As the audio director for Merlefest, one of the largest traditional bluegrass music hoedowns in the United States, industry veteran and SE System's co-owner Cliff Miller has been on the scene for all of the fest's 24 years. Recently, SE added a pair of the newest SD10 consoles and two DiGiCo SD racks with HMA Optics—their first DiGiCo purchase—to the company's touring stock. Miller was looking for a couple of new digital consoles that could do 96kHz, when DiGiCo's National Sales Manger Matt Larson and Quest Marketing's Terry Ewald presented the SD9, SD8 and SD7 consoles at an SE System's road show. Miller had heard about another secret, soon-to-be-released console, the SD10, and knew immediately that that was the one he had to have. Miller notes, “I have been in the industry for a very long time and this is the first time that I have purchased two new consoles—without even putting my fingers on the faders!”
Miller decided to showcase the new consoles, as well as a DiGiCo SD9 with the D Rack, on one of their very first live outings ever on two of the festival's 14 stages. The SD10 's were situated at the headliner Watson Stage driving FOH and the JBL VerTec PA (with VT4889/VT4880 subwoofers), with the SD9 doing double duty for both FOH/monitors at the smaller adjacent Cabin Stage, used to keep the entertainment constant during main stage set changes. After the 4-day event wrapped—with an average of 18-25 acts daily crisscrossing both stages—all of the long-time event engineers relayed that it was one of the smoothest years, technically, they'd ever had. Needless to say, Miller, too, was extremely pleased with his purchase.
“I have had very good success with other digital consoles,” he explained, “but thought it time to add another brand to our inventory. The SD10 offered features like 96 channels at 96K using the SD racks (with 12 flexi allowing 108 inputs), plus send and returns on a 2-gigabit fiber cable, and a very compact footprint. The sound quality was the best I'd ever heard in a digital console, surpassing most analog consoles. It can be configured to operate like any old favorite console, but with hundreds more features.”
For Merlefest's chief engineer Buck Parker and FOH partner Chris Mitchell, it was the first time they'd laid hands on a DiGiCo console of any flavor.
“I've used quite a range of consoles in the 24 years I've been working the festival with SE Systems,” confessed Parker, “and this year was probably one of the easiest ones I've worked. The festival has really evolved along with the technology. Years ago, we first started out with a Soundcraft 500 and moved to a 800B, moving on to a Yamaha PM3000, a Heritage, a Yamaha PM5D and now the DiGiCo SD10. I really like the fact that the SD10 reminded me of an analog console the way everything operated and in terms of channel layout and signal flow. The SD10 is very straightforward and sounded great with very little EQing.”
Mitchell, a freelance engineer who's worked with artists from Umphrey's McGee to Mickey Hart and Kitaro also had nothing but raves to impart about his DiGiCo experience.
“In response to the question, â€˜what'd you like about the console?' everybody's going to say it sounded better and that it was easy to use—those are pretty stock responses. But the thing that impressed me most about this console was I was able to get the guest engineers up to speed—many of which that had little or no digital experience ever. The SD10 was very intuitive, and it was nice to be able to say, â€˜use the end of your finger, press what you want to see and it's going to pop up… read what it says and change it accordingly.' And usually by the second song, they weren't asking any questions at all.”
“It's nice to have all the horsepower built in, too,” Mitchell added. “It's a very hot rod console. I've done lots of shows on Yamaha 5Ds and Avid Profile's and it's great to have the multiband parametric and dynamic EQ as part of the package—not as an add-on or an extra—and they sounded great! We had a Lake Technology Contour System for the routing and EQ of the main system, not because it was necessary but because it was interfacing with the amplifiers and by default it was there. But we really didn't need it. There was enough EQ and routing built into the console and that was the only device that we used extensively.”
Both Parker and Mitchell both raved about the onboard presets, as well as the ability to build layers easily.
“Setting up the console pre-event, we had a basic starting festival plot of 44 channels and most of the bands fit into that pretty easy,” Mitchell recalled. “Bluegrass engineers like to set up in a column form, DI-1, Vocal-1, Instrument Mic-1, etc., so I had the main layer set up 1-44 in order, and on the second layer below it I would arrange things in groups of specific instruments or whatever would make it easy pertaining to a particular band. Once we went live, it was very intuitive to recall those preset channels in order to reset my instrument or DI lines quickly. On an analog console, it would've taken at least 5 minutes to reset all the knobs to zero or all the gains to nominal and turn all the effects returns down. With the SD10, I was able to knock out 30-40 channels in a few moments, and it made things move very quickly.”
“Having the presets was critical, especially when you're in a situation with back-to-back bands all day,” added Parker. “Most of everything was on the fly and not too many people really soundchecked; the soundcheck was basically the first song. It was real nice to be able to call back the presets for instruments, drums, vocals, and that made set changes go really fast.”
Having the ability to assemble or build layers out of anything was also a boon at FOH. “It made it so easy because myself and other engineers didn't have to jump around the layers to get to the items we needed,” said Mitchell. “Yamaha 5D's are notorious for their inflexibility on where you put things and although the Avid Profile's are a bit easier, I think the DiGiCo SD10 was the easiest one yet.”
Over at the bordering Cabin Stage, the SD9 doing double-duty for FOH and Monitor functions was a “no-brainer”, said Mitchell. “It worked great all around. I was able to set all the monitor settings in advance individually and then recall them digitally as they popped back up—as opposed to previously what it would've taken for that size show would've been a couple of Midas Venice or Verona's—and the recall on them would be: write it down with a pen!”
SE Systems' Chris West, who'd had a handful of previous experiences working on a DiGiCo D5 in his past, operated the SD10 at main stage monitor world. With a fairly low input count for the mostly straight-ahead bluegrass bands—comprised of typically 5 acoustic instruments and vocals—handling main stage monitors on the SD10 was a breeze.
“Zach Duax from DiGiCo came out and gave all of us a crash course on the SD10 console but, honestly, within an hour of when the festival started, I felt comfortable enough to run the monitors for the entire festival for the first time on the SD10. DiGiCo's software seems to have been written by an actual engineer, not a computer programmer. It was really so easy and so logically laid out. Most of the acts were on wedges and it was incredible not having to EQ every channel. The few acts that were using in-ears also really enjoyed the way it sounded. For the past 5 years, we've used Yamaha PM5Ds and it seemed like you had to EQ every channel to have it sound the way you wanted it to sound. Not with the DiGiCo… all you had to do was mess with the hi-pass filter a little bit and that was about all the EQing you had to do because it sounded so good out the gate. Also, you didn't have to go to a macro to have it do what you wanted it to do. All you had to do was solo the mix and the faders came up, and then I'd bring up the graphic EQ—all with the press of one button.”
“We used both the SD racks—with most of the outputs being used for monitors while the outputs at FOH were coming out of the desk either by AES or analog for the Dolby Lake processors. We were using channels 1-48 for the main inputs of the stage and 49-96 for any bands than came up giving us a split because they had their own monitor console. It was really great having that many channels available at 96K. It didn't take much to set it up, the Ripple Channel made it easy; once you set one channel you're able to set all the channels. So there was very little setup, within an hour we were ready to go on the desk. I'd say the SD10 is probably one of the easiest non-analog monitor consoles I've ever used.”
After Merlefest, Parker and Mitchell took the SD10 to yet another, albeit smaller bluegrass event in Galax, Virginia and was again pleased with the console's flexibility in adverse conditions. “Even in cramped conditions, and in a horrible acoustic environment, the console performed great, sounded great and we got nothing but compliments,” said Mitchell. “Once again, we had quite an easy time mixing on it. There were a lot of challenges in that situation that the DiGiCo helped with... Bluegrass guys are notorious about not liking digital but they liked the way it sounded and we got nothing but compliments. I'm looking forward to using it again on our next event!”