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!  

Pixel2ated

google-pixel2-features-au__02.jpg

On November 10, 2017, I did the almost unthinkable, and switched from an Apple iPhone 6s to a Google Pixel 2. There were a number of reasons behind the decision, but chief among them was the superior quality of the Pixel 2's camera. Most of the other functions are pretty much like any modern phone -- it makes and receives calls and texts, and you can surf the web and waste time on Facebook.

I chose to go with the "standard" size, with 128GB of on-board storage, as I keep a lot of music and photo files on my phone most of the time, and I've added a Zagg screen protector and the new Moment Pixel 2 case and their new Tele lens (so far).

The camera really is amazingly good, especially given how physically tiny the thing is. The detail, noise, and color are all excellent, and the images hold up quite well to editing in my favorite mobile app, Snapseed (available for both Android and iOS), and the mobile version of Lightroom CC. Although I haven't used the feature, it's even capable of shooting raw files.

Stools detail, Pixel 2 camera Auto HDR+, cropping and slight adjustments in Google Photos.

The pictures I've taken so far have been JPEGs with the standard camera, and without the Moment Tele lens. I have played around with a few of the special features -- notably the Auto HDR+ and Portrait modes.

Auto HDR+ yields very good results most of the time. There's lots of detail in the shadows without much noise, and the overall effect is quite natural. The Portrait mode generally does a nice job of rendering fake "bokeh" (defocused backgrounds) around the subject, although it is possible to fool the AI, with some odd results. I'll write more about that another day.

I've added a new gallery, also called Pixel2ated, for images made with the Pixel 2 (go figure), that you can visit to see my new exploits in mobile photography.

My only complaint about the Pixel 2 is that there's no headphone jack. Most of the time, this isn't really a problem -- I can connect to one of my cars' radios via Bluetooth, and there's a USB-C to audio adapter that comes in the box. Unfortunately, the adapter doesn't allow for powering the phone while it's plugged in, which can be problematic on long trips if I want to use Google Maps for navigation and listen to Spotify or a podcast. On my daily commute, which takes about an hour-and-a-half, I can easily eat up 15-20% of my battery.

The Pixel 2 also doesn't have iMessage or Facetime. The built-in text app is pretty basic and struggles with group MMS messages, so I've been fooling around with alternatives (so far, QKSMS is my favorite). For a Facetime replacement, I found Google's Duo, which is free and cross-platform, and seems to work just as well as Facetime. I think Facebook Messenger has a similar function. And, of course, there's also Skype, which works on anything.

The bottom line, after about a dozen days, is that I don't really miss anything about the iPhone. A big part of that is because of how clean Android is on the Pixel, I'm sure. It runs smoothly, and pretty much everything just works, which I could no longer say about a number of functions in the iOS world.

Maybe next, I'll find myself a Chromebook....

Fujifilm X-T10 and 35mm f/2 WR First Impressions

image
image

I had the opportunity to shoot with the Fujifilm X-T10, and the not-yet-available 35mm f/2 WR lens for several hours today. In general, I really liked the combo. Although I had my X-E1 and 18-55mm f/2.8-4 OIS with me, I did not swap the lenses around today. I may sign out the lens again tomorrow, and see how it responds on the X-E1.

X-T10

Like my other commentaries on gear, I'll be staying away from the tech specs, and will briefly describe my impressions of the gear in use, starting with the camera itself.

The first thing I noticed about the X-T10 was that, while the body is tiny, it still feels really good in my hands. It tends to feel a little bigger than it actually is, and this may be in part to the very solid construction. The layout and feel of the primary controls doesn't hurt, either -- they're in the right places, and generally feel really solid. The exception might be the little command wheels, which I think turn and press just a little to easily.

The camera was loaded with the very latest firmware (possibly pre-release) so that it would work with the 35mm f/2 lens. Autofocus was quite fast and generally quite accurate.  I would say that focusing performance was better than the likes of a Canon 70D. One thing I found odd was that face-detection didn't seem to want to work on vertical shots.

As small as the camera is, the electronic viewfinder was large and bright. Lag was barely perceptible.

The only thing, for me, that would be better would be either an X-E3, or the full "version 4" firmware update being made available for the X-E2. If neither of those things happen, the X-T10 would be the camera I'd upgrade to.

35mm f/2 WR

The 35mm f/2 is a great match for the X-T10. It's small and light and fast. It's also simultaneously super-sharp, but with nice, creamy bokeh.The angle of view is what is considered to be a "normal" lens on an APS-C sensor, and it acts surprisingly like I remember a 50mm f/1.8 lens acting on a full-frame camera. I think I like this lens better than the amazing 35mm f/1.4 I looked at last year.

The 35mm f/2 definitely goes on my shopping list once it becomes available!

Okay, so, enough words. Here are a few snapshots, taken at Photo Plus Expo. These are pretty much straight from the camera, with minimal touch up using Photos on my iPad Air 2.

Sometime tomorrow, I'll try to post a few pictures relating to some other specific products I've been interested in for some time.

Mamiya-Sekor 55mm f/1.8 First Shots at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum

This afternoon, on the way to a weekend visit to my parents', we stopped into the antique boat show at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels. I thought it would be a great opportunity to try out a lens that's been in the family since it was new ... in 1968 or so. I'd actuallly been contemplating something like this for a while, and so early in the week, I ordered the appropriate adapter to mount M42 thread-mount lenses to my Fujifilm X-E1 camera. I think the total cost with tax for the adapter was about $12. The lens in question is a Mamiya-Sekor 55mm f/1.8, which works out to the "equivalent" of an 82.5mm f/2.5 on the Fuji's APS-C sensor. My thought, based on seeing some results from another old screw-mount lens, was that this would be an excellent portrait lens.

I didn't shoot any portraits with the lens today, but I did try a variety of other shots, some of which are shown here. There's minimal processing here, since I'm interested in showing the capabilities of the lens/camera combination. About all I've done is crop and make the most basic of exposure adjustments, all within the Photos app on my iPad Air 2.

I really enjoyed shooting with this setup today. Focus, of course, is all manual. Two things contribut to achieving sharp focus with relative ease. First, the Fuji has very good manual focusing tools -- a 10x zoom on the EVF, and bright focus-peaking, which in most conditions makes it almost impossible to miss the mark.

Exposure can be either full-manual or aperture-preferred automatic, and is also quite easy to control. The Fuji EVF can be set to automatically compensate for the change in aperture, and correct the brightness to display something very close to the final image -- including depth of field. The EVF even looks good when the ISO is pushed up for working in fairly dark conditions, though it does get a little laggy in low-light, high ISO conditions.

Of course, all this fun and enjoyment becomes merely an acedemic exercise if the image quality isn't acceptible, and I'm very happy to say that I'm very happy with the results. The lens is amazing, especially considering its age -- somewhere in the neighborhood of 46 years old! It's sharp, and relatively free of flare. The bokeh is lovely. The contrast is nice, and the colors are good. There is some blooming when very bright objects are against very dark backgrounds, but it's not objectionable. As I mentioned above, my thought going in was that this would be a great portrait combination, and I'm really looking forward to trying it out for that.

For those interested, full-size images may be seen in this album on my Flickr stream.