Ryan Shaw, head of MasterSounds: “When you mix on a rotary, it’s an experience…like it’s your first mix at Café Mambo every single time”
From the jungles of Costa Rica to the ‘New Berlin’ backstreets of Stockport, MasterSounds Valve MK2 rotary mixer is reigniting the golden age of sound in DJ booths across the globe – and the revolution will not be bastardised.
Image: Simon Vinall for MusicTech
Like many of the best audio companies, MasterSounds began life almost by accident with one person’s obsession with buying, selling and repairing gear. But where Jim Marshall’s attention turned to building guitar amps and John Bowers of B&W began perfecting the loudspeaker, Ryan Shaw is on a mission to make DJs sound biblical. His latest effort might be considered esoteric, but give the Valve MK2 rotary mixer half a chance and you’ll likely fall head over heels in love.
“Rotary mixers were the first disco mixers; they called it ‘the golden age of sound’,” Shaw tells MusicTech from his Stockport HQ in Greater Manchester. “I’ve grown up with hundreds of different DJ mixers so you know when something special comes along – and rotary mixers really are. We wanted to create beautiful, esoteric audio equipment handbuilt in the UK and instead of having faders, we have rotary controls. You feel more attachment using the volumes together to create something glorious.”
Indeed, rotary DJ mixers have existed since the 70s and the dawn of the DJ. Typically, knobs replace channel faders and traditional EQ bands are substituted for isolators to manipulate a wider band of frequencies. They’re perhaps not so useful for scratch DJs, but they open up a world of opportunity for other deck spinners. And, with analogue summing proving popular for ‘warming up’ mixes, the MasterSounds Valve MK2 is said to be a “world-class” performer.
Dispelling the notion around sequels, the brand’s “most club-ready mixer to date” eclipses 2019’s MK1 with several additional features, including new VariableQ high-pass filters on each channel, a redesigned three-band EQ that’s more responsive, an RIAA input stage, plus a high-quality Innofader. Choose from the two-channel Two Valve MK2 or four-channel Four Valve MK2 in silver or black, all handbuilt in Cornwall by the analogue wizards at Union Audio. Frankly, it looks irresistible.
“With the MK1, we wanted to create a club-standard DJ mixer with fewer features that was all about sound quality,” says Shaw, a prolific crate digger in his own right. “The MK2 keeps the original form but adds to the performance. It’s also about the build inside – high-specification components, and a beautiful circuit design. When you mix on a rotary, it’s an experience. It’s a mixer you can fall in love with. Some are great to play on, but they don’t give you that feeling like it’s your first mix at Café Mambo every single time.”
Shaw’s passion for vinyl and that warm, fuzzy analogue sound is infectious. He got his first set of decks aged 13 after being bestowed some “amazing rap records” by his brother and never looked back. “I started off with Public Enemy, Ice Cube, Ice T, N.W.A, that kind of stuff,” says the now 43-year-old. “It soon moved onto early house records and, before I knew it, I was buying stuff for 25 pence from the local record shop, I had no idea what they were, but I was obsessed. I started playing out at bars and got a few lucky breaks.
“I was working at Phonica Records in London in 2007 when the whole scene imploded and the digital thing really kicked off,” Shaw continues. “A lot of distributors went out of business, the vinyl thing slowed down and nobody was looking after anything anymore. I come from a family of engineers, so I started making audio accessories to help out vinyl DJs and that’s where the idea and passion came from. Back then a lot of people were in trouble and it was all about keeping vinyl alive. I wanted to create products people would be really proud to own.”
After selling re-tuned audio kit as ‘MasterSounds approved’ with trusted friend Tristan Kelly, Shaw became mesmerised by how equipment worked and moved onto turntables – something the company continues today with its refurbished Technics SL-1200 and SL-1210s. “We had contracts with all the clubs but I was more into understanding how to make things sound better and learning about fidelity,” he adds.
“I played in Ibiza – [the venue] had an Allen & Heath Xone V6 in the booth and I remember thinking ‘Oh my God, how do I use it? This is insane’,’ says Shaw. [British DJ] Pete Gooding was a resident at the time and he just said ‘Right, lift the high-pass [filter] up, bring the channel in, swap the filters and off you go’. I did it once and was hooked. The mixer was really expensive and I couldn’t afford it, but I eventually found one for sale and badgered the guy to give me his number. I called him at about half 10 at night and it turned out to be Andy Rigby-Jones, the original designer of Allen & Heath’s Xone series.
“We kept in contact and it got to the point where I really wanted to develop my own DJ mixer. Andy had finished a project with Richie Hawtin and just launched Union Audio, so we made a desktop mixer called the Radius 2. 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. We have a similar ethos with sound, while Andy’s engineering and electronic experience is legendary. I go down to Cornwall with the family, we break bread and talk about audio.”
MasterSounds has worked with everyone from Boiler Room and Ninja Tune to The Chemical Brothers and Hospital Records and its stock is rising rapidly. Shaw cites Erykah Badu as a dream artist he would love to work with, but right now he’s enjoying seeing a growing pool of respected DJs fall under the spell of his rotary masterpieces. DJ’s like Luke Una.
“Ryan was someone I met through DJing and I loved his focus,” Una tells MusicTech. “Like me, there’s a deep fascination with quality that overrides all financial gain. He probably shouldn’t have started MasterSounds because it’ll fuck him for the rest of his life. I mean that in a positive way. He’s so obsessed with it and he didn’t do it for money.”
Una was going through a transitional phase as an artist when he was introduced to a MasterSounds mixer. “The difference in sound was phenomenal,” he says. “I don’t want to become one of those Balearic silverbacks moaning about the past and the ‘Promised Land’ of playing fucking gigantic reel-to-reel tape machines to seven people with skinheads and green cagoules, but I loved the attention to detail and the backstory.
“Magic comes from chaos. You have to have chaos inside your soul because you do things you probably shouldn’t. Ryan’s chaos produces magic. He does things that probably don’t make sense financially for a lot of companies and you see that in the quality. I’m now using the Valve MK2 at my gigs because it’s so fucking good. I think a lot of DJs are frightened of it but everyone should do sessions on a rotary mixer. It takes half an hour to learn, but once you’re into it you’re into it – sometimes the comfort zone is the coffin. The longer, slower mix, the builds, the blends; they work beautifully.”
Una, set to embark on a series of live dates starting with cult venue The Golden Lion in Todmorden, West Yorkshire, from 20 May, says the MasterSounds Valve MK2 has made an impression wherever he’s taken it. “I was at Cobalt Studios [Newcastle-upon-Tyne] and took the Four Valve MK2 and they were like ‘Wow, the difference is insane.’ They’ve got a brilliant setup there, but, whichever way you take your sound, every engineer has been blown away. It’s so bougie, so perfectly formed, and everything is in the right place. Again, that’s down to the meticulous mind of Ryan as a DJ.
“There is a purity to [the Valve MK2] and, among the young lot coming through, there’s a real thirst for this quality of mixer. Now places like Night Tales and Fabric will let you bring your own mixer, while Cobalt Studios and Faith In Strangers show real attention to detail and it works. People are enjoying themselves and they don’t necessarily know why – it’s because there are no bad frequencies and the sound is warm.”
Una and Shaw’s synergy is so palpable that the pair are planning a pop-up audio bar together. “We started talking about doing stuff together and just by osmosis we found we have very similar outlooks,” says Una. “It’s called Queen Samantha’s, which is an old Italo disco tune that was huge in New York. We get a coffee machine in, sell some records, and listen to classic albums from Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye. We both believe there’s got to be some alchemy – the alchemy is passionate people playing beautiful records in a place where people come and socialise in 3D.”
From UK dancefloors to DJ booths globally, the rotary mixer message is spreading. “We have mixers all over the world, from the jungles of Costa Rica to the Pacific islands,” says Shaw bashfully. “It can be a chameleon, the MK2, because people can understand it if they’ve come from a fader background or if they’re familiar with a three or four-band EQ.
“A typical scenario would normally be to cue your tracks up, familiarise yourself with the layout, drop the bass out, switch basslines, and bring the next track in. I say no; just leave them, bring in whatever you’re mixing and feel how the summing comes alive. Feel how the circuitry and the valve technology through the output stage enable you to really feel the music. The harsh transients are removed and the EQ is responsive.
“The Valve MK2 is a valve mixer so it’s a very old-school way of circuit design. We’ve tried to create a sound which is open, natural and dynamic with a high headroom and minimal distortion. But what’s the best sound? That’s subjective. It’s more about the whole experience. Like hi-res audio, it will bring out the intricacies of a record you didn’t realise were there. A lot of the hardcore and jungle records I listen to aren’t produced well (in fact, they’re a bit of a mess) but highlighting those flaws can be beautiful.
“It’s meant to give you confidence whether you play records or DJ digitally – all our mixers have line inputs and digital DJs still say how amazing things sound through our mixers because you’re stepping out of the digital realm and into the analogue. MasterSounds is steeped in analogue tradition but we’re by no means against digital formats. Digital is amazing and you can use it to be so creative.”
So what next for Shaw’s fascination with high quality? “It’s been a high-fidelity journey over 15 years from a DJ background into a proper hi-fi understanding and amalgamating that into a company that produces analogue high-end audio equipment. But you know we make loudspeakers as well?” he says eagerly.
“It’s a small system called the Clarity A, but for our 15th anniversary we’ve built a 16,000-watt large format sound system with 12 subs. I’ve been obsessed with loudspeakers since I was a child. My uncle had a really old KEF system and that set me off into this mad experiment with sound.
“So we can now close the loop on the full MasterSounds experience and say ‘Look, we’re not just a rotary mixer company’ – we’re far from that.”
Learn more about MasterSounds and the Valve MK2 at mastersounds.co.uk
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