Perhaps These Are the 'Droids I'm Looking For

Some of you may remember back when I had an Android phone, an HTC Thunderbolt. You may remember how horrid I thought the device was. It was horrid. It still is. However, purchasing the new Behringer XR18 digital mixer has had me looking at Android devices, because the better mobile apps for the mixer are on Android.

Digiland DL718M 7" Android tablet running Behringer X Air Edit app.

What I've found is pleasantly surprising.

The first surprise is that I can get halfway decent, small (7") Android tablets, running the current version operating system, for under $40. "Halfway decent" means quad-core processor, 1GB RAM, 8GB Flash storage, USB 2.0/charge port, a micro-SD slot, a capacitive IPS touch screen with fairly decent resolution, and almost no bloatware. The tablet is good enough, in fact, that I could probably run the full version of the mixer control app on the 7" tablet with a reasonable degree of comfort.

The current Android is version 5.1 "Lollipop" (6.0 "Marshmallow" is just starting to ship), and it is a vast improvement over "Ice Cream Sandwich". It doesn't crash. It loads apps quickly. Networking works. Through an OTG USB connection, I can connect a keyboard and mouse (!). Of course, I didn't get the little tablets to use as my actual tablet. I [should] stick with my iPad for that. These are to be used as monitor mix tablets that I can hand to musicians during gigs. This allows them to control their own monitor mixes. At under $40, if something happens and the tablet gets damaged, I won't be out an expensive device.

I do have a larger, 10.1" Android tablet on order which should arrive tomorrow afternoon/evening. It cost all of $80, and features an 8-core processor, 1GB RAM, 16GB Flash storage, a capacitive IPS touch screen with 1280x800 resolution, micro-USB and full-size USB ports, HDMI output, Bluetooth 4.0, and a separate charging port. It also runs Android 5.1, and the reviews indicate that this one will also be relatively free of unnecessary software.

Obviously, these are not even close to being the best Android devices available. But so far, these seem to be performing adequately. For my particular application, I really don't want to spend very much money, as I'm taking these into a hostile environment. I need low-cost devices that won't break the bank if I need to replace them suddenly. That's been a constant fear when using the Mackie mixer that relies solely on iOS devices -- there's just no such thing as an $80 iPad that works.

Mobile Word on the 7" tablet

Back to improvements in the Android experience, at least briefly. Of course Google's apps all run smoothly, and the range of "office" apps has improved to cover pretty much any business need. For those who just must have Word and Excel, the mobile versions for Android look, feel, and act like their Windows counterparts, albeit with a reduced feature set.

Android has come a long, long way, even since version 4. In some ways, I like the newer version more than iOS. If you're facing a phone upgrade and have an older iPhone, you might want to at least check out the current Android offerings.

Digital Audio Update

Didja ever notice I kind of go in spurts with posts? I guess that's kind of how my life goes... In little spurts. Anyway...

Nineteen months ago today, I made the move to a digital "board" for mixing live music. At the time, I chose the Mackie DL1608. By-and-large, I've been happy with the Mackie, but there have been a couple of annoyances, most notably the inability to set, save, and recall pre-amp levels from the control application. If you read my earlier post, you'll notice that I knew that going in. So far, my work-around has been to take snapshots of the gain settings for each gig, print them out on a 4x6 card, and keep them in my mixer case. That allows me to set a good starting point for each gig I do with a particular band. But if a pre-amp needs tweaking during a show, I have to run up to the stage and make the adjustment. That's inconvenient for me, and distracting to performers and audience members. Another issue it that Mackie have never come out with control apps for Windows, MacOSX or Android -- not everyone owns an iPhone or iPad.

Other people will be quick to tell you of other shortcomings of the Mackie DL mixers, but really, the pre-amp thing was the part that I found the most troublesome. For instance, I think the reverb and delay, while certainly basic, sound just fine in the real world. And, I've never once had any of the random noise or random disconnect issues that others claim. From day one, the thing has just worked, and worked well, despite its limitations.

image courtesy Behringer

Fast forward all these months. Behringer have finally shipped the mixer I really wanted from the start (X-Air X18), as well as a whole host of companion mixers that, better still, are rack-mountable. The control applications have become fairly robust and run on iPads, Android tablets and phones, and also on Windows, MacOSX, Linux, and even on Raspbian! Yes, even on a Raspberry Pi, you can run Behringer's control application. Of course, Raspbian isn't a huge stretch, since it is a fork of Debian. But still. There it is. There may be more about the Raspberry Pi thing at a later date.

Mackie's not been completely asleep at the switch, though. They've put out numerous updates to the Master Fader and My Fader apps, which have added a number of features. But, they do seem to have hit the limitations of the hardware in the DL1608, and even to some extent, the DL32R.

Behringer X Air Q app on an HTC Thunderbolt. Note how small the faders are.

So, I've picked up an XR18 on loan from my friendly nearby Behringer rep./audio gear pusher for evaluation. I've spent about two hours with it so far, and have been really impressed. I've tested with two different laptops running Windows 10, an ancient Dell running an oddball build of Ubuntu Linux, as well as an iPad Air 2, an el-cheapo Android tablet, an el-cheapo Windows 10 tablet, and a couple of rooted and tweaked HTC Thunderbolt Android phones. All have worked flawlessly (though the controls are a little tricky to see and use on the tiny phone and Windows 10 tablet screens).

I like that I can control phantom power individually for each input, as well as choose pre- and post-fader sends on a per-channel-per-aux basis. The general audio quality seems to be excellent (it ought to, as the pre-amps were design by the folks at Midas). And, the effects are pretty stellar.

Behringer X-Air App for Windows

Behringer X-Air App on a small Android tablet

My impression is that Behringer has done a lot of work on the Android and computer app functionality since I first looked at the demo versions of the app on the iPad almost two years ago. While the Android and computer apps are not as pretty as the iPad variant (nor quite as intuitive as Mackie's Master Fader iPad app), they 've become quite functional, and the current versions mostly make sense.

This is one deep mixer, especially for one that retails for around U$700. I could ramble on for page after page about all the stuff that's crammed into this little box that aren't crammed into Mackie's offerings, but I won't.

You can Google all the tech and comparison stuff, or you can look at this chart that I snagged that sorta shows some of the differences:

There are a lot of things this chart misses, such as the 18 USB returns from the computer which, along with the 18 USB sends to the computer, allow the XR18 (or X18) to act as a full audio and MIDI interface for recording -- at the same time as you're mixing with it. The best you can do for recording with the DL1608 is a two-channel mix, and you have to record to a docked iPad. It also doesn't mention that it's impossible to connect any kind of hardware control surface to the smaller Mackie (they do have a control surface for the DL32R on the way), where any "teachable" control surface (or one that knows Mackie HUI protocols) can connect via MIDI to the Behringer mixers.

One thing that may, or may not, be a sticking point is that there is no app for the iPhone, nor does it look like one is on the horizon. How the heck they let that go by is beyond me, especially given that they support pretty much anything else with a screen. Many of my clients use iPhones, and have gotten used to being able to handle their own monitor mixes. I guess that, since I can get nice, cheap Android tablets for under U$40 each, I could just pick up a few to hand out at gigs. In some ways, that's actually a better scenario, as I can be sure that all the devices being used match the system firmware, and that everything will "play nice".

I'm going to spend another couple of days evaluating, but at this point, I'm thinking that I'll be moving to the Behringer very soon, unless I discover something I just can't live without. I've already got an offer on my DL1608, as well as a couple of other bits of extra gear, so I could probably do this with my only cost being a handful of cheap tablets and another rack (which I've been wanting anyway).

Fujifilm X-E2(s) Impressions

I mentioned a few days ago that I had decided to pull the trigger on a bargain-priced Fujifilm X-E2 body, and apply the version 4.0 firmware to get pretty close to a cheap X-E2s.  I received the camera a day after ordering from Adorama, and immediately loaded the firmware.

To say that there's a big difference between the new camera and my X-E1 is an understatement! There are literally dozens of changes, and it's taken me a fair amount of time to set things up the way I think I want them. I'm still not sure I've put everything where I think it should be, but I was able to get down to Chincateague today and make some images. The experience was mostly quite enjoyable. 

I did still have a few frustrations, but they really have little to do with the body. The XC 50-230mm lens is still slow to focus some times (the XF 18-55mm becomes almost turbo-charged, however), and as good as the manual focus assist aides are, it's still sometimes difficult to achieve sharp manual focus when zoomed to 230mm. Otherwise, the camera is as much of a joy to use as the X-E1, but there's just more to play with.

I made a few good photographs, many of which are ones that I'm repeatedly told the Fuji cameras aren't good at, and I've added a gallery of them below. All are post-processed on my iPad, using some combination of Photos, Lucid, Snapseed, and Ansel (for black and white conversion). I also had a play with a new app I found called Mextures on one or two of the images.

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These final two images are versions of other pictures that I messed with in Mextures: 

 

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