Don't laugh, it's true. Size matters, and everyone knows it. While the old adage crows that bigger is better, the world of sound seems to be more worried about how to make things smaller. More compact. Like the Mini Cooper, we all want surprising performance in a small package. You don't believe me? How about downsizing your rock tour from 20 to six trucks? Manufacturers developed self-powered speakers and bye-bye amp racks! Hide the mike elements by making them even smaller. Sound designs have evolved to demand tiny front fill cubes, flat panel surround speakers, and entire drive systems consisting of ones and zeros. The whole creative process is about laptops, plug-ins and software solutions, reducing our physical equipment needs.
So should we be surprised the best new consoles are loaded with software, plug-ins, and boast extraordinary feature sets with a small footprint? When you calculate that each orchestra seat in a Broadway theatre is valued at $35,000 to $40,000 per year, and most FOH mix positions occupy eight to twelve seats, its easy to see how important it is to reduce the size of the mix position with a “Mini Cooper” of a sound board.
When a promising pedigree comes onboard, many skeptics still wait on the sidelines before placing steep bets. It is rare to witness a new product approach a market and quickly become a leader and household name. Take DiGiCo. You might think that DiGiCo came out of the woodwork until you do some background research to know how much R&D was involved, and learn the design history of Broadway's newest darling, the DiGiCo D5T. The evolution of recording and broadcast consoles from Soundtracs led the way for the first live version of a DiGiCo desk, and under the direction of console guru Bob Doyle the live console came to market in a frenzy. Fast-forward the product into the most current version (designed specifically for the Broadway/West End theatre market) and you'll note the DiGiCo live console system was nominated for a TEC Award, and has already won a PLASA Product Excellence Award, the Pro Audio Review Par Excellence Award, and, most recently, an EDDY Award for Best Sound Product of the Year.
The first big theatrical use of the DiGiCo D5/D5T was on Andrew Bruce's design update for long-running Les Miserables. Next it was selected to replace a competitor's digital console on Mamma Mia!, and again on Bruce's design for Mary Poppins on the West End. On Broadway, the D5T is on Bruce's US design for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Peter Fitzgerald's design of La Cage Aux Folles, Acme Sound Partners' designs of Spamalot and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Abe Jacob's designs on Cinderella and Candide (at NY City Opera), as well as Bobby Aiken's design of the Queen rock opera We Will Rock You in Las Vegas.
Lew Mead, director of Autograph A2D which distributes DiGiCo in the United States, says the quick migration from West End to Broadway has been stunning. “People fall in love with the desk the day they start learning it,” Mead states. “Within the average time of one to two days it takes for someone to feel comfortable with the desk they learn how to lay out the socket file and write a few cues. After that most people write the rest of it on their laptop or on the fly in the theatre.” Mead notes that most designers do not start technical rehearsals with pre-programmed scenes, program changes, or even timecode layouts for designers who prefer using SMPTE as the basis for their cue structure. “It's incredibly intuitive,” Mead notes. “Valerie Spradling, who mixes La Cage, had no formal training on the desk and had never mixed a Broadway musical on anything other than an analog console, but she jumped right in and had no problem writing cues.”
Mead says there are simple reasons why designers are choosing DiGiCo D5T over the competition. “First, people like the fact that it feels and reacts like an analog desk. Next, the cue system feels like something they have used in the past, kind of like Matt McKenzie's G-Type software, it's very familiar. But the third and major thing is the way the desk sounds. The mike pres are fantastic, very warm sounding, and when designers use the desk in conjunction with mikes we know and speakers we know the desk sounds great up front.”
One very popular advantage of the D5T is the compactness of the main desk, and the even smaller remote control surface (D5TC) that reduces the area required but allows for complete access of every function. “The size of desk is highly important because of the (seat) cost factors,” Mead agrees. Abe Jacob, commonly referred to as the godfather of theatrical sound design, comments that “from a designer's point of view, in selecting from all the consoles currently available and the tools that you need to work with, it gives you the majority of the equipment you need to do the majority of the show within one small footprint, and that ultimately is reducing both the rental equipment and the space requirements for the show. What I'm finding about the D5T is that unlike other consoles, the internal processing sounds almost as good as the off the shelf processing equipment you would need (perhaps less the very high end gear) but that in itself makes it more worthwhile.”
The OptiCore fiber-optic interface used by DiGiCo has been widely lauded for good audio quality, being robust, and being compact. Jacob says the OptiCore fiber is invaluable in new installations, retrofits, and the touring market. “I was amazed at some of the tours I was looking at this summer. The thickness of the wad of cable that people still had to run between stage and FOH mix. I think in the next few years people will still be running both copper and fiber or Cat5 distributed digital audio, but in the future people will want to only run optical or Cat5-type.”
Mead agrees, and notes that the OptiCore has a strong following because “glass and copper have very different properties, so you can run it along your feeder cable with no repercussions. You don't need that much power at FOH anymore, and many of the problems designers used to experience are cleaned up a lot just by not having much power — so we have fewer issues from the get-go. Hopefully the days of running 8/3 out to the desk are over. The IL-19s and Pin 1 lifts are going the way of the dodo as well, as the glass provides a stable I/O over the longest distance.”
Kurt Fischer, a sound designer who also mixed Cinderella, says that as much as he hates to admit it, “I did actually like the desk. I thought it was a good sounding desk and I also thought it was laid out really well for a computerized desk. Compared to other consoles analog or digital, I think of all the desks I've worked on it seems laid out like a sound desk as opposed to a computer,” and Fischer agrees the desk is intuitive to work on. “I still don't like having layers upon layers on a desk and it takes a moment to get to the right knob, but it is quite intuitive to learn and mix on.” Fischer notes he does not feel the desk will revolutionize what anyone is doing, but rather it will have small impacts in other ways. “I think the evolution of the mixing console will allow for new work opportunities. As a result, I think that like lighting designers, we're going to start hiring programmers for production now, because you can get to things quicker but it takes additional people to access all the functionality of the console.”
Jacob agrees. “DiGiCo has ultimately created the need for another job in the theatre, the job of the programmer who can do all the console programming — allowing the mixer to mix and use his ears and to get the room sound right, instead of tracking an EQ or delay change. I'd like to see that because it's another valid job.”
Smaller footprint but additional staff? Don't tell the producers that just yet.
Special thanks to Kurt Fischer and A2D's Michael Corey for their tech support. Contact Jim Van Bergen at firstname.lastname@example.org.