Toby Francis, who has been ZZ Top's FOH engineer for a decade and has also worked with Mars Volta, Smashing Pumpkins, Jane's Addiction, and Guns N' Roses, among many others, purchased a pair of DiGiCo SD8 live digital mixing consoles last year.
Toby Francis and one of his two DiGiCo SD8s. Francis immediately put the consoles to work with ZZ Top at both FOH and monitors, the latter mixed by Clair Global's Jake Mann, a four-year veteran with the band.
Francis had initially experienced DiGiCo's SD7 while checking some of the features for a friend who had just gotten the gig to mix the Michael Jackson tour. "The sound sold me on it," he said. "The low end and the low mids are so thick on the DiGiCo."
But the SD7 was too pricey, he continued, so he moved over to the SD8, which supports 60 mono or stereo channels with 37 faders. "I played with it for about an hour then called them the next morning. I was completely happy with the Digidesign DShow Profile console in every way until I heard the SD7 and SD8. We started talking about the price, and I ended up getting two for about the same price as it would have cost for a Profile."
Not surprisingly, the engineers were worried about changing consoles mid-tour, with no soundcheck scheduled at the next show and only three hours available to get fully acquainted with the SD8s in the shop. The pair tracked the FOH and monitor mixes for the last couple of shows on the Profiles to a Pro Tools rig, then, said Francis, "We went into Clair Brothers in Nashville and used those tracks to build new mixes to compare to the old mixes. But all of our reservations went away, probably about a half hour into the process — because it probably only took about a half hour until things were better for both of us than they had been."
The quality of the sound, which Francis puts down to DiGiCo's proprietary Stealth Digital Processing, was revealed even in that short time, he recalled. "I was hearing some of the subtleties I hadn't heard in the 10 years I've been mixing the band. There's a lot of synth bass in some of the '80s songs, and that sounded richer and fuller. I heard elements of the tracks that I had never heard, even when I was using the Midas. This is a closer sound to the XL4 that I used for almost a decade."
The timing of the console swap proved fortuitous, as it turned out: "At the time we changed, we started touring with Aerosmith, who were using an SD7, and I think that would have been a noticeable difference if we'd stayed with the Digidesign."
Indeed, the difference in audio quality between the SD8 and the Profile became very apparent halfway through the tour, during a one-off fly date in Singapore, where there were no SD8 consoles available, he reported. "We went back to Profiles for the day and the band — and these are 60-some-year-old men — all said something. The two guys in the band on ear monitors were stunned by the difference. I got called into the dressing room after the show to explain why it sounded so strange."
Purchasing the SD8s also made financial sense, Francis believes. "I think the Digidesign console set a new rental price point that production people are expecting to see. DiGiCo's lowend consoles appeal to people like me. I can get everything out of them and save the client money."
In fact, he reported, "The band's manager called me to see why it was cheaper. I told him, it's smaller, lighter, and is going to save you money in every way. From a business perspective, the better I can do the job cheaper, the better economically it is for me."
In addition being on the Aerosmith tour, the SD8 console has also been featured on recent tours by U2, The Killers, Massive Attack, and Madonna. "I really think when people start being exposed to it a bit more, there's going to be a lot of people changing," said Francis. "I could not have been happier, and the support from the company has been incredible. It feels like a really small company, you can get anybody on the phone any time you need to."
There's only one change that Francis would make — to the recently announced SD9, which is an even smaller, 24-fader package. "We were talking about changing to those, maybe in June. I have another client that wants the SD8s so I think I'll make that move happen."
Steve Harvey is the West Coast editor for Pro Sound News.