expensive back then – it was certainly out of the reach of a teenager. So I ended up building a lot of my own kit – amps, a mixer, speakers and stuff. That’s how I got both into DJing and really into electronics.

ANDY RIGBY-JONES
Andy Rigby-Jones. Image: Union Audio

“And it wasn’t really until… I mean I started DJing on a regular basis in the late 70s – I got a club residency in 1979 – and I DJ’d at least once a week, most weeks, until the year 2000,” he says with a bashful chuckle. “It was a 20-year career of DJing local gigs. So music has been an integral part of my life, as has electronics.”

Alongside his local DJing gig, Rigby-Jones found himself a job in mechanics, having trained as an engineer following his spurt of DIY mixer making. But he soon found himself in need of a new venture.

“I was suddenly out of work at the beginning of the 90s. And just by coincidence, Allen & Heath were advertising for staff. So I got a job with them and, at the time, I thought it was only going to be a temporary career. I hadn’t particularly thought about it. But the rest is history; I stayed there for an awfully long time – 20-odd years, anyway.”

Union Audio Elara.4. Image: Simon Vinall for MusicTech
Union Audio Elara.4. Image: Simon Vinall for MusicTech

Allen & Heath, at the time, was renowned for its live mixers, thanks to musical advocates such as Pink Floyd, The Who and Genesis. Rigby-Jones joined the brand as an assembler on the shop floor, but soon moved into the test department and rose into a junior R&D position in the mid-90s, continuing to work on the live sound equipment while keeping his DJ gig on the side.

“There’s the rub. I wanted a good DJ mixer because there wasn’t anything I liked,” he says. “So I persuaded the powers that be: ‘let me do a prototype DJ mixer!’ It wasn’t that I thought there was a huge commercial value in it, I just wanted to build a DJ mixer that I wanted to play with. And that’s how the original Xone:62 came about. That would’ve been the late-90s.

“We took that to the Frankfurt Musikmesse [a now-extinct music gear trade show], showed it on the stand, and got a lot of interest. And, yeah, then we developed that into a product and launched it in 2000, I think.”

Union Audio Elara.4. Image: Simon Vinall for MusicTech

By this point, Rigby-Jones found himself fascinated by frequency filters. He says he “wasn’t really supposed to be” playing with filter circuits, but was “blown away” by the sound.

“Of course, filtering was starting to come into music production at that time,” he continues. “A lot of house tracks had filters on. And I thought ‘wow, a DJ mixer with filters would be super cool.’ So that was the sort of hook with [Allen & Heath’s] Xone range at that time: it had filters.”

Filters were just the first step. Before he knew it, Rigby-Jones was helping design mixers to accompany laptops for digital DJs and was part of a revolution in DJing. “There was a lot of resistance to CDJs,” he says. “Slowly it became more acceptable. But then suddenly, computer laptop DJing came and everyone was like, ‘Oh, wow, that’s cool,’ and there wasn’t that resistance.

“We did the Xone:92, the whole Xone range and the accessories. We were the first company to get into professional DJ controllers – the brand was associated with analogue mixers, but Xone produced one of the first multichannel DJ controllers, the Xone: 3D, which was sort of ahead of the game.”

Union Audio Elara.4. Image: Simon Vinall for MusicTech
Union Audio Elara.4. Image: Simon Vinall for MusicTech

Developing such forward-thinking products was seldom intentional. Naturally, Rigby-Jones still enjoys the odd DJ mix or two – so would you if you’d been doing it since the 70s and found yourself surrounded by mixers all the time. While mixing, he finds moments where he’ll conceive a new feature or design quirk, and get a feel for what might work.

“With the PLAYDifferently Model 1, it’s got a fairly unique EQ system, which is nearly all filters – high-pass, low-pass, and then a swept-mid. And [that concept] came from just playing around.”

Union Audio’s Elara.4 is no different. He says that the compact mixer “came about from me playing around at home, mixing. And at the time, I was using a MasterSounds Two Valve, which is a lovely little mixer. But it’s only two channels. But I had a tiny little place to DJ in and I could barely get two decks and the Two Valve. And I thought, ‘Well, it’d be really nice to have four channels – 2CDJs and my two vinyl decks. But I haven’t got any room – I can’t be alone in having limited booth space.’

Union Audio Elara.4. Image: Simon Vinall for MusicTech
Union Audio Elara.4. Image: Simon Vinall for MusicTech

“That’s how Elara came about. It’s a niche product, you know. A lot of people might say, ‘Not exactly for me.’ But some people will go, ‘Wow, that’s what I’ve been waiting for: a compact four-channel mixer that isn’t gonna take up my booth.’”

The mixer maestro doesn’t allude to why he left Allen & Heath. But, evidently, he’s found tremendous joy in the freedom of Union Audio, working with Hawtin on the PLAYDifferently series, and with MasterSounds head honcho Ryan Shaw on rotary mixers. Shaw said as much in our MasterSounds cover feature earlier in 2023: “Andy is now an integral part of MasterSounds and I’m an integral part of what Andy does. We chat daily and it’s not just a partnership, it’s a friendship.”

But this is only Union Audio’s second product. Its inaugural mixer, the Orbit.6 rotary mixer, was released in 2022 and comes at an eye-watering price of £5,490 – definitely more for the purists and die-hard DJs.

Union Audio Elara.4. Image: Simon Vinall for MusicTech
Union Audio Elara.4. Image: Simon Vinall for MusicTech

Thankfully, such purists have sent tons of positive feedback to Union Audio, and MasterSounds’ reputation speaks for itself. With the Elara.4, Rigby-Jones says that the feedback so far has all been “fantastic”. On our earlier mention of the RCA connectors for the record output, he notes that “most recorders are gonna use mini-jacks or RCA, so we went with the most common one. But everything else is XLR and quarter-inch jacks.”

For him, his favourite part of the Elara.4 is the aesthetics. “With all the products that we’ve built, we give them a slightly hi-fi look, with the machined aluminium panel front panels. So I love the aesthetics of it. It’s got a really nice EQ. The filter is nice and smooth, and the isolator is interesting. It’s a little bit different to most isolators – it’s got a narrower Q – but you can do some really cool things with it, especially texturing the bass.”

Union Audio Elara.4. Image: Simon Vinall for MusicTech
Union Audio Elara.4. Image: Simon Vinall for MusicTech

Rigby-Jones and his team at Union Audio are working on a range of new products, including a multi-effects unit, a bespoke headphone preamp, a new iteration of the Orbit.6, and more. We can’t help but ask what his vision of a future DJ booth might be like.

“It’s the question everyone’s been asking for the last 20 or 30 years. ‘What’s next?’ And it’s so hard to predict,” he laughs. “[Pioneer DJ’s] CDJs are so cool. Not just the CDJ, but the media player. I mean, hardly anyone ever uses CDs anymore – we just call them CDJs. But they are such a clever piece of kit. You can see why everyone wants to use them. And, to be honest, do you really want to take a laptop around with you anymore? Unless you are Richie Hawtin and you’re doing live production work, with 20 channels in the mix. For most people, two or three for two DJs, and you’ve got an awesome set.”

We wonder whether more hefty mixers, such as the Pioneer V10, could allude to a bigger DJ cockpit.

“For most people, that’s probably overkill,” Rigby-Jones retorts. “I mean, when you think of where all the mixers in the world go, they aren’t all going into clubs. And it’s something that I find quite funny, really: lots of our customers, they’re not youngsters. They’re mature, professional people, who have had a successful career, but they still love dance music.

Union Audio Elara.4. Image: Simon Vinall for MusicTech
Union Audio Elara.4. Image: Simon Vinall for MusicTech

“And when you think that house music came in nearly 40 years ago, people who were teenagers, or early 20s, they’re now mature people. But that music still is with them. It’s almost come full circle… I can remember when house music came out and people were saying ‘It’ll be gone in a year.’ But it’s still here and hasn’t changed that much. Thank goodness.”

Many people’s lust for music equipment is the same – it hasn’t changed that much. Although we’ve got access to futuristic music gear, there’s just something all too attractive about a vintage-looking bit of gear. Whether it’s a rugged Fender Stratocaster, a reissue of the classic Minimoog, a fondness for a big vinyl collection, or a retro-style mixer like a MasterSounds Valve or Union Audio Elara.4.

Artists and DJs who have spent years honing their craft will often be curious about what lurks beyond the chunky, battered mixers in the venues they regularly play in. It might just be the Elara.4. Just, c’mon, keep that IPA away from the decks.

Check out the Elara.4 and more about Union Audio’s story. 

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