Honey, I Rebuilt the PA

Yeah, I know. I said I was retiring. But, 7Souls is being pretty successful, and I’ve been doing some “walk-in” mixing jobs of late, so I figured, “What the hell!” And, truth be told, I wanted something for the that would be easier to set up and improve on a few of the shortcomings of the current PA.

WHAT WAS WRONG WITH THE OLD GEAR?
(asked my wife)

Those of you who have heard my PA are probably wondering what the shortcomings were. It sounds pretty darned good (if I do say so myself) in small and medium rooms, and I can usually go from walking in the door to having a band on stage playing in two hours or less. Well, here’s a list things that could have been better, in no particular order:

  • Power - I really could use more!

  • Inputs - I really could use more! We’re mumbing about adding more instruments to 7Souls (though no more people), and I’m already using all my channels.

  • Outputs - I really could use more! The XR18 mixer is limited to a maximum of 8 outputs, 2 “main” and 6 “auxes”.

  • Monitors - The little wedges I have aren’t bad, but since they’re passive, and I only have a two-channel amp for monitors, I can’t give everyone their own mix.

  • Inconsistent user interfaces - The software for operating the mixer varies depending on the device being used. The two computer-based “consoles” use a different program from the app on an iPad, and Android devices need yet a third app.

  • Digital Recording - in order to do multitrack recording, an external computer is required.

Soundcraft Ui24R digital mixer

NEW MIXER: SOUNDCRAFT UI24R

The first part of the system redesign addresses the issues with the mixer — increased inputs and outputs and a consistent user interface across platforms. After looking at everything, and having an opportunity to use almost everything, there was basically one choice that “ticked all the boxes”: Soundcraft’s Ui24R. So, I found a good deal, and ordered one.

The Ui24R has 20 “real” inputs, as well as two RCA line-level inputs and a stereo USB playback port, which is how Soundcraft comes up with this being a 24-channel mixer. So, I consider it as a 20-channel board, and I’m happy. I do like that I can stick in a USB “thumb drive” loaded with MP3s for break tunes or backing/effect tracks and not waste a pair of inputs. And, I can also do a quick “board mix” recording to the same USB port (as long as I’m not playing back from that port). In addition, there’s a second USB port dedicated for use as a 24-track recorder/player by simply connecting and appropriate USB 3 thumb drive or SSD.

There are dual stereo main outputs (XLR and TRS), and eight AUX outputs. Internally, there are four effects busses and a couple of additional virtual AUX busses.

But wait, there’s more! A USB-B port does allow connection of a computer, so the mixer can be used as an interface for a DAW like Cubase, Sonar, or Logic Pro in a studio environment. There’s a built-in HDMI port and an additional pair of USB ports so a monitor (or touchscreen), keyboard and mouse can be directly connected. And, there is a pair of ethernet ports for network connections and “future expansion” (we’ll touch on that later), and an assignable footswitch jack. Close inspection of the side view also reveals a removable panel.

The mixer has excellent Lexicon and dbx internal effects processors. Each channel sports parametric EQ with RTA, a gate, and compression. Each output also has compression, graphic EQ, as well as dbx feedback suppression.

Soundcraft Ui web interface on Acer Chromebook R11

No special software, past a modern web browser, is required to control the mixer. Here, it’s running on an Acer Chromebook R11, and while the screen is small, the UI is quite usable. In fact, when we debuted the mixer at a show a couple of weeks back, I handled monitor mixing for myself and the drummer with this little machine in “presentation” mode, while the FOH engineer used one of my 19.5” touchscreen “consoles” for the main mix and front-line monitor chores.

I’m working in what is referred to as “Big D” mode (for “big display”). Soundcraft says that this requires a 1920x1080 display to work correctly, but I’ve found that the Chrome browser can be scaled so that the presentation fits on lower resolution displays. It’s definitely a “your mileage may vary” kind of thing, but it works quite well for me.

I did find that the Raspberry Pi does not play well with the Ui’s web interface. Firefox crashed repeatedly, and Chromium just plain failed to load, so I’ve upgraded the computers behind the larger consoles to Asus Chromebox 3s. They fully support the Asus VT207n monitors, which the Pis did not, so there’s now full multitouch control — helpful when setting up the parametric EQ or trying to move more than one fader at once.

All of the screens are pretty well thought out and easy to use. I felt comfortable with the layout in minutes. At the debut gig with 7Souls, although the FOH engineer was familiar with the Ui mixers, he’d never used on “in the wild”. He took to it very quickly, and was almost an expert by the end of the first set.

As you can see, there’s a lot of depth to this mixer. I’ve only shown some of the functionality here.

I mentioned that there is a second ethernet port for “future expansion”. Apparently, the future is now, and there’s a new version of firmware to load to the mixer that will allow these ports to be used to link a pair of Ui24R mixers together, making a single 48-channel mixer. Beyond being told by some of the beta testers that it works, and works well, I don’t yet know any details.

In my ideal world, this linking would also extend to the smaller Ui mixers, but I doubt this works as they only have a single ethernet port. It would be pretty neat, though, to be able to link a Ui12 to the Ui24R. The Ui24R would be placed on stage, and be the primary I/O device, while the Ui12 would be placed at the FOH position, and allow for better placement of wireless mic receivers, IEM transmitters, and give the FOH engineer a facility for talkback and headphones.

Hey, a guy can hope!

NEW SPEAKERS: TURBOSOUND IQ

I probably should have bought these a long time ago, because they would have overcome one of the shortcomings of the Behringer mixer — the lack of sufficient AUX outputs. I opted for a pair of iQ15b subwoofers, a pair of iQ12 powered speakers for “mains”, and four iQ10 powered speakers to replace my existing passive wedge monitors. Two of the EV ZLX12ps will be retained for stage monitors as well.

One of my reps has been trying to get me to switch to Turbosound for a couple of years now, and a quick audition was all it took for me to commit. They sound amazing. The tops are plenty loud, and the subs provide plenty of thump, and it all sounds incredibly musical. The Turbosound speakers and inbuilt amps are coupled to a bunch of Klark Teknik DSP technology so that everything just works together pretty much seamlessly.

With a Behringer X or XR mixer (or Midas M or MR), you can feed all of the speakers via Cat5e daisy-chained network cables (they call this Ultranet), if you want, or simply run XLRs out, as your see fit. Soundcraft can do something similar with JBL speakers, but from what I’ve seen, the integration isn’t as tight. Part of me wants to keep the Behringer XR18 to use as an interface to bring the Ui24R outputs out to Ultranet, though Behringer does have a purpose-built device for this that would take up less rack space.

The new speakers will be arriving sometime this week, and they’ll probably debut at 7Souls’ gig in late February.

BACK IN BUSINESS?

Yes, this “investment” does mean that I’ll be accepting gigs again, but the terms of the deal are going to be a lot different. In the past, my rates were extremely low for full PA jobs. Going forward, my pricing will reflect the “going rate” charged by most of my friends/competition.

National Museum of the US Air Force

I finally got to do some serious low-light picture taking with the little Sony RX100 mk III at the National Museum of the US Air Force. I’m pretty tickled with the results, and I also look forward to getting back out and strolling around this amazing museum some more.

We only had a short time to spend, so we wanted to see some particular things. Even so, we didn’t get anywhere near seeing everything. The place is enormous! If your interest in US (and some other) military aircraft is casual, plan on at least a couple of days. If you’re like us, plan on at least four!

PhotoPlus Expo 2018

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I spent a fun day in NYC yesterday at PhotoPlus Expo. As usual the crowds were heavy, and there were interesting things to see and play with. Included here is the requisite bad selfie, just to prove I was there. The difference was that I took this selfie with my new Sony RX100 Mk III. So, it’s still a bad selfie, but the image quality is much better. All of the photos in this post, except for the obvious one below, were taken with the Sony, with minor post processing on either my Pixel 2 phone, or my iPad Air 2. There will be more on the RX100 Mk III later.

Sony RX100 Mk III

Sony RX100 Mk III

Probably the two most interesting items at the show were the new Canon and Nikon entries into the full-frame mirrorless photography fray. I’ve commented elsewhere that I believe that both companies failed to deliver on what the market wanted, and I still believe that to be the case. With that said, at least one of them is a brilliant camera, and does do a good job of capitalizing on the advantages of abandoning the legacy mount in favor of something new. 

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Panasonic showed a non-functional example of their new full-frame camera, too. While I was disappointed that they did not have working examples of the camera on display, I do realize that they’re very early in the development process. The intriguing aspect of the Panasonic is their choice to use the existing Leica R-mount, as opposed to inventing a new series of lenses. This allows them to hit the ground running with a large catalog of extremely high-quality native lenses, unlike Canon and Nikon, who are relying on adapters to round out their lens catalog while developing new glass.

Several Species at Baltimore's MECU Pavilion (Formerly Pier Six)

As much as I’ve been writing about music stuff, I haven’t been doing much, if any, photography aside from cell phone snaps at work. Last night, I went to see Several Species, a Pink Floyd tribute band based here in the Baltimore area. As always, the put on a great show — better, in many ways, than an actual Pink Floyd concert. Like many venues, MECU usually has restrictions on what kind of cameras that the general public can bring in. The general rule of thumb is that the lens can’t extend more than 3 inches. So, I took along my Fujifilm X10 to use from my 12th row center seat.

The X10 is quite a few years old now, and it’s 12MP, 2/3 inch sensor, while excellent, is challenged in certain situations, like concerts. Still, I’m pretty happy with the images, despite the fact that some are pretty noisy, and that I missed/lost a few shots due to the slow auto focus.

What I’d really like is for Fujifilm to “grow up” the X10/X20/X30 series into a camera with a larger sensor — either 1” or APS-C — with an equivalent lens, for instance, an 18.5-75mm f/2.8-4.8 zoom for an APS-C sensor. Of course, that may make for a lens that extends greater than 3 inches…

When Ultimate is not so Ultimate

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It's really disappointing when a company known for premium products falls down. But that seems to be exactly what's happening at Ultimate Support Systems. 

Just over a year ago purchased Ultimate's Apex AX48-Pro-Plus dual-tier keyboard stand (pictured here). The Apex is a good-looking stand, and I'd owned one many years ago. The one I had previously was built like a tank, and so, I had every expectation that this one would be, too. Upgrades over the previous model included a stabilizing foot on at the player side of the base, and an attachment point for a microphone boom, which is included in the "plus" model. As with the original version, the feet fold smartly into the bottom of the stand, and the support arms fit neatly into slots in the top of the column.

Full of great expectations, I received the Apex and immediately put it to use. I had just joined 7Souls, and had decided that I was going to need to use two keyboards with the band, and that my Ultimate V-Stand with a second tier wouldn't really do (the V-Stand.was another disappointment, but I'll write about that some other time). My setup then was a Roland V-Combo VR-09 on top, a Casio Privia PX310 on the bottom, and I built a custom pedal board to fit over the base to hold sustain and volume pedals, as well as a TC Helicon Voice Mechanic pedal, and foot-switches to control OnSong.

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Everything was fine and dandy, until a few months in. I was packing up after a rehearsal, and grabbed the stand by it's handle to flip it over to fold up the feet. As I turned the stand over, the handle broke off in my hand, sending the stand crashing to the floor.

Unlike my original Apex, which had a very nice, solid handle made of metal, the new Apex sports a plastic handle, held in place with plastic clips that allow it to slide up and down in the columns central track, and its position was locked with a thumbscrew. The strain of picking up the stand and turning it over had cause the plastic attachment points to shatter. 

My solution was to grumble a bit, and use a pair of self-tapping machine screws to attach a sturdy metal handle from the hardware store. It doesn't adjust like the old one did, but it's not letting go any time soon. 

But I do wish that I hadn't had to do that. And, in fact, I shouldn't have had to. Further, if the part had been made of metal, I wouldn't have.

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Fast forward to last month, setting up for rehearsal. I'd set the stand in place, and was setting the Korg Kross 2 88 on the lower tier, when I heard a snapping noise, and saw something kind of scoot across the floor. Thinking I'd dropped something or knocked something off the pedal board, I bent down and discovered that I hadn't dropped anything. Instead, the leveling foot had snapped off the base.

Close inspection revealed that the plastic attachment point had broken. It appears that a captured nut had pulled right through the plastic locking plate, blowing out the front side. I haven't had time to come up with a solution for this problem just yet. It'll probably involved drilling and tapping the column for a 10-32 thumbscrew, which is what Ultimate should have done to begin with. In the meantime, I'm having to wedge the foot in place and strap it on with gaff tape, or wedge under the base of the stand to keep things steady -- or pretty much whatever it takes to keep the stand from falling over and spilling my keyboads onto the floor.

As if all this wasn't enough, last Friday night at a gig, the mic boom failed. It's no longer possible to tighten the boom enough to keep it from sinking under the weight of a microphone. It's really annoying when trying to sing and play, and the microphone is slowly sinking into the keyboards -- no matter how tightly I crank down on the locking handle. Fortunately, I have an old AKG telescoping boom arm "in stock", so I won't have to spend a chunk of change to get another decent one. Then again, after only a few months of use, I shouldn't have to.

As I said at the top of this missive, Ultimate once made the ultimate stand, but I think that's no longer true. Unfortunately, they still charge a premium price, while relying more and more on plastic where metal should be.

I'll continue to use the Apex, at least for a while (click here for a post that shows a picture of the rig). But I'll be on the lookout for something better. X-stands don't work well for me, as I like the two tiers to be flat and relatively close together. Z-stands a tremendously sturdy, but folded/disassembled, they are bulky and take too long to set up and tear down. I've had a couple different designs of A-frame stands from Ultimate, when they were good, and Standtastic. The Standtastic was okay, but a bit unwieldy to set up and it tended to slip around a bit. 

What's your favorite, gig-worthy stand? Let me know in the comments. I'm lookin' for something!