Weve been working in this industry--and have known each other--for a long time and our experience with live sound mixing is very similar: mainly with miking up music that is truly unplugged--bluegrass, acoustic and roots music--generally in theaters and concert halls as opposed to arenas and large outdoor venues. In the past four years, since the O Brother, Where Art Thou? tour, Alison Krauss + Union Station has gone from playing small venues to larger and larger ones. Up until that time, the tour was using a different system every night, a different FOH console every night, and a different monitor console, with an ear monitor system. Because of this, the shows lacked the performance-to-performance consistency that the group wanted to achieve.
At the end of The Great High Mountain Tour (Spring, 2004), which was something of a sequel to the 2002 Down From the Mountain Tour with 10 artists and Alison Krauss + Union Station as the headliner, we both went to the Yamaha PM1D training session. Bernie had run into the console on the road once or twice with Alison, and once with a Jerry Douglas concert. By last summer, the band was definitely thinking of moving up to a digital console as well. So the PM1D seminar seemed like a good thing to do so we could both get an introduction to the methodology of working on a digital board. In fact, there was a good deal of carry-over in the material presented to the PM5D.
Alisons new tour started on November 30. The day before rehearsal at Soundcheck in Nashville, which ran from November 17-20, we uncrated the PM5D together. Chris Taylor, Yamaha district manager in Nashville and ex-FOH engineer, was out of town and would join us the next day but, in the meantime, he told us feel free to play with it. We had seen the PM5D on a showroom floor, but it wasnt even powered up. So when we pulled the console out of the box at Soundcheck, that was virtually the first look for us both.
First Impression, Good Impression
After about a half day getting used to the console, we really did start to have fun. And it sounded very good. We were really surprised by the warmth and cleanness of the sound. This was the warmest sounding digital console either one of us had ever heard.
(The PM5000 mic preamps remind us of a good English analog preamp more than any digital desk wed ever heard.)
Chris gave us a demo the next day, which was very helpful. But by then, we were sold on the console. Basically, the time both of us spent with the PM5D at Soundcheck, plus one demo/test day, was our total exposure to the console before starting the tour.
Both of us being old analog guys, we are used to the visual logic of looking at an analog console, the logic of how things flow through an analog desk: basically, the gain stage, the EQ section, how you bus it out, depending on your monitor situation. There were other things to get accustomed to also. For example, with the digital board, you see your EQ changes graphed in front of you. Sometimes youre surprised, and sometimes the graph looks like what you thought it might look like. But, like they say: dont go by what it looks like, go by what it sounds like.
The biggest conceptual difference between working an analog desk and a digital one is that with analog, you can grab anything you want to. With a digital console, youve got to remind yourself--at least the first few times you work on one--to select then grab, select /grab. Select is always the first thing you have to think of. Your EQ is all in one section. But your changes affect whichever channel you have selected. If you dont select first, you may be changing the EQ for any number of channels.
You can grab the wrong EQ on an analog board, but you can look down and see what youve done. But with a digital board, you make changes and move right along from one channel to the next. The changes go right on by. To see what youve done five channels earlier, you have to call up the settings. You really do have to change your work habits, retrain yourself when you go from analog to digital. But the advantages in terms of both control and space gained is huge. We reduced our footprint out there considerably with the PM5D. Essentially, it replaced three of our racks.
Admittedly, it was comforting feeling to look around and see a bank of compressors, but thats just something you have to get used to with a digital board. You have to learn where to look for whats going on with certain functions. If you use reading glasses, you might consider wearing them when you mix!
For corporate presentations, where often youre not allowed much room, that reduced footprint is very important. Corporate clients dont like to see a lot of gear taking up a lot of space. A lot of the meeting rooms are fairly compact and they pack as many people into them as they can. This console gives you pretty much everything you need for the corporate setting in one package so youre taking up the least amount of space that you possibly can.
The Board Remembers
Again, from the SE Systems perspective, the console can come back into the shop after doing two or three weeks of touring with Alison Krauss, and in 30 seconds, it can be reprogrammed for a corporate show, with little or no setup. All of those front-of-house specs have been saved that are so valuable in the corporate setting. Yet, when you finish with an annual corporate event, lets say, for that year, and youve saved it, your ending point--where you have everything dialed in to the best of your ability--is your starting point the next time you do the event. Even if you send a different person to do the event, since so many corporate shows remain exactly the same, year after year, the consoles set up and optimized for the gear. And with this console, the initial setup, on the fly, is extremely easy. Its a terrific time-saver.
SE Systems had their first taste of this using the Yamaha DM2000 for symphony performances. Wed set up 72 inputs, doing the same setup over and over. Same mics, same players, same positions. Once the regular SE Systems engineer couldnt do the event, so we had to send another, senior engineer to do the performance. He wasnt familiar with digital consoles, and didnt particularly like doing the symphony! But when he set up the console and saw all the cues saved, just like the end of the last symphony concert, well, he was converted.
For touring applications, our experience was that by the end of the first day playing with the console before rehearsal, we were mixing--not with the kind of confidence that lets you know that you are getting best results possible out of the console, but nonetheless, we were mixing.
We both still have a few gray areas in our understanding, and were learning details all the time, new ways to get things done. Were both fairly cautious by nature; we want to understand what were doing before we do it. And this console is really made so you can do just that.
You can scroll through the settings for each song during a show to see what sounds right and know exactly why, time after time. And the consoles not only an effective tool for listening to the mix, but for being able to truly detect when somethings different out there. If you dont hear something where youve always been able to hear it before, you know youre right where you were with your settings, so the problem has to be somewhere else: Check that mic. Do we need a pad on that thing? Do we have a bad cable?
When Bernie saw our friend and fellow analog guy, Les Banks (FOH engineer at Nashvilles Ryman Auditorium, currently handling FOH for John Fogerty on a PM5D), working on a PM5D, Les gave him the thumbs up. That helped give Bernie enough confidence to plunge into this. Its really a matter of changing your work habits to achieve the same results, or better. Everything is available to you, and simultaneously!
But functionality aside, the music were dealing with needs a lot of headroom. Its very subtle, quiet, with sudden dynamic shifts, and this console gives you a lot of headroom. We try not to compress anything. We want to hear the subtle things coming out in back. The detail thats going on in back is an important part of this music. We dont want to compress or limit the sound, except for safety sake.