Deborah Harry, who's languished as a pop culture and fashion icon since she blasted onto the scene in the mid-70s, seems to be omnipresent of late gracing the pages of magazines from Harper's Bazaar to the cover of Rolling Stone. But perhaps her greatest lasting legacy is of the musical variety—with her band Blondie—still going strong nearly forty years since they got together. The lineup these days includes core members Chris Stein on guitar and drummer Clem Burke, along with Matt Katz-Bohen on keyboards, Lee Fox on bass, and Tommy Kessler on guitar. The group took to the road in 2011 in support of Panic of Girls, their ninth studio album. At the tour's audio controls was Rod Nielsen of Austin, Texas' Big House Sound, Inc. on a DiGiCo SD8/DRack system.
Nielsen actually purchased two SD8s over three years ago to fill the bill for the Blondie and Blues Traveler tours, as well as to accommodate specific rental requests. With the release of the new Blondie record, Nielsen packed up the SD8 last spring for nearly 5 weeks of gigs throughout Europe and the UK. The console's diminutive size gave him the luxury of shipping it with the rest of the backline—and allowed him to keep the band's sound consistent from venue to venue without being at the mercy of whatever rental gear was available at each gig. Size notwithstanding, Nielsen found so much more to love about the console.
"Functionality-wise, the SD8 is great," he stated, "but the biggest reason I like the console is it really does sound quite a bit better than other consoles in its price range. The high frequencies on the console don't seem to fall apart as easily as other consoles. It seems to be very open; the high-end is there but it's not shrill and the low end is tight and warm. The â€˜verbs are very nice as is the compression. The fact that the console can be setup any way you want; the inputs can be anywhere at anytime, you can have them in multiple places at anytime, control groups and returns in any place you want them to as well. Setting up the console makes a lot of sense to me. All of my banks have the FX returns needed for those specific inputs built into them. So for example, I can bring up my drum bank and all the drum inputs and FX are all right there. Everything that I use is right there on each page or bank of faders. The left side of my console is the side that I rotate through; my right side is vocals and all the things I want to stay up all the time. Other consoles, when you flip through pages all the faders flip. On the SD8, it's just the ones you want to. So functionality wise, it seems a lot faster to me. And seems like it makes a lot more sense."
Nielsen found the frequency-selective compression a boon when mixing Harry's vocal. "Most of the time, I don't have to do much EQing on her but there are times when I have to… she's one of those singers that sings off the mic and on certain notes, she likes to eat the mic a little bit. Because of that proximity effect as she moves into the mic, low-end gets created and it needs to be taken care of somehow. Using the frequency selective compression, I can compress those frequencies that tend to stick out as she gets closer to the mic. That alone is a godsend and it changes the way I feel about her vocals. It's specifically incredible!"
Another technique he employs to beef up the band's sound is to double-buss the drums. "My entire drum mix goes to two separate stereo busses and both of them are compressed differently. One is compressed so that it takes the entire kit and levels the whole thing out super-smooth, almost too smooth for live. For the second set, I use really light compression so the drums really pop out. Mixing those two together gives me a drum mix that sits right in the pocket yet still has a lot of life to it, with a punchy kick drum and punchy snare."
For the guitar sounds, Nielsen takes both mic signals from the guitar amps and a Radial JDX box that sit between the amps and the speaker cabinets. This allows him to create the sound he's looking for, but the delay between the direct and mic signal has to be corrected. On the digital console, he uses the input delay to make this correction. "Other consoles don't give you the fine-grained delay on the inputs that you need to get things to really line up and the DiGiCo does that. It's unbelievable compared to what other consoles do."
In addition to the plethora of onboard effects, Nielsen's carrying a rack of his favorite outboard gear. "Which doesn't mean that the reverbs in the DiGiCo don't sound good, its just there are a few things that have a specific sound that I like to add in. For example, I like the sound of analog compression and have two dbx 162SLs. I also have a Bricasti M7 reverb, an Eventide DSP7000 for a bit of thickening and that Antares sound when needed, a Dolby Lake Processor, as well as a TCD2 delay because I like some of the 2290-style delays that it can do. These are effects that I could probably get on the console but I have this comfort feeling using them and have been for a long time. The Bricasti reverb is just a beautiful verb and I want that specific sound."
Nielsen makes use of a Motion tablet for the 8in/8out Dolby Lake Processor housed in his rack. "The DLP is used for system EQ, delay and distribution and receives three AES inputs from the SD8 that include Left, Right and Sub, with outputs including Left, Right, Sub 1, Sub 2, Front Fill, Center, Delay and Production Feed. Using the DLP this way frees up AES and analog outputs on the SD8 for other uses and allows me to do my room correction with Lake and the tablet. The analog inputs and outputs on the SD8 are used for two dbx 162SL's inserted on Debbie's vocal, bass subgroup, and Left & Right as well as send and return of the TC D2, the send of the Bricasti M7 and FOH talkback. The AES ins and outs are the Eventide DSP7000, RME UFX interface and the returns of the Bricasti M7. In addition, the entire rig is clocked using an Apogee Big Ben clock with feeds to the console, DLP and the RME."
On a gig at the Isle of Wight Festival last year, the SD8 proved handy last minute in solving some challenges posed while interfacing with the festival remote recording truck. The SD8s onboard MADI capabilities saved the day. "Last minute, we were asked to unpatch all of our stuff—we carry a full two-way split with one going to monitors one to FOH with no third split—as they wanted to run the signal through their active split first and then feed back into our split. The time was so tight and we were worried about all of our gains changing and just general issues going through a remote truck. We quickly discussed our options and I found out that the truck was running off MADI so we were able to come off the MADI B output of the console back down our 6-channel BNC snake and went back to truck that way. The truck was also able to send me their clock into the mic pre's onstage and I clocked both systems off that so we were all running off the same clock. It was a very quick fix for something that was going to cause us possibly a lot of issues. In the end, they were happier with all of that and their mixes ended up being really nice and clean because they were getting the same thing that I was right off my mic pres. As MADI becomes more of a standard, it's nice to have a console that's more compatible than just about any other systems out there."
The console's ability to do virtual soundchecks was also a boon to Nielsen for a variety of reasons. "They're definitely the kind of band that wants to soundcheck every day in order to feel comfortable in the room they're in, but on the occasion when they can't—because of interviews or transportation issues—it's nice to have the virtual soundcheck for that. I record into Logic, which gives me the ability to go home and listen to the inputs and do rough mixes for the band. Also, at the beginning of the US tour, I couldn't do the first week because I had to be in Austin for the ACL Festival and the solution was very simple. We found a replacement, Tom Heinisch of SK Systems who was very DiGiCo savvy, and I sent him my files from the consoles and also a hard drive that had the shows on it. He was able to listen to the shows, learn where all the changes and the solos were, and it gave him a grasp of what his mixes were going to be before he even met the band."
For everyday recording purposes, Nielsen records all 42 channels with an RME MADIface card into a 17" Apple MacBook Pro. "I put up a couple of additional Shure KSM 32 audience mikes and a Shure VP88 downstage center right behind Debbie's wedges facing the audience. I also use a couple of Shure SM81s at FOH to catch the audience roar and excitement."
In hindsight, Nielsen and Big House partner Roy Kircher have been more than satisfied with their SD8 purchases. A decision that was a result of hearing the console in action at the Austin City Limits Festival a number of years ago. He says although the deciding factors at the time was the buzz on the console and its growing popularity, it proved to sound and perform better than most of the consoles they'd had in stock. "So we bought two," he laughed. "In central Texas, we're one of the only rental houses that have these consoles and we get rental requests not just from bands but also from other sound companies as well. They've filled a niche for us in this biz as a higher-end, specialty console. Plus, they're great sounding and a step above everything else we have in their price range. The big thing with digital consoles is everyone's worried about how reliable they are. Does it handle the road, does it work everyday and can you rely on it? And the answer is Yes. We've had NO issues with either one of our consoles, whether its reliability or crashing issues, and they've paid for themselves time and time again."