DiGiCo Consoles on Tour: Justin Bieber, The Revolution, and Tom Chaplin

DiGiCo consoles have stayed busy as of late, working Justin Beiber’s European tour, The Revolution’s shows in Minneapolis following Prince’s death, and the latest tour of Tom Chaplin, ex-lead singer of Keane. 

Two DiGiCo SD7s “Purposefully” Chosen for Justin Bieber Tour
A strange thing happened in the world of touring audio in 2016. It was the year that pop officially took over as the top revenue driver for live shows to the point that A-list engineers long associated with the biggest names in rock began a kind of mass migration to riding faders for pop acts. The list includes names like Tony Luna (from Five Finger Death Punch to Meghan Trainor), Toby Francis (ZZ Top, among many others, to Ariana Grande and Kanye West) and Ken “Pooch” Van Druten, who has been “the man” for Linkin Park for the better part of a decade.

Ken “Pooch” Van Druten at the tour’s DiGiCo SD7 FOH console

Ken “Pooch” Van Druten at the tour’s DiGiCo SD7 FOH console

One thing that all of these engineers have in common is their console of choice, depending on DiGiCo desks to control the audio world on each and every one of those tours. On the current European leg of Bieber’s 2016 Purpose World Tour, which is being globally supported by VER Tour Sound, Van Druten and monitor engineer Alex MacLeod are using a pair of fully loaded DiGiCo SD7s to run more than 120 input channels, more than 20 stereo monitor mixes, and about 20 “always on” talkback feeds.

Van Druten was quick to point out that pop is not only driving the revenue—it’s driving the tech as well. “We are doing things on this tour with technology that are way beyond anything I have seen on any rock tour,” he says. Part of this is simply a question of logistics. With four and a half years under his belt with Bieber, MacLeod is an old-timer for a pop tour, and it’s that “seen-it-all” experience coupled with the flexibility of the SD7 that allows him to wrangle an astounding number of mix outputs.

“The big thing on a pop tour, and especially with this artist, is a huge number of talkback systems,” MacLeod says. It’s not just the monitor engineer talking to the artist or the band or some kind of party-line with everyone on all the time. “Some people have switched systems so that a band member can switch between a feed that lets them talk to the rest of the band, or one that allows them to talk to their tech. There are feeds for dancers and choreographers and stage managers. I literally could not do this on anything other than an SD7. The DiGiCo platform is a huge part of pulling off this tour.”

“Just think about the insanity of that for a minute,” Van Druten interjects. “A band member can be talking to another band member while two different techs are talking to each other and a band member is talking to a specific tech and Alex is talking to Justin. And this is all happening at the same time. It’s all a part of the architecture of the system based on the DiGiCo SD7 and the Optocore audio transport, and I really don’t believe there is another system from any other audio manufacturer at this point that would allow this kind of flexibility. This show could literally not happen right now without the SD7.”

This kind of flexibility elevates the level of inter-band and inter-tech communication that goes way beyond the old days of a tech running up to the monitor engineer and screaming that there is an issue with the guitar and he is going out onto the stage to try to fix it. “When I got here and saw this, I was initially struck by the complexity of the system,” he says. “But that changed pretty quickly and I am now just so impressed every day with how smoothly this makes the show go.”

“Everyone is in the loop at all times,” MacLeod adds. “With the level of non-audience communication that the SD7 allows, when the inevitable issue arises, it is solved very quickly and with minimal drama. Even with all of the outputs and mixes on this show, I literally never remove my ear molds to communicate with someone about some issue.”

Add to that the sheer number of people on in-ears during the show. While there are a lot of shared mixes for dancers and techs, MacLeod reports that there are about 40 active in-ear feeds going during the performance. “It’s a monumental management challenge,” Van Druten says. “I honestly don’t know how Alex does it. But I do know he could not do it without the abilities baked into the SD7.”

That renowned DiGiCo flexibility is something both engineers count on because this is a show and tour that is constantly evolving. MacLeod answers the challenge in two ways: first he knows that the SD7 gives him the ability to do almost anything in terms of routing so he quickly comes up with a solution; then he assumes that the same request will be made of him on every subsequent show and is prepared for it.

“On this kind of pop tour, stuff tends to just get thrown at you randomly,” he notes. “You not only don’t know exactly what the change will be today, you don’t know when it will occur, so you have to be prepared for just about anything.”

As an example, when the artist decided to speak directly with some fans at a recent show, he sent a wireless mic down into the audience. Note that this is miles past the popular staging phenom of a long thrust. On shows with that kind of staging, great care is taken in tuning the system and choosing vocal mics that can be in front of the PA and not feedback. And if there is an engineer alive who says he or she is not a bit on edge every time that artist ventures in front of the PA, they are probably lying.

MacLeod reports from the trenches: “So, when that happened, we had to figure out how to do it. I had to leave the console and grab the closest wireless mic and find a way to communicate to Pooch which mic that was so that as soon as it was handed to Justin to allow him to give it to someone in the audience, it was hot and ready to go. And we did all of that in about 20 seconds.” Both engineers agree and are adamant that it is the communication system built around the SD7 that allows that to happen.

From a production standpoint, stadium-packing modern concert tours typically represent some of the most technically demanding applications—and the 2016 Purpose World Tour is no exception. “With this being a pop show, there is a lot going on,” says Van Druten. “The band is not always really visible, but they are there and playing. We often say that the show has to sound like the record, but it has to feel like a live show. And to that end, the Bieber show has more than 120 inputs.

“We choose DiGiCo for a few reasons, but the biggest one is sound quality,” he adds. “With the digital snakes running at 192kHz and downsampling to 96kHz at the consoles, they are just phenomenal sounding digital desks. But, beyond that, it is about flexibility. With the Optocore system we have the ability to run huge numbers of input and output channels and customize exactly what that means for a given show.”

For details on the 2016 Purpose World Tour’s upcoming stops, visit www.justinbiebermusic.com. VER Tour Sound can likewise be found on the Web at www.ver.com.

DiGiCo Desks Bring It All Back Home For The Revolution’s Prince Memorial Shows At First Avenue
The passing of Prince on April 21, 2016 will be one of the days forever marked on the music calendar, remembered like the losses of John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley—brilliant artists gone before their time. To commemorate Prince’s untimely death and celebrate his life and artistry, members of The Revolution, Prince’s backing band at the time of his most iconic song, album and film, “Purple Rain,” recently came together again for three shows at First Avenue, the Minneapolis venue where they stood behind the artist in 1984 for the live recording of that landmark track. And as Wendy, Lisa, Brown Mark, Dr. Fink, Bobby Z and other guest artists kicked off the set with “Let’s Go Crazy,” the audience connected with the band on the very first note.

FOH engineer Andy Meyer running the house mix on a DiGiCo SD7

FOH engineer Andy Meyer running the house mix on a DiGiCo SD7

“It was really an emotional show,” recalls Andy Meyer, the FOH engineer who mixed the shows on a DiGiCo SD7 console. “You could tell the musicians on stage were feeling it.” Meyer, who is most closely associated with Justin Timberlake as that artist’s longtime FOH engineer, was brought on board for the Prince memorial gig by Matt Larson, national sales manager for DiGiCo distributor Group One Ltd.

But Larson had a deeper connection to the event: he was also the crew chief for Prince from 1986 to 1992, a period during which the artist created some of his most enduring work around the world and at his Paisley Park Studios in the Minneapolis suburb of Chanhassen. “These performances were such a moving musical memorial and really important shows for The Revolution and past staff, as well as early band mates Dez Dickerson and André Cymone,” he says. “I think most of us were in such shock hearing the news of Prince’s death—it was almost unimaginable. Prince impacted the lives of so many musicians and crew over the years, getting everyone to raise their own bar.

“During these shows, it felt like a big family reunion and transported everyone back to the days when Prince was putting on incredibly tight shows with ultra-tight timeframes. The first night was magical as it was all coming together; the second night was even better as we all had a chance to breathe and watch the audience really enjoying themselves. On the third night, it was like the encore performance of the three shows, and then at the end, the last song of the night, “Purple Rain,” I think it really hit us as a personal closing and goodbye to Prince. It was great to be with each other as so many past employees made the journey back to Minneapolis. In a perfect world, we would have been able to get all of the past staff together, but in this industry there are always other shows that must go on, but they were all still with us.

“The band really strived for the highest possible production levels and spent two and a half weeks reconnecting with each other as musicians and friends rehearsing in L.A. even before coming here to Minneapolis to rehearse with the crew, many of whom had also worked for Prince back in the ’80s. The demand for these shows was so big that even though they had only originally planned on two nights, a third night was quickly added after the first two sold out in mere minutes.”

It was “a given” that First Avenue, Minneapolis’ iconic venue, was the perfect location for the Revolution to get together and perform to fans that flew in from around the world. To pull off such a tight schedule of rehearsals and shows in the club, a digital audio platform had to be the driving force, hence the choice of a DiGiCo SD7 and SD10 at FOH and monitors, respectfully.

“Past front-of-house engineer and family member Rob ‘Cubby’ Colby was booked over these dates and we wanted to make certain that we did the show justice,” Larson continues. “Andy’s experience on the DiGiCo platform was perfect as we could move from rehearsals to the show and keep building it up. If you think about it, most historical shows are already touring then get booked to do a big event. This was a ground-up collaboration with the some of the best musicians and special people we’ve had the pleasure to work with, and all stress was replaced by the love and respect we have for each other and for the cause.”

The DiGiCo SD10 used for monitor mixes was helmed by locally based engineer Kirk Schutrop. Working with the house Electro-Voice PA system installed at First Avenue, Meyer says the Waves-equipped SD7 he used performed flawlessly. “The SD7 gave me all the tools I needed for the show,” he says, noting that he’s been an enthusiastic DiGiCo user of the desk from the start. “And it just keeps getting better. For instance, Stealth Core 2 has taken the SD7 to the next level—it’s now quicker and more powerful with a newer user interface and dynamics and effects section. I was able to get virtually all of the processing I needed—dynamics, EQ, reverbs, delays—right on the console itself, with some additional help from the Waves plug-ins. Everything I needed was right at my fingertips.”

Coming into such an emotionally fraught situation, Meyer knew he needed to pull off the best possible mix for every show. Studying Prince’s catalog and individual songs as the set list developed, he played these back through the SD7, listening through L-Acoustics 108P reference monitors, dialing in the sounds that Prince and The Revolution had worked so hard to perfect. He then compared those with multitrack recordings made during the band’s soundchecks, creating snapshots for each song.

“We had three days of rehearsals and then three nights of shows—a solid week of turning knobs,” he says. “But it was well worth it. The shows came off wonderfully and sounded fantastic. It was a fitting event to remember a great talent.”

Larson agrees, “Aside from The Revolution and Prince’s other early collaborators, we had many very special guests come out to share the stage, including Bilal, Kimbra, Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum, along with The Roots’ Questlove, who DJ-ed. It was such a great bonding experience for everyone and a wonderful tribute to an amazing musician. We all miss him.”

DiGiCo S21s the Perfect Fit for Tom Chaplin Tour
At the beginning of this year, Tom Chaplin, ex-lead singer of Keane, announced his intention to embark on a solo career. In June, he completed his first album The Wave, which was released in mid-October. In the same month, he played a series of eight intimate gigs to promote the album. With an unusual list of venues and extremely limited space, DiGiCo S21s were the perfect fit for both Front of House and monitor positions.

Mark Littlewood mans the FOH position with his own S21.

Mark Littlewood mans the FOH position with his own S21.

Simon Hall, Tom’s monitor engineer and project manager for Wigwam Acoustics, who supplied his S21, had worked with Keane for the past six years. “When Tom was ready to do some live shows, I got the call,” he says. Mark Littlewood became involved via Simon, who he has toured with on and off for almost two decades, and mans the FOH position with his own S21.

“The tour started on the 21st October and took in venues of various sizes,” says Mark. “We also did promo and TV shows prior to the tour, which ranged from radio station ‘acoustic’ shows to performances in German record stores. The eight-date tour in October took in a real variety of venues from churches, boats, music halls and comedy clubs.”

Space limitations in such unorthodox venues were a major factor and all the backline and sound equipment had to fit into small vans and bus trailers, whilst load ins generally involved several flights of stairs.

“After evaluating small-format desks from a number of manufacturers, we knew the S21s were a no brainer because of their small footprint, light weight and reliability,” he recalls. “Also, a lot of the shows involved very limited time from arriving to performing and I had every confidence that the S21 would deliver and perform flawlessly first time.”

“Size was important,” adds Simon, “But possibly more important was the quality for cost ratio, which is what steered it in the direction of the S21s in the first place. As this was a new project, the funds for promo were limited, so the whole package had to be cost effective. The S21 came to market just at the right time for us to give it a run out and, as Mark had been using his with great results, it seemed the perfect fit.”

Mark has owned his S21 since last year and has added a SoundGrid card, with a DMI MADI B card handling the inputs from the D2 Stage Rack.

“The whole package worked perfectly from day one,” he says. “The layout is incredibly simple and intuitive and I’ve never even looked at the instruction manual. The Set Spill feature is very useful, as Control Groups are always to hand no matter what page I’m using on the console. The set list for the tour changed daily and the ability to move snapshots easily around is a huge advantage.”

This was Simon’s first run out with the S21 and he has been more than happy with it.

“Being a regular DiGiCo user meant all the terminologies were similar, even though the user platform on the S21 is different from the usual DiGiCo appearance,” he says. “There were a few things I had to get used to and a few things that you can’t do on the S21 that you can on the SD Range consoles, but you have to remember this is a lower cost desk and you can’t really expect the same amount of functionality. However, the internal UB MADI is a great thing and, like Mark, I like the way you can change the order of the set list.”

“Tom is really hands-on and is very interested in giving the audience the best sound possible,” adds Mark. “He’s been impressed with the sound of the console at both FOH and monitors and I’ve never seen him looking stage-left at Simon – which is always an indication that things are going well.

“The desk has also generated a lot of interest from house engineers, too, particularly when they realise that a DiGiCo console is now an aspiration they can afford. It still puts a smile on my face when I unmute the board for the first song. Its small size belies its huge sound.”

“The consoles have been perfect,” Simon concludes, with a smile. “The sound is great and you can get them into tight spaces where the bigger desks would struggle. The Tour manager has also enjoyed the smaller rental bills.”

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