Digital audio has made steady, if not entirely trouble-free progress in the recording world, and even devout analog believers now accept that their work must eventually be committed to CD or some other digital storage medium. The live sound industry, by contrast, has largely stuck with analog technology. Apart from DSP-based outboard effects units, most touring sound companies field P.A. systems that are primarily based on an analog signal chain, from the onstage microphones through analog mixers, processors and crossovers to the traditional “stacks and racks.”
Of course, many current touring sound systems include multiple digital components, and sales of both digitally controlled analog and all-digital mixing consoles for live work are steadily increasing. However, until 2001, no major touring production had committed to an all-digital signal chain.
That significant milestone was passed last September, when Neil Diamond's fall 2001 tour got under way in Columbus, Ohio. Featuring Yamaha PM-1D FOH and monitor consoles, the main P.A. was fully digital all the way from the A/D converters right after the mic preamps to final D/A conversion at the Crown amplifier inputs. Other than a few analog components — mostly the mics (mainly Shure and Audio-Technica) and the JBL VerTec line array loudspeakers — the entire signal chain from input to output transducers was all-digital. Even the onstage musicians used individual Yamaha 01V digital mixers to combine a menu of submixes for their own in-ear monitor mixes, which remained digital up to the front end of the IEM systems.
ON THE ROAD TO DIGITAL CONTROL
For system designer/FOH mixer Stan Miller, the current tour, which is timed to promote Diamond's latest release, Three Chord Opera, represents the achievement of a long-held ambition to use digital technology to bring complete control and repeatability to the FOH mix.
“I'm a guy that likes to be innovative,” says Miller, who has been working with Diamond for 35 of his 40-plus years in live sound. “I have been working to move to the kind of system we have now for several years. The first kind of automation, or semi-automation, that I had was a modified Ramsa 840 console with programmable MIDI mutes. The objective was to go from song to song and have only the channels open that you needed to have open, with no chance of making any mistakes.” To mute and unmute channels on the Ramsa, Miller used Cue Sheet MIDI software running on a Macintosh.
Miller's next setup included 14 Yamaha Pro Mix 01s used as submixers, and feeding stereo sends into a 24-channel Yamaha PM3500. “The Pro Mix 01 was the first [digital mixer] that was 100-percent recallable — every function and feature,” notes Miller. “So, not only could I recall the channels off and on, I could recall all the EQ, I could recall any little effects and things I was using within the unit itself. And I had some external effects that were MIDI-recallable, some Lexicon stuff. So, that was the second generation.”
Miller's third-generation setup revolved around a pair of Yamaha 02Rs fed at line-level from Soundcraft preamps onstage, an arrangement that provided automated control over up to 80 inputs. Also, for the first time, the onstage musicians were given a way to mix their own monitors. “We did that by using a little Ashly unit, a VCA-controlled box with eight little faders on it that controlled a box that was down under the stage,” recalls Miller. “But it was all-analog.”
The current, all-digital setup evolved through a cooperative effort with Yamaha. “I knew about the PM-1D through my association with Yamaha,” says Miller, who was consulted during development of the PM1000, Yamaha's category-defining entry into the live sound console market. “I visited [PM-1D hardware product manager] Dan Craik and asked, ‘Here's what I have in mind. Is this workable? Is it do-able?’ As we talked about it, we got the idea to hook up the 01Vs. It's kind of overkill to have these 01Vs all over the stage, but, frankly, we did it because if one goes down, we can switch it with another and just load the software. And we wanted to keep [the audio] in the digital domain — we didn't want to be switching back and forth.”
In fact, there are only two nondigital signal chains in the entire sound system: Miller's cue speakers at FOH are fed from a supplementary analog snake that runs back to FOH from the PM-1D engines onstage; and, because Diamond had not previously used an IEM system, a backup monitor system includes a couple of traditional wedges and flown sidefills. Apart from this monitor system and the main P.A. subwoofers, which are owned by Diamond's own ArchAngel Music Concerts production company, all the sound equipment was provided by Maryland Sound Inc. of Baltimore.
NO AMPS ONSTAGE
Diamond's 17-member band includes two guitars, bass, drums and percussion, two keyboard positions (piano and synthesizers), four horns, a string quartet and two singers. Miller cheerfully admits that he delegated microphone choices to monitor engineer Bernie Becker, who is also Neil Diamond's recording engineer, with credits on several albums going back to 1991's Lovescape.
“I get a mic list from Bernie, because that's his thing,” laughs Miller. “Whatever makes him happy and makes him comfortable, I'll live with it and make it work, and it'll be terrific.”
Becker chose an all-Shure lineup for vocals, including a Shure Beta 87 wireless for Diamond and wired Beta 87s for backing vocals. Drum mics include Audio-Technica ATM 35s on toms, medium-diaphragm A-T 4033 condensers on overheads, and a Beyer Dynamic OPO 583 on snare. Horn section mics are all Audio-Technica, including a new model, the 4055. The four string instruments are picked up with MKE 2-5 mics — essentially Sennheiser MKE lavalier condenser capsules fitted into a sleeve and inserted into the instrument body through the tail peg hole. Because all of the onstage electric instruments are taken “direct,” initial A/D conversion takes place at the inputs of the satellite 01Vs. “There are no mics on any guitars,” notes Miller. “No guitar amplifiers anywhere. They're all direct through their mixers.”
IEMS ‘R’ US
Using a PM-1D onstage, Becker creates mixes for Diamond, the string section and the horn players, but all of the other musicians have local control over their in-ear mixes via individual Yamaha 01D mixers. The strings and horn players use in-ear monitor or headphones driven by hard-wired Shure beltpacks, whereas the singers have Shure wireless in-ear systems supplied by Firehouse Productions of Red Hook, N.Y. Diamond is also using wireless IEMs fed from a Shure PSM700 system.
All mics are routed to Yamaha AI8 modules, 8-input ADCs that provide two outputs for each input; the “cloned” outputs are routed to both the FOH and monitor PM-1D engines. “It eliminates the splitters — there aren't any,” says Miller. “And the patching is all done digitally in the consoles themselves. So, if an input comes in on channel number such-and-such, he can put it in his console wherever he wants it, and I can put it in mine wherever I want it. And then we have some cross-patching, because I send him a couple of things for backup. If something goes down, we have a way to run the entire sound system off of his console, and we also have a way to feed part of the monitoring system off of my console, in case something goes astray.”
COMPACT FOH COMPOUND
Miller's FOH compound is admirably compact. Besides the PM-1D, he has a pair of Panasonic 3700 DAT machines (one for playback), a Marantz CD player and a Dell PC set up to run Crown's IQ for Windows software, which system techs John Drane and Art Isaacs use for monitoring and controlling the VerTec P.A.
Miller also has a Dell 8000 laptop computer for storing and editing the PM-1D presets and cues. “I'm actually a very Macintosh guy,” says Miller. “But the console stores everything in Windows, and I can use the laptop to work on cues in the hotel. I don't have to do it at the venue. The other very cool thing is that all the cues are stored on a Compact Flash card, which fits in a little PCMCIA card in the console, and that I can transfer over to the computer. I carry a backup chip in my pocket and, if something went wrong, I could reboot the PM-1D with it.”
One other piece of equipment at FOH is something of an antique. “I have a Roland MIDI thing called the RC3 — it looks like a telephone keypad. They don't make them anymore, but I wish I could get another one,” says Miller, who uses it as a random-access MIDI program controller to call up cues for each song in the show.
“As I said, we are 100-percent digital,” notes Miller. “There are no outboard effects anywhere in the system — nothing.” All of the compression and EQ used on individual channels or subgroups are provided by the PM-1D. “The problem is that, once you switch to the digital domain, if you start going back to the analog domain, and then come back to digital, chances are a lot of what you hope to accomplish you've destroyed in getting out and getting back,” explains Miller. “A cool thing about all the Yamaha stuff is they're capable of rewriting and adding software to do the things you want to do, such as adding a de-esser to the PM-1D, as it doesn't have one and we sometimes need a de-esser, particularly with earpieces.”
360 DEGREES OF VERTEC
Miller uses the PM-1D's output matrices to create zone mixes for the main five-position VerTec P.A, which includes 16-cabinet left/right clusters and eight-cabinet center and outer left and right clusters. Two additional five-cabinet clusters are available for extreme audience left and right coverage when the seating plan exceeds 270°. “We can go 360° around the stage,” says Miller. “In some venues, we have already. So we have enough loudspeakers to do that, and we have more outputs to feed the system.”
The flown three-way, full-range VerTec VT4889 cabinets are augmented by eight JBL Concert Series 4842 subwoofers containing 18-inch JBL drivers that are stacked on the arena floor or under the stage. “One of the things that's amazing about the VerTec system is the low end,” says Miller. “For the first time, I feel like I have real low end up in the air that's usable and warm-sounding.”
Typically, systems engineer John Drane hangs, tests and presets the VerTec system for Miller. “John has had quite a number of years' experience with line arrays, and he's also been working with me on the IQ stuff for several years,” says Miller. “We've actually developed our own settings now [for the VerTec system] by taking JBL's and changing them to fit what we think sounds good. I used to go in and tweak the system myself. I don't do that anymore. I want to be able to plug in my mixer and make it work. I don't want to have to mess with a lot of EQ. In fact, it's my opinion that you do a minimal amount of EQ in the mixing, and you do the program EQ to make the system sound good. Once the system sounds good, the vocal mic EQ won't change from day to day. Maybe a little, but not much.”
One consequence of the elimination of stage monitors and instrument amplifiers is that Miller has found it necessary to add “lip fill” speakers for those sections of the audience closest to the stage. “When we had stage monitors, there was enough vocal stuff coming off of the stage from Neil and we didn't really need them,” says Miller. “We learned when we went to the in-the-ear systems we had to have them. We could not get the coverage down in the front rows we needed.”
RAVE ALL NIGHT
As the diagram indicates, digital audio sources for the various P.A. and monitor systems are distributed to the amp racks and subsidiary 01V mixers via standard CAT-5 Ethernet cable. AES/EBU outputs from the PM-1Ds are converted to CobraNet by QSC's RAVE system, which routes and manages the resulting data packets. The Routing Audio Via Ethernet (RAVE) system can route up to 64 channels of 20-bit/48kHz audio over a 100BaseT network. System-wide latency is about 6.3 ms, regardless of configuration.
All crossover, EQ, dynamic control and delay functions are executed by DSP in the USP-2 CN input modules fitted to the inputs of the Crown MA-5000vz amplifiers. Crown's IQ software provides complete control and monitoring facilities, so the entire system can be tested and adjusted on PCs at either FOH or monitor positions.
“We have two of everything,” explains Miller. “The thing everybody worries about is failures. You worry about that even with analog stuff, but with analog stuff it's a little simpler [to troubleshoot] because we understand it better.” To provide complete digital redundancy, the system design includes two complete QSC RAVE networks and will switch over automatically if one goes down. A Z-Systems Detangler, effectively a digital 8-in/8-out router, acts as a switcher. “Because you can't just start unplugging digital stuff and repatching it,” notes Miller. “So this device switches from one digital input to another one, if there's a problem.”
Though the Neil Diamond sound system design is technologically ambitious, Miller is more than pleased with the results. “When you're in the digital domain, we virtually have no buzzes, no hums,” he notes. “They don't exist. We used to spend an hour or two every day, when setting up, trying to get rid of the buzzes and hums, because of the hodgepodge of stuff we had connected together. For this system, we had a tremendous amount of assistance from Yamaha, because nobody's ever taken a system out like this — nobody has hooked up all this stuff the way we've connected it up. We had some glitches initially and they've had to fix some things in the software. But it's now working, and it works terrific. We have a wonderful relationship, and they have been very supportive of the whole project.”
Chris Michie is a Mix technical editor.
In addition to those named in the article, support on the Neil Diamond tour came from:
Marc Lopez, Yamaha: digital audio system design and implementation
Sam Helms, Sigmet Corp.: overall system design assistance
Greg “Chico” Lopez: assistant monitor engineer
Lonny Wayne: assistant to Stan Miller
Christy Zellman: touring sound technician