Britney Spears, J Balvin, National Festival of Polish Song, and Holland America Deploy DiGiCo Audio Consoles

The tour of Britney Spears at AXIS in Las Vegas, J Balvin, who recently embarked on his Energia world tour, the National Festival of Polish Song, and seven Holland America Line cruise ships have all deployed DiGiCo consoles in order to ensure the best in audio quality for their productions. 

Britney Spears Wraps Up Her Four-Year Vegas Residency at AXIS with DiGiCo
With the residency wrapping up a successful four-year run and other pop residencies having taken hold, the AXIS venue boasts the highest number of ticket sales in Las Vegas and, most weeks, the highest in the country. In a world of dizzying changes, one of the few constants has been the presence of DiGiCo consoles at both ends of the snake.

The other constant has been the presence of AXIS Production Supervision and Head of Audio, Eric Fish. “When I first came in, this place was raw concrete,” he recalls. “It was not a facelift, it was a full remodel. Everything was redone from the speaker rig to the consoles to everything in the walls and a ton of acoustic treatment.”

The room has a storied history. It opened on the bicentennial weekend, July 2, 1976 as the Aladdin Theatre for the Performing Arts with a run of shows by Neil Diamond. In 2004, it was the scene of Linda Ronstadt’s  legendary rant in support of filmmaker Michael Moore in front of a largely conservative audience, which effectively ended her viability as a performer in Vegas. When the old Aladdin hotel was imploded in the late ’90s, the theatre remained, going through a series of facelifts, reboots and name changes before the 2013 remodel and announcement of Britney: Piece of Me.

In the past four years, the AXIS has become Pop Central and a model for the idea of residencies by artists best known for international tours. Today, the calendar has rounded out to include residencies by J-Lo, Backstreet Boys, Lionel Richie and Pitbull. “We have the highest number of paid ticket sales in the country and we’re number three in the world, so we stay busy,” says Fish. “In addition to four rotating residencies, we do everything from live events for TV broadcast to a comedian in front of a curtain with Britney or J-Lo’s set right behind it.” Just days after this interview, the room hosted the Miss Universe pageant for the fifth time and the third time in the past six years.

Working alongside Fish on the Britney show is System Engineer Julio Valdez, from Vegas-based provider 3G, who reports that the reliability of the DiGiCo platform makes his job easier. “The beauty of the whole platform is that you can move from one DiGiCo surface to another one with very little adjustment,” says Valdez.

The room is regularly driven by some of the best engineers in live audio. Britney is mixed by Rob “Cubby” Colby, Backstreet Boys by Sound Image’s James McCullaugh, J-Lo by John Clark and Lionel Richie by Gordon Mack. All shows use the house SD5 at monitors and an SD10 at FOH except Britney. “Cubby is more comfortable on the SD5 so we bring one in from 3G for those shows,” says Fish.

Fish adds that the platform allows engineers with totally different approaches to all thrive in the same ecosystem. “Cubby uses nothing but the console with no plug-ins or external processing, and at the other extreme is James who is deep into the Waves universe. We have full input racks for house and monitors but the Backstreet Boys show uses raw tracks mixed live and both ends of the snake share inputs using the Gain Tracking feature and everything is digital except the crowd mics for monitors,” Fish continues. “On J-Lo we’re doing a kind of cool thing that I came up with where they each have their own input rack but they are on the same loop so they are each backups to the other one. If something were to go down on one rack, they could pull in inputs from the other one pretty easily.”

When the room was spec’d, the designers looked at what was being used on the road by the kinds of acts they hoped to attract to the venue. “For at least the past five years, DiGiCo has pretty much owned the major touring world so that was an easy decision,” continues Fish. “If we had gone with something else, I would have spent a lot of time justifying the choice to engineers and we would have been renting a lot of DiGiCo anyway.”

Even visiting engineers who are not regularly mixing DiGiCo can get the hang of the console quickly. Valdez notes—as do many engineers who may have fought moving to digital—that the workflow on the SD consoles is very analog-like. Fish uses his own experience mixing in the AXIS to illustrate the ease of the learning curve.

“The first show I actually mixed in this room… I had mixed on the DiGiCo platform, but pre-SD, and it had been at least five years. I wanted to make sure I really knew the console, so I picked a day when the room was dark and set aside the whole day to just get comfortable with the SD platform. I left like an hour and a half later.”

Valdez, ever the system engineer, points to the backbone as just as important as the consoles themselves. “We have an extensive Dante system that allows us to do things like pull in various ambient mics from the house and to send audio all over the building. And integrating the consoles was just a case of throwing a Dante card into the console and making those basic connections. The rest was flawless,” says Fish.

DiGiCo saved the day on the 2015 Miss Universe broadcast when the main engine on another manufacturer’s console in the broadcast truck failed just two hours before showtime. “Miss Universe is not a show where you can afford to wing it without a backup and the broadcast engineer was understandably freaked out,” recalls Fish. “I came up with an idea and ran it past the broadcast engineer and he said that’s exactly what we needed to do. So we ran a couple of extra fiber lines out to the truck and set up our SD10 right next to him as the backup and he was able to go on with the show, confident that if the backup engine on the broadcast truck desk failed, he could immediately move to the DiGiCo and seamlessly continue the show.”

Britney’s residency was winding down at the time of this interview and Colby summed up the experience of four years on the SD5. “After 250 shows, 90 rehearsals and numerous live TV broadcasts, DiGiCo delivers on all fronts every day.”

The residency that started it all for the AXIS may be coming to an end but there are not going to be a lot of dark days. “We’re booked through solid through at least 2018,” says Fish. “It’s great, I know my schedule like two years in advance, and DiGiCo will continue to be a big part of the success of this room for the foreseeable future.”

DiGiCo At Heart Of 54th Polish Song Festival’s Complex Audio System
On a late September weekend, the 54th edition of the most popular Polish Song Festival, the National Festival of Polish Song, was held in the Millennium Amphitheatre in the city of Opole in south-western Poland. This festival is the annual celebration of the Polish music scene, transmitted live by the national public broadcaster TVP to a multimillion audience. This year it was also a tribute to one of Poland’s greatest artists Maryla Rodowicz, who celebrated her 50th anniversary on stage at the festival. DiGiCo’s SD5, SD12 and SD-Racks, equipped with the latest 32-Bit Mic Pre-Amp cards, played a central role in the event.

Almost three weeks of preparation and six days of intensive artist, sound, lighting and camera rehearsals took place from early morning to the dark of night, with dozens of people involved in the production of this three-day event.

From the very beginning, the festival was incredibly complex in terms of logistics. The technical side was extremely impressive with amazing audio visual landscapes created on an extensive multimedia platform, along with moving elements of scenography. The efficiency of the team of sound engineers, technicians, stage supervisors and set builders, lighting engineers and technicians was essential for the success of the project.

The digital mixing system used for the audience PA in the venue had to work seamlessly with the television OB truck’s mixers, as well as providing the highest quality sound, failsafe redundancy and ultimate reliability during the live TV feed. DiGiCo consoles were chosen to meet all requirements.

Responsibility for delivering and operating the venue’s PA system went one of the largest and most reputable Polish rental companies, GIGANT SOUND – LETUS.

“DiGiCo was an obvious choice, right from the start when the contract was signed for this event,” says Jerzy ‘Gigant’ Taborowski, owner of the company and a highly-experienced specialist in electroacoustic systems. “The high demands of this production, the need to ensure reliability and the complexity of the project was made possible by using DiGiCo consoles.”

A DiGiCo SD5 was deployed at Front of House. Operated by Paweł Zakrzewski and Jakub Mikołajczak, it shared an Optocore redundant optical loop with five DiGiCo SD-Racks, each with a maximum configuration of 56 analogue inputs, 40 analogue outputs and 16 digital outputs. One of the SD-Racks, which supported the most important input channels, the main wireless microphones, featured the latest 32 Bit Mic Preamp cards, offering unmatched 32-bit resolution, offering crisp and staggering dynamic sound quality, perfectly audible on the large electroacoustic system used for the amphitheatre’s sound.

Operated by Tomasz Zajma, head of monitors, alongside Pawel Goliński and Wojciech Rzechówka, the complex monitor system consisted of the main monitor console, based on another DiGiCo SD5, plus two new SD12 consoles.

Each console had output channels for performing monitor mixes for specific parts of the event, assigned to output cards from selected SD-Racks. The remaining consoles had the ability to send mixes to all available monitor busses via the CON connection, allowing the performers to hear everything they needed perfectly.

Due to the necessity of the simultaneous operation of three stages, close cooperation between the engineers and consoles was required so that the monitor system could be independently operated for all artists. A total of 42 mono mixes and 42 stereo mixes were available for use on wedges, side fills, drum fills, IEMs, POWERPLAY personal mixers, wired headphone amplifiers and musician’s local mixers. All the mixes were distributed between three independent parts of the stage, with the ability to freely route signals between them.

“After we did the first mix with the extended electroacoustic system, the quality of the sound was striking and proved that DiGiCo consoles, in the hands of experienced engineers, are a perfect, quick tool for professional work,” says Gigant. “With help from the POLSOUND technical support staff, DiGiCo’s polish distributor, and our head of sound tech, Marcin Szafrański and system engineer Jakub Mikołajczak, we managed to create a complex, yet simple and reliable audio transmission network based on the Optocore protocol, to create several output mixes, a huge number of input channels and seamless cooperation with the TVP OB trucks to implement a very complex monitor system. All of this proved not only possible, but fun to work with.”

Extending its existing DiGiCo system with two of the latest SD12 consoles equipped with Optocore and Waves cards, and new SD-Racks equipped with the latest 32-Bit Mic Pre-Amp cards also proved a good decision for GIGANT SOUND – LETUS, as Gigant recalls.

“The investment was justified,” he smiles, “and the experience gained during the Opole Song Festival will undoubtedly be helpful during the next big events we have in our plans.”

SD10 Sounds Supreme On J Balvin Tour
Multiple Latin Grammy Award winning artist J Balvin has recently embarked on his Energia world tour, bringing his own brand of Colombian ‘Reggaeton’ to the masses. FOH engineer John Buitrago has followed J Balvin’s relentless journey for the past nine years and knows that when putting together his production, only the very best in audio quality will do. This is precisely why he chose a DiGiCo SD10 for the tour and why he has been using the British manufacturer’s consoles for many years.

Keeping up with the growing demands of any world class artist is no easy feat when it comes to sound, and J Balvin is no different. With a consistently expanding input list from tour to tour, John needs to make sure that all demands are catered for.

“I’ve been using a DiGiCo SD10 and SD Rack for the last two years wherever I’ve been in the world,” says Buitrago. “So using it for the current tour, with the new requirements I have for the input list, was pretty easy. In fact, after a quick virtual sound check, I ran the whole show into Snapshots and boom, I was ready to go!”

John is using a 56-channel configuration including instrument channels, vocal mics, guest vocals, DJ supports and talkbacks, with the console’s AES outputs used for the main PA and the analogue outputs of the SD Rack for comms between FOH, techs, lighting and video.

There is always an amount of personal preference when it comes to choosing the right console for any given job, but for Buitrago, what it comes down to is whether the consoles delivers the best possible sound for show.

“The sound quality of any DiGiCo, plus their amazing headroom, is pretty easy to recognize,” says Buitrago. “I chose the SD10 because it has the DiGiCo sound I love and everything else about it is just right for my show.”

Buitrago has also been making good use of a DiGiCo/Waves SoundGrid on the tour.

“I’m a really big fan of the DiGiCo and SoundGrid interaction; the way I can get everything connected through the Soundgrid Network,” says Buitrago. “It streamlines access and controls so well!”

As the tour rolls on, the DiGiCo SD10 is there every step of the way, making sure each show goes off without a hitch, but with the challenges FOH engineers like John face each night on these world class shows, technical support is equally important.

“We have access to the most amazing team at DiGiCo,” says Buitrago. “From Fernando Delgado and Jaap Pronk from DiGiCo, to Andres Gomez from Codiscos Audio, DiGiCo’s distributor in Colombia. They are all amazing and really smart guys.”

J Balvin is set to continue his tour throughout Central and South America this November, with John deploying his trusty SD10 to make sure that each night sounds just as great as the last.

It’s Smooth Sailing with DiGiCo’s SD-Series Consoles Onboard Holland America Cruise Ships
When a venue has just two performance spaces in which to schedule everything from intimate events to Broadway shows and arena-level concerts, that venue needs to know its audio console is utterly reliable and able to switch applications on a dime. When that venue is a thousand miles out on the high seas for those shows, the need for reliability and functionality are increased by several orders of magnitude.

“If you need a capsule for your wireless microphone, you’re not going to be able to quickly run downtown and buy one,” says Alan Edwards, principal audio design consultant for San Diego-based Nautilus Entertainment Design (NED), which, along with providing innovative AVL design solutions for live entertainment, television and special events as well as technical facility design for permanent installations, also outfits the theaters, clubs and other performance spaces aboard the world’s leading cruise ships.

That’s why NED has placed DiGiCo SD-Series consoles aboard much of the renowned Holland America Line’s fleet in recent years, with more to come. So far, the Konigsdam—the newest ship in the fleet—Oosterdam, Zuiderdam and Eurodam all now have SD5 consoles in their main production theaters, known as showrooms. In addition, the Konigsdam, Oosterdam, Zuiderdam and Westerdam all have SD9 consoles in their secondary venues, which are used to host America’s Test Kitchen shows in the daytime and convert to BB King’s Blues Clubs at night. Another ship, the Volendam, has a DiGiCo SD8 console in its showroom. All of the DiGiCo consoles have their own SD-Racks, and are being upgraded to DiGiCo’s Stealth Core2 software. Eventually, says Edwards, all of the fleet’s venues will be fitted with DiGiCo SD-Series desks.

Reliability is critical at sea, but as the cruise industry continues to expand and become increasingly competitive, so are console functionality and features. Edwards, who began in this sector mixing shows aboard ships 25 years ago, remembers what it was like having to reset analog consoles between events and shows. That’s why he argued for the shift to digital when he moved into designing shipboard sound systems.

“Today, you may have to go from a Captain’s cocktail event to a full-blown show production in a matter of minutes,” he explains. “That’s why the SD-Series’ recall capability is so important in a ship venue. We record to and playback from RADAR hard drives, and the macros on the SDs let the mixers do everything from a fast virtual soundcheck to shifting between complex stage cues to trigger playback via programed macros. Also, the SD consoles let us do recalls via MIDI time code, while SMPTE time code triggers the lighting and effects. That lets the audio engineers concentrate on the sound mix.”

Equally critical are the SD-Series’ alternate-input features, which let the engineer switch instantaneously between inputs, keeping the exact same processing on alternate inputs available on each channel strip. “Most shows have three vocalists, so we have what’s called a ‘sick track’ for each one—if a singer has a cold or just can’t perform up to par, or if microphone suddenly cuts out, the mixer can switch to a recorded version of the vocal that’s constantly running and synched, via time code, to the rest of the show. That alternate input will have the exact same processing as the other input, so it’s a seamless transition for the audience. You hardly ever need to use it, but it’s really handy when you do.”

Along with features such as the ability to completely configure the fader layout as needed (“I never understood why other manufacturers don’t offer that,” says Edwards), the SD platform has become as necessary for a successful voyage as the ship’s navigation equipment. “DiGiCo’s SD-Series desks have become an integral part of our entertainment technology complement,” says Edwards. “I can’t imagine leaving shore without them.”

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