Digital Audio Update Update

Yeah, this is an update to an update from back in April, where I talked about the possibility of getting rid of my Mackie DL1608 and moving to Behringer's X-Air XR18. The short story is that I did it, and generally, I'm pretty happy I did.

I've got the mixer, along with a power conditioner, a wireless router, and a powered USB hub wired up in an old rolling rack I had laying around for the time being, and that's generally working pretty well. I do want to eventually do a new stage rack that will contain my power amps, the mixer box, computer gear, and the few bits of outboard gear I'm using in a single rack -- on wheels, of course.

That laptop is a pretty ancient Dell with a single-core Celeron processor, running a funky Linux build. That allows me to run the full version of the Behringer X-Air app, which gives really deep access to the mixer and enhances my ability to save configs, on a machine I already had. I will be experimenting with another "computer" in the near future. More on that as it develops.

Since April, I've mixer a few shows on it, including two outdoor jobs, one of which was a multi-band mini-festival. In every case, the mixer has performed flawlessly, despite my still getting up to speed with it. The only problems I've had so far are related to the el-cheapo Android tablets I'm using, and those problems have only been on the outdoor gigs, where they are difficult to see in sunlight.

One area where Behringer has been lacking, however, is in keeping up with control app development. There is still no real parity between Android and iPad and PC/Mac/Linux applications, and Behringer hasn't updated anything. I got into some conversations with the fellow that Behringer had contracted to do the Android development, as he also develops an app for several other digital mixers (search for Mixing Station on the Play store to see if it's available for your mixer), and helped to convince him to release his personal version of the Behringer X-Air app. He's done a fantastic job with it, and added a ton of functionality. And, it fixes a meter display issue on certain Android tablets running Lollipop.

Any The Wiser, sorta on stage at the 4th Annual Wilde Lake Family Picnic, September 17, 2016, at Wilde Lake Park in Columbia, MD. That's me on keyboards, mixing from the stage.  Follow Any The Wiser on Facebook . --  Jeremy Crites photo

Any The Wiser, sorta on stage at the 4th Annual Wilde Lake Family Picnic, September 17, 2016, at Wilde Lake Park in Columbia, MD. That's me on keyboards, mixing from the stage. Follow Any The Wiser on Facebook. -- Jeremy Crites photo

For the most recent gig I mixed (and performed at -- photo above), I used the new Mixing Station Pro X-Air app on the Android along with the Linux version of Behringer's X-Air Edit on the laptop. For the opening band, the keyboard player used one of the smaller tablets to handle his own monitor mix.

I should mention that, while I have my XR18 in a rack, it can also be used in a "stage box" configuration, by simply dropping it on the stage and plugging in.

While I miss the excellent iPad app from the Mackie, I think the X Air more than makes up for that in functionality and flexibility, and I'm pretty glad I made the switch.

Beyond the mixer, I also added a few new twists for this gig, and everything just worked perfectly. Once the PA was set up, I used an app on my old iPhone, which is now used as a media player, to pump pink noise into the PA. I then used an app called X Air iEQ on my iPhone 6s to analyze and automatically set the baseline EQ the mains and monitors. The process took all of 5 minutes for the mains and three monitor mixes.

Once that was done, I decided to try out a new piece of kit I picked up from dbx, called the goRack. The goRack is a neat little device that's really intended for solo or duo acts to help make getting good sound in difficult rooms easy. It incorporates a number of functions, including sub-harmonic synthesis, compression, EQ, and anti-feedback control into a very simple little box. I decided to turn on all the functions and put the thing to a test.

My sub-woofers are fairly small, but well built and tuned. Still, in an outdoor setting, the bass disappears pretty quickly, so I felt that a little help was in order. Also, my mains tend to be a little harsh, so I set an appropriate EQ preset. I next dialed in a little light compression, just to tighten things up. I made all these adjustments while pumping "break tunes" off the old iPhone through the PA.

Once I was happy with the overall sound, I setup the anti-feedback section (which was really the reason I wanted the goRack in the first place). There are a couple of settings you can choose, and I decided to go with a narrow band, but otherwise fairly minimalist setting. Once I had that entered, I grabbed the lead vocal mic, cranked up the channel, and pointed the mic right at one of the main speakers from about 15 feet away. There was a short "meep" of feedback (and I mean very short), and that was it. Even with an "MC" using a wireless and walking all over in front of the stage, we never heard another hint of feedback the entire day. All of the musicians commented on how good things sounded, both in the house and on stage. I was pretty impressed, too. Usually, anti-feedback devices are very heavy handed, carving out wide swaths of important frequencies to battle feedback.

I only had one goRack, which was enough to handle the mains and one monitor mix (I run mono mains almost exclusively), but I'll be ordering a couple more in the next week or so for sure! Here's the kicker on these little goRack boxes. For some reason, they're selling most places for under $30! At that price, you almost can't go wrong. And, if you ever perform as a solo singer/guitarist, one of these along with a powered speaker or two, are just about all you need for a PA system. Of course, your mileage may vary, but at $30, it's almost impossible to go too far wrong.

Behringer Bargain Mini-Review

Earlier in this series, I mentioned that I'd post my thoughts on the Behringer el-cheapo effects pedals that I purchased to use as temporary effects until I can find and afford my "holy grail" pedals. Last night, I had the opportunity to try the "complete" pedal board at practice. The overall results were almost exactly what I had hoped for, especially on electric piano and organ sounds. Summing the project up in one word: success! So, let's talk a little bit about what $25 will buy you in an effects pedal.

I purchased the UT300 Ultra Tremolo and the VD400 Vintage Delay.

Commonalities

I've already mentioned that the construction is, well, cheap. The box is made of some sort of high-impact plastic, and that seems to include the hinge-point where the foot pedal switch connects to the chassis. I also already mentioned that the big, rubber pad on the base pretty much fell off in my hands when I was velcroing one of the pedals to the board. If you're a heavy-duty stomper, I really don't know how long this construction would hold up. I'd be especially concerned if you're not using some sort of pedal board.

Moving on to the controls, each pedal has three controls that operate smoothly, but they are, again plastic. They're also not attached to the chassis, but only held in place by the solder joints on the circuit board. The same is true of all of the input and output jacks.

The foot switches are not true-bypass, for those who are super-concerned about such things. I know that I eventually want all of my pedals to be true-bypass, even though this is not as much of a consideration for a keyboardist as it is for a guitar player.

Both pedals have a "standard" 2.1mm, negative-tip 9V coaxial power jack located on the right side of the chassis, next to the input jack.

Now that we've gotten through the common bits, let's look at the pedals individually

UT300 Ultra Tremolo

There are three controls on the tremolo: Rate, Depth and Wave. The Rate and Depth controls are pretty self explanatory -- they control the rate and amount of the effect. The Wave control is pretty cool. It allows you to select between a sine wave for a nice, smooth pulsation or a square wave for severe chop effects. But, it's not a switch, and that allows a choice of wave shape anywhere between sine and square waves for a wide range of effects.

In use, the UT300 is very transparent, in that there's no apparent coloration of the sound. Just a nice tremolo effect. I also noticed that there's no pop or volume jump when you turn the effect on -- gain is effectively at unity and the electronic switching is dead silent.

In all, the UT300 is a good sounding, predictable analog effect at a bargain price.

VD400 Vintage Delay

The VD400 Vintage Delay is a basic, analog delay that offers up to 300ms of vintage, bucket-brigade echo. Again, there are three controls involved: Repeat Rate, Intensity and Echo.

In this case, the Repeat Rate is the delay time. Turning the control to the left makes for shorter delays and turning the control to the right lengthens the delay time, from slap-back timings to the spacier 300ms setting. Intensity controls the number of repeats, and Echo is the mix between dry and wet signal.

Again, the sound quality is very impressive. Short delays and lower repeat rates are clean and warm. Cranking the Intensity control results in a delay that "gets dirty" as the repeats build, very much like vintage tape echo.

As with the UT300, switching is silent, and gain is nicely balanced -- no pops or jumps. Just nice delays.

In conclusion

Based on my experience so far, if someone told me that they were on a tight budget and needed some inexpensive pedals, I'd very likely tell them to consider the Behringer effects. While there are certainly caveats to the build quality, I think that as long as they're treated decently, they'll perform quite nicely -- especially if they're on a pedal board and powered using a 9V adapter. Obviously, you can't be jumping on these and simply throwing them into the back of your amp. But, for someone who needs something now while they're putting a better rig together, or for someone just starting to use effects, they're a bargain.

Behringer list American Musical Supply as the only on-line dealer for these, and that's where I ordered mine. Some local music stores carry the Behringer pedals as well, and if you can, I always suggest supporting your local music store. In my case, I would have bought at Coffey Music in Westminster, MD, if they had been in stock.

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I Said I Needed a Pedal Board...

Three weeks ago, I mentioned that I needed a pedal board to keep the area beneath my keyboards under control. Well, three weeks later ...

And here it is. There are still a couple of details to fill in. I'm short one jumper cable, and a couple of the pedals are inexpensive "place holders" until I can find/acquire better ones.

In the top row, right to left, we have the Lovepedal Rubber Chicken (a dynamic filter/auto wah); a Behringer tremolo and analog delay (these are the cheap-o place holders); the Tech 21 NYC Blonde amp simulator/overdrive; and the Line 6 Roto Machine rotary speaker emulator/over drive).

On the bottom, from right to left, is the volume/expression pedal for the PS-60; the DSSP dual sustain pedal; volume/expression pedal for the X-50; and a master volume pedal for the effects loop. The open space on the lower left is reserved for a TC Helicon Mic Mechanic vocal effects pedal. A Gator soft case is on order, and should arrive on Tuesday (it was supposed to arrive Friday, but FedEx totally blew it).

The big, fat "cable" coming off the top-center is the umbilical to the keyboards, bundle up in a wire loom to keep things looking neat. The big bundle off the top right are the cables to the amp.

Overall, I'm really pleased with the result from this project. Long term, I will probably replace the amp simulator/overdrive with a more straight-forward overdrive pedal. While I've got it dialed in a little better, the Blonde is still really, really sensitive, and goes from clean through overdrive and into hard distortion way too easily.

Some thoughts on el-cheapo effects...

When I ordered the two Behringer pedals, I knew that for $25 a piece, they'd only be but so good, and I was right. It's not the design and sound that's disappointing -- they're nice copies of some vintage pedals -- but the build quality is pretty cheesy. On the outside, almost all of the construction is a high-impact plastic. Inside, low-cost made-in-China circuit boards and components are the rule.

Mounting the Behringer pedals was somewhat humorous. The bottom of the pedals have thick rubber cephalopod-like feet. I stuck a big hunk of Velcro to the underside, plopped the pedal on the board, and then went to position it. The rubber pad came right off the bottom. Fortunately, the stickum on the Velcro is really good, and I didn't waste a 2"x4" hunk of that! After discarding the rubber piece, the Velcro grabbed to the stamped metal plate on the bottom of the pedal (I think it's the only metal part in the entire thing) and is holding the pedal fast.

I knew going in that these were intended to get me an effect I need quickly while I search for the "holy grail" pedals. For instance, Lovepedal is working on an upgrade to the Gen5 Echo, and I can't imagine it being anything but stellar. I love the sound of the Gen5, but I want to hear the new one before I buy. And, Earthquaker Devices have the incredible Dispatch Master. I know, the Dispatch Master has a digital delay, but it sounds really, really nice, and the price is quite tempting. What's more, Earthquaker Devices are made in Akron, OH. That's where I was made!

For the trem, I'll be looking for something along the lines of the Suhr Guitars Jack Rabbit. The features that make it the top of the heap, in addition to great sound, are the array of modulation controls -- variable wave shape is a big deal that will allow going from subtle pulsing to radical chop sounds like those heard on The Who's Won't Get Fooled Again.

Finally, the replacement for the Blonde will probably be something along the lines of the J. Rockett Audio Designs Blue Note OD. It sounds super-smooth and subtle.

The project to build the pedal board ended up costing more than I had hoped, and took longer than I wanted it to. But, in the end, I'm getting exactly the pedal board I need -- there simply isn't a commercial pedal board that's made that's "right" for a keyboardist. I did play with it in an incomplete state at our last practice, and everything fell into perfect place.

Now to learn four new tunes by Thursday...

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