The stagebox/mixer format has become hugely popular of late. Does Behringer’s affordable take on the concept deliver the goods?
Behringer describe their XR18 as an “18-channel, 12-bus digital mixer for iPad/Android tablets, with 16 programmable Midas preamps, integrated Wi-Fi module and multi-channel USB audio interface”. When I read this, it made the XR18 sound like something I’d be interested in any day of the week, and around the same time, a live job came up for which I needed a very compact, low-profile system. When I looked at the physical size of the unit and the overall cost of purchasing one, out came the credit card, and a couple of days later I owned one. Here, I’ll be giving you a description of the XR18’s main capabilities, and my impressions of owning and using it as a live-sound mixer.
Although none of the usual mix controls appear on the unit itself — everything being controlled remotely — there is a local headphone output, which is useful for monitoring from the stage if necessary. The 16 mic inputs are accessed via ‘combi’-type connectors which will take XLR or standard 6.3mm jack plugs (you can connect balanced or unbalanced sources), and so line-level inputs direct from jack-equipped gear can be plugged straight in. Inputs 1 and 2 can accept signals from instruments such as electric guitars and basses that need to ‘see’ a very high impedance. This is all very handy stuff, and provided cable lengths are not too long and there are no ground-loop issues, the XR18 is all you need on a small band stage, as everything — mics, guitars, keyboards, playback — can just connect directly. Inputs 17 and 18 are line-level only and do not have as much processing capability as the first 16 channels; these inputs are on standard TRS jacks.
The eight analogue outputs — main left/right mix plus the six auxiliary outs — are all on balanced XLR connectors and, in terms of analogue in and out, that’s about it. The other connectors at the top of the panel are those concerned with control and digital I/O. The Ethernet port is where a LAN control cable or external wireless router is hooked up, and the associated ‘remote’ switch selects the control mode between LAN, Wi-Fi client or Access Point options. There are also MIDI control ports, an Ultranet port for use with Behringer’s P16 monitoring system, and a USB port that allows 18 channel bi-directional traffic for recording and playback on an external DAW application. Finally, there’s a ‘get out of jail’ reset button which, if pressed and held for 10 seconds, resets every mixer function back to the factory defaults. All of this massive functionality is built into a very neat and sturdy stagebox, which has rubber bumpers on each end for stand-alone use, or can be mounted into a case or rack using the supplied rack ears. I installed mine in an empty 3U shallow rack case in about five minutes, and it not only looks the business but — being such a small unit to begin with — there’s plenty of space left inside the case to store the mains lead, some Cat 5 cables and an external router if you plan to use one. There is an on/off switch alongside the IEC connector on the side panel, and of course this is no longer accessible from the front when the XR18 is mounted in a rack — you either have to stick your hand in from the back or leave it switched on, which is what my crew do as they haven’t found it yet...
The idea of such mixers is that the ‘stagebox’ part, which contains all the mix processing, sits near to the performers, with the control device being operated at the mix position; the controller is the interface between operator and system and, in the case of the XR18, there are no ‘real’ physical controls at all — everything is done on a touchscreen or with a mouse and keyboard. In the years since I bought my first fully digital console I have often wished that I could have the option of controlling everything through a software application, but doing away with the physical control surface completely is a big step. However, I have to say that the design of the apps and the responsiveness of the XR18 system overall makes this a very positive experience, and in some ways it might be an easier transition for anyone used to an analogue mixer as it’s an altogether different mindset.
The XR18 won’t work without a connected device running the X-Air control app, which is available as a free download for Windows, OS X, iPad and Android devices (although if it becomes disconnected during a show, it will continue to operate in the current state so no audio will be lost). As far as I know there isn’t an iPhone version as yet, and I’m sure that this will be high on the potential users’ wish lists.
Right from the start I had intended to use my XR18 with a Cat 5 cable and a laptop as the main ‘live’ setup, and use the wireless capability during setup and soundchecks — a safe mix of options as far as I’m concerned, using the best of both operating modes. Therefore I’ll run briefly through the mixer functions as accessed on the PC control software, although the tablet versions have pretty much identical functionality.
Having downloaded the program, installation on my laptop was straightforward and quick, and I connected to the XR18 via the LAN option (you can of course set up the wireless connection whilst in this mode). The app itself looks very good and the screen layout is very easy to understand — the first time you see your new mixer surface is when the control software is launched! Even if you haven’t got an XR18, you can download the app and play about with some of the functions to get a feel for what it can do.
The main screen layout is clear and its features should be obvious to anyone familiar with almost any digital mixer. All of the input channels, the effects returns and the main output faders are displayed at the same time, so there’s no layer-jumping to see and control whatever you want. It’s all there on the one screen — fabulous!
Across the top of the screen is a row of tabs where the current view is selected. The left-hand one called ‘mixer’ always opens on startup and I regard this as my home screen; in this view, a complete overview of every channel is represented, and you can see all the channel functionality at once. The other tabs allow deeper access into various sections of the mixer: the next tab, ‘channel’, displays a more detailed, larger-scale view of the main input functions, namely input settings (source, level, phantom power, polarity invert, insert effects and so on), and allows some adjustments and editing. If you go to the ‘input’ tab itself, then the detailed parameters can be edited. I like the way that if you click on something in a view which doesn’t allow editing of that parameter, the view immediately switches to one where you can, which is really neat.
The gate, EQ and compressor tabs get you straight into a detailed window for each, providing excellent and clear graphics and smooth adjustment either by altering or entering values, or dragging curves where appropriate. The controls operate in an intuitive way (provided of course that you understand what they do), and I particularly like the way a slider handle appears as the mouse pointer lands within an indicator bar within the gate and compressor screens. Sliders can be dragged with the mouse or moved up and down using the mouse’s scroll wheel, and once again adjustment is smooth and well-geared. The last two tabs call up an overview of the four-slot effects rack, and a meter view that displays current real-time audio levels of all inputs, buses and sends, so you can see absolutely everything on the same page.
If you like the effects processors in Behringer’s X32 mixer, you’ll recognise those in the XR18. There are 41 types available and these can be loaded into the four-slot virtual effects rack. The detailed description names various famous classic devices which have ‘inspired’ some of the Behringer effects — all I can say is that they sound good when I’m using my own X32 and they sound just as good here in the little XR18. Almost more impressive than how they sound is how easy it is to load them and use them; it’s about as simple and obvious a process as you could imagine, and everything is right there on the screen. The effects can be configured as inserts on any input (1 to 16) or output bus including main left/right output. Again, it’s two mouse clicks and you’re done. Clicking on any of the effects (which are nicely represented with authentic-looking front-panel views, as in the X32) brings in a larger view of the ‘hardware’ and allows all of its front panel knobs to be adjusted by dragging the mouse pointer or hovering and scrolling with the mouse wheel.
One of the things which often confuses those new to digital consoles is the setting up of auxiliary sends — especially for anyone not used to the ‘sends on faders’ approach. I’ve witnessed more than a few near-panic situations where someone on stage is (politely, of course) requesting more of this, less of that, some reverb over here and none over there, I hate my guitar and so on... and the poor guy on the desk is frantically trying to work out why the main mix is sounding all wrong and then alas, too late, noticing the ‘sends on faders’ button flashing happily. The XR18 control app allows aux sends to be controlled by ‘sends on faders’ or by direct per-channel adjustment using the ‘sends’ tab, so whichever method you’re used to, it’s all here ready to be used without fear or panic. That’s another vote for the lack of a physical control surface, in my book: for some reason I’m much more inclined to turn the wrong knob or push the wrong button than to click or drag the wrong element on a computer screen, so perhaps it’s just a deep-rooted attraction to twiddling and an aversion to clicking. I don’t know, but it seems to work.
To sum up the mixer control functions: they’re great, easy, intuitive and very well laid-out on screen. I have only briefly descibed their operation here, and luckily there’s a brilliant way to find out anything you might want to know — just download the free app and start playing around!
The XR18 has performed very nicely for me, so far, as an ultra-compact and very well-equipped live sound mixer, but earlier on we mentioned a USB port on the front panel, and using this opens up new options for live work and recording. The XR18 has bi-directional 18-channel USB interfacing functionality, which can be used to record all the input channels — separately — onto an external DAW running appropriate software, and which also functions as a multitrack playback input. There are definite studio-based as well as live recording possibilities here, and of course this facility also allows you to perform ‘virtual soundchecks’, where you can record all of the band’s stage sources individually during a live run-through, let them go off to experience the delights of the green room, and carry on with fine-tuning your sound system using your multitrack recording of what they’ve just played.
Personal monitoring systems are becoming popular, especially in theatre and house-of-worship setups, and the XR18 has an Ultranet port for direct connection to Behringer personal monitor mixers or a P16 hub. I haven’t been a user of this type of system as yet, but if ever a client requests it...
There’s surprisingly little effort needed to get the XR18 up and running, but this process depends on how you want to control it, whether by wireless or by Cat 5 cable. The on-board router can operate in one of three modes to allow remote control: via Ethernet LAN cable, as a Wi-Fi client or as an Access Point. The chosen mode is selected by a little front-panel slide switch, then the setup and further options (including whether you want to use a fixed IP address or not, password protection, and so on) are made via the control application. Note that using the wired LAN option there is no password set and therefore any connected devices can control the XR18.
No matter what wireless mode you choose, some venues and applications will present a challenge to standard wireless operation. An external 5GHz router could be connected to provide dual-band or 5GHz options, which might be required under some circumstances, and is probably to be recommended — those who know about such matters do recommend the use of a good-quality 5GHz router and advise that spending a little more on this will reward you with trouble-free shows. I have to say for the record that I didn’t have any problems using the built-in router, although this was only used for test and setup.
Using the XR18 at a live show answered so many problems I’ve faced over the years. No longer did I have to find a table and then find somewhere suitable to position it; no longer did I worry about where to run the multicore; no more venue management telling me I can’t run cables over that door or across that fire exit (not that I ever would, of course)... This aspect alone was the main reason I bought the XR18, and having used it in anger, I have to say I’m delighted with it. Each time I’ve taken it out it has attracted at least one admirer, and I could have sold it there and then for more than it cost me!
For my first ‘real’ live gig I had already decided to use the XR18 with the cabled LAN port, and I ran a Cat 5 cable about 15m back from the stage, where all I needed was a small table and my laptop. Now there is a slight downside to working like this, in that I would normally have a CD/MP3 player next to the mixer so that I can control the walk-in music or any backing tracks needed by performers. As all the physical inputs are on the rack unit itself, the playback device has to either be alongside the XR18, or you need a long (and possibly unbalanced) stereo line feed into it, which would kind of defeat the whole object of a setup like this. Another option would be to run a USB cable to the mix position and have a DAW app running on the laptop, but in the end I just plugged my iPod into the XR18 inputs 17 and 18 at the stage end and left it running, controlling the levels only from the X-Air app.
The show ran smoothly, everything was a breeze to set up and control, and by the end of the evening I was completely sold on the XR18 as a brilliant solution for small gigs like this. I used it a couple more times in the same way (again declining cash offers to part with it), but on one occasion, at a larger outdoor show, I ran out of channels on my X32 and S16 stagebox rig. Being unable to run any extra cabling to the mix position, I set up the XR18 as a remote-controlled submixer for a group of sources (the drum kit in this case), which I controlled from my laptop alongside the main console, feeding the XR18 returns into two inputs on the main stagebox. This worked very well for a drum subgroup as all the foldback was going only to the drummer’s upstage monitor.
As I said at the beginning, this is only a fairly superficial look at the XR18, and if this sounds like your kind of product, then download the X-Air app from the website and have a good play — there is a lot of additional information on there, and you can look at the full user manual via Behringer’s ‘Wiki manual’ page (at first it seems as if you are looking at the X32 manual, but scroll down and you’ll find the XR18).
My experience of the XR18 has so far been very positive. It’s a great little product which does everything you’d expect from something this compact and at this price, and it does it very well indeed. I’m particularly impressed by the control app design: I can’t think of anything about it I’d change (not this early on in our relationship, anyway), and every time I use it I keep thinking ‘that’s neat’ or ‘that’s exactly how I’d have designed it’. The XR18 has proved to be one of the best things I’ve bought in a long time and I think it’s going to be a very useful and much-used piece of kit in my inventory for the forseeable future.
The stagebox-cum-mixer format has proliferated massively in the last year or two, with similar devices now coming from PreSonus, Allen & Heath, Soundcraft, Mackie and MOTU.