DiGiCo Powers Hip-Hop Tours of Travis Scott, A$AP Rocky

DiGiCo has been busy with a couple of hip-hop performances across the nation.

Travis Scott’s “Astroworld – Wish You Were Here Tour”
“Mixing just four inputs in an arena show is one of the greatest challenges of my career,” shares Ken “Pooch” Van Druten about his gig with rapper Travis Scott, who is currently touring in support of a pair of Number Ones: his latest album, Astroworld, and the single “Sicko Mode.” Now on the second North American leg of the “Astroworld – Wish You Were Here Tour,” Pooch reports that audio for a pair of DiGiCo SD12 consoles for both house and monitors is piloting Scott’s sonic voyage.

Pooch is best known for nearly three decades supporting heavy rock artists—including System of a Down, Iron Maiden, Pantera, and almost ten years with Linkin Park—but, as the music world has changed, he’s moved into pop, supporting Justin Bieber’s last tour, and hip-hop with Jay-Z before joining up with Scott. He’s been a noted DiGiCo user since the latter part of his time with Linkin Park, so although this latest gig may seem like part of a continuum, it’s very different in one way: channel count.

“Starting with Linkin Park, input needs started to increase rapidly, and with both Bieber and Jay-Z, that kind of exploded,” he says. “The DiGiCo SD platform has been a crucial part of my toolbox for dealing with shows that often seemed to be bumping right up against the max channel count of the consoles. But, with Travis, I have just four consistent inputs: a left and right from the DJ and vocal mics for the DJ and Travis, plus occasional guest vocal mics.”

Modern pop production has become incredibly dense and there is an ever-increasing pressure on artists and the engineers who support them to recreate every nuance live. On past tours, Pooch has pointed to the quality and depth of onboard tools, plus workflow and Waves integration, as big reasons for choosing the DiGiCo SD platform. When one is wrangling close to 200 input channels, workflow and the ability to access tools almost instantaneously are self-apparent.

“In some important ways—namely the density of production—Travis’ music shares some basic characteristics of the artists I’ve been working with for more than a decade. But this tour is different and, in many ways, a lot more difficult. When you have 192 inputs and there’s a sonic issue with one of them, there are ways to make the issue less apparent. When all of the density is coming to me as just a left and right input, if there’s an issue, there’s no place for a humble sound guy to hide.”

Making a challenging gig even more so, Pooch had no time with the artist and—more important in terms of the sounds coming into the SD12—the DJ. He joined the tour on its third show when a decision was made to replace the engineer who had done all of the production rehearsals and the first two shows. That meant no time to work with the DJ to custom craft his tracks to make them more big-PA-friendly. Also, despite the compact size of the SD12, there was no room for audio at a traditional front-of-house position.

“This is a 20-truck tour,” he explains. “There’s a lot of PA. The sheer number of double-18-inch subs is pretty stunning and, just from a hearing fatigue standpoint for engineers, that kind of low-end energy presents its own challenge. But the stage has multiple thrusts and there is a B Stage right where front of house would usually be.”

For Pooch’s first gigs, the SD12 was situated on one side of the room, on the concourse that separates the lower and upper seating areas in a typical arena. When the tour got into some arenas where even the concourse was not a viable option, Pooch opted to move backstage using a pair of near-field monitors as his sound source. It worked well enough that it’s become the default mixing position. The only audio gear out front is a single stereo measurement mic. The stage design also means that Scott spends almost the entire show with an open vocal mic working in front of a Clair PA that regularly clocks in at around 130 dB C-weighted.

“Between the constant danger of feedback and the nature of Travis’ music, which is very dense, probably the most important tool for me is the onboard DiGiCo multi-band compression.” Pooch is a well-known Waves user, and he does use some of their plug-ins for Scott’s often-extensive vocal effects, but he’s currently using only DiGiCo onboard multi-band compressors, which are available on all input channels and output busses as standard. “They are probably the most important tool I have for this tour,” he says. “The hip-hop world—and increasingly the pop and country worlds—are all about collaboration and constant change. Between remixes, guest appearances and even some artists re-sequencing the tracks on an album after it’s been released, this music is never really “finished.”

Scott is as well known for his work with other artists as he is for his own songs—he recently guested with Maroon 5 for the Super Bowl halftime show, as one example—so some of his ever-changing set material might come from a single verse, or even a full lyrical track, that he contributed to a hit by Drake, Kanye, or someone else. Collaborating with his DJ, Scott often weaves these vocal snippets into brand new tracks, so the first time that they’re ever heard is by tens of thousands of fans—and Pooch—in front of a massive PA.

“One of the hardest things about working with songs that have never had a life outside of the studio is that there is often a hard disconnect between what sounds great in a pair of studio monitors or headphones and what works in a big PA,” he continues. “That means that there are multiple snapshots for every song and the EQ and level changes can be pretty extreme. The multiple instances of multi-band compression on the outputs are, in many ways, my only safety net. The DiGiCo compression is smooth and musical. Even if, out of nowhere, I get a new track that has a lot of high-mid content that sounds great in the studio but can be grating in a big PA, the SD12’s on-board compressors can clamp down on it in a way that’s not obvious to the audience. That gives me time to make more precise and subtle EQ adjustments, then save those for the next time the song makes an appearance.”

Pooch started his long audio career in the studio and migrated to mixing live when the artists he was working with asked for his help on the road. That path has made him almost uniquely qualified and comfortable with presenting complex and dense soundscapes in a live setting, but this tour is more of a challenge.

“You’d think that with just four inputs, this would be the easiest gig in the world, but I’m sweating every show,” he laughs. “Being able to get to specific tools very quickly, along with the quality of the SD12’s onboard compression are crucial for a great audio outcome. I wouldn’t want to do this kind of show on a console other than a DiGiCo SD.”

A$AP Rocky’s Injured Generation Tour
Performing in full crash test dummy attire in the shadow of several vintage BMW and Mercedes Benz vehicles suspended over the stage, A$AP Rocky fully embraced the theme and vibe of his latest record, Testing, on his recent Injured Generation Tour. The A$AP Mob member’s first major North American road trip in more than three years, the 18-date arena trek carried a pair of DiGiCo mixing consoles—an SD12 at FOH and SD10 in monitor world—supplied by Cleveland-based sound reinforcement provider Eighth Day Sound. The two desks were specified by FOH Engineer Brandon Blackwell and Monitor Engineer Moshe Davenport, both of whom are diehard fans of the SD-Range.

“I love anything and everything DiGiCo,” enthuses Blackwell, who has worked with the Harlem hip-hop star and the rest of the A$AP Mob collective since 2015, as well as other top artists like Camila Cabello, Big Sean, and Puff Daddy. “The SD software and workflow fits how I mix, and they are definitely my preferred desks of choice for many reasons. The customization options that are available are impressive. From the SD7 to the SD11, I can set up my fader banks to fit whatever mixing situation I am in, be that FOH, monitors, or even doing both from one desk. And, of course, DiGiCo’s SD consoles sound great right out the box. For this run, I chose the SD12 because I needed extra MADI ports and the DMI option cards got me the extra digital ins and outs I needed.”

The SD12 and SD10 were paired with two SD-Racks all on a fiber loop, and the first 48 inputs of each rack were fed off an analog splitter with the last eight being separate. “Even though we didn’t need that many inputs, we were able to get up to 64 inputs between the two stage racks,” he notes. “Also on the fiber loop was a DiGiCo Orange Box, which handled the MADI I/O for my UAD Live Rack.”

One of the highlights for the engineers on this tour was the presence of DiGiCo’s new 32-bit Stadius Mic Pre-Amp modules. “I had them on the first 40 inputs of my SD-Rack and was tremendously impressed,” Blackwell continues. “I had heard them before on a few one-offs with my other clients but never got enough time to really take a listen. Because we were able to pick inputs from both stage racks, I was able to record and A/B the old and new cards, and the new Stadius ones sound phenomenal. There is more resolution, which in my opinion made the high end smoother by comparison. Rocky is extremely dynamic and the new Mic Pre-Amps handled the drastic level changes very well.”

On the other end of the fiber loop, Davenport was equally pleased with the new Mic Pre-Amps. “Those cards sound amazing!” he says. “They helped me deliver the best sound for IEMs. I noticed the difference right off, and so did Rocky. He said I put the sound of the studio in his ears.”

Even with Playboi Carti, Ski Mask the Slump God and Comethazine all on the bill as the tour’s rotating opening acts—plus A$AP Lou and A$AP Twelvyy to initially warm up the crowd—Davenport reports that his monitor setup was fairly “simple and straightforward,” he says. “I was able to have most of the openers use IEMs because we ran a clean stage—no wedges at all, just sidefill tops. I had seven stereo IEM mixes, one stereo sidefill mix, and a stereo cue mix. I customized my console so that I had all mics and tracks at my fingertips at any given moment and had the mixes right in front of me as well. That’s one of the things I love about DiGiCo consoles—the way you can set the desk up just how you want it.”

Although Blackwell has been strictly requesting DiGiCo desks for the past four years, Davenport is a relatively new convert to the brand, having only started using SD-Range desks in early 2018. “I took an SD10 out with blackbear when we opened up for Fall Out Boy last year and totally fell in love; from that moment on, it was all I wanted to use,” he shares. “And my artists can tell the difference, too. I used another well-known manufacturer’s console on the first show following that tour and blackbear said, ‘What’s wrong? My mix doesn’t sound right.’ After that, I got the green light to fight for the SD10 every time because he said it always made his ears happy.”

Making the engineers’ ears happy on the Injured Generation run was the SD12’s and SD10’s captive processing. “I really enjoy the onboard dynamic EQ and multi-band compression,” says Blackwell. “I don’t think any other console manufacturer has mastered its own onboard dynamics EQ like DiGiCo has. I also enjoy the onboard delays. They usually take care of my slap delays in my mixes. Overall, the combination of good audio source, good Mic Pre-Amps, and good digital and analog processing has made me a happy mixer.”

“I wanted to try not using any outboard gear for this tour,” Davenport chimes in. “I’ve used DiGiCos both with and without external processing before, and I knew I could surely deliver what I needed for Rocky without it on this run. The console’s internal processing and EQ is amazing.”

Blackwell notes that, like many of his tours in the past, he paired his SD console with a Waves SoundGrid setup: “This tour was my first one running Waves plug-ins external from the console and using a Mac Mini to handle the software and GUI. I really enjoy having Waves external from the console because it gives me back my master screen.”

And both engineers are quick to report that one of their favorite underrated features on DiGiCo consoles is the use of snapshots firing from timecode. “For a show like this, we sometimes go out of order, and having timecode means that I am always in the right snapshot,” he adds. “For this tour, I brought along my Rosendahl Mif4 to convert the Ableton playback rig’s LTC to the MTC input on my console. This has changed the way I mixed because I don’t have to worry about hitting ‘next’ and can keep my fingers on the key inputs.” Davenport concurs: “The snapshots were the best; they will be ‘a must’ moving forward when I’m on this console.”

“Of course, the continued support from everyone at DiGiCo—including Group One (DiGiCo’s US distributor)—is one of the main reasons why I will continue to spec DiGiCo consoles,” Blackwell concludes. “Whenever I’ve had an issue, which is rare, or just a question, there is always someone there to quickly help out, which is always appreciated. As expected, our SD desks performed great on this tour and we’re all smiles.”

“And we’re not the only ones that are smiling,” Davenport adds. “Rocky was super-pleased with the audio as well. He told me personally that this was the best-sounding tour of his career. The DiGiCo consoles were totally amazing on this run, and I’m glad that we got to use them.”