Nashville (September 15, 2004)–The first of Digidesign’s new VENUE consoles to hit the road was making the rounds this summer during parts of John Mayer’s latest tour with FOH engineer Chad Franscoviak. Though not called upon for the main FOH duties, the prototype VENUE was put through its paces on a routine basis, taking the place of the tour’s Showco/Harrison Showconsole whenever possible during soundchecks and rehearsals.
“We’re just trying to break it,” quipped Franscoviak, who’s quick to add that he hasn’t succeeded. “I haven’t gotten bummed out on this yet,” he said. “Everytime I’ve thought, ‘I’m not getting around on this fast enough,’ they’ve showed me a faster way to get the job done.”
When PSN caught up with Franscoviak for an exclusive sneak peak during a Nashville date near tour’s end, the first thing he showed off was the console’s plug-in environment—allowing most Pro Tools plug-ins to be used real time. A user of Digidesign’s Pro Tools, Franscoviak admits that the plug-ins were the first thing he wanted to play with when experimenting with the console , but he also thinks that “It’s cool that you don’t have to throw a plug-in on everything just to have dynamics. You have compressors and gates on everything.” The console also has dedicated EQ and filters in each channel path.
Franscoviak called the ability to dynamically reassign a fader his “favorite” feature. “If my drummer adds a second floor tom half way through the show, I don’t want to be stuck with the old analog problem of a floor tom at the end of the console,” he said, calling the feature “Fantastic…I’m all excited about that.”
Franscoviak says the console has evolved during his experience with it, based on his input and that of other engineers. Though he said “I’ve conned them into making lots of changes,” one remaining request would be to be able to switch the VCA faders between groups and VCAs. The learning curve has been easy, according to Franscoviak, and the layout easy to get used to.
Dedicated metering graces each channel strip for various functions. “It’s not as sexy not having it on the bridge,” said Frasncoviak with a grin, tweaking Digidesign testing engineer Matt Peterson who accompanied the desk on the road, but adds There is a lot of metering.” Group metering is on the bridge and “Everything’s calibrated dBVU,” said Peterson. “We use –20 dBFS equals 0VU. When you hit plus 20, we’re using a 48 bit internal path, so there’s way more headroom than that.”
Franscoviak is used to having the physical desk serve as only a control surface from his experiences with the digitally controlled analog ShowConsole, as well as another digital desk used for the tour’s Australian leg. With the other dig console, he did run into a few areas where he couldn’t work as he prefers. For example, Mayer uses four vocal mikes across the stage, all assigned to the same VCA. “I only want one of these open at a time,” he explained, but after hard muting the VCA, an unmute would open all four mikes. He had similar difficulties with the multiple mics in the horn section. When he first went to Digidesign’s headquarters to try out the VENUE for a couple of days, “That’s one of the first things I tested when I walked in; ‘Here, will it do this?’ It was there.” Franscoviak also said his preference leans away from touch screen interfaces; “It’s just a preference.”
Other VENUE features he’s found useful include the ability to assign mono subgroups to the stereo buss (also missing from the rival digital desk), the ability to quickly tally the inputs and their sources, and the ability to get to routing and such without wading down through multiple screens and menus. Often, all that was required to adapt to VENUE was learning Digidesign’s nomenclature for given functions and the location of dedicated function keys on the D-Show control surface (Digidesign has dubbed the control surface D-Show, the CPU and DSP core VENUE FOH and the stage interface box VENUE Stage).
Another key feature for Franscoviak was a gain approximation function, dubbed the “Guess” mode. For example, with the mode enabled, you can hold down the preamp buttons for the drum set while the drummer pounds away and the selected preamps are automatically set to produce a nominal output. Also, while he says, “In every function, the knobs kind of default to a coarse mode,” he pointed out that the resolution can be set finer at will, for more precision. And, the aux sends, mic gain, and other functions can be mapped to the faders if desired. The D-Show is fitted with stereo console nearfield monitor outputs with built in delay to allow them to be time aligned to the PA. “One of the most exciting” features, said Franscoviak, is the VENUE snake—two pieces of coax for send and return from stage, with four runs providing full, automatically switched, redundancy.
The VENUE FOH box communicates with the D-Show and the Venue STAGE box, and houses redesigned HD ACCEL cards for processing—all equally equipped with RAM so there’s no plug-in swapping, according to Peterson. The FOH box boots Windows XP embedded from an ordinary hard drive, which could be field replaced with the operating system reloaded from CD. Upgrades and updates could come from CD or via the USB ports.
When first giving VENUE a listen, Franscoviak said that coming from an analog background, the clean, transparent sound is a little startling. “The first thing you hear is ‘God, I can hear every single thing.’ I want to smear it up a little bit.” Starting with a clean palette allows the sound to be shape to suit an engineer’s taste, and he admitted to experimenting with plug-ins to add harmonics and other character inducing colors to the sound. He called the mic pres clean and honest.
As for latency issues, “I haven’t noticed any problems with it,” said Franscoviak. Peterson reminded that while you need to be aware of what plug-ins you are using, most console processing delays are automatically compensated for, and you can easily query the channels for their path delay, and manually dial in delay for correction or effect. “That’s a piece of cake,” added Franscoviak.
The VENUE out with Mayer was the only one on the road, though another has spent some time installed in an off-line shadow mode at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. That console and working prototypes set up at Digidesign’s headquarters have allowed a number of engineers to test the desk and offer input. Franscoviak, for one, is anxious to work with the VENUE in the future. “I definitely want to tour with it. I want to get it into one of our production rehearsals so that I can really fiddle with it before hitting the road.”