For the first time ever, Trans-Siberian Orchestra performed their acclaimed 2004 rock opera The Lost Christmas Eve live in its entirety. Written by founder Paul O’Neill, it tells the uplifting story of redemption and salvation on an enchanting Christmas Eve in New York City. The orchestra takes listeners on a journey deep into their imaginations, from a run-down hotel, to an old toy store, a blues bar and a Gothic Cathedral. The tour, presented by the Hallmark Channel, ran through the end of last year with Clair Global providing exclusive live sound production.
TSO created two separate and complete productions in 2000 to allow the band to cover more ground and they’ve maintained that format ever since. In 2009, the two tour monitor engineers, Antonio Luna and Chris Hoffmann made the decision to go with the DiGiCo SD7s largely because they had maxed out their D5 consoles. In 2010, both outfits fully upgraded the FOH rigs similarly to a pair of mirrored DiGiCo SD7 systems (comprised of a console with SD-Racks at both FOH and monitor world). The DiGiCo SD7 has been on tour with TSO ever since.
It’s interesting,” explains current unit monitor engineer, Scott Fraser, “that we basically built two identical shows systems for essentially two different shows. While the kits are the same, the way the SD7’s are utilized between the two productions is uniquely different.”
“In the big picture, having identical consoles for both really kept things simple and provided consistency, from a production and logistics standpoint,” said Troy Clair, Clair Global president. “For the operators, it kept the workflow smooth and eliminated compatibility issues.”
“We started using the SD7 at FOH for the first spring 2010 Beethoven’s Last Night tour after having used large analog consoles for the first 11 years,” recalled Dave Wittman, FOH engineer for the original TSO production and currently on tour with one of the productions. “It was the perfect time to make the switch since we needed a smaller footprint but more inputs as we went back to theatres for the spring tours. I went to Clair Global in Chicago to get some basic orientation with the console. At that time, Michi Tanikawa (current FOH engineer for the second production) was my tech. Once I got the layout to a point where I’d be comfortable, Michi did all the console programming. From then on, we were able to use the saved files from tour to tour with only minimal modifications.”
Wittman worked with frontman O’Neill back in the late 70’s on a short project. Nearly 17 years later, they hooked up again when Paul needed an engineer to mix the band Savatage’s album Dead Winter Dead in 1995. “Shortly thereafter, we started recording Paul’s new project, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and within a year or two, Paul wanted to tour TSO and asked me to go out and mix the show. I explained that I had never done live sound before, but Paul encouraged me to give it a go. Well, here we are 14 years later and I’m having a blast! I’ve been working with Paul ever since, recording and mixing all of TSO’s studio albums and a live show ever since.”
In total, each TSO unit has approximately 65-80 inputs for drums, bass, two guitars, four keyboards, 12 vocal mics, eight live strings, and audience mics with another 15 inputs for spares and utility stuff. “I probably haven’t scratched the surface using all the features on the SD7 that I could,” Wittman laughs. “On the other hand, I try to keep things simple and the SD7 does everything we need. I have always had two or three outboard reverbs and a bunch of compressors. Now, having all this onboard is perfect. Flexibility is key with this console; I know it’s there, and it more than meets my needs. Additionally, we record each show to Digital Performer and the simplicity of interfacing 80 channels via MADI with two cables and the ability to playback and refine your mix later is a tremendous help. Not to mention, the sonic quality is superb.”
A self-professed analog guy who has worked with TSO for the past 5-6 years, Michihiro “Michi” Tanikawa happily and willingly concedes to the SD7 at FOH for the West Coast unit. “I like analog consoles, but we can’t bring them on tour, so that’s why I stick with the SD7. It makes everything sound more analog with digital convenience. I had been using a D5 for a long time, which made it easy to start using the SD7—the faders and layout is set up very much like an analog console unlike some of the other digital console’s out there. I still like the analog console sound, but the SD7 always sounds accurate, every day on different gigs… and takes up less space. Also, they are great for doing multiple recordings and virtual soundchecks.
“I love the console’s basic logistics and layout; it’s very similar to the D5. And it sounds so great… amazing! The SD7 has a more ‘hi-fi’ sound especially for TSO. And because our audience ranges from young children to adults, we keep the volume comfortable for everyone, while still being a powerful rock show. There are narration parts, too, that must sound clear so everybody can understand what is being said. It’s also fun to change the EQ just a little bit and hear how it alters the sound drastically. The only outboard compression I’m using is a Smart C2 compressor to make it a little bit warmer and analog-sounding before I send it to the PA. The band loves the console and the production loves it too.”
At monitor world, the configuration for each outfit is a mix of wedges and in-ears: 24 mixes of Sennheiser IEM (8 mixes of 2050 and 16 of G3), two stereo mixes of Clair CM 22 and two mixes of Clair SRM, with the wedges all powered and processed by Clair StakRac with Lab Gruppen PLM20000Q.
“When the show outgrew the D5s in 2009,” recalls West Coast monitor engineer Chris Hoffmann, “we were looking for something with more output capabilities (busses). The SD7 was relatively new at the time but I had already heard good things. Tony Luna the monitor engineer on the East Coast tour at the time and myself put our heads together and decided this was the right move. At the time I really didn’t have any idea about all of the features of the console, only that I was in need of more outputs. What I love about digital consoles in general is the ability to expand. I double lots of inputs for various reasons. I don’t double everything but I like to keep some of the key channels doubled in order to send different tones to the ears and wedges. Things like the kick drum, main piano, guitars, and vocals I like to have separate strip EQ’s for the in-ears vs. wedges. I don’t actually know how many channels I’m up to at this point, I’ve never counted, but it’s a ridiculous amount. However, there are 80 physical stage inputs on my stage. Output-wise, I have 24 stereo ear mixes, 12 wedge mixes, thumpers, effects sends… My biggest challenge is managing all the outputs and the size of the group. There are a lot of people on the deck!”
“There are so many features I love about this console. It’s totally spoiled me. Having dynamic EQ available per band on every single channel is ridiculous. Having so many tools available to solve complicated scenarios that come up when you have a group this large is fantastic. I think I’m using nearly all the features of this desk in one way or another: multi-band compression, virtual tube overdrive. You name it, I’m using it somewhere. I have gotten some of the best vocal sounds out of this desk. When you have nine singers in one band, you have all the tools to customize each individual’s sound. That’s an important thing. With a band this big, snapshots come in to play and are a game changer. All the digital desks have automation these days but none are as intuitive to me as the SD7’s automation system. The SD7 was the first digital desk I’ve used that I didn’t feel like I was sacrificing anything sonically for all of the conveniences of the digital world. I had gone back and forth from digital to analog, always preferring to use a Heritage 3000 as it offered enough flexibility for the job at hand. Now I would pick the SD7 every time. It sounds great.”
Scott Fraser, who handles monitors behind Dave Whitman’s FOH, raves about the console’s onboard dynamics. “They are a lifesaver and the only outboard gear I’m using is a Lexicon PCM 80 and a Yamaha SPX 2000. (I’m slightly embarrassed to say I ran out of onboard effects!) I also love the console’s flexibility and layout and the SD7 makes it easy because I can get to everything really quickly. Just having the number of busses available on the SD7 makes this show possible. Having complete flexibility as to how my in and outs are assigned to the surface out makes dealing with this many mixes no problem. It’s nice to not have limitations when it comes to that stuff. For example, my drummer wants pretty heavy ‘verb on his drum sounds and it sounds great, really big. I wasn’t happy with the way the guitars and keys were sitting in his mix but didn’t want to compromise on the sound he liked. The solution for me was to key a multi-band comp on the drum reverb return from a mix-minus. This had the desired effect of shaping the reverb around the other mix elements fighting for a space in the mix and it really cleaned things up.”
Fraser has a few tips and tricks to share having worked on the console for several years. “I use a VGA to composite video adapter so I can monitor the B engine on the internal video monitor. The resolution is not great but it allows me to see what the B engine is doing while on the A engine. I find this helpful when I’m mirroring the engines. This way I can see the file has completely loaded the file from the A engine before I mirror.
“It doesn’t matter how many bells and whistles a desk has if it doesn’t sound great,” he adds. “The best feature of this desk is its sound quality. And the flexibility is unmatched.”
TSO Tour Crew:
East Coast-based tour: Jimmy Pettinato (production manager), Dave Wittman (FOH) and Scott Fraser (monitors);
West Coast-based tour: Jeff Boguski (Production manager), Michihiro Tanikawa (FOH) and Chris Hoffmann (monitors).