It's been about a year since I bought the Behringer X-Air XR18 digital mixer, and sold the Mackie DL1608 to a friend. Some of you may be interested in knowing how I feel about that after year's time, so here it is...
I'm generally happy, but the road has not been entirely smooth. Behringer support for the X-Air line has been, overall, pretty terrible. They did finally release updated versions of the mixer firmware, and an updated iPad app, along with updated control software for Windows/MacOS/Linux, and a sorta patched version of their Android app a couple of months ago. Otherwise, I've been more-or-less on my own to find answers when there have been problems. Fortunately, there are a couple of active groups on Facebook devoted to the X-Air mixers, where a sole Behringer employee occasionally pops in and helps out.
Notable problems I've had have included issues with the wireless networking, when using static IP addresses and an external WiFi router and the iPad. For some reason, they just can't talk in that configuration, so I've had to switch the mixer to DHCP. I've also found even the better, Mixing Station Pro Android app to be lacking when compared to the full-on X-Air Edit application for PCs. The newer version of the iPad app fixed a lot of shortcomings with the previous version, but of course, introduced problems of its own, and so it's still only marginally usable. Still, the combination of the PC, iPad, and third-party Android apps work well enough to get through pretty much any small or medium band gig, and it's pretty much perfect for conference mixing (the smaller XR16 or XR12 are perfect for DJs doing weddings and private parties, or for small permanent installations in conference rooms). If this combo of software can't handle the job, it's probably too big for the mixer, anyway, and I should be looking at using at least an X32 to handle it.
Who needs cake, when you can have Pi?
This led me to start experimenting. The results of my biggest experiment are shown in the lead picture for this story. I bought a Raspberry Pi 3, which runs a special fork of Debian Linux called Raspbian, and there's an official version of X-Air Edit to run on it, so I though that it could be a pretty good platform to us as a basis for a "super tablet". At $40 for the computer, what did I have to lose? At worst, I could use the Pi to experiment with other kinds of control applications or something. As it turns out, the Pi is more than powerful enough to run X-Air edit, and to control the mixer either over WiFi or a hard Ethernet connection back to the router.
The next step was to find a decent, affordable, large touchscreen monitor. I wanted something that would be the correct width to set into a standard 19" equipment rack, offer fairly high brightness so I could us it outdoors, and have decent capacitive touch control, preferably with "multi-touch" capability. Eventually, I found the Asus VT207N 19.5" LED Monitor, which had good specs on paper, and came at a reasonable price of about $185.
While the monitor does support multitouch, apparently Raspbian doesn't with this monitor, so I only get single touch capability. But, as long as I have a second device handy, or don't mind performing some functions using a keyboard and trackpad/mouse, it works reasonably well, although it's not bright enough for outdoor daylight operation without significant cover. Asus have recently released their own experimenters' micro computer, called Tinkerboard, that also runs a fork of Debian, which leads me to wonder if their implementation offers multitouch support. I'm not sure, at the moment, whether or not I want to spend the $60 to pick up a Tinkerboard.
During initial testing of the Pi, I tried using Audacity for multitrack recording, and I almost got it working. I am told that, with a good bit of tweaking, it can record up to 16 audio tracks. There are any number of reasons my tests didn't work, and someday, maybe I'll get back to figuring that out. I was able to get it to play back stereo audio into USB inputs 1 and 2, which can be routed to any fader pair. That's nice for break tunes, etc., though for that I usually just use an old iPhone set up to work as an iPod.
I debuted the large touch console at a gig last night, and it worked as expected. I connected it to the XR18 on stage over WiFi, and experienced no dropouts or glitches, thanks in part to using the external WiFi router. I had the iPad standing by, just in case, as well as an Android tablet. Of course, the laptop was hardwired to the router on stage. At some point, I'm thinking a couple of long Ethernet cables would be a "good thing" to have, though, to ensure reliable operation for high profile jobs. I'm also considering replacing the laptop in the stage rack with a similar Raspberry Pi/touchscreen configuration for monitor mixing. Performers using in-ear monitors can still handle their own mixes on stage with the Android tablets.
There a couple of other small things I still have to work out, too. For instance, I don't have headphone monitoring at the mix position. That means I can't PFL a channel, or listen to a sub mix or aux bus. I also don't have any talkback capability. I'm thinking that I can probably use Bluetooth for the headphone monitoring.
So where do I stand?
Last night, I stood in a field at a carnival grounds in rural Maryland and mixed a show, and it sounded good. And I had very little difficulty doing it (there was one wireless mic that was driving me nuts, but there was little I could do about that). I was probably more "at ease" with mixer than I have been since I bought it. There's a lot I'm still coming to grips with after a full year, and a lot I really miss about the Mackie (that iPad app was nothing short of superb!). On balance, though, I'm pretty glad I decided to make the switch. The overall sound is very good, and there is a plethora of excellent effects available. And, there are a number of features I have yet to even start to experiment with. Midas have now released their version of the mixer (the MR18 comes with Midas-made preamps, as opposed to being Midas-designed, and a higher sampling rate, at a Midas price), which uses the same core architecture, so I'm hoping that support will get a bit better soon.
During the gig last night, I was talking with another sound guy, and we both agreed that there is one thing that is sorely missing from the X-Air line, as well as from the small Mackies and the Soundcraft UI series -- an affordable solution to having actual physical fader control. There are times when a touch screen just doesn't quite cut it -- when, as an engineer, you really just want to be able to grab hold of a fader.
No really, where do I stand?
Yes, I'd do it again.