Showcasing a pair of emerging retro soul artists—Bruno Mars and Janelle Monae, along with opening acts, Plan B, Patrick Stump and Mayer Hawthorne—the two-month 'Hooligans in Wondaland' tour wound its way through sheds across North America in early summer. The Clair Global-supported outing was outfit with a double dose of DiGiCo SD8s—both equipped with DiGiCo/Waves SoundGrid bundle—plus two Digi-Racks (one stage 56 mic in/8 line out, and one local 8 mic in/40 line in/8 AES/EBU I/O, and 40 line out) per console. The consoles were shared among the acts' respective engineers: Derek Brener (Mars FOH), Mike Graham (Mars monitors), Reggie Griffith (assistant FOH Monae), and Alex McCloud (Monae monitors) and Clair Systems Tech, Ben Rothstein.
Brener and Griffith spec'd the SD8 after a conversation when the two met up at the Grammy Awards show this past February. Among the selling points of the console were the amount of inputs/outputs available and the onboard integration of the WAVES plug-in package. "I had heard nothing but good things about the desk," said Brener, "and when I was mixing monitors for Bruno when we were out with Maroon 5 in the fall of 2010, FOH engineer Jim Ebdon was using one, too. I was impressed with the sonic quality and footprint. Eventually, I got to mix Bruno on one in Amsterdam and was very impressed with the dynamic comps included in the EQs. When Janelle's FOH engineer, Reggie Griffith, said he wanted to use one for the tour, I felt like the universe was conspiring in favor of this desk. The deal was sealed!"
With 54 stage inputs for Mars' 8-piece band, Brener is also handling 6 FOH inputs (CD player, iPod, Pink Noise, FOH TB), and a number of outputs including Stereo Master, Stereo Aux Output for Subs, Mono Matrix Output for Front Fill (summed Stereo Aux), Stereo Video Feed (matrixed from the CD Player feed), Mono Listening Assisted Feed (matrixed from the Master Bus), Mono feed to SMAART (matrixed from the Master Bus), and Stereo Delay feed to TC Electronic D-Two Delay. In addition, there's a number of Physical Inserts to content with, which include 2 x Send/Returns for EL-8si Distressors on Bruno's vocal and bass.
Brener was able to utilize both the onboard effects and select plug-ins from the Waves bundle to get Mars' set sounding stellar. "My favorite feature onboard is the dynamic EQ's. They are easy to utilize and were very helpful given the dynamics of Bruno's set. I can pinpoint frequencies that are either abrasive or create buildup when loud, yet retain nuance and timbre when soft. Specifically, I'm utilizing the Hall Verb for drums and horns and the Mono and Stereo delay for vocals. And from the Waves bundle, I am loving the R-Verb for vocals and C-4 comps for guitars."
"Now that I've gotten to experience it over the last few months," Brener continued, "I'd say sonically, the SD8 is the best digital desk I have used yet. It just doesn't have that bite that you have to battle with a lot of EQ. It has a very smooth sound."
With only a few hands-on days at Monae's pre-tour rehearsals, Reggie Griffith relied heavily on the offline software editor to prepare the console and to get educated on the desk in order to handle Monae's front of house needs. (Griffith shares mixing duties with Monae's producer, Nate "Rocket" Wonder, who's working on in tandem on a Yamaha PM5D). "Having dynamic compression and EQ on each channel was very important, and we can still use that—as well as the Waves plug-ins—and not eat up any processing onboard. I'm using the Waves C4 on her vocals and sometimes I put a C4 across the master left and right. And, we're using some of the plug-ins we used on the record, which was a bonus."
Monitor engineer, Michael Graham, manages an average of 50 inputs for the Mars and his 8-piece band. "It's a pretty basic drum kit and rhythm section, but there are a lot of stereo keyboards and stereo playback lines from Pro Tools. I think one of the coolest features about the SD8, compared to other digital consoles out there, is the ability to consolidate stereo inputs to one input fader. It really frees up input faders on the work surface. As far as outputs go there are 9 stereo ear mixes for the musicians, 3 stereo ear mixes for backline techs and our playback engineer, 2 downstage center wedge mixes for Bruno, two sidefill mixes and a drum thumper. In addition to that, I'm using aux busses for two separate vocal reverbs and a drum reverb, which is a total of 35 aux outputs and I still have room to expand if I need to! You can't find another console in this price range and footprint that can do that, and that's one of the things that I like most about the SD8… it just does monitors well. There are other digital consoles out there that I think were designed for front of house and they can also do monitors. This one feels like it was designed with a dual purpose in mind from the start. I have had to cheat in the past to get more mix outputs with some of the bands I have mixed on other consoles. With the SD8 you don't have to cheat to get more controllable outputs."
Although the band is entirely using in-ear monitors, Mars himself likes to have two pairs of wedges in front flanked by a pair of sidefills. "The inner pair of wedges is mixed with just his vocal and some background vocals, and the outer pair is a band mix with his guitar on top. Sidefills are pretty much a full band mix with his vocal on top. The console handles both in-ears and wedges very well. I like having the ability to consolidate stereo outputs to one fader to drive IEMs. Much like it does on the input side, it really clears up the work surface and allows you to control a lot of information on each fader bank. I have my aux out fader banks set up so the band's in ear mixes are on one layer and the wedge mixes and effects sends are on the other layer. The one feature that stands out the most for me and makes this console different from others in its price range is the 12 control groups/VCAs. The band is all on pre-fader mixes with Bruno's ear mix on post fader. The 12 control groups really let me focus on his mix and control it a whole lot like a front of house guy would mix a show on a PA. The snapshots features are also very intuitive and if situations arise where you need to make multiple changes between songs, programming and firing snapshots is as easy as it gets on this console. This tour is the first time I have had the chance to really dig into a DiGiCo console and I am certainly impressed. We do a lot of fly dates in between the regular tour dates and an SD8 isn't always available for those shows. I always find myself looking forward to getting back to this board for a show."
Graham was able to experience the user-friendly DiGiCo offline editor on one of those fly dates. "A few weeks before the tour ended, our input list changed pretty dramatically. I was able to program the whole thing on the offline editor and emailed it to the audio contact for the festival. When I showed up at the gig, the session was already on the console and everything worked great. I can't say enough about the offline editor. I highly recommend it to anyone who is new to the console and wants to get a jumpstart on their session file, and it's a very easy way to become familiar with the layout and functionality."
For Monae's monitor mixer, Alex McCloud, the tour got off to an auspicious and somewhat nerve-wracking start. "I'd programmed the desk using the offline software prior to the rehearsals, using patching files that Mike Graham sent me. I was able to build my files on top of that and emailed them back to him. Somehow, though, the files got corrupted over the Internet but I didn't find out until I showed up for soundcheck on our first gig. I literally only had 1-1/2 hours to rebuild 14 in-ear mixes from scratch. Having used D1s and D5s before in the past, I was pretty familiar with the DiGiCo layout—and I already knew the software—so I was able to get everything built by the show time."
With a total of 52 inputs for Monae's 13-piece band—comprised of 4 strings, drums, bass, guitar, percussion, two horns, two background singers, and keyboards—the setup is similar to Mars in that everyone is on stereo in-ear mixes with the artist using wedge mixes and sidefills in front.
McCloud is making use of many of the onboard features in addition to the Waves package. "I really enjoy using the Waves' C4 plug-in and am using it to basically round up her vocal and take some of the edge off when she leans into it. Sometimes she cups the mic and that helps level that out, too. I'm also using the internal effects and I like them a lot, especially the internal delay. Janelle has this thing lately where she wants her vocal really wet with a 500th millisecond delay on top of that. I was able to pull it up right away and didn't have to change any parameters with it right off the bat."
"I've also gotten pretty deep into using snapshots, too, he added. "I like the way they work and am able to get into a little bit more detail with them, compared to other systems I've used before. The preamps sound really good and I find myself not having to use a lot of EQ on the desk. I can leave stuff relatively flat and just bring it up and it sounds great. The sonic quality of the preamp is really awesome. I like the SD8's screens, too, they're a lot bigger than the D5. I wasn't sure I was going to like having one screen per three-fader mix, as opposed to the D1 or D5 where I had independent screens like the SD7, but its' not an issue at all. Pulling up what you need on the screen is really fast. I used to have a 'fat finger' problem with the D5, I'd be selecting the wrong thing or selecting the wrong parameter, and I really don't have that issue with this desk at all. The SD8 is a really good monitor console and I've been able to flow on it—from the first time I started using it. I've not been stumped or stuck, stumbling around to find parameters—I've had that problem on other desks. The DiGiCo is really cool and has everything I need."
Ben Rothstein, the tour's system tech, was able to sum the whole DiGiCo touring experience. "With Clair, I've used DiGiCo consoles on monitors over the past three years of the 'American Idols Live' tour as well as Dream Theater. With the SD8, we were able to get a large amount of inputs/outputs. And the onboard integration of the Waves plug-in package was great. Having the ability to use dynamic EQ and multi-band compression on the channel strip without having to dedicate plug-in processing for it was great. Being able to move around the fader banks and even duplicate them has made the layout much more user-friendly, not to mention, the ability to change channels and outputs between mono and stereo on the fly adds a lot of flexibility. I was amazed, too, how much an improvement in both stability and sonic quality there was from the D5 to the SD8. I would say that this console sounds just about as good, if not better, than the other digital consoles in its price range. And it's not just me that noticed; the band is really pleased with the sound, too."