Rack ‘Em Up, Part 2: Redundancy
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Day-to-day, Wi-Fi is mostly an unconscious sort of connectivity… like oxygen. But for the audio professional, Wi-Fi integration can be an anxiety-inducing disconnection from the source — invisible strings of data, rather than cables you can trace from point to point.
The medicine for this madness are dedicated networks; establishing virtual private ‘cables’ between source and control. But even a bespoke net of wireless devices won’t prove impervious to external incursions. Everyone else’s phones, tablets, and PCs, are all unwitting signal jammers trying to cram into free space.
Anyone depending on wireless for audio winces with every LED flicker on their router, knowing at any moment their signal could start bouncing around the ether like a Pong pixel. Even these portable-driven rack mixers, which operate on the principle of mobility, have fallback positions designed in. So the question is, how much faith do these manufacturers place in the ether, and who resorts to ethernet?
The primary mode of driving these devices is by tablet. It’s just the best mix of mobility and functionality. So the issue of redundancy falls into two categories: How solid is the Wi-Fi/tablet relationship to start with, and how good is the backup plan?
Not building a native app means Soundcraft’s Ui must hold the keys somewhere. Onboard the device is its own web server, which spits out the HTML5 graphics and control code to your device.
It has three modes of operation: onboard Wi-Fi hot spot, wirelessly via an external router, or hardwired to a computer. For the last method, you have to wire the computer through a switch or router to assign an address via DHCP to the device.
If you’re connecting to the onboard Wi-Fi hotspot, then setup is a breeze: join the network, pop in any web address to any browser, and it’ll automatically point you to the Ui front page. Select between a small (phones) or large (tablets or bigger) screen size and your browser will be filled with the interface. Adding the page to your homescreen and launching from there will keep browser bars out of the picture on your phone or tablet — it works and looks just like an app.
Just for kicks, I managed to have all three networks going simultaneously, with different devices talking to the unit and each other. Manually configuring different router and unit IP addresses for both LAN and wireless, and making sure the gateways differ was key to keeping devices from getting confused. The recommended mode would be to run the LAN and hotspot simultaneously, as they don’t interfere with each other at all. But with all three going simultaneously, without any dropouts, and simple setup, it was very solid indeed.
Unlike the Soundcraft’s on-at-all-times tri-mode connectivity, you have to select one at a time on the Behringer with a switch: Access Point (hotspot), Wi-Fi Client or Ethernet.
The hotspot and LAN were a doddle to access, but the Wi-Fi client proved elusive. The settings wouldn’t stick between reboots of the app. Because you have to switch between settings, there’s no automatic redundancy fallback to the onboard hotspot. Though switching between settings doesn’t require a reboot.
In the LAN setup page, there’s an option to turn the mixer into a DHCP server. Which means you don’t have to place a router between your computer and the XR18 if you don’t need wireless, eliminating a possible point of failure. The only caveat being you have to jump off any other networks first.
A little USB wireless dongle ships in the box with the Presonus RM32AI. It’s there to completely cut the cords to the rack. It’s not a Wi-Fi hotspot in and of itself, but allows the RM to wirelessly connect to networks in the area. Initially, everything worked as advertised. Its default setting is to sign into any network with a StudioLive SSID and password. After a bit of fiddling in the network settings, I got it to see my main wireless network. But as soon as I connected to the internet, I lost the connection and couldn’t get it back no matter how often I rebooted. Though not as secure, the other network I’d labelled StudioLive with the default StudioLive password however continued to work a treat. While handy, I’d recommend skipping the USB dongle and just using an Ethernet cable into your wireless router. By far, the more secure connection, which worked without a hitch.
With no onboard hotspot or dongle, wireless connectivity is between you and your router on the Mackie and Allen & Heath. On both devices, just hook up a router to the Ethernet port, make sure it will assign IP addresses by DHCP, connect the iPad to the same network, and you’re off. Both apps sync just fine, every time. And they always found their way back when forced to disconnect.
So, how much do these manufacturer’s trust the ether? Answer; about as far as they can throw a network cable. Mackie’s the only one putting its faith completely in the stability of your router. It is, of course, the grandfather of this whole tablet mixer market. Perhaps Mackie has seen enough customers go wireless without issue on its dockable tablet mixers, it decided a hardware connection was simply unnecessary. And, let’s be honest. If you’re going to buy any of these mixers, you dig the whole tablet mixing aspect, and don’t mind navigating your way around the odd wireless conundrum.
For the slightly more wireless conservative out there, every device other than the Mackie has a hard-wired backup plan. The clear winner has to be Allen & Heath’s Qu-Pac. When you go to the trouble of including the same size touchscreen, button and knob interface you get on its 24-fader equivalent — and populating the rest of its fascia with 31 assignable buttons — you win. Basically, if all networking fails, the box itself still plants you in the driver’s seat.
The remaining units don’t have onboard screens. But I’m going to have to give Soundcraft the edge over Behringer, trailed closely by the Presonus unit. Both Soundcraft and Behringer have incorporated onboard Wi-Fi access points as well as the ability to hook up to a wireless router via Ethernet, making it two potential Wi-Fi hotspots instead of one.
All of them allow you to operate the mixer from a computer via Ethernet — a provision the Qu-Pac doesn’t make. So an extra Ethernet cable to a PC, and realistically, all of these can have a hardwired redundant option, making redundancy a moot issue if you come prepared with a handful of devices.
But we don’t always drag around a spare tablet, laptop, wi-fi router and ethernet cables when the underlying reason for owning a device is portability.
Where the Soundcraft comes out trumps is in its underlying code. While Presonus has written native apps for iPad, Mac and PC, and Behringer has gone even further by adding Android devices and Linux to that list, Soundcraft’s app will work on any device, not just supported ones. And because the app is served from the unit, not hosted on your device, there’s no last-minute app downloads, no system requirements other than a HTML5 browser, and it’s completely device agnostic. You can literally pull your phone out of your pocket and have full control over the Ui.
While every other manufacturer only makes use of iPhones to display a limited personal monitor iPhone app, the Ui series’ entire mixer can be driven from a phone. Somehow Soundcraft has managed to repackage every detail into a phone screen without it becoming dysfunctional. And if you flip the screen orientation vertical, you still get the More Me interface.
The Rub: All of the devices seemed really stable, even with multiple networks running around the place. As always, best practise is to run a secure, exclusive network via a dual-band wireless router — the bigger the antennas, and higher the gain, the better. And a wired connection to a computer as a backup where possible. But because you can do all of that, and simultaneously run the Wi-Fi hotspot as an automatic fallback, wireless stability kudos goes to the Soundcraft Ui12.