ZZTop Take DiGiCo to the Show

Long-time FOH navigator Toby Francis has worked with ZZ for the last decade, as well as recently with the Smashing Pumpkins, Mars Volta, Guns 'N' Roses, and Velvet Revolver. Before embarking on ZZ Top's latest tour, Francis decided to upgrade to a DiGiCo SD8 (which he eventually purchased). In hindsight, he regrets not having done so sooner. "The philosophy I take is I have the equipment I'm comfortable with using but I'm always looking at new things. If something really stands out, then I'll make the change. I went down and spent a day with [DiGiCo's technical sales guru] Taidus Vallandi, mixing off of Pro Tools on an SD7 and SD8. I found that the SD series had more features than I would require, especially with ZZ and most of the acts that I mix, which are pretty straightforward rock bands. The overall sound that I heard in that one demo convinced me to make the change. I was happy where I was at, but the dynamic range was noticeably more extended with this console than anything I've used previously - and I've used them all. I've had the best result so far with the DiGiCo SD8. It's effortless and actually a joy to mix on. The new stealth digital processor has a noticeably different sound; it has a much more analog sound to it than the other digital consoles I've used. And it really translated the first show - even our lighting director asked me what was different. He noticed a much fatter, thicker sound. The guitars are much thicker, the drums sound much more natural… and that was just after the first night! After two shows, I was totally and completely convinced. I plan on staying with the SD8 and using it as my standard console from here on out. Any engineer that tries this console is going to switch, either to the SD7 or the SD8. Sonically, it's the best sounding digital console I've heard yet."

 

Toby Francis, FOH Engineer for ZZTop

Above: ZZ Top's FOH Engineer Toby Francis with one of his SD8 consoles.

Prior to the first performance, Francis built everything for the show using the DiGiCo RCE (Remote Control Editor) offline software, loaded it in the first day, and was good to go. "All I had left to do was a little bit of EQing. Within 5 minutes, we were up and running, and by the second half of the second show, I was as comfortable with this console as I'd been on what I'd used previously on over 1000 shows. The only mistake I made was not driving the preamps hard enough right out of the gate. It still sounded better, but once I got the gain structure right, I was stunned. And I heard things live that I hadn't heard before! ZZ has a few '80s songs with synth-based tracks, and there's some pitch bends and stuff that I hadn't been hearing. I've heard it when I mixed it in the studio for broadcasts and such, but live, those subtleties used to get lost—and I'm hearing them now… again. I'm using no outboard gear; this is all internal everything, and I have more than enough tools to build a better mix than I had before." Similarly, Clair Global's monitor engineer Jake Mann, in his 4th year working with the band, came to the same conclusion. Handling about 30 inputs for the band in total—Dusty and drummer Frank Beard are on in-ears and Billy Gibbons on wedges—Mann says he found the sounds he wanted right in the console. "The thing I like about this console is it doesn't take a lot of plug-ins to make it sound good. Plug-ins are nice and I'm not taking away from them, but in some cases, I found that I had to use plug-ins to make it work. I find I'm using a lot less just to get the same thing, which is very cool. There is a noticeable difference in the sound; the midrange seems to be more present and the high end is smoother. In fact, I find that I'm hardly doing any EQing at all. If I high-pass and low-pass my inputs a little bit, that's pretty much it. Overall, I use the console in a pretty straightforward way. The SD8 has a lot of bells and whistles that we can't implement in this setting because it truly is a 3-piece rock band. They've been doing this for 40 years and they're pretty set in their ways of doing things. So, we just continue in those ways with newer and better gear!"

 

Toby Francis (FOH) and Jake Mann (Monitors) for ZZTop

Above: Jake Mann (left) Monitor Engineer for ZZ Top with Toby Francis (right).

Making the transition from the Profile to the SD8, Mann had about two days between the end of the band's European tour and the start of the Aerosmith phase. "There's always a little bit of stress when you do this stuff, especially on the time schedule we were on. We literally got home from Europe, had two days to play with the consoles, mix it and make it all work, and put it on the truck. We took the time to track my ear mixes from the Profile on Pro Tools so it allowed me time to remix the show, if you will, on the DiGiCo. That gave me a reference back to what I'd been sending off the Digidesign so I could get really close without having to tap the band's time. When I did finally get them for 15 minutes it made it easy to make the changeover. They commented on this and that and I spent about 15 minutes building the gain structure from there—which you really can't do until you have them play. And away we went. I would say within the first half of the first show I'd settled in, and we're just cruising from here on out. It was that easy. We were hoping we would get a soundcheck but we weren't even sure we were going to get that. We did and that really made it nice." Next year is ZZ Top's 40th anniversary and they're doing their first studio record in five years with Rick Rubin. "So next year, we'll have a new record, a new tour, and now, a new sound," adds Francis.

Jake Mann, Monitor Engineer for ZZTop

Above: ZZ Top's Monitor Engineer Jake Mann chuffed with the SD8.

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