Plug-Ins Go Live

Jul 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By George Petersen



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Once upon a time, live sound technology lagged behind new developments in studio gear. Part of this was simply budget-related. Another factor? Road life is tough on equipment, and with reliability being everything in the concert arena, choosing time-tested gear (i.e., Drawmer gates, dbx racks, etc.) typically meant that the show would go on. There were always a few exceptions — such as Frank Zappa using Neumann U47s onstage — but typically, studio and live equipment remained two distinct, highly segregated worlds.

But in the late '80s/'90s, as the project studio movement grew, musicians began incorporating “studio” products into their signature sound. When these players went on the road, names such as Summit, Manley and Avalon showed up on riders and front-of-house effects racks. Front-of-house real estate was freed up somewhat with the arrival of digital consoles from Innovason, Yamaha and DiGiCo, with dynamics on every channel — and in the case of the Yamaha boards, full-on, digital effects/reverbs, as well.

Digidesign's debut of the D-Show VENUE in 2005 brought ease of recording and access to third-party, software-based DSP plug-ins. Yet in this department, Digidesign is hardly the only game in town. Lawo's new Plug-In Server brings plug-in ability to all of its digital consoles, while a just-announced Studer plug-in engine will bring VST effects capability to its flagship Vista 5 SR live board. ADK (Advanced Design of Kentucky) offers packages priced from about $5,000 to $10,000 that add plug-ins and simultaneous 56-track recording — typically on the Nuendo, Cubase, Samplitude or Reaper platforms, with support for outboard DSP plug-in cards such as those from Universal Audio, Waves and TC Electronic PowerCore — with mixers that can be MADI interfaced, such as DiGiCo or Yamaha digital consoles.

A different take on the “traditional” plug-in approach of using DSP programs that work with a variety of manufacturers' gear — such as RTAS or VST — Yamaha offers various proprietary “Add-On” effects for its PM5D. First introduced for its DM2000 and 02R96, these software-based effects packages include channel strips, master strips (both loaded with vintage-style EQs and compressors), reverbs, stomp boxes and even surround 5.1 post effects.

And owners of analog consoles — i.e., Midas XL4s, Yamaha PM4000s, etc. — need not be left out of the fun. Popular in musicians' racks onstage for running virtual instruments, the $1,999 Receptor from Muse Research also lets users load multiple VST plug-ins (including Antares' Auto-Tune 5) into a two-rackspace host. In addition to low-latency performance from its onboard Linux engine, Receptor features balanced analog I/Os, S/PDIF I/O and ADAT Lightpipe outs, and offers manual or automated control from its front panel, remotely from a desktop/laptop Mac or PC, or via a local mouse/monitor/keyboard.

Today, multiple racks of gear at the house position are fast disappearing. Advantages of this include a smaller FOH footprint (equating to valuable space in shows where a single seat might go for $200) and reduced costs of cartage/shipping/trucking — a growing concern in the age of $5-per-gallon diesel.

There's no doubt that plug-ins have brought the “re-create the album live” concept to a new level; for those plug-ins that are available live, parameter settings used in the studio can be stored and imported for the stage show. Another much-appreciated perk of using plug-ins — cited by numerous engineers — is the ease of auditioning a plug-in to see if it “fits” any particular show. This requires little more than downloading a time-limited demo version that can be purchased later, if need be.

However, the use of plug-ins in live sound does present downsides and occasional pitfalls. To get a real-life assessment of the situation, we talked to some top touring FOH engineers who've made the move to the plug-in world.


The transition to plug-ins can require a “breaking-in” period. Brad Madix, who is currently mixing FOH for Rush, began using Digidesign VENUE on last year's Shakira tour. “I wasn't really a Pro Tools guy back then, although I knew enough about it to be dangerous,” he says. “I've learned quite a bit about it since. Using VENUE took some getting used to, but the platform is intuitive — they've tried to lay it out more like a mixing desk rather than just trying to bus things around on a computer.”

John Ashton came off mixing house on the recent Arctic Monkeys tour to focus on his successful career as a solo artist and spend time as keyboardist with the Last Shadow Puppets. “In early 2007, I switched to the D-Show, and the transition period was barely noticeable — probably because I'd been using Pro Tools in my — ahem — ‘studio’ for years,” he notes, emphasizing the small “project” nature of his facility. He was no stranger to digital boards, having previously used InnovaSon and DiGiCo mixers and analog Midas XL4s and H3000s. “But my head was turned with the D-Show's multitrack recording capabilities and simplicity. I tried it. It ticked all the boxes, so I stuck with it for a while.”

After two-and-a-half years on the road mixing The Fray, Mark Maher has the summer off — a rare luxury for touring pros — while the band records. But Maher, who previously mixed on PM5D and XL4 consoles, remembers the move to virtual. “I already knew Pro Tools, so using VENUE was just like doing a recording session mix, but live. Before we were in pre-production, the sound company, Eighth Day Sound, sent a system and console to my house so I could set up scenes and get ready for the tour — without the band even being there. And having that time to fine-tune the compression and gates — working from actual performance files — was amazing. This ability is one of the most important things to have happened in live sound in a long time.”

Yet he also injects some reality into the equation. “On some fly dates in Europe, we'd show up and I'd plug my card into the VENUE,” Maher continues. “Sometimes it would work perfectly; sometimes I'd have to tweak some things, but being able to stick in that card and be ready to go in five minutes was nice. Being so limitless with plug-ins is really mind-blowing, compared to where we were six or seven years ago. And recording every night to Pro Tools was so easy. For soundchecks, I'd play back the multitrack session, and if I wanted to, I could just listen to hi-hat for five minutes.”

Keith Urban's FOH mixer, Stephen Law, got into digital consoles by accident. Just before one show, a cameraman moved a tarp, dumping 10 gallons of water into his Midas Heritage 3000, trashing half of its channels and disabling the automation, leaving the board with no fader control. After some clever patching and creative use of the working subgroups, he managed to get through the show.

The next day, the only replacement mixer available was a DiGiCo D5, which he ended up keeping for five years. “It's a great console that never crashed,” says Law, who later added an ADK rack with RME MADI cards for recording and plug-in access. “My UAD-1 card has great analog emulations of LA-2As and 1176s, which I like, along with its Pultecs and Fairchilds.” Recently, Law switched to the new Studer Vista SR, a desk that he says is “sonically amazing, with great analog-sounding preamps.” He's now using the Studer with the onboard Classic Dynamics package but looks forward to checking out the company's new plug-in engine — which will add VST access — when it ships. Meanwhile, he's using a hardware Lexicon 960L (4-in/8-out) for reverb and effects, but adds that the unit's “digital I/O is great, so there are no conversion delays, although latency is much less of a problem when you're dealing with reverbs or ambience effects.”

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