Singer-songwriter Justin Vernon was determined to transpose his band's eponymous second outing—the highly anticipated Bon Iver—from studio to stage when he decided to tour behind its release in the spring of 2011. Adding several of the studio musicians to the live touring band, taking it from a 4- to a 9-piece outfit, was one part of the strategy. In addition, the recording's shimmering fidelity was brought to life with the help of production manager/FoH engineer Brian Joseph—who also worked with Vernon in the studio over the record's 2-1/2 year creation period—and a pair of DiGiCo's newest SD10 live consoles outfit with SD Racks and a Waves SoundGrid bundle at FoH.
In preparing for the tour, Joseph and monitor engineer Xandy Whitesel consulted closely with DiGiCo's Matt Larson to find the perfect console to match the intricacies and high input count of the band. Although the two were new to working with DiGiCo work surfaces, they were certainly well-versed in the company—and its' consoles sonic reputation. "I saw the SD7 when it was introduced in Cleveland a few years back, and I was excited about the console," Joseph recalled. "It was extremely powerful and more approachable than the D5. I kept that in my mind ever since. Several engineers that I respected and trusted had been using SD7s and SD8s and also spoke on the difference in the DiGiCo sound quality and processing power—both of which were extremely important to me and part of the consideration to choose the DiGiCo for this tour. Also, because Bon Iver has a very specific studio sound, when preparing for this tour, we ultimately wanted to be able to capture that pure tone in a live arena. Running at 96K, I found this desk to be so clear, pristine and exacting. The separation was really remarkable, and not many other consoles can do that especially at this price point. With 9 members on stage, clarity was very important and the DiGiCo made it possible to translate that live. It just feels wide and rich and clear and wonderful in that regard and we couldn't be happier."
â€¨Onstage, Bon Iver utilizes two 48 channel SD Racks with all the preamps shared by both SD10s, connecting the consoles through a redundant pair of optical lines 350 feet from the stage to FOH. "Transitioning to optical from regular copper snakes was an awesome move for us," Joseph explained, "because the rack situation is much smaller and it's easier to deal with running that snake. The consoles are capable of sharing preamps very easily with DiGiCo's Gain Tracking, which lowers our production costs noticeably, not to mention our patching is much simpler. Dealing with 73 inputs can be a little daunting but the console does it very easily."
Comprised of nine musicians including songwriter/leader Justin Vernon, Bon Iver makes up a total of 73 inputs at FoH: two full drum kits (each with full electronic stations), three guitars, bass, bass saxophone, tenor sax, alto sax, clarinet, French horn, trumpet, trombone, violin, viola, three synth players (one actual synth used on the record, and two clones of studio sounds), seven vocalists and three vocal channels for Justin alone. Justin has a vocal mic for each of his two positions, plus a third mic with a mute switch on his main position that's affected by processing in an Ableton session running on redundant computers. Joseph, with the help of Laura Escude, built the complicated Ableton session affecting vocals and triggering samples of actual recorded pianos and sounds that were used in the studio and that were very important to make it compatible for the road. One of Justin's main vocal inputs is where he's at most of the time, the other vocal is the same mic and same mirrored channel, and the third mic on his main position that's affected by processing in the Ableton session. Joseph has redundant computers running for affected vocals and he added a mute switch allowing Justin to punch it in depending on the song. Drummer Sean Carey has an aux vocal mic for affected sounds as well.
"The SD10's compression is rivaled by only one other desk that I've used," Joseph raved. "The dynamics package on the desk is outstanding and fabulous-sounding. In addition to that, the EQ and multiband compression are two more options that are great problem solvers. You don't need them on every channel, but they can be great for some key inputs and they work really well. Just on my lead vocal, on a room-to- room basis for Justin's vocal, having the multiband compressor being as transparent as it is, I can really lay into it and keep his vocal at the front of the mix every night. The multiband compressor has allowed me to keep the tone in his voice, whereas before, as much falsetto singing as goes on in this band, there's some pretty heavy handed EQ that has to happen to work around problems in the room frequencies. And with seven people singing simultaneously, obviously you get some buildup around 300-400 Hz, but with the multiband compressor, that's been a wonderful workaround for me and just makes things very easy and straightforward.
â€¨The macro programming capability has also played a big part in Joseph's workflow. "They're really powerful and pretty awesome. They stepped them up from the SD8, too, with the addition of programmable LCD smart switches that I can custom label and assign pretty much anything I want them to do – the SD10 is very comprehensive in this. Anything you need to get to quickly you can program as a macro, and it's available with one button push. I have a delay that I turn on for a select number of background vocals and I've programmed that into a macro and now I don't need to have a bunch of hands and fingers doing a bunch of things."
The amount of programming the DiGiCo affords Joseph on this tour was a bit of a revelation. "I feel like there's a lot of ways that the console is very advanced, like having the console on a redundant optical loop is comforting, for sure. I think that's always been what's marvelous about DiGiCo but I wasn't ready for before as an engineer. The amount of programming that you can do to your session and the amount of flexibility for me within snapshots is wonderful. I live now by snapshots on this console. Being able to shape the sound of an instrument by affecting different parameters to make a completely different creature from song-to-song is really cool."
With the addition of the Waves SoundGrid bundle at FoH, Joseph was able to strip away his 12U touring rack. "I didn't need it. I'm able to get everything I need on the desk now. I needed a compressor for the bass guitar and found that I'm able to use the R Compressor on the Waves package… I'm very comfortable with the R Verbs and I like them a lot for a couple of different rooms that I've built. I use the H Delay, too, for both my slapback and my long delay by building macros on the desk. I'm able to punch them in and out as needed and that's a wonderful utility. I'm planning on trying out a few more things out for the support act like a distortion plug-in and the Renaissance de-esser, which I absolutely love. But for Bon Iver's purposes, the onboard multiband compressor and dynamic EQ are pretty wonderful and I'm getting what I need out of those. I plan to introduce more but right now they're working marvelously. The lessons I've learned over the years about mixing are that you don't need to unnecessarily complicate things – it really isn't of benefit to the music or to the mix. Previously, when I used an AVID Profile, I had all those Pro Tools plug-ins that I thought would be good to use, but my mix started sounding a lot smaller. So I try to keep it really simple—just like we did when we made the record together—find the pure tones, capture them on the front end and let them speak for themselves. And having so many people on stage, it's pretty important not to get too heavy handed out there in order to keep the separation."
Hired back in 2009, monitor engineer Xandy Whitesel helped the band, a 4-piece at the time, transition from wedges to in-ears for their summer/fall touring. As a 9-piece now, they're up to 93 total channels including duplicated inputs, audience mics and effects returns. The band is on Ultimate Ears UE11 Pro earbuds and Sennheiser EW IEM 300 G3's with Professional Wireless GX8 combiners. Whitesel manages 12 stereo IEM mixes, 10 effects mixes, oh, and three mono outputs for the â€˜butt mixes.' "We have tactile bass devices on each drum throne, which we affectionately call â€˜butt thumpers' made by Clark Synthesis," Whitesel explained. "In addition, we built a 4" high platform for Justin that has three transducers attached underneath, augmenting his rocking IEM mix with huge and accurate bass through his feet. When I toured with him before, I'd have to put a sub in front of him because he loved to feel the bass frequencies hit when playing live. Brian would complain to me about all the 60-120Hz rolling around the stage and affecting him at FOH and we would have to compromise. So we built this thing and it's changed all of our lives. Justin claims it helps his back as well. The addition of a tactile form of bass frequencies for band members really enhances the IEM experience, which can tend to feel a bit disconnected from being a live rock show in front of thousands of fans. Ideally, we'd have the whole stage on thumpers and the whole band bouncing around."
On the whole, Whitesel's been very happy with the performance and tools the console provides, not to mention the flexibility and creativity it allows. "As you can imagine, dealing with 93 channels and 25 mixes can be challenging," Whitesel confessed. "With the DiGiCo, it's very easy to build custom fader banks and that has been absolutely crucial from my point of view in dealing with all these inputs and to be able to logically and quickly move around the console. Custom fader banks are something that very few other consoles can do so easily. Setting up my entire console took about two hours before the initial rehearsals. I've configured each fader bank as the inputs of one or two band members, making access very fast and intuitive. Using the SD10, the concept of an input channel number evaporates and it becomes more about your desired workflow. You can have inputs, verb sends, groups – any kind of channel– all sharing the same fader bank."
I'm very impressed by the onboard effects," Whitesel continues. "The onboard verbs sound great. I use at least one verb per band member to make mixes much more straightforward. Correct reverb is especially important to the horn players, who are not used to hearing the dry sound of their instrument that the mic is capturing directly injected into their brain through IEM. I use the SD10's room verbs, one for each player, to emulate more what they've been hearing from their instrument for their entire life."
With the tour rolling through mostly sold-out venues in the States through September, resuming in October/November throughout Europe, the only changes Joseph plans to implement in the future is to add two RME MADI cards to start multitracking shows into Pro Tools. In September, with plans for a video shoot slated in Minneapolis, he's looking forward to having multi tracking capabilities. "I don't plan on straying from this desk," Joseph stated. "I'm really well built into it at this point and I've programmed it to where, on a song-by-song basis, I really depend on it… it's pretty crucial for my workflow in this band. There's such an insane amount of nuance to the music and this console has absolutely made it possible for me to translate it live. I wouldn't have a chance to do an accurate job if it weren't for this band and the tools the SD10 gives me every show…and it's increasing exponentially. It's really wonderful."