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!  

Considering Stage Pianos and Other Full-Sized Keyboards

Demise of an old friend...

It's appearing as though the time has come to replace my Casio Privia PX-310 stage piano. The reason has nothing to do with the sound, or the capability, or the playability, or the keyboard feel -- even though it is a touch mushy for my taste. The problem is that the audio jacks are going bad. They've given me some serious grief at rehearsals, and while they haven't caused trouble on a gig yet, it's probably only a matter of time. Bad audio jacks have been an issue with Casio keyboards for years, and as with others that I've looked at, the PX-310 appears to use purpose-made, plastic jack assemblies that are nigh on impossible to replace. Which is a shame, because Casio makes some really nice sounding keyboards, and this one is no exception.

Setting a budget...

As some of you may remember, I'm a champion of the affordable keyboard. For 61-key instruments, I've often pushed hard to see what I could get for under $600-700, a ceiling I finally allowed myself to push through again when I bought the Roland VR-09 back in late 2015 (I've previously owned some really expensive keyboards!).

Breaking that $700 budget turned out to be a godsend in the case of the VR-09, and so I've decided that I should have a reasonable expectation about the price of a weighted, 88-key instrument (despite the fact that I paid $599 for the PX-310 when I bought it a dozen years ago). This is going to cost some money. Street prices on today's models seem to start at about $500 reach almost $5,000. That's quite a range! So, in analyzing my needs (and desires), I've decided that I'd like to find something in the lower end of the range, with a street price from about $900 to $1,300.

Options Abound...

Within my price range, there are basically nine options, some of which I've chosen not to consider. In no particular order:

  • Roland Juno DS88

  • Korg Kross 88

  • Korg Kross 2 88

  • Yamaha MX88

  • Yamaha P-255*

  • Kurzweil SP1*

  • Kurzweil SPS4-8*

  • Kurzweil SP6

  • Casio Privia Pro PX-560

* In the price range, but not really under consideration...

 Casio Privia PX-310

Casio Privia PX-310

Within these models is an amazing range of capabilities. Some, like the Yamaha P-255, are pure stage pianos. Others, like the Roland Juno DS88, the Korg Kross models or the Casio, are all-out music workstations. The Kurzweils are interesting in their way. They're not quite stage pianos, not quite workstations, and not quite performance synths, but still manage to offer up some of the more important parts of each into really great-sounding and seemingly quite playable keyboard.

The original Korg Kross was released in 2013...

I also need to make a comment about the original Korg Kross, which I blithely dismissed a couple years back. At that time, I wrote it off as a PS-60 redux based on it's outward appearance. Turns out, I was really wrong. It's still a pretty serious contender in the low-priced workstation space, although Korg's introduction of the Kross 2 late last year really upped the ante with modern controls and a slew of new features.

With this vast range of capabilities within my target price range, I'm now having to think about what might I want in addition to pianos, electric pianos and strings -- which is what I use the Casio for now. For instance, the DS88 and the Kross 2 have sample playback capabilities, either from pads or keys. They even have the capability to support multi-sample playback, which allows turning almost any sound I can record into a pitched keyboard instrument. Being able to easily trigger background tracks at the touch of a pad makes songs like Pink Floyd's Young Lust or Blue Oyster Cult's Godzilla easy. If I want to do any loop or sample playback now, I have to use an outboard pedal, or the clunky playback engine in the VR-09.

Almost all of the instruments in the list also have some level of arpeggiation, and some have the ability to use multiple, simultaneous arpeggiators. This makes it possible to do songs like The Who's Baba O'RileyI, or some of the more complex piano layers of Evanescence.

And, the feature list could go on and on...

Roland Juno DS88

Location, Location, Location...

... but I'm not going to go through all of the features of all of these instruments -- I'd be here for weeks, and you'd all get really bored. Suffice it to say, I've got a lot to consider, not the least of which is where I'm going to buy the thing.

At this point, I fully intend to return to my local music shop, Coffey Music, here in Westminster -- unless I decide I simply have to own something Bob can't get for me. I know I can get the DS88 there -- he's got one on the floor now. He's also got a Kross, but I'm not sure if it's the original Kross, or the Kross 2. Between the two Korgs, I would still want the newer model, despite the fact that the original model is a much more powerful instrument than I originally thought. At this point, it's a five-year-old model, and while it's still on a lot of store shelves, it no longer appears on Korg's web site.

Some Model-Specific Thoughts...

  • Yamaha MX88: I looked at the Yamaha MX-series synth when I was buying the VR-09. It's a fairly capable instrument with some nice sounds and a number of nice features, but at the time, I found it difficult to navigate. I'm pretty certain that's not changed any with the addition of more keys... In other words, the MX probably isn't going to make the short list. Again.

  • Roland Juno DS88: Huge bang for the buck, and a familiar operating and playing environment, given that I have really grown to love the VR09 (yes, I know I was contemplating replacing it with the Nord Electro 5D61 not too long ago, but decided that the VR really does everything I need it to). I'm concerned that, despite the huge number of libraries available for the Juno and it's great Roland sound, it might sound too similar to the VR, and not really enhance the sonic palette any. And, it's heavy. At around 35 lbs, it's a good 8 lbs heavier than most of the rest of the models I'm looking at. I ain't getting any younger, and since I also carry the PA for the band, every ounce counts!

  • Korg Kross 2: I've always had a love/hate relationship with Korg. My first digital synth was a Korg DS-8, and I've since had an X2 and the PS-60. With the exception of the DS-8, I've never felt really "at home" on a Korg. The Kross 2, however, seems to be much more intuitive than earlier Korgs. It's loaded for bear, has all of the features of the DS88 and then some, and only costs about $50 more. And, it weighs in at around 27lbs.

  • Casio Privia Pro PX-560: I love the sounds in my current Casio. I love the simplicity of it. The PX-560 manages to keep most everything I like, add a lot more capability (though not as much as the Roland or Korg), while maintaining the Privia's svelte 26lb weight and size. And, it's got the really cool Hex Layer feature introduced in the XW-P1. The operating system is all touch-screen based, and it's really quite easy to get around -- easy enough that there's really no need for a computer-based editor. But, it's still a Casio, and I fear those plastic connectors I mentioned earlier. While I've had the PX-310 for a lot of years (10 or more), it's only seen a lot of road use in the past year or so, and like other Casios I've seen, they've deteriorated far too rapidly.

  • Kurzweil PS6: This is the most expensive of the bunch under consideration, and it lacks a number of the features of the Juno and the Kross 2. But, it's a Kurzweil, dagnabbit! It's a real stage piano, plus some. The sounds are amazing. The editing and layering and splitting are incredibly flexible. The operation can be dead simple. It's got really high-quality balanced output connections. There's a real-time iPad editor for it (as well as PC and Mac software). It boots up in 11 seconds. It loads sounds from some of Kurzweil's higher-end models like the PC3 and Forte families. And yet, it's also surprisingly limited in some ways, like only having 5 favorites. But, it's a Kurzweil, dagnabbit! And it only weighs 27 lbs.

  • Kurzweil SPS4-8: This is an interesting, slightly older instrument from Kurzweil. Like the Casio, it's got built-in speakers.

Conclusion? Not Just Yet...

By now, you can probably guess where I'm leaning. The Korg Kross 2 and the Roland DS88 are pretty solid contenders at the top of the list, and the Kurzweil is up there, too (I've always coveted a Kurzweil). Stay tuned. The final choice will be made in the next few weeks, as I'll be off to audition all of the contenders, wherever I can find them.


[UPDATE 1 6/21/2018 Afternoon] - Decision is mostly made, after the Casio got really finicky at rehearsal last night. Even the slightest movement cause horrific crackling sounds from my amp, and also caused the sustain pedal to fail. Apparently, everything on the jack panel shares common grounding, or something. At any rate, the Juno DS88 is going to be my first choice, followed so closely by the Kross 2 that if I can get as good a deal on it as I've been offered on the DS88, I could be easily convinced to try the Korg.


[UPDATE 2 6/21/2018 Evening] - I spent a pleasant hour at Coffey Music this evening. One of the DS88s they had in the store was sold. The remaining one is on layaway. There is at least one Kross 2 in the stock, and so I poked and prodded and played with it. I was very impressed with the sound and control options. In particular, just above the pitch and modulation wheels are two buttons that can be assigned to present alternate versions of the sound being played -- much like the "patch select" buttons on an Ensoniq VFXsd or SD1 (and other models)! That was a feature I found to be quite useful, especially when playing horns. Most of the sounds I played were excellent, and many, pianos in particular, bettered the Juno, as did the horns. I think Roland does a slightly better job of electric pianos and definitely does better with organs, but for organs, I have the VR09. 

All was not completely rosy with the Korg, though the issues I encountered were relatively minor. For instance, the pitch and modulation wheels are rather small and feel a little cheesy, but they're certainly functional. Realistically, I don't think I'll be using those controls a lot -- I don't even have them on the Casio. Certain other functions are in places I wouldn't necessarily expect, but I've always found that to be the case with Korgs. The one function I use all the time, key transpose, is not as badly hidden as I had thought. It's not something I'm going to be able to get to between songs, necessarily, but it is on a top-level menu. I can live with that. I also found the keybed is a little mushy, much like the Casio. I prefer a little crisper action, but it's certainly very playable. And, in fairness, the unit on display is set at an angle, not flat. I know that affects weighted-action keybeds, as it throws the balance of the mechanism off. Finally, the sampling function is not quite as robust as the Roland. While samples can be spread across the keyboard, the Kross doesn't allow for setting loop points. The whole sample can loop repeat, but it's not possible to loop the sustain portion of the envelope. Since the last time I had real, hardware sampler was when I briefly owned an Ensonig Mirage back in the early '90s, I doubt that I'll miss that feature. And, who knows. Korg could add the feature with a software update, as Roland did with the Juno DS.

The bottom line remains almost a toss-up. However, the Korg may be a small sliver of a notch above the Roland at this point. I'll be making a point to talk with Bob Coffey tomorrow, and see what shakes out. Of course, there will be an update...

Another Year Goes By... (Behringer XR18 Two Years On)

This was just planned to be a quick post here, to talk about how things have been going with my Behringer XR18 digital mixer. Nearly another year has passed since I switched from the Mackie DL1608 to a Behringer X-Air XR18, so I've been using it for about two years now. The last time I wrote about it, I had assembled a make-shift front-of-house "console" consisting of an Asus touch screen, a keyboard/trackpad from Logitech, and a Raspberry Pi 3b microcomputer. Since then, I've made a few ... improvements.

There are now two of the Pi-based touch-screen consoles, in new custom-built cases, complete with cup holders. The idea is that one is to be used for front-of-house mixing, and the other used as a stage-side monitor mix position. The FOH console is usually connected via WiFi, and the stage-side console hardwired to the router in the system rack.

As part of the project, a new system rack has also been constructed, with components mounted front and back. The configuration allows all connections for input and output to be on the same side of the rack -- both the mixer "front" and the amplifier "backs". Auxiliary power and network connections are also placed stage-side. One "console" sets on the top of the rack, with matching dimensions.

I also doubled the number of wireless mics. I'm still leery of spending a lot of money on UHF wireless gear, so I purchased another pair of the Samson Concert 88 systems, made quite affordable by what I can only assume is an error on the part of Amazon (the 500MHz band units were marked down substantially, where the now-discontinued 600MHz units are still at the regular price. In fact, they really shouldn't even be available for sale at this point, as they're technically no longer legal for purchase. But... I digress...).

[UPDATE: The 600MHz units are no longer available at Amazon]

The whole system was put to a test this past Saturday on a gig for my band, 7Souls. The mixing system worked flawlessly, supporting both an engineer at the FOH console and the monitor mixer stage-side with ease -- once we got going. For some reason, I had a difficult time getting the wired console to connect to the mixer. That particular unit sometimes doesn't boot on the first attempt, and I'm thinking I may need to rebuild it. It's also possible that I was simply trying to get things running too quickly.

To say that I'm still extremely please with the XR18 would be an understatement. It continues to perform flawlessly. I've yet to experience more than a couple glitches, and I'm very pleased with my decision to move away from the Mackie. 

In fact, the only real technical issue we faced during the evening was related to the wireless gear. The rack ended up being placed up stage right, behind my position at keyboards. Subsequently, the  wireless mics were projecting their signals away from the receivers, resulting in drop-outs as our front-line vocalists moved around. This means that I'll need to modify the receivers so that they can use a remote antenna system -- my thought is to mount one antenna on each speaker stand. This will allow me to place the actual receiving antennae in a more appropriate location. Before mounting the new receivers, I took a look at how the fixed antennae are installed.

From the looks of the circuit board, it looks as if Samson actually had something like this in mind. There are actually solder points on the board for antenna connectors. And, there's plenty of space to add professional BNC connectors so the receivers can be fed by an antenna distribution system. The screw in the picture is the stud that mounts the existing antenna, and area marked CN1 is where I think Samson had possible intended "bigger and better" antenna to connect. The question mark is the correct value for the R39 resistor, when coupling the receiver to a standard 50ohm UHF antenna. 

[UPDATE: The antenna system is done and ready for the road. I discovered that my two older Concert88 receiver circuit boards are completely different from the two new units, so I had to do a lot of improvising to get the new wiring done. More later, maybe....]

The other shortcoming of the PA, as it exists, has to do with stage monitoring. 7Souls is a seven-piece band. Ideally, each member should get their own monitor mix. Right now, I only have two channels of amplification for stage monitors, and there are only six Aux outputs from the board. As of this past week, the drummer and I are using wired in-ear monitors, since we don't move around the stage. This past weekend, we ran two monitor mixes into four wedge monitors for everyone else. In a couple of weeks, I'm planning to increase the number of available monitor amp channels to at least four, which will help a lot -- at least until more band members are able to afford in-ear monitoring.

Even so, there still won't be quite enough mixes for everyone to have their own mix using the conventional Aux outputs. While the answer is to expand into Ultranet monitoring, the cost of entry could be relatively high -- although, now that I think of it, the P16-M personal mixer is really not much higher than a basic wireless IEM package. I could conceivably grab one for myself, and use it to drive my ear-buds. Since Ultranet is completely separate from the rest of the mixer, that would free up an Aux bus for use by another band member. What the heck, right? It's not like I'm not fully committed to living in the Behringer infrastructure at this point.... Guess I'll just add something else to the shopping list!

And, bottom line? Yes, I'm still quite pleased to have made the switch to Behringer!

Brit Floyd

I've always liked Pink Floyd, and even went to see them live back when most of the band was together. It was a good time. But, now Pink Floyd is gone as a band, and while Gilmour and Waters tour (separately), their shows aren't exactly the same. So, I'm left to enjoy the shows from the tribute bands, Several Species and Brit Floyd

Last night, I went to see Brit Floyd at the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore. The Lyric is a wonderful old venue that's been tastefully modernized, and so it retains its historic charm inside, while being a thoroughly modern facility.

The show was simply amazing. I got great seats about 15 rows back from the stage, and very near the center, for my friend Erik and I. And, I was able to get a few really nice photos and videos with my Pixel 2. 

Clink a thumbnail to see full-size images...

click a thumbnail to see full-size images...

Erik and I are hard-pressed to tell which of the tribute bands we prefer. To be honest, we may be a little biased, as a mutual friend plays with Several Species. But one thing I can say with certainty: I enjoy both of the tribute bands' shows more than I did actual Pink Floyd shows. Part of that may have had to do with the venues. Pink Floyd was play coliseum by the time I saw them, where Several Species and Brit Floyd play more intimate venues. And, they both have better sound systems than Pink Floyd did.

Anyway, enjoy the pictures. I may add some video later on as well.