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Tour Planning, Part 3: Entering the Final Phase

by David Morgan • in
  • May 2018
  • On the Digital Edge
• Created: May 15, 2018

The final preparatory phase for this year’s tour would be accomplished in Lititz, PA, at the world headquarters of Clair Global, our longtime audio supplier. This is one of my favorite times of the year because it means not only that we are finally getting back to work, but that I will have the opportunity to catch up with and work beside so many great friends. It also gave us the opportunity to observe the rapidly expanding Clair facility including the new on-campus hotel. The strong and constant relationship with Clair as this FOH engineer’s preferred audio vendor has now spanned 30 years. During that time, Clair has grown exponentially and evolved into the massive global audio firm we see today.

Despite its present size, Clair Global has retained the same small business character and personality the company exhibited when I first journeyed to the Manheim, PA facility just before the 1989 leg of Paul Simon’s Graceland tour. The friendships that began that day are now stronger than ever. Clair Global’s forward-thinking business philosophy and dedication to the highest quality audio service have resulted in the company occupying its technological leadership position within the live performance industry. These principles have remained the cornerstones of the company’s success throughout its many phases of international expansion.

The unsung hero of any audio service company is the operations person — the individual who coordinates and supervises the assembly of a large-scale touring audio system. In our particular case, that superman at Clair Global is Steve Callebert. Putting together the myriad elements of a complex arena system is a daunting job, which becomes more complex with the many technological upgrades we requested for this year’s tour. Ensuring that these upgrades are included in both our USA and European systems doubles the work and responsibility that Steve shoulders with incredible ease, competence and professionalism.

Clair employees Rachel Adkins (monitor engineer), Thomas Morris (systems engineer) and Kenny Hottenstein (monitor tech) met me in Lititz, and we jumped right into our abbreviated system prep period. With so many changes to absorb, we had originally scheduled three days with the gear before the truck would be leaving for Jacksonville. But the new federal regulations now governing long haul truckers meant that we would only get two days to assimilate all the new elements into our touring rig. This meant we had to depend on Steve Callebert’s expertise more than ever.

Walking into the warehouse, Rachel and I found both the FOH and monitor rigs were ready for our hands-on use. Clair brought Morris and Hottenstein in a day earlier to facilitate the setups with the multiple alterations to our gear specification. Callebert is a fantastic team leader and ensured that all the nuts and bolts, bits and pieces and kilometers of cabling for both the Cohesion-12 P.A. rig and the monitor system were tour-ready when Rachel and I hit the warehouse floor for our first day with the gear.

I was eager to hear the new 32-bit DiGiCo “Stadius” input cards that Clair installed in the SD5 console’s stage racks.

‡‡         First, a Little Housekeeping

But there were some FOH housekeeping matters that I needed to attend to before exploring these new preamps and converters. The newly added TC 6000 reverb and the Bricasti M7 reverbs connected to the DiGiCo SD5 console through the AES/EBU digital inputs and outputs of the DiGiCo Nano rack that was now included in the FOH electronics system. The Nano provides 16-in/16-out digital or analog I/O patching in a 2-rackspace device.

Adding these devices to the FOH setup let me remove five reverb plug-ins from the SD5’s onboard Waves rack, thereby increasing the available DSP in the Waves servers and the console engine. Minimal latency is maintained by using all digital signal paths. It was a great source of operational pleasure to have access to all the control parameters for each of the chosen reverb algorithms rather than working around the limited options presented via the Waves IR-Live plug-in. The TC 6000 provides four separate 1-in/2-out reverb engines. Having used every TC reverb since the introduction of the venerable M5000, it only took a few minutes to load and modify my preferred algorithms onto each of the four engines.

My experience with the Bricasti M7 reverb was entirely positive. The sound of the M7 is uniquely pristine and I was pleasantly surprised to discover how much of the original Lexicon 224/480/960 heritage this unit provides. From the names of the many available programs to various user accessible parameter adjustments, the interface was immediately familiar and extremely user-friendly. It took only moments to build up the modified algorithms I would use for the lead vocal reverb. The sound of the Bricasti is both incredibly detailed and complex, yet beautifully transparent. The M7 will be a fantastic addition to our live presentation.

The next task was to build a new template file for the Clair-provided Pro Tools 10 recording rig. We use the multi-track recordings for archival files, virtual sound checks and refining the mix setup on the console. The Mac-based system has 96-channel capability and connects to Pro Tools via the MADI network on the SD5 console. Our 11-member band now requires 80 channels for the nightly show recordings. We had made several changes to our input list items and numbering sequence. It seemed an easier task to create a new template file than to try modifying last year’s version. So I began applying my limited typing skills to the new file. Once my secretarial duties were completed and the new file was saved to the computer, I turned my attention to the new console preamps.

‡‡         New Preamps

The DiGiCo SD series consoles and the original SD Rack 24-bit input cards always sounded excellent. In my opinion, DiGiCo design engineers may have endeavored to make the SD console line attractive to mix engineers having a distinct preference for the sound of the great legacy Midas analog consoles such as the XL-4 and the Heritage 3000. The older DiGiCo SD mic preamps have similar sonic strengths, particularly in the low and the lower midrange frequencies, that made the Midas desks so popular among live sound engineers — both onstage and FOH.

The new 32-bit cards have an extremely balanced, natural and musical characteristic sound. The audio is equally strong throughout the frequency spectrum with immediately apparent extended response at both the low and high extremes. If I had to choose another English analog console sound to which I would compare the audio produced by new input cards, it would compare more to a vintage large-format English studio desk rather than the legacy Midas live console analog products. I believe the new 32-bit cards provide the finest-sounding mic preamps — analog or digital — that I have heard in a live mixing desk.

Further corroboration of that opinion was produced when I plugged in one of our Shure KSM8 vocal mics. I had first listened to my “Test” vocal channel going through the 24-bit input stage on the back panel Local I/O on the SD5 using the equalization and high-pass filter settings retained from our previous tours. I next plugged that same mic into an open input position in the newly modified SD racks and soft patched it to the same “Test” channel on the SD5.

The differences immediately represented a giant leap forward. I likened the changes to looking through a freshly cleaned and polished piece of fine glass. The new preamps allowed me to lessen the cuts I had done in the low and low-mid frequency bands as well as narrowing the Q setting for both cuts. The result? A far more integrated and connected sound in the primary vocal range. I then found that I was able to give back some of the dip in the high frequency band. Less EQ applied is always the better option in the quest for a more natural and pleasing vocal sound.

I next solicited input from my friend, Brad Galvin, who was at Clair prepping his monitor rig for Steely Dan. Brad’s console of choice is the DiGiCo SD5; so his opinion was a valid resource. Without making any comments pro or con, I repeated the process of starting with the 24-bit preamps and then switching to the 32-bit units. Brad’s observations matched mine and we both heard greater transparency and detail, extended frequency response and a more balanced, analog-like output from the new preamps.

‡‡         Countdown to Takeoff

Sitting here behind the console at the arena in Jacksonville, I am eagerly looking forward to having the band on stage for the first day of production rehearsals. I realize now that I will have to touch up the equalization settings on many of the inputs giving back some of the more prickly or prominent frequencies that are in last year’s show file. I will be relying on both the band playing in real time plus using each day’s multi-track recordings to shape the various instruments to match the 32-bit input cards. But adapting to the new technology will be a labor of love.

Next month, I plan to spotlight another huge technological leap that monitor engineer Rachel Adkins has incorporated into her rig. We made the switch to Lectrosonics’ new M2 Duet digital in-ear monitoring system. We are extremely excited by both the M2R and M2T devices. The fidelity and stereo image are amazing! Rachel will be putting the system though its paces here at production rehearsals, and we anticipate the band will welcome this technological leap forward. And we are equally excited about what we don’t hear through the M2 system — the self-noise is basically imperceptible. More to come in the next issue. Safe Travels!

For parts 1 & 2, see FOH, March & April, 2018.

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