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.

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

ax-48-pro-plus.jpg

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.

IMG_20180822_073506.jpg

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.

IMG_20180822_073459.jpg

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...