NeoSoul ambassador and two-time Grammy winner Maxwell makes his much anticipated return to the stage this month, sharing the bill with Soul/R&B singer-songwriter Jill Scott. The spring-into-summer co-bill tour—which comes on the heels of the wildly successful "BLACKsummer'snight", Maxwell's first recording in eight years—will make whistle stops in major U.S. arena markets through the end of June.
Both Maxwell and Scott's monitor needs are in the more than capable hands of a DiGiCo SD7, provisioned by Clair Global. For Maxwell's Clay Hutson—who has employed DiGiCo consoles extensively on tours with iconic artists such as Garbage, Marilyn Manson, Pink, Prince and Velvet Revolver—this was his first opportunity to lay hands on the feature-packed SD7. For Jim Roach, who has worked with Scott for 3+ years, as well as Brian McKnight Joe Cocker, Keisha Cole and Boney James, his previous experience on DiGiCo consoles was limited to 1-off, fly dates in the past.
"I've been a DiGiCo supporter for a long time," Hutson recalls. "In fact, my first experience was on Lars Brogaard's D5 on a Marilyn Manson tour, that was one of the first in field before it was even in production. I had heard a lot about the SD7 and was anxious to get my hands on one, but thought it might be a bit out of my production budget for this tour. When both bands decided to share the console, it made it a no-brainer, cost-wise. But beyond that, it was literally the only console that would come close to doing what we needed it to do, between the amount of inputs/outputs needed for the two acts."
Hutson says, while Maxwell's group isn't particularly input-heavy, they are chock-full of output requirements. "Oddly enough, we don't really have a lot of inputs, even though it looks like a lot of stuff on stage. I think we're around 56, which is pretty normal and Jill Scott has bout 70 inputs. Where the console is really critical is when it comes to the amount of outputs that I'm using up on the desk, around 40. I probably have an output for every input right now. I'm at 24 just with the ears alone—not including wedges, side fills, drum fills and reverb sends—and there's still another 70 groups or busses available on the desk. Because I have them, I'm going a bit crazy with them, bussing stuff to groups and then compressing them and sending it back to the ears. It's funny, we were actually going to ship the console to Chicago for production rehearsals, and I was going to replace my rig here locally. But literally, I couldn't find a comparable console to replace it! I couldn't even do it on a Heritage or an XL4, which at the time were the biggest analog consoles out there!"
Hutson's transition from D5 to SD7 was seamless and immediate. "It only took me tour hours to learn all the new features and get up to speed. It's got the same architecture and the same file structure, and while the redundant onboard engines and the startup procedure is new, it all made sense. It's the same console only better! And that's one of the beauties of the console, anything you want it to do it will do; it does everything that you wished the D5 would've done. DiGiCo were really on the ball with that."
Feature-wise, the console offered him a broad range of benefits that were seemingly limitless—from onboard effects to the expansive headroom. "One of the features of the new Stealth processing is that we can load the heck out of the desk with all these dynamics and effects, and it's a very stable platform… Not to mention, the dynamic headroom is well beyond anything that's out there and the sound is transparent."
"I find myself using a lot less EQ now because of the frequency dependent compression, multiband compressor and sidechain EQ, which is fantastic because the less EQ, the better. The compressors are as good as they've ever sounded and you can't hear them doing their job. The effects engine is great; to have all those studio reverbs available now is fantastic. The frequency compression is something that my colleague Tom Abraham and I have been insisting we needed on this desk. And DiGiCo made that happen. Now I don't have to rely on outboard gear. I used to have to go AES /EBU into whatever frequency-dependent compressor I could, because it's a vital tool now for some of these vocalists. To have it on every channel allows me to not have to worry about it anymore. I'm using eight studio reverbs loaded up for the vocals, as well as horns, acoustic guitar and drums, and the graphic EQs are laid out so well. You select the EQ of the mix and you have a graph right there…Fantastic!"
Being able to move the auxes around in any order and then populate the desk has proven to be ultra-convenient as well. "Going into rehearsals, you never know what to expect. I always try to do the best-case scenario of everything, but next thing you know, I had 6 extra auxes between stereo and monos built into the session before we even started, I had used them up and had to add more. This flexibility is something that can't be found on a Profile, or a PM1D or PM5D… They just don't have the adaptability that this desk has. Even the XL8, which I've been on as well, is still very rigid in structure and in its ability to change on a dime. With the SD7, anything can go anywhere, at any time."
For Roach, managing Jill Scott's 11-piece band necessitated an input-heavy list of 74 for drums, bass, Latin percussion, two keyboards, and guitar, plus trumpet and sax players who both play various additional instruments. In addition, he has 13 stereo in-ear mixes, a couple of wedge mixes, and talkback mics placed around the stage so the band can communicate with each other.
"Everything I need is right here in the console," he explained, "and the only additional outboard gear I'm using is a TC Electronic M5000 effects processor on Jill's vocal and a Lexicon PCM70 on the drums for reverb. That's it. The SD7 is by far the best monitor desk I've used and is definitely the easiest and quickest console to get around on. Having the banks of 12 has made this incredible for me."
At the end of the day, perhaps one of the most definitive marks of a first-rate manufacturer—aside from offering exemplary gear—is their responsiveness to the engineers in the field. "I've gotten nothing but support from DiGiCo all the time," Hutson offered. "When we got the console initially, Taidus [Vallandi, Group One/DiGiCo Technical Sales Manager] flew in from Vegas and walked me though the console. DiGiCo has always stood behind their products; that's their commitment to the client. No other company has addressed the needs of the monitor engineers like DiGiCo has. I have to say, I'm really overwhelmed by this console. It is so flexible and does everything you want to when you want to do it… I can't say that enough. It's a blank palette and there are so many tools available for your use. And, there's a network of guys out there using this desk so we can share tweaks and tips to make our lives easier."