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Madonna’s ‘Sticky & Sweet’ Tour Features DiGiCo SD7

Jan 02, 2009

It’s undeniable the hold that Madonna has had on pop music—and pop
culture—since her entrance in the early ‘80s. In the decades since the
release of her eponymous...

It’s undeniable the hold that Madonna has had on pop music—and pop culture—since her entrance in the early ‘80s. In the decades since the release of her eponymous debut recording, she’s graced the top of the pop charts on numerous occasions winning her the distinction as one of the most successful female rock artists of the 20th century. Having sold over 200 million records worldwide, in 2008, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and unleashed yet another touring extravaganza on the world, the “Sticky & Sweet” tour. After the release of her 11th studio album, Hard Candy, the two-hour multimedia blockbuster has no shortage of technology or glitz and showcases the breadth of her titanic legacy, with a nod to past chart topping singles while serving up the latest musical treats.

In keeping with the high-tech nature of the production, it’s only fitting that the tour is one of the first to integrate a pair of DiGiCo’s SD7 digital flagship consoles at the production’s audio core. FOH engineer Tim Colvard previously presided over the 2006 “Confessions” mega-tour, and his 20-year resume boasts entries including chart-topping R&B and Rap icons from Eminem to the Beastie Boys to Whitney Houston, R. Kelly and Toni Braxton. He cut his teeth on a DiGiCo D5 in 2003 on tours with 50 Cent/Jay-Z and with Earth Wind & Fire.

For the current production, Colvard shares the FOH helm with Mark Brnich of 8th Day Sound; similarly Matt Napier is at monitor world on a DiGiCo D5T, along with 8th Day’s Demetrius Moore as the monitor tech, and Sean Spuehler, responsible for Madonna's vocal and FX.

“I’m usually a pioneer when it comes to technology,” Colvard confesses. “I had done some research and heard about the DiGiCo SD7 from Bob Doyle, so it was something to look forward to. I was looking for something outside the Yamaha realm and, from that standpoint, my eyes and ears were open. Once it was on the market, I was ready to be a pioneer and adventure into it for this tour. The D5 acted as a pacifier to get me into the SD7 realm and, once I got into that realm, some of the sweeter things about the console were the overall sonic sound and the EQ initially. Now that we’re really into the desk, there are just so many features that make it tremendous and which really can aid an engineer and someone that’s really into the art of mixing.”

Colvard has certainly harnessed the full potential of the SD7’s in every imaginable way on this tour, which encompasses over 100+ stage inputs—from instruments, a DJ, to vocal mics, to an onstage Pro Tools effects rig and all of his outboard effects. Each SD7 has two complete digital engines, which are networked and mirrored giving 100% digital redundancy. The second SD7 also enjoys that same redundant regime but the clever part is that all four digital engines are networked and mirrored to provide quadruple indemnity for the show. Additionally, all console VGA screen outputs are networked through 6-channel VGA switching arrangements along with his session mirrored on all 4 engines. Four external 21” large screen monitors (2 per console), enable him through the switches to bring up any screen on either console or any page on either console. He can look at a snapshot page on one console while monitoring another page on the other console, all this external to the actual integral screens in the consoles through which, of course, he can independently look at any other function he desires.

“The production has gotten more complex since the initial preparations—about three months from the first rehearsal to the first show. It’s pretty extensive now and I have full access to all inputs in front of me without flipping a bank. More or less, we use the secondary console for playback, routed by way of the MADI bridge to do playback from a Nuendo system. Also, from the main console, we MIDI to the second console so that it can trace any movement by way of MIDI that is done on the console. So it fires the same snapshots and then in turn, out of its MIDI, it fires the rest of my hardware effects processing. So both desks will actually talk in the form of MIDI and change each snapshot in the form of MIDI.”

Additionally, he has a live video feed connected to the small video screen in the meter-bridge of the consoles so he can scan the video production without having to look up and over the console.

“This is one of the most important features that I utilize,” he explains. “Because I am set up on the floor and the patrons are standing in front of me, the video feature on the desk is a big plus so I’m able to monitor the stage. Plus, with the switcher and four monitors, I can go between any screen or overview screen to see what’s happening at that point in time.”

With all the onboard effects and processing power at his disposal, Colvard says his outboard effects usage is fairly minimal—encompassing a small rack of a few Eventide, TC Electronics, Lexicon and Yamaha reverbs for vocal pitch correction, harmonic changes and EQ tweaking.

Moving on to monitor world, engineer Matt Napier heads up that realm—an integral part of the overall production, particularly as it pertains to the discerning needs of the headlining artist. He brings a decade-plus of live audio engineering, starting in the trenches in the clubs of Oxford and working his way up to full-scale arena tours with UK pop acts from Atomic Kitten to Ronan Keating. He spec’d a DiGiCo D5T to manage over 126 monitor inputs, including 16 channels of vocal effects and inputs shared with Sean Spuehler (responsible solely for Madonna's FX), in addition to running 44 auxiliary outputs, as well as 16 matrix outputs.

”We had used a D5 since the “Confessions” promo tour in 2005,” Napier explains, “and it was chosen then for its extensive MADI capabilities, as for that tour we had a unique system going on with Apple Logic. For this current tour, although we were mixing it in a more conventional way the D5 was my first choice thanks to the ergonomic surface. But once we got into the production, it soon became apparent though that the D5 wouldn't have enough outputs so we switched to the D5T, which is a fantastic console with great sonic capabilities. I think sonic quality of desks nowadays is more mathematic than musical. As long as the latency is low, the A to D converters are of a high enough standard and the internal processing is 32 bit and floating, then the desk will sound as musical as some of the older analogue boards. My benchmark reference point for all high-end boards is still an XL4. I think DiGiCo was the first manufacturer to produce a console that was as good sounding and as nice to mix on as an XL4. To date I've not seen anything else that not only sounds as good but is as fun to mix on.”

For Napier, the big advantage was the abundance of MADI in and outs available on the D5T. “We’re using all 4 MADI slots on monitors. We fitted an RME MADI card in the Apple computer Sean use's for Madonna's vocal FX, and that then directly interfaces with the D5 effectively giving us up to 56 channels of plug in and FX. The vocal sound is crucial to Madonna as she insists all the vocal FX are live and not from tape, hence the reason why there is one engineer who just deals with vocal FX and her vocal sound. Also, as we share the console, the three independent work surfaces allow us all to work on the same console at the same time. We actually run two D5T in mirror mode set up in an L shape to give us access to six work surfaces. Sean utilizes two surfaces and I have access to the other four. The sheer amount of visual feedback the console gives you with four screens on each desk sets it apart, especially when you have over 100 inputs to monitor and 40+ outputs… You need all the help you can get from the console!”

As far as his outlook, and application of plug-ins and effects, Napier shares the philosophy of ‘less is more.’ “I personally think that plug-ins are highly overrated. The simpler the mix is kept the better it sounds in arenas and stadiums, particularly with pop music, as you have to factor in the screaming fans. Too many engineers chain plug-ins all over their mix and the end result is a mess of phase incoherence. As far as internal effects, we had to switch off the internal FX to gain the extra input channels so I have a TC M6000 taking care of FX for the band, as well as the computer for Madonna's vocal FX.”

These days, the need for bringing in expensive recording trucks to capture a live production on tape has seemingly become a thing of the past. For this tour, Colvard utilizes the SD7s recording prowess to capture nightly performances on a Nuendo system via the MADI. Recordings at this point are mainly for archival purposes but there is some talk of a forthcoming DVD. “It gets pretty extensive, as we’re also lining up audience mics as well as capturing the stage production. This system is extremely reliable, and along with the quality of this console, we’re able to bring out a mix that is acceptable in all formats.”

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