Few companies have had a greater impact on recorded music than Digidesign… but until this year the live arena remained unchartered waters to this Leviathan. Luke Kungl sails into the great unknown.
One of the world’s foremost studio products manufacturers has built a new mixing console purely for live audio work. An event of this kind rarely occurs, and a successful debut is rarer still. Occasionally, however, a manufacturer will venture into unfamiliar waters, and swim, not sink, as is the case with Digidesign and its new Venue ‘Live Sound Environment’. And it’s quite an environment indeed.
Let D-Show Begin…
When I first took delivery of the Digidesign D-Show, the first thing that struck me was just how substantial the system was. For a digital console, it’s big – very big. Finally it seems, the instinct of manufacturers to pursue increased digital capacity with fewer knobs, dials and space seems to be over, at least as far as Digidesign is concerned. The D-Show console is about the size of a rather large 30-channel analogue console, not including any sidecars or extra fader banks.
My very first impression – temporarily ignoring the fact that at this point I had no idea how the D-Show worked – was that everything was laid out spaciously, logically and with a bent toward the practical. For anyone who’s seen or used the D-Command (part of the Icon family and reviewed in Issue 42), the console is instantly recognisable as a Digidesign product. The biggest difference being that while the D-Command is a high-end control surface for ProTools sessions, the only place ProTools intersects with the D-Show is during playback and record. You won’t even find transport controls on the board, which I’m sure will help alleviate any first-time nerves for live engineers. To its credit, the Digidesign team has stuck to the aim of building a purely live mixing console, without succumbing to the temptation of incorporating too many ‘hybrid’ recording features. The elements it does borrow from the studio realm, however, genuinely enhance the live mixing experience, without slowing it down, complicating matters or intimidating the user.
The D-Show rig supplied to AT consisted of a main console, one sidecar (which entails two eight-bank channel strips) a FOH rack and a stage rack – all of which I’ll elaborate on shortly.
One of the biggest compliments I can pay the D-Show system is this: after a quick flick through the manual and plugging it all in (nine IEC leads later!), I happily played around on the board for a day and a half, then packed it up and took it to a corporate gig (involving a lectern mic, multiple playback sources, two different live band acts with eight sends of monitors, four FOH sends and so on). Then, some days later, while playing with the ProTools connectivity features, I found it necessary to refer to the manual for only the second time…
What am I implying? Well, the fact is, I had never seen this board before, yet in a matter of minutes I was scooting around the surface and getting the job done. For a live board this is a must. In the middle of a live show you don’t want to be thinking: ‘Okay, I need to do that, so this knob is assigned to do this, but only if that section is enabled to this mode…’, and so on. The D-Show is intuitive, fast and very powerful, and by no means daunting.
Break it Down
For those of you who may be confused by the terms D-Show and Venue – which seem to get used interchangeably when describing this product – let me make things a bit clearer. D-Show is the name of the system we were supplied, Venue is the ‘family’ name that will be common to all the future products in the live range. The D-Show system is made up of several key components. The D-Show console is the obvious centrepiece, where all the physical mixing takes place, and alongside it rides the FOH rack – the brain of the system. Mix engines do all the DSP work, and they do so quite flexibly. There’s a built-in hard drive hiding in there, as well as a CD-Rom drive for loading software. If you have a gig where you may require more plug-in power than, say, grouping options (yes, popular ProTools plug-ins can now be dropped on any channel, group, output… even at a live gig!) you can sacrifice some of these grouping options to free up DSP power. Or you can add another mix engine – up to five in total. ‘Out of the box’, the D-Show comes with two such engines, although for most applications three are recommended.
The FOH rack also contains a variety of other cards. A ‘snake card’ connects to the dual BNC cable that carries your 24-bit/48k information to and from the stage – 48 inputs and eight outputs come standard and up to 48 channels there and back in one stage rack is possible. Add a second stage rack and a second set of BNC cables to a second snake card on the FOH rack and the console increases to a 96-channel in/96-channel out monster.
The FOH rack also houses more input/output options, which allow external goodies to be patched in and out (analogue, digital, mic, etc). I filled this card very quickly at the corporate gig, to the point where I had to employ the services of an additional mixer under the table to submix video playback – if I were to invest in options, personally, this would be the first place I’d start (the FOH IOx card provides these extra input/output options).
There are a further three cards options available for ProTools integration: a Firewire card (the FWx) for LE software connection to record or playback 18 tracks simultaneously via your laptop for example (a 32-channel expansion card is apparently in the wings); the HDx card, which provides DigiLink connections on the FOH Rack that connect directly to the HD Core and Accel cards of a TDM system, without requiring additional ProTools HD I/O hardware. 96 channels of record and playback are available using two of these HDx cards. The resulting recording is a native ProTools TDM session that’s ready to be taken to the studio. The only rub is that you can’t use the FWx and HDx cards at the same time.
ProTools files can also be played back into the D-Show to become part of the ‘live’ mix. However, if you’re considering this scale of live ProTools action, do your research, as the assignment options can get complicated. (Many HD inputs are fixed, others assignable; so you may become limited by the number of stage inputs you can run simultaneously if you don’t plan ahead.) Still, 96 channels on one control surface from live sources and ProTools, all under the one system and sounding great is an amazing thing. Just don’t go overboard trying to incorporate all your favourite outboard that doesn’t pack AES/EBU I/O, otherwise you will run into wordclock and latency problems. Another thing, timecode is not carried – more Midi peripherals are required.
But enough of that pre-recorded nonsense, let’s get our hands dirty with some honest-to-goodness real, live mixing! Saying that, to describe the D-Show console in full would probably take two full issues of AT, so I’ll try and stick to the cool bits.
The general premise of most digital consoles is this: select a channel and do things with it using a common area of the board. The D-Show has a channel master strip, which turns its attention to whatever input or output channel is selected. Compression, limiting and gating is available for every channel, though we’re not talking about plug-ins here, this is strictly on-board dynamics processing. There are dedicated control sections for parametric EQ, send levels, dynamics, main routing, etc., and all these are active on the selected channel (or channels, as it’s possible for certain functions – like assigning to groups and activating phantom power – to address multiple channels at once). There are built-in graphic EQs, with a fader flip to temporarily turn the main unit faders into your EQ control. The number of these depends on your configuration and DSP power.
The visual interface is broken up into six main categories, with six dedicated access keys right above the centrally-located track ball, and tabs across the top of the screen. It does take a little time to get the hang of this setup. However, in the long run, having all information on one screen (which is not included, by the way) is better than having it split across multiple screens. After a while I came to appreciate this approach. Everything is centralised around these six main categories:
Inputs: View all input levels simultaneously, with the selected channel highlighted and its info taking up most of the screen real estate – parametric EQ, dynamics settings, send levels, pre/post info and just about anything else you can think of.
Outputs: Largely the same setup as Inputs, with the obvious necessary differences – it yields just as much information.
Filing: This is your library for stored show data and every setting you’ve ever had. Every aspect is remembered, so try not to do anything too stupid. This section ties in with the…
Snapshots: Should speak for itself. Here you can build scenes, save different acts for instance, all the while having the ability to ‘undo’ and backtrack. You can even backtrack by date – call up the console as it was on the 3rd of July… at 3pm. Very nice!
Patchbay: A very intuitive way of routing your signal. Everything appears here (except advanced HD TDM stuff) in a simple to follow spreadsheet-style layout. Inputs from stage racks, FOH racks, Firewire (ProTools LE), effects returns (both internal and external)… everything can be patched via this one page.
Plug-ins: This is where your virtual outboard rack resides, and it can be as extensive as you like. But bear in mind you cannot use the plug-ins you already own. The plug-ins are written exclusively for the Venue D-Show system, and although there have been a number of live sound-specific releases you’ll find most of your old favourites available. Here’s where you build your preferred effects racks, set up your routing and fine tune the settings. The graphics are very snazzy too – plug-in manufacturers love making their interfaces look good. There’s a plug-in control section, mainly for bypass options, and again, to bring you to the appropriate plug-in somewhere else on the screen. I should mention here that everything is cross referenced – in other words, say I’m on the input section playing with a channel, and decide that I’d like to set its direct-out routing somewhere, I can click the point where I am and it will take me instantly to the appropriate page.
Options: Setups, preferences and so on – the housekeeping area.
Knowing that a fault in a live gig can cost you a client, there are fail-safes everywhere on the Venue system. Each snake card (the BNC multicore) has four connections where two are redundant. In other words, a 48 I/O show can be run using two runs of coaxial cable, so if one set fails the show goes on. Of course, if it does, a warning dialogue informs you promptly and a red light casually informs you to panic. Similarly, should the console detect a fault with a power supply, the connection to the FOH rack, or an error with anything in fact, it will tell you and provide a full report. Even if you ignore it, a little icon (glowing amber) will remain on duty until you’ve read what it has to say about the incident. This kind of vigilance is definitely what’s needed to give more and more operators the confidence to move across to live digital consoles.
Another feature I like is the big red button right at the top, right in the middle named Config. When in Configuration mode, you can do anything you like. When you are in Show mode, the console will not let you change anything that could get you fired – for example, changing a plug-in on the lead vocal mid song (resulting in a 1/2-second dropout while the new plug-in loads) or changing the console configuration down to eight auxiliaries accidentally when you are currently running 16… embarrassing. Any function change that may jeopardise output is thankfully unavailable. If you’re daring, wait for a break between songs, enter Config mode and roll the dice!
Mixing with the Best
Mixing on the D-Show is a pleasure. Sonically, the D-Show has nothing to fear from any challenger. It is clear to my ears (and every other ear I asked along the way) that the makers of ProTools don’t need to be told how to manipulate audio accurately. It sounds as solid as it feels – i.e., really quite solid.
As I noted earlier, the D-Show, even in its basic configuration, is a large beast but I’d deem at least one sidecar invaluable. (You can add on as many as three such sidecars.) Channels are split over fader layers, with the number of layers required obviously depending on how many physical faders you’ve bolted on. The spread of channels between layers and different fader units is not at all confusing, with many aspects being automatic and, again, the labelling is excellent – even with additional sidecars all is easily addressable and logically set out.
Each input channel strip contains an alphanumeric display, two assignable rotaries (pan, input gain, HPF etc) mute, and insert on/off. There are also some clever touches. One example: on the flank of the sidecar is a separate group of assign switches for the faders. They’re nice and big, plainly labelled and dedicated. You can decide what role your faders are playing (for example; use the faders to set pan of all channels on that section, or reassign them to set input gain). Oh, and the faders are lovely. The motors can frighten you initially – they’re super fast when they change function – but perfectly accurate and beautifully smooth to the ear and the fingertip.
All these little touches, and the way they’re laid out, mean that before too long you yourself are moving very quickly. Personally I got a little too preoccupied with the mouse but over time I’ve no doubt the surface would feel as familiar as any of your favourite boards.
In doing my best to find fault with the D-Show – something I tend to do with anything I’ve not seen before – it was easy to forget that Venue is the first piece of exclusively live hardware Digidesign has ever built. Others refine and remodel lines they’ve evolved for 15 years (at least) and yet still function awkwardly on a live gig when you’re in a hurry. I packed up the one show I did with the D-Show, thinking that this board was one of the most elegant and refined ways of mixing live audio that I’d come across. That said, I did come up with a few complaints to go with all the compliments.
While the visual interface is excellent, you need to provide your own VGA input screen. This is fine, but I would suggest getting a really good one. Unless you’re a maestro on the D-Show, if your screen fails, you’re screwed – you won’t know where you are.
I also found myself running out of patching options at FOH quickly with the ‘standard’ system we were provided (expanded, of course, as it can be by the IOx card) and there is a maximum of two combination analogue/digital cards for the FOH rack. Maybe this is Digi’s angle; encourage users to copy their entire playback onto ProTools before the show… cunning!
The size: the D-Show is big. And I’m sure there must be a lot of empty space under the control surface. As I remarked earlier, I’m all for the idea of not packing a digital board into something the size of a bread box, but I think Digidesign has taken the ‘wide open prairie’ approach a tad too far. In short, the D-Show could be more compact without compromising ergonomics and functionality.
I enjoyed using the Venue D-Show as much as any console I’ve used, and I’d recommend a test drive to anyone who’s taken the time to read this review. Whether you know ProTools or not (I’m more inept than I should be) does not matter. As a console, using the plug-ins is as computer-heavy as the mixing experience gets – and even then, you don’t have to use them.
After being the proud guardian of the system for the past few weeks it’s plain to me that if this is Digidesign’s first crack at a live audio console, then the future looks very exciting indeed.
My biggest problem now is convincing my boss that we should have one.
• A standard system less than $100k inc GST