Singer-songwriter Justin Vernon was determined to transpose his band’s eponymous second outing‚Äîthe highly anticipated Bon Iver‚Äîfrom studio to stage when he decided to tour behind its release in the spring of 2011. Adding several of the studio musicians to the live touring band, taking it from a 4- to a 9-piece outfit, was one part of the strategy. In addition, the recording’s shimmering fidelity was brought to life with the help of production manager/FoH engineer Brian Joseph‚Äîwho also worked with Vernon in the studio over the record’s 2-1/2 year creation period‚Äîand a pair of DiGiCo‘s newest SD10 live consoles outfit with SD Racks and a Waves SoundGrid bundle at FoH.
In preparing for the tour, Joseph and monitor engineer Xandy Whitesel consulted closely with DiGiCo’s Matt Larson to find the perfect console to match the intricacies and high input count of the band. Although the two were new to working with DiGiCo work surfaces, they were certainly well-versed in the company‚Äîand its’ consoles sonic reputation. “I saw the SD7 when it was introduced in Cleveland a few years back, and I was excited about the console,” Joseph recalled. “It was extremely powerful and more approachable than the D5. I kept that in my mind ever since. Several engineers that I respected and trusted had been using SD7s and SD8s and also spoke on the difference in the DiGiCo sound quality and processing power‚Äîboth of which were extremely important to me and part of the consideration to choose the DiGiCo for this tour. Also, because Bon Iver has a very specific studio sound, when preparing for this tour, we ultimately wanted to be able to capture that pure tone in a live arena. Running at 96K, I found this desk to be so clear, pristine and exacting. The separation was really remarkable, and not many other consoles can do that especially at this price point. With 9 members on stage, clarity was very important and the DiGiCo made it possible to translate that live. It just feels wide and rich and clear and wonderful in that regard and we couldn’t be happier.”
Onstage, Bon Iver utilizes two 48 channel SD Racks with all the preamps shared by both SD10s, connecting the consoles through a redundant pair of optical lines 350 feet from the stage to FOH. “Transitioning to optical from regular copper snakes was an awesome move for us,” Joseph explained, “because the rack situation is much smaller and it’s easier to deal with running that snake. The consoles are capable of sharing preamps very easily with DiGiCo’s Gain Tracking, which lowers our production costs noticeably, not to mention our patching is much simpler. Dealing with 73 inputs can be a little daunting but the console does it very easily.”
Comprised of nine musicians including songwriter/leader Justin Vernon, Bon Iver makes up a total of 73 inputs at FoH: two full drum kits (each with full electronic stations), three guitars, bass, bass saxophone, tenor sax, alto sax, clarinet, French horn, trumpet, trombone, violin, viola, three synth players (one actual synth used on the record, and two clones of studio sounds), seven vocalists and three vocal channels for Justin alone. Justin has a vocal mic for each of his two positions, plus a third mic with a mute switch on his main position that’s affected by processing in an Ableton session running on redundant computers. Joseph, with the help of Laura Escude, built the complicated Ableton session affecting vocals and triggering samples of actual recorded pianos and sounds that were used in the studio and that were very important to make it compatible for the road. One of Justin’s main vocal inputs is where he’s at most of the time, the other vocal is the same mic and same mirrored channel, and the third mic on his main position that’s affected by processing in the Ableton session. Joseph has redundant computers running for affected vocals and he added a mute switch allowing Justin to punch it in depending on the song. Drummer Sean Carey has an aux vocal mic for affected sounds as well.
“The SD10’s compression is rivaled by only one other desk that I’ve used,” Joseph raved. “The dynamics package on the desk is outstanding and fabulous-sounding. In addition to that, the EQ and multiband compression are two more options that are great problem solvers. You don’t need them on every channel, but they can be great for some key inputs and they work really well. Just on my lead vocal, on a room-to- room basis for Justin’s vocal, having the multiband compressor being as transparent as it is, I can really lay into it and keep his vocal at the front of the mix every night. The multiband compressor has allowed me to keep the tone in his voice, whereas before, as much falsetto singing as goes on in this band, there’s some pretty heavy handed EQ that has to happen to work around problems in the room frequencies. And with seven people singing simultaneously, obviously you get some buildup around 300-400 Hz, but with the multiband compressor, that’s been a wonderful workaround for me and just makes things very easy and straightforward.
The macro programming capability has also played a big part in Joseph’s workflow. “They’re really powerful and pretty awesome. They stepped them up from the SD8, too, with the addition of programmable LCD smart switches that I can custom label and assign pretty much anything I want them to do ‚Äì the SD10 is very comprehensive in this. Anything you need to get to quickly you can program as a macro, and it’s available with one button push. I have a delay that I turn on for a select number of background vocals and I’ve programmed that into a macro and now I don’t need to have a bunch of hands and fingers doing a bunch of things.”
The amount of programming the DiGiCo affords Joseph on this tour was a bit of a revelation. “I feel like there’s a lot of ways that the console is very advanced, like having the console on a redundant optical loop is comforting, for sure. I think that’s always been what’s marvelous about DiGiCo but I wasn’t ready for before as an engineer. The amount of programming that you can do to your session and the amount of flexibility for me within snapshots is wonderful. I live now by snapshots on this console. Being able to shape the sound of an instrument by affecting different parameters to make a completely different creature from song-to-song is really cool.”
With the addition of the Waves SoundGrid bundle at FoH, Joseph was able to strip away his 12U touring rack. “I didn’t need it. I’m able to get everything I need on the desk now. I needed a compressor for the bass guitar and found that I’m able to use the R Compressor on the Waves package‚Ä¶ I’m very comfortable with the R Verbs and I like them a lot for a couple of different rooms that I’ve built. I use the H Delay, too, for both my slapback and my long delay by building macros on the desk. I’m able to punch them in and out as needed and that’s a wonderful utility. I’m planning on trying out a few more things out for the support act like a distortion plug-in and the Renaissance de-esser, which I absolutely love. But for Bon Iver’s purposes, the onboard multiband compressor and dynamic EQ are pretty wonderful and I’m getting what I need out of those. I plan to introduce more but right now they’re working marvelously. The lessons I’ve learned over the years about mixing are that you don’t need to unnecessarily complicate things ‚Äì it really isn’t of benefit to the music or to the mix. Previously, when I used an AVID Profile, I had all those Pro Tools plug-ins that I thought would be good to use, but my mix started sounding a lot smaller. So I try to keep it really simple‚Äîjust like we did when we made the record together‚Äîfind the pure tones, capture them on the front end and let them speak for themselves. And having so many people on stage, it’s pretty important not to get too heavy handed out there in order to keep the separation.”