Remember the old sound guy adage about knowing what all the knobs and buttons do? As the industry increasingly moves in a digital direction depending more on touch screens than faders and on menus and layers instead of every function being at one's fingertips, mix engineers like Rob Mailman--who need to move fast and are accustomed to the dedicated control of analog--are searching for digital consoles that offer ease-of-navigation as well as outstanding sound quality. And like Mailman, who has now officially made the move to a DiGiCo SD5, those engineers are increasingly turning to DiGiCo citing the "analog-ness" of the SD interface.
"DiGiCo did a really good job on the layout of the console," says Mailman, who has been a member of Southern California's Sound Image family for 28 years where he currently serves as GM of Touring. He has also spent the past decade riding faders for Carlos Santana, an artist whose approach and vibe are extremely analog. Before Mailman switched to the DiGiCo SD5, he was on a large-format analog desk for many years, which included Santana's multi-year residency gig at The Joint inside the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. He even squeezed it into the smaller House of Blues at the Mandalay Bay Resort when the production moved across town in 2012.
"The kinds of gigs we are doing--including a lot more festivals where I can't walk in and say, 'Where's my 14-by-14-foot space for my console?'--meant I needed to go with a smaller, digital console. The ergonomics, the layout, where everything is--it's all very similar to the analog consoles that guys my age have been mixing on for the past 25 years."
On a gig like Santana, that's crucial. "This is not a snapshot band," Mailman says. "We don't follow a set list, and even the same songs are never played the same way twice, ever. It is a constant remix, every song, all night long. I may remix the same song two or three times depending on the direction the band goes in."
The console is not the only place where space has been saved. While Mailman still uses some choice pieces of analog processing on key inputs, he uses the onboard dynamics processing and onboard reverb--no plugins--on virtually everything.
There are as many as 75 audio inputs during a Santana show, including 62 open mics, 36 of which are on percussion. Mailman does not have time to be mucking around in submenus looking for level on a specific input. "Analog consoles all work the same with some minor idiosyncrasies between brands and models, but every brand of digital desk sets up and operates differently," he notes. "And the SD5 is laid out in such a way that the functions and operations are in areas that I am used to and make sense. It means I can worry about mixing the show and not try to remember how to run the console. Now, all the ergonomics in the world would not be enough if it was not an excellent sounding console, and it IS an excellent sounding console. But, on a Santana show, I need speed. I need to know where the controls that I need are and be able to get there fast. With the SD5, I can do that."
Photo: Rob Mailman and his DiGiCo SD5 set up at Las Vegas' House of Blues Mandalay Bay for a Santana concert (credit: Linda Evans)