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.

Digital Audio Update

Didja ever notice I kind of go in spurts with posts? I guess that's kind of how my life goes... In little spurts. Anyway...

Nineteen months ago today, I made the move to a digital "board" for mixing live music. At the time, I chose the Mackie DL1608. By-and-large, I've been happy with the Mackie, but there have been a couple of annoyances, most notably the inability to set, save, and recall pre-amp levels from the control application. If you read my earlier post, you'll notice that I knew that going in. So far, my work-around has been to take snapshots of the gain settings for each gig, print them out on a 4x6 card, and keep them in my mixer case. That allows me to set a good starting point for each gig I do with a particular band. But if a pre-amp needs tweaking during a show, I have to run up to the stage and make the adjustment. That's inconvenient for me, and distracting to performers and audience members. Another issue it that Mackie have never come out with control apps for Windows, MacOSX or Android -- not everyone owns an iPhone or iPad.

Other people will be quick to tell you of other shortcomings of the Mackie DL mixers, but really, the pre-amp thing was the part that I found the most troublesome. For instance, I think the reverb and delay, while certainly basic, sound just fine in the real world. And, I've never once had any of the random noise or random disconnect issues that others claim. From day one, the thing has just worked, and worked well, despite its limitations.

image courtesy Behringer

Fast forward all these months. Behringer have finally shipped the mixer I really wanted from the start (X-Air X18), as well as a whole host of companion mixers that, better still, are rack-mountable. The control applications have become fairly robust and run on iPads, Android tablets and phones, and also on Windows, MacOSX, Linux, and even on Raspbian! Yes, even on a Raspberry Pi, you can run Behringer's control application. Of course, Raspbian isn't a huge stretch, since it is a fork of Debian. But still. There it is. There may be more about the Raspberry Pi thing at a later date.

Mackie's not been completely asleep at the switch, though. They've put out numerous updates to the Master Fader and My Fader apps, which have added a number of features. But, they do seem to have hit the limitations of the hardware in the DL1608, and even to some extent, the DL32R.

Behringer X Air Q app on an HTC Thunderbolt. Note how small the faders are.

So, I've picked up an XR18 on loan from my friendly nearby Behringer rep./audio gear pusher for evaluation. I've spent about two hours with it so far, and have been really impressed. I've tested with two different laptops running Windows 10, an ancient Dell running an oddball build of Ubuntu Linux, as well as an iPad Air 2, an el-cheapo Android tablet, an el-cheapo Windows 10 tablet, and a couple of rooted and tweaked HTC Thunderbolt Android phones. All have worked flawlessly (though the controls are a little tricky to see and use on the tiny phone and Windows 10 tablet screens).

I like that I can control phantom power individually for each input, as well as choose pre- and post-fader sends on a per-channel-per-aux basis. The general audio quality seems to be excellent (it ought to, as the pre-amps were design by the folks at Midas). And, the effects are pretty stellar.

Behringer X-Air App for Windows

Behringer X-Air App (default layout) on a small Android tablet

My impression is that Behringer has done a lot of work on the Android and computer app functionality since I first looked at the demo versions of the app on the iPad almost two years ago. While the Android and computer apps are not as pretty as the iPad variant (nor quite as intuitive as Mackie's Master Fader iPad app), they 've become quite functional, and the current versions mostly make sense.

This is one deep mixer, especially for one that retails for around U$700. I could ramble on for page after page about all the stuff that's crammed into this little box that aren't crammed into Mackie's offerings, but I won't.

You can Google all the tech and comparison stuff, or you can look at this chart that I snagged that sorta shows some of the differences:

There are a lot of things this chart misses, such as the 18 USB returns from the computer which, along with the 18 USB sends to the computer, allow the XR18 (or X18) to act as a full audio and MIDI interface for recording -- at the same time as you're mixing with it. The best you can do for recording with the DL1608 is a two-channel mix, and you have to record to a docked iPad. It also doesn't mention that it's impossible to connect any kind of hardware control surface to the smaller Mackie (they do have a control surface for the DL32R on the way), where any "teachable" control surface (or one that knows Mackie HUI protocols) can connect via MIDI to the Behringer mixers.

One thing that may, or may not, be a sticking point is that there is no app for the iPhone, nor does it look like one is on the horizon. How the heck they let that go by is beyond me, especially given that they support pretty much anything else with a screen. Many of my clients use iPhones, and have gotten used to being able to handle their own monitor mixes. I guess that, since I can get nice, cheap Android tablets for under U$40 each, I could just pick up a few to hand out at gigs. In some ways, that's actually a better scenario, as I can be sure that all the devices being used match the system firmware, and that everything will "play nice".

I'm going to spend another couple of days evaluating, but at this point, I'm thinking that I'll be moving to the Behringer very soon, unless I discover something I just can't live without. I've already got an offer on my DL1608, as well as a couple of other bits of extra gear, so I could probably do this with my only cost being a handful of cheap tablets and another rack (which I've been wanting anyway).